The Rescuer Has Come! Don’t Be Surprised By Weeds.

Some people can’t wait for Christmas to come. Others can wait for it to be over. Unfortunately there are many in the world who are waiting for something much deeper. Many are waiting for something good to happen. Many are waiting for something bad to stop happening. Many are waiting for a rescue. Having recently watched the latest Star Wars movie I couldn’t help but wonder if its release was timed for Advent. The theme of waiting for a rescue during a time of struggle is key to the season of Advent, and is also the theme of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Isaiah 61:1-3

While the news is good, the situation leading up to announcement has not been. The words describing the desperation of God’s people pile up; “oppressed . . . brokenhearted . . . captives . . . prisoners . . . mourning . . . faint spirit.” Perhaps some of these describe how you might feel sometimes. Further,

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61:4

“Ruins” and “devastations”. Perhaps there are moments that it feels like your life, health, finances, or relationships are in ruins. Or that your experiences have been devastating. Like God’s people in the prophecy, significant changes are needed. You need a rescue.

Good news does come. And the coming of Jesus into the world is good news indeed. In the first teaching of Jesus that Luke focused on, Jesus read the words quoted above from Isaiah 61:1. What happens next is significant:

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:20-21

God’s people were waiting for the Messiah, and here is Jesus saying “your wait is over, Here I am!” Good news indeed, and as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would teach us, this is not just good news regarding the relationship between God’s people and the Romans, but good news regarding the relationship between all peoples and God. This was not just release from captivity to a stronger nation, but release from something darker and more sinister, release from the captivity of sin itself. The waiting of Advent is over, the good news has been announced. The Messiah has come! This is a large part of what we are celebrating at Christmas. The Rescuer has been born!

However, when we come down from all our Christmas celebrations, life goes on, and we still find ourselves waiting. Waiting for bad things to stop happening, and good things to start happening. If Jesus came to rescue us, then why do we find ourselves in the same boat as God’s people waiting for a rescue? Part of the answer lay in the fact that while the Rescuer has come, the rescue itself is still underway. Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was younger I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong. Now Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming unless you go for a swim in the middle where it is not so weedy. So I would sometimes drop the sails, throw out the anchor and go for a swim in the middle of the lake. On one particular day I took a young lady sailing (no, not the young lady who would become my wife – that is another story!). Being a very gentle breeze we decided to go for a swim. Time was getting on and so I got back into the boat. My friend didn’t. She couldn’t. She tried, and I tried to help, but to no avail. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What to do? Being the hero of this story I knew what to do. I threw a line out the back of the boat and I towed her in. Now you remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I was telling you about? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds.

What has this to do with our rescue? God’s people in waiting for the Messiah, were like people stuck in the middle of the lake with the promise of a rescue. Advent is about waiting for the Rescuer. We live in a moment of time where the Rescuer has come. Jesus’ hand is stretched out to us. Don’t hesitate to take hold of his hand, for He will grasp your arm and not let go. However, we are still in the water so don’t be surprised by the weeds. The rescue is underway, we will get to the shore, but there are still weeds. Peter has a word of encouragement for us when we get to the weeds:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:3-9

While some people can’t wait for Christmas and others can’t wait for it to be over, the Christian is waiting for Jesus. But we don’t just wait, we make progress, we point others to the outreached hand of the Rescuer, we encourage those who are feeling overwhelmed by the weeds. The rescue has come, but don’t be surprised by the weeds. May you have a Merry Christmas, and a hope filled Advent no matter how weedy life gets.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

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More Than a Glimmer of Hope

“I lift up my head, the world is on fire”. This is a lyric from a song that struck me as being all too true these days. It seems every time you look up, something bad is happening in the world or to your loved ones. The lyric is from a song called “Pray“, by Sam Smith, which captures a tension that many people feel today. Here is a selection of the lyrics:

I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say

Maybe I’ll pray, pray
 Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray . . . .

You won’t find me in church (no)
 Reading the Bible (no) 
I am still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
I’m broken, alone, and afraid . . . .

And I’m gonna pray (Lord), pray (Lord), maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope

On the one hand, where is God when the world “is on fire”? On the other hand, what else can people do but pray for a glimmer of hope? Here is another take on hope from another man whose world was on fire:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

What a contrast. From prayer out of desperation, to a prayer of confidence. From a glimmer of hope, to hope shining brightly. What is the path  to having hope, to more than just a glimmer of hope? Let us go back to where Paul’s discussion of hope began:

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, . . .
Romans 15:7-13

Hope is found in the promises of God.  Jesus is the evidence that God keeps His promises. The phrase “the truth of God” refers to the fact that God will do what God says He will do. He is honest. Jesus is the confirmation that God is making good on all His promises. The apostle Paul goes on to give a sampling of some of these promises from the Old Testament Scriptures. Let us make some observations on them.

First, there will be praise:

. . . and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”; Romans 15:9

. . . and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”; Romans 15:11

Far from questioning the existence of God, the goodness of God, or the love of God; when we come to realize He has fulfilled His promises in Jesus, we instead praise the Lord for who He is, what He is like, and for His amazing love. As we grow in our relationship with Him, lingering doubts are replaced with confidence. We should not think of this praise as being dutiful and forced, but spontaneous and joyful. When we see God keeping His promises, how could we do anything but joyfully praise Him?

. . . and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; Romans 15:10

Second, those who are oppressive rulers over us now will be replaced by Christ and His rule:

. . . and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.” Romans 15:12

The emperor was the ruler at the time Paul quotes these Old Testament verses. Something we should know about the emperors in those days, that whatever you may think of Donald Trump, they all made President Trump look like an angel! Hope is dashed when our leaders fail to lead well. Hope shines brightly when we have good leadership. There is no better shepherd than Jesus!

When we think of people that have oppressive rule over others, we should also think of things that can rule over us. Things like poverty, addiction, disease, toxic relationships, discrimination, abuse, bullying and the like. Whatever things seem to rule over you now, gets the boot. Jesus is Lord and He shall reign. We begin seeing this in the here and now. We will see it fully in the days to come.

Third, God’s promises are accessible. The word that shows up through all the Scriptures quoted by Paul is “Gentile”, i.e. non-Jew. Though God had chosen a specific family to be the people through whom He would work out His promises, His promises went far beyond them:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis mine)

In the first three chapters of Romans Paul speaks about the Jews and non-Jews alike. There was an advantage to being Jewish in that the Jews had a much fuller revelation of God and a closer relationship to God. However, that advantage was similar to the advantage of someone stuck on a  Caribbean island without drinking water compared to someone stuck in a desert lacking drinking water. I think we would all agree, that the person on the island has the preferable situation. Yet without water, they both face the same outcome. So, in conclusion, “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). They will both pay the penalty of sin, which is death. However, Jesus is the water. Both can come and drink and live. The invitation is open to anyone who thirsts. Including you. The words of Jesus:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” John 7:37-38

When we look at the world around us, when we lift up our heads and see the world on fire, we may wonder if there will ever be a glimmer of hope. When we look back at the promises of God, promises confirmed by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, hope shines brightly.

(All Scriptures are taken from the NRSV)

Ezekiel and the Glory Days

We may feel like our glory days are well behind us. Some look back to when one hundred sit-ups were an easy thing, others look back to when they could simply sit up without help. Some look back to better paycheques. Some look back to when children were home and a spouse was still alive. Some look back to a time when loved ones were not suffering. When the aches and pains of life settle in, we can long for the “glory days” we see in the rearview mirror.

God’s people in Ezekiel’s day would have felt that their glory days were behind them. They could look back to the days of David and Solomon, and see how things had never been quite as good as they were then. And now that they are in exile, Jerusalem is destroyed, and the temple lay in ruins, there would be a strong temptation to keep their eyes fixed on the rearview mirror in search of the “glory days”.

