Today’s reading includes one of the top 10 stories of the Old Testament – Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. And the walls came a-tumbling down!
I love reading the Biblical account of this event. Imagine the army and priests given their marching orders – to March! That’s all, just march around the city once. There will be priests carrying the ark of the covenant and 7 priests blowing trumpets and armed men ahead and behind. And all you have to do is march around the city once and return to camp.
And day 2 – go back and march around the city once with the ark, the priests, the 7 trumpets and the armed men.
And day 3 – go back and march around the city once with the ark, the priests, the 7 trumpets and the armed men.
And day 4 – go back and march around the city once with the ark, the priests, the 7 trumpets and the armed men.
And day 5 – go back and march around the city once with the ark, the priests, the 7 trumpets and the armed men.
And day 6 – go back and march around the city once with the ark, the priests, the 7 trumpets and the armed men.
It doesn’t seem to make sense. This is not how battles are typically won. Are the people of Jericho laughing yet? They had been scared of the stories they had heard of a powerful God who saved His people from Egypt. But, this doesn’t look too threatening on day 6.
Wait for It…Wait for It…
And just keep up with your marching orders. God’s Will. His Way. And in His timing. Salvation could be right around the corner. Any day now. Don’t give up following God’s way when it seems you aren’t seeing results – yet. Day 7 is coming! Marching, Marching, Marching. His Will. His Way. His Day.
It is also exciting reading of the archeological evidence discovered at the site of old Jericho. The only place where archeologists have found all the walls fell down – outward. Also found were storage jars full of grain that had been burned along with the rest of the city – showing that the city was destroyed during harvest season (as recorded in the Bible) and not following a long siege. Just as the Bible records, the walls of Jericho fell, the city was thoroughly burned and then abandoned for a long time.
The God of Joshua and the God of the Battle of Jericho is still the God of today. His army tactics can be surprising. We have never seen a war won this way before. But because we know the final outcome, we know who reigns victoriously in the end, we will keep following His marching orders. His Will. His Way. His Day.
Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Joshua 5-6 and Psalm 56-58
Have you ever looked at yourself through the mirrors in a funhouse? Maybe they made your legs appear shorter or your figure much rounder. Of course, just because the mirror makes you look one way doesn’t mean that you actually look like that. Sometimes people seem to see us through funhouse mirrors; they get a distorted image of who we actually are.
Jesus, too, was often seen through funhouse mirrors. Many people perceived him to be a traitor and criminal. Yet, standing in front of the mirror was actually the begotten Son of God, the promised Messiah.
After Jesus’s arrest, he stood before government and religious officers, as was customary. Jesus was beaten by the guards, accused by the leaders, and ridiculed by the crowds. It’s a disgustingly difficult chapter to read because of the undeserved nastiness towards Jesus.
So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. (Luke 23:3)
Jesus didn’t deny Pilate’s allegations. If I were Jesus, I would probably burst into tears shouting, “It’s not fair!” After all, he had never sinned, nonetheless committed a crime worthy of death on a cross. Yet, he continued to refrain from defending himself.
He (Herod) plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. (Luke 23:9)
Jesus’ goal wasn’t to appease man but to please God. God already saw the real Jesus, the one standing in front of the mirror. Let us learn from Jesus’ example: You don’t have to get the last word. It’s okay to be misunderstood. There’s no need to get even. You have nothing to prove.
Because God sees you—the real you.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking. You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight. You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence. I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in! (Psalm 139 from The Message)
So after the amazing events of Exodus 14 and the crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground and the waters swallowing up the armies of Pharaoh the Israelites spend some time praising God and we have the text of their praises in the beginning of Chapter 15, and then they set out on the road.
“22 Then Moses led the people of Israel away from the Red Sea, and they moved out into the desert of Shur. They traveled in this desert for three days without finding any water. 23 When they came to the oasis of Marah, the water was too bitter to drink. So they called the place Marah (which means “bitter”).
24 Then the people complained and turned against Moses. “What are we going to drink?” they demanded. 25 So Moses cried out to the Lord for help, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. Moses threw it into the water, and this made the water good to drink.”
It was there at Marah that the Lord set before them the following decree as a standard to test their faithfulness to him. 26 He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”
27 After leaving Marah, the Israelites traveled on to the oasis of Elim, where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees. They camped there beside the water.
