Some Things Are Just Hard

The book of Jeremiah has been a difficult study.  In fact, in five years I really can’t remember feeling this way about a study.  It seems like I am trudging through mud with a fifty pound pack on my back.  There is so much about it that is hard:  Jeremiah’s life is hard, the message is heavy, the message doesn’t change much over a very long period of time, and some of the specific things God says are just plain HARD.

What do you do with God telling Jeremiah not to pray for the people because He won’t listen?  What about the idea that people who obey God and speak His truth are sometimes beaten and put in prison?  What about when God says He will utterly destroy His own people?

God even tells His faithful servant that he is not to marry or have children because of what is coming on the land.  At that point it seems to me Jeremiah was totally without earthly comfort – no one to come home to at night, no one to have dinner with, no one to share his heart with, no children to enjoy, no promise of future descendants.  Jeremiah was left with absolutely nothing, but God.

Yesterday in class when we asked what has spoken personally to people the most during our study of Jeremiah everyone shared something different, but I heard echoing in their thoughts, “This is hard.”  But HARD doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good.  In all the difficulty I also heard God gently speaking to and encouraging every one right where they are, including me.

This theme of ‘Some Things Are Just Hard’ actually started the night before in our advanced discipleship class.  We had a very lively, three-hour discussion about suffering in the life of a believer in Jesus Christ.  Some very difficult Scriptures came up during that discussion as well.  For instance, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (repeated throughout chapters 7 – 14); God sending an evil spirit to torment King Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14); and the story of Job and God’s role in it (particularly the first two chapters), just to name a few.

What I really appreciate about both of these discussions about ‘hard things’ is how God’s grace has changed how I handle them.  As a Bible study teacher I have always carried a burden and deep sense of responsibility to make sure no one leaves a class or a discussion confused or struggling or worse with some incorrect perception of God, or me for that matter.  It is finally dawning on me that I am not responsible for other people’s theology.  I don’t need to manage God’s reputation and as long as I am being obedient to Him, I don’t need to worry about mine.

It is so freeing to allow God’s Spirit to speak to people and not stress over what others think.  I love the freedom of saying, “I don’t know the answer to that.”  Or even if I disagree with them not feeling like I need to explain my position.  The Holy Spirit is our Instructor.

So what do I do with the ‘hard things’ in Scripture?  Take them to God.  I may not understand what I am reading, but I know God’s character and I trust Him to reveal it to me in His time.  Now I am learning to let Him reveal it to you too.

Thank You Father for the freedom of Your Grace!

The Transformation of a Son of Thunder

A few weeks ago I shared about a great listening activity a friend of mine led us in on our girls’ weekend getaway at Riverbend this year.  Just to recap here’s how that activity went down:  we listened to the entire book of First John from beginning to end without our Bibles in front of us, without paper to take notes on, without stopping and re-winding, without talking.  We just listened.  It only took about 15 or 20 minutes.  Then we listened to First John 3, but this time we had paper to jot down anything that seemed to jump out at us.  Then we listened to First John 3 one more time.  Once we had listened we discussed what spoke to our hearts.

First, Second and Third John were all written by John, brother of James, son of Zebedee, disciple of Jesus Christ.  He also authored the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation.  I am probably telling you things that you already know about him, but there’s a point, it’s not just about the facts.  All of these tremendous books of Scripture, God’s Word to us, were written fairly late in John’s life and fairly late in relationship to the other books of the New Testament.  Scholars believe that all five of these books were written between 85 AD and 95 AD.

Let’s do some quick math, if Jesus was crucified around 30 AD that means fifty-five to sixty-five years passed before John wrote a word.  So what was this first-hand witness to the life, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ the Son of God doing all that time?

Mark 3:17 introduces us to John this way when Jesus first called him to be a disciple: “…and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder”);”

It is believed that John was the youngest of the disciples and possibly an adolescent at the time of his call.  Therefore, he may well have been under the age of twenty when Jesus died.  During Jesus’ time on earth Scripture records John, and his brother James, at one point wanting to call down fire from heaven on some folks who wouldn’t receive Jesus (Luke 9:51-56).  It also records how John, and his brother James, requested to be seated on the right and left of Jesus in heaven (bold move, don’t you think?) (Mark 10:35-37).  Sounds like Jesus had good reason to call them Sons of Thunder.

Back to our listening exercise on First John, the one thing that all of us in the group zeroed in on was how frequently the word “love” is used in that book.  In fact, the word “love” is a consistent theme in all three of John’s epistles, as well as his gospel.  While the word “love” is not as frequent in the book of Revelation, it IS the revelation of Jesus Christ, Love Himself.

