Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Real World: The Promised Land

We are exploring suffering in its larger context of our salvation.  The Prosperity Gospel, with its "heaven on earth now" mentality, is quite appealing.  Who wants to suffer? 

But we follow Jesus, and Jesus suffered.  So, how do we reconcile the "God wants you to live your best life" with the life Jesus lived?  He would not be the poster child for the megachurch with its rock star pastor, huge budget and a lifestyle that includes celebrities, jet planes and thousands of followers, who ride on every word coming from the pulpit.  

In fact, He really had very little: 

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt.8:18-20)

Even after three years of ministry, His worldly possessions were negligible:  

After they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice. (Matt. 8:35) 

His only possessions helped to pass the time for the soldiers who presided over His death. 

Using the Exodus as our model--the single greatest event in Jewish history--I am equating these events with our redemption from sin and death.  

So, we dwell in Egypt as slaves before our Deliverer appears.  Egypt is not all bad; every sin has a Goshen side to it--it's peaceful, lush and makes us forget how much in bondage we truly are.  But when that sin demands we make bricks without straw (sin's sting is now unmistakable and the consequences are unavoidable) we cry to God and He comes.

We watch God lead us out, having provided the Passover Lamb's blood to save us from death, and we stand on the far shore, watching Satan's attempt to drag us back drown in the mightiness of God.

God:  From start to finish, our Exodus story is of His works, His sacrifice and His love for us, while we stand amazed and blessed.  Then, into the desert we go.  We are a little disappointed at that, for we thought the Promised Land lies just yonder.  (The Prosperity Gospel, says in essence, "Pshaw on that desert!  God wants us to fast track into that land of milk and honey.  Deserts only exist if you don't have faith.")  Yonder seems so close. 

Is the desert with its challenges only ours if we lack faith?

God with His chosen children didn't think so.  Because it was in the desert He demonstrated that:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3) 

Jesus gave those scriptures an amen when He quoted them to Satan during His desert trial. Oh, wait.  Jesus went into the desert, too, huh?  Right after His Father affirms Him as His beloved Son, and how Jesus being the Son meant that His words carried the authority and weight of God Himself.  

Jesus learned the lesson of the desert:  He must depend on God every day for every thing.  As we all know, in our flesh, (and Jesus was encased in our flesh) that is a difficult row to hoe.  Yes, Jesus is God, and no, He did not sin, but His temptations were a hard cross to bear:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4:15)

He glorified God every day of His time on earth: He made God manifest and showed that the heavenly Father wants to walk alongside us.  So, Jesus left the desert and entered our world:  the world of battles, enemies, failures, fears and victories, when we put God first. 

We find our Joshua in Jesus.  He is our  Commander of the Lord's Army, and we stand on solid ground with Him:      

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord's army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15)

It is no coincidence that this encounter occurred after Joshua and the people celebrated Passover with the produce of Canaan.  The manna ceased, but God's provision did not.  God's provision took on a new emphasis:  He would lead His people in the battles to secure the Promised Land.  

Yes, it was theirs, as is our salvation.

Yes, it was given to them because the blood of the Passover lamb saved them from death and destruction, as does our Lamb, and God honors His covenant to be our God, and we His people.  

But, as we will see as we peruse the book of Joshua, the Promised Land is filled with enemies.  While we dwell on this planet, the Land will need subduing and sin must be pushed back as far as we can.  And always, Jesus must be in the lead. 

Join me as we cross the Jordan into the real world--with fortified cities and enemies that would bring us again into slavery, if we let them.


Friday, January 22, 2021

The Desert Helps to Build His Army

The desert becomes the incubator of trust.  We learn to trust God for daily bread--enough to get us through the day, and trusting it will be there again tomorrow.  We don't hoard it--that's an act of not having faith in God's daily provision.

We may long for Egypt--at least there we knew the in's and out's of our bondage.  Our old life may have been empty, unfulfilling and meaningless--but at least we knew what to expect each day.

We follow Jesus--our Moses, our Deliverer, and He comes with His rod and staff to comfort and guide us and to save us from Pharaoh's army.  Satan and his minions always come after us when we leave the land of his reign, escape from his bondage.  His attack may start as whispers in our ears, causing us to doubt what God has done in our lives.  Or, he may conduct an all-out attack to make us doubt God, His salvation plan and our place as His children. 