Right after God showed them that he is capable of providing everything for them he gives them a test and they instantly fail the test. God is showing them that they have bitter hearts and no faith, but they will have to have faith in God in order to survive. After this they continue on.
“1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.
2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
They do not look forward to the glory to come. They have been promised a land of their own and that they will become a great nation, but all they can see is the pain of the moment. They also do not see the past and the many ways that God has come through for them. Again all they can see is their momentary pain. We know from Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, and that is what we need to do as well.
One thing I notice is that a lot of the locations they went to got their names changed after something big happened there, I wonder how this desert got the name “the desert of sin”.
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.
5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
God’s responses are not just a handout, they are a test. God does not provide for us just to fill a little need, it is to help us to grow, and to see our response. After an encounter with God we are not supposed to go back to how things were, but continue growing.
You have to wonder, if they would just handle one of these situations well, would the rest of the trip have gone easily? They are very impatient, kind of like how Moses was when he was younger, and killed the Egyptian and tried to get things started. The Israelites just want to be there, but the journey and the growing is very important. God wants his people to inhabit the lands of Canaan, not just some group of people that doesn’t know him.
In today’s reading the plagues continue: livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. The plagues reap destruction on their food supplies and on their bodies. God declares to Pharaoh His purpose for sending the plagues: “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)
Once again, Pharaoh continues his predictable response: plague comes, Pharaoh says he repents and will let them go, the plague is lifted, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let them go.
The next year I was in college at George Mason University and we sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt and I sang the bass recitative “He sent a thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt.” Nearly 40 years later I still have vivid memories of our first performance of this, I was battling strep throat and spent the whole day nursing my throat with honey, lemon and salt water so that I could sing my solo that night (check it out here: Israel in Egypt, HWV 54, Pt. II: Part II: He sent a thick darkness over all the land (Chorus) – YouTube) In fact you might want to listen to the entire Oratorio Israel in Egypt by GF Handel.
In both of these Handel works with the Biblical texts and colors them with the accompanying music. You can almost feel the darkness. What does three days of thick darkness feel like? How disoriented would it be for an entire nation to be blanketed in darkness?
Jesus later used darkness to get Saul/Paul’s attention. Saul was blinded for three days (Acts 9:9) until Ananias prayed over him and the scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored. Paul responded by literally “seeing the light” and he become a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ. He immediately got up and was baptized into Jesus Christ.
What happened after Pharaoh came out of three days of darkness? You guessed it, his heart was once again hardened. It was harder than ever. After 9 plagues, 9 times God gave him a chance to repent after seeing God’s power at work. 9 Times Pharaoh had the chance to proclaim God’s greatness to all the earth. 9 times Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Psalm 103 reminds us that:
The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
God balances His love and desire to see justice for the oppressed with his compassion and gracious love for the oppressor. In the story God loves both His oppressed people Israel represented by Moses and He loves His children mired in pride and power who oppress his people, the Egyptians represented by Pharaoh. God demonstrates His patience to Pharaoh by giving him 9 chances to repent. God also demonstrates His love and faithfulness to Israel by limiting Pharaoh.
Peter later picks up this same theme in II Peter 3:9-10- “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”
God was patient with Pharaoh, “Love is patient”. But God was also merciful to Israel, God’s love and patience have limits. Pharaoh was about to discover the limits of God’s patience. It would cost him and all of Egypt their firstborn sons.
How will America and the world respond to our current “plague” the Covid-19 Pandemic? Will we soften our hearts and repent and turn to God and forsake our sins and put our full faith and trust in God? Or will we harden our hearts again? How much longer will God be patient and give opportunities to repent? When will God finally say- it’s time to fully and finally set my people and all of the earth free from this dreaded curse of sin and death? It’s time to bring about the final judgment?
I don’t know and you don’t know. But learn the lesson from Pharaoh and don’t test the limits of God’s patience and mercy. May the scales fall from our eyes, may the thick darkness of sin and unbelief that covers our land be lifted.
In this week’s devotions we’ve been focusing on the last five chapters of Matthew. Hopefully you’ve also been reading the Old Testament readings at the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. Today’s devotion turns our attention to the Exodus readings.
