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25 July 2016

Truth in a Sea of Opinions - 2 Peter 1:16-21

TRUTH IN A SEA OF OPINIONS
2 Peter 1:16-21
July 24, 2016 — Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

We don’t create or shape our own personal “truth,” the living Truth creates and shapes us.

Today is Back-to-School Sunday.  (Sorry, kids!  Congratulations, parents!)  The remarkably short summer of West Tennessee is already over—long before the summer tomatoes have finished ripening in the garden.  So this week as you are collecting your home-room assignments, your loose-leaf paper and pencils, your dress-code-appropriate collared shirts, and your next ten months of academic momentum I want you also to pay attention to what you will need spiritually for this school year. 

This half-week squeeze the last few drops of summer out as best you can—the last milkshake at the Dairy Queen, the last swim at Okeena pool, grab the tackle box one last time.  But while you are transitioning from a largely unstructured season to a highly structured one, I encourage you to grapple with a spiritual foundation upon which all the other elements of life and school and relationships stand.  Maybe you have grappled with it already; please do so again—grapple with truth. 

But let’s not make the same mistake as Pontius Pilate in John 18:36 who asked, “What is truth?” as though it were a subject in philosophy class, when the Truth Incarnate was standing right there in front on him.  Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Where is Truth found?  Who has the final authority on Truth?  How can truth make a better foundation for the life you are building than all the other lesser foundations out there—such as popular opinion, such as external image, such as personal experience, such as subjective preference, such as a shifting ethic that buckles and rolls with every situation and every person?  Why is Truth a better foundation than all the other options?  That is what today is about.

Therefore please, go to class. Learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions without a calculator.  Memorize your world and state capitals.   Convert grams to moles and figure out and figure how long it will take Sally to fill a 500 liter tub with water at 4.2 liters per minute.  Dive into your Charles Dickens fiction and Edgar Allen Poe poetry.  But underneath and in between and overarching all those important data points from all those very necessary fields of study is Truth.   What you decide about Truth is primary to anything else you might do with information.

You might object: Sunday has nothing to do with Monday through Friday; Jesus has nothing to do with Geometry or Spanish 2 or British Lit.  But I’m saying precisely that he does; but at a foundational level that goes much deeper than the facts.  You are building your worldview during these years.  Your worldview is where you prioritize and analyze and interpret and activate ideas in your life.  I am making a case for worldview built on the Truth of God and the God of Truth.  Truth is not an add-on; it is the mainframe.  Truth is not an appendix; it is the thesis statement.  Truth is not for Sundays only; it is for always.

Standing upon the slam-dunk passage in 2 Peter 1:16-21, I want to highlight why Truth is unlike human opinion and why it is better than personal experience as the foundation for life and godliness.  Truth is revealed by God, inspired by God, illumined by God; objective, enduring, and reliable.


I.          TRUTH IS UNLIKE OPINION (vs. 16)

The Apostle Peter was eyeing the end of his earthly existence with an amazingly level head (vv. 10-15).  His eternal destiny had been settled decades before when he conclusively decided he needed nowhere else to go but to Christ by faith, for Christ alone had the words of eternal life (John 6:68).  His physical destiny was outlined by Jesus some 35 years previously, of incarceration and martyrdom (John 21:18-19).  Soon after Peter wrote this letter, the famously insane Caesar Nero took Peter’s life (and Paul’s, too; in 67 or 68 A.D.).  Therefore, in his last epistle he set down some important principles he wanted to emphasize before death. 

My paraphrase of Peter’s dying wish: I am dying soon, any day now, but I want you who remain to be ready to carry on the mission and the ministry of the gospel without me.  Therefore, know this: receive and respect the Bible as God’s own word and God’s best way to transmit the gospel from one generation to the next.  This is why God moved me and Paul and the others throughout redemptive history to record God’s Truth on paper—so that it is objective, open to all, and timeless.  Every generation will have equal access to the mind and heart of God through the Scriptures.  I want you to know how trustworthy it is!

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (vs. 16).  Without needing to elaborate, for he and his readers would have had ample opportunity from the number of traveling philosophers ringing the Mediterranean world, of “cleverly devised myths.”  From Jupiter and Venus to Plato and Socrates, with many layers in between, the ancient world was a polytheistic bazaar.

Peter grabbed hold of the foundation; the source of these philosophies in the phrase, “cleverly devised myths.”  While he will take his entire second chapter to talk about these false teachers, he condensed their ilk into one Greek word, “sophizo”—to make wise—which is the heart of our original sin—to make oneself wise [autonomously from a relationship God] (Genesis 3:6).  The false teachers themselves have drummed up stories to support and give credence to their agenda but it is just the regurgitation of our original sin.   I have an idea I already want to believe, therefore I selectively search for evidence to support and “prove” it even if I have to write the narrative myself.  This ironically is what skeptics have accused the apostles of doing for millennia, when actually—with actual eyes on the scene—it was the sophists who first pushed their agenda backwards into their myth-building.

The most important part of verse 16 was not so much the exposure of false teachers’ fallible propaganda, but the beginning of Peter’s argument that the Scriptures are in a completely different category than the pluralistic philosophies of his day.  If it originates in humans, then it is opinion.  Opinion is an unsuitable building material.

In the West, we have elevated opinion—which everyone is entitled to have and express—to the lofty status previously reserved for religious creed.  And we have simultaneously devalued truth—which everyone has equal access to in the Scriptures—to the same status as opinion, if not lower.  The result is that there are 7 billion opinions and no one is “allowed” to call the other 6,999,999,999 opinions lame. 

We used to think collectively —the church says, therefore we are.  Then we morphed into more individualized worldview—I think, therefore I am.  Only recently we phase-shifted again from rationalism to emotionalism—I feel, therefore I am.  Today, in the post-postmodern soup we swim—I am who I am—and no one can tell me or convince otherwise.  Today the individual is god; he or she believes himself or herself to have the final authority in his/her life.  So … how is that going?  Are we any better off?

It goes against the modern [re]definition of “tolerance” to say so, but all opinions are not equal.  Many, if not most, are lame, a handful are dangerous, several are demonic, and few are openly predatorial.  But only the Truth sets people free.  Truth is unlike opinion.  It does not shift.  Truth is absolute, yet personal! 

Peter was an eyewitness to this one and only, buried and resurrected, soon-to-be-returning Jesus Christ.  He was witness to Truth incarnate.  He is not peddling an opinion, but signing an affidavit with his blood!


II.         TRUTH IS BETTER THAN EXPERIENCE (vv. 17-18)

The current worldview of most people in the Western world elevates self and personal opinion while lowering the God of Truth and the Truth of God.  No surprise there!  One might ponder that a moment and then ask: so then how does modern man form his opinion; on what does he base it?  This is a question of orthodoxy—how does he decide what he believes is sound; firm?  In a word: experience.

