Leaning

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“On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.” Isaiah 10.20-27 (NRSV)

When the wind blows and the snow falls, what do you lean on? Who do you find yourself turning to? Psychologists have long noted that in traumatic situations, our first instinct is usually to go to our deepest point of security. Children run to their mothers, parents run to their children, we all run to our cars, and as soon as we put some distance between ourselves and the danger, we grab our security vice of choice: cigarettes, alchohol, chocolate, and Facebook. Some of us who are more talented can do all of the above.

We blame a lot in our nation on consumerism – as if it were some kind of foreign entity that has infiltrated our lives and taken control from the inside out. It is easier to act as though we have no choice when it comes to dealing with our consumeristic culture. But Isaiah points out all through his prophecies that consumerism is just another idol that we pull out, dust off, and put on the mantle of our hearts each and every day. We find ourselves wavering between claims that “I can quit anytime we want to…” and “I have no control over my life.”

I love the way Isaiah describes this problem. He calls it leaning. We all find ourselves needing to lean on something or someone every day, even if just for a moment. There is something incredibly human, maybe even just part of walking on two legs, that creates a need to lean. Isaiah, warns us to be careful of what we lean on though. Some things in life look sturdy but will collapse under our weight and end up piercing us with broken pieces if we put our weight upon them. Other things may be much sturdier than they look. What we see consistently with God is that He calls us to lean on Him, even when we cannot see Him at all!

Leaning on God is like leaning into a strong wind sometimes. We cannot see it, but we can feel it and see the effects of it. Yet we have no control over it and live in constant concern that it may stop and leave us toppling over. This, invisible, uncontrollable, Spirit of God is the very thing that we need to put all our weight into… and this is what the Bible describes as living by faith.

It is ridiculous and incredible to live like this. It is as ridiculous an incredible as believing that the God who created the universe was born as a baby from a virgin woman in a manger outside the small town of Bethlehem, and that we would know his name and celebrate his birth on the other side of the world 2000 years later… This ridiculous, unbelievable story is powerful enough to make Wall Street take the day off, inspire songs in hundreds of languages, and cause us all to stop and focus on loving God and loving one another at least one day out of the year. That is the God, Isaiah invites us to lean on!

  • Who do you lean on when you find yourself in trouble?
  • What do you go to or do when you are looking for comfort?
  • How can you, as an act of faith, lean on God a little more today?

in excelsis deo

Saturday December 17, 2016

Tools

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“Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—

the club in their hands is my fury!

Against a godless nation I send him,

and against the people of my wrath I command him,

to take spoil and seize plunder,

and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

But this is not what he intends,

nor does he have this in mind;

but it is in his heart to destroy,

and to cut off nations not a few.

For he says:

“Are not my commanders all kings?

Is not Calno like Carchemish?

Is not Hamath like Arpad?

Is not Samaria like Damascus?

As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols

whose images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,

shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols

what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride. For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,

and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;

I have removed the boundaries of peoples,

and have plundered their treasures;

like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones.

My hand has found, like a nest,

the wealth of the peoples;

and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,

so I have gathered all the earth;

and there was none that moved a wing,

or opened its mouth, or chirped.”

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,

or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?

As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,

or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Therefore the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,

will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,

and under his glory a burning will be kindled,

like the burning of fire.

The light of Israel will become a fire,

and his Holy One a flame;

and it will burn and devour

his thorns and briers in one day.

The glory of his forest and his fruitful land

the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,

and it will be as when an invalid wastes away.

The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few

that a child can write them down.” Isaiah 10.5-19 (NRSV)

About 5 years ago, I decided I was going to stop asking God to use me. It was not because I do not want to serve God. It was because God, in His wisdom and mercy saw fit to treat me not like a tool, but as His child. Many of the most famous Christians came to faith from this very realization, whether it be the Wesleyan movement churches who stem from one of John Wesley’s most quoted scriptures (Romans 8:15-17) or famous passages used for evangelism such as the Parable of the Prodigal. Both of these scriptures, and many others attest to the truth that God does not simply “use” us as tools in His work, but has given us the dignity and responsibilities to be co-laborers with Christ.