Israel’s story shows the interplay between being part of the people of God while living in a broken world amid systems and structures that are broken by sin. When Jacob and his family first went to Egypt, the most powerful nation in the world at the time, they went there to escape famine. God positioned Jacob’s son, Joseph, to be one of the most powerful men in the Egyptian government. Joseph was able to provide food and a safe place to live for his brothers and their families during the famine and beyond.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time, Joseph died, and a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. Suddenly, Israel went from being sheltered and protected by Egypt to being enslaved. For 400 years they suffered under the Egyptian oppression. The people cried out to God to set them free. God heard their cries and provided a means of salvation. A young baby boy born of the Hebrews, rescued from death and raised as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He was the one who would lead his people to freedom. But it took 80 more years for God to prepare Moses to lead his people.
When the time came for Moses to lead the people to the Promised Land, God did so through a series of plagues. In today’s reading God had Moses bring forth the first plagues: blood, frogs, gnats and flies. With each plague Pharaoh asked Moses to pray to God to stop the plague and said that he would let the people go. But each time, after the plague was over Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he refused to let them go.
Sometimes, when people are in the midst of a crisis, they soften their hearts and fall on their knees in repentance and turn to God for help and hope. Sometimes, when those prayers are answered and things get better, those same people forget, and allow their hearts to grow hard again.
As I write this devotion we are one year into the Covid plague. As both a pastor and a hospital and nursing home chaplain I’ve had to live every day of this past year dealing with the reality of that plague. I’ve have family and friends get sick. Most got well, some didn’t. Some died from Covid. Others have suffered from the effects of our attempts to mitigate the spread of Covid. Some have lost jobs, some have grown isolated and alienated and depressed. I’ve seen churches struggle to keep going when they’ve been ordered to stop meeting in person and when able to meet in person I’ve seen many struggle with half as many people participating. It’s been hard. Some churches have been forced to close their doors and will never open them again. It’s been sad.
During Covid, some have turned to God and softened their hearts. Others, like Pharaoh have hardened their hearts. At the end of the day the question for you is, how is your heart?
As we move through the Gospel of Matthew one chapter per day it’s pretty amazing how quickly we move through the life of Jesus. Matthew brings us through the entire earthly life of Jesus so quickly. Think about it for a minute. Less than a month ago we were celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Just a week later we were celebrating the start of a new year, 2021 and we started the book of Matthew which summarized roughly 2000 years of Israel’s history from Abraham down to Jesus. We heard the angels announcement to Joseph that Mary was going to give birth to God’s son. We read of his birth, the visit from the magi and Herod’s attempt to have Jesus killed and his rescue to Egypt. We fast forwarded to his 12th year visiting the temple and being precocious in his questions of the learned doctors of Jewish Law. Just like that Jesus is 30 and being baptized by John in the Jordan River and going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Then he’s calling disciples, performing miracles, preaching the Torah in a way that is more authoritative than the average rabbi. Before we know it 3 more years have passed and Jesus is in Jerusalem having his last supper with his disciples and preparing them for his approaching death.
Now, here we are reaching the climax of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is tried, condemned and crucified. This was not how any of his followers or any of the Jews for over 1000 years imagined how the story would go. They envisioned the son of David as a triumphant King leading an armed rebellion and defeating the powerful and oppressive Romans and being free to finally worship God under the rule of God’s anointed King, descended from the great King David of old. Instead, they get a meek and gentle man being falsely accused and refusing to defend himself, being rejected by his own people and, despite his complete innocence, meekly suffering and going to his death in the most shameful way imaginable: beaten, stripped naked and nailed to an execution pole for all to see and mock and serve as warning to any who might dare to defy Rome’s hegemony over the whole world.
For the Apostle Paul and most every Christian since that day, this is foundational to the entire Christian message and the central event in the history of the world.
Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:
15 Now, brothers, I must remind you of the Good News which I proclaimed to you, and which you received, and on which you have taken your stand, 2 and by which you are being saved — provided you keep holding fast to the message I proclaimed to you. For if you don’t, your trust will have been in vain. 3 For among the first things I passed on to you was what I also received, namely this: the Messiah died for our sins, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; 4 and he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; 5 and he was seen by Kefa, then by the Twelve;
(Complete Jewish Bible Translation)
Paul reminds his readers that one of the first things he passed on to his students was the death of the Messiah, Jesus, for their sins as a fulfillment of the teaching of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Old Testament). Matthew tells the story more or less chronologically and it builds up to this. But for Paul, this was among the first things he taught. Whether it’s shared first as in Paul or toward the end as in Matthew, either way the death of Jesus and with it his resurrection, is the most important thing for Christianity.
