taking your eyes off the Lord, off the promise

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33

What was happening when Peter took his eyes off the Lord? As the passage tells us, and this was immediately after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, by the way, Jesus is walking, yes walking on the water. And the disciples had just witnessed the great miracle, so their imaginations were continuing to be changed. And after getting over the shock and fear of seeing Jesus walking on the water, Peter has the boldness to ask if he could do that too, at Jesus’ command. After all, Jesus is their Apprentice, and they’re to end up doing what he does, even while it’s only through Jesus that they can do it.

It begins wonderfully well. Peter is walking, yes miraculously walking on the water. One might ask what good walking on water is. Probably, unless you can’t swim worth much like me, probably of little to no value, and maybe even counterproductive in a world given over to sensation. Note that Jesus did not do this in front of the crowds, but only before his disciples. Maybe and maybe not people caught wind of it later. As we’re told in Jesus Christ Superstar when Herod asks Jesus to walk on the water of his pool, since Scripture does tell us that Herod wanted him to perform some miracle when he at long last had Jesus in his presence shortly before Jesus’s crucifixion. But this event was meant to be like a parable to us. So that no matter what we’re facing, our eyes so to speak spiritually are on the Lord, on God’s promise in him, and off the troubles we face.

This is difficult to say the least. The wind whipping up the waves was real. And there are situations and problems we face which we need to address in one way or another. I think what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples here, and by extension wants to teach us as well is that we’re to do what Jesus did. That we live in complete trust in God, boldly doing the unimaginable in the face of circumstances or reality as we might call it, which seems to make such a venture impossible. No, we’re not to literally walk on water, but in a sense we’re to live above the circumstances of life, and that includes in how we address such circumstances. Something I don’t have much of any handle on yet, although I probably and advanced compared to years past.

What happens when we take our eyes off the Lord and God’s promise in him? Like Peter we begin to sink so that our faith is not only failing us, but becoming weak and for all practical purposes, nonexistent. But when that happens, at least like Peter we should have the faith to cry out to the Lord to save us. And that’s what Peter did. But again, what happens? We no longer are thinking and acting like followers of Christ. That’s what was happening to Peter, and all too often happens to us, to me over and over again. I’m pretty strong in crying out to God when such happens, who isn’t? Unless one is not holding on to faith. Instead of being changed through looking to Christ and God’s promise in him, we are seized into the swirling, threatening trouble as if God didn’t exist, and as if we’re left to fate, left to ourselves.

Jesus wants to train us for something much better. Something Jesus wanted to get through to Peter and the other disciples, and to us as well.

Advent is looking to Jesus and God’s promise in him in spite of circumstances not only in our world, but in the world at large. We long for Christ’s return to clean up this mess, all the while trying to get his help to clean up our own messes along the way.

In and through Jesus.

hold on to the promise

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:13-16

It is amazing in how almost every US presidential election, there’s a huge groundswell of hope, or has been up to this point, for something like a deliverer, who will bring about desired change. And almost inevitably a huge disappointment sets in, usually sooner than later, even if much later. It’s not like people shouldn’t have any desires to see better policies set in place. But expectations indeed have to be tempered.

But for us in Christ, we have sure promises which we know we’ll be fulfilled in time. It is a large part actually of what keeps us going. People who depend solely on the politics of the world will sooner or later become disillusioned, may give up hope entirely and look for something completely different. But for us in Jesus, by faith we anticipate something much better, and certain. Let’s clarify here, that this hope should have an impact on what we want to see come to pass now, and the good works we do to that end. Though admittedly we can get frayed in waiting for the full realization of this hope which though present already, is not yet, that is far from complete, life taking its toll; this is in significant part what keeps us going. This hope, along with the faith and love that is in and through Jesus.

when beset with disappointment

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Luke 1:5-7

God’s people had already waited so long, living at home like exiles since they were ruled by a foreign power. Not only did they not really have their own king regardless of whatever pretending Herod did and more to fill that position. Though God was supposedly their King, the promises of Scripture had not been worked out. And Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were old and childless, which for couples in those days was a blight, commonly thought to be a sign of a lack of God’s blessing in their lives.

I wonder if disappointments that we’re experiencing help prepare us for what God wants to bring in, that God maybe wouldn’t be able to do otherwise apart from such disappointments. Or at least we can say that God chooses to use such emptiness to fill it with the promise of God’s goodness. But fulfillment in this life is only partial, and comes with plenty of trouble. I’m thinking now of the birth of John and what follows. They did not live to see the ministry of their son, who adapts to living in the wilderness, perhaps having contact with the Qumran community (Dead Sea Scrolls), but with a message all his own from God. And we know all that follows. Certainly God’s work in moving hearts, but also in John’s death at the hands of Herod.

