Don’t Be Surprised By the Weeds. When You Believe in God, But Everything Falls Apart Anyway.

When I was young I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong near Peterborough, Ontario. In addition to the the joy of friendship, my sailboat was just large enough that a second person could help keep it from capsizing in a good breeze. Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming since there were many slimy, gross weeds all along the shoreline. Therefore we 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, this was not the young lady who would become my wife, that is another story! As we were sailing this one day, I had the feeling this friend of mine thought we were on a date. I did not have the heart to tell her that she was not my date, she was my ballast!

Being a 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. I tried to help. But, no. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What now? 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.

Remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I mentioned earlier? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds. She was horrified. What has this story to do with us in our day when face a scary meltdown of our world due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t be surprised by the weeds.

In Christ, we look forward to a rescue, yes. We look forward to getting through anything life will throw at us. We have been thrown a line. We will get to the shore. Consider these words from Peter:

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, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 3:1-5

We have been thrown a line. We will get safely to the shore. Our future is certain. However, don’t be surprised by the weeds:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, . . . 1 Peter 3:6

There are those who assume that since God loves us and is rescuing us, there should be no more trouble in this life. God does love us, and He is rescuing us, but He has never promised that we will not face trouble. In fact, we are told that we will, and we do, face troubling times. Peter goes on:

. . . 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. 1 Peter 1:7

Troubles do test our faith. In Christ, God has reached out and taken hold of us. But how good a grip do we have as we hold on to the hope we have in God? If we are unsure, troubles will tell us. Do we really trust God? It is easy enough to say ‘yes’ when times are good. However, when we experience the weeds, reality sinks in. Thankfully, it has been my experience that even when my grip is not tight, God has never wavered in His. Still, it is better to face the weeds of life knowing that the rescue is underway, that we will get through the weeds, and that the Rescuer is trustworthy and able. It is also better to face the weeds of life knowing there is a line that can be thrown to the people around us who are floundering in the water.

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, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8,9 (NRSV)

Don’t be surprised by the weeds. But don’t be surprised by the rescue either!

May God bless you as we face these weeds in our day.This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions.. This worship expression can be seen here. For a limited time, this reflection can also be heard here). Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon – Video Version.

When Things Go From Bad to Worse

Ever get the feeling that it is all downhill? That things are going from bad to worse? Or that life could be captured by an expression I grew up with, one said best with an Irish accent: things are “worser and far badder.” It might be health, it might be finances, it might be anything or seem like everything. Whatever it is, it is not good and not getting better. Ezekiel chapter 17 captures a time when God’s people are experiencing things going from bad to worse. It is a “riddle,” or allegory, so let’s quickly cover some of the key moments:

  • In verses 3 and 4 there is an eagle which takes a top branch of a cedar from Lebanon and plants it in a different land. This represents the Babylonian control over Judah and Jerusalem with the resulting deportation of about 10,000 people to Babylon, among whom was Ezekiel himself. This was done to weaken God’s people in order to keep them under Babylon’s thumb.
  • In verses 5 and 6 we find the planting of a vine which stretches toward the eagle. This represents Babylon letting the people of Judah carry on with life, though weakened, so long as they remain loyal to Babylon.
  • In verses 7 and 8 the vine stretches instead to a second eagle. This represents the rebellion of Judah under King Zedekiah, and the seeking of help from Egypt against Babylon.
  • In verses 9 and 10 we learn that the vine will be easily uprooted and destroyed. This represents the utter destruction of Jerusalem and a second and much larger deportation of its people.

This is a bad to worse moment for God’s people. It is bad enough when they are under Babylon’s thumb. Much worse that Jerusalem is to be destroyed and the people exiled. This was “worser and far badder.” Perhaps you can relate.

As we learn from verses 11 to 21, this story could have turned out better. Had the people listened to the prophets who encouraged patience as Babylon’s subjects, they would not have faced such destruction. Things would not have been great, but they would not have gone from bad to worse.  And had the people been listening to God all along, things would have turned out much better from the get-go. There are times that things get “worser and far badder” for us because we are not listening to the Lord. Things can go from bad to worse because our decisions go from dumb to dumber.

But there are also downhill moments not caused by any particular spiritual or moral failure, but rather because of a general spiritual and moral failure. Since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden we have been humans living in a fallen world. A lady once told me that she thought the devil was out to get her, and her faith must be so terribly weak because no amount of prayer would touch her sore feet. I asked if perhaps her feet were sore as a result of walking on them for 95 years. We Christians are prone to the aging process along with the rest of the world. We do share in our humanity which means sometimes things go from bad to worse though the troubles can not be traced to any specific bad decision on our part.

With all this negativity and “worser and far badder” thinking, is there any good news? Yes, it comes in verse 22:

Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
23 On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
24 All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:22-24

Here God Himself plays a role in this allegory. This story is not over until God intervenes to write the final chapter. Whatever eagles were swooping around threatening to be the undoing of God’s people, God is the last and greatest eagle. Though God’s people seemed to be at the mercy of the seemingly more powerful powers of Babylon and Egypt, in fact all powers are at the mercy of the Lord. As our passage says “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.” This represents all the nations which of course would include Babylon and Egypt. The once mighty eagles have had their wings clipped and sprouted leaves. They will know their place.