There is much for you to think about in this chapter but I will simply pause to name two and they both have to do with despair and death. Matthew places side by side two men who have reached a crisis in their life, Judas and Jesus. For both their crisis has brought them into great anguish and to the brink of death.
Judas is in despair because he has betrayed his teacher and friend. He sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver. One might try to get Judas off of the hook by suggesting that he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. It was God’s plan. I’ve even heard it suggested and even wondered myself if Judas wasn’t simply trying to force Jesus to go to war against Rome. Judas was a Zealot and growing impatient with Jesus. Maybe he assumed that when Jesus was arrested he and the other disciples would defend him and bring him into his Kingdom. When Judas realized that his plan backfired and Jesus was going to die without bringing in the Kingdom he was overcome with guilt and despair. Or maybe he was just greedy and sold out his friend for the money. Or maybe some combination of things. Sometimes we humans beings do things and we don’t even understand why we did it, but afterwards we are filled with shame and regret and despair of life.
Judas responded to his despair by taking his own life. Suicide is the final act of despair. The suicide rate in the US has been going up each year. I imagine when the deaths related to Covid are finally tallied we will see a significant number of deaths were not from Covid but because of people’s despair over Covid and the Covid related isolation, economic losses, disenfranchised grief, increased substance abuse and loss of connection with faith communities and other sources of hope and meaning. Judas’ story ends in a tragic death of despair.
Jesus is also facing his own existential despair. He’s been betrayed, denied, abandoned and rejected by his friends and followers and all his fellow Jews. Jesus was beaten nearly to death and is alone on the cross and has all of the guilt and shame of the world heaped upon him. In his agony and isolation he cries out to God in despair ,“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is having the worst day of his life, just as Judas did and Jesus is in extreme pain, just as Judas was and Jesus was about to die, just as Judas did. And yet, their deaths couldn’t be more different. Jesus never lost his connection to and faith in his father, even at this point of greatest pain. Even as Jesus cries out, he is praying and maintaining his connection to his faith tradition. “My God, My God why have you forsaken me” is the opening prayer of Psalm 22. This was a Lament Psalm. The Hebrews were very familiar with suffering. They had been slaves for over 400 years in Egypt. They spent 40 years traveling in the wilderness. They spent 70 years in exile in Babylon. The Hebrews knew suffering and it was in suffering that God continued to sustain them and draw them back unto himself. Every Psalm of lament, no matter how much hurt or pain they processed, no matter how angry or betrayed by God they felt, there was always a remembering of the ways God had been with them and helped them in the past, and there was the hope and trust that God would sustain them through the suffering and restore them to wholeness and joy.
Jesus never lost his connection to the father, even in the depths of pain and despair. He surrendered his life to God, but he did not take his own life as Judas did. Judas’ tragic death ends with no hope for him. Jesus’ tragic death ends with hope for him and for everyone.
We all go through periods of hurt, pain, disillusionment, brokenness, anger, shame, guilt and pain. When we go through those time we are in a moment of decision. Do we give in completely to the despair and give up on God, or do we cling to faith, remembering God’s faithfulness in the past and hope in the future. That will make all the difference in how our story ends. It doesn’t have to end like Judas. Jesus offers the path to hope and life.
I have never had a baby. Shocker, I know! As a male member of the human race the act of childbirth has and will forever elude my lived experience. However, as a father of eleven Fletchers, I have spent many years of my adult life in the company of pregnant women, or more precisely, a pregnant woman. I was there for all eleven births and I caught most of them (the last one came so quickly that I caught him solo). All this is to offer to you my credentials that, although never directly experiencing labor, I have been present for enough births to recognize the various stages that women go through in childbirth. Fun fact, for women who have more than one baby the Braxton Hicks contractions (otherwise known as false labor) can come several weeks or even months before the baby is actually born. Braxton Hicks contractions are one way that the body prepares itself for labor. It’s like an athlete doing warm up exercises before the actual event. Muscles tighten and relax as they practice for the real thing when it comes.