We live with disappointment at times, unfulfilled dreams, perhaps even promises in our minds. It seems like all is not what it was cracked up to be. But that’s when we look to God anew to fulfill what only God can bring about. That is what Advent is all about. We anticipate, preferably together God bringing to pass what God would do, and whatever part we might have in that. Certainly in the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, they played an important role, which all considered, certainly had some formative affect in their son, John the Baptizer’s life. We can anticipate something that though not groundbreaking like that was, follows from it, of course through Jesus’s life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. God has something in the works for us as well, even if it is hidden from human eyes. God is at work, and our longings will be purified and fulfilled. In and through Jesus.

the need for self-understanding

…we are dust.

Psalm 103:14b

It is important for us to understand ourselves. Weaknesses. What helps us, what doesn’t. Strengths, too. To find where we excel as well as what helps us be resilient in the inevitable drama and trauma of life. To find our gifts, what we enjoy doing, what comes more or less natural to us, as well as what doesn’t.

Scripture tells us we’re dust. And that to dust we’ll return. But in and through God become human in Christ we receive the hope in the form of a promise of resurrection from a mortal into an immortal existence. And we’re taken up into a great family, God our Parent, Christ our Brother, the Spirit our love breath.

I really get tired of certain aspects of myself which are not what I believe God intends in the long run. Especially challenging to me is my propensity to worry about this and that and something else, everything else. I manage this much better than in the past. I realize that it’s important how I carry myself, not to be fake, but in faith looking to God to help me do better, trust in God, cast the burden on God, and experience some release from this. And that is happening more for which I’m thankful, but I’m still beset with a tendency to worry. Scripture addresses that. Though that helps I simply realize that this is a weakness that is part of who I am.

Thankfully we find that God accepts us completely just as we are. That should be the reason we can do the same. God helps us in the midst of our weaknesses, indeed the Lord’s strength somehow becomes evident in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12).   If God loves this dust made in God’s image, then we need to, too. Love each other, even ourselves. Know ourselves, and that the God who knows us completely through and through, completely accepts and loves us.

In and through Jesus.

what is needed in this wilderness

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]

Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth.

Deuteronomy 8:2-3; MSG

We live in a wilderness in this life. We’ve not reached the Promised Land yet. In Christ we’ve stepped into something of the experience of God’s promise, but certainly not into its fullness and completion.

So what are we left with here, yes in this wilderness? Nothing less than God’s word. What do I mean by God’s word? Certainly Scripture is included in this thought, both in general, and specifically all that is meant. Again God’s promises along with God’s directives, commands, warnings, encouragements, blessing, etc., etc., etc. Karl Barth surely had a point that God’s word to us is how God actually speaks to us through the pages of Scripture (if I’m understanding that correctly).

So we have to hold on to God’s word. We live in the wilderness, and as the passage above makes clear, it isn’t easy. But God wants to help us through, to teach us a lot, all of that from our complete dependence on God. Of course we have to learn complete dependence as well, more and more living in that, deepening ourselves in it.

Again this doesn’t come easy. Just consider the story of God’s children under Moses’s leadership, Moses’s own struggles. But God offer’s God’s presence and all that we need as we remain in prayer, seeking to hear God speak to us especially through the words of Scripture. In and through Jesus.

faith must work to work

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26

We can say we have faith in God, in God’s promises, and that’s all well and good. But it won’t make the needed difference unless we act on it. The difference certainly refers to others. In James’s words here, helping the sister or brother in need, or with reference to Rahab, for one’s own family as well as for Rahab herself. What I’m especially referring to here is one’s own salvation. When we experience that salvation, or in the words in this passage, justification, we naturally want to see everyone else experience the same. But when we’re struggling with a lack in being settled into that in our spirits, ourselves, then we can’t see our way to really have that same longing for others.

What is absolutely essential in a sense is being willing to burn all bridges down behind us, so that there’s no turning back, but that our faith is expressed in action. If we say we believe something, then we have to act on that, or in the words of James, our faith is barren, even dead.

Abraham is the stark case in point here. He was asked to sacrifice his son no less, Isaac, on an altar he would have to prepare himself as a whole burnt offering to God. Certainly a mind boggling, simply unfathomable thing to ask of someone, at least in our world. In Abraham’s world, from what I’ve read, it may not have been as shocking. We read elsewhere that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if need be to fulfill God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed Isaac, Abraham would become the father of many nations, heir of the world, and that all nations would be blessed through him (Hebrews 11:19; Romans 4:13, 17; Galatians 3:8). Just the same, it couldn’t have been easy.

But as we see in Genesis 22, there’s no hesitation to fulfill what God commanded. Maybe there was something in Abraham’s mind, like, “Let’s get this over with.” We don’t know what precisely was in his mind, except as mentioned above, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. But Abraham went all the way with no hesitation, hard as that had to have been. And raising the knife was stopped by the angel of the Lord before plunging the knife into his beloved son, the son who was to be heir, and through whom God’s blessing was to be extended to all.

James is telling us that we’re to have this same kind of faith. We either do it, and that includes the hard thing which maybe at the time makes no sense to us. But we do so in obedience to God, resting on God’s promise of blessing and good. In and through Jesus.

not for the faint of heart

Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes.

