Babylon: An Exit Strategy

Jeremiah 51:49-50

There aren’t too many sermons on heaven these days.  There seems to be a lot more focus on money and finances.  This being the start of a new year there will be financial seminars in about every church.  While it is smart to wisely manage earthly Mammon, where is the interest in sending riches on ahead of us into eternity? 

A. W. Tozer wrote:  “The streets of gold do not have too great an appeal for those who find it so easy to pile up gold and silver in the service of the Lord here on earth.  We all want to reserve the hope of heaven as a kind of insurance against the day of death, but as long as we are healthy and comfortable, why change a familiar good for something about which we actually know very little?”  A. W. Tozer (The Best of A.W. Tozer, p.57.)

In today’s Jeremiah passage the prophet predicts the coming fall of Babylon, the oppressor, at the time, of most of the known world.  “Babylon must fall because of Israel’s slain, just as the slain in all the earth have fallen because of Babylon.”  (51:49-50a)  He then issues a warning to the Israelites who will experience new-found freedom from their exile in Babylon:  Get out of there!  “You who have escaped the sword, leave and do not linger!  Remember the Lord in a distant land, and think on Jerusalem.” (51:50b)

Christians have been promised a new Jerusalem (Revelation 21) and we need to long for it as the Israelites in Babylon longed for their Jerusalem.  We are in this world, but not of it.  We are to seek justice and pursue peace while we are here, even if it cost us earthly comfort.  This is not taking out eyes off Jerusalem… it is an extension of that focused gaze.  C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity wrote:  “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” 

Let 2011 be a year where we are less concerned about how comfortable we are down here.  Let us be un-comfortable if necessary in the pursuit of helping those around us.  Fix your gaze on heavenly things (Colossians 3:1-4) and flee Babylon!

“Because It’s Brought Me So Far.”

The Mountains of Edom

Jeremiah 49:7-22

Pastor Bill White from Paramount, CA shared the story of a time he took a 45-minute drive in an old, beat-up van with a guy he barely know.  He writes:  “Along the way we ended up talking about Jesus and whether this man would give his life to Christ. His response to me laid out humanity’s resistance to the gospel with striking clarity. He said, “My biggest problem is pride. I can’t humble myself. And you wanna know the reason I can’t give up my pride?” He leaned up onto the steering wheel and paused for effect. “Because it’s brought me so far.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I know that his pride has brought nothing but great pain. It was all he held onto while growing up in gangs—while his father died of a drug overdose and his mother was in the mafia. I know that this self-made man beats his wife regularly, that he’s unemployed, that he has just gotten out of prison. In fact, I found out a week later that he was on his way back into prison!

In a separate conversation, his wife told me that his young daughters are terrified of him, that he is an alcoholic, and that she is planning to leave him. She even told me that the old van he was driving was going to be repossessed in a week.” (Bill White)

Pride which puffs us up… actually brings us to one place:  downward.  In today’s passage God tells the Edomites that though they built their cities high in the mountains… though they thought themselves to be impervious to attack… He would bring them down from their lofty heights.  “Though you build your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD.”  (49:16b)  God humbles the proud, but lifts up those that humble themselves before him.  1 Peter says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Maybe we should stop elevating ourselves and start letting him do the lifting up.  Love the lyrics of the old Rich Mullins song, Sometimes By Step:  “And on this road to righteousness sometimes the climb can be so steep.  I may falter when I step, but never beyond your reach.”  It is God’s grace – not our human pride –  that ultimately takes us to the heights.

About as Successful as a Bush in the Desert

Jeremiah 48:6-7

Author and speaker, Gary Smalley tells the story of a time he was invited into the New Your City penthouse of a famous actor:  “In his living room, whose windows took in the city skyline, was a fireplace, and on the mantel of that fireplace was a statuette, the only memento of his illustrious Hollywood film career.  Having never seen an Oscar up close, I spent a moment reading the nameplate.  This actor had won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Award presentations a year earlier.  “I really believed that if I won this award, it would give my life meaning.  It would tell the world that I am somebody.  And, I’d finally be happy.”

          The actor paused for a moment, a catch in his throat.  I waited.  Finally, he asked the question that had prompted him to call and ask me to fly two thousand miles to meet with him.  “So, Gary, why am I so miserable?”  –  (Gary Smalley, Joy That Lasts, 2000 Edition, p. 32.)