The cosmopolitan human isn’t such a flake as to assume that any passing thought is a “keeper.”  But when experience supports the opinion, then credence follows.  How can I illustrate this?  Okay, here’s one: this week a country singer (I don’t know the artist) sang, “It feels so right, it can’t be wrong.”  That’s a worldview folks—and a very common one inside and outside the country music universe.  “It feels so right, it can’t be wrong.”  Now, I’m just making a passing illustration—and I’m not about to boycott country music—but he was preaching a sermon.  Right and wrong is determined by his personal feeling.  His experience of euphoria supported and justified his opinion, solidifying it as both normal and firm and, therefore, “right” … no matter what others say.  The opposite could be asserted as well—if it doesn’t feel good, then it can’t be right; it must be wrong.  Anyone who didn’t have that specific, euphoric feeling—the flawed logic continues—can’t evaluate or condemn the importance he built upon that feeling.  This is the post-modern credo

Experience is the new orthodoxy.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  But such is simply untrue.  I don’t have to experience the rush of injecting heroine before I can denounce it as evil, stupid, and wrong.  The sensation, I am told, is euphoric.  If experience justifies opinion, then how can I—on the outside of the experience—dare to suggest a different system for deciding the rightness and wrongness of an activity?  Today that sort of “meddling” earns me (unfairly) title of bigot.  The experience is the new basis for today’s orthodoxy. 

That may sound oddly reasonable, until you realize that those euphoric feelings are liars.  They promise life but deliver death.  They promise freedom but enslave millions; some people get hooked on the very first hit.  Only the Truth sets people free; not experience.  Experience is so often a liar that I cannot trust it to guide or drive my orthodoxy.  I need something outside of myself to measure, decide, qualify, and quantify what is “right” and what is “wrong.”  I need an objective source of Truth.  I need a Savior.

Peter, who had arguably the best, highest, noblest experience on the planet did the most amazing thing with that experience.  Referring to the glorification of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah who gave deference to Jesus as their infinite superior while God the Father spoke audibly to Jesus (Mark 9:7), Peter laid his experience down at the foot of the Jesus. 

“For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’  We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (vv. 17-18).

My paraphrase (once again): Here is my experience, Lord.  You interpret it for me.  I submit it to you and your truth.  I do not have the wisdom or enough freedom from my own deceitful heart to be to make any sense or draw any lasting conclusions from what I just experienced.   Slam dunk, Peter!


III.        TRUTH IS THE “MORE SURE” WORD (vv. 19-21)

If you haven’t already noticed it, Peter is making a less-sure to more-sure argument for the Scriptures as the best, most accessible, most durable source of Truth and orthodoxy in the universe. 

He was an eyewitness to the “power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 16), which is amazing.  Peter was also an ear-witness, so to speak, when he “heard this very voice borne from heaven” testify about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (vs. 18).  Neither of those experiences are lightweight; both set Peter apart from virtually every other human who has ever lived.  But Peter says there is something better!

It is shocking, staggering, and stupendous to read Peter’s next words.  “[But] we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 19-21).

The “prophetic word” in verse 19 is clearly defined as “Scripture” in verse 20.  A quick page-turn over to 2 Peter 3:15-16 shows that Peter considered what he had written, and what Paul had written, as two cursory examples, were fully and truly “Scripture”—indicating that they knew what was going on through their pen as they recorded the “apostle’s doctrine” in ink.  So, here is the conclusion.  Unlike opinion, and better than experience, Scripture is “the more sure word” [New American Standard].  The Scriptures are flat-out better than even the best experience in history!

Why better?  Because from start to finish—from inspiration, to illumination, to interpretation—it is God’s work.  It is objective—meaning outside of ourselves—and stands as the final authority in life and godliness.  It is durable—meaning it will last forever—and is not subject to the whims and trends of humanity.  It is reliable—meaning it is completely trustworthy.  It is accessible—there are no secrets, no passwords, no prerequisites required.  It is understandable; it says plainly what God means it to say whether you are a Greek scholar or an illiterate Bedouin.  It has no equal.  Peter will not stick around for many more days, nor any of the apostles for many more years.  But that is okay, because they faithfully recorded their doctrine and their eyewitness (and earwitness!) testimony down in the New Testament.  In the Scriptures we have full access to the Truth of God and the God of Truth.

So the world clamors for personal experience to justify its own personal opinions, which produces neither freedom nor life but only slavery and death.  Students, parents, teachers, citizens—don’t go to the schools to find your worldview.  Go to the Scriptures to find God’s worldview.  But don’t stop there; carry God’s worldview with you back into the schools, into the halls, into the faculty breakrooms, and into the football stadium on Friday nights.  I guarantee you that a worldview built on Truth is not on your classroom list of school supplies, but it is essential that you have it.  Otherwise, you will drift along with the current. 


“While the nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us.  The God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:6-7). 

19 July 2016

Ears to Hear - Jeremiah 36

EARS TO HEAR
Jeremiah 36
July 17, 2016 — Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).


Right now traveling through this room and through our bodies are any number of invisible waves: micro waves, ultraviolet rays, radio waves, electromagnetic waves, natural waves of low-level radiation, and digital waves of data from satellites, cell phone towers, and television stations.  Even this wireless microphone I am wearing is sending and receiving waves.  But we are not able to receive or interpret or harness most of these imperceptible waves into usable forms; only a few.  However on that backs of those few wave forms, very smart people over the years have figured out of a way to piggy-back information. 

As early as 1864 scientists theorized about waves of electromagnetic radiation which they could use to carry information through the air without wires.  During the next 40 years, men such as James Clark Maxwell in England, Heinrich Hertz in Germany, Guglielmo Marconi in Italy, and Reginald Fessendsen in Canada perfected radio technology ready for public, commercial use in 1920 worldwide.  The genius of the radio overcame three challenges—transmitting/receiving the signal, transforming the signal into a usable form, and amplifying the signal for broad-scale application.

I find that technological advancement very interesting.  But what is even more interesting to me is that the pattern of receiving an invisible signal, transforming that signal into a usable form, and amplifying that signal for broad-scale application is exactly the pattern that peppers both the Old and New Testaments thousands of times—hearing, listening, and obeying the word of the Lord.  We sometimes just call it belief.  In hearing, we receive the raw truth from God.  In listening, we convert that raw truth into a useable form in our hearts and minds.  In obeying, we amplify that useable truth to the broader application of thought, word, and deed.  The human being is the original radio.  The whole hear-listen-obey process is concentrated into a single Hebrew word—“shema’.”  In the book of Jeremiah, for instance, “shema’” occurs 168 times.  It becomes the cadenced theme of the entire prophecy.  Hear!  Listen!  Obey!

Physically speaking, I could have fully functioning ears, but if the region in my brain that handles sound is not functioning I will not be able to hear. (And vice versa.)  Spiritually speaking, God adds a third layer to the auditory system—the ear, the mind, and the heart.  If we have one or two of those but not the third, then there is no hearing-listening-obeying the truth of God; there is no relationship with God.  If I don’t have access to God’s truth in my ears (e.g. the Spirit and the Scriptures), I can’t hear God.  If I have access to God’s truth in my ears, but no understanding of God’s truth in my mind (e.g. belief), I don’t listen.  If I have access to God’s truth in my ears and understanding in my mind, but no inclination to apply God’s truth in my heart (i.e. application), I won’t obey.  Hearing, listening, obeying—how is your spiritual auditory system, this morning?  Sound check, one, two, one, two.  Can you hear God?  Do you listen?  Will you obey?

By and large, this is a deaf world—deaf by disease, deaf by dysfunction, and deaf by decision.  Jeremiah’s calling to be the “megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world” (credit, C.S. Lewis) begins with “shema’”—“Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob…thus says the LORD” (2:4).  But over and over again throughout Jeremiah’s nearly 70-year career (627-560 B.C.), the commentary on the people of Judah was the same: though God persistently spoke to them through the prophets they have not heard, they did not hear, they cannot hear, they will not hear.  Tragic.

