Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary. Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds. Praise Him according to His excellent greatness. (Psalm 150:1-2)
When I was 18 I began experimenting with drugs, including hallucinogens. On one of those occasions I had a strong impression I had tapped into the root of all knowledge. This impression did not feel like a hunch; it felt like a knowing. Looking back, I wonder if I bit into the forbidden fruit of The Tree of The knowledge of Good and Evil. 5 years later I experienced another type of knowing.
When I asked Jesus into my heart at 23 I didn’t just ask him to save me from sin so I could go to heaven when I die. I asked Jesus into my heart so I could escape the dying I was already doing in this life. I gave him my life to do with as he pleased. Five years of drug and alcohol use had made a wreckage of my life (and of a number of cars as well). I had become the Lord of my own ruination. I wanted a new life and that is precisely what Jesus gave me. When Jesus made his grand entrance it was as though my heart itself had somehow become a part of His mighty expanse.
There was a knowing to this new life in Christ as well but it wasn’t just a flirtation with comprehensive knowledge. I didn’t have all the information or all the answers but I knew who did and he was now closer to me than my own skin. Jesus – God’s Wisdom and Mystery had entered my life, claiming it as his sanctuary. Astonishingly, my wasteland of a heart had become the dwelling place of God!
Jesus did not wear off 4 hours after taking a pill. With Christ in me, relationship with God has worked itself out as an abiding experience. Encountering Jesus Christ has been an utterly disruptive yet exquisitely beautiful thing.
Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary. Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds. Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Its important to keep in mind the matter for which God sent his Word. We have to go all the way back to Genesis and consider just what happened in the Garden. After the first couple disobeyed God something horrific occurred. They were evicted from Paradise and barred from returning. Yet even more tragic than man’s appointed toil with the earth and woman’s with labor, their nature’s had been altered. Sin had entered into the human personality sending his spirit into a coma. The inner light had gone out. Beings who had openly communed with God were removed from his presence and their walks and conversations with him ceased. Broken relationship is the matter for which God sent his Word.
The inspired writer’s of the Old Testament began recording the prelude to the day when God would send his Word. It is a story of a chosen people, living by various covenants with a God who had begun to reveal himself once again. It is a story of people ham-strung in heart, incapable of responding to God with the kind of intimacy and trust originally enjoyed by Adam and Eve. God’s intentions are to restore his relationship with man and creation.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
No one knew this better than the prophets. They too had been given revelations and insights to their covenant God yet they knew their light only created shadows of what was to come. Twice Ezekiel hints of the coming remedy.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.(Ezekiel 11 & 36)
We gentiles represent the unanticipated twist in the plot. The veil remained over the chosen people’s heart while the eyes of gentiles were opened to the matter that remained on God’s heart – the spirit-to-spirit reconciliation between man and himself.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
We know that the Word lived among us for 33 years endeavoring to expose matters of the heart and reveal to the world his true nature. The Word surrendered himself to his Father’s will and became the Lamb who was slain as an atonement for our sins. He was crucified and raised from the dead and ascended, giving us the Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit became the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophetic hint. With Christ now in us, by way of the Holy Spirit, we obtained new hearts. Trusting in this narrative, Jesus Christ became our very life. We became new creatures and our capacity to commune with our Maker was restored. This was the matter for which God sent his Word.
For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:9-12)
While this promise was originally made to Israel, we gentiles have been given the opportunity to now watch over our hearts diligently by honoring the restored privilege of communion with God. It is as though we have been placed at an equisite banqueting table and have been invited to partake.
I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. (John 6:35)
Father, help us to keep in mind the matter for which you sent Your Word. Teach us to pause so that the rain and the snow will not have come down from heaven in vain. May our Word not return to You without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater. Teach us to take up our knives and forks so that Your Word will not return to You empty, without accomplishing that which You have desired, and without succeeding in the matter for which You sent it. Amen.
Parable of the Marriage Feast
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)
Have you met flannel graph Jesus? This is the Jesus who is introduced to children in Sunday school. On a board with a scenic backdrop, flannel graph Jesus is stuck into various scenes where he is fond of sheep and strolls in the countryside with close friends. When he stops, the children crawl up on his lap. He is kind to everyone. This Jesus is soft and kind of fuzzy.
I confess, this is mostly just a childhood impression left on me from my irregular Sunday school attendance. On most Sundays, I recall watching cartoons and westerns in my parents’ bedroom as they smoked and read the Sunday paper. I wonder, had I become a regular attender, would I have eventually been introduced to flannel graph images of Jesus Christ with his fuzz all wore off, with him saying:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.
A pastor friend told me with great certainty he no longer had any fear or trembling. I know where he was coming from, and I respect his view because it is born out of his understanding of God’s grace and sovereignty. However, I now wish we would have worked harder at a common understanding. It would have helped because I am still working out my salvation with a kind of fear and trembling.
