Tag Archives: Assurance

Apocalypse and Labor Pains

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Mark 13:8 (NIV)

I recently finished a three-episode podcast series on time. The second episode of the podcast specifically on the so-called “end times” and the apocalypse. The apocalyptic and dystopian has always captured the human imagination, and one of the observations that I made in the podcast is that every generation has those who believe the end is near. I have also observed a pattern within every community of Jesus followers with whom I’ve been associated. As they get older, the more likely it is that they will be convinced that the return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end prophesied in Revelation is near. There must be something human in us that feels comforted by projecting our fear about the end of our own earthly journey on all humankind.

Well,” I hear an older woman [let’s cast Dame Maggie Smith in the role] saying with a shrug, “If I’ve got to die, it would be nice to have some company.

These things came to mind this morning as Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the persecution of His followers, and His eventual return “in power and glory.”

As I read the chapter, there was one little phrase that Jesus specifically uses that I have overlooked for my entirety of my forty years as a follower. He calls the signs of His prophetic events “birth pains.”

This brings to mind my last podcast episode in which I discussed the over-arching themes of the Great Story. One of them being:

Creation –> Destruction –> New Creation

So, the logical question I have to ask myself is: “What naturally happens after ‘birth pains’?”

A birth.

A new life.

A new start.

A beginning.

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus told His followers not to worry, and not to be afraid, even in the midst of persecution, suffering, and apocalyptic predictions of incredible suffering and destruction.

It is ironic that Jesus encourages such faith and trust. It is just a day or two before He knows that He will endure incredible persecution, injustice, suffering, death, and hell. Jesus has prophesied that He will exemplify this apocalyptic, overarching Great Story theme. The events about to take place at the end of His own earthly journey are layered with meaning. They will be both a micro-human event and a macro-spiritual event. His trials, suffering, death, and resurrection are the “birth pains.” Even as Jesus says these words, amidst the escalation of conflict and the death threats of His enemies, He is feeling the contractions of His divine role in the Great Story. He is providing the example. He is blazing the trail. He is leading the way which does not end on the cross. It is the labor that will give birth to new life:

Life –> Death –> Resurrection

I am also reminded this morning that most apocalyptic movies and stories do not end with the depressing end of all things, but with the seeds of new hope being planted.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.

 “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

Jesus

And,” I imagine Jesus saying with a shrug, “if I’m going to live, I’d love to have some company.”

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

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Waiting and Watching

[Jesus] said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
Acts 1:7 (NIV)

I must confess that I am an impatient person. I always have been. Perhaps being the youngest child in a family of four was a contributing factor. You watch all of your sibling growing up and they are always allowed to do cool things while you have to wait.

You’re not old enough yet.
You’ll have to wait until you’re older.
Someday you’ll be allowed to do that.

Ugh. I can still feel my childish annoyance with these statements.

As I look back on the early years of my journey I can clearly see how impatient I was with the very process of life. I doggedly attempted to push the process whenever I could. I graduated early from high school. I started college early. I was on a mission to find a wife, to get married and get on with life. In retrospect, I can see how often I pursued shortcuts to get further down the road faster. In at least a few cases, the shortcuts had tragic results from which I’ve had to learn some very hard life lessons.

As we enter the book of Acts this morning we find Jesus’ followers in a period of waiting. It’s not just the 11 remaining appointed disciples, but also the women who had long traveled with and supported Jesus’ ministry. There is also a larger circle of a hundred or so believers in the entourage including Jesus’ mother and brothers.

What’s next?” is the burning question among the crew. The resurrected Jesus has been making appearances over a six-week period. With their question “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples are clearly hanging onto their repeatedly stated desire for a shortcut to what they hope is a restoration of the earthly kingdom of the Jewish monarchy (and their own positions of temporal power and authority within that administration).

Jesus first lays down a difficult truth for his followers: You don’t get to know the whole plan. He goes on to explain that the next step is to keep waiting, and to keep praying, for an upcoming event in which the believers will be immersed in Holy Spirit power. Their mission will then be to give witness to ever spreading circles of influence around the globe.

Great,” I can hear his disciples mutter. “More waiting.”

