Monday, May 26, 2014

When The People's Hearts Shook


When used in a secular reference, it is a non-threatening term meaning complete and utter trust, confidence in either someone or in some thing.  Used as a religious term, though, this small word can stir up a firestorm sufficient to destroy the planet.

Many in modern American society perceive such religious faith to be blind ignorance, the equivalent of sticking one's head in the sand.  Others consider faith a crutch for the weak-minded who cannot stand on their own two feet.

Hebrews tells us, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1).  It is belief without proof--scientific, archaeological, or otherwise....the opposite of what our logical, hyper-rational society educates us to engage in.

No matter the negative publicity this kind of faith gets, this is what God calls all men to--a living faith in Jesus that marks our every step, one that permeates every hour of our day, every action we undertake, and every thought that we dwell upon.  The difference between faith and lack of faith only seems insignificant.  In truth, it is the difference between standing and falling, between eternal life and death.

This choice, though, is not new to our generation.  In ancient Jerusalem, King Ahaz was given a clear choice between faith and faithlessness.  The test of his faith began when the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to the King in a time of great national danger.  Scripture reports how "his [Ahaz's] heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind" (Is. 7:2).

Intense, earth-quaking fear shook God's people as they watched Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel join forces to wage war against Jerusalem.  And yet, in the midst of such danger, God called upon Ahaz to not weigh the political odds but, instead, to be a man of faith: "Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands" (Is. 7:4).

Ahaz had a choice--be fainthearted without faith or be strong of heart with faith. It came down to believing that God was sufficiently able to thwart the plans of man--any man, no matter how powerful that man seemed in military might, no matter how the odds were stacked.

In last week's blog, we contemplated the plans of man versus the plans of God and how the one was subject to the other.  Here, the Lord was calling upon King Ahaz to take this concept to heart, to believe that no man's plans can "stand" if God does not will it.

The Lord said, "Because Aram, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has planned evil against you, saying, 'Let us go up against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,' thus says the Lord GOD: 'It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass....If you will not believe, you surely shall not last'" (Is. 7:5-9).

I like how the NIV phrases verse nine as "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all," hammering home this concept of standing = faith and the resulting promise that faith = standing.

In these verses, God promised King Ahaz his nation would be safe from its enemies, but only on the condition that Ahaz believe God's Word, that he have true faith in God.  If Ahaz chose not to trust in God, though, not only would he forfeit his own life and reign, but his nation would be forfeited as well. 

God even went further, telling Ahaz to "Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.' But Ahaz said, 'I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!'" (Is. 7:11-12).

The Lord's ensuing anger with Ahaz's response showed that He knew the King's heart and how this refusal to ask for a sign was only mock reverence.  In his heart, Ahaz had made a choice, to not believe God--sign or no sign--and with that choice, Ahaz and Jerusalem would both fall to their enemies.

The New Testament reiterates this lesson, saying, "But My righteous one shall live by faith; And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul" (Heb. 10:38-39).

To stand against the tree-shaking fears of this life, we have two choices.  We can choose to have faith in God and stand through it all.  Or we can live in that faithless fear and fall, destroying ourselves, our souls, and many times, the others around us in the process.

Even when it seems the illogical choice...  Even when it's not the popular choice...  Even when the world calls you a fool...

Choose to stand.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

We like to make plans.  My wall calendar is full of them.

This is where I will be on Friday. Saturday.  Next Monday.

The nursing home.  Dentist.  Library.  Birthday party.  Wedding.  Prayer walking.  Play date.  Luncheon with a friend.  Big and small events fill the squares, some frivolous fun, others serious attempt to create order out of chaos or to, at the very least, regulate the chaos.

And yet, if I flip back through the months gone by, I see the letters CAN stamped atop so many of those plans.

Illness.  Car trouble.  Family emergency.  Funeral.  Bad weather.


 All unexpected.  All taking precedence, changing the course of my day, my week.  All with the same result.  

The same is true of the larger life-altering plans I make in life--the children I will have, where I'll live, where I plan to work, how many hours, how much income I'll bring in over the next year at this job.  

Too many of these plans have been stamped Cancelled as well, even those I believed to be certainties such as my employment this summer.

As with most people, the children of Israel were fond of making plans, too.  One of those plans concerned Israel's safety.