As we have been reading through the Bible in a year, I took a recent detour from the schedule to read the prophets … all of them … in a few hours over a short string of mornings between coffee times and office hours.  Among them, Jeremiah is the most introspective example; far more transparent about himself and how he feels being the prophet to whom no one listens.  I’m sure that Isaiah and Obadiah and Malachi and the rest felt the same way, but Jeremiah weaves into his book a fair amount of autobiography. 

He was a priest and a prophet who had the ear of many kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim Jehoiachim, and finally Zedekiah—the last king of David’s line to sit on the throne in Jerusalem, forcibly removed in 586 B.C by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon’s third wave of deportation of the Jews when Jerusalem was finally razed to the ruins.  But having the ear of the kings did not mean that the kings listened to Jeremiah’s message.  Jeremiah was famous, but famously marginalized, imprisoned, beaten, marooned, starved, and abducted.  At one point Jeremiah tells God with amazing vulnerability, “You have deceived me and I was deceived.  You are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.  I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7).  You knew what was going to happen when I proclaimed your message to the people.  They weren’t ever going to listen.  Yet you sent me out time after time.  But Jeremiah still went out, still proclaimed his unpopular message, and still took his lumps and resembled Jesus with every word.

There are many narratives that depict this desperate tension between Jeremiah’s obedient proclamation and the people’s disobedient refusal to hear-listen-obey the word of the Lord, but none more so than when he was forbidden to enter the temple to preach (36:27-32)—so he sent in his proxy, Baruch.  In some ways, although there are several more “chapters” in his storied career, this brief encounter captured his sad tenure.  Let me get a running start at it with just a few glimpses from Jeremiah’s “highlight reel”—all stemming from this word of the day: “shema’” (hear-listen-obey).

In Jeremiah 5:20, God said, “Declare this to the house of Jacob; proclaim it in Judah, ‘Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears but hear not.’”  Cause it to be heard.  The people need to be confronted with this message.  They do not have the ears to hear it, but preach it anyway.  Their access to the word of the Lord will bear witness to their guilt of refusing to listen to it. 

It is no different for us.  We have access to the word of the Lord every day—billboards and bumper stickers, phone apps and computerized study tools, Bibles and biblical commentaries on every bookshelf, even Scripture engraved on jewelry.  But our access to the word, as we collectively and increasingly reject its truth, condemns us.  And it is only getting worse, just as Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the word: be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy  4:2-4).

The turn-around was severe … but not unkind.  Our Father in heaven is dreadful when ignored, but tender when heeded—yet never on either side of that spectrum outside the bounds of love.  What they reaped stands in proportion to what they sowed.  If we consistently refuse to listen to God, then it is sad but appropriate that the Lord then refuses to listen to us.  “Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (11:13; 2 Peter 3:7).  But as much as they “stick their fingers in their ears” the day was fast approaching, said Jeremiah, that they will be unable to avoid hearing “the snorting of horses … [or] the neighing of their stallions” of the coming battle (8:16).  Those are the horses of the Babylonian army coming to devastate you.  You will not have the option of refusing to listen to their snorts; their language which you cannot understand.  Their marching orders out of the land of promise will be heard by all.

I.          TAKE A SCROLL AND WRITE (36:2-8)

“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.  It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (36:1-2). 

This was a different method of ministry for Jeremiah because he was barred from the temple by his fellow, however corrupt, priests.  So he tasked his faithful scribe, Baruch, to copy down the full prophecy by dictation, carry it into the temple, and read it to the people as his proxy preacher.  However, King Jehoiakim (who reigned from 608-598 B.C.) was unlike his father King Josiah in every way and did not listen to Jeremiah’s message.  Josiah, who when he heard the word of the LORD, radically repented, believed, and reformed his entire life and administration—removing all the high places of idolatry throughout Israel and Judah put in place largely by his father (Jehoiakim’s grandfather) Manasseh (2 Kings 23:19-24). 

It was said of Josiah: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).  But doom was still coming upon Judah, for although the outside of the cup was washed, the inside of the cup was not (2 Kings 23:26).  Idolatry was systemic in the heart of Judah and Judah’s new king. 


II.         TAKE THAT SCROLL AND READ (36:9-26)

Keep in mind that Nebuchadnezzar had already seized control of Judah (606 B.C.), exiling its best citizens to Babylon as slaves (including Daniel), but he left Jerusalem standing and demanded steep tribute from Jehoiakim under threat of another wave of warfare.  Nevertheless, Jehoiakim did not soften to the word of the LORD.  Instead he refused to listen to the word of the Lord all the more. 

When Jehoiakim heard from his officials (36:16) that the word of the LORD was being proclaimed in the temple, even though Jeremiah had been excommunicated from the temple and the priesthood, he sent for the scroll (36:21).  So they confiscated Jeremiah’s scroll from Baruch and took it to the king.  As the king’s official read through the scroll to the king, the king “cut [the scroll, piece by piece] and threw [the pieces] into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed” (36:23).

Here the true colors of Jehoiakim bled through his disguise of civility: “Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments” (36:24).  An arrest order for Baruch and Jeremiah was immediately issued, but they were already safely hidden from the wrath of the king (36:26).  He was not broken over his own sin, but livid at the one who would suggest he was sinful.  Such is the case with modern man as well—we really do treat the truth-tellers like the enemy instead of the sin that infects our hearts.  And yes, we really do “shoot the messengers”—even in the church.

The lack of outrage—then and now—when fear of the LORD and trembling before his word are dismissed out of hand ought to grieve us.  Not paralyze us, but grieve us and convince us that this world in which we live is not friendly to the gospel or to the Savior who died to redeem it.  The human heart is not morally neutral that loves good and abhors evil.  No, the human “heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it” (17:9)?  We mask our desperate spiritual disease with Southern charm and social graces and polite manners, but they do nothing, NOTHING, substantive to heal or conceal the heart.  


III.        TAKE ANOTHER SCROLL AND WRITE (36:27-32)

Finally, and from here is where the bulk of our applications will stem, Jeremiah showed his true colors in response to Jehoiakim’s true colors.  Whatever he might have feigned with his words, the king showed faithlessness; whereas the prophet showed faithfulness.  “Now after the king had burned the scroll with the words of that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: ‘Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah burned’” (36:27-28).

Can you hear the prophet’s sigh in between the lines?  Can you hear the exhale of his disappointment for both his king and his countrymen?  Can you hear the heart of God breaking all over again; not that God lacks the power to circumvent a rogue king, but that so much collateral loss—that could have been easily avoided in faith and repentance—will rush upon the Jewish people like a flood?  Yes, God knew what Jehoiakim would do … he told it to Jeremiah on the day he was called into the office of the prophet two decades prior to this scene (1:19) … but Jehoiakim was still responsible for its weight.

But leave Jehoiakim aside for now and consider Jeremiah’s response to his mistreatment.  Jeremiah has been branded as “not pastoral material,” as “unfit for priestly service,” as “an old-fashioned nuisance,” as “too melancholy.”  The people need a more gregarious minister who gladly strokes the hand of the king and glibly reassures the assembly that everything is okay.  Everything was not okay!  Yet, Jeremiah did not highlight the wasted effort, the joys forsaken to take up the mantle of prophet, the years of innocent suffering, or the ramifications upon an entire nation that stemmed from one man’s pride.  He did not punch the king in his nose however much the king deserved it.  He did not scream or berate or take it as a personal insult to his effectiveness as a preacher when the people refused to listen.  He did not eviscerate his enemies in cryptic and untraceable Tweets or with theatric pranks meant to embarrass.  He did not say, “I told you so.”  He did not measure faithfulness by its results.  He measured faithfulness by relationship with his faithful God.  “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

“Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch” (36:32).  That sentence is the summary of my life so far.  It is the outline of my future from here forward.  But not perfectly, for when I have imported what I thought was be a good idea into that simple sentence—or exported what I thought was a bad idea from that simple sentence—it has gone wrong.  When I have sought from God or from colleagues or from the congregation an explanation or a guarantee or a result BEFORE I reach for another parchment, it has gone wrong.  Jeremiah was gloriously ruined from all other gimmicks and lesser goals and diversionary battles in ministry by the pure hearing and faithful telling of the word of the Lord.  He took another scroll! 