So how did John go from being a Son of Thunder to a messenger of Love?  How did he move from desiring to penalize people for their lack of understanding and exalting himself with Jesus, to a man who wanted nothing more than for all to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you (all) may have life in His name” (John 20:31)?  And how did he become a man who refers to himself in the third person (not the first person, as in the principle character) as the disciple whom Jesus loved?

While Scripture doesn’t record the details of those fifty-five to sixty-five years of silence (or anonymity?) they really make me wonder.  I think Scripture says a lot by the facts it includes, but I think it also says a lot by what it clearly leaves out.  And it certainly leaves out a large portion of John’s life.  The only two things we know for certain are that he cared for Jesus’ mother Mary and he was active in the early church of Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Beyond those two things we don’t really know what John was doing during that time, but we do know what God was doing.

He was lovingly transforming a Son of Thunder into a humble servant of Jesus Christ, into a man not only able to care for the condition of the flock, but a man entrusted with arguably the most powerful vision and message in all Scripture.  He was given the privilege of communicating The End of the story to those of us in the middle of the journey.

I’ve been asking myself, am I willing to live in obscurity for the purposes of God?  Am I willing to allow Him full access to every area of my life to do the transforming work that only He can do?  Just as importantly, am I willing to wait as long as it takes and let God do the work in me in His time?  (Let’s face it, we live in a culture that wants everything immediately…waiting fifty-five years for anything seems incredible if not impossible!)

Going back to the idea of Surrendering ‘The Plan’ from Monday’s post, am I willing to operate on a need-to-know basis and live moment by moment with Him?  Seeking only to know Him, allowing Him to bring me to the place only He can see?  As John stood at the foot of the cross I doubt he saw himself penning the book of Revelation or caring enough about young believers to write letters of love and warning to them.  Only a life of dependence on God, whether its years or decades, could produce such lasting fruit.

Clingin’ Like a Waistband

Jeremiah 13:11 (NASB)

11 For as the waistband clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole household of Israel and the whole household of Judah cling to Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘that they might be for Me a people, for renown, for praise and for glory; but they did not listen.’

One of the symbolic acts that the Lord asks Jeremiah to perform to demonstrate a message to Judah is to buy a linen waistband, wear it and then go hide it near the Euphrates in the crevice of a rock.  After some time passes God sends Jeremiah back to retrieve the waistband which has by that time become rotten and worthless.

How does a waistband become worthless?  It loses its ability to cling, to wrap itself around God’s middle.  Some versions actually translate waistband as loin cloth.  If you go to the commentaries there is much discussion as to whether or not a waistband represented an overgarment (like an apron worn over the priestly garments or an undergarment literally next to the skin).  Was it meant to represent an ornament or intimacy?  I think there is certainly a case for both.

Either way in verse 11 God says, “I made the whole household of Israel and the whole household of Judah to cling to Me.”  God made us to cling to Him.  This is our purpose.  Everything in our culture tells us the opposite.  The world practically screams that we need to be independent, self-sufficient and overachieving.  To cling to anyone or anything, to DEPEND on anyone or anything is considered weak and even wrong.

But God says it brings Him praise and glory when we cling to Him.  Whether the waistband is a loin cloth worn next to the skin or an apron worn as an outer garment, they both figuratively represent garments worn around the most intimate parts of God.  Personally, I think this goes back to Jeremiah 9:23 – 24 and the importance of knowing God.  Not knowing about God, but having a deep, intimate connection with Him that bears fruit.

God was crying out to Judah, as He does to me (us), “Cling to Me, Know Me.”  Judah’s painful reply to God was consistently refusal and rebellion.

In this same passage, because Judah refused to cling to God, God calls them worthless (see verse 7).  They were not fulfilling their purpose, they were not glorifying God by their dependency on Him.  Our purpose is to cling to God, depend on Him and then according to verse 11, we will be a people “for renown, for praise and for glory”.  We bring glory to God not by all our strength and independence and self-sufficiency – Judah had plenty of those things – we bring glory to God by clinging to Him.

“Father, may we bring glory to You by surrendering our plans and agendas to You and walking in dependence on You, clinging to You as if our lives depend on it.”

Some of the Ugly Part

Jeremiah 15:18 (NASB)

“Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?”

After about thirty years of ministry this is the question Jeremiah put before God.  At the beginning of their relationship in chapter one, God called Jeremiah and told him that he was consecrated and that he was specifically appointed as a prophet to speak for Him.  For thirty years Jeremiah had faithfully proclaimed God’s truth.  Even when his own friends and family members plotted against him (see chapter 11) he turned to the Lord.

