our one confidence as we look to the future

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Exodus 3:14

Years come and go, a natural rhythm as the earth orbits the sun. And decades, as well, into centuries, what humankind devises in our measurement and consideration of time.

Our one and only confidence as we look forward to a new year and decade, is the same confidence we have in the present, verified as we look back on the past with the eyes of faith. God is God, and is faithful. God is the I AM, always reliable to be faithful to his promises. But not to be confined to our conception of him, because God can’t be. God will be God in God’s way; God will work as God works.

God is good, as well as great. We can depend on that, on God’s revelation given to us in Scripture, and fulfilled in Jesus.

So as we look to whatever lies ahead, we can be assured of this: the same God present for us now and in the past will be present in the future. We can depend completely on him, and rest assured that whatever comes our way, God will be present and at work. We trust in him in and through Jesus.

when strength fails

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Why do we sometimes lose what strength we have? A good question. Humans have been given great strength and resilience from God, but there’s a limit. We are, after all mortal creatures, and life doesn’t go on forever.

Strength is grounded to purpose, it’s not an end in itself. We often lose strength, because we lose heart. It seems like there’s little to no use, because what we’re involved in has failed.

God in addressing Israel is seeking to revive and reestablish a fallen, broken people, his covenant people. To understand the setting, it’s important to read the entire chapter. But the end of it quoted above is sufficient for a summary.

God’s limitless understanding and strength are appealed to. As Christians we believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. But that’s not sufficient in itself. What that mean for us personally and corporately is the question.

We’re to accept the revelation of God and God’s will given to us in Scripture. And we determine that by God’s promise in Jesus, we live and carry on, and by nothing else. That revelation certainly includes the whole of human life, every part.

We’re called to “hope” in God, which carries the meaning of waiting in expectation and anticipation. And then God’s promise: our strength will be renewed. So that whatever we have to do, we can fully accomplish. And with the sense of having more than enough.

This involves receiving a sense of vision from God, along with the strength to accomplish what is set out before us, just what part we play in God’s story. In and through Jesus.

God wants to be known

This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 9:23-24

God. Yes, outrageous isn’t it? God, no less. And of all things, God wants to be known. Hard to understand, much less try to explain any of it.

People are meant to be in relationship with each other, but also with God. To really get to know each other. Yes, even to get to know God. Astounding for sure.

This hasn’t been a forte in my life. I can’t say I’ve excelled in really knowing people, and being known. You would like to think that’s so with immediate family, with loved ones. But even there I haven’t done as well as I would have liked, looking back on it. But that’s a big part of life, what life is all about.

I’m beginning to understand this much better toward the end of my life. And this all actually begins with God, in whose image we humans are made, and who started all of this in the first place.

But in the midst of all the maelstrom of life, with the questions and perplexities it brings, not to mention the trauma and tragedy, all of that can get lost. Lost even in the easy shuffle of what we humans have made life to be.

But God wants to be known. Yet God won’t push himself on us. By what God has made, God’s divine nature and power are clearly on display. But God wants it to be personal with each and every human. God made it personal, certainly doing so when God sent his Son to become one of us, God no less becoming flesh in Jesus. Then dying on the cross for our sins to reconcile us to himself. Do we dare doubt that God loves us, and wants to know us?

But given our struggle and weakness as humans, we will doubt. Nevertheless, it’s true. Truth doesn’t change. God wants to be known through all the experience of life, in spite of much of it. Are we open to that? All of this available as a gift in and through Jesus.

losing one’s nerve

They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devoursthose living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anakcome from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Numbers 13-14

In this account in Numbers, it was God who commanded Israel to send some men into the promised land to either “explore” (NIV) or “spy out” (NRSV) the land. So Moses sent out one leader from each of the tribes of Israel (minus Levi, Manasseh making up for that as one of the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, the other tribe). We know the story. Ten returned with a firm “but” after praising what was good about the land, and spread among the Israelites “a bad report.” They most certainly lost their nerve.

One can surmise clearly that they were not men of faith. After all, God had promised this land; that Israel was to take it, and settle in it should have been a foregone conclusion. Actually the exploration may have been for a two-fold purpose of encouraging the people to anticipate the blessing they were to soon experience, and to give them a heads up on the faith needed. Unfortunately, even though ten men went in who were leaders of the tribes, not one of them had the sufficient faith to actually believe God’s word. Whatever faith any one of them might have had was surely defective at best. It’s the same as if I would say, “Well yes, Jesus died, they say he rose again, but I really can’t buy the idea that we therefore are saved given all the evil in this world. I can respect religious people who say otherwise, but I can’t go there myself. Let’s either avoid it, or pull out all the stops to make sure as much as possible that we’re not victims ourselves.”