Though his salty tears ran until they ran out, Jeremiah was a free man.  Even though Jehoiakim arrested Jeremiah, and even though Jehoiakim’s successor, Zedekiah, eventually threw him in a muddy cistern because he would not shut up—Jeremiah was the most liberated individual in the Promised Land.  It all hinged on hearing.  Jeremiah, if he is nothing more this morning, he is at least our sound check. 

Testing, one, two, one, two.  Can you hear God?  Are you listening?  Will you obey?  Hear the Scriptures speak as they sit open upon your lap telling you the raw truth of God.  You were made for relationship with God, but you broke that relationship with him through sinful rebellion, which deserves death.  Listen to the gospel—convert it from the raw truth floating out there somewhere in the universe by clinging to it personally, claiming it exclusively, believing it as more than accurate data points but as essential life-and-death truth on which to stand.  God made one way for your broken relationship with him to be restored: he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to absorb into his own body your unrighteousness by dying in your place on the cross and to impute his own righteousness to your spirit by rising from the grave.  Receive this truth; believe it as your only hope for peace with God, forgiveness of sin, and eternal life.  Obey it … even if the temple of your life must crumble to the ground and the idols of your heart must burn to ashes; even if you have been in church for years but never settled this foundational issue with God. 


God’s “signal” is rushing through this room, through your mind, through your heart right now.  Will you not listen?  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” Mark 4:9).  Put up the antenna of faith right now in your heart and hear-listen-obey the word of the Lord.  Nothing else matters more than that.

12 July 2016

Day in the Life: Job (Job 1:6-2:10)

Day in the Life: “Job”
Job 1:6-2:10
July 10, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

“Does Job fear God for no reason?” (Job 1:9)

On two separate occasions, so disjointed from each other that on the second I didn’t even faintly recall the first, I copied this quote down from John Piper.  “Occasionally, weep bitterly over the life you hoped would be.  Grieve the losses.  Then wash your face.  Trust God.  And embrace the life you have.”  If you are like me, upon hearing that I had to stop what I was doing, find a pencil (which is an amazing invention that could change your life!), and write it down (in cursive, which is another amazing invention that makes writing much faster!) for later contemplation.  It was only when I opened my depository for “scribblings” that I found the same quote already entered with the same reaction listed: lament.

There is no place for lament in our modern world.  We are poorer, less anchored people for its absence.  Turn on any electronic device and you will find suffering of every kind (even though we are better educated, better doctored, better traveled, better insulated from discomfort than ever)—certainly suffering hasn’t gone away, but lament has.   While suffering creates its own fuel supply and exists without the need for outside help (though outside help continues to pour in), our response to suffering is anemic.

Granted, we have one-dimensional reactions to suffering all day, every day: outrage, call to arms, call for legislation, disgust, grumbling, arguing, even sarcasm and mockery.  These are our frequent reactions to suffering that the social media gurus make insane amounts of money peddling around from platform to platform.  But still the far more common reactions to suffering are: disinterest, disconnection, dismissal, and denial.  Most of the time, we just tune out, drown out, or contract out to others the (perceived) necessary work of sanitizing the world’s suffering.  What I’m talking about, however, is completely different than a reaction—I’m talking about a well-reasoned, well-crafted, well-balanced response to suffering.  We need lament … not only lament, but at least lament, for from lament the path will take us along to the preventative and proactive and transformative side of suffering.  Lament over our suffering—yes—but also, in equal amounts, the suffering of others around the globe. 

This year, this month, this week alone—how many times has our flag gone to half-mast?  How many times should it have but didn’t?  Lament the names: Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, the five Dallas officers killed: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa … and so many others whose names did not plaster our news feeds.

Today, I want to create such a place for lament.  Though we can’t coax lament from its hiding place, we can create a space for it in our consciousness if the Lord wishes it to stir.  I toyed with the idea of extinguishing the candles, removing the flowers, and covering the communion table with black—but it seemed overly theatrical.  Instead, let’s travel to the space that the Scriptures set aside for lament.  Moses, David, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul all lament—but no lament is as expansive as the lament of Job (our final “Day in the Life” contemplation).

While we will not spend any time with them today, Job’s so-called friends did not understand this space of lament.  They, and we along with them, irreverently skipped past lament on to explanation and solution far too aggressively.  But lament has no thought of explanation or solution for the time being.  There is suffering.  There is loss.  There is God.  There is hope.  Stay there too long and it sours.  Stay there too short and it stunts.  But as we linger in this necessary place just long enough to receive its otherworldly baptism, just like Jesus conquered death with death, we find healing by the very implement fashioned to harm us.  It is a mysterious space, full of paradox, but one which Jesus occupies better than any other.  It is never over-crowded there.  No one likes to go.  But lamentation affords rich fraternity with Jesus.  The lament is a place of uncommon worship.  There is a correlation between avoiding lament and missing Jesus.


I.          WORSHIP THROUGH SEVERE SUBTRACTION (1:6-22)

We never know the full story.  With instantaneous world-wide video access, we think we have and presume we deserve full disclosure about anything and everything, but we never have access to all the behind-the-scenes details.  Never!  (I tend to think of this fact as a mercy instead of a conspiracy because, if we were able to ferret ourselves into the storehouses of that kind of data, I think our brain would melt.)  What is remarkable to remember at the outset of Job’s day—a day that redefined every day before it and reoriented every day after it—is that Job never knew the conversations that went on in heaven the day his life fell apart.  He never knew about Satan prowling around the face of the earth looking for someone susceptible to his hellish “experiments.”  He never knew about God’s permission granted for Job to be tested.  He never knew that Satan was really using Job as a pawn for his own ulterior motives of casting doubt on God’s power and goodness and worth.

It boiled down to this slippery question from Satan—“Does Job fear God for no reason” (1:9)?  My paraphrase: God, you have rigged the system to your own advantage.  You are not intrinsically worthy of voluntary worship; you have to “pay” your worshipers with blessings so that they will bless your name.  If you were to “touch” Job, for instance, and subtract your blessings from him, then he would deny you. 

So, God permitted Satan to “touch” (e.g. subtract) Job’s blessings.  Several things should first be noted: it was by God’s permission yet within God’s limitation that Satan attacked Job.  God was not, and never is, the source of any evil or temptation (James 1:13; 1 John 1:5).  That sad responsibility falls upon Satan; when we colluded with Satan in the Garden along with Adam and Eve, we joined in to bearing the penalty originally designed for Satan—namely death.  Notwithstanding, God still holds the “leash” on Satan and reserves the right to steer his, ours, and others’ evil (Isaiah 45:7) into his own ultimately good purposes.  This fragile balance (“theodicy”) confuses and transcends us but elevates and glorifies God. 