I fear for us who believe we are Christians yet who have not lost our lives. I fear because Jesus said this is what following him would ultimately cost. I tremble for those of us who have said “yes” to the flannel graph gospel, a salvation only gospel, which secures for us eternal life yet scarcely inconveniences us in this one. This gospel is “good news” only because denying ourselves is not required. In this gospel, Jesus gets his flannel shredded and ours goes unscathed.
The sobering words of our passage are spoken by the Jesus who had real skin in the game, who endeavors, as always, to rescue us from the lies we’ve ingested about him. The ultimate delusion is going to dawn when some of us find ourselves at the right party in the wrong attire, clothed with the notion that God’s will was to pamper our furry little hides in this life. It does cause me a type of fear and trembling, knowing the flannel graph gospel fills churches by telling sheep it is God’s will they are to all be healthy wealthy and wise. This gospel could never have been sold to the early church. The life and teaching of the apostles would have protected the flock from a gospel barren of the cross they were to carry.
Believers carrying crosses? To many this thought is blasphemous: “Jesus bore my cross! Get behind me Satan with such man-centered notions!” The kingdom of God I see presented in the New Testament has Jesus as both Savior and Lord. Lordship has always been indispensable to the kingdom gospel preached by the real Jesus.
Many preach around Lordship, as it seems to involve a type of intentionality hostile to grace. I’m aware complexities arise when obedience is introduced. Admittedly, a salvation only gospel is much cleaner and so much less offensive. If my sole objective were to attract numbers and dollars, it would be a no-brainer as to which gospel I would preach.
For myself, fear and trembling is not personal fretting about a coming judgment. It is more of a sobriety: it involves an absence of certainty, a moving forward into the unknowns of battle by faith with the light I have been given – not exhaustive, but sufficient.
Father, would you open our hearts afresh to the full gospel, the one that sets captives free. Let our dialogue regarding your kingdom continue and may a common understanding of this world without end ensue. Amen.
“Be prepared to tell your story” was the only instruction I was given to prepare for a week at Fire Creek Retreat in North Carolina. With a handful of other men, I would be spending the better part of a week with “listening” as my primary occupation. While this seemed a bit odd, the unique circumstances of being invited to this gathering had awakened my curiosity.
I had been aware of Jack Taylor for many years. I had read of an account where his Baptist church in Texas had experienced an amazing revival and explosive growth which could not have been accounted for without a visitation by God. When I heard him speak, years later, I heard a man still infected with God’s kingdom, full of humor, wisdom, passion and freedom. When he called me from an airport in Florida, I was all ears. Sure I was interested in knowing Jack Taylor, but I was also interested in a fresh taste of revival.
God had rescued me at the tail end of a revival known as the Jesus Movement. It too was a time that can only be accounted for by a divine visitation. Rightfully so, revival is addictive. It was hunger for revival in large part that drew Jack’s guests to Fire Creek. Most of us had experienced God in significant ways in large corporate meetings, so our curiosity was piqued, and we wondered what to expect in this small gathering.
Two factors contributed to the dynamic at Fire Creek. First, for us, was the simplicity of telling our stories, discovering God’s fingerprints in our lives under the guidance of a spiritual father. No preaching? No teaching? That may sound underwhelming, but being fully present to each other, away from cell phones and media, was an ideal context. The second component was silent, but it had its own story to tell—nature herself. Today’s passage begins:
The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands…
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech and there is no words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their sound has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterance to the end of the world.
Romans 1:18-20 speaks of God’s eternal power and divine nature being suppressed in man while creation herself remains a faithful witness. Her testimony is sufficient to remove any excuse man might have to deny the Creator.
I think God took us a bit by surprise at Fire Creek. When we disconnected from our routines, it seemed we had rediscovered the capacity to listen and become more available to God and to each other. I didn’t see tongues of fire on any man’s head, but I did see the love of God overtake a few hearts. Our stories had converged with nature’s, creating a setting conducive to renewal.
There is much going on in God’s kingdom; not everything looks like what he has done before. Most of us have prayed for more of God. Have we considered that when he answers this prayer, the new wine he pours will inevitably strain our old wine skins? That said, if we have the opportunity to gather in smaller settings where we might really come to know others and be known ourselves, we should jump in. And, if we can get outside where God has always been speaking, we will have taken steps is a good direction.
Father, those occasions where we perceive you have been more directly involved in our lives, where it seems heaven and earth have overlapped, are naturally desirable to us. We cannot help but love Your initiatives and cry out for more. Help us to live in the awareness that, unless it is You building the house, all our labor will be in vain. Grant that our heart’s passions be awakened and spent on the same things that move yours. Amen.
“God is good! All the time!” is a phrase Christians chant. Could anything be truer? The news that God is good does need to be held in our hearts and expressed with our lips. Yet in today’s passage, we find John, the greatest of all men, in a very bad place where the next thing he experiences is not going to feel like God’s goodness at all.
