Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chapter 17 - The Kingdom Falls

There's always two sides to a story, including this week's story of the fall of Jerusalem. One side is really quite disturbing. Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonians, a famine sets in, the temple is burned and all the treasured possessions of the Jews are destroyed. The one side of the story is that God has simply had enough with these stubborn, rebellious people and they get what they deserve. But the other side of the story is equally disturbing. God who is broken-hearted. This time around I saw this story through the eyes, or should I say, the heart of God. Can you imagine the pain he suffered allowing such destruction to take place. God really deserved a better performance from his children!

I have never experienced a house fire, but I painfully try to imagine the ache of losing all my prized possessions. Those pictures you worked so hard to pose for and then frame just right. The furniture you purchased after weeks of research. The clothes you spent hours picking out. The financial loss is one thing, but the emotional loss is quite another, and perhaps even greater. The investment you made in making that house just how you wanted it to be all goes up in flames.

As Jerusalem goes up in flames try to imagine the pain that God is experiencing. All the investment he has made in this nation goes up in smoke. The way he lead Abraham, empowered Moses, blessed David -- all is gone. All the hope he had in his nation is nothing more than memories. God must have surely wept at the fall of his prized possession.

And then I turn my attention to me, my life. When I fail spiritually I often see just one side of the story - my failures and the negative results that naturally follow. God punishing me for my sin! But what about my failure from God's perspective? How hurt he must be that I chosen someone or something else other than him. How hurt he must be when I don’t live up to the expectations and promise he has for my life. God does not delight in our suffering, he suffers with us.

As a parent I have felt just a fraction of what God feels. There's no pain quite like when a child disappoints you. After investing so much time and energy into teaching a child, to see them make horrible decisions is heart-rendering! And God is likewise disappointed when we fail spiritually, and that side of the story gives me motivation. I do not want to waste all the investment that God has made in my life. I don't want to bring him grief. I want to make him proud - he deserves it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chapter 16 - The Beginning of the End (of the Kingdom of Israel)

Sad news in chapter 16 - The northern kingdom falls to Assyria. This however did not come without several warnings. Prophets predicted it and kings refused to listen so God delivered on his promise and sent the Assyrian armies into the capital of Samaria and took captive the northern kingdom of Israel.

As the armies of Assyria turned their eyes toward Jerusalem the southern kingdom of Judah looked on and seemed doomed to the same fate. But instead of accepting defeat the young king Hezekiah turned to God's prophet Isaiah and he promised that Assyria will not take Jerusalem.

In an interesting exchange we have two voices calling out to Hezekiah. The voice of the Assyrian general taunting him for having faith in his God. "Do you really expect your God to stand up against this army when all other nations and their gods have fallen so easily?" was the mocking of the Assyrian general. On the other hand you have the prophet Isaiah reassuring Hezekiah that the Lord will indeed defend this city. Hezekiah has to choose which voice to listen to.

Don’t we all? Don't we all have competing voices calling out to us. One calling us to focus on the strength of our enemy and the weakness of our God. One intimidating us and calling us to give into the forces of evil. The other, God's voice, reminding us that He is with us. Reminding us that He is more powerful than any force man can muster. Each of us is caught in the middle and has to choose the voice we will listen to.

Hezekiah listens to the voice of God and amazing things happen. Assyria is distracted by another military action by the nation of Cush. A plague strikes the Assyrians and 185,000 drop dead! Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, is assassinated by his sons while worshiping his false god. The insurmountable armies of Assyria retreat and Jerusalem is spared!

Casting Crowns, a contemporary Christian band, recorded a song a few years back called The Voice of Truth which puts to music this battle we all face. Hear the words of the chorus:

But the Voice of truth tells me a different story
the Voice of truth says "do not be afraid!"
and the Voice of truth says "this is for My glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of truth.

What voice will you listen to? The forces of evil will seem overwhelming. The enemy will taunt you and mock you. It is so easy to give in but we must continue to listen to the voice of God and stand firm for what we believe. God will deliver. He has proven himself over and over again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapter 15 - God's Messengers

Chapter fifteen introduces us to the work of the prophets as they confronted the evil and idolatry that had become standard fare in the nation of Israel. Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea are featured in this chapter as bold proclaimers of God's simple and direct message - repent or be destroyed!

It's in this chapter that is recorded one of my favorite Old Testament stories - Elijah's meeting with God at the cave on Mount Horeb. Elijah has just experienced a great victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal, but in depression and desperation has fled to the wilderness. He's down in the dumps as he struggles with finding God in the mess that is Israel. He needs a fresh revelation of God and God gives it to him.

