Hope for Tomorrow.

Christianity, Religion

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”  Lamentations 3:21-24

The Book of Lamentations, as its title indicates, is not a happy book; it is a book of sorrow, sadness, and grief. The author, traditionally believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, composed the text in the immediate wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The book is a funeral dirge for the lost city. As one reads Lamentations, it is easy to picture the author walking through the rubble and destruction of the city, through the ruins of the Temple, all the while weeping for the once-great city who turned away from God and met this tragic fate. 

It is easy to understand why the author would express sadness and sorrow in this situation. As far as the author can see, there was only devastation, destruction, death, and pain. The great City of David leveled. Solomon’s Temple destroyed. Scattered all around were the lifeless bodies of friends and loved ones. Many of the survivors were being shackled together sent off away from their homeland into exile in Babylon. This destruction happened as the result of Judah and Jerusalem’s wandering away from God–the same sinful wandering that Jeremiah spent his career preaching against and telling the people of which to repent. The people did not repent, and they followed after the debased desires of their heart, going happily and unashamedly down the path to destruction, mocking God and Jeremiah all the way. Sadness and sorrow are the natural emotions that one would experience when witnessing such a scene, and we see Jeremiah express these same emotions in the laments he wrote in the aftermath of this destruction.

The Lamentations, however, take a curious turn. In the middle of the book, the author turns from weeping and grief to an unexpected emotion–hope. In chapter 3, as he recounts all the sorrow and devastation and destruction he has witnessed, the author transitions into a message of hope for the future. Though all around Jeremiah is the devastation of God’s wrath, morning has come, and with it a new day. The prophet realized that, though God’s fury and judgment were severe, the people have not been destroyed. Though they are going into exile, God was not done with His people, and if God is still working with this rebellious and stiff-necked people, there was hope for the future. God would remain faithful to the promises He made to Abraham and David. He would remain committed to the people who are incapable of being loyal to Him. Since God was still working through His people, then there would be a future, and there was a reason to be hopeful. It was because of His lovingkindness that they were not utterly destroyed; He was merciful even in His judgment. Even in the worst of circumstances, Jeremiah found reasons to praise God and to be hopeful.

The destruction that Jeremiah witnessed in Jerusalem is only a preview of the destruction which sinful humanity deserves. God does not have to continue to sustain humanity, yet He does out of His love and mercy. As if that display of compassion was not enough, God does more for us. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, and He took our damnation and our destruction upon Himself.  He did this so that we could have a future–not just the hope of one, but the assurance of one–with Him. Christ paid the penalty for our sin so that we might become His people. He gave us a future of hope when we deserved a future of destruction. The words of hope that Jeremiah cried out to God in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem ring even more valid now in the aftermath of Christ’s atoning death outside the walls of Jerusalem: 

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Regardless of what situation we may find ourselves in, we have a future of hope. Christ demonstrated the infinite depth of His love and mercy by taking our sin and our destruction. He is faithful to us even when our faithfulness wanes. He is our portion forever, and He is the only hope we have.

Artwork: “Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Walk the Line.

Christianity, Religion

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ …Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10

In 1956, the late country musician Johnny Cash recorded what would become his first number one hit. Cash wrote the song, “I Walk the Line,” to help alleviate the fears that his wife held about the lures of fame and life on the road might be taking on Johnny and their marriage. The song’s message of faithfulness and commitment were popular with the public; however, the tragic irony is that Cash did not live up to the high bar of fidelity that he presented in the song. The wiles of fortune got the best of Cash and took a toll on both his health and marriage. The song he wrote to help ease the fears of his wife proved to be an empty promise. The song was merely a collection of deceptive words that were uttered to help hide a lifestyle of inappropriate behavior. Cash would later become–during his second marriage–a devoted family man, but it would take the remainder of his life to work to reconcile the mistakes of his past.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we are presented with a similar situation, though one that is infinitely greater in its magnitude and importance.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go to Jerusalem to preach against the sins of the people of Judah, the majority of whom had turned away from God and given wholly into idolatry and pagan worship. Despite the occasional righteous king, Judah had–like the northern kingdom of Israel–become a spiritual wasteland. The majority of the population no longer sought after God; instead, they turned to Baal and other false gods and offered sacrifices, sometimes of their children, to these pagan deities. This wholesale turning away from God was marked by Judah’s failure to live as God commanded. Those who were supposed to be looked after, the widows and orphans and foreigners, were ignored and exploited. Innocent blood was shed, and justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. The Promised Land and the City of David–the very place where God’s presence dwelt amongst His people–had become overrun with corruption and spiritual pollution.