Success – something we are probably all hoping to experience in the new year – can be quite an illusive thing.  How do we know when we have it?  Will it be worth the effort when we achieve it?  Lloyd Cory in Executive Digest noted, “The trouble with success is that the formula is the same as the one for a nervous breakdown.”

Part of the problem lies in our definition of success.  Too often we think it means what the world thinks it means: personal achievement and wealth.  God warns the Moabites in today’s passage:  “Flee!  Run for your lives; become like a bush in the desert.  Since you trust in your deeds and riches, you too will be taken captive…” (48:6-7a)  This echoes a warning God gave Judah in Jeremiah 17:5-6.   “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.   That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes.  They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.” 

The term “bush” in both passages in an infrequently used Hebrew word in the OT.  It is found in only these two places and in Psalm 102:17, where it is translated “destitute.”  Possible meanings of the Hebrew word are a wild donkey, a  desert juniper bush or a desert town.

It kind of reminds me of a trip I once took through Nevada on Highway 50 – “the loneliest highway in America.”  Along this stretch of nothing there are a few towns dotting the roadway.  These cities are hours away from civilization.  “How can anyone live here?” I thought to myself as I travelled through.

God says if you are relying on your own strength… if you are trusting  in your riches… you are as “destitute” as these remote locales.  How can anyone live here in the desolate town of self-reliance?

Fortunately, God provides a remedy.  One that I hope we will apply in the new year:  ” 7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,  whose confidence is in him.  8 They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (17:7-8)

Here’s to a new year filled with real growth… here’s to a new year of real success!

Silent Night

Luke 2: 6-7

Country music star Travis Tritt spent many years playing out-of-the-way joints before he made it big in the music industry. He reports that many of the bars were dangerous places, with drunk fans starting fights over the smallest matters. But Tritt found a unique way to keep the peace in such situations. He says:

“‘Silent Night’ proved to be my all-time lifesaver. Just when [bar fights] started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I’d start playing ‘Silent Night.’ It could be the middle of July—I didn’t care. Sometimes they’d even start crying, standing there watching me sweat and play Christmas carols.”  –  (Twang! The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations, compiled by Raymond Obstfeld and Sheila Burgener)

Remember believer!  There is power in the story.  Embrace it!  Sing it!  Share it!  Believe it!  Lives will be changed when we share the message… because this Child was born… because this Child gave His life… “All is Calm.  All is Bright.”

Treasure These Moments

Luke 2:19

19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

I was working the jewelry counter at a major department store last week and found myself helping a older woman with a diamond bracelet.  She was having a time getting the clasp open, so I helped.  As I was opening the lobster clasp, I said:  “You know… this is what husbands are for.”  She responded:  “I know.  But my husband of 30 years died three years ago.  He used to buy me a piece of jewelry every Christmas.  This is his gift to me this year.”  I told her I was sorry for her loss, she told me not to be.  She had a wonderful marriage and hadn’t celebrated Christmas much since his passing, but it was time to celebrate again.

I mentioned something about Janine and how we were going out to eat and then go home and watch a sappy Christmas movie.  She laughed and then she got very serious.  She looked we straight in the eye and said deliberately:  “Treasure these moments.”

A helpful reminder this time of year.

Mary’s Treasure

Luke 2:19

19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

 What was it Mary was treasuring… what was she pondering?  This gift she gave Jesus on the first Christmas was…  gratitude.   

The Buffalo Bills (2-9) were in position to score and seal the game in their favor as QB Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a pass into the waiting arms of receiver Stevie Johnson. Johnson however dropped the pass in the endzone. The turnover on downs led to a game winning 46-yard for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  After the dropped catch, Johnson was inconsolable. “I had the game in my hands and I dropped it,” Johnson said. He added “He’ll never ever get over it. Ever.” Johnson didn’t stop at blaming himself for the drop, but he went to twitter to blame the All Mighty.

Johnson’s tweet read “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!!    (This was Via Twitter for iPad .  One blogger wrote:  Gosh Steve, I mean, He got you an ipad.)