I wonder if John, in that moment, was chanting to himself, “God is good all the time?” Based on the questions he entrusted to his disciples, uncertainty must have crept in about his cousin, his purpose and, I suspect, the goodness of God. It’s not surprising that in verse 23, Jesus makes one of His most profound statements: “And blessed is He who is not offended with me.” He then turns to everyone and asks, “What was it you were expecting to find when you went out to see John?”
To clarify who John really was, Jesus tells them he was the messenger sent before Him to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God. He then announces the least member of the kingdom of God has a better status than John, who until this time was the greatest man to have walked the earth. (!)
Those on the lower social rung were on board with John. Those higher up the ladder—the Pharisees and the lawyers—were not. Jesus asks them a rhetorical question: “To what then shall I compare the men of this generation. What are they like?”
He says they are like those whose hearts have become song-less, hearts without the capacity for celebration or repentance. The only things operating in their religious hearts were selective compliance, pride and it’s favorite expression: condemnation.
No one had a better grasp of scripture than the Pharisees. No one better understood the Law than the lawyers. Yet these learned men of status had only criticism for John and Jesus. The spin they used to explain the kingdom’s first ambassadors was creative: “They must be possessed.” They condemned Jesus because he didn’t follow the letter of the law and he hung out with sinners. What is Jesus trying to get across to us?
I believe it is this: if mastery of scripture could produce sons of God, the Pharisees and lawyers would have arrived. Jesus knew the Law, without the Spirit, would result in death-by-religion. He was brutal on the religious because they were leading His sheep astray. They had become false reference points, misrepresenting God’s kingdom. How serious was this to Jesus? He said it would have been best for them if they had never been born.
Why would any citizen of the kingdom be greater than John? Because, to belong to the kingdom one must be born from woman and from the Spirit. This stumped Nicodemus too. Do you recall what Jesus said to him: “Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born again. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
A man once asked me the most offensive question that had ever been posed to me: “Did you know you are filled with religion?” I started to protest, but I checked myself and instead (like Mary) just cherished (sarcasm intended) this question in my heart, holding it there until perhaps it would some day make sense. In the same season, a doctor asked me an equally troubling question: “Mr. Cummins, did you know that your life is being driven by anger?” I started my chant: “God is good all the time. God is good all the time.” Really! Then why am I—Mr. Quiet Time-Elder-Worship Leader-Preacher coming off more like a son of Caiaphas than a son of God! The simple answer is that I had been infected with an RTD—a Religiously Transmitted Disease. I thought I had been inoculated and was immune from such troubles. Instead I was Typhoid Robby—of the religious strain.
This passage concludes with Jesus’ comment: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children.” The wisdom from above may be peaceful but it is also foolish and offensive to those who are not governed by God’s Spirit. Ultimately, the wisdom from above will emerge in a family of childlike, dancing hearts that have broken free from their entanglements with religion and have learned to worship God in Spirit and Truth.
Father, may wisdom have her say in our hearts, exposing those parts where we are unbalanced between Spirit and Truth. May our hearts not be offended when confronted with our own religiosity. May Wisdom be vindicated, bringing you the glory and honor due your name. Amen.
Our passage begins: “At that time, declares the Lord.” What comes next is an announcement of tremendously good news to a people who have been exiled for their rebellion and apostasy. While this was not written to me directly, I find great inspiration in what Jeremiah reveals about God’s heart, which must be true both then and now. In her song “Flicker,” Rosi Golan has a line:
“Well my heart’s in two places and I’m feeling like a candle/ burning at both ends till it flickers.”
With his people, God is in a similar predicament. At one end, the candle burns like this: “Behold, the sweeping tempest of His wrath has gone forth and it will not be turned back until He has accomplished the intent of His heart.” On the other end, God’s passion also burns, but differently:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.
Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel!
Again you shall take up your tambourines,
And go forth to the dances of the merrymakers.” (from Jeremiah 33:3-4)
The candle burns at both ends because God is trying to draw his people back to Himself while they are bent on squandering his kindness and spurning his loving correction. In this book, God uses Jeremiah to reveal the root issue—man’s heart: “The heart is deceitful above all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The good news is this: God understands the problem and has resolved it by way of offering both new hearts and a new covenant!
Considering this was written to Israel, we might wonder what we have to dance about. We need to keep in mind that the “at-that-time” with which this passage begins, refers to a glorious day when Israel receives her new heart and is finally capable of responding to God’s love. In his stunning grace, God opened the door in advance to us gentiles to “that-time.” He opened His heart to us, sending His own Son who enabled us to become the dwelling place of God. Christ in us makes our hearts brand new. This is radically good news! The question is: Are we blasé, or are we dancing?
God’s candle is not going to burn from both ends, flicker, then die out. His love is a fire that cannot be extinguished. I want to lay down any reluctance I may have to dancing in light of the amazing status I have before Him as an adopted and beloved child. Any conflicting predicament between God’s wrath and His love has been resolved. The tempest-end of the candle was absorbed, in Christ.
Father, may the light of your love’s intense fire consume our reluctance to dance. Even if we have never shuffled our feet, may we dare to dance by faith in the unquestionable merit of your Son. Amen.