But Jesus' death, burial and resurrection drowns Satan's supremacy over us.  We stand on the shore and watch the mightiness of God as His Son died on the cross to save us from death and then arose to bring us new life.

Then...into the desert we go!  The desert equally teaches us that God alone is sufficient for all that we need.  He provides the bread, the water and the guidance.  Our spiritual shoes do not wear out as we walk--Christ never leaves us nor forsakes us.

Go to Chapter 33 of Deuteronomy, where Moses, in his farewell address, reminds the people of how God is their king and will go before them. Moses speaks to each tribe, using a language that presages the warfare to come.  Each tribe has benefited from God's provision and now will enter the Land under a mandate: subdue the land and its people. Then, towards the end of his speech, Moses again reminds the people that God is the One Who will go before them and fight with them: 

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, [Israel]
who rides across the heavens to help you
and on the clouds in his majesty.
The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
He will drive out your enemies before you,
saying, ‘Destroy them!’
So Israel will live in safety;
Jacob will dwell secure
in a land of grain and new wine,
where the heavens drop dew.
Blessed are you, Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will tread on their heights. (26-29)

Huh?  Isn't God just going to enter the Promise Land, do a whole lot of smiting and then the people just stroll in and pull up a chair, as it were?  

This is the language of war, isn't it, and not of Club Med?

But don't we make the same assumption?  We stroll into the life that Jesus desires for us: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)   A life filled with blessings, right?  With God always granting immediate answers to prayer, right? A life with no sickness, no heartache, no poverty, right?  A life that is truly Heaven on Earth, right? 

The very reason God led His people into the desert is the same reason we are led there as new Christians:

Be careful to obey all the commands I am giving you today. Then you will live and multiply, and you will enter and occupy the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good. (8:1-5)

We are humbled knowing that only Jesus and not our good works or good selves could secure salvation; that He is our Provider, Guide and Defender; and He is trying to transform our thinking away from slaves to that of being His children--loved, cherished and needing correction.  How long are we to wander in the desert?  As long as God deems it necessary to do so.  We learn to live by every word that comes from His Word.  

But the desert is a way station.  The Promised Land is where sin reigns and is filled with the enemies of God.  His are ours, so in we must go.  All of creation groans because Adam and Eve chose their way over God's way.  The Promised Land is our planet, and it is subject to the Fall and its terrible consequences:  

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.(Romans 8:22-3)

So, while the Promised Land is not the desert, it requires warriors.  We are a people prepared by suffering and hardship yet always leaning in God to keep going.  The language of war given to Israel by Moses is given to us by Paul: 

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:10-12)

So, the desert fits us for battle in the real world--where we live, work and live our lives from day to day, following Jesus.  And as the years go by, do we begin to forget how great a sacrifice He made for us?  Perhaps this is one of the greatest battles we face: to never forget Who saved and provided for us: 

So obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him...When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt... He gave you water from the rock! He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’ Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath. (Deut. 8:6, 10-14, 16-18)

We didn't earn it, free ourselves or rescue ourselves.  It was God alone.  But as we drink the sweet water that is Jesus and our souls are filled with the precious Word of God, it will be easy to lose sight of how bad we were and how good He is.  

But the battles await.  God allowed the sea to close and drown Pharaoh's army.  Satan was defeated by Jesus' death on the cross.  But this planet is filled with corruption, sin and the stench of its offenses rise to the nostrils of God.

We leave the desert to be His partners in conquest of this planet.  But just as Jesus suffered immensely when He took on this planet, so too, will we.  The battles here are bloody, harsh and sometimes unrelenting, but we enter the Land with our Joshua--Jesus' and Joshua's name mean the same thing:  "The LORD saves."


Saturday, January 16, 2021

From the Desert to the Battle Ground

I would like to return to seeing how the story of Exodus is a beautiful metaphor for what we go through as Christians.  

We are slaves under a ruthless Pharaoh when we first cry out.  Pharaoh (Satan) and our sin nature have enslaved us.  These two work together to bring us a life that is not fulfilling and not focused on what really matters:  God Himself.  We are lost amongst the monuments of the world's values:  bigger is better; whoever has the gold makes the rules; don't question life because the idols you ask will remain eerily silent.  Your job, your President, your politics and your entertainment can't tell you who you are and what your purpose in life truly is.  