The prophecies in Ezekiel chapters 36 through 39 spoke to God’s people about their glory days. They speak to us today about ours. Let’s take a bird’s eye view.

Chapter 36. The first prophecy is directed toward the land itself. For example,

. . . and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 36:11 (NRSV)

The wording of this alludes to “Be fruitful and multiply” from Genesis 1:28 which recalls Eden before the ground was cursed thanks to Adam (see Genesis 3:17). The promise is for a future even better than the glory days!

The second prophecy of chapter 36 is directed at the people. Among the promises are the following:

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ezekiel 36:24-27 (NRSV)

The promise goes well beyond a mere return to the land and the status quo. God promises to clean His people up and give them His Spirit. This is a far better situation than what they enjoyed in the “glory days” of David and Solomon.

Chapter 37. The first prophecy is the infamous “dry bones” vision where Ezekiel sees dry bones come together, and then come alive when life is breathed into them. This is another allusion to Genesis when God breathed life into Adam (see Genesis 2:7). There is a tension in this vision between a metaphorical interpretation, meaning a promise of return from exile, and a more literal interpretation, meaning an anticipated resurrection from the dead. We feel this tension in verse 12:

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Ezekiel 37:12 (NRSV)

We should probably see both here, with a return from exile made even better by the fact that all past generations will be able to participate as well. This would be far better than the past glory days.

The second prophecy speaks of there being one king again, like the glory days of David and Solomon. But watch for what is repeated again and again in the following:

Ezekiel 37:22-26 (NRSV) I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, and will cleanse them. . . . They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.

Words like “never again” and “forever” are important, whereas in the glory days of the past, the big word was “if”. That is, “if you are faithful to me things will go well”. Here in Ezekiel’s prophecy there is no “if”, just God’s people enjoying God forevermore. This is much better than the glory days of the past.

Chapters 38 and 39. These are prophecies against a land called Gog. There has been much conjecture as to the identity of Gog. For now, let us notice that the enemies assemble to the north (see Ezekiel 38:1-6). The Assyrians invaded from the north when they destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. The Babylonians invaded from the north when they destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah. The point is that such destruction will never happen again! The safety and security of God’s people will be much better than in the glory days of the past.

Concluding chapter 39, we can sum up Ezekiel 39:21-29 this way: “God hid His face from His people and they went into exile because they sinned against Him. But now God, for the sake of His glory, will be generous with His Spirit and never hide His face from them again.”

Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; 29 and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. Ezekiel 39:28-29 (NRSV)

This is not just restoration of the former status quo. This is restoration to God! This is much better than in the glory days of the past!

History records that God’s people did, in fact, return from exile in Babylon to their own land. However, there was a problem. Not only were things not better than the glory days of David and Solomon, they were not even as good. Roman occupation made sure that Israel’s glory days remained firmly in the past. However, this seeming lack of prophetic fulfillment points us to the the greater fulfillment in Christ. The fulfillment of these promises lies not in the flourishing of an empire-like kingdom called Israel, but in a greater Kingdom brought through Jesus Christ. There is a much bigger exile in view here; separation from the presence of God. Through Jesus we have:

  • Cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, as in Ezekiel 36.
  • Resurrection from the dead, and the inclusion of all generations in the promise, as in Ezekiel 37:1-14.
  • The Messiah as the Lord of a united and holy people, as in Ezekiel 37:15-28.
  • A future, safe and secure from every enemy, as in Ezekiel 38 and 39:1-20.
  • Restoration, not just to a land, but to God Himself, as in 39:21-29.

The days of David and Solomon never really were the glory days. The days of Adam and Eve before the fall are a better fit for the title “glory days”. According to Ezekiel chapters 36 through 39, the glory days are ahead. When we find ourselves wishing we could be restored to the so-called glory days of our past, in Christ we have something far better; restoration to God Himself. In Christ our glory days are ahead! As Randy Bachman famously sang “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”