what life throws at you

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. And it’s about not so much what life throws at us, but what we want out of life. We want to suck it high and dry, as if somehow we’re going to get life out of that. But the writer as well as the observer and “Teacher”, the one who experienced this said that it was all futile, even meaningless.

It’s not like the details of life don’t matter, because they certainly do. We want to do all that we should, and do it well. Although in the nature of things, we are limited. And there is always more that either needs to be or could be done. As long as life shall last.

Maybe the conclusion of the matter at the end of Ecclesiastes, along with wisdom woven throughout, is what we need to set our sights on. Particularly that ending that declares when it’s all said and done we’re to fear God and keep his commandments. We let life get to us, with all its obligations, demands, and expectations (real or imagined) pressing in against us.

Maybe it’s time to stop and ask what really matters. To really fear God, and be intent on keeping God’s commandments in and through Jesus is what in the end matters. At the same time, we need God’s wisdom to navigate the bumpy, rough, and sometimes puzzling terrain of life. Enjoying all the good gifts from God, and even finding satisfaction in the work we do. Maybe we can find a rhythm in it all, which can help us live in what is really life. A challenge indeed. God will help us in and through Jesus.

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following through

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:23-25

Not sure the direct analogies we can draw that are intended. Certainly the word reveals ourselves, and our flaws in not conforming to God’s will, our sins. And that’s of vital importance. And when you consider not only the immediate context, but the entire letter, change in our lives is a major focus. But it’s not only change to get rid of vices, but also to develop virtues, particularly related to relationships, how we treat each other.

James wants us to look and keep looking, with all the intent and follow through of actually practicing or doing what “the word” tells us to do, God’s word no less. Called “the perfect law that gives freedom.”

And with our attempts to do so, as imperfect as they inevitably will be, we’re promised God’s blessing. A blessing we want not only for ourselves, but for others. In and through Jesus.

head knowledge is not enough

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

James 1:22

Bible listening or hearing in scripture means obeying. This is especially clear in the Old Testament. One doesn’t really hear God, unless they’re intent on following through with what God has said. Samuel is a case in point. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3). And with one intent only: to serve, to obey.

James makes it clear that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re alright, “religious” (verse 26), just because we know truth, or have it in our heads, having heard it through our ears. But has it reached the heart, and worked its way into our lives, is the question. Are we attempting by God’s grace to put it into practice? Do we at least want to, even if it’s a struggle to us, sometimes even over our desire?

It’s about “getting down to brass tacks,” the essentials. If our Christianity is not something we practice, then it’s of no value at all. It helps neither ourselves, nor anyone else.

We need God in this. It’s not some personal self-help endeavor or project. God must be in this, or it won’t work at all. And God is at work in this way in his grace in and through Jesus. But it’s up to us to do it. God won’t do it for us. But God makes it possible for us to hear and follow through so that we not only hear the word, but do it. In and through Jesus.

hearing (reading) and doing

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

One of our biggest challenges as believers in Christ (James 2:1) is put  God’s word into practice. As those who are born from above, we naturally love God’s instruction. And that means that we’ll want to obey it, and will be unhappy, or at least unfulfilled when we don’t. James calls this a deception, actually a self-deception, when we hear or read God’s word, yet don’t put it into practice.

It seems like the fallacy here is to know, but fail to do. We somehow think knowing is enough. To hear and read God’s word is important; we do need to pay close attention to it, just as James says in the passage above. But for James that means, not only to hear it, but do it.

Of course in order to do, we must know what to do. So a certain kind of knowledge precedes doing. We have to be careful here, especially in an age when knowledge seems to be just about everything. It’s not enough to know God’s will. It’s evidently easy to be deceived into thinking that’s enough. At the same time, we need to be in the process of reading and meditating on all of scripture. And basic before that, humbly accepting the word planted in us, which can save us (James 1:21).

And after this, after the passage quoted above, James gives us a word to apply:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

answer the questions we know, not the many things we don’t know

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

Over the course of one’s life, much seems to be shrouded in mystery. And I’m thinking not so much in looking back, though that’s true, but in living through it. And then there’s the nebulous in between stuff, which we had enough understanding to work through, and either did well, or well enough, or not.

It is critical in one’s life to take a radical stance in acting on what we do know, which includes a whole host of things. I can’t emphasize this enough to help others avoid my errors, but also for me in the present. The only way I can avoid self-deception along with satanic deception is to stay on the straight and narrow course of obedience to God’s word. And what that involves is both very gospel and church oriented. And again, it’s rooted in the word, but the goal of that being an interactive relationship with God in communion with the church. And of course our lives in all of this are to be a witness to the world.

In answering the questions we know, I am getting at plain old fashioned obedience to scripture, nonetheless. To take a lot more of it literally, than not. And that involves good reading, meditation, and study. Of course we read scripture as both a human and divine book. So that we don’t do fanciful things with it in working at getting at the plain sense of its meaning. And we consider it in its entirety, and learn from biblical scholars who do the same. We stay the course not only of scripture, but within the latitude and accepted parameters of the church’s interpretation and understanding.