Judah was frightened by the world powers coming against it.  Scripture says "Rezin the king of Aram and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.  When it was reported to the house of David, saying, 'The Arameans have camped in Ephraim,' his [King Ahaz's] heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind" (Is. 7:1-2).

The children of Israel and her leaders were literally shaking in their boots. And so, in the face of this two-headed threat, they did the "logical" thing to do--they made plans for their protection, seeking security in a political alliance with a country they perceived to be stronger than they--Egypt and her chariots.

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord spoke against this plan, saying,'Woe to the rebellious children,' declares the Lord, 'Who execute a plan, but not Mine, And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit, In order to add sin to sin; Who proceed down to Egypt Without consulting Me, To take refuge in the safety of Pharaoh And to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore the safety of Pharaoh will be your shame And the shelter in the shadow of Egypt, your humiliation'" (30:1-3). 

These plans had been  formed without consulting the Lord's prophet, the Word of the Lord or the Lord, Himself.  A simple review of God's Word in the Torah would have shown God forbidding this exact alliance: "However, he must not acquire many horses for himself or send the people back to Egypt to acquire many horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are never to go back that way again'" (Deut. 17:16).  

Israel's plans were the plans of man, not the plans of God.  As such, their alliance was as meaningless as the paper they were written on.

In the New Testament, James, too, speaks of making plans: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.' You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that' (James 4:13-15)

It is impossible to go through this life without making plans.  Yet, how much better plans would we make if we stopped and sought His plans first--through His Holy Word, through prayer, and through wise counsel?  Likewise, when our plans are thwarted, how much different would our reaction be if we remembered that we don't have the big picture like God does, that the Lord obviously planned differently for our good?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Habits of the Heart: A Look at 1830s America

Alexis de Tocqueville left France for America in 1831.  His quest?  To determine why democracy had succeeded in the United States so he might apply those secrets back in his homeland.  What he found was quite enlightening.

In 1835, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, which identified America's success as being grounded in Christianity.  He understood that many were not Christians in early American culture, but the Christians who were genuine made a huge impact of the rest of society.  The difference between then and now is how those Christians lived compared to modern-day Christians.

Chris Brauns in his book Bound Together summarizes Tocqueville's discovery:

"'Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state's all-pervasive presence in his native France.'  Tocqueville believed it was Christian values and virtues, what he called 'habits of the heart,' rather than the involvement of government that made for responsible citizens.  This, he suggested, was the bedrock of the American experiment.  
      Tocqueville was not naive about the spirituality of America.  He understood that not every citizen was a professing Christian. He was aware of the fact that even among those who professed faith in Christ there was still great hypocrisy.  Even so, he noted, 'Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess a certain public respect for Christian morality and equity, so that it is not easy for them to violate the laws when those laws stand in the way of their own designs.  And even if they could overcome their own scruples, they would still be held in check by the scruples of their supporters.'
      Tocqueville was especially impressed by the effectiveness of American homes in passing along Christian 'habits of the heart,' and the strength of American homes began with a high regard for marriage: 'Of all the countries in the world, America is surely the one in which the marriage bond is most respected, and in which people subscribe to the loftiest and most just ideal of conjugal happiness.'
      Tocqueville believed that mothers, in particular, deserved high praise for teaching Christian values to their children...Tocqueville wrote, 'If someone were to ask me what I think is primarily responsible for the singular prosperity and growing power of [Americans], I would answer that it is the superiority of their women.'
      Christian 'habits of the heart,' instilled by godly parents living together in committed marriages, had given rise to a citizenry with a strong sense of civic responsibility and solidarity with one another." (p. 166).

The Christians from two centuries ago were salt and light in their nation.  They didn't withdraw completely from the world or throw up their hands in bitter, what-can-I-do-anyway defeat.  They didn't strive to be politically correct at all costs so as not to offend someone, to turn a blind eye or gently re-label sin a "choice."

The effects of early American Christianity were similar to a circle of dominoes, one causing another and then another to fall, although in this time period, they fell in a positive way.

Consider the butterfly effect mentioned in the above quotation.  Early American government was small and not intrusive because Christian morality was high (so high that even non-Christians stayed in line).  Christian morality was high because marriages were of utmost importance, making the home stable.  Because marriages were of utmost importance, parents were able not just to teach Christian values in the home but to live out those Christian values in front of their children.  Christian values, then, became ingrained in the children, thereby making Christian morality high in the overall country and minimizing the need for intrusive government.  See the loop?

America at its greatest begins with mothers and fathers.  It begins in the home.  It begins with Christians teaching and living out Biblical morality in front of their children.  It begins with Christians refusing to lock themselves inside their churches and homes and, instead, getting out into the world to let their light shine before men.

I'm not pointing a finger.  I'm speaking to myself, too.  There's nothing I'd rather do than stay on my farm, spend time with my family, or worship at church with my spiritual family.  Those are safe places that encourage me in my Christian walk.  But it's not just about me.  It is about a nation, a world full of lost people making wrong, sinful choices...and many of them have no idea they're doing anything wrong.

With Mother's Day just yesterday, I can't help but take Tocqueville's analysis of America and say, if we want our country back, the buck stops with the Christian mother and father.  We Christian parents must (1) save our families at all costs.  Divorces because of 'irreconcilable differences' or 'we just fell out of love' must stop with us.  And (2) we parents must teach and live out Christian values to and before our children.  If our children don't see us prioritizing time in the Word of God, time in worship of God, and time ministering to others in Jesus' name...why would they want to do the same?

Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we are literally one generation away from godliness or godlessness.  It's a sobering thought but one that emphasizes the importance of you and me in the fate of our home and  nation.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Flipside of a God With Us

Immanuel.  God with us.  Of all the names given to Jesus throughout Scripture, this one has always given me most pause, striking chords deep within me of utter amazement and humility.

It makes perfect sense to me that the Son of God would bear names such as "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Is. 9:6).  I readily see him as the Lion of Judah, Alpha and Omega, Bright and Morning Star.  But God with us?  

The thought of this all-powerful, all-knowing God leaving His heavenly throne to come and dwell in flesh here on earth with lowly, sinful man is, well, mind blowing at the very least.  To this day, I simply can't wrap my mind around it.

Interestingly enough, though, Scripture only uses the name Immanuel three times.

The prophet Isaiah first gives the name as a sign sent from the Lord to King Ahaz, all in a futile attempt to show the evil king his only hope of saving his throne and his nation was to trust in the Lord, not Egypt, for protection from his enemies.

Isaiah says, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14).  This dual prophecy had its fulfillment in Isaiah's day with the birth of his second son and then over 700 years later with the birth of Jesus.

Matthew makes clear this prophecy's connection to Jesus, saying, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23).

This name of Jesus is a name of hope of salvation for mankind.

However, Isaiah's second use of the name Immanuel shows the other side of the coin--the reverential fear one should feel at the thought of this God residing with sinful man.

The prophet warns, "Now therefore, behold, the Lord is about to bring on them [Israel] the strong and abundant waters of the Euphrates, Even the king of Assyria and all his glory; And it will rise up over all its channels and go over all its banks. Then it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass through, It will reach even to the neck; And the spread of its wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel" (Is. 8:7-8).

Here, Isaiah is saying something akin to "Fear, O Israel! For the Lord your God is here with you this very moment!  He has seen your sin firsthand, and His wrath is about to sweep over you like an inescapable flood."  The warning is clear--God is with us first in judgment before He can be God with us in salvation.  Yet, even in the judgment of God's presence rests the seed of salvation.  Isaiah reminds that the judgment will only reach "to the neck," implying that the head of Israel will remain--a remnant will survive God's wrath.

With this very remnant in mind, Isaiah reminds those who come against Israel, "Be broken, O peoples, and be shattered; And give ear, all remote places of the earth....Devise a plan, but it will be thwarted; State a proposal, but it will not stand, for God is with us" (Is. 8:9-10).

In essence, God is with the remnant of Israel no matter how many nations devise plans for its utter extermination.  The plans of our very present God cannot be thwarted.

God with us.

It is still a name that brings hope and comfort.  And yet, it should also strike us with reverential fear as well.  This God who is with us in times of trouble, who offers His presence to comfort, guide, and bring us to salvation in Him...He is also a God who is with us in our times of greatest sin, those moments when we are our very worst selves.

It is this knowledge that makes His offer of salvation and His choosing to reside with mankind that much more amazing.  It is this knowledge that makes Him that much more worth of our praise and devotion.