Luther’s Call to Integrity and Sincerity

In Luther the Preacher, Fred Meusner relates this striking quote from Martin Luther to pastors:

The call is: watch, study, attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well…the devil…the world…[and] our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent

-Martin Luther, WA 53, 218; qtd. in Fred Meusner, Luther the Preacher, 41

Here I hear a call to integrity, a fittingness between each part of one’s life and the next. In fact, Luther charges us to live so that each part of life would empower the next: Let your reading foster understanding that fosters teaching that fosters holiness that fosters reading.

It’s also a call to sincerity, to a driven, clear, passionate way of living. This is fitting: Those who know Christ want more of Christ, and those who find more of Christ know Christ more deeply.

This clarion call reminds me of another charge to pastors, this one from Scripture:

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

-2 Corinthians 2:17

If we would speak in Christ, let us pray, read, study, and live in Christ. This is a call I personally need to hear and embody, one we cannot obey too fully. Let us live and think and speak with integrity and sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God, in Christ.

 

“And Jesus Said, ‘I Want To'”

Here’s a short story from the Bible that really encouraged me this morning.

And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you want, you can make me clean.” And he stretched out his hand, saying, “I want to—be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.

-Matthew 8:2-4

Sometimes the simplest words are the most important. We often forget this and often forget to use them. For example, we often forget to tell those we love that we “like” them, though that’s it’s own, unique, beautiful statement. We sometimes forget the power of saying “that makes me happy” or “that makes me sad.”

Here, Matthew has Jesus only saying two words: Thelo, “I want to,” and catharisteti, “be clean.” To help the man, he need only say the second, and yet he takes the time to say the first: Thelo, “I want to.” It’s a simple word but a powerful one on Jesus’ lips.

It encourages me this morning as I come to Jesus needing to be cleansed. In particular, jealously, judgmentalness, impatience, and pride seem to have grown in my spirit over the last couple days, and I need help. It soothes me to remember that Jesus Christ is the kind of Lord who turns to His followers and says not only “I can, will, and do cleanse you” but also “I want to.” This Lord really cares about us, He really loves us, He even likes us, and that totally changes the feeling of coming to Him for help.

Jesus still sends the man to the priest, as if to say “don’t forget everything else about me and my Father.” Don’t discard everything about God’s jealousy and holiness and justice—Jesus has just said, after all, “I came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it”—but do not forget his unchanging mercy, his unflagging kindness, his unfading affection for those who muster up the faith to come to Him.

“If you want to, Lord, you can make me clean.”

“I do want to; be clean!”

The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

-Nehemiah 8:9-12

In the book of Nehemiah, the people go through three phases that we go through ourselves, perhaps in big ways over the courses of our lives, but also in small ways even in the course of a day.

For much of the book, the people have forgotten about the Lord altogether, and when we forget the Lord we have no purpose. When we forget that there’s a god–God–and we go about our lives like humans are the pinnacle and the point of the universe, we quickly become discouraged by death, pettiness, injustice, and failure.

However, in the beginning of chapter 8, the people hear the word of the Lord, remember their God, remember their sin, and remember that they have failed God. When we first remember this about the Lord, it seems as if we have no hope. After all, we’ve lived our lives or our mornings having forgotten about Him entirely. We’ve lived like He’s not there, and that’s a frightening realization.

Yet, as the people weep, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites say, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” They take their hands and look in their eyes and remind them of “the joy of the Lord.” Is this joy the Lord feels? Is this joy the Lord puts in us? Is this joy that simply arises when we encounter the Lord? The Hebrew is as unclear as the English. Whichever sense Nehemiah means to emphasize, the others and more can’t be far behind–they seem to come together. We’ve remembered God and we’ve remembered our failure, but when we look up and see not a frown but a grin, a beckoning, a just-breaking laugh, the joy of the Lord is our strength.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be troubled by our sin, nor that God says “it’s nothing.” Rather, God taken care of this terrible problem in the most terrific possible way, through His Son Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, through His “Spirit of adoption as children, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” So go and eat, drink and share, and let the joy of the Lord be your strength. “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

“A More Faithful and God-Fearing Man Than Many”

What do you make of this phrase? Nehemiah uses it to describe the person to put into leadership:

I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.