There were certainly times that he questioned God (chapter 4 for instance), but in chapter 15 Jeremiah brings his personal misery to God and moves into profound self-pity.  After all these years of ministry he is in so much pain he actually asks God if He has deceived him and if He is unreliable.  In fact, in verse 10 of the same chapter, Jeremiah regrets that he was even born, implying he regrets he was called by God.

Have you ever gotten to that place where you were so miserable and broken as a believer that you were ready to throw in the towel?  Found yourself in so much pain that you wondered why you ever said yes when Jesus called your name?

This confession might be The Ugly part of my tag line “The good, the bad and the ugly”, but in the spirit of full disclosure and being transparent, I can honestly say I have felt EXACTLY that way.  Many years ago I had a similar Jeremiah moment with the Lord (I can’t remember exactly when because I have tried to forget it, but my kids were very young because I was dressed in the frumpy-puritan-holier-than-thou-functional-mommy fashion of the  1990’s Christian scene…it said everything except God thinks I am beautiful!).

We were at church that Sunday morning, I can’t remember what Hosanna or Maranatha praise song we were singing, but something in me snapped and I sat down.  I couldn’t stand up and sing that song because the words were not true, at least in my life.  And not only were the words to the song not true, but in that moment it seemed like God was not true.  Everything in my life was upside down.  Everything was a struggle.  All the questions and all the fears in my heart were screaming in my head like a siren, “NONE OF THIS IS TRUE!”

Then it got worse…the Pastor stood up, took the microphone and said he wanted everyone to march around the sanctuary while we sang…and he was not taking “no” for an answer.  I have never felt more like a hypocrite in my life!  As I stood up (with my spiritual arm twisted behind my back – I am not proud of this, but I knew then what it meant to murder your brother in your heart!) and schlepped around that sanctuary, it was like a dam burst inside me and with every step I took I got angrier and angrier.

Inside I was yelling at heaven, “We’ve tithed and we don’t have two nickels to rub together!  We have given beyond sacrifice and You are not providing!  We have served You in every way possible and You are not taking care of us!  Why is my husband’s business failing? Why aren’t you meeting our needs?  Are You who You say You are or not?”  Translation – “We’ve DONE all the right things God and You have not rewarded us.  You are not doing Your job!”

In hind sight I realize God was trying to bring me to the end of all of my “doing” for Him.  My flesh efforts at righteousness were failing.  He was trying to bring me to a place of brokenness, to the place of allowing my flesh to die and Jesus to live His life through me.  Honestly, I missed the point of the whole event at the time.  But I did repent for being angry with God, sucked it up and kept doing Christian life the way I thought I should for many more years.  Like every other time, I believed there must be some aspect I was failing in and once I figured it out, everything would come together.  It was a long, exhausting road to grace!

But back to Jeremiah…Jeremiah too had been faithful.  Jeremiah obeyed God and up until this point, he really had done it with the right attitude (unlike me).  Here in chapter fifteen though, it just hurt too much.  He had spent thirty years giving up his life for people who didn’t care and didn’t receive him.  And it wasn’t enough!  They were still steeped in their sin and they liked it that way.  Remind you of Anyone?

At this point in the book and Jeremiah’s life, the rubber was meeting the road.  The Babylonians were at the gate so to speak, Jerusalem was under siege and it was time for the price to be paid.  Jeremiah probably knew that it really was only going to get worse from there and he couldn’t go on…in his own strength that is.

What did God want in that moment?  He wanted Jeremiah, all of him, and He wanted to be known by him.  So He did what God always does, He revealed the way back:

Jeremiah 15:19a (NASB)

“Therefore, thus says the Lord, “If you return, then I will restore you— before Me you will stand;”

No matter what our circumstances, no matter where we are in our walk with Him, God wants us to bring it all to Him – the good, the bad and the ugly.  In every area of our lives He wants us know what it means to be one with the Living God, to have Him dwell in us and to live out of the depth of that relationship instead of our own strength.  The truth is we can’t do any of it in our own strength, there are just times we are more aware of that truth than others.

Is there an area of your life that’s not working and in fact is failing?  How honest are you willing to be with God about it?  Are you willing to take the road of surrender back to Him and find out what it means to truly know Him and be one with Him?  Even if it means laying down your own agenda, your own future? Are you willing to see God’s promises come to fruition on His timetable and not yours? What is it that you really want from God?  Tell Him about it.

Expectations

It took a lot for me to not post this right after my last piece on Jeremiah, but I did promise I would try to write about my overflow of Jeremiah thoughts on Fridays AFTER our Bible study class meets on Thursdays.  I am, however, actually writing this immediately after the last Jeremiah post because I can’t quite move on in my mind and I am still trying to unpack the wealth of treasure God placed in that first AMAZING chapter.

