Friday, May 18, 2012
When God speaks the same word or touches on the same incident-issue more than once in the Bible, it doesn't mean He forgot what He'd previously said. Rather, His restatement highlights that subject's importance and our need to especially 'have ears to hear what the Lord is saying'. Let me explain. 4 different gospels proclaim the Good News of Jesus because this news is so vital. No single witness alone can fully communicate God's greatest gift. So we have 4 Evangelists' perspectives all focused on 1 Person and 1 Message to give us the complete picture of Jesus. Same message; just different perspectives. In a similar way, The Book of Acts records Saul's Damascus Road conversion 3 times; not because Luke didn't get it right the first time. But, in accordance with God's own requirement that truth must be established 'in the mouth of two or three witnesses' (Deut 17:6; 19:15), Luke gives 3 different perspectives to confirm and assure that this vital story makes its full, significant impact! The Bible also recounts the history of King Hezekiah of Judah in 3 parallel passages: 2Kings; 2Chronicles + Isaiah. Through previous readings, I've become aware of how all 3 basically agree on the facts of his life, reign and ministry; but each also differs somewhat in its own unique perspective. One includes what the others omit; one gives the general overview, the other provides specific details or presents them differently. Together, they give a full, non-contradictory picture of the truth. Kings records his kingdom's civic historical facts, even including their effect beyond Judah, on all Israel; Chronicles focuses exclusively on Judah and the priesthood's influence; Isaiah perceives the spiritual heart of the matter from a more prophetic angle. However, while re-reading them recently, I felt a remarkably personal kinship with Hezekiah while under spiritual attack. Not that my tribulations at all rival his in either intensity or significance; but trials are all pilgrims' common denominator, the great equalizers of all lives. Tests and temptations happen alike to peasants and kings. No one is immune. The Preacher says, 'The same thing - death - ultimately happens to us all!' So what did I see through the lens of my fellow traveler, Hezekiah? His trials are not only distant past reminders, but very much relevant to our contemporary situations. The 1st passage - 2Kings 18:13-20:21 basically outlines Hezekiah's desire to restore Judah to right standing in worshiping God. The very first verses call him a good king, one of Judah's best in fact: 'he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done.' (2Ki 18:3) He was a reformer: restored the covenant; repaired the Temple, both its building and priestly services; celebrated a joy-filled Passover as had not been since Solomon; and instituted far-reaching civil reforms. His arch-rival, Samaria, had been carried away captive by Assyria and Judah dwelt in peace. Life was good for Hezekiah. Contemporary commentators might say he enjoyed 'good karma' (not a Christian perspective): he had sown well so he would reap well. However, something changed. His enemy's enemy became his enemy and suddenly Assyria attacked Judah's cities, besieging even Jerusalem, bellowing threats against Hezekiah and his people. 'I'll bring you down just like all the other nations! You're no different; I've defeated them all! You say you trust the LORD? Well, I've got news for you: He's the One who's sent me against you. He's really not pleased with you. In fact, Hezekiah has deceived you and is really working against the true LORD. I know; that's why I'm here!' And as if these Goliath-like taunts weren't enough, 2Ki 20 tells us Hezekiah became very sick, right at the same time that his kingdom was under attack by the Assyrian army. So seriously sick, he calls for his trusted prophet, Isaiah, to give hope in the midst of this most desperate situation. I paraphrase Hezekiah's plea: 'LORD, what do you say about this? I need some light in this very present darkness!' But the prophet's words were not helpful. They provided neither relief nor comfort, but only made what was already distressing to be downright depressing! Instead of healing and hope, Hezekiah heard, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live!' (2Ki20:2) Insult was now added to injury. It appeared God was abandoning his king in his most dire moment of need. So... Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall... away from Isaiah, the bearer of bad news to... what??? ... his problem?... his disappointment?... his insurmountable mountain?... a distraction?... his God?... himself? I don't know what his 'wall' was, but literally, Hezekiah was unable to face the truth, the prophet or his God and he turned away in his pain. Somehow he did find the faith to pray, to pour out his heart, if only to complain, recount all his past faithful deeds: 'Remember how I've walked before you... in truth... with a loyal heart,' and weep bitterly. Hezekiah was clearly finding it difficult to accept the Lord's revealed will for his life. Or was it really God's will? Perhaps this was just another part of the whole test? Regardless, even before Isaiah had made his way out of the palace through the middle court after delivering his discouraging word, the LORD spoke another word, Isaiah turned around and proclaimed what sounds like the exact opposite to his original prophecy! Had Isaiah's complaint moved God? Had the LORD changed His mind? 