Trust His Promise

1 Kings 17:13-14 “Elijah said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’”

Faith doesn’t come out of nowhere. God’s people live by faith in God’s promises. I suppose that there could be circumstances when “Don’t be afraid” was meant as a criticism. “Don’t be such a coward.” But in the Bible, in the mouths of God’s prophets, angels, and faithful leaders, these are words of promise. When Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid,” he is saying, “You don’t have to be afraid. The things that make you afraid aren’t going to hurt you. You have a God who loves you. Yes, your sins have been offensive to him. But this is the God who forgives. He freely forgives. Yes, hard and painful things are happening to you. But God isn’t punishing you. He is growing you. He is molding and shaping you. He is building your character and forming your faith. He’s got this. You can live your life. Only trust his love.”

That kind of trust is the only way the widow in the story could take the next promise seriously. “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry.” Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? “Really? More is just going to appear in my pantry each day? It’s just going to grow back, like my hair does after a haircut? And I suppose that new clothes will magically appear in my closet, and a money tree will start growing in my backyard.” But learning to trust God for his grace and love makes us sure of all his other promises as well. “She went away and did as Elijah told her.” The widow dared to give, because she was sure of God’s promises.

Let’s be clear. We have not been given the same promise Elijah gave to the widow. My family still has to go grocery shopping every week. Peter was invited to step out of the boat and walk on water, but don’t try this at home. We have no such promise. Moses could talk to a rock and water came gushing out, but if you try it, people will just think that you are crazy. Some of his promises God has given to specific people for a specific situation. This is one of them.

But the promises we have been given are just as good, and just as sure. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus says, “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes. See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

You are much more valuable. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. All these things will be given to you as well. These promises are God’s own, and that makes them sure. Trusting them sets us free in so many ways, and it makes it possible for us to give even when we think we have so little.

Do You Trust Me?

1 Kings 17:8-12 “Then the word of the Lord came to him (Elijah): ‘Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.’ So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’ ‘As surely as the Lord your God lives,’ she replied, ‘I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.””

My children watched the Disney movie Aladdin until the videotape wore out. It was a great movie for memorable lines, in part due to the comedy of Robin Williams. A line that weaves through the movie like a thematic golden thread has the hero, Aladdin, saying to his love interest, Princess Jasmine, “Do you trust me?” “Do you trust me?” he asks when they first meet in the marketplace, she in disguise and he running away from the law. “Do you trust me?” he asks at her balcony when he visits the palace disguised as a prince and offers her a ride on his magic carpet. “Trust me!” he demands near the end as his plan unfolds to defeat the evil Jafar.

“Do you trust me?” I have often pictured God asking that question and offering his hand to his people at times when his plan didn’t seem quite so clear or reasonable. “Do you trust me?” he could have asked Moses and the children of Israel as they were pinned against the Red Sea by Pharaoh’s chariots before a dry path opened right through the waters. “Do you trust me?” he could have asked the future King David before he went out to fight the Giant Goliath with a slingshot and five rocks. “Do you trust me?” Jesus could have asked Peter before he invited him to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus on the water.

The widow of Zarephath is another case in point. In a sense, God was asking this widow, “Do you trust me?” before she takes the last bit of food she has and feeds it to the prophet Elijah.

For this woman, it wasn’t just a matter of living in scary times. Disaster had arrived. She was a widow. Nearly three millennia ago that meant you had no good way to make a living. On top of that, she and her son had run out of all but their last bit of food. They were ready to eat their last meal, then resign themselves to a slow death by starvation.

Will we ever live in a world so secure there won’t be some threat to having enough? I have a friend who used to send me the kind of stories you don’t hear about in the mainstream news. These reports suggested that, in almost every facet of life, we are living on the brink of total collapse.

There is a temptation here, isn’t there. There is a temptation to wrap our arms around all that we have, and tighten our fists, and keep every last dime for ourselves, because who knows what the future holds? Instead of letting God’s gifts flow through us to the people and the causes where there is a need, fear makes us stingy. We become wary to give instead of daring to give, because we are afraid of our circumstances.