But what about that Goshen? We have times in our lives where life is good; we may not be completely  happy, but at least we are not totally unhappy either.  Then something or someone in our lives changes and our slavery becomes apparent.  We feel the rough edge of the society, our family or our conscience.  We romanticize the good old days--basking in the soft glow of our selective memory.  But Goshen is not the Promised Land.  We settled for second best or third best or tenth best--it doesn't really  matter.  We've settled.

Then comes our cry.  Our slavery stings, our emptiness hurts and the meaninglessness of it all makes us wonder, "Why am I here?"

Then God sends the Deliverer--our condition, our state and our bondage cannot be made better in any way.  Religion can't do it:  We can never be good enough to assuage our sullied and unsettled conscience.  Political activism cannot do it:  Our leaders, our system, our fellow activists will let us down in one way or another.  Our friends and family cannot do it: Our children, parents, or those we admire and enjoy are all too human, and like us, will blow it or disappoint us to the core.

So we cry out and God hears.  His Son is our Moses:  He sacrificed Himself to lead us out of bondage to the very Land we were supposed to be in:  The Land of Continuous Fellowship with God.  The Land where we are His people and He is our God.  No monuments, no kings, no works--just the beautiful whisper of His voice and the knowledge that we are loved beyond all measure.

So, we ask this Deliverer into our hearts and He resides as Savior (cleansed by His blood, we are forgiven and given a new life in Him) and Lord (He is our King, our Friend and the One to Whom we owe our life, love and obedience).

As we are delivered out of bondage, we watch our "gods" fall under His heavy hand of judgement.  There is nothing like our God.  Period.  The sea closes over the last hurrah of the world to drag us back and we stand on the far shore, amazed at how much this God is willing to do to lead His children out of slavery.

Next stop:  the character-building desert!  Yahoo!  

What?  You mean that I must depend on God for absolutely everything now that I am in Him?

Yes.  That's it exactly.

But think of it this way:  That was God's intention all along.  Trek back into time for a brief moment to Adam and Eve.  God's provision was everywhere in the Garden of Eden.  He gave Adam and Eve the supreme choice:  You can eat from the Tree of Life or you can eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  You can choose a life in Me or a life in you.  Knowledge from Me or knowledge from you.  A personal relationship with Me or an alienated one in you. Utter dependence on Me, or prideful dependence on you.  

Choose they did.

That's why, when Jesus comes to us, we are in Egypt.

So having chosen a life in us, knowledge derived from us, an alienated existence from God and a prideful dependence on ourselves, we need a Deliverer.  But, once we are delivered, we need our character to be re-molded and conformed to the image of Jesus:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-29)

How so? 

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2) 

That's why He put the children of Israel in the desert and why we go in as well:  We must learn that this new life is lived in Christ alone.  We try to sometimes take over Jesus' Lordship (but our flesh will sabotage us every time) and we can't save ourselves (we wouldn't be in perpetual Egypt if we could).  So, every aspect of the Christian life is relying on Jesus for His sustenance, saving and security:

  • He is the Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7) to forgive our sins
  • He is our Manna (John 6:35) to fed and nourish us
  • He is the stricken Rock that gives us water (1 Cor. 10:4) to quench our spiritual thirst
  • He is our Prophet (Deut. 18:15) to guide us through a difficult terrain

Done.  But here's where the suffering comes in.  The desert was harsh, to be sure, for the children of Israel, but they were safe from real battle.  Yes, they were attacked by the Amalekites, but those guys were defeated by Joshua (whose name in Hebrew is the same as Jesus'...coincidence?  I think not.)  

But, that attack was a foretaste of what was to come.  The Promised Land, where we dwell in the place God has chosen for us, is not empty.  It is not Heaven on earth--free of suffering, disease, pain or hurt.  Quite the opposite:  It is filled with all of these challenges and more.  It is filled with suffering.  It is filled with battles.  Constant battles.  Formidable enemies.  Skirmishes.  Theft.  Massacre.  


Our life in Christ is not free of suffering as long as we dwell in the Promised Land on this earth.  We will suffer.  A lot.  

But so did Jesus.  

Next stop:  The Promised Land.  It is here that we rely on God to go before us, but He draws us deeper into a relationship with Him to go and enter into battle with Him.   If we partner with Jesus on this planet, we are partnering for warfare.  

Jesus is our Joshua.  But we never enter the war alone.  That is what we will explore next.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Our Modern Idols

Many years ago, a pastor told a story of a fellow pastor whose turn it was to preach that Sunday.  The man walked quietly up to the pulpit.  He held both sides of the podium in his hands, looked out at the congregation and said, "Jesus."

