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

Rest.

Christianity, Religion

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus‬ ‭33:14‬

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘You will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-29‬ ‭

Rest is a precious commodity. As our daily routines run together into weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, and we find ourselves exhausted and worn out. Rest is one of the most necessary items we require in our lives, and yet it is the one thing that we so often fail to get or choose to go without. We run ourselves ragged, never taking time to rest and to enjoy all the many things in our lives that God has blessed us with, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and spiritually drained. We do not rest like God desires us to, or as He modeled for us to do through His own actions. 

God rested from His own creative work, so that He might enjoy it. The Sabbath itself was for man to worship God through resting from the mundane. Rest serves as a positive interruption from the grind of our daily lives. Rest is the small break from the toil that sin chains us to as a result of the Fall. 

The importance of rest is further reinforced by the promise thereof in the two passages we see today. In Exodus 32, the Israelites committed their sin of idolatry with the golden calf. As a result of this, at the outset of Exodus 33, God told Moses to carry on leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. God went on to tell Moses that He would  send an angel before them to clear the way for them, but that He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. God would not be going any further with them because of their obstinacy and continual desires to test Him and stray from Him. The people heard this news and mourned greatly, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people for Him to remain with them. God then promised Moses that He would go with them, and that He would grant them rest—He would lead them to the place He promised to them, and He would allow them to enjoy it. 

This promise of rest is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God reiterated it to Joshua when he began to lead Israel after the death of Moses. God promised to give Israel rest from their enemies as long as they remained faithful to Him. After the conquest of the Canaanites, it was said that even the land itself had rest. The message of rest was continued by the prophet Jeremiah; he told the Israelites that if they had remained in the ways of those of old who had followed God, then they would have received rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16).  Instead, they strayed and became even more enslaved to sin, and thus had to experience God’s judgment. Israel’s infidelity voided their promised rest. 

The reward for faithfully following God was not prosperity in this world, nor was it a promise of being spared from pain and suffering. God’s promise was to give His people rest, so that they might endure whatever they encountered. 

Jesus’ own preaching touched on this same promise of rest. In Matthew 11, after calming the fears of the imprisoned John the Baptist, and preaching in honor of John, Christ turned His attention to the cities in which most of His ministry took place. He denounced Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their hardheartedness—or obstinacy—-and said that if Gentile cities had witnessed such miracles, they would have  been immediately repentant. Those who thought they knew how God operated and thought they had God figured out were blind and missing what He was doing, while the infants—those who were untaught and uneducated in the Law or how God worked—were the ones who were witnessing and partaking in the miraculous works of the Messianic Age. 

Christ then called on all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and that He would give them rest. Christ is not a cruel and demanding task master, the yoke He offers is not one which will bear the wearer down; it is not a yoke of oppression like that of sin. Instead, the yoke offered by Christ is one which is easy and light, for He is meek and gentle. Those who come to Him and learn from Him and live like Him will find rest for their souls. Christ here  quoted directly from Jeremiah 6:16, saying that those who yoke themselves to Him and follow Him will walk in the paths that lead to rest. 

Christ will give to His followers the rest that God promised throughout the Old Testament. He will grant them  peace and an interruption from the constant and hectic pace of life. Christ promises to His followers the thing they need most in this life. It is not prosperity, nor is it a lack of trials. His promise is that of rest, so that we might worship Him and enjoy His blessings, and so we might be able to endure this world. 

Go to Christ. Allow Him to break your chains of slavery to sin and bondage to this world. Take the yoke that He offers you, and let Him lead you in the ways which lead to rest.  

Artwork: “Noon Rest From Work After Millet,” Vincent van Gogh, c. 1880. 

Each and Every Day.

Christianity, Religion

“And remember, I am with you each and every day, until the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the author presents the reader with the resurrected Jesus, now gloriously victorious over the grave, and bestowed with all authority in heaven and earth, as He gives His final words to his disciples. It is in this final scene that Jesus demonstrates His power by commissioning–entrusting with authority–His disciples to go make more disciples.

While making his ascent back into heaven, Christ also gives His disciples–the Eleven then, and all future ones–a promise of reassurance and hope. Christ promises His followers that “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” How beautiful and sweet that promise is, to know that Christ is always with us, no matter what. What strength we can draw from that assurance.

But there’s so much more to this promise than what meets the eye.

The vast majority of English Bible versions translate Matthew 28:20 just as was discussed above– “with you always.” This is a paraphrase of what is in the Greek texts. According to the Greek manuscripts, what Jesus said was literally, “I am with you all the days until the end of the age.” Consider how much more emphatic this makes His promise. Each and every day, Jesus is with us. He isn’t just with us ‘always,’ in some sort of abstract concept of time, He is with us all day every day. He is there through the good times and the bad; through the trials and sorrow, during the times of feasting and of famine, through joy and mourning. He celebrates with us, He grieves with us, He consoles us, He comforts us, He strengthens us, He encourages us, He carries us. We are not alone; He is in the trenches with us. He never quits, He never leaves, He never forsakes us.