This morning I write from a stretch in my personal journey in which I’m experiencing a process of fulfillment in areas of life that I’ve long waited for. I confess that I’m still impatient. Time, experience and maturity has helped, but I still identify with Peter and the crew. I want to know the plan, with dates, and details about what God is going to do in our lives and when He’s going to do it. I have, however, walked this journey long enough to know that this is not how it works. This is a faith journey, and that usually means simply pressing on to the next step.

In the quiet this morning I find myself once again asking God for patience, and surrendering my self-centric desire to want to know, and to know now. “Just wait,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper to my spirit. I catch what I perceive is a grin. “It’s coming,” the Spirit whispers, “Trust me in this. With each step that is revealed there will be more mystery sitting further up and further in. That’s how this works. It’s a faith journey. You can be confident that all that Father has planned will be accomplished at the right time. You can be sure of this, even if you can’t see it yet.”

Public Fear; Personal Assurance

It has been fascinating for me to watch the post-election panic and fearful protests on the streets of many American cities since the election. Fear leads us to behave in interesting ways, as it has throughout human history. People are people, and the fearful residents of Jerusalem c. 701 B.C. are also displaying their fear in public ways.

Look, their brave men cry aloud in the streets;
    the envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways are deserted,

    no travelers are on the roads.
The treaty is broken,
    its witnesses are despised,
    no one is respected.
Isaiah 33:7-8 (NIV)

The fear in Jerusalem is well justified. The dreaded army of the regional superpower, Assyria, has swept through the north and is now moving on Jerusalem. It is a large army well-trained, well-equipped, and battle hardened. It is an army unlike anything the people of Jerusalem have ever faced. The Assyrian army’s reputation for destruction, violence, and brutality has preceded them.  It is no wonder that order is giving way to fearful chaos on the streets of Jerusalem.

It is always darkest before the day dawns, it has been often said. That is the overarching theme of Isaiah’s message in today’s chapter. In darkness we tend to grasp for light. If the power goes out we seek flashlights and candles, when things get spiritually dark we reach for God. The ancient seer describes the fear of Assyria leading the people to repent and call on God for deliverance, and he then promises that deliverance.

Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria, Isaiah proclaims, though it will not be delivered by human effort:

Your rigging hangs loose:
    The mast is not held secure,
    the sail is not spread.
Then an abundance of spoils will be divided
    and even the lame will carry off plunder.

A wealth of plunder and spoils, but not from anything the people of Judah have traded for. The word picture is of a trade ship that has sailed no where. So where will the all the spoil and plunder come from? God is going to deliver it personally. God will deliver the people of Judah from the Assyrians.

This morning I am thinking about how Isaiah’s message was received by his family, friends and neighbors who were shaking in fear. I have a hard time believing that it was accepted heartily. I doubt that it provided many with comfort and assurance. Rampant fear is not so easily assuaged, as current events bear witness.

Nevertheless, I look back on my life’s journey and recall many times of corporate fear. As a child I learned to duck and cover from a Soviet nuclear strike, and as an adult I watched friends and family stockpile gold, guns and supplies for the apocalypse that was feared with the new millennium and the Y2K virus.

I understand that some threats are real and some fears are justified. Still, if I am truly a follower of Jesus, then my heart tells me that Jesus’ personal teaching should always trump public fear:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Matthew 6:33 (MSG)

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The Undeniable Reality of Change

Though hail flattens the forest
    and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
    sowing your seed by every stream,
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.
Isaiah 32:19-20 (NIV)

Things change. It’s an undeniable part of life’s journey.

Sometimes the change is subtle. A sailboat’s point-of-sail can change a seemingly imperceptible degree or two on the compass, but that change will ultimately take the boat to a completely different destination.

Sometimes the change is dramatic. Tectonic plates shift beneath my feet, shaking me to the very core of my being. Complacency is replaced by confusion. The familiar is replaced by fear. Forget the notion of a degree’s difference. I can’t seem to find my bearing at all.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah sends the message loud and clear: Get ready for things to change.

“…you who feel secure will tremble

The fortress will be abandoned,
    the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever.”

But the change isn’t an end. Change is a waypoint in the journey. Change is the process through which complacency is transformed into commitment. Fear is metamorphosed into faith. Anxiety is redeemed by assurance.