-Nehemiah 7:2

I can see why some people wouldn’t like this kind of talk. Something akin to “holier than many” sounds a lot like “holier than thou,” an attitude we typically don’t enjoy and particularly dislike in our culture today. Might it be presumptuous to sort people into faithful and not faithful, God-fearing and otherwise? It might be, but if there’s such a thing as a leader, then this category–“more faithful and God-fearing than many”–might instead be something we need to recognize and seek out.

I’ll put my cards on the table: I believe it is. Yes, we should be wary of a “holier than thou” attitude, but that doesn’t mean we should discount the notion of holiness. Nehemiah doesn’t say anything here about sorting people into categories; instead, he’s seeks to search the character of these two men, and I think that’s right.

As I often have to remind myself, just because something happens in the Bible doesn’t mean that it’s what should happen. The mere fact that Nehemiah considers his brother “a more faithful and God-fearing man than many” and puts him in charge doesn’t mean that we should follow the same pattern. However, this is part of a larger pattern in Scripture, the kind of pattern that does tell us what should happen in the Church: God rejects King Saul because he does not fear God (1 Samuel 15). Jesus’ key question to Peter is, “Do you love me?” and his command is “Tend my lambs” (John 21:15-19). Paul tells Timothy, “an overseer must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).

We shouldn’t expect our leaders to be perfect, because no one is. We shouldn’t try to find the person who’s more faithful than everyone else, because the Church is big and needs lots of leaders and we’re not the only part that matters. We shouldn’t expect leaders to be finished products, to already be all that they are called to become. Yet, we should seek leaders who are more faithful and God-fearing than many; that’s just plain wise–we should seek leaders who are faithful and God-fearing so that they can lead us in becoming faithful and God-fearing. This, after all, is what we are aiming for together, what God Himself is carrying His people toward, through these people He is transforming by His Spirit.

Do Not Pastor From Ambition

In my reading for class the other day, I came across a passage from Chrysostom that pastors and aspiring pastors would do well to heed today.

In his book On the Priesthood, Chrysostom has just tricked his friend Basil (not a promising start, but bear with the man). They had agreed that if either of them would go into the priesthood, they would go together; if they would refrain, both would refrain. However, after Chrysostom said he would accept his appointment and Basil made arrangements to follow his lead, Chrysostom hid and let Basil be ordained alone, leaving Basil to ask why he tricked him and what he’s supposed to do now. Chrysostom tells Basil that he tricked him so that the Church would not be deprived of such a worthy priest, but he himself declined the offer because his own character was not up to the task.

Some people would have said that Chrysostom was tricking Basil because he must have been ambitious, because he must have thought–like many others at the time–that the priests sidetracked their careers to care for others, whereas the solo ascetics got the real glory and fame. Chrysostom denies this charge, arguing that the priesthood is actually the more admirable vocation of the two, but he says that the priest who accepts the call out of ambition will be a poor priest in the end. He sees this ambition in himself, and he claims that this is why he is unfit for the ministry.

I don’t know exactly what to make of Chrysostom’s view of himself, but I’m fairly sure he has a good read on this truth about pastoral ministry:

For there are very many other qualities, Basil, besides those already mentioned, which the priest ought to have, but which I do not possess; and, above all, this one:—his soul ought to be thoroughly purged from any lust after the office: for if he happens to have a natural inclination for this dignity, as soon as he attains it a stronger flame is kindled, and the man being taken completely captive will endure innumerable evils in order to keep a secure hold upon it, even to the extent of using flattery, or submitting to something base and ignoble, or expending large sums of money.

-Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 3.10

In fact, Chrysostom seems to have a good read on what James says right before talking about “the wisdom from above”:

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

-James 3:15-16

Let us purge our souls “from any lust after office,” that we might instead become servants of God and the servants of God’s servants, for there is one Lord: Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

What Does It Mean To Say That Jesus Is “The Christ”? Summarizing A Summer Of Reading

This summer I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, and Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Like Wright says about his friends and colleagues in each preface, anything worthwhile in the following blog post owes a great deal to his work, whereas any oversights or inaccuracies are solely my responsibility. This is not a summary of Wright’s proposal, but it’s a summary of some of my central thoughts after spending the summer reading his work.

I was recently asked to teach the high school students at our church about “Christ in the Bible”; that is, given the whole sweep of Scripture, what do we mean when we call Jesus “the Christ.” This was a great opportunity to reflect on these books that come at this question (alongside others) from a variety of angles, and to visualize the new insight I’ve gained along the way.

So, as to the question, “What does it mean to call Jesus the Christ?,” after a summer of reading and several years of theological education, here’s my current answer.

“The Christ” is the way that one would say “the Messiah” in Greek (the language of the New Testament) in 1st century Israel/Palestine. Therefore, it’s helpful to reconsider the story of the people that led up to the Messianic hope. Here’s how I imagine a napkin-back stretch from a 1st century Jerusalem cafe, attempting to show “how we got to now” (note that various events, people, and promises happen or appear in chronological order from top to bottom):

Creation: God creates a good world. Genesis 1:1-25. E.g., “And God made the bests of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (1:25).
Creation Problem: See “Human Problem”
Humanity (Adam): God creates humans in His image to have dominion over creation. Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8. E.g., “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (8:4-5).
Humanity Problem: Humans sin, which both spoils their purpose as good creation and derails their responsibility to take care of creation.
Israel as Blessing (Abraham): Within humanity, God prepares a distinct group of people, Abraham’s offspring, to bless humanity. Genesis 12:2-3, “And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Israel as Blessing Problem: See “Righteous Israel Problem”
Righteous Israel (Moses): To distinguish this distinct group, God gives the law so that this blessing-people will be a righteous people. Deuteronomy 28-30. E.g.,  “And if you faithfully obey…The LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (28:1), “But if you will not obey…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (28:15), “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse…and you call them to mind…and return to the LORD you God…then the LORD your God will retire your fortunes and have mercy on you” (30:1-3).
Righteous Israel Problem: Israel does obey, thereby bringing the curses—eventually, exile—upon themselves. This prevents them from being the blessing to the nations.
King (David): God gives Israel a human king, and He even promises that David’s line shall be “sure forever before me.” 2 Samuel 7:12-17. E.g., “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13).
King Problem: Worse than Israel failing in its calling, it eventually fails to exist as a political entity. The royal line increasingly disobeys God, is eventually carried into captivity, and seems—like Israel—to have been all but wiped out.
Messiah: With all these things having fallen to sin, death, and exile, one small hope seems to be the hope for a “Messiah,” a leader who will restore the throne, thus restoring Israel. Psalm 2:2, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his Messiah (‘Anointed One’).” Isaiah 11:1-5, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
Messiah Problem: No one knows when, if, or how this will happen, nor is it the primary hope of most people at the time. 
The Return of YHWH: Most people expect that when the kingship and Israel and restored (perhaps through the Messiah?) YHWH’s (“the LORD’s”) presence will return to the temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 30; Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore, thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.”
The Return of YHWH Problem: Israel’s return to YHWH seems nearly impossible—the former temple was destroyed; the current one is set up by a governorship, a phony Roman stand-in for the king they once had, they are essentially still “in exile” in their own land.

I should note that not everyone was talking about “the Messiah” then. Some people may have been speculating as to when the Messiah would come, what he would be like, and what he would do, but for many people Messianic hopes were peripheral and minor at best, if they could be hoped for at all.