Caleb and Hosea (Joshua) were the two exceptions. Caleb being the older of the two spoke up and plainly contradicted the bad report of the ten. He believed they could and therefore should, certainly because of the promise of God. But he was outnumbered, and the Israelite as a community was unfortunately not predisposed to faith. Even though they had just witnessed mighty signs and wonders in their redemption from Egypt, their default position was to doubt God’s word, and therefore to doubt both God’s goodness, as well as greatness. They essentially saw themselves as on their own. And they had exceedingly short memories, even wanting to go back to Egypt, to the bondage which eventually would again surely overtake them there.

I can lose nerve, too. Where can we begin as to what? There’s no end to it, really. There’s always plenty of reasons to doubt God’s promise in this life, to think of some worse case scenario, or many more likely outcomes which are not good. Rather than to accept God’s promise in Jesus along with the difficulties in this life which come with it.

Depending on how you see what was going on at the time, the Israelites would be moving into a hostile territory armed, and depending on God for God’s deliverance from those entrenched in what was to be their own land. According to the narrative, the time for God’s judgment on the inhabitants had come, and how God carried that out, or wanted to is not necessarily all together clear, biblically and theologically speaking. Maybe the Lord meant to send them packing in some way. But the narrative is clear that at least the Israelites thought that God was commanding them to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. And since I tend to accept the text at face value, I simply accept what I can’t understand, and frankly try to avoid the subject in public. But see Greg Boyd’s recent book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence for what I tend to think will be a compelling defense of reinterpreting the text of scripture, while I await critiques, and intend to read the entire book myself, which was released just this month.

We must not lose nerve, but hold to the faith, meaning both to our confession as well as our practice of it, continuing to do that. And when we do lose nerve, we simply confess that, and seek to learn from it. Entrusting ourselves to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus.

does God do a good job being God? (does our understanding of God measure up?)

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11

It’s common nowadays to question the God of the Bible in more ways than one. And as N. T. Wright points out, when people use the word God, they don’t at all mean the same being as much as they once did. For a good many people God just seems to fall short both in the Bible, and in life. Anyone who reads the entire Bible will understand that the Bible itself is about real life with most of its characters flawed, and even in the case of one remarkably unflawed character, Daniel, he includes himself in his confession to God of Israel’s sins.

But what about God in these pages? We find a God who again in the words of N. T. Wright is both passionate and compassionate. A God who takes seriously human decisions, and lets the weight of them (even if not fully), good or bad fall into place with the consequences. And yet we also see the God who created all things work to restore all things in a redemption and salvation which brings in nothing short of a new creation. And God does that through humans, specifically through choosing Israel to be his light to the world, coming to culmination and complete fulfillment in Jesus.

There is no question that at times in both the Bible and in life we can’t begin to make sense of at least parts of it, sometimes very large parts which can impact individuals and nations. Of course one would have to see the entire story and really get inside the story to really understand and appreciate what is going on. We often don’t have that vantage point. With scripture, we can read from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation and get the gist at least of the story in it, in all its complexity and beauty. If we want an easy read, and easy answer, it’s not there. But such is life. Yet with the faith of a little child, we can enter in, and begin to understand the account of a loving Father in and through Jesus.

As the doxology in the Romans passage quoted above suggests, we can’t follow God completely, it’s not like we can retrace God’s steps or fully comprehend what God is up to especially in the affairs of the world as the sovereign ruler. But the point in that passage is God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel in terms of the gospel and the change that brought. Romans 9 through 11 talk about that, and it’s an important read. And we can understand quite a bit, and at least what is essential for us to understand from that reading. But we do best in the end to echo the doxology which follows it, acknowledging that God is God and his working is beyond us. Yet at the same time we need to keep looking to God’s final word (Hebrews 2) Jesus, who himself is the essence of God, even as a human, of course one with the Father in the Triunity of God.

No, we don’t understand God all that well, except for what God has revealed to us, and actually it is quite a lot in scripture. But we need the Spirit of God to help us really begin to understand God beyond concepts, even if those concepts contain truth and avoid error. We need what begins as an acquaintance into a full relationship with God in and through Jesus. The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the God who is love (1 John). We need to learn to not only accept the revelation of God in Jesus, but to learn by faith to rest in that God who comes to us in Jesus.

in what are our thoughts steeped, and what follows?