God doesn’t give us this example to teach us to be reckless or foolish with our resources. He doesn’t put us through similar times, when we don’t know where we will find work or how we will pay the bills, to get us so discouraged we stop trying.

He does want us to see that, whether we have much or little, we don’t get by our own hard work or cleverness. He invites us to trust him in spite of our circumstance. Saving his people is what he does. He has delivered them from danger over and over in the past. He has delivered us from our sins and rescued us from death. He will continue to provide as we trust him through the dangers of our present moment.

Not a Slow Savior

2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

My wife used to sing a little ditty to my children when they became impatient about something. “Have patience. Have patience. Don’t be in such a hurry. When you get impatient you only start to worry.” They didn’t usually appreciate it. We aren’t naturally patient. We don’t like to be told to be patient. We want what we want now.

That little ditty continued, “Remember, remember, that God is patient, too.” That is exactly what Peter tells us. “God is patient with you.” What does that mean for you and me?

It’s not the same thing as slow. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.” In our minds we impose human reasons for slowness on God. Sometimes people are slow because they lack the power or ability to keep their promise. Ever order something that was out of stock? You wait and wait for it to come, but they can’t get it to you any sooner because they just don’t have it on hand. Is God slow in keeping promises because he doesn’t have the resources?

Some people are slow in keeping their promises because they don’t care. They made the promise because they want to get something out of us. Once they get it, their promise doesn’t matter to them anymore. We may wonder whether God’s promises are like that– just a scam to manipulate us into behaving a certain way. Once he gets us to stop sinning, or to volunteer our time or money, he has what he wants. He is slow to keep his promises because he doesn’t really love us.

Some people are slow in keeping their promises because they don’t want to do what they promised. A friend promises to help you with some project on your home, but it is hard work, and not very pleasant. Every time you try to schedule a day to do the work, he has a reason why he can’t show up. Do we wonder whether the Lord delays for the same reason–he doesn’t want to? Does he find the task unpleasant, or worse, does he find us unpleasant, and so he puts it off?

We insult God when we think like that about his promises–he isn’t able, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to. To us he may seem slow, but his track record for delivering on promises is perfect. Instead, God is patient. And he is patient because he is not willing to see a single soul be lost.

This is the guiding principle that drives everything he does. It is his mission statement, his goal and purpose for all his dealings with us: Save the world, save sinners, save everyone. This is why he promised and sent his Son the first time. He would take the most radical measures anyone could ever imagine to free us from sin. And so he was willing to do what no one ever imagined. He let his Son perish in our place.

Now, he delays his return only because he wants to save as many as possible. He doesn’t need the extra time for himself. People are slow to repent. You may know some of them yourself. You have been working on them for a long time, trying to get them to come to church, trying to convince them to give up some habitual sin, trying to show them they need Jesus. For yourself, Jesus can come as soon as possible. But you have been praying, “Not yet, Lord. Give me just a little more time to work on my friend. Give him just a little more time to repent and believe.” That is what he has done. God has been patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

If the Lord were not so patient, where would we be? Might he have come when we were not ready? But he took his time, and now we are his.  If he is just a little more patient, and he gives us tomorrow, that is all the more evidence of his grace–another day to reach those who still haven’t believed the gospel. That’s not slow. That’s patience. Make the most of the time he has given.

Not for DIY

Philippians 3:8-9 “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

My father is the quintessential “do-it-yourselfer.” I remember going for a walk with him once and meeting one of our neighbors for the first time. As my father tried to describe to him who we were and where in the neighborhood we lived, the man remarked, “I know who you are. You’re that guy who always has the piles of dirt, sand, or gravel in your yard.” He was right. There was always a project going on at our house.

When it comes to home improvement, there is nothing wrong with being a “do-it-yourselfer.” If you are any good at it, you can make sure things get done the right way. The same holds true for many other areas of life. Maybe you can sew your own dresses, or grow your own food, or manage all your own investments, or fix all your own cars, and make sure it gets done the right way.

But there is one area of life for which this never works, and that is in our relationship with God. Here we are all tempted to believe that we have to do it ourselves. But as long as we are trying to do it ourselves, we will never be sure where we stand with God.

