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

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

Cure

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Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures. On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well. On that day one will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, and will eat curds because of the abundance of milk that they give; for everyone that is left in the land shall eat curds and honey. On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows one will go there, for all the land will be briers and thorns; and as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not go there for fear of briers and thorns; but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread. Isaiah 7:10-25 (NRSV)

Babies grow up so fast. Don’t miss the moments you have with them. You blink and they are ready for their first haircut. You drop out for just a moment and they grow a foot in height and 3 feet worth of attitude. Babies become children in no time at all. That is the point of this prophecy.

King Ahaz was freaking out because the countries around him were gearing up to attack, and had already attacked some of the neighboring communities. He wanted a military solution to something he saw as a military problem.

God however was looking for a little bit of faith. In the same way that Jesus relieved Thomas’s doubts by showing him the wound marks on his body, so God told King Ahaz to simply ask for a sign and God would do it. But unlike Thomas, Ahaz refused to ask, refused to seek, and refused to look for God at all. So God told him what the sign would be: a son shall be born and before he is old enough to know right and wrong, those nations you fear so much today will not even exist.

God was raising up a “razor”, in the form of the King of Assyria who would conquer all the land. God planned to use this foreign king as a cleansing tool on Israel and her neighbors – for razors were not used as much for looking good, but as doctor’s tools, to cut hair from those who had skin diseases and needed a fresh start. Hair and beards were signs of maturity and authority, and God was letting them know they all needed to be as ones who were born again, to the hairless status of infants. The very land itself would go back to the way it was before people farmed it, inhabited only by wild livestock.

Advent reminds us that Christ is coming again, and that when He does, none of our own strength or possessions will save us. Our only hope is Jesus. He changed the lives of all in the Christmas story, and He will change our life as well.

He only asks us to trust him because sometimes the thing that looks like a loss to us is actually the cure that God has created to save us. God put Israel back on track as a nation that witnessed His glory to the world by sending the nations to conquer them. He saved us from sin by sending His Son to die for us. He saves us from death, by inviting us to pick up our crosses daily and follow him.

  • What have you lost this year?
  • What do you hope to find?
  • What is God showing you as a sign of His faithfulness to you?

In Christ alone my hope is found

He is my light, my strength, my song

This cornerstone, this solid ground

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

Friday December 9, 2016

Excuses

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How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen. For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them. Isaiah 1:21-31 (NRSV)

The late Dr. Robert Mulholland was known for saying, “Sin carries in it the root of its own destruction.” Sin boils us slowly, and we are not likely to notice how hot the water around us is until it is too late. God sent the prophet Isaiah to Israel to warn them about the hot water they had wandered into. Listen again to some of the things he warns them about. “Your princes are rebeles and companions of thieves… Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together… The strong shall become like tinder and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them.”

This is a warning for those who have trusted too long in themselves. Both the wicked – those who do not care about God, as well as the complacent – those who think they can get through the day without bothering God, are equally guilty in God’s eyes. Both have robbed the city of justice and righteousness, so both will share the same punishment. But if you listen closely, you will see that it is more than punishment that God is handing down here. It is not retribution. It is restoration.

“I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will retore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.” God does not see our sin and failures as a lack of goodness. He sees it as foreign material that covers up the goodness he knows lies in the potential beneath it all.

There was once a sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large, powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, “Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble?”

“The art of sculpture is, first of all, the art of seeing. In one block of marble, Michelangelo saw a loving mother holding her dead son on her lap, while in another, he saw a self-confident David ready to hurl his stone at the approaching Goliath, and in a third, he saw an irate Moses at the point of rising in anger from his seat. Visual art is indeed the art of seeing, and the practice of disciplines is a way to make visible what has been seen. The skillful artist is a liberator who frees from bondage the figures hidden for billions of years inside the marble. The artist reveals the true identity of the figures!” (Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome, (Image, 2000) pages 83-84))

When we learn to see ourselves and our world like God does, as something beautiful waiting to be brought forth from the slab of marble we are stuck in, we will set our guilt aside, quit making excuses, and really begin to pray for transformation instead of begging God to leave us to live life our own way. We will stop asking God to bless our will and instead start following God’s will for our lives. We will finally begin that our sin, while devastating to our own lives, is not even a minor inconvenience to God. Indeed He has been in the business of doing the impossible, calling light out of the darkness, every day since the beginning of creation.

What sin hangs onto you like dross and keeps you from living fully and freely as a beloved child of God?

Where are you able to see yourself most clearly?

Who helps you to seek help instead of relying on your own strength?

His strength is perfect when our strength is gone

He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on

Raised in His power, the weak become strong

His strength is perfect, His strength is perfect

Tuesday November 29, 2016

Sacrifice

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Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,” says the Lord: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 1:10-20 (NRSV)

The Kubler-Ross model of grief sets out five separate stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Not everyone goes through the stages at the same pace. When Isaiah preached judgment against Judah, some were caught in denial. Others became angry and wanted Isaiah stopped. But there were some who made it to the bargaining stage as they grieved for their nation. They tried to win God's favor back by offering up sacrifices and by keeping the festivals God had prescribed for them in the Law. Some of these people were very good and being obedient to all the laws concerning worship times and avoiding particular sins.

The problem was that they either were oppressing the poor around them and denying justice to the victims of injustice, or they were turning a blind eye to the orphans and widows who were so easily neglected. They were guilty of minding their own business instead of minding God's business. The message of Isaiah, and all the prophets is clear: God does not desire sacrifices given as a substitute for obedience to His call on our life.

We cannot bargain our way out of grief. The more we try, the longer we keep ourselves from the true Hope God is calling us to receive. We have to work through the urge to pay our way to a better place, push past the depression, and make our way to acceptance and surrender. It is the "broken and contrite heart" that is the sacrifice that God will not despise (Psalm 51:17).

Where is grief touching your life today?

What distracts you from acknowledging that grief?

How can you bring your grief and brokenness to God?

Oh! precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow;

No other fount I know,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Monday November 28, 2016