But that was the heavenly scene; hidden from sight but really happened.  The earthly scene was all that Job had.  Would Job worship God for no reason?  In other words, is Job a worshiper of God only as a result of God’s blessings in his life?  If those blessings were subtracted, would Job “curse God to his face” (1:11)?  In the romantic world, the illustration holds—do I love my wife for no reason?  Or do I only love her for the things she does for me?  If she were to stop or grow unable or even turn unwilling to do anything for me, would I still love her?  Yes, of course because this kind of love precedes relationship!  Biblically, this is the much stronger expression of love; the “for no reason” kind of love.  The other sort is transactional, but the “for no reason” kind is unconditional. 

This human “for no reason” kind of love is the kind that (partially) primes our hearts for the “for no reason” love that God alone exhibits and gives through his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ … for we offered God no reason at all to gift us with his Son, and no reason at all for the Son to die for us.  The only reasons we could ever generate would be reasons NOT to love, NOT to give, NOT to save, but God loved us out of his own self in spite of our active and rampant unloveliness.

Back to Job—will he worship “for no reason”?  In four waves of severe “subtraction,” Satan stripped away every blessing external to the person of Job:  his wealth, his means of income, his workforce, and—most painfully—his children.  But, much to the chagrin of Satan and the delight of God, Job said for the permanent record: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (vs. 21).  Thus God added his verdict against Satan’s allegations, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (vs. 22).  That is strong testimony that what Job declared was true—the Lord gives and takes away; blessing is riveted to the name of the LORD!

We do not enjoy the pain.  We do not detach from the suffering.  We look to God within suffering.  We humbly acknowledge that God is greater than our experience of him.  Is such a response delusional?  Is God the greatest con-artist in all the universe to have performed such a mind-job on the saints that though he is sadistic, they have learned to derive pleasure and blind loyalty from his mistreatment in some weird kind of co-dependency?  Absolutely not!  Those are all Satan’s accusations, and they are all patently false based on the objective revelation of the Scriptures and on the subjective testimony of the Spirit of God within us.  The truth is, Satan lacks the capacity to understand this kind of love and this kind of worship.  If you find that Satan’s twisted logic makes sense to your way of thinking, don’t question God, but rather question why your way of thinking resembles Satan.  Job’s response is a “for no reason” kind of worship.  It is deep; not naïve.  It is textured; not simplistic.  It is born in lament.  It is finalized by Jesus.


II.         WORSHIP THROUGH AWFUL ADDITION (2:1-10)

Satan, under strict limitations, destroyed everything in Job’s external world in one day.  But—although Job worshiped God—it was not over.  There was still Job’s inner sanctum—his body and his wife.  So, Satan doubled down in his accusations that God had rigged the system and effectively bribed Job to worship him. 

“Skin for skin!  All that a man has he will give for his life” (2:4).  My paraphrase: God, you and Job are in collusion.  This “worship” is a façade.  You have made a secret deal that if Job surrenders claim on the lives of his livestock, his servants, his business, and his children that he might save his own life—for no one worships “for no reason.”  It is only logical.  The only way to know the “truth” is to touch Job again—his own person; not merely by the subtraction of blessing but by the addition of misery.

So, God permitted Satan to “touch” (e.g. add misery) Job’s actual person (including his one-flesh partner).  Satan “touched” him in two waves—as devastating as the four waves of loss in his external world, and concurrent with them—incurable disease in his body and insufferable betrayal in his marriage.

Boils broke out all over Job’s body so that the only relief that Job could find was in scratching them open with a shard of pottery while he sat in the ashes.  But the torment of all torments, in my opinion, was when his wife—who was interestingly not touched in any of these waves of destruction but “reserved” for this particular dagger—said to him in his misery, “Curse God and die” (vs. 9).

Satan’s “manipulation” over nature and nurture seems so strange to the modern mind that many have concluded that Job must be a myth; an allegory; a tall tale.  Many outright accuse believers of endorsing superstition.  But the text is clear—Satan was permitted, at least at this particular time, access to the gear room of physical world.  Incidentally, Job (and Satan, too, for that matter) is treated like a real character in all the other references we have to him elsewhere in Scripture.  And, most notably, even God himself partners Job with Noah and Daniel as remarkable men of faith (Ezekiel 14:14, 20). 

However, once again we can taste it—although we presume that we are entitled to full disclosure of all the universe’s information, we lack access to all or even most of the information of heaven.  All we have is what God revealed, and all that God reveals—while it is entirely and beautifully sufficient for all things regarding life and godliness—does not answer every single one of our curiosities.  This is one of them for me—God’s relationship with evil in general, and with Satan in particular.  Nevertheless, where my curiosities end my faith picks up, entrusting all unrevealed subjects to God’s wisdom … much like Paul taught the Corinthians “that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).

At that lowest of low points, Satan seriously thought that Job would prove his accusation against God—no one worships God for no reason.  But Job derived his identity—his very life—from God, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (13:15).  Although Job did not understand anything about that day, and although his wife supplied the very words to Job that Satan wanted Job to say, he lashed himself to the mast of the ship of faith and said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10). More than the restoration of a withered hand or a belly full of manna, that is the miracle that happens millions of times every day!  It is the miracle of faith that is free from all circumstances.

As before (1:22), God gave his verdict over and against the allegation of that Satan.  “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  Some extra virulent commentators read into that summary statement that, although he did not sin with his lips, he must have sinned in his heart.  But in the text we have nothing but the full acquittal of Job in the courtroom of God, despite Satan’s best efforts against him.  Job did not “curse God to his face” when God permitted Satan to subtract all the blessings from his external world.  Job did not “curse God to his face” when God permitted Satan to add misery to his internal world either.  What Satan hissed was a rigged system, that God furtively “paid” worshipers to worship him with kickbacks, was categorically demonstrated in Job’s life to be false.  Case closed.

But the end of the day between Job and God is the beginning of the day between you and God.  Do you worship him for no reason?  Is your relationship to him merely transactional—you scratch my back, God, and I’ll scratch yours?  Such was not the case between Job and God, but is it with you?  Great theological arguments and grand philosophical rhetoric have no place in this space of lament.  They may come later, but here, at the bottom of life, it is simple; raw and exposed.  There is no pretense here.  It is you and your worship of the Lord that is under consideration.  Will you worship even if the Lord permits the subtraction of all his blessings in your external existence?  Will you worship even if the Lord permits the addition of bitter misery in your internal realms?   Not in spite of your wounds, but will you “worship him with your wounds because he’s wounded too” (Michael Card)?


The lament is not the place for drafting explanations or designing solutions; the lament is the place of worship.  Do you believe that God is good, even when everything you associated with goodness in your life is gone?  This is the crucible of faith.  This is the bottom of the pit.  “Occasionally, weep bitterly over the life you hoped would be.  Grieve the losses.  Then wash your face.  Trust God.  And embrace the life you have” (John Piper).  Behold, you are not there alone.  Jesus is there with you.  Look at his nail scarred hands.  Listen to his Good Shepherd voice.  When everything else is removed but Calvary, is Calvary enough for you to say—Blessed be the name of the Lord?  If it is, then you will have your own day that redefine all the days before it and reorients all the days after it.  It, too, becomes “the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24).

05 July 2016

Day in the Life: Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-8)

Day in the Life: “Elijah”
1 Kings 19:1-8
July 3, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

For the discouraged heart God provides a purpose, a promise, and a partner.