Don’t adopt a “dropped pass” theology.  Praising when the going’s great.  Calling God out when it’s not.  Think about it.  Mary could have spent all her focus on an inconvenient census that made her take a trip to Bethlehem in her last trimester.  She could have stewed in the bitterness, recalling each indifferent expression from the face of Bethlehem’s inn keepers.  Each had turned them away.  The scope of her vision could have not extended beyond the walls of the cave that kept cattle in which she had to give birth.  Instead, this occasion was not one for complaining, but contemplating.   

Mary’s heart was centered on the angels, the message of the shepherds, the Son of God she now cradled in her arms.  Big things do come in small packages. 

What will you give Jesus this Christmas?  Gratitude… would be a great start.

The Gift the Shepherds Shared

Luke 2:8-20

Adam, a bright-eyed 3-year-old, had been told of his German heritage. After church in early December, he was asked if he had a part in the Sunday school Christmas pageant.  “Yes,” he replied, his eyes filling with joy. “I am going to be a German shepherd!”  (Eileen R. Halstead, Marlboro, N.Y. “Kids of the Kingdom,” Christian Reader.)

Think about the job of these shepherds in the Christmas story for just a moment:  It is a bummer having to work the late shift.  The rest of the world seems to flow at a 9-5 hum… and here you are punching the clock while most are sawing logs.  Add to the grave yard shift the fact that these shepherds were the bottom of the Judean social ladder and you have here a group of blue collar workers whose station in life was:  Subterranean.  Whose outlook was:  Jaded.  Whose futures were: bleak.

And then something happens to them that no one would believe.  Angels… honest to goodness angels… tapped their motley crew to proclaim the birth of Messiah… Christ the Lord.  Now the gift the shepherds shared that night… and beyond… was their story.  

This was not without difficulty in the sharing.  For their audience had to weigh in their minds, upon the hearing, as to whether this was the tale of a group of drunken lowlifes or the Gospel truth.  I’m sure their story caused their skeptical buddies to razz them mercilessly.

          And yet… they each could not stop telling the story… their story… of how heaven touched their very plain lives and filled them with glory. 

17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  Amazement is the response the shepherd received when they shared.  Not the reaction one might expect.  There is no hiding the passion of men and women touched by God.  People can debate your doctrine but they can’t explain your transformation.  These shepherds were now different and people took notice.

This is the season to Share His Story… To Share Your Story… because people are looking for something real.  Many people are disillusioned with the whole Christmas machine.  Decorations for sale before Halloween, songs about snow sung hour after hour, endless to-do lists… and for what… for most people it is for the proclamation of the coming calendar date.  The 25th looms large as a day we dread more than cherish.  Just tell someone “It’s 4 days to Christmas!”  And you are libel to hear “I know, I’m not ready.” (with just a bit of panic in the voice) instead of “I know, isn’t it wonderful.” 

          Falling in love with the Jesus of the story is critical to transforming your Christmas.  Your friend, family member, co-worker… they need more than a sweater or a fruitcake.  They need to hear the words of life that only you can share with them.  Remember your Christmas before Jesus; think about what Christmas means to you now that you are his child…  and then… give your story away.

What Joseph Got Jesus for Christmas

Luke 2:4-7 

Robert J. Morgan  tells the story of one holiday season years ago.  All he wanted was a little piece and quiet—just an hour or so… a cup of coffee and time to think.  It was a busy time… his schedule was upset, and most of his tasks remained undone, his gifts unwrapped—most of them un-purchased—and holiday preparations at church were in full swing.

He writes:  “So I chose a little café that served European pastry and a variety of coffees.  Its atmosphere was quiet, with soft classical Christmas music in the background.  Patrons sat at bistro tables, reading novels or working on crossword puzzles.  Here, I thought, I can spread out my calendar, make my “to do” lists, sip my coffee, and schedule the milliseconds between now and December 25.  I only had an hour.

          But I no sooner entered the café than I heard a familiar voice. An old friend, Dan Cronk, having little to do that morning, had decided to enjoy a pot of tea and a basket of breads.  There he stood, tray in hand, looking wistfully, delighted to see me and obviously hoping I’d invite him to sit down.  I didn’t want him to join me, for he was a talker, about to rattle away for hours on hypothetical abstractions from his brilliant but rambling mind.  There he stood nonetheless.  “Well, hello Dan!” I said with a broad smile.  “I didn’t expect to see you here.”  “Didn’t have much goin’ on this morning, and I thought a pot of tea would cheer me up.  Meeting someone?”       “Well, no… Actually, I’m not…. Er … Want to join me?”  “Sure!”