'I've heard your prayer, seen your tears, will heal you completely in 3 days, add 15 more years to your life and, (as if that's not enough), I'll rid you of the Assyrians too!' Who wouldn't want to receive a prophetic word like that? Everyone say, 'Amen!' So Isaiah put a lump of figs on the festering boil and Hezekiah miraculously recovered! That's all that was needed? That's all that stood between Hezekiah, God's faithful servant, and death: a bunch of figs?! So simple a solution! And then the LORD added, 'And would you like a sign to further show that my Word is true? Should I make the sundial shadow go ahead or back 10 degrees?' That is, God can change the times of the entire universe, either increase or reverse the speed of light, just as easily as heal bodies and win battles! So Hezekiah chose what he thought most impossible: reverse the shadows! Need anymore convincing? The LORD threw in an angel to slay 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in 1 night, sent their king Sennacherib fleeing back to Assyria where his own two sons murdered him. Assyria never recovered! Then nations, including an upstart Babylon, saw the miraculous signs in the heavens (a part of the day's light lost forever would be quite a sign to these astrologers!?) heard of Hezekiah's great victory, and sent their envoys to discover what was happening. Hezekiah, elated with his personal healing and national deliverance, abandoned wisdom and discernment, and opened up all his treasures to these curious strangers. Isaiah asked him, 'Have you shown them ALL that is in your house?' Hezekiah confirmed he had and Isaiah then prophesied again. This unlikely Babylon would one day accomplish what the Assyrians had failed to do: utterly destory his city, Jerusalem, and take his children captive. And what was Hezekiah's response? 'That's a good word... for at least it won't happen to me. There will be peace in my days!' Great story, but there's something wrong with this ending. Not the ringing, uplifting, feel-good conclusion we expect from this 'good' king's reign!? So let's look deeper... to the Bible's second passage on this story: 2Chronicles 29 -32. Same basic outline, but these chapters add a dimension 2Kings never really discovers. Concerning the aftermath of Hezekiah's healing and victory, this chronicler focuses on Hezekiah's heart condition: 32:23 sounds the warning: Hezekiah was exalted in the sight of all nations. Question is: How well do we handle exaltation? Seems Hezekiah didn't do too well with this part of the test. Likewise, history reveals the church does better in times of persecution than exaltation. Why is that? Light shines best in darkness? Do we so easily forget the great victories the LORD has won for us and all too quickly settle for the world's fanfare, the applause of American Idol? 32:25 continues: 'Hezekiah did not repay according to the favor shown him'. Favour shown from God calls for reciprocal favour from us towards Him. His heart was lifted up - with such a momentous, miraculous breakthrough, Hezekiah found it harder to process victory than challenge defeat? Why is that? 'Then Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart so the wrath did not come upon them in his days.' 32:31 the LORD sums it up: 'regarding this situation... God withdrew from him, in order to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart.' So what was in Hezekiah's heart, this great reformer king? Same as in that Israel generation that had miraculously destroyed Egypt, walked through the Red Sea on dry ground and followed the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, but didn't regard that these great miracles were inherently 'to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart.'(Deut 8:2) Turns out: what was in his hearts was not good enough! But what is in our heart? Jeremiah (Jer 17:9-10) exposes it as inherently evil, deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, full of: Rebellion and unbelief - not enough faith to enter into His land of promise. Pride - caught up with its own works, unable to give God the glory and stop elation from becoming exaltation. Materialsm/Greed - when the Babylonians + all nations showed up, Hezekiah showed them all his things, his earthly prosperity and he failed to tell them the real heart of the great sign: why the sun and Assyrians were retreating: God's powerful love! Self - he was more thankful that God's wrath would be deferred to following generations than he was willing to deal with it personally and see its root cause eradicated in his own heart and generation. It is God's prerogative to test our heart: heal it from yesterday's hurts, purify it through today's presents, and transform us to His next glory! The enemy tempts, but God tests. The enemy wants to trip us up and ensnare us, but God wants us to enter in! Jesus went through a forty-day wilderness test at His ministry's beginning and overcame the enemy's temptations with God's Word + Spirit. Even in His final hour, no man could find any fault in Him. The enemy tempted, but Jesus completed His test with a triumphant, 'It is finished!' His Heart was to only know the Father's Heart and make Him known. Nothing deterred Jesus from