On December 19, 1777, General George Washington led a discouraged, exhausted, malnourished, ill-equipped, and under-trained Continental Army of 12,000 men into their winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania—20 miles from the British-held city of Philadelphia.  Only about one in three of them had shoes, and many of their feet had left bloody footprints from the marching (Russell Freedman, Washington at Valley Forge., New York [2008]: Holiday House, p. 1).  Because Congress lacked the power to tax (which was undoubtedly a sensitive subject) the Army was, what Gouverneur Morris of New York called, a "skeleton of an army...in a naked, starving condition, out of health, out of spirits" (Freedman, p. 36).  That winter 2500 soldiers would die from disease, exposure, and starvation.  That was one in every five.

General Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place...this Army must inevitably...starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can" (Freedman, p. 4).  Because of the awful conditions at Valley Forge a campaign among the soldiers started to press for replacing Washington’s leadership with that of General Horatio Gates, who had recently won a decisive victory at the Battle of Saratoga.  But there was a swell of popular support for both Washington and the Army from a variety of sources: newly appointed Quartermaster General, Nathanael Green, organized and increased the flow of food and clothing for the men and the horses, an army of 500 women, relatives of enlisted men, volunteered to help with the Army’s laundry and mending, and fisherman and locals helped to supplement the Army with fish and food.

Politically, Washington did what he could to increase funding for the cause.  On January 24, 1778 Washington arranged for 5 congressman to visit Valley Forge and see the bleak conditions first-hand.  Through them he appealed that Congress take total control of supplying the Army, which they officially did by the end of February (Freedman, p. 13).  Internationally, also, encouragement poured into Valley Forge: Baron Friedrich von Steuben, drillmaster of Prussia, arrived and greatly helped with training the soldiers and the formal alliance with France in May 1778 reinvigorated the soldiers.  The combination of all of these factors, and conceivably many more, prepared the Army in their next offensive engagement, exactly 6 months after setting camp at Valley Forge, to retake the city of Philadelphia from the Redcoat’s General Howe on June 19, 1778 (Freedman, p. 14).

For those six months, however, the greatest threat to the Army … and to the great American “experiment” … was not the British military.  It was discouragement, severely complicated by exhaustion and exposure.  The Americans were perilously close to losing heart; yet without heart they would never prevail over the greatest military force on the planet … even if they had proper shoes, dry gun powder, and marched in straight lines. 

Optimists, pessimists, realists—all of us are susceptible to the ravaging effects of discouragement.  The strongest of us as well as the happiest; the boldest as well as the bravest can quickly find ourselves sinking to the bottom of life—even after a great victory.  Especially after a great victory—we are all vulnerable to unravel before the wind of discouragement.  Even our General Washington, even our Apostle Paul, even our Prophet Elijah—we must hold fast so that we do not lose heart.   Less than 24 hours after his amazingly powerful and decisive victory against the false prophets of Baal on top of Mount Caramel (1 Kings 18:38), Elijah, who had called down fire from heaven, fled for his life from crazed Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3). 

But before we cast Elijah aside as abnormal, let’s take a quick inventory of our fears.  We might stand up to that bully but not to our boss.  We might burn the American flag because it’s our freedom of speech to do so, but not sign up for the Selective Service to protect that right if the country called upon every able body to take up arms.  We might “like” some scathing remark on Facebook®, but not have the guts to ask the girl next store to the prom.  The dam is thin that keeps our fears from flooding our lives.


I.          HE AROSE AND RAN (vv. 1-4)

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow."
3 Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers."

Elijah’s greatest fear seemed to surprise him, perhaps because it was the flip-side of his greatest strength.  His bold zeal for the Lord was what stood out about Elijah.  But what happened when he stared at the reality that his zeal was not enough?  His intense zeal inverted into feelings of intense failure.  The victory on top of Mount Carmel caused the people who were Baal-worshipers to “fall on their faces, [saying] ‘The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God’” (1 Kings 18:39).  Even King Ahab partook of the meal made from the sacrifice that was cooked by the fire that fell from heaven; an overt act of worship by the king who had previously dedicated himself and his nation to Baal (1 Kings 16:31). 

Elijah’s dream was nearly fulfilled—his beloved nation finally rid of the pestilence of idolatry.  But when Ahab told Jezebel in the nearby city of Jezreel about what happened on top of Mount Carmel, “how [Elijah] killed all the prophets with the sword” (1 Kings 19:1), the de facto spiritual leader of the nation, Jezebel, did not humble herself and confess that “The LORD, He is God” as the multitudes did.  Instead she uttered the strongest curse in her arsenal against Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and even more if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time” (1 Kings 19:2).

Shock, outrage, shame, self-condemnation, self-pity—Elijah had thought that he brought revival to his country, but instead he ignited a personal war with the demonic queen.  Does fear make rational sense?  No, not at all—for Elijah had just demonstrated that these gods that she worshiped were impotent, deaf, and mute.  All her false prophets—950 in all, whom she fed through the 3 ½ year famine from the national treasury at her own royal table (1 Kings 18:19)—were dead, so why would Elijah fear for his life?  Popular opinion had just categorically switched from her to him in the last few hours.  But maybe that was where the questions started to build: was I too violent in killing all the false prophets?  Should I have shown mercy?  Should I have given quarter?  Was it somehow my fault?  Did I misunderstand God’s will?

Fear does not make rational sense, but it does ironically correspond to an irrational pattern.  In the mind and more importantly in the emotions of the person afflicted fear seems like the most normal and natural (and the only remaining) reaction in the universe.  Fighting didn’t work as well as I had hoped, so I had better flee.  Mixed into that strange moment, Elijah was facing the death of a life-long dream of his nation returning to God, the physical exhaustion from an all-day battle on top of the mountain and then a supernaturally aided foot race back to the city of Jezreel (18:46), as well as the strain from a 3 ½ year famine while living on the run as an outlaw.  Jezebel’s venomous reaction might have been the straw that broke this camel’s back.  But whatever the diagnosis—Elijah unexpectedly lost heart.  His greatest threat was not Jezebel at this point, but discouragement, complicated by an unrealized dream and a mountain of self-pity (an idol far more insidious than Baal or Asherah).

I have overwhelmingly lost heart at times.  Have you?  Not the Golden State Warriors didn’t win Game 7 kind of let-down, but the kind of heart-break that rarely enters polite society: oh no, it is all my fault … that which my worst enemy in the world has been accusing seems to be true after all … my best effort really is not enough to make any lasting difference … I am the common denominator in all this trouble …   maybe George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” had it right the first time: I really am more valuable to everyone and everything dead than alive.

“Then he was afraid and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there” (vs. 3).  Elijah went to the very edge of Judah, Beersheba (about 95 miles from Jezreel), and then marched 15 more miles clear out of the Promised Land.  Everything about his language, posture, location, direction says the same thing: I am completely alone now.  “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree.  And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (vs. 4).

Godly people do get depressed; they do battle with disillusionment; they do consider if they would be better off dead than alive.  It did not ruin the sanctification of Elijah; it does not need to threaten yours if despair corners you in the night.  What is monumentally important, however, in those dark patches is to remember that God is still sovereign.  The depression might hog the internal microphone for a season, but it is not in charge.  God has no rivals; even our haunts.  Whatever else you might remember about Elijah’s uncharacteristic bout with discouragement, remember this: he carries it to God.  He prays that he might die; but it is still a prayer.  He falls into despair; but he falls toward God.  He asks for death; but he asks it from the Author of Life and does not presume to pick up the pencil and finish his own story in his own way.