Today’s devotion isn’t really about childbirth, it’s about being prepared for the return of Jesus Christ, the end of this present age and the preparation for the age to come, the Kingdom of God. Matthew 24 is known as the “little apocalypse”. Apocalypse is another term for Revelation. In the Bible the book of Revelation is 22 chapters long and goes into a lot of detail about the end of this age and the coming of Jesus. Matthew 24 is a condensed version, kind of a mini-sermon Jesus preached to his followers shortly before he went to the cross. (You will run across parallel or “synoptic” passages when we get to Mark 13 and Luke 21 in just a few days/weeks).
Jesus’ purpose here is to prepare his followers to be ready for times of great tribulation or distress that would come immediately prior to his return. If you’ve ever read or heard a sermon about the apocalypse or the end of the world or Armageddon you probably are aware that Jesus warned that before things get amazingly better- ie. The New Heavens and the New Earth, Christ returning to rule over all the world bringing a final end to all sin and death and setting free the whole earth from the “curse” of death… before things get amazingly better, there will be a time when they become incredibly hard.
A brief study of the history of the Church for the last 2000 years will show that Christians have gone through hard times a lot. In the first 2 centuries the problem was the Roman Empire. Followers of Jesus were often told that they had to renounce their loyalty to Jesus and declare their loyalty to Caesar alone. When they refused, some of them were thrown to the lions or burned at the stake.
Since Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire it has faced challenges in many parts of the world at different times. In the 17th century Christian missionaries in Japan were killed for their faith. In the 1930’s Christians in Germany who failed to support Hitler faced severe persecution and some, most notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed for resisting Nazism. Christians in Communist China and the Soviet Union experienced incredible persecution during most of the 20th century. There are places in the Islamic world today where Christians who attempt to proselytize Muslims face the threat of execution.
Every generation of Christians since the first century could look at what was happening in the world and see the potential for the end of the world. Jesus’ own disciples asked him right after his resurrection, before he ascended to God, “Is it NOW, Lord?” (Acts 1:6).
2020 was a really challenging year with Covid, racial division, murder hornets, wildfires and hurricanes. I had a lot of people asking me if I thought the end of the world was coming. Perhaps you’ve wondered that yourselves.
Matthew 24 is a great place to go when you start wondering if this is the end. Like a woman who is going to have a baby, she may have “birth pangs” for a long time before the baby is actually ready to be born. The same is true with the coming Kingdom of God. I think every generation of Christians experience some amount of persecution or “natural” disasters or other tragedies that leave them wondering if the end could be near. Just as Braxton Hicks contractions are God’s way of preparing a woman to give birth by having her muscles practice for the big event, God permits every generation to experience a certain amount of trials and tribulations to help prepare God’s people for the final “great push” that will occur right before Jesus returns.
Jesus himself said that no one knows exactly when he will return. He said that even he doesn’t know. That is something that only God knows. What Jesus does say to his disciples then and to us today is that we need to stay ready, we shouldn’t fall asleep in our faith. He warns that as troubles and persecution increase and as the world becomes a less loving and more violent place that many of his followers would fall away:
“At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:10-12).
Jesus might come very soon. I can’t predict when. All I can do is make sure that I’m ready whenever he does come. I must make sure that I stay faithful and don’t turn away even if the persecution gets really bad. I think Christians living in the United States are getting ready to face some real persecution in the near future. In fact, I think we already are. There is a lot of pressure to conform to the changing norms of society. Cancel culture will not have any respect for Christianity. Some of the things that the Bible teaches about how we are supposed to live, particularly in areas of morality, sexuality and gender norms are considered anathema by the current progressive climate. As people place more value on becoming “woke” more followers of Jesus, young and old will be persecuted if they fail to change their values. Remember, Caesar doesn’t like to be rejected as God, neither does the devil, and neither do the progressive elites. In the wake of the coming persecution Jesus our Lord tells us to “stand firm.”