The true Christian faith is not a moral philosophy about how we must live. It is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It is not just studying about Jesus like studying about some historic figure in a book. It is actually meeting Jesus in his word, being introduced to him, and living life with him as our Savior, our friend, and our brother.

When we know Jesus, then we truly know God. When you sit down on the hillside and listen to Jesus preach his sermon on the mount, then you see how high God has set his standards for keeping his law, and how far short of his perfection we have fallen. But when you follow him down from the hillside, and you see him actually reach out and touch the unclean leper to heal him, you know the depth of his concern for your suffering, and the extent of his power to fill your needs. When you stand with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and you see the tears burning down his cheeks, and you hear his voice commanding Lazarus back to life, you know the intensity with which he feels your pain, and the authority with which he controls your world. When you kneel at the foot of his cross, and the blood running from his hands and feet carries his life mingled with your sins away past your knees, and his dying breath cries out, “It is finished,” you know that in his unsurpassed love for you he has left nothing more for you to pay or do.

Do you want to be sure, really sure, that God’s love and grace are yours, that your sins are forgiven, that you will live again after you die? Then you need to be found in Jesus, wrapped in the righteousness of his holy life, cleansed in the blood of his innocent death. A righteousness of our own that comes from our own keeping of the law is only a so-called righteousness. We never live our lives completely guilt free, and as long as we are still producing sin, we aren’t righteous at all.

Then God comes and gives us a righteousness of his own making. He gives us an innocence that comes to us from the outside. He takes and he hides our sinful selves in the perfect love of Christ. He so covers over the content of our lives with Jesus’ life and death that he can no longer see us at all. We are all little Christ’s to him. Lutheran Christians celebrate this truth in the Reformation this time of year. A more well-known October celebration will see little children walking door-to-door with hidden identities, hidden behind costumes and masks. By bringing us to faith, the Lord has dressed each one of us up as Jesus, only our new identity is more than a flimsy costume, and we wear it every day for the rest of our believing lives.

This is our great find, not only to find and know Jesus, but to be found in him with the righteousness that comes from God. In Jesus we are the precious, holy, dear, innocent children of God himself.

A Classic Combination

2 John 1:4-6 “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.”

Some things make classic combinations. They just go together: Peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, bread and butter, shoes and socks, suit and tie, shorts and t-shirts, hugs and kisses.

Other combinations are famously incompatible or problematic: oil and water, cats and dogs, politics and religion. Often the best practice is to keep these things separate.

Where would you classify “truth and love?” They often appear together in the Bible. But there is a temptation to see them as somehow incompatible. Love gets confused with “being nice” or “making people happy.” Then people run into some unpopular truth in the Bible that calls for sacrifice or repentance, and they feel like they need to put the truth aside to be consistent with the principle of love.

Some obsess so much about defending truth that love for people doesn’t seem to matter anymore. They feel no concern about damaging feelings, relationships, or even souls as long as the truth is preserved. Which will you follow, truth or love? Sometimes it feels like you need to make a choice.

But truth and love are a match made in heaven, literally. In these verses, John sees them both guiding our behavior.

Love, you may already know, is the great summary of everything God commands. He wants our words and actions to benefit the people around us. Everything he does serves and benefits us. His love is contagious, like a good infection. Once you catch it, love starts to take over inside. It rearranges our hearts and our minds, and God’s love starts producing love in our lives as well.

Sometimes we don’t understand what our neighbor really needs. He may want something that isn’t good for him at all. So God gives his revealed truth as a guide. We can march right through the ten commandments, and with each one our world would tell us that love is something else if our Lord did not make his will clear.

Sometimes love even involves pain, self-denial, or sacrifice. The movie Hearts in Atlantis portrays three childhood friends, two boys and a girl, who become friends with an elderly man named Ted. Ted has mysterious powers. Near the movie’s end the girl has been beaten up by a neighborhood bully who dislocates her shoulder. One of her friends carries her to Ted, who recognizes the dislocation and determines to set it back in place.

But while correcting the dislocation will reduce her pain in the long run, the procedure itself will be even more painful. So he talks up her courage, and gives her something to bite on while he pops the bone back in place.  

Spiritually, sometimes love requires us to inflict pain to relieve it. We can’t just go on feelings. We need to be guided by God’s truth. When we keep love and truth together, together they direct our lives.