this way. Want to go even deeper? Look at the third passage: Isaiah's more personal, intimate perspective. The prophet records Hezekiah's song in the midst of his trial, when he's most vulnerable, most transparent. Our song is not just words - thoughts and ideas, but it's our heart set to music, so we can hear ourselves clearly, the fuller sound of who we really are. Lyrics + melody. Word + Spirit. Isa 38:9-20 traces Hezekiah's process, his journey of faith through the test. The 1st part: v10-14 records a sad, bitter, despairing, depressing lament descrying his miserable condition before He is healed: 'O LORD, It's not fair that I am going to die before my time! I am upset/angry/oppressed! Do something! Can you relate? I can! The 2nd part is his response, quite evidently after he's been healed. His difference in tone is remarkable: Hezekiah has been changed! and more than just physically! 'It seems it was good for me to go through all those troubles. Throughout them all you held tight to my lifeline, You never let me tumble over the edge into nothing. But my sins you let go of... It's the living who thank you, just as I'm doing right now. The father shall make known Your truth to the children.' And that's the heart of the matter: trials/tests produce seed that reproduce good fruit to successive generations! Unfortunately, Hezekiah forgot this essential lesson during his 15 extra years. His son, Manasseh, was born during this time (he was 12 yrs old when Hezekiah finally did die!); but somehow Hezekiah failed to effectively convey his Father God's love + faith to his own son: Manasseh proved to be one of the most wicked kings in all of Judah's history! He did such evil that he undid all the good his father had done! Tradition reports he even had his cousin Isaiah sawn in two! Guess he didn't appreciate his prophecies?! So what song are you singing NOW during your wilderness test, in the midst of your fiery furnace, or your desert tribulation? A lament? a complaint? a dirge? or a praise-filled, victorious anthem? And how's your singing AFTER your deliverance? Is it different from when you're still 'going through it'? Has it become a rehearsed God-story from your past: the same words, but lacking spontaneous passion and vision beyond yourself, without the perspective of application to future generations? Hezekiah had the words, but he stopped living his song to his son. Our song is the Tree of Life which reaches over walls, bears fruit in every season, shines through our tests and reveals Christ's life throughout successive generations. This is the heart of the father making his truth known to his children; the exercise of faith and love that Hezekiah needed then and fathers like me still need to learn today.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
You can only keep what you give away. Strange-sounding paradox, eh? But that's the essence of life! Our struggles to maintain what we think we possess or figure out ways through our problems often bring only fleeting, temporary, circuitous solutions. Truth seems ever-evasive, tantalyzingly outside our grasp, just like the proverbial carrot on the stick; we're ever reaching, but never able... But our futile predicaments are simply our wake-up calls to change our perspective! Life is not out of reach... removed. It is nearer than we think. Definitely within the grasp of faith. 'We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive at the place we first started And to know that place for the first time.' (Little Gidding - TS Eliot - HS paraphrase) T.S. Eliot perceived that life's seemingly meaningless circuit really does have purpose. Our circle does have a centre after all and all life proceeds from that centre. We are not a disconnected series of random explorings on an uncertain circumference. And all honest attempts to seek life's mystery will ultimately bring us to this revelation: Life is a lot simpler than we think and that Centre and His Name is Jesus! I'm convinced: resolution does not come from frantically trying to unravel our complicated Gordian knots; rather it flows from the revelation of Jesus Christ, God's Word + His Spirit. His Sword first pierces our heart and then it is free to cut through the entangling maze around and ahead of us. Veiled riddles can lead to open portals. Complex confusions yield simple solutions. In Jesus Christ, mystery becomes Revelation! Look again at our opening sentence. It parallels Jesus' words in Matt 16:24: 'For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.' Is Jesus just talking in circles, seeking to impress us with how deep His thoughts are? I think not. Rather, His simplicity challenges our complexity. His heavenly wisdom confronts our earthly delusion. He who is The Way, Truth and Life calls us to forsake confusion and follow Him, even through accompanying tests and trials, to discover life to its fullest. Quite simply... your life is NOT about you. You, yourself, your 'I' is neither life's beginning, central focus nor goal. 'You' are an outward expression of God's innermost love. And the sooner 'I' come to the end of 'my'self and cease from introspective navel-gazing, then the sooner 'I' will be free from the non-stop merry-go-round treadmill impossibility of realizing 'self'. Self-centred self-awareness; self-help + self-improvement, self-acceptance, self-sufficiency + self-esteem -- they all lead to only more emptiness! 