Going back to the first three verses from last week, God reveals some very important personal information about Jeremiah:  he was “the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.”  In that sentence God tells us that Jeremiah was a priest, which means he was a Levite, the only tribe set apart by God to serve as priests.  By telling us that Jeremiah was “of the priests of Anathoth” (a city set apart for the sons of Aaron, see Joshua 21), it is also very possible that Jeremiah was an Aaronite. Aaronites were a very specific group of priests who made all the offerings to the Lord. They also took turns serving as High Priest in the Temple. Other Levites could not serve in these ways.

What has captivated my thoughts is this, Jeremiah grew up expecting to serve in the priesthood just like his father.  He expected it and his family expected it.  If he was indeed an Aaronite He probably spent time studying and learning how to be a priest and how to appropriately offer all the sacrifices God required (just read the book of Leviticus).  His future was defined in many ways simply by the fact that he was born into a certain family.  According to God’s own law Jeremiah’s occupation was predetermined for him.

But then, when he was still a youth, “the word of the Lord came” to him and his life was changed forever.  He was set apart and called to speak for God Himself as a prophet not just to his own people, but to the nations (and to us if you will).  When we explore all 52 chapters of Jeremiah, we find that he carried out his new career plan faithfully.  Faithful – that word doesn’t seem adequate to describe a man who endured death threats, beatings, imprisonment and near starvation so that God’s wayward people would hear the truth of His love – there must be a much bigger word to describe a man like that.

The question that is rolling around in my mind is, how do I respond when God’s plan doesn’t match my expectations?  Do I faithfully walk in the way He puts before me?  Or do I sulk and take myself out of the game because I don’t like the new play God’s calling?  Am I willing to lay down my own expectations, even when they seem to be godly, to be part of what God is doing or do I make it all about me?

I don’t know about you, but in a lot of ways my life looks nothing like I expected.  Honestly it’s been a lot more difficult than anything I imagined, but would I change any of it?  Absolutely not!  It’s all brought me to this place, at this time with the people I couldn’t imagine living without.  And it’s all brought me to my knees in surrender to the One who sees it all.

Is there something God’s calling you to that doesn’t match your expectations? How will you respond?

A New Man in My Life

Our Bible study class has just begun a four month journey through the book of Jeremiah.  I love the beginning of a study.  To me it is like the beginning of a new relationship.  You spend time with the person, you get to know their personality, and at some point you start to feel like you understand them.  After doing inductive Bible studies for over four years (we use Precept Ministries materials) I know that by the time this study ends I will be so attached to Jeremiah that it will feel like moving away from my best friend.  I love the daily, systematic time in God’s Word. I would probably go so far as to say that I crave it.

Because of the time it takes to study and prepare for class each week it is very likely some of my thoughts about Jeremiah (the book and the man) will leak out here in this space.  Since our class meets on Thursdays I will try to hold back my Jeremiah overflow until Fridays, but I can’t really promise anything.

I do consider the overarching theme of this blog to be about grace.  The truth about grace, how it affects me, and how it then impacts those around me.  So my partner in crime teaching partner and I have been discussing grace in the book of Jeremiah.  If you haven’t read the book, let me summarize:

“I love you.  You’ve been disobedient.  Repent or destruction is coming.”

I don’t want to minimize the importance of studying all 52 chapters of this book (I am in fact the LAST person who would minimize the importance of Bible study), but if you could boil it down this is God’s message to His people.  So why did He take 52 chapters to say it?

Consider the opening verses of Jeremiah 1:

“The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the exile of Jerusalem in the fifth month.”

I believe the grace of God and the reason it took 52 chapters are hidden right there in those first three verses (the one’s we usually gloss over quickly because we don’t recognize or can’t pronounce the names) and all you need are a couple of cross-references (Hint: 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34-36) and probably a timeline to decode it.  If you translate the reigns of the three kings mentioned in the first three verses to dates in history what you find is that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry lasted over 50 years.

The 52 chapters of Jeremiah were over a very LONG period of time.  It is God’s grace that He repeated His call to repentance over and over and over again, in many different ways.  His desire was that Israel return to Him, not that they would be taken captive.  There is also grace in the life of Jeremiah.  In many ways he laid down most of his life for a message that no one wanted to hear and openly rejected.

Today God’s message is the same, repent and return to me.  His desire is that none should perish.  Isn’t this essentially the call to follow Christ?  One question for us to consider is, “Am I willing to obey God and be a Jeremiah for the sake of others?”