These Belong Together

2 John 1:3 “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.”

If you know a little about the books we call “Epistles” in the New Testament, you know that the writer usually begins by wishing grace and peace to the people he is addressing. This is also why so many pastors begin their sermons with this greeting. Grace and peace are two of the most fundamental blessings God’s people can have in their lives. John adds mercy as a natural companion, one Paul also adds in his letters to Timothy, and Jude uses in the greeting to his short letter.

You can wake just about any lifelong Lutheran in the middle of the night and ask him to define what “grace” is, and he will tell you it is God’s “undeserved love.” It is the attitude God has when he looks at us in our rebellion and sin, and he chooses not to destroy us. Instead he saves us. He sends his Son. He dies in our place. He forgives all our sin. He sends someone with his word. He leads us to faith. He takes us to heaven. None of this is deserved. It is all a gift. If this is how God feels about you, if this is how he treats you, then there is nothing better you or I could have from now until eternity.

Mercy is similar, but it emphasizes that God’s love isn’t just a cold principle, an impersonal operating procedure. He feels for us. He genuinely cares. This care extends far beyond a solution for our failed behavior. He looks down on our lives, and when he sees us in any pain of any kind, it moves him. When our hearts break, his heart breaks. When sickness or injury give us pain, it troubles him. If he were a human father with a human body, he would get a lump in his throat to see us in our pain. At all times he is filled with a real concern for what is going on in our lives.

If this is how God treats us, if this is how God feels about us, then that naturally leads to peace. We live with the awareness, with the relief, that all is well between us and our Lord. My sin may be fresh; my pain may be immediate; but I live under my Lord’s grace and mercy, and that gives me peace.

I don’t think there is any trouble seeing the connection between this and love. As far as love goes, there could be no greater.

But why the emphasis on “truth?” If there were ever characteristics of our God his enemies hated, none have ever been hated and attacked more than these. This is what all the cults, all the sects, all the false teachers ultimately want to deny. “You want God to love you? You want him to accept you? You can’t make it so easy. You have to do something. You have to be better, different, than everybody else. You have to deserve it. You have to prove that you are sincere.”

Maybe they get there by watering down his commands so far that anyone could keep them. Maybe they get there by trying to motivate you to live like some super saint. But it’s all garbage. Grace, mercy, and peace are free. We need God’s truth, the promises of his word, to assure us again and again, because these blessings are contained in truth and love. They belong together.

God’s Chosen Lady

2 John 1:1-2 “The elder, to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth–and not I only, but also all who know the truth–because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever.”

Our Lord often refers to his church on earth in feminine terms. At various times in the Old Testament God described his people as a virgin, a married woman, a mother, and even a widow.  Jesus calls himself our bridegroom and his church the bride. Paul picks up this same picture. It seems that John is using a similar way of speaking here.

The term he uses, lady, doesn’t emphasize the special relationship with God. It emphasizes the relationship the church as a whole has with its individual members, whom John calls “her children.” In John’s day, “lady” wasn’t just a polite term of respect. It was a way of referring to the leading woman of the household, the one who wielded some authority in the family. The “lord” of the house was the man in charge. The “lady” was the woman in charge.

How did this humble, motley gathering of outcasts and misfits, simple people with perennial faults, wind up with such a title, “lady”? From God’s point of view she is the “chosen” lady. This is the group, these are the people, that he set his heart on for reasons that are all his own. It’s not because we, the members of the church, had some special spiritual beauty that made us attractive. God chose his church anyway. And having chosen her he called her to faith, washed her in Jesus’ blood, and clothed her in Jesus’ love. He made her the chosen lady as a matter of his grace and love.

The “Lord” is not the only one who loves “the chosen lady and her children.” John says of her, “…whom I love in the truth–and not I only, but also all who know the truth–because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us.” John regards the church with love. So does everyone else who knows the truth, and they all do this because of the truth. To be honest, the church as a whole hasn’t always given us reason to love it. Money scandals and sex scandals have shown her uglier side. They have filled a lot of people with disgust. On a personal level, maybe you have been a victim of church cliques or politics. How can we love an organization with faults like that?