The Old Testament reaffirms this promise made by Jesus. As David wrote to the Choir Director (remember that ‘choir director’ could also be translated as ‘the One Who is Eternal,’ ‘the Conquering One,’ or ‘the One Who Directs All Things’):

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the Darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day Darkness and light are alike to You. (Psalm 139:7-12)

Or as God said to Jeremiah: “Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “And not a God far off? “Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

Jesus proved, again, to be literally what Isaiah prophesied He would be–Immanuel– God with us. Here, at the end of Matthew, He promised to be God always with us, every single day.

Do not be disheartened; do not be discouraged. Jesus of Nazareth–The Eternal One, The Conquering One, The Christ, The Alpha and Omega, the One through which all things came into being and apart from whom nothing has been created that was created, the Firstborn of the Living and the Dead, the Son of Man, the One who humbled Himself to death on a cross, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the One who crushed the head of the serpent, the One who defeated sin, death, and the grave, the Son of God–is with you each and every day, until the end of time. He promised you this; He gave you His word–and He never breaks his promises.

Artwork: “Ascension of Jesus,” by Natalya Rusetska.

No Shame.

Christianity, Religion

“They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” ‭‭Genesis ‭3:8‬

“‘Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed, And they did not know how to blush…’ Says the LORD.”‭ ‭Jeremiah ‭8:12‬ ‭

Sin is not a trivial matter; it  is of the utmost seriousness– this is one of the major themes of the Bible. There is no way to honestly and accurately read the Scriptures without understanding the magnitude and gravity of sin. It is what separates us from God; it is what enslaves our souls. Sin is what causes death. To ignore or make little of the seriousness of sin is to overlook one of the fundamental truths of Scripture.

Sin must be taken seriously and confronted, because when it is not—when it is allowed to fester—it grows on us. It consumes us. We become addicted to it, and like with any other addiction, it takes more and more of it to give us the same “fix” we once achieved. Quite soon, we spiral to a point to where we don’t even feel bad about the sins we commit. We feel no shame.

We see this same pattern played out in the Bible. In Genesis, after Adam and Eve sinned and disobeyed God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it says “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked,” (Genesis 3:7). They felt shame at being naked and exposed in front of one another; innocence had been lost with the introduction of sin to creation. What Adam and Eve did next was more telling of the shame they felt; when they heard God walking through the garden, they hid from Him. This first “hit” of sin had caused Adam and Eve great shame, so much so that they hid themselves from the very God with whom they had previously enjoyed perfect communion. Before sin, there was no shame, there was no reason to hide. Sin changed everything, and Adam and Eve knew that they had done something wrong. Their sin caused them to feel things—namely shame—which they’d never before felt.

Sin impacts humanity as a whole just as it does us individually; before long we feel no shame from the sins we commit. Several millennia after Adam and Eve, we meet the prophet Jeremiah, who was sent to prophesy in Israel and Judah against their numerous sins. Israel and Judah had wandered far from God, spiraling deep into sin and depravity. These kingdoms worshipped false gods and idols, offered their children as human sacrifices, and sought after every fleshly desire.  God compared both of these kingdoms to harlots because of their behavior, saying “And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. Yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception,” declares the LORD.” (‭‭Jeremiah ‭3:8-10‬)

Jeremiah warned the people of Israel and Judah that God would bring judgment against them because of their sins. He pleaded with the people to repent of their depraved behavior and to turn back to God, but they would not. One of the most tragic and haunting lines in all of the Bible is found in Jeremiah 8:12, when God says of the people “that they do not know how to blush” at their sins. Israel and Judah had become so addicted to their sin that their behavior no longer caused them any shame or heartache; their behavior didn’t even warrant blushing at anymore.  Once there was a time when sin caused Adam and Eve to hide themselves from God, and now Israel and Judah were sinning with their heads held high. Shame and innocence were long gone.

The world we live in today is no different from Israel and Judah of Jeremiah’s day. Sin goes unchecked in nearly every area of society and culture. No longer do we blush at the sins we commit against the Lord. No more do we feel the need to hide ourselves in shame from the Holy God.

Despite this, God—in His infinite mercy—has given us another chance. He sent His son, Jesus, to die to make atonement for our sin, so that we might be forgiven of them. Jesus rose again from the grave to defeat sin’s biggest ally—death. God gives to those who believe and follow Jesus a powerful tool for living, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enters the believer and allows them to understand the gravity and danger of sin. The Spirit accomplishes this, not through the use of shame, but through conviction. It is the Spirit that moves in us and allows us to feel remorse when we do sin; it is the Spirit which reminds us that we know better when we find ourselves ensnared by sin’s barbs. The Spirit empowers us to live differently and to flee from sin.