Isaiah reminds us that God does have people He uses as tools. These are people who do not neccessarily profess faith in Him, but whom God chooses to use and work through anyway. They have an attitude (at best) of “God, I’m going to live my life the way I want to and I pray that you will somehow miraculously use that to help you if possible.” and (at worst) “I don’t care about God one bit… I don’t even really believe in Him.” God can and will use these people to be glorified and to redeem our world, but they may not liek the end result. As Isaiah warns Assyria, this arrogance will be their downfall. Those who refuse to accept God as a child will be reduced to being used as a tool and then discarded once the work is done.

God invites us… God invites you, this Advent and Christmas season, to receive His love and become His child.

  • Do you experience others using you?
  • When have you experienced God working with you?
  • Do you find yourself using others around you or working alongside them?

Lord, I give you my heart

I give you my soul

I live for you alone

Friday December 16, 2016

Fire

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“For wickedness burned like a fire,

consuming briers and thorns;

it kindled the thickets of the forest,

and they swirled upward in a column of smoke.

Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts

the land was burned,

and the people became like fuel for the fire;

no one spared another.

They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;

they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;

Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,

and together they were against Judah.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

 

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,

who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice

and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,

and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment,

in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help,

and where will you leave your wealth,

so as not to crouch among the prisoners

or fall among the slain?

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.” Isaiah 9.18-10.4 (NRSV)

The hunger of wickedness is never sated. It burns with a fire that consumes everything around until it finally turns back on the hungry ones themselves. In doing so, the wicked bring destruction upon themselves.

I had a frank conversation with some friends of mine from Cuba, concerning the death of Fidel Castro and the feelings of the people of Cuba. In the US, Castro had a reputation of infamy, but in Cuba, among the rich and poor alike, there were mixed feelings about his leadership. As harsh as his rule had been, he successfully kept much of the drug trade and human trafficking out of Cuba, especially in camparison to much of Central and parts of South America. Many of those other countries had political freedom at the cost of oprression by the wealthy. The concern was that these drug lords would sweep in to take over the nation.

The ancient philosopher Plato wrote that governments shift in cycles. We see all the time, one dictator replaced by another. The corruption of one party makes way for the corrupt leadership of the opposition when it finally rises. When the oppressed take up arms and become revolutionaries – beating, looting, and killing any who get between them and their justice, we are simply making way for the next oppressors.

Isaiah’s words of warning are not just for the rich. They are for everyone. If we let our hunger for possessions rule us instead of a hunger for righteousness, we will lose our way and find ourselves on the path of wickedness. That path ends in flames and our own destruction. It is more than a problem of just wickedness and the quest for power, because, as Paul reminds us in Romans, we all fall short and are subject to temptation and corruption. If we simply eliminated everyone who had ever been wicked, we would have no one left.

I think the answer to avoiding this fiery judgment upon ourselves and our communities can be found in a simple piece of economic wisdom: Don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. What does that have to do with power and politics in our lives? It means we need to check our motives before seeking power. Those who feel insecure themselves often seek power over others and just as often end up being poor leaders. Whether you are running for political office or just thinking about having or raising children – you need to make sure you are secure enough yourself and “well fed” spiritually, emotionally, physically, etc… to be able to lead, nurture, and protect anyone else. It is only from this place of being full and satisfied, (which can only be fully realized in a relationship with God) that we find ourselves secure enough in our weakness to ask God for help instead of jumping in and trying to fix things ourselves… often taking us all out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  • Where do you feel anxiety the most this Advent and Christmas season?
  • When you feel God’s hand upon you, where does it seem to be guiding you?
  • What answers to your fiery trials do you find in the manger of Bethlehem?

Hungry

I come to you

For I know

Your love will satsify

Thursday December 15, 2016

Stones

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“The Lord sent a word against Jacob,

and it fell on Israel;

and all the people knew it—

Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—

but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:

“The bricks have fallen,

but we will build with dressed stones;

the sycamores have been cut down,

but we will put cedars in their place.”