Here we are beginning the 3rd full week of 2021 and so much has happened already. 7 days of careful investigation revealing solid scientific evidence supporting a Biblical view of a miraculous creator (and destroyer) God. And then 7 days of the Old Testament patriarchs of Genesis and fathers of the faith: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and what they teach us still today about following God with the faith of Abraham. This week our devotions will be following our New Testament readings in the book of Matthew (one chapter a day) to see what God is doing…
Matthew 17 begins with an awe-inspiring mountain-top experience (often called the Transfiguration) in which God’s glory radiates through and around Jesus Christ – showing a snippet of the beauty, majesty and glory of God’s coming Kingdom which will feature His dazzling Son amongst the risen heroes of the faith. Peter, James and John were there to see it – and they were shaking in their boots at the power of the moment and the voice of God heard from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:5)
But wait…we really can’t start there. Our spiritual journey doesn’t exist only on the glorious mountaintop. What comes before the glory? About a week before the events of Matthew 17, Jesus was telling his disciples that he would face much persecution and even death (before being raised to life) (Matthew 16:21). Bold, strong, impetuous Peter who thinks he knows better than the Son of God tries to correct Jesus – Peter would never let that happen to Jesus. But Jesus isn’t encouraged or amused by Peter but rather calls him “Satan…a stumbling block….you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus continues to prepare his disciples, letting them know that he would not be the only one expected to suffer – but that they too would be required to endure the agony of “taking up their cross” to follow him.
It doesn’t sound fun or exciting. It is hard to get people to sign up for suffering. Peter and the disciples didn’t like the sound of it. Most people today don’t. But it is not suffering without a goal. It is a fight worthy of the cause and the prize. Jesus said those who would suffer for him and lose their life would find it – because after the suffering for Christ – comes the glory. Jesus explained, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:27-28 NIV)
And, a week later, Peter, James and John found themselves on a mountain-top getting a taste of the splendor that will be when God tells His Son, Jesus, it is time to go to the earth to set up a kingdom like none have ever seen before. A kingdom greater than anything set up in the time of the Law (Moses) or the prophets (Elijah) or Jesus’ first coming. God was revealing His perfect plan for His perfect Son and all those who will listen to him.
Contrary to both today’s “prosperity gospel” and Peter’s human thinking, God’s perfect plan does not consist solely of beautiful, bright mountain-top experiences. There is also the ugly, dark and painful cross. For Jesus – and for those who listen to him and carry their cross. But don’t fear, God’s got this. He’s got those who listen to His Son. Our trials will not last forever – but His Kingdom will. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NIV)
How can you be sure your suffering will have a reward? Are you suffering for Christ – or yourself? Is your master plan for your life from the mind of man (how can I get ahead and protect myself best?) or from the mind of God (suffer for the sake of God’s Son and look forward to the reward to come)? What will listening to Jesus look like for you in 2021? What will suffering before glory look like for you today?
After Jacob had served Laban in Padan Aram for 20 years, God told him to go back home. It was finally time for him to face his past. Remember, he had cheated his brother Esau, and had run for his life. He had about 500 miles to go to get home. He sent some servants ahead to let Esau know he was coming home. When the servants returned, they told Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob was terrified, and prayed a beautiful prayer that is recorded in Genesis 32:9-12.
He started, “Oh God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac…”. In this section, I see Jacob acknowledging the history his family had with following God, ever since God called Abraham in Genesis 12.
He continued, “O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and to your relatives, and I will make you prosper’. ” In this section, I see Jacob acknowledged what God had told him to do, and he had followed what God had told him to do.
Next, he acknowledged his own unworthiness, praying, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.” And he acknowledged what God had done for him, even though he was unworthy.
He continued, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” In this section, he admitted his fear to God, and then he finally got around to begging God for what he needed help with – “save me”. Note that he didn’t give God suggestions as to how God could solve the problem. He just turned it over to God.
He concluded with, “But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’.” He closed with reminding God of His promises.
In this prayer, I see a potential model for our own prayers. It goes sort of like this:
Start by thanking God for his provision until now for our family, including for our ancestors.
Today, God speaks to us through His word. I think it is important to be familiar with his word and follow his word. And I think that’s a perfectly fine topic to bring up in prayer, “God, you said to …, and I have done that as you commanded.”
I believe we need to humble ourselves before God, and acknowledge that we don’t deserve all he has done for us. I think it also helps to remind ourselves in our prayers what God has done for us. (We don’t need to remind God. He already knows.)
We should admit whatever we’re feeling to God. (He already knows anyway, but it helps us maintain an open channel of communication with Him.)
We are finally at the point in our prayer where we should clearly lay out the problem we’re facing. And we don’t need to offer God suggestions as to how He could solve our problems. He can come up with solutions better than we can even imagine.
I think in the closing of Jacob’s prayer, he was not just reminding God of the promises God had made. I think he was also looking forward to those promises himself. We should do the same.