The ancient prophet doesn’t end with doom and destruction. Amidst the change, he says, “the Spirit is poured on us from on high.” Change is not the end. It’s just a waypoint in the journey propelling us to a place of hope:

“Though hail flattens the forest
    and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
    sowing your seed by every stream,
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.”

This morning I’m remembering changes I have experienced, both subtle and dramatic. I’m recounting the lessons I have learned moving through those waypoints. I am recognizing the good things I have learned; the good place I find myself this morning.

Things change. It’s an undeniable part of life’s journey. It means I am in process. Life is in motion. I am being propelled further up and further in. Change is a good thing if I am willing to accept it. As Isaiah pleads with me with morning:

“...rise up and listen…

…hear what I have to say.”

 

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Be Strong and Courageous

“I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

Wendy and I drove home from the lake yesterday. It was Sunday morning and we obviously were not going to make it to worship, so we pulled up the audio of last week’s message from our local group of Jesus’ followers. Tim Heerma did a great job with the message and, at one point, he spoke about fears and how they keep us from doing what we’re supposed to be doing. “If you are focused on your fears,” he said (I’m paraphrasing) “you will bury your talent.” Wendy and I both gave an impromptu, “Wow” at that moment. Tim’s point landed with impact on us.

After listening to the entire message, Wendy and I spent a good bit of time talking. Out of our conversation came the recognition that fear and anxiety are two of evil’s most commonly used (and effective) weapons against any who would endeavor to do what God has purposed. Jesus repeatedly said to his followers “do not be afraid.”

Our discussion then meandered down a conversational path in which Wendy shared some of her current anxieties. “I keep asking God for some assurance,” she said regarding one of the things we’ve felt God purpose for us, “but it’s not coming.” The result, I observed, were questions, doubts, fears, and anxiety about long-term consequences.

We then spent some time having a conversation with God and reminiscing all of the amazing ways we’ve been led right to where we find ourselves on life’s road. We looked back and recounted some of the unbelievable experiences of God’s prompting, guidance and provision that dot the path behind us. We recommitted ourselves to trusting God for whatever was necessary to play out the roles and purposes to which we’ve been called.

Ironically, we begin this morning at the start of the story of Joshua. Joshua and the people of Israel find themselves standing at a crossroads before the River Jordan. God is calling them to cross the river and take possession of the land. Like a coach in the locker room before the big game, God gives the newly appointed leader, Joshua, a much-needed pep-talk. What Joshua has been purposed to do is a huge task that will require generous doses of active faith. The enemy’s defensive strategy comes from a well-worn and effective playbook: fear and anxiety.

Four times God says to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous.” Strength will be required to overcome the onslaught of fear which will be unleashed against him. Courage will be necessary to relinquish the doubts and anxieties that will most assuredly flank the fear.

This morning, I am thinking about Wendy and me standing at our own version of the Jordan River and the purposes to which we, like Joshua, are called. I am recalling all of the fears and anxieties we discussed yesterday. As I read God’s pep-talk to Joshua, I am hearing God whisper: “This is for you, too. It is as much for you as it was for Josh. Be strong and courageous.”

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Embrace the Mystery of the Moment

Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
John 13:7 (NRSV)

There was a lot that Jesus’ followers did not understand. It is a subtle, but recurring theme in John’s biography of Jesus:

  • Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
  • They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.
  • Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.
  • Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
  • His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Along my life journey I’ve discovered that I almost always desire clarity and understanding, but it quite regularly eludes me in the moment and in my immediate circumstances. It is only when I reach a waypoint down the road that I look back and perceive with clarity and understanding how God was at work around me, in me, and through me. I have come to accept that there are some things that will continue to elude me until my journey is over and I am safe at home.

At least I’m not alone. I take heart today in the realization that Jesus’ best friends and closest followers on this earth were perplexed in the moment, too. Being physically present with Jesus and hearing His every word, they still didn’t get it until further on down the road. Maybe it’s time for me to cut myself a little slack.

I’m reminded that this life journey is, for me, a faith journey. I will rarely have clarity and understanding in the moment. I am, however, assured of the hope that God will complete His good work in me. Having looked back at how He has brought me to this point, and all that He has faithfully accomplished thus far, it is evident