Sin is a matter of life and death and should be treated accordingly. Let the Spirit empower you to flee from sin. In the moments when you do sin, remember to blush and be moved by the Spirit’s conviction; repent and ask forgiveness, and seek to sin no more.

Cut.

Christianity, Religion

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Acts 2:37.

 Jerusalem was crowded with Jewish pilgrims visiting the city for the celebration of Pentecost fifty days after Passover, and the time was right for a mighty movement of God.  The Holy Spirit had just descended upon the followers of Christ who were assembled there together.  Being led by the Spirit, Peter got up to preach to the masses.

Peter’s sermon was powerful. He began with the prophet Joel and described how the coming of the Spirit fulfilled prophecies made by Joel and signaled that the “last day” had now been reached. He continued on through the Psalms and showed how David pointed forward to Jesus in his writings; showing that Jesus is Adonai and Messiah. Peter proclaimed the good news–the gospel–that this Jesus who was crucified and died was now alive, and that all who called upon His name would be saved.

Peter had come a long way; fifty days earlier he was cutting off the ear of one of those who had come to arrest Christ in Gethsemane. After that, he had denied knowing Jesus–not once, not twice, but three times; he even cursed Jesus’ name with his third denial. Peter was bold and brash, he acted before he thought. Now, only fifty days later–and after being filled with the Holy Spirit–he was preaching the first sermon of the Christian era. He was a fisherman from Galilee, utterly untrained as a teacher, yet he was teaching the Scriptures better than any rabbi had. He had been transformed by the Spirit.

The Spirit moved mightily in those hearing Peter’s words. Acts 2:37 tells us that they were “cut,” literally pierced, to the hearts. They were filled with the conviction of their sins and allowed to see the truth before them that Jesus is the Messiah. This cutting to the heart echoes the Old Testament prophets and is connected to the most fundamental of all Israelite customs: circumcision. We see this merger between the two when Moses commanded the Israelites to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Jeremiah echoes this appeal in his prophecies when pleading with the people to repent of their sinful ways.  People needed to change their hearts–cut away the sin and excess– and follow God, yet they could not make this change through their own strength or actions.

The Spirit was the tool by which God would change the hearts of His people. The Spirit is transformative and regenerative. It provided the means of circumcising their hearts, and it presented them with a renewed spirit. Those whose hearts the Spirit cut and transformed would now be able to walk according to God’s statutes and commandments. They would now be able to be His people.

The Spirit is still at work and cutting hearts today. It can still transform lives. It has been poured out upon all mankind and is seeking to circumcise the hearts of those who feel the pierce of conviction. Submit to it, be baptized in the blood of Christ, be filled with the Spirit, and let it prune away the dead sinful skin of your heart. Allow it to transform you, just as it transformed Peter, and just as it transformed 3,000 people who heard him preach that day.

Wholeheartedly

Christianity, Religion

telescope

“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with your whole heart.” Jeremiah 29:13.

Jeremiah’s career as a prophet occurred at one of the most critical times in Jewish history.  It is during his time that the Babylonians, under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar, attack and destroy the city of Jerusalem. Following the razing of Jerusalem, many Jews were deported to Babylon to live out the rest of their lives in exile from their homeland.

As God’s prophet during this period in Jewish history, Jeremiah preached a message encouraging Israelite repentance for their sins against God. For quite some time, the Israelites had neglected their covenant with God and had become deeply entrenched in the pagan culture of surrounding nations. False gods and idols were worshipped, sacrilegious sacrifices were offered, and all other sorts of blasphemous actions were taking place. Jeremiah proclaimed to all that would listen that judgement would soon be handed down by God if the people did not turn their hearts back to Him.

The people refused to repent, and judgment came. Babylon conquered Jerusalem, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were removed from their homeland.

But that is not the message Jeremiah’s words relay in 29:11. God, being just, loving, and forgiving, gave words of hope to the people of Israel. In a letter to those in exile, Jeremiah told the people that God was patiently waiting for them to return to Him, and that they would find Him if they searched for Him with their whole hearts. The people need only look for God diligently and He would reveal Himself to them; He would forgive them and restore them if they turned back to Him.

Today we are not much different from the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day. We have our own idols, we are focused on innumerable other things than God, and the result is a spiritual exile of sorts. We yearn for something of substance to offer us meaning and purpose; we yearn for God. All we must do is seek after Him wholeheartedly; unplug and disconnect from everything that distracts us, and focus only on Him. Then we will find the peace and calm and purpose that we all so crave.