II.         HE AROSE AND ATE (vv. 5-8)

5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, "Arise and eat."
6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.
7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, "Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you."
8 And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

As is often the case with severe discouragement, Elijah “lay down and slept” an unnaturally deep sleep that far exceeds biology.  I know we have broken our pattern of dealing with only a single 24-hour period, because it would have taken two weeks (unless God had supernaturally transported Elijah) from Jezreel to Beersheba—but the single day in Elijah’s life was still playing out.  Time had not advanced in his heart.  He was still caught in that moment of fright and flight when Jezebel sent her homicidal message to Elijah.  His life’s calling, he believed, had failed. 

Every other movement that we have in Elijah’s narrative was preceded and prescribed by word of the LORD, but not this trip south; out of the Promised Land.  Elijah was steering his own ship at that point, but notice that the Lord still provided for him.  He provided the broom tree (think: Jonah, when God provided the shade when he was pouting over God’s mandate).  The broom tree was a 12-foot shrub that provided protection in the desert from both sun and wind; a landmark that nomads still look for when searching for a place to camp in the desert.  God provided that!

“And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat’” (vs. 5).  God provided both the company of the angel and the unlooked-for help of a miraculous meal.  “And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water” (vs. 6a).  Whatever state of mind Elijah was in—and maybe the significance wouldn’t occur to him until later—but the language and the experience of God’s unlikely provision matched the time when, three years before, the poor widow gave him water and a cake (17:13).  And, the language and the experience matched the provision of God to the Hebrews when they wandered in the same desert 700 years before—the manna the water.  But Elijah “ate and drank and lay down again” (vs. 6b).  He fell back asleep.

“And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’  And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” (vv. 7-8).  We don’t have time to develop the thought, but it is a reasonable interpretation to equate “the angel of the LORD” with (pre-Bethlehem) Jesus.  What the angel of the LORD did is important.  Elijah seemed intent on reversing the course of Israel back through the desert to Sinai (Horeb is another name for Sinai).  God neither prompted nor prohibited this trip.

There is quite a lot of guessing as to Elijah’s motive—was it to identify with all the idolatry that Israel schlepped through its entire history from the golden calf of Aaron to the Baal worship of Ahab, was it to seek an experience with God where Moses walked, was it a desperate gamble to kick-start a ministry that had seemingly stalled out?   We aren’t told the why, only the what.  But God even provided for Elijah on an immense journey that took him away from his calling to proclaim God’s name to Israel.  Although I struggle to find the right way to say it, even Elijah’s disobedience, by God’s amazing grace, does not wreck God’s will; for God can transform our bad decisions for his glory and our good.

There at Sinai, although I know that we have gone way past our “day in the life” of Elijah, God interestingly said—“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (vs. 9).  “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword.  And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (vs. 10).  You see it was still the same incident that consumed his soul—Elijah lost heart that he was unable to root out idol worship and that he was the only prophet left.  This was what he was mourning—and all depression mourns something. 

But, at the end of this episode—God provided three final things that a severely discouraged heart needed: a purpose, a promise, and a partner.  I still have a job for you, Elijah.  I’m not done with you, yet (vv. 15-17).  Also, I want you to know that there are 7000 in Israel who have not bowed to Baal.  It’s not all depending on you, Elijah—I promise you that I have people in place that you do not even know about (vs. 18).  And finally, I want you to throw your mantle on Elisha.  He will succeed you.  Pass the dream of an idol-free Israel on to a partner in ministry for the rest of your time on earth.  I want you to team up


He arose and ran.  He arose and ate.  And as fitting an ending to the chapter, and to the sermon, as could be: “Then he [Elisha] arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him” (vs. 21).

28 June 2016

Day in the Life: Widow (1 Kings 17:8-16)

Day in the Life: “Widow”
1 Kings 17:8-16
June 26, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

“Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source” (Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life, p. 206).

“Our Father, who art in heaven”—many of us memorized in the medieval English of King James—“Hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.”

Daily Bread—hmmm.  While I may think about bread daily, I don’t think of “daily bread” as a matter of prayer very often.  However, after time living among the poorest of the poor I do actually think of “daily bread” more frequently … but still not daily, as I have never stared at a completely empty cupboard.  I have a well-stocked pantry and a chest freezer full of food—a blessing indeed.  And if those food items run low I have at least seven modern grocery stores within a seven mile radius and money enough with fuel enough in a vehicle reliable enough to acquire supplies for my family of seven.  And if those grocery stores shut down, I have a family that knows how to make everything and anything from scratch.  And if we can’t get the basic ingredients like flour or cooking oil, we live in a community of farmers who know how to produce it.  And if they can’t spare or sell any of their surplus, I have land enough to cultivate into a subsistence garden and rabbits enough—trying to eat a garden as I might plant—to put meat on the table as well.  For this we are grateful.  But truly, it is God who provides—not we ourselves—even on days when we have not prayed for our “daily bread.”

That being said, most in the world know what it means to be hungry; when there was no “daily bread.”  I think it is ironic that we are growing a generation here in America that treats gluten as a toxin and considers bread as a dessert item instead of a staple; who voluntarily skip bread in order to squeeze back into the swimsuit for this year’s week at the beach.  But our very sustenance is sourced in God.  Even more than the “daily bread” he provides, God himself is the fountainhead and wellspring of all life. 

Yet, writes a fellow named Watchman Nee in a book called, The Normal Christian Life: “Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source” (p. 206).  God is our source of life.  Sometimes he provides our “daily bread” through our capacity to work, or by our ability to till up a field for potatoes, or in a 9-to-5 job.  Sometimes he provides through another’s generosity, or via a bullish stock market, or an unexpected inheritance.  Sometimes an anonymous $25,000 check appears in your bank account (as happened for us in 2006) or a $200,000 check in the offering plate (as happened for a former church of ours the day their founding pastor announced his decision to take a larger church).  But our provider is always God.

On some level, this is too basic a lesson for a congregation of seasoned saints.  God provides!  Amen, go in peace, you’re dismissed to go get in line a little early for lunch!  But it is heavy on my heart to drop this basic bucket into this ancient well one more time.  Hear what the Spirit has to say to the church through a day in the life of an unnamed widow living in a small city called Zarephath in Sidon (Phoenicia; modern-day Lebanon a little south of Beirut).  It is the unlikeliest of places really, in the unlikeliest of times for a lesson on God’s provision.  But isn’t that God’s pattern?  He himself never changes but who always calls us to change as we follow him.  He shakes things up in our world and tamps things down in our heart so that we have no idea what to expect.  Therefore, we stop, we raise up the spiritual antenna, and we pray once again: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

For 16 chapters in Kings we see nothing but—umm—kings.  But starting in 1 Kings 17:1 we have 15 continuous chapters about two prophets (remembering 1 and 2 Kings formed one book originally); a prophetic “parenthesis” with Elijah and Elisha sent to declare the word of the LORD to Israel. 

Elijah the Tishbite was a sojourner (which is what “Tishbite” means) east of the River Jordan.  And the first thing that God told Elijah to do in his public ministry was to go to wicked King Ahab (kind of like John the Baptist did to King Herod) in the city of Samaria and pronounce God’s judgment upon the land for his role in leading the people into Baal-worship—the storm god of the Canaanite pantheon responsible for rain and fertility.  “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  This drought from Yahweh was a direct challenge to Baal-worship; a challenge that would culminate in a showdown on top of Mount Carmel.  “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

What an entrance for Elijah!  I mean, wow, we have people leaping over the fence at the White House or flying drones over the South Lawn to get the attention of President Obama, but Elijah just strolled right into Ahab’s royal presence, delivered his message, walked back out again, and proceeded directly into hiding.  Elijah from that moment became an outlaw.  But no one was able to find him for 42 months.  For 3 ½ years (compare James 5:17-18) the heavens became like iron—no rain, no divine revelation … and no “daily bread.”