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

We steep teabags in water (I, strangely enough, in coffee water) to let the leaves soak in the heat for the brew. Day in and day out, what do we soak our thoughts in?

This passage written by the Apostle Paul tells us to be occupied with that which is good and helpful. It clearly seems to include good from any source, though one has to be discerning, and separate the good from the bad. Of course the emphasis would be on God’s special revelation in scripture, while certainly including God’s general revelation which might well include a Greek philosopher like Plato, and any number of writers or people, not Christians themselves. Again, we need discernment. There is actually much good to gather in from sources which are not explicitly Christian.

I think we know the difference from what is good and what is not. Though sometimes we might become somewhat numb to that distinction. There is much that passes for entertainment and information which at best is questionable and at worst is unhelpful and downright demoralizing. What is especially challenging, though, is that which is couched as good, yet would not fit into any of the categories in Paul’s list above. It is one thing to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5). But it is quite another thing to fight fire with fire, to essentially enter into that darkness, ourselves. We can become immune to that which is objectionable, and even begin to participate in it ourselves.

Interestingly, Paul follows up the list of what we are to reflect on with the instruction to do not only as he said, but as he did. His example in his life day in and day out was seen by some who were recipients of this letter which we entitle Philippians. Maybe he was seen by all the believers there, and surely especially so by the leaders of the church. That example is passed down from generation to generation, hopefully, and at any rate, the same Spirit who helped Paul and others to live in the Jesus way, is present to help us in becoming followers of our Lord.

So our thoughts, what we dwell on impacts how we live. Not that this passage is actually saying that, though we know from other passages and in life that this is true. What is fundamental for us includes both what we occupy ourselves with, and what examples we follow. Something we need to concern ourselves with as we seek to live with others and in the world in the full will of God.

the God of the Bible

I am a Biblicist I suppose, for better or for worse (sorry, Christian Smith). I do care what the church thinks and has taught, what scholars teach, and I gather from all of that as well. But the touchstone for me to determine the truth of what anyone is saying is scripture itself. And I hope within that I am gospel centered. The “I” here though is tethered, I hope, to community. In other words it’s not just about what I think, but what the community of God in Jesus thinks by the help of the Spirit. And therefore I probably end up being closer to Christian Smith’s thought, than I might think.

In recent controversies among Christians as well as those past, the differences seem to boil down to hermeneutics: the interpretation of scripture, just what scripture is and does, and the result of that: one’s view of God. One’s view of God is important, since it is both objective in that there is a God who reveals himself and subjective in that we are the ones who receive that revelation. And as our Pastor Sharon has reminded us, God reveals himself in ways that we can understand.

I am uneasy with the image of God many seem to hold to and want to promote. A God who is never angry, always loves, always forgives, whose heart is pure love, nothing more, nothing less. Who affirms us as we are. Of course there is some truth in much of that. God’s anger is so different than our usual human anger. It is slow to arise and completely controlled when it does, even though that doesn’t mean it can’t be devastating.  God loves and forgives, no doubt. According to scripture it is in terms of sacrifice, sacrificial death, to be precise. Jesus’ death puts an end to the need for any more of that. What humans in evil did to Jesus ends up being God’s way of saying this is meant to put a stop to that, that is all the violence in the world, and that someday it indeed will. And yet Jesus’ death is also seen in terms of a sacrifice in the same sense sacrifices were offered under the old, Mosaic covenant. Yes, by his sacrifice the need for any more of that is done away with. But also because in some way his once for all sacrifice was a fulfillment of what was done in the sacrifices of animals in the old covenant.

I fail to see, especially after again reading the book of the Revelation the God some insist is the God of the Bible. God is so much more difficult to grasp, even from the pages of scripture. Another strong witness of that is the book of Job. Well, just keep reading the Bible, actually read it from cover to cover (and keep doing so). Yes, we see God in the face of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Study the words of Jesus. And read about him from the pages of the New Testament.

In the end I don’t think anyone will be so sure about their take on God. For me in the end, God is a God first and foremost of love. “God is love.” This is a love which is holy, something other than we are and completely pure, righteous and just. And God is a merciful, gracious God. But we have to be careful not to press God into our own image, whatever that might be, ending up not with God, but with an idol of our own making (even though we humans are made in, and in Christ are being restored to God’s image). God is God, and that won’t change, no matter what we think should be, or is. And so let’s get back into scripture, read what the church has taught and teaches, along with good scholars, and keep going back to the Book. And above all, we need to keep seeking God and his will in and through Jesus.