And I think it’s fine to pray something like, “God, you promised that everything works for the good of those who love you. I don’t understand how that is possible in the situation I’m in right now. Please open my eyes to understand that, or at least to accept it as truth. I know you have promised that nothing can separate us from your love, not even death. God, things aren’t looking very good from my perspective right now, but I’m holding on to your promise that when Christ returns, you will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. God, I’m really wanting that now. Please keep me focused on you, and living for you. And please send Jesus soon. Amen.”
God had promised Abraham, in Genesis 17:19, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
At this point, Abraham was over 100 years old, and had faithfully followed God. In Genesis 12, Abraham obeyed when God told him to leave his country and family. Abraham allowed Lot to take the lush land around Sodom in Genesis 13, and trusted God to provide for his own flocks and herds on barren mountains. In Genesis 15, Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would have a son in his old age, and God counted that faith as righteousness.
In Genesis 22:2, we find God commanding Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
This doesn’t make sense. God had explicitly promised that God’s promises to Abraham would be passed down through Isaac’s descendants, and now God was commanding Abraham to sacrifice him – apparently destroying the promise He had made to Abraham.
By this point, Abraham had developed a very close relationship with God. In fact, we’re told 3 times in the Bible that Abraham was God’s friend (2 Chron 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23) – and as far as I know, Abraham is the only person in the Bible of whom this is said.
We’re told in Hebrews 11:19 that Abraham reasoned that God was able to raise the dead, and that He was going to keep His promise.
So early the next morning, Abraham took Isaac and 2 servants and left for the place God told him to go. When they got close, Abraham told the servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and we (emphasis added) will come back to you.”
As they got even closer, Isaac asked his dad, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Can you imagine how this must have broken Abraham’s heart, looking down into his son’s questioning face, knowing that in a few minutes he would be killing his beloved son, who would be the offering? Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb.” (Actually, God had provided Isaac – as a miracle baby in his parent’s old age.) When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood, tied up Isaac, and laid him on the altar.
As he was getting ready to kill Isaac, the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and stopped him. Abraham then saw a ram caught in the brush by its horns, and sacrificed it instead. God then promised Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 22:16-18, “I swear by myself, declared the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore… and through your offspring, all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
I could point out all the similarities of Abraham’s being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, and God being willing to sacrifice His Son, Jesus. I could point out the significance of another quote from this chapter, “Jehovah Jireh – on the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (This was the mountain where Soloman’s temple was built hundreds of years later.) I could point out the importance of obeying God, and the benefits that result.
Instead, I want to comment on who, when, where, how, and why of God’s provision.
Who: God tested Abraham with a very difficult test even after a life of serving God. We see that God provided the ram in this case only after Abraham trusted and obeyed God – even though it didn’t make sense. Assertion: God provides for those who trust Him and obey Him.
When: God provided for Abraham at the very last minute, not before. We’re told in Hebrews 4:16 that we will “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Assertion: God provides precisely when we need something, not when we think we need it. (i.e. according to God’s timing.)
Where: God provided for Abraham only after Abraham went where God told him to go, and after he obeyed everything God told him to do. Assertion: God will provide if we are where He wants us to be. We should have no expectation of receiving God’s provision if we aren’t where He wants us to be.
How: God didn’t send an angel from heaven with an offering for Abraham to sacrifice, God provided a normal ram, caught in a normal thicket, by it’s normal horns. And God didn’t send a whole flock of sheep, just one ram, because that was all that was needed. Assertion: God will usually provide in ways that are very natural – don’t look for miracles.
Why: In times of testing, it’s easy to only think about our problems, and focus on, “why is this happening to me?” I think there may be two general reasons why trials come. First, we are told in Romans 8:28, “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.” Note that this only applies if we are living according to His purpose. Also note that trials are by definition difficult, and won’t seem to be beneficial at the time. Second, ultimately, everything is for God’s glory. Isaiah 43:7 says, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory…” We see an example of this with God destroying Pharaoh and his army for God’s glory in Ex 14:4, 17. Assertion: God allows trials and gives provision for our good and for His glory.
The bottom line is, if we are faithfully following God, times of testing will come. If we remain true to God, if we are where He wants us to be, and if we are obedient to Him, he will provide what we need (not necessarily what we want), at the very last minute, usually through normal means – and this is for our good. If we aren’t following God, the times of testing may just be to bring Glory to Him. I’d rather be in that first group. How about you?