“And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.  You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.  So he went and did according to the word of the LORD.  He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan.  And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.  And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land” (vv. 2-7).

Herein lies God’s pattern for faith—“He went and did according the word of the LORD” (vs. 5).  Go and do in accordance with the word of the LORD!  Elijah doesn’t select the site, or the method, or the menu, or the duration.  God says go there, do that.  Elijah goes and does, believing the word of the LORD without demanding more details.  Simple, right!?!  Then why do we complicate it so often?

God is under no shortage in what he provides, nor in ways in which he provides.  Just because God has provided in certain ways and means before does not mean that he is, therefore, bound to keep to those ways and means in the present or the future.  What we have is a promise that God will provide; not a promise over how or when or where or from whom God will provide.


I.          GO AND DO (vv. 8-10)

8 Then the word of the LORD came to him,
9 "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you."
10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink."

In some ways Elijah had a sweet set-up at the brook called Cherith.  Why leave?  He was hidden, he was near water, he was fed every morning and every evening, but it was not a permanent situation.  Nothing is permanent in the journey of faith.  He went because of the word of the Lord, and once again he left because the word of the Lord.  “Then the word of the LORD came to him. ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there.  Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you’” (vv.8- 9). 

Do you see the same pattern as with the ravens?  Go and do according to the word of the LORD, for I have made arrangements for your “daily bread” up ahead.  The ravens were unlikely couriers, but the pattern holds.  God will stir another unlikely means of divine provision—a widow in the time of great drought with an empty cupboard.  But God will provide for the widow (and her whole household) as she obediently provides for the prophet.

Widows and children were the most vulnerable ones on the socio-economic chart in the ancient world.  There were no social systems in place.  In a subsistence life where that day’s wages basically paid for that day’s food, if the husband left or died without grown sons to take care of the family, then the widows and the children dropped immediately into danger of predators, of poverty, of starvation, or exploitation.   Yet, it was a widow who was tagged by God to feed the prophet. 

This was the single day in her life that would change all the rest of the days of her life; the day when God asked for everything on the untested promise of future provision.  This was the day when she was required to sacrifice her “daily bread” to provide Elijah’s “daily bread.”  But, as it always is, this was about more than just the bread.

As I mentioned before, Elijah was an outlaw; King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were hunting him down mercilessly, imprisoning and killing the prophets of the LORD along the path.  And God instructs Elijah to walk through the heart of the kingdom Israel into the very homeland of Jezebel—Sidon.  Nevertheless, God hid Elijah in plain sight in an unfriendly country that was the epi-center of Baal-worship with a widow who could have conceivably collected and lived off the reward if she were merely to hand Elijah over to Samaria.  What will she choose?


II.         GOING AND DOING (vv. 11-12)

11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."
12 And she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die."

In a photo-negative of the pattern that we have seen so far—go and do according to the word of the LORD—this widow is going and doing as it seemed right to herself in her own situation.  She was going and doing what she thought was her last trip to the kitchen.  In a sense she is saying, “Don’t bother me, I’m getting ready to die,” whereas God is saying, “Yes, bother her because I’m getting her ready to live.”  So her day was mercifully interrupted!

Giving Elijah some water, although it was not easy in the middle of a drought, was easier than giving him bread.  Bread was the rawest of her exposed vulnerability.  Elijah asks for a crumble of her bread, but she declares, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die” (vs. 12).  This was her last meal.  I don’t think she exaggerates—no money, no crops, no assets—only two mouths to feed and then the endless night.  Or was there something more?  What will she choose?


III.        WENT AND DID (vv. 13-16)

13 And Elijah said to her, "Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son.
14 For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.'"
15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days.
16 The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

Let’s not skip ahead too quickly.  The widow was helpless and hopeless.  She had probably already rationed her supplies weeks or months ago.  This was the end—depression had long given way to despair.  She was circling the drain.  At this low point, Elijah had the audacity to ask for the last biscuit.  Is he cruel?  Is he selfish?  No, neither.  He was ascertaining if this widow was the widow that God had commanded to feed him.  He asked the unthinkable to discern if God was involved (Keil & Delitzsch).

She had given verbal testimony to Yahweh—“as the LORD your God lives” (vs. 12)—but that doesn’t mean that she was a believer.  Maybe she was.  Maybe she wasn’t. Given the repetition of unlikely counduits for God’s provision, I might lean toward “non-believer”.  No matter … God can and does provide for his people even through pagans sometimes (e.g. Abimelech, Balaam the false prophet, Cyrus the Great).  Nevertheless, Elijah spoke a word of compassion to her—“Do not fear; go and do as you have said” (vs. 13a).  The repetition of the Lord’s pattern appears again—go and do—but with the insertion of faith: “But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son” (vs. 13b).  This was her crisis and her crossroad.  What will she choose?

Elijah still held the most important part—the promise of the Lord.  It was not just blind benevolence that Elijah was demanding; it was divine provision that Elijah was offering.  Elijah was offering life here on the threshold of death.  It all hinged on the promise of God.  To cling to the promise would require both her hands, so to speak.  She would have no Plan B; no safety net.  But there was promise: “For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth’” (vs. 24).  This was Elijah’s first miracle; there was no way she could have known his power as a prophet.  All she had was the promise.  What will she choose?  A last meal she could see or a first meal she could not see.  A last meal made sense, but a first meal gave hope.

Please again notice the pattern of faith—“And she went and did as Elijah had said” (vs. 15a).  She went and did as Elijah had said!  This was impossible, improbable, unthinkable faith.  She traded all she had—which was bankruptcy—for what God offered, which was the promise that God would give her each day through the rest of this drought her daily bread.  God offered life, really, in exchange for her death.  He would take her certain death and give her his sustaining life.

Does that not sound familiar?  Does that not sound like Jesus?  Does that not sound like the gospel of Christ’s grace?  A contemporary poet and musician puts it this way—“The blood of Jesus is like the widow’s oil, when it’s all you have, it’s all you’ll ever need … when it’s all you have, it’s all you’ll even need.”

“And she and he and her household ate for many days.  The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah” (vv. 15b-16).  It was not Elijah that saved them.  It was not the widow’s strength that saved them.  It was the promise believed.

Do you have needs this morning?  Do you have anxiety about where the “daily bread” will come for tomorrow, or a month, or a year from now?  But the daily bread is just a window to the true need of the heart.  Will you try to stave off death by yourself, with your bundle of sticks and your last ¼ cup of flour and teaspoon of oil, or will you exchange your poverty for his resources; your despair for his hope; your death for his life by faith?

But please hear this, we are just as destitute spiritually as this widow was physically.  We forget that when our pantries are full and our wells are deep.  We are circling the drain just as desperately as this vulnerable family in Zarephath.  Our material wealth, if it keeps us from seeing our true state before God and our need of God’s grace found in the blood of Jesus, then it is not a benefit; it is a barrier.  The blood of Jesus is all we have; and it is all we’ll ever need.  So instead of praying to some impotent storm god, we pray (traditional wording): “Our Father, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”