Friday, October 25, 2013

Don’t Lose Heart

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. - Luke 18.1

One of the hardest things about prayer is to keep on asking when the answer doesn’t come. We’d almost rather be told “No!” than feel as if we’re not being heard. Or worse yet, ignored.
We all know that there are often good reasons for denying a request, but why does God delay? If something supernatural is blocking the answer, we have no way of knowing it. We know God is good. We know he is faithful to his promises. We ask according to his known will. And still no answer comes. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, says the old proverb.
The biggest deterrent to prayer is a loss of heart when we can no longer stand the heartache of postponing hope.
When I’m tempted to give up praying, I return to my favorite Bible story about a man whose hope was deferred twenty-five years. The great patriarch Abraham was called by God to leave everything behind and travel to a new land. A new land where God would make him into a mighty nation. A nation through whom all other nations would be blessed.
Whose hope wouldn’t leap at a promise like that?
So Abraham went. He brought along his nephew Lot because the young man was fatherless, and Abraham had no son of his own. When their combined wealth was too great to share territory, Abraham let Lot go. Although this youth would not be his heir, Abraham still watched out for him, even chasing down the enemy who took him captive. God honored this sacrifice with a reminder of how much land he had set aside for Abraham’s future descendants.
Fifteen years after arriving in the land, Abraham was rich and well known. But still no heir. He continued to converse with God, which amounts to prayer, on the matter. At one point God pointed out that he himself was Abraham’s reward.
You can hear the heartache in the poor old man’s reply, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.”
“Not so!” the Lord replied. “You’ll have a son from your own body.”
And a year later, his wife’s maid bore them a baby boy. How glad the eighty-six-year-old was! He loved Ishmael as much as his own life. True, the pregnancy had brought grief to his family but none of it mattered to him as he watched his son grow.
About the time Ishmael became a man at age thirteen, God surprised Abraham in another prayer time. He confirmed his covenant with Abraham and his offspring, not just to make a nation of them, but to be their God forever. And then God made a startling declaration.
“Your wife will be the mother of nations and kings.”
Impossible! Sarah is ninety years old. Besides, thought Abraham, my prayer has already been answered. I have a son. He’s old enough to begin a family of his own. Surely Ishmael’s children will inherit the promise.
“Not so!” God said again. “Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned.”
And true to God’s word, Isaac was born. When Abraham was one hundred years old!
Here is a riddle we all can solve: What takes years and years, and can cause us to lose heart? Destiny.
So take hope, my friend. When you know what God has in mind for you, you ought always to pray and not lose heart. God who promised is faithful. If he has spoken to you, he will do it. You may not see the end of it, but God will keep his word. He who began this good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. The purpose for your life will take place. That’s what faith is, and that’s what makes us descendants of faithful Abraham.

By the way, Abraham lived another seventy-five years. Isaac didn’t marry until he was forty years old, and his wife Rebekah remained barren for another twenty. Then she had twins—by divine intervention in response to Isaac’s prayers for her. (No doubt Abraham also prayed for grandchildren, since he knew God’s promise.)
Do the math. That leaves fifteen years in which Abraham saw and enjoyed the “double-portion” God had given to Isaac, the firstborn of God’s covenant people. Abraham saw the twins born, and he watched them grow to manhood.
Only then did Abraham breathe his last and die at a good old age, an old man and full of years. His destiny appeared in Jesus and resounds in us today.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rich Toward God

So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. — Luke 12.21

“Rich toward God” is unusual phrasing. What does it mean to be rich toward something or someone?
Clearly the sentence is intended as a contrast, but between what?
Our first instinct might be to compare the treasure, earthly with heavenly, such as Jesus exhorted in
Mat 6:19-20, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
We’d be wrong.
In fact, the contrast here resides in the verbs.
In the original language “to lay up” is an active verb and has the sense of gathering resources together. On the other hand, “to be rich” is a passive verb meaning to have an abundant supply. The difference lies more in how the treasure or abundance is attained than in what makes up the treasure.

In this world wealth usually consists of material possessions, while the abundance God provides is more often immaterial.
God calls the person who fixates on worldly wealth a fool, which the Bible defines as someone who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14.1, 53.1). 

The world may scoff at us for seeking intangible treasure: garments of salvation, robes of righteousness, beauty of holiness, full riches of complete understanding, and so forth.

Our verse today reminds us that such things are granted to us; we do not earn them or gather them. They belong to us simply because we are heirs together with Christ.

And when we lay our heads on the pillow at night, we won’t fret over whether or not we can provide for ourselves because we know that our heavenly Father has richly blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Happy God, Man of Sorrows

Happy God, Man of Sorrows

An “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” That’s how Jonathan Edwards described Christ’s glory. Not just connecting majesty and meekness, justice and grace, or obedience and dominion, but combining them in perfect harmony. We will never exhaust the depths of beauty and worth revealed in the God-man.

I see one such contrast when I put 1 Timothy 1.11 and Isaiah 53.3 together. The former describes God as blessed, literally happy. The latter describes our Savior as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, despised and rejected and alone.

The church I grew up in made a big deal of the remoteness of God, of his holy separateness from sinful creatures like me. His only concern was right from wrong. He constantly watched for anyone who fell short of his impossible standards, always ready to execute judgment should I stray from the straight and narrow. I never imagined him to be capable of happiness, let alone that I could bring him delight or, in biblical terms, bless him.