All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
they blazed like a fire of thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

Psalm 118:5-14

Faith in following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. The psalmist here is more than up against it, crying out to God for help. It seems like more often than not that we only seek God with all our hearts when we’re in trouble. Though hopefully we do so as well because of the trouble of others, especially those who are close to us in our own families, as well as in the family of faith in the world. But our concern and love should extend to all. And by the Spirit, God can and will help us that way.

But back to the main point. Following Christ and faith is not for the faint of heart. We’re in a spiritual battle now, definitely not a physical one. The faint of heart don’t obey Jesus’s words to not resist evil against us, but instead to pray for our enemies and bless those who curse us, to do good to those who despise us. The faint of heart don’t even seek to apply faith in the most difficult situations in which their faith is either lagging, or not existent at all.

The devil is often in the details of this life, one of his emissaries attached to me. We have to understand what we’re up against, and as James tells us, to resist the devil with the promise that he’ll flee from us.

Look at God’s people in Scripture. Hebrews 11 into 12 is a good place to start. Real people as flawed as any of us are. All people of faith who were not faint of heart because of their faith in God, in God’s promises. And it ends with Jesus himself who went through so much more than we can understand as we consider Gethsemane and the cross.

Psalm 118, the passage quoted above does not end oddly, though at first glance that may appear to be the case. When we pour out our whole hearts to God and don’t let go, God comes through and rewards us with so much more. Notice how this psalm unfolds and ends:

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 118:19-29

In and through Jesus.

peace of mind

Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

Shalom is the transliteration of the Hebrew word translated “peace” which means more than inward tranquility and rest. As translations indicate and considering the context, here it could mean safety (NET), as well as the flourishing of humanity and creation. Peace of mind comes with the sense that all is taken care of, that all will be made well, and in the end be well as in whole, no longer broken.

I think in this life we have to hold on to promises like this, because so much seems in flux, unstable, threatening: undermining what is good. We certainly do need peace of mind, which is often the way this Scripture passage has been applied, even if that’s not its precise meaning. It certainly is included. And notice that it’s dependent on whether or not we trust in God. When we do, no matter what, God will give us God’s peace. This reminds me of another Scripture passage, Paul’s words to us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Notice that the promise here is not that everything will turn out just the way we like. We know better than that in this life. But that no matter what, God will be at work through our prayers is implied, with the promise that God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. We need to hold on to this promise and not let go of our faith, putting that faith into practice by doing what Paul tells us to do here. God will always answer. According to our faith, it will be done for us. And God values our efforts, even though inevitably imperfect.

We know that in the new creation we’ll live in God’s care with no concerns whatsoever, whole and fully at peace in the love of God. But even in a world which is often turbulent and tearing at the seams, we can still have God’s peace. Yes, right in the midst of the storm. And in spite of so many things we wish would be different. Peace of heart and mind. In and through Jesus.

blessed assurance in Jesus

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

1 John 5:6-12; NRSV

I can’t help but think of Fanny Crosby’s great hymn, Blessed Assurance. In fact that was what I was thinking of when I entitled this post. We have blessed assurance in Jesus that our sins are forgiven and that we have new life in him. And a number of other passages in Scripture, and specifically in the New/Second Testament confirm this.

This helps us through the difficult, dark places. We are assured that God is with us in Christ through thick and thin, in the hard as well as enjoyable spaces. And we’re promised that the Lord will never leave us nor forsake us. So that this promise is not only for the life to come, but also for now, for this life.

A truth in our hearts that we need to hold on to. Seeing anything contrary to that as simply not being true as long as we are meeting the other criteria John lays down in this letter like obeying God’s commands, and loving others, along of course with believing in Jesus. In large part why this letter was written.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:13; NRSV

In and through Jesus.

Note the correction on yesterday’s post: what if we’re not meant to tie up all the loose ends? See last footnote there.

better days are coming

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

One of my favorite pastors used to say, “The best is yet to come!” And that’s true in God’s world. In the world in which we live, which in the end is also God’s world we see trouble piled on trouble, no end of it. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and another and then the next problem. There’s always something. And it’s not just problems we might solve, but issues far beyond us. And we can thank only ourselves collectively as well as individually for much of the mess we’re in.

But God’s promise in Jesus is that better days are coming. God can’t wait to forgive and pour out God’s love on us. This does require repentance of sins, of our own foolish ways. All we have to be is honest to God, to others. God will take care of everything in the end. In the meantime God helps us, setting us on a course to be a part of solution the world needs, nothing short of God’s kingdom and that kingdom come in Jesus.

But we can take solace and even find relief with the thought that good days are ahead. That the problem or problems, troubles and trials which weigh in on us will someday be a thing of the past. It will all be gone. This can help us in the present, not to ignore hard reality, but not be suffocated in it, either. God will help us now as we look forward to the day when it will all be gone. In and through Jesus.