Don’t forget this truth: the church isn’t a cold, faceless corporation. It is a body of people just like us. It’s the body that includes each of us. Our faults, my faults, are part of the church’s problem. The truth teaches us that God doesn’t treat people the way they deserve. He always treats us better. Forgiveness is the key to his love for us, and it will be the key to our love for the people he has gathered as his “chosen lady.”

Godly love, Christian love, is not a response to beauty or kindness or talent. It is a choice we make, a gift we bestow, on the object of our love. This love is the way things operate in God’s family, the chosen lady and her children. God’s love determined how we are regarded by him. It is the reason behind our own regard for God’s people, our love for the others who belong to this body.

Still Confident

2 Kings 2:13-14 “He (Elisha) picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.”

Did Elisha get what he needed for the work that lay ahead of him: the spirit of Elijah, the presence of God to give power to his words and ministry?

Elisha didn’t hear some inner voice telling him that everything was going to be okay. He didn’t feel a sudden surge of electricity running through his body, filling him with confidence. In spite of the demonstration of God’s power he had just seen, he wasn’t overwhelmed by an experience of the Lord’s presence. In fact, for a few moments, experience seemed to tell him that God was absent. His heart cries out to God, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” For a few moments, Elisha felt uncertain.

But Elisha had a promise: “If you see me when I am taken from you, it (the double portion of Elijah’s spirit) will be yours.” And in spite of any uncertainties, Elisha acted on that promise. Then God confirmed that he was with Elisha in an unmistakable way. “When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.”

God works the same way with us. At times our personal experience may suggest that God is absent. We don’t feel waves of spiritual energy washing over our bodies, assuring us he is here. But God is more than a feeling. He may inspire some wonderful feelings in us at times, but he doesn’t disappear just because we feel as though he is gone.

What, then, do we have for our times of uncertainty? Like Elisha, we have God’s promises. Feelings change, but God’s promises do not.  And God promises us, “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We can confess with David in the psalms, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

Since God is for us, God is with us, and God even lives in us by his Spirit, we can be sure that Christ will continue to do his work through us in spite of our uncertainties.

The Greatest Adventure?

2 Kings 2:11-12 “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.”

Nothing scares people more than death. It is the one thing that seems to be lurking behind every other fear. There are few places we invest so much expense and effort as we do in death prevention, from hiding air bags in every spare inch of our vehicles, to investing billions in medical research each year, to supporting vast armies, police forces, and fire departments to keep us safe. We do so in spite of the fact that death is inevitable. John Jeske observed that the death rate has remained almost constant since the world began: one per person.

“Ah,” you think to yourself, “but here we have an exception, because Elijah didn’t die.” And you are correct. Elijah was translated to heaven without tasting death. But whether God swept Elijah to heaven in a storm, or whether the prophet had keeled over in front of his friend, the effect was the same for Elisha, wasn’t it? He was separated from the spiritual father and friend he cared for so deeply. At least part of Elisha’s reaction was the same as those who mourned a death in the family: he tore his clothes.

We may fear death and the separation we suffer. That is all the more reason God’s work needs to continue in the face of death. Toward the end of the movie “Hook,” Captain Hook challenges Peter Pan to a duel to the death. Peter Pan replies, “Death would be a great adventure,” and Hook agrees, “Death would be the greatest adventure.”

I doubt whether Peter Pan or Captain Hook were thinking about the same thing that I am thinking, but I can agree that death is at least the start of the greatest adventure. That’s not just because there is a sense of mystery about what happens. Rather, the child of God knows that heaven is waiting for him on the other side. That’s where Elijah went: “…and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” That’s the promise of Jesus’ resurrection for each one of us after we die. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).

Isn’t that the ultimate meaning of our Lord’s work for us? He has been running the world’s largest and longest rescue operation: to get people off this spiritually sinking planet to safety in heaven. Each child of God who dies in faith is a success story. In their case, it’s “mission accomplished.” This one has finally reached safety, and now we can turn more efforts to reaching someone else.

In spite of our sadness at parting, in spite of our fears, we can be certain that God’s work carries on at death, because he has transformed it into the ladder to safety in heaven.