But then I learned about the Trinity and realized that God is complete in himself. He needs nothing to increase his own joy. God is joyful? Yes, the Bible is full of this truth once I had eyes to see it. The joy of the Lord is our strength. The Lord rejoices over us with singing. Such verses and many others indicate that God is capable of great joy, which he often experiences in relation to his people.

Likewise, outside of church I grew up with the fine art/Hollywood version of Jesus rather than the biblical portrait. He was cow-eyed, talked super slow, and spent a lot of time gazing into the sky. Not exactly an attractive persona. How did he manage to draw such crowds? As I’ve gotten to know him over the years, time and again Jesus showed me that my thinking was off.

Isaiah 53 says this in just so many words. A man of sorrows, literally pain, both body and soul. We immediately think of his Passion, the agony, from the garden of Gethsemane to the crucifixion on Golgotha. Rarely do we ponder his soul pain, I suppose, except to imagine his sense of betrayal when Judas kissed him or rejection when his disciples fled, his sadness when he wept over Jerusalem, or his frustration with his followers’ lack of faith. 

Please God, I usually pray, don't let  such things happen to me. For the most part, the merciful God has answered this prayer and protected me from much pain and heartache. Ironically, I almost ended up with a Savior to whom I cannot relate. Strange, this, when the whole point of the incarnation was to open the way to God for the likes of me and you.
I say “almost” because at some point the Spirit of God showed me my error. Jesus was tested and tried in every way, just as we are, as I am. I grew up poor. So did he. I felt like an outcast. So did he. I had a lot of siblings. So did he.
Family is a powerful thing. Jesus knew this as well as the rest of us. Some of our greatest joys and our deepest hurts come from family. Recently my family hurt me deeply. His Spirit reminded me that Jesus’s family hurt him too. 
They heard about the things he taught and, thinking him insane, came to collect him before he got himself executed for blasphemy. In light of how painful my own family’s response was to me, I easily imagine why Jesus preferred to claim kinship with those who hear the word of God and do it.

I cannot say that I am always as Christ-like as I should be or that I never hurt or disappoint those I love. But I am learning to trust this one who has been where I am. He knows what I’m going through. He overcame, and because he did, he is there to help me, to strengthen me, to uphold me with his righteous right hand.
For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, a far more brutal and unmerited suffering at the hands of those he loved than I will ever know. He despised its shame, a far deeper humiliation than anyone can inflict on me.
May the Man of Sorrows grant me the grace to suffer for him, and the pleasure of being like him in triumphing over my pain.
And may his Father, the Happy God, be pleased to call me his child as I hear his word and obey it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why do we pray?

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.    Matthew 6:6

Most of us pray primarily to get something from God. When we’re in desperate need of help, healing, or resources we cry out to God who, we believe, can be persuaded to come to our aid. This isn’t always the case, I know. Sometimes we ask for good things, things that honor the Lord and help others, things that bring us closer to him and extend his kingdom in this world.
But is petition all there is to prayer?
I’ve also heard prayer compared to a soldier’s field radio, useful for staying in contact with headquarters. That’s another aspect, but it still limits prayer to a quest for marching orders.
I ask because I’m curious about Jesus’s prayer life. For as many miracles as Jesus performed—healing and restoration and deliverance and speaking truth—not once does the Bible record him praying for it to happen. Surely that isn’t how he spent his time in prayer.
Rather, the Gospels tell us that he rose before dawn to pray in a solitary place. These marathon prayer vigils often took place before he made significant decisions, like choosing the twelve apostles, or setting his face toward Jerusalem knowing he would die there.
But think about it. Why did Jesus need to pray about such things? I mean, he was God. Didn’t he know the plan from before the foundation of the world? Surely he knew what he had come to earth to do and how it would all unfold. His Father’s answer would only confirm it.
Yet dare we conclude that Jesus need not have prayed? And as he did pray, what was prayer to him?
Jesus was God but he was also a man. He lived like other men, depending on the benevolent Providence for his needs and cares. People have sought supernatural aid since Cain and Abel brought offerings to the gates of Eden. When something in our lives is too big or too bad for us to handle alone, we turn to Someone bigger than us.
This basis for prayer becomes redundant if we have another way to meet our needs. Jesus put it this way, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” If we have enough money, or technology, or medicine, or education, or whatever, we no longer need God’s help.
Does that mean we no longer need to pray? Jesus told us to watch and pray. Paul and Peter exhort us to continue to pray.
God, being omniscient, already knows our circumstances and the situation driving us to prayer. Likewise, being sovereign, he already knows what he intends to do about it. What profit, then, in bringing our concerns to him, in continuing to pray?
None, unless we change our motivation for prayer.
To do that, we need to go back to Jesus. Imagine him growing up with his mom’s stories about his conception and birth. When John came baptizing the Jews in the Jordan River, Jesus joined them. For the first time in public, he heard his heavenly Father declare his approval.
Every time Jesus went to prayer, he heard that voice again. He trusted that voice. He obeyed that voice. Prayer for him was communion with the Father who had begotten him and authorized him to be the Savior of all mankind.
Through faith in Jesus, we become children of the same Father. For us as well, prayer should be communion, the sweet interchange of affection based on trust and love.
Have you heard your heavenly Father’s voice, proclaiming you as a beloved child with whom he is well pleased?
If you have, then you know why we pray.