Despite this lack of regard for God and His commandments, the people of Judah did not think anything was wrong. Though Jeremiah and other prophets would appear and preach about the error of their spiritual philandering, the people of Judah–especially those in Jerusalem–took no heed of these calls to repentance. They would, instead, point to the temple and say, “we have the Temple of the Lord.” The temple served as evidence that judgment would not befall Jerusalem or Judah, because it made no sense for God to punish the very place that housed His temple. The presence of the temple was viewed as an assurance of peace and security. The people of Jerusalem and Judah were trusting in the presence of a physical structure, not in the God whose presence inhabited the building.

Jeremiah pointed out the error in this thinking. He preached against the duplicity of the people of Judah. Jeremiah explained that the people would go to the temple and offer some arbitrary prayer or sacrifice in an attempt to appease God, only to leave and continue sinning. They would say that the temple was Lord’s, but they did not live as though that were true. They failed to understand that having the temple was a call to holy living, not a symbol of security. They trusted in the vain and deceptive words that they muttered to themselves as they slid further and further into sin. “God won’t destroy Jerusalem,” they said, “we have the temple of the Lord,” and so they justified their sins. They thought that, since God had blessed the faith of their ancestors Abraham and David, they could live and do whatever they wanted. The people of Jeremiah’s era failed to realize that each generation must commit themselves to live the life of righteousness and justice that God demands.

God would only be mocked for so long. To show the people how wrong they were, and how misplaced their trust was, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians in 587 BC. When the Babylonians captured the city, the temple was utterly destroyed. The judgment for the people’s sins had come. The building that the people trusted in was leveled before their eyes.

Followers of Christ have the same call to holy living as the Israelites had. It is God’s desire for his people to live differently from the world; to be holy as He is holy. We must be sure that we are heeding this call and that we are radically different from the world around us. We must remember that the salvation Christ gave us–at the expense of His life–is the beginning of the sanctification process. As we grow deeper and stronger in Christ, we are to be increasingly less like the world. Our salvation is not “fire insurance;” nor is it a “get out of jail free” card. Our salvation is not an invitation to test the limits of God’s forgiveness while we continue to sin and live as we wish. This is no different than pointing to the presence of the temple as a sign of God’s favor and protection. To live such a life of contradiction–to profess Christ, while willfully continuing in sin–makes a mockery of the cross. 

Live a life that reflects your professed commitment to Christ. Live a life that bears fruit for Him. Do not mock Him. Do not point to baptism or a walk down the aisle to justify living as you wish. Live a life that strives for sanctification. Don’t merely tell Christ you will walk the line; do it.

Artwork: “Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar as was the prophecy of Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Go and Proclaim.

Christianity, Religion

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62

Luke 9 is, quite possibly, one of the most critical chapters of Luke’s gospel account. Within its sixty-two verses, we see some of the most important events of Christ’s ministry chronicled. The chapter begins with Christ commissioning the twelve disciples to go out before Him and prepare the towns through which He would be passing for His arrival and teaching. After this, we read of the account of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter’s confession of Jesus follows this scene as the Messiah, and when we read immediately after this Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John. In many ways, this chapter is a highlight reel of sorts in its depiction of Christ’s miracles and ministry.

This chapter is significant for another reason, beyond that of the scope of its content. Luke 9 is the turning point of Luke’s narrative account of Jesus’ life. Chapters 1-8 dealt with Christ’s birth and ministry in and around Galilee;  Luke 9 is the point of transition to Christ’s journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and His crucifixion. We see this made clear in Luke 9:51, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Christ knew the day–the literal day–of His ascension back into heaven was drawing near, and that it was time to head up to Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He had been sent to earth. He knew it was time to head up to Jerusalem to die for humanity’s redemption. Everything that happens following Luke 9:51 and before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19 occurs on His journey up to Jerusalem. In that ten chapter span, Christ continued teaching and preaching and performing miracles, knowing that the crowds that followed Him in amazement would soon be crying out for His crucifixion. He knew all of this, and He continued to journey toward Jerusalem to His death. 