So the Lord raised adversaries against them,

and stirred up their enemies,

the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,

and they devoured Israel with open mouth.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

The people did not turn to him who struck them,

or seek the Lord of hosts.

So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,

palm branch and reed in one day—

elders and dignitaries are the head,

and prophets who teach lies are the tail;

for those who led this people led them astray,

and those who were led by them were left in confusion.

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

and every mouth spoke folly.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still. “ Isaiah 9.8-17 (NRSV)

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

It was a popular saying when I was young, but by the time I had entered high school, the educators were already talking about how untrue this saying was. Words do hurt us. In fact, sometimes the wounds they leave can continue to bleed years after the words were said… long after any physical wounds could have healed.

Sticks and stones do not just harm though, they are used to build. The proud Israelite leaders claimed that if their buildings were destroyed they would simply rebuild with even better materials. They boasted as if the oncoming judgment would simply be doing them a favor, allowing them to start over fresh without carrying the baggage of the past. I have heard this spoken among new church leaders (of which I am a supporter myself).

Some have the impression that if we could just wipe the slate clean, we could start over and do it better this time. They sometimes neglect to see that the problems we face do not find their root in “church traditions”, but rather somewhere even deeper, in our own sinful nature itself. Just as in marriages, it is not the couples who do not have conflict with one another who succeed, it is those who know how to have healthy conflict that allows them somehow to come out closer to Christ after the heated discussion about the color of the carpet.

Churches are just slightly bigger family systems. If you want to know how to lead a family well, find yourself a good church. If you want to see how to lead a family poorly, find an unhealthy church. None are perfect, and all have family dynamics, just like our own families.

God knows this, and that is why, instead of building things Himself, God instead sent prophets with words. He knew His words would outlast any building we might put up to honor Him. God knew that those words would do more for shaping our lives than anything physical He could do for us. And so it is this Advent and Christmas season that we remember the greatest gift God gave to us was not words carved in stone, but a Word made flesh. Jesus is the Word that speaks the words of life. He is the greatest embodiment of God ever given to the world. It is this Word that not only saves us and guides us, but that will truly judge us in the end as well.

  • How does God speak to you?
  • What has God spoken to you?
  • How do you see the blessings and judgment of God in your life reflected in Jesus Himself?

Word of God speak

would you pour down like rain

washing my eyes to see

your majesty

Wednesday December 14, 2016

Deep

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“9 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—

on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation,

you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

as with joy at the harvest,

as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden,

and the bar across their shoulders,

the rod of their oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors

and all the garments rolled in blood

shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. “ Isaiah 9.1-7 (NRSV)

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms speaks of deep calling out to deep. It describes one of my favorite things about God. He is not afraid to go into the depths of the darkness around me, and in me, to find me. When He does find me, He pours into me light, goodness, and mercy out of His depths… and the only thing deeper than the darkness in our world, is the depths of God’s goodness.

The names given to Jesus, his titles are not flimsy titles. They carry a depth that goes far beyond President or CEO. Whose strength is deep enough to bear our burdens… to truly be an authority in our lives that we can trust? For a child has been for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!

His authority will continually grow and everywhere his authority touches there will be endless peace. Justice and righteousness find their home in Christ. Until we put ourselves under His authority, we will not even know what real peace feels like. This tiny child holds the whole world in His hands, and in the depths of those hands we have never been safer.

  • Where have you experienced deep darkness in your life?
  • When have you seen the light of God shining in or around you?
  • What burdens do you carry today that you can give over to the authority of Jesus?

Wonderful, merciful Savior

Precious Redeemer and friend

Who would have thought that a lamb could

Rescue the souls of men

Tuesday December 13, 2016

Forward

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“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?” surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” Isaiah 8.16-9.1 (NRSV)

We look to the past for wisdom and for answers, but God sends often sends us signs in unfamiliar promises for the future. The signs in Isaiah are centered around a child named Immanuel, the hope of Israel – but what can a child do? Is it not wiser to seek out the counsel of the great leaders of the past than to hope that this child will somehow lead us into a better future?