'Vanity of vanities,' saith Ecclesiastes, 'All is vanity!' This is the pivotal question in our present-day culture wars. Consumer-centred societies that strive to get and keep are empty, dying cultures and eventually consume themselves. Jesus reiterated this same truth 1000 years later with His added Revelation: THE WAY, TRUTH + LIFE has now appeared in earth and taken up His rightful throne at our universe's centre, its very heart. Receiving Christ means 'self' relinquishes its throne to a new centre. All 'self' focuses are mere detours, deceptions and lies! Life is not a self-centred lie. To die to self is to find your new Identity in Christ and live for Him! Love gives. The Father gave His Son. Jesus gave His life. He is the only answer and He is His way to His followers, a new and living way: You can only keep what you give away. It's like breathing: you take in and then you have to give out to keep on living! Stop breathing out and you die! Give and you live! Let me illustrate this further for a picture is worth 1000 words. I know a lady in our city who grows dahlias. By summer's end, her garden is a living tapestry of colour! A wonderful rainbow of diverse reds, oranges, yellows and polka-dot purples, with white and gold highlights! Many of her varieties are totally unique to her garden because over the years she used the bulbs she already had to generate new, original and even more vibrant creations. Her garden is like none other... and she shares it with her whole community. She didn't attend our church, but many Sunday mornings I'd arrive to find one of her colouful arrangements at our church doorstep. No mystery; I knew exactly who had left them. She just wanted to bless us and she did. Her dahlias also greeted me when I entered the local bank -- banks definitely need blessing that money cannot give! Her displays of God's true wealth and exuberant prodigality added life to the otherwise austere, sterile money-changers' tables. And if you took time to look even more closely... you could read, secreted amid their petals, her hand-written Bible verses proclaiming simple gospel truths. Her flowers invited thirsty souls to stop and drink life's true honey. But one day disaster struck! Every autumn she brought her bulbs in from the garden, carefully wrapped them up + packed them away to protect them from the winter cold. But this one winter was especially harsh and all her bulbs froze. Frozen dahlia bulbs do not bloom again. The soggy mess was only good for the compost pile. None of her prize dahlias survived. But this Dorcas lived a timeless secret. For years she had selflessly sown seeds unwittingly for her own salvation that would now germinate in her springtime of need. Out of her generous spirit, during her years of plenty, she had freely given her prize bulbs away to friends, neighbours, any dahlia-lovers. All who had shown an interest received some so they could then grow and enjoy their own dahlias in their own yards. And now, when these friends heard of her loss, they in turn rallied and one-by-one restored her garden with a whole new generation of bulbs -- a re-generation heralding her garden's resurrection! Virtually every variety she had once cultivated, but then lost, was ultimately restored and her garden bloomed again... replenished! Because she had given them away, they came back to her. She had 'lost' her flowers to others, but when all seemed lost, then what she had given restored her to plenty. She was kept because she had given away. Something parallel is now happening in the Church here in the West. Her present state resembles my friend's frozen dahlias: desolate, desperate, decayed. Not only is the bloom off her vine, but her bulbs are rotten. She is lost in her own way, void of simple gospel truth, lacking Christ's essential life and without a vision beyond herself. Yet I see hope! Jesus Christ is her true and only Root and neither He nor His gospel will be corrupted! Nothing done in Christ is in vain. For centuries, the Western church gave her best shoots and sowed her quality seed into the world's needy. Countless thousands, many in the prime of their youth, not only bloomed brightly in their generation, but branched over the walls to transform desolate wildernesses and affect many generations. The blood of the martyrs is still good seed, like the 'dahlia bulbs' my friend gave away. Now Africa, Asia, South America are returning the gospel afresh to a spiritually-impoverished West. They come bearing precious seed, priceless bulbs, completing the circle. Ecclesiastes 11:1 encourages us to 'Cast our bread on the waters and we will find it after many days.' Isaiah and Habbakuk prophesy, 'the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.' (Isa 11:9, Hab 2:14) Jesus sent His disciples to the ends of the earth to 'make disciples of ALL nations'. That still includes the West. God will not settle for a remnant when He has sown a harvest. Now seed is returning to us from these nations that previously received it from our once over-flowing store. Those who formerly received from us are now His messengers to us. Our offering to them has become what they now offer us. May we humbly receive the Gospel seed again and complete the kingdom cycle. God's wisdom is evident: we keep + are only kept by what we've given away!