As Christ and the twelve “were going along the road” (Luke 9:57), crowds would have been following them to see what Christ would do next. People were undoubtedly trying to get close to Jesus to speak to Him, and Luke details the interactions that Jesus had with three anonymous men.

The first man mentioned approached Christ and told Jesus that he would follow Christ wherever he went. Jesus’ response was not one welcoming the man aboard; instead, the answer was intended to make sure the man understood the nature of the commitment he was making. Christ told the man that, unlike the birds and foxes, He–the Son of Man–had nowhere to lay His head. Jesus had no place of His own, nor did he have material wealth. He lived the life of a vagabond, relying on the Father to provide for and meet His needs. If this was the case for Christ, then the follower of Christ wasn’t to expect anything better. The man needed to understand that committing to following Christ was committing to living a life of total reliance and dependence upon God; it was a commitment to living the type of life that Christ Himself modeled. Following Christ does not lead to earthly wealth and comfort. Following Christ causes the follower to live out their trust in God’s dependence; it forces the follower to put their faith and trust into practice. 

The second man Luke mentions did not approach Christ; instead, Christ called the man to “Follow Me.” We are not told anything about this man, about why Christ chose to issue this call to him over others who may have been there. We only know what Luke tells us; that the Incarnate God called on this man to follow Him, and that this man could not commit to this call. The man’s response to Christ’s call reflects a misunderstanding about the importance of the call the man just received. The called-man asks for permission first to go and bury his father. The man’s request shows that he thought that fulfilling this familial obligation was more important than following Christ; that checking off some ritual duty was a better use of his time than heeding Jesus’ call. In its essence, the man’s response was “I will follow you, but not now; not yet.” Christ corrected the man’s skewed thinking. He told the man to “let the dead bury the dead,” to allow the spiritually dead–those who hadn’t just been called by God Himself–to go and attend to this less important duty. As for the man, he must go and preach the kingdom of God. Christ saw the flaw in the man’s thinking and priorities, and He quickly corrected them. The man had no more important duty than that of following Christ–who was on the way to Jerusalem to die–and preaching the kingdom of God.

The third man mentioned repeated the same mistake as the second man. He wanted to follow Christ, but he wanted to do so on his terms–he wanted to begin following after he took care of the business of saying good-bye to his family. Like the second man, this man was attempting to put conditions on his commitment to following Jesus. Once again, Jesus corrected this inappropriate thinking. Christ told the man that he would be of no use to the kingdom of God if he kept looking back at the things of his life before following. Following God must be the sole priority of the follower; they cannot look back at the old things–family included–and follow God at the same time. One cannot say they want to follow God and wish they could do other things as well. God must be the most important thing in the follower’s life.

We are not told what happened to these men. We are not told that they followed Christ, nor are we told that they turned away from Him that day. We are only told what we need to know, and the accounts of these interactions serve to teach us a crucial message about the nature of following Christ: saying that we will follow Christ means nothing if we do not back up that profession with our actions. It is not enough to merely profess Christ with our lips, our hearts and actions and lifestyle must also reflect this commitment. To do otherwise is to repeat the same mistakes as ancient Israel. We would be acting no differently than those in the days of Isaiah, when God said “this people draws near with their words and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Saying we want to follow Christ requires us to do just that—no ifs or buts.

So often we make the same mistakes as the three men depicted in Luke’s gospel. We find ourselves attempting to put conditions on our commitment to following Him. We attempt only to submit parts of our lives to Him, while we try to keep control over other aspects. We allow other things to take priority over being a follower of Christ. We think that following Jesus will be comfortable and don’t understand the nature of submitting to Him. We say we want to follow Jesus, but we keep looking back to other things and long for those things. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we must submit entirely to Him. We must remember that our usefulness to the advancement of His kingdom is dependent upon our entire submission. Then, once we submit and follow, we can do nothing else but go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Artwork: “Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill,” Pieter Claesz, 1628.