Then he sat down.

I could simply do the same thing today with my blog.  I could type "Jesus," and hit "publish."    He is what we need now, more than ever.

But, I would like to weigh in on last week--my heart is broken at what culminated at the Capitol.  Just seeing the people scaling the walls, the people moving angrily and the young woman climbing through the transom window in the Capitol, only to be shot in the back of the head and falling to the floor with blood streaming from her mouth, caused me great anguish.  

I was stunned to see a standing President behind bullet-proof glass while a riled-up mob surged below him.  It felt like anti-Christ moment.  "Anti-" in Greek means "against" or "instead of."  

NO, I do not mean THE Anti-Christ.  I mean, that at that moment, the adoration, acclamation, and admiration of the crowd and the arrogance, attitude and approval of the man standing there, should be for Christ alone.  

But this cult of personality is not just conferred upon our President.  It is conferred upon pastors.  How many people talk about, "I go to So-and-So's church!"  (I have heard this.)

How many people leave an area to follow a pastor to his next church? (I know of several.)

How many people will divide an existing church by leaving en masse to follow a pastor to his new church? (I saw this.)

Why have churches become dynastic in who leads them after the founder dies, with the son taking over (who may or may not be called) because he can continue the brand?  (I know of several of churches like this.)

Why, when scandals arise, the boards of these churches are stymied in their efforts to exert discipline--because they know that if the pastor goes, so does the church?  Or they try and the pastor responds with a victim mentality instead of humbling himself and accepting discipline?  (This has happened.)

Why are people so loyal to a human being?  Whether it's a political leader or a pastor, the results are the same:  People are willing to defend the person no matter what (it's his enemies that are causing this!) or they resist anything that gets in the way of their need for this person.  If disturbing information, bad behavior, inflammatory rhetoric or questionable ideas/theology come forth, people defend this leader--why?  To quote a friend of mine who attends a church that has not taken enough steps to protect the congregation (the pastor now has Covid, sad to say): "I need it."

There it is:  "I need it."  We may love Jesus, but we follow our pastor.  We pray to Jesus but when our pastor wants to do something, go somewhere or start a project, we defer to him, even if we have misgivings, because, after all, he's the pastor and is tight with God, right?

We love Jesus but we bask in the warmth and charisma of our pastor.  We love the Word of God but allow the pastor to wrestle, interpret and show us its meaning each week.  He meets a need in us:  to be loved, respected and made to feel special. 

So many men in lives have let us down--fathers especially, so a charismatic pastor or president can take that role in our lives and fill a need for male approval.  We love that this person knows our frustration, our pain and our longing.  Or so we believe. 

We love Jesus but want more and more of this person--he has become an "Instead of Christ," i.e. an anti-Christ.  

Jesus taught of wolves in sheep clothing.  The wolves know the sheeps' need to belong, to be safe and cared for by someone who is greater than they. It is interesting that Jesus was speaking of leaders, of false prophets, who come to exploit the natural needs of the sheep:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Ultimately, the truth will out and that's when the sheep face a decision:  Do I ignore the rather lupine behavior of this sheep, make excuses and defend him, or do I seek God and His wisdom about this person?

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:5-8)

Now, I have a choice:  Do I leave or stay?  Do I remain loyal or do I step away?  John gives us the answer: "Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God's place in your hearts." (1 John 5:21 NLT) 

In the Greek, it is translated: "keep yourself from idols."

In other words, stay away from people or things that have become "Instead of Christ."

No one wakes up and says, "I am going to follow a wolf.  I am going to replace my loyalty to Christ with a loyalty to a leader.  I am going to stop questioning this leader and allow him to think, feel and believe for me, because I feel so complete in his presence.  His leadership is helping me to be a better person.  I can't leave or be disloyal."

The process is insidious.  The charismatic leader will tap into us deeply, make us feel special and when issues arise, we defend that person, angry that others do not see him the way we do. 

In America, we seem to be gravitating more and more to strong, charismatic leaders who speak for us, feel for us, and make us feel that he gets us. 

We love Jesus, but when the push comes to shove, we turn on our TV, or go to church, looking for answers and grabbing hold of the words coming from that leader.

We should be sitting quietly with Jesus, reading His Word and asking Him for wisdom.  Once He dispenses it, we need to obey, even if that means standing alone.

Let us not demean our God by nodding to Him on our way to following an idol. 


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