Children are untested, underdeveloped… there are too many uncertainties with them. We certainly want them in our life, but we do not want to hand them the keys to our cars, our credit cards, or the mantles of leadership in our businesses. No, children need to know their place until we deem them worthy of the role reserved for adults. We prefer them seen and not heard. They are, and may always be, the greatest perpetual minority group in our world.

Our battles over rights regarding gun laws, marriage laws, rarely take into consideration the voice and effects on children. With minds like thirsty sponges, they soak up everything we show and tell them because they just want to know – and we take advantage of that to download our own points of view onto them, the ways we wished we viewed the world instead of helping them to safely see the messy world for the way it is.

Every generation bears its own blessings and curses and finds ways to separate and dinstinguish themselves from those who go before them. Ultimately, I think it is a miracle we have not completely messed up an entire generation yet… and therein lies Isaiah’s point. Try as you might, you will not take control back from God… indeed the tiny mouth you are spoonfeeding today, will be spoonfeeding you tomorrow. Can we see God working in and with them today?

  • Who are the children in your life?
  • Where do you see God in them?
  • If they are messengers of hope from God, what should your response be to them?

This one is just for fun!

Monday December 12, 2016

Tremble

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“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near;

it will come like destruction from the Almighty!

Therefore all hands will be feeble,

and every human heart will melt,

and they will be dismayed.

Pangs and agony will seize them;

they will be in anguish like a woman in labor.

They will look aghast at one another;

their faces will be aflame.

See, the day of the Lord comes,

cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,

to make the earth a desolation,

and to destroy its sinners from it.

For the stars of the heavens and their constellations

will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising,

and the moon will not shed its light.

I will punish the world for its evil,

and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,

and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

I will make mortals more rare than fine gold,

and humans than the gold of Ophir.

Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,

and the earth will be shaken out of its place,

at the wrath of the Lord of hosts

in the day of his fierce anger. “ Isaiah 13.6-13 (NRSV)

There is a difference between punishment and payback. Punishment involves correction. In a way, it is only done when the victim sees more in the perpetrator than that perpetrators sees in themselves. Punishment requires some hope of restoration and redemption in both parties – even if whatever was taken or destroyed cannot be brought back.

I heard a story a few months back about two women who travel the country doing church revivals and raising awareness of drunk driving. One of the women lost a son to a drunk driver. The other woman was the drunk driver who took her son’s life. There was punishment meted out, fines and prison time served, but relationships are restored and redeemed and now both women work to make sure it does not happen again.

Payback is something else. Payback dehumanizes the perpetrator and seeks only to do to them what had been done to their victim. There is no hope for restoration or redemption. It is exemplified in the phrase, “an eye for an eye” which Mahatma Ghandi taught that when followed, “leaves everyone blind”. Incidently, Ghandi may have taken his cues from Jesus here….

God punishes those who disobedient, particularly those who disobey him to the point of causing harm. Not just intentional harm either. A big part of God’s law is to prevent us from even accidentally causing harm. We harm one another when we let our arrogance and envy get in the way of looking out for one another. The best cure for an arrogant or envious community is to be shaken up, so they are forced to reassess what they already have and should be grateful for, as well as who they should be grateful to. God’s punishment involves shaking things up so that those who put their trust in things other than God see them fall away, leaving only God left standing. God does not punish out of spite or cruelty… He simply wants us to see the truth that He is the only one we can truly count on.

This Advent season we remember the justice of God and the way He came to earth Himself to take the bulk of that punishment Himself.

  • How does God shake up your life in order to bring you closer to Him?
  • When life gets stressful, who or what do you turn to for support?
  • Does that support bring you closer to God? How so?

From the squalor of a borrowed stable

By the Spirit and a virgin’s faith

To the anguish and the shame of scandal

Came the Savior of the human race

Sunday December 11, 2016