The Lord instructs Elijah to go to the mouth of his cave hideaway because He is about to pass by. A great and powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire all appear but neither of these carry the presence of God. Following these action-movie-like demonstrations quietly appears a gentle whisper and it is in this gentle whisper that God is present!

God is in the simple, quiet, routine facets of life. That is a hushed message that speaks deafeningly to me every time I read it.

In college I saw a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town that has left an impression on me that lasts until this day. The story is of a simple New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century. It reveals a rather dull story-line with rather dull characters living rather dull lives. Wilder's purpose for this play begins to be revealed when Emily, one of the major characters, dies in childbirth and in the realm of the after-life is given a chance to relive one day of her rather dull life. But as she returns to Grover's Corners everything that was dull is full of life and excitement, not because anything had changed but because even though it was dull it was LIFE! As she says her goodbyes she tearfully bids adieu to the simple things in life - things like freshly ironed dresses and warm baths. And then she utters words that still ring in my mind - Doesn’t anyone realize life while their living it? Every, every minute.

Wilder has taught us a valuable lesson - life is only dull when we fail to realize that the beauty of life is gift wrapped in the gentle whispers all around us! Likewise Elijah teachers us a valuable lesson - God is found as we appreciate all the simple beauties all around us.

Anyone who has lost someone they love longs for all those simple treasures - a soft caress, just hearing their voice, the twinkle in their eye, a simple meal together. Perhaps one of the secrets of life is to appreciate those simple treasures while we have them. Perhaps one of the secrets of life is to be perceptive enough to see God in all the gentle whispers of life.

May God grant us the ability to live life - every, every minute!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chapter 14 - A Kingdom Torn in Two

Earlier this year I invested quite a bit of my time watching Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Like every other red-blooded American kid I studied the Civil War in school but I had never quite realized the impact that event had on our country until I watched this gripping series. It really is quite amazing that the country was able to stay together after four years of brutality.

One thing that happens when countries experience times like that is that it is impossible for them to really live out the reason they exist. A majority of time, resources, and energy is devoted to simply surviving rather than concentrating on growth, expansion and serving its citizens.

Disunity always results in dysfunction.

And that's what we see in Chapter 14. The kingdom of Israel is no longer unified and the results are disastrous. Instead of being a light to the world, God's people struggle to survive, both politically and spiritually. No longer are kings and queens beating paths to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Solomon. The only reason they journey to Jerusalem is in a military attack! God's people are under siege and the distractions prevent them from living out the reason for their existence.

Remind you of anything?

Individual churches and the church universal can be decimated by disunity. When parties are warring within there is little energy to reach out. And even when we reach out who wants to join a community that is at war? Disunity prevents a church from being a church.

That may be why Jesus prayed for his disciples to be unified. One of Jesus' last prayers before the crucifixion is recorded in John 17 and an overarching theme of this prayer is of the unity of believers. Listen carefully to Jesus' plea:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus recognized the power of unity and he prayed for it.

Here at Park Avenue we have adopted Psalm 133 as a guiding principle for our work. Verse 1 beautifully states, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! "

Last week I committed to making wisdom a priority in my prayer life. This week unity joins that list.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Chapter 13 - The King Who Had it All

The story of Solomon is simply amazing. Having asked for wisdom to administer the nation of Israel, God grants not only that request but gives him a dose of wealth and honor that few have ever known. Reading through this chapter Solomon reminds me of those commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World. You know, the guy described by the following:

• "He is the life of parties he never attended."
• "He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it felt."
• "He's won trophies for his game face alone."
• "His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man's jaw."
• "Sharks have a week dedicated to him."
• "He can speak French, in Russian."
• "At museums he is allowed to touch the art."
• "He bowls overhand."

Solomon is THE MAN! Kings and Queens from all over come to sit as his feet and marvel at his wealth and wisdom. Nobles from around the world send extravagant gifts in tribute to this noted king. Solomon - builder of temples, dispenser of wisdom, proprietor of unimaginable wealth!

Solomon stands as an example of what God really wants for everyone. For those who humbly come before him, God wants to grant us more than we can even think or imagine. However, lost in all the bling is the greatest gift Solomon possesses - the wisdom of the Lord. His original request was his best and although he seems to have forgotten that along the way (how wise is it for a man to have 700 wives and 300 concubines) he does seem to make full circle at the end of his life when in Ecclesiastes he is credited with this famous finale--- Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

We would do well to repeat Solomon's request. Years later James reminds us that God is always inclined to dispense wisdom: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:5

I ask God for many things, but lately this request seems to have lost its way off the list. Thanks to Solomon, wisdom will now occupy its proper place - top priority!