          And down he sat.  For the next hour I sat there, head nodding and stomach knotting, listening to him pour forth.  My planning calendar rested unopened on the table, and my blood pressure slowly increased in steady increments.  I silently cursed the impulse that had chosen that particular café on that particular day at that particular hour.   The hour passed, and I cleared my throat.  “Well, Dan, it’s been wonderful seeing you again.  I have to go now, but I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”  He looked deeply into my eyes, and I noticed for the first time that his were soft, tender, vulnerable.  He smiled and reached his hand across the little table and laid it atop mine.  “I’m so glad we ran into each other today,” he said quietly.  “Thanks for taking time for an old man.  I was feeling pretty blue this morning, and I guess I just needed a friend.  You know, sitting here with you has felt like… well, it’s been like pulling up to a blazing fire on a cold night.  I feel so… so warm now.  Thanks for letting me join you.” – Robert J. Morgan  (More Real Stories For the Soul, pp. 157-160.) 

It is so easy for us to forget how powerful it is to give the present called presence.  So many need it this time of year. 

When we read the Christmas story from Luke and I think of the life of Joseph, one question always comes to my mind:  Why did he stick around?

I know the story recorded of him in Matthew.  He learned that his finance was pregnant… he knew he wasn’t the father, but was noble enough to break things off quietly.  And then an angel came to him in a dream and sets him straight… revealing to him that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  I understand all that.  But then Joseph believes it all and takes Mary home as his wife!

This had to be a hard thing.  Mary had chosen her lot:  “May it be unto me according to your will.” she told the angel.  Joseph, whose life was already intimately tied up with Mary’s, finds out a bit late in the story, if you ask me.  And yet he would have to succumb to the same ridicule and embarrassment and then share in responsibility of caring for a child that wasn’t his flesh and blood.  And so, I think, Joseph’s greatest gift to Jesus was his presence.  He was an earthly father to Jesus and a loving support to Mary.  

Later on in the Gospels, Joseph, kind of, fades into the woodwork.  We don’t know what becomes of this man of faith… Many NT scholars think he has died before Jesus even begins his earthly ministry.  It appears Joseph was thrust onto the stage for his one moment of glory… ironically it was his unselfishness put him there in that spotlight.  

Maybe this holiday season, Jesus wants to see you, like his servant, Joseph, give your presence to another.  Doesn’t seem like a flashy gift, but it could be the gift that God wants to see from you.

Stuck in the Mud

Jeremiah 38

A few years ago when I still lived in Cloverdale, CA, I received a call one rainy night that the daughter of one of our church members was in the ER.  It was about 20 minutes away and I arrived there in the pouring rain.  I discovered she had already came and went.  Leaving the parking lot of the hospital I went over a low curb and got the tires of my Nissan stuck in a ditch.  For about 45 minutes I tried everything to get myself free.  I was soaked and tired and thinking that the old adage was true:  “No good deed goes unpunished.”

In today’s passage Jeremiah may have thought the same thing.  Falsely accused of dissertion to Babylon, his enemies finally get the okay from the king to finish him off.  They throw him in a well… and though there was no water in it… his feet sink deep into the mud.  Not a high point in his prophetic career!  I think we have all been there a time or two. 

If it were not for a friend, Ebed-melech, Jeremiah would have perished in that pit.  But Ebed-melech petitioned the king and then organized a rescue operation.  He went so far as to provide rags so that Jeremiah’s arm would not receive robe burns as he was lifted out.  Ever have a friend lift you out of a pit? 

Two insights today:  1) Just because you are doing God’s will doesn’t mean you won’t get stuck in the mud occasionally.  2) Sometimes God allows people to grow spiritually by helping you out of your mud.  This requires humility and patience.

Now listen to the words God had for King Zedekiah: 

“‘They misled you and overcame you— those trusted friends of yours.  Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.’ ” Only when one is without friends is one truly stuck.

As for me, I finally swallowed my pride that rainy night and call a good friend, Bob Arthur.  He arrived with a tow rope and within an hour I was back home and dry.  Praise God for friends.  Any friend you need to call and thank today?