Let me say again that this is crucial. Life is going to throw us some serious issues along the way, at least in our minds, but also in reality. Some of it in my own life has definitely been a matter of the mind. But others definitely real, as well as difficult. We need scripture and the church, and to be honest to God, and honest to others, particularly those in leadership, as well as a trusted, wise friend.

So let’s concentrate on doing well in what we know, and trust God to help us be faithful in that, as well as through the more difficult matters, along with what we don’t understand at all. And to learn to keep doing this, and growing in it, in and through Jesus.

a hard earned faith

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4:9-13

In the culture of praying the prayer and asking Jesus into our hearts, once saved always saved, the idea of a hard earned faith seems mistaken at best. It is interesting, considering Jesus’s parable of the sower, that one can believe with joy, but fall away when the trials come (Luke 8:13). In contrast to the one who perseveres, and by so doing yields a significant crop (Luke 8:15).

Trusting in God by trusting in his word and the sea-change that brings is at the heart of this. It is not just a one time thing, and it is not so much incremental. We can see in Jesus’s parable of the sower, that the person who ends up falling away, initially receives the word with joy, and for all intents and purposes looks genuine, believing for a while (Luke 8:13). But when testing comes, which we see in the other gospel can involve “trouble or persecution because of the word, they quickly fall away” (Matthew 13:21; see also Mark 4:16-17).

Back to the Hebrews passage, some of this might not fit all that well into our doctrine or what we’ve been taught in church. I think especially of churches which have taught once saved, always saved, though it all depends on all those churches teach. The point is that we can neither take faith for granted, nor be careless concerning it, just because we made some commitment once upon a time. That faith has to survive through all the rough patches and troubles life throws our way.  And according to Hebrews, that takes effort on our part. It seems like an oxymoron, but we’re to make every effort to enter into that rest. And this is an issue of obedience, whether or not we will obey God.

What we need is God’s word to help us along the way, by correcting us. We need to be committed to being under that word, to hear it and abide by it (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Sounds rather stark and threatening. But that’s not because God is that way, but rather because we are so prone to wander and get lost. God is faithful, and we can depend on God’s word. God will help us see what we need to see to keep going. And to learn to live in the rest God provides for us in and through Jesus.

the predicament of Mary and Joseph

Mary (Luke 1:26-38) especially, but also Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25) faced a predicament over Jesus’s miraculous conception as a full human in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. The church has called this the virgin birth. And it would have been as much a nose wrinkler and eye brow raiser then as it is today. No matter what Mary said, as noble a person as Joseph may have known her to be, Joseph was set to abide by the law of Moses, but to do so mercifully, avoiding the awful sentence of stoning, instead putting Mary away quietly and as privately as possible.

But then the angel appears to Joseph, and he finds out that something extraordinary has indeed happened. And that he is to be the step father of no less than the Son of God, the Messiah. How far along Joseph’s Christology was at this point, I don’t know, but we do know one thing for sure: Joseph was in a walk of faith over something he knew would be challenging in days to come, something he would have just as soon closed now. But with this new word from God, he did what for in all intent and purposes his wife, certainly his wife under the law already, what she had done. He obeyed God, even when in ordinary circumstances what he was doing made no sense, and even seemed to contradict his devotion to God.

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Matthew 1:24

Mary, of  course was in the same dilemma, only her trouble was heightened. She was to be the bearer of the child when she had yet to be joined to her husband for this to be possible. Of course this was all revealed to her at once by an angel, so that she had the full understanding of what was to happen right away, whereas Joseph did not have that advantage, but had to wrestle or work through it before an angel appeared to him.

Mary’s wonder along with her response are simply beautiful, and something for us to emulate, when we’re faced with God’s word, but would do something different if left to ourselves, something that may make all the sense in the world and seem right to us. It seems that Mary was not one who would come up with all sorts of objections and contrary thoughts. She was humble and open to whatever God would tell her, with a heart to serve the Lord in doing so, and considering what she faced, no matter what.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:38a

And so the ones to raise the Christ child would themselves faced something of the same trouble their son would face in the scandal of God becoming flesh and being the good news that all of us need. And we might face, in a different category for sure, but still just the same, testings of our own as to whether or not we’ll listen and obey God’s word, or not. And the results, while again not in terms of salvation for the world, will still have the same sort of impact on our own family, or friends.

Are we prepared to listen and hear God’s word to us, or not? What are we doing, so that might be the case? What practices have we adopted so that like Mary and Joseph, Christ might be known even in and through us?

May the Lord make this Christmas to be a time when Jesus is more fully made known, even in that manger, and beyond that through us as well. Through God’s word in and through Jesus.