Whatever powerful eagles are swooping around us, God Himself is the last and greatest eagle. We tend to think that history is written by the powerful, and that our own lives are at the mercy of the powerful. Cancer is powerful. Ageing is powerful, addictions are powerful, hurtful people are powerful. These and the like seem like soaring eagles and we feel like mere twigs in their presence. God Himself is the last and greatest eagle. He sets the story according to His sovereign and loving purposes:

I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:24

Most importantly, Ezekiel 17 points to the reason for our confidence in God and His love. It points to Jesus. He is the sprig from verse 22. He is the topmost branch of the line of David. He is the one who ensures a future through his death and resurrection. So when if feels like things are going from bad to worse, whether it is you own doing or not, with Jesus it is not your undoing. Because God in Christ kept His promise of Ezekiel 17, even death when it may hover over us like an eagle, or rather like a vulture, does not write the final chapter for us. A diagnosis of cancer may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, and a temporary one. Parkinson’s may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, and a temporary one. Alzheimer’s may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, it is a temporary one. Death itself may feel like the end of the world. In Christ it is not, it is the next step toward the world our Lord has prepared for us. Take your pick of diseases or troubles, they all seem like mighty eagles now, but the Lord is returning, they will find their proper place. Such things as threaten to be our undoing now, He will undo! 

I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:24

Are things “worser and far badder?” In Christ the best is yet ahead.

(all scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Trouble!

8920743461_37f24ff62f_n“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” John 14:1 NRSV

This is a verse with no relevance to any of us as we all have perfect lives, right? We all have perfect health, perfect relationships, and perfect families, and so no troubles, and no troubled hearts. Well truth be told there are many things that can cause our hearts to be troubled. In fact, even if the situations of our lives are not troubling, we can still experience a troubled heart as we fret over situations that may never happen. Troubled hearts are a relevant topic for us all. 

Troubled hearts are a relevant topic for the disciples in our passage. He has already told them that one of them would betray him, one of them would deny him, and all of them would fall away from him. Oh, and he would be killed. One can only imagine the kind of thoughts that would be troubling the hearts of the disciples as Jesus is arrested, falsely accused, beat up, mocked, and executed. They might obsess over how they had failed Jesus. They might obsess over the possibility that Jesus had failed them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” 

But that is Friday and Saturday. Sunday comes and Jesus rises from the dead. That should be the end of all troubles, right? Wrong, following Jesus’ ascension to the Father, persecution breaks out against the Jesus followers and it does not go well for them. Study history and you will find much suffering for many Christians. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Or as one Bible scholar translates it: “Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” 

But shouldn’t things always go well for those who worship God? Should not their prayers be answered? Isn’t God fixing things? Many well meaning Christians believe that yes, God does fix everything for the true believer, and yes, God does answer every prayer of a good Christian. So if things are broken in your life, or prayers are not being answered; confess more, pray more, be a better Christian.

But what does Jesus say? What did Jesus say to the disciples when thing were about to go oh, so wrong? “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God, keep trusting also in me.” He does not say “now that you are following me, your life will be pain free,” but “do not let your hearts be troubled.” You do not say such a thing unless you know trouble is coming. He does not say “I have now fixed everything,” but “keep trusting in God, keep trusting in me.” You do not call for trust unless you know someone needs to wait. He does not say “today you will be with me in paradise,” but “I am going to prepare a place for you.” Well he did tell one believer that paradise would be his lot that very day, but we all know what came next.

Truth is, we are still living in a messy world. No matter how good a Jesus follower we are, no matter how deep our prayer lives are, no matter how all-encompassing our confession of sin is, we still live in a messy world.

Genesis chapter three outlines the result of the fall. The last time I checked, a Christian woman is as likely to experience pain in childbirth as any other. A Christian farmer needs to work just as hard as any other farmer to produce a potato. And all through history, Christians have been as likely to die as anyone else. This is the mess we live in. As we live in this mess we sometimes would rather treat the symptoms than seek the cure. Jesus does not promise to be a pill that will take away pain. He promises to be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus meets our greatest need. He fills our biggest hole. He cures our greatest illness. He lifts us up from our hardest fall. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” Every pain we feel as a Jesus follower is temporary. Jesus dealt with our eternal problem.

But someone will object: “God does fix every problem in our lives in the here and now. If you are experiencing trouble, it is because you are not a good enough Christian.” But are you willing to say that to the apostle Paul?

with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. 24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NRSV)

Paul responded to all these troubles, not by blaming himself or God, but with trust: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 NRSV) 

Someone else will object: “God answers prayers with miracles, and if you are not receiving them, that is because you are not good enough.” I believe God does miracles today. But I also believe that miracles today serve the same purpose as the miracles of Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament. They point people to the fact that the Kingdom of God is near. They point to the fact that Jesus is the One through whom the Kingdom comes. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus did not fix every problem of every person in every place. He still doesn’t. God does miracles, but He does not hand them out like candy. The Christian, no matter how devout or righteous, still lives in a messy world. A miracle is not the cure for a troubled heart. Trust is. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” 

I once took a girl sailing on Chemong Lake. Not being very windy we decided to drop the anchor and go for a swim. If you know Chemong Lake you will know that the middle of the lake is the best place to go swimming for all along the shores are icky, slimy, gross weeds. It came time to head in, and so I got back into the boat. My friend tried to do likewise, but failed. I tried to get her in, but to no avail. So she swam for a bit while I sailed alongside, until she became too tired. With my friend being too tired and my being too weak I had to do something. So I threw a line from the back of the boat and I towed her in. Now do you remember those weeds all along the shoreline? If you could have heard the screams of this poor girl as I pulled her through the weeds! The point is this. Don’t be surprised by the weeds. Trouble will come, even upon the very best Christian. But when they do, don’t let go of the rope. That God in His grace and love will get us to the shore is a sure thing.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.”

photo credit: Bumpy Road Ahead White Bg via photopin (license)