Thus, I’d like to imagine that I just dug this 1st century napkin-back sketch out of the ground, miraculously preserved, and I’m trying to show how Jesus, as we understand Him now–this side of the incarnation, this side of the crucifixion, this side of the resurrection–came as the Messiah who did more than anyone ever expected of the Messiah, how Jesus the Christ, as the Christ, comes as the merciful key to more locks than anyone expected he could turn.

Here’s how Jesus fulfills these promises, supersedes these people, and renews these events. I’m continuing to fill in the same chart, but this time from bottom to top (note the newly filled right two columns):

The Return of YHWH: Most people expect that when the kingship and Israel and restored (perhaps through the Messiah?) YHWH’s (“the LORD’s”) presence will return to the temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 30; Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore, thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.” The Return of YHWH: Rather than waiting to Israel to return to God, God chooses to make the first move and return to Israel, “being born in the likeness of men” as Jesus of Nazareth. Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18, e.g., “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (vv.1-2, 14).
The Return of YHWH Problem: Israel’s return to YHWH seems nearly impossible—the former temple was destroyed; the current one is set up by a governorship, a phony Roman stand-in for the king they once had, they are essentially still “in exile” in their own land.
Messiah: With all these things having fallen to sin, death, and exile, one small hope seems to be the hope for a “Messiah,” a leader who will restore the throne, thus restoring Israel. Psalm 2:2, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his Messiah (‘Anointed One’).” Isaiah 11:1-5, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Jesus the Messiah: Far exceeding anyone’s expectations for a Messiah (who knew He would actually be God or rise from the dead long before anyone else?), Jesus of Nazareth is nonetheless is the Anointed, the Shoot of Jesse who comes to restore God’s will. “Christ” is the way to say “Messiah” in Greek, and the New Testament is literally crammed full with this name/title. Mark 8:27-30, “And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” See also every instance of the word “Christ.”
Messiah Problem: No one knows when, if, or how this will happen, nor is it the primary hope of most people at the time. 
King (David): God gives Israel a human king, and He even promises that David’s line shall be “sure forever before me.” 2 Samuel 7:12-17. E.g., “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13). King Jesus: Jesus is both the physical descendant of David (Matthew 1 declares this) and the one whose throne God establishes forever—though in a different, slower, more cosmic way than most expect. Ephesians 4:8; Revelation 5; Acts 13:32-39, e.g., “what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’”
King Problem: Worse than Israel failing in its calling, it eventually fails to exist as a political entity. The royal line increasingly disobeys God, is eventually carried into captivity, and seems—like Israel—to have been all but wiped out.
Righteous Israel (Moses): To distinguish this distinct group, God gives the law so that this blessing-people will be a righteous people. Deuteronomy 28-30. E.g.,  “And if you faithfully obey…The LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (28:1), “But if you will not obey…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (28:15), “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse…and you call them to mind…and return to the LORD you God…then the LORD your God will retire your fortunes and have mercy on you” (30:1-3). Righteous Jesus: Jesus becomes what Israel was meant to be, and He can become the blessing (above) because He embodies the righteousness. Because He lived within the Law, His people can be restored by merit of being “in Him” rather than within the Law. Galatians 3:23-29, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until the Messiah came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, you are no longer under a guardian, for in Messiah Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…There is neither Jew nor Greek…And if you are the Messiah’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Righteous Israel Problem: Israel does obey, thereby bringing the curses—eventually, exile—upon themselves. This prevents them from being the blessing to the nations.
Israel as Blessing (Abraham): Within humanity, God prepares a distinct group of people, Abraham’s offspring, to bless humanity. Genesis 12:2-3, “And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Jesus as Blessing: Just as Jesus takes over Israel’s failed commission to live within the Law, so He takes over Israel’s commission to bless the nations—all humanity—not least of which through those who have His Spirit in them, who are thus “in Him.” Galatians 3:13-14, “The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Israel as Blessing Problem: See “Righteous Israel Problem”
Humanity (Adam): God creates humans in His image to have dominion over creation. Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8. E.g., “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (8:4-5). Jesus as True Humanity: Not only does Jesus become the True Israel to bless all humanity, He becomes the True Human to bless all creation, making a way for those who are “in Him” to become this as well. Note that the true enemies are not the Gentiles but rather sin and death, and that Jesus defeats them by dying and rising again. 1 Corinthians 15:22-27, e.g., “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive…For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet’ [see Psalm 8, left].”
Humanity Problem: Humans sin, which both spoils their purpose as good creation and derails their responsibility to take care of creation.
Creation: God creates a good world. Genesis 1:1-25. E.g., “And God made the bests of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (1:25). New Creation: When YHWH comes as His own Messiah, becoming the promised King, becoming true righteous and world-blessing Israel, becoming the True Human, He sets in motion a new, reconciled creation. Colossians 1:19-20, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Creation Problem: See “Human Problem”

Again, I must take full credit for the flaws in this framework and give boundless credit to the other thinkers I’ve read in the last few years. Yet, I would say that this basically shows what I think it means to say that Jesus is “the Christ,” and why it has become so important to me to learn to see myself and others as “in Christ,” part of the remade people, image, and creation of God.

What We Can Make of Martyrdom

I think I will always remember riding in the back of a rickshaw in Mumbai, watching a YouTube video on my companion’s phone of a rural pastor in a neighboring state being beaten to death. It was “normal” for this brother in that it was nearby and familiar, but not at all “normal” because it seemed so wrong, so unlike how this world should be. I think that’s why he felt we should watch it.

God’s people are killed. Stories like this–e.g., this story from last month–sadly abound, and we are left asking what to make of it. I don’t know exactly what this tells us about how God works, but I know what it doesn’t mean: The death of God’s saints does not mean that God does not notice, nor that He does not care, nor that He does not have a plan, nor that we cannot trust Him. Scripture takes those potential implications seriously but refutes them with passages of assurance like Revelation 6:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

-Revelation 6:9-11

This is more than assurance about “someday” and “somewhere.” This truth can help us here and now. The psalmist, for example, finds great hope in the fact that God sees and knows. Even though he says,

          I spoke:
“I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm,
“All mankind are liars.”

-Psalm 116:10-11

he affirms a few lines later,

Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints.

-Psalm 116:15

and this enables him to say,

O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.

-Psalm 116:16

We don’t know when or how God will set things right, but we do know that He can, He plans to, and He will. We grieve for the martyrs, but we also trust that when “the number of their fellow servants and their brothers is complete,” things are going to change, because “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” This is a trustworthy God, to whom we can say with full assurance, “I am your servant,” because this God is faithful to those who are His.

We Can’t Fix Forever

Even in my short life of 27 years, I’ve gotten caught up in movements, organizations, ideals that seemed like they were going to fix everything forever. New churches, new discipleship plans, new community development strategies, new vocabulary, new practices–they can each seem like the long-awaited, unfading, never-ending fix.

However, so can cell phones, and if commercials tell us anything, cell phones come and go with each NFL season, as regularly as the NFL players themselves.

That’s not to say that we can’t do good or do well. We can, and we should try. Yet, we should do so knowing that we’re only one small patch of the world, one small moment in time, and any progress we make will need to be handed off to others for them to continue, supersede, or neglect.

Consider these snatches from the last 5 verses of the Book of Joshua:

After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being 110 years old. They buried him…

Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel…

As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them…

And Eleazar the son of Aaron died, and they buried him…

-Joshua 24:29-33

The beautiful thing is, Joshua’s generation, which talked big about staying faithful to God, lived up to its word. They “served the LORD” as they promised. Joshua and his fellow leaders and in particular the people did a very good job. We should look back and say, “well done,” because (in a good way) you can’t change the past.

You can’t change the past, but you also can’t secure the future. Joshua died. Joseph had died. Eleazar died. The buried them in the ground, and by the start of the next book of the Bible (Judges) the people make a sharp turn toward disobedience.

I think this should shape our perspective on today in three ways:

First, we should foster in ourselves the humility that comes from recalling that we are “but a breath” as the Bible reminds us.

Second, whatever we may invest in structures, organizations, and procedures, we must not fail to invest in the people whose decisions will shape the years after we are gone.

Third, we should should save a special type of hope only for our great God, who can fix forever, who has promised to do so. We cannot fix forever, but our God has already set his great fix in motion through Jesus Christ.

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.

-Isaiah 65:17-19

Not Because Of Our Righteousness

Sometimes it feels like we frankly deserve none of it: God’s help, God’s deliverance, God’s Spirit, God’s promises. Like Noah’s neighbors or the Tower of Babel builders, we’ve sometimes got it so wrong–as individuals or as communities, even as a whole society–that God would be entirely justified in moving on.

Daniel felt this way, fairly reconciled to the exile he found himself in:

As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.

-Daniel 9:13-14

Yet, Daniel still had one merit to point to, one card to play. He still had one basis for prayer: Not their merit but God’s:

O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.

-Daniel 9:18-19

This doesn’t mean that if we really mess things up as a nation God won’t let us live with the consequences. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that if we totally ruin things as the Church–the “people called by God’s name”!–that He won’t allow our sins to have their real effect. However, it does mean that we can always pray and always hope, furthermore that God will always have a people, a possession, a holy and blessed witness–somewhere–because God is merciful; that’s simply how He is.

I may fumble that calling, and for that I believe I am still forgiven in Christ. My hope is in being in Christ, which means that my hope not only is Christ, my hope is that Christ will be liked, loved, adored, worshipped, exalted, and glorified on the earth. And this? This shall certainly come to pass, not because of our righteousness, but because of the great, unmatched, unfading mercy of God.

(This post starts off a new Tuesday/Thursday schedule, which I plan to continue until the baby comes around December, at which point I plan to further reduce to once a week. Thank you, everyone who has encouraged me in this writing habit, as it’s helped me grow the character and gifts I believe God would have me use for His glory)

The Injustice of Illness

This summer, I read a memoir about illness, a reflection on the loneliness and frustration of convalescence. A friend with chronic pain recommended it to me, and the author helped me to pause and peek inside the experience of injury or illness. With a crash of helpless feelings, it seems all plans go out the window, for who knows how long.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating considers how slow life became, how sickness seemed to remove her from the world. Her illness so suspended her life that she begrudgingly befriended a snail; eventually, by learning to move at her new pace, she found some peace and hope. In fact, from what seemed like a suspended reality, she discovered fresh insight into the rest of us spinning around her. She writes,

We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.

-Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, kindle loc. 292

This swirling unreality caused me to ask, how could I have encouraged Tova Bailey? What do we know, as Christians, that meets us in that seemingly suspended place, the shock and frustration of chronic fatigue or pain?

I think primarily this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

-Matthew 5:3-5

This “sermon introduction” from Jesus is not everything that I might rush to say: “I’m sure you’ll get better soon…I’m sure God has a plan in all this…I’m sure…” Then again, why am I so sure? Jesus doesn’t say anything here about soon or not soon, nor about bad things actually being good. Jesus doesn’t suggest to the poor that they will soon be like everyone else, nor to the mourning that they’re thinking about it all wrong, nor to the meek that everyone will soon be so impressed with their meekness that they’ll never have to be meek again.

Instead, Jesus makes a promise (one that still takes faith to receive, because we have not seen it come true). It’s not a mantra, teaching us to just see things differently. It’s a personal promise, which means that it’s as trustworthy as the promiser, that the promised gift will be in proportion to the promiser’s power. It’s not primarily about reframing the present; it’s about our hope for real, future change.

Sickness really isn’t fair. Sick people often don’t need proverbs or adages or insights from those of us who haven’t been sick. That’s why we can only pass on a promise–with the quiet voice of those still waiting in hope–from our Maker and King, the one, unlike any of us, who has gone through death itself, who has risen from the dead and turned back to soon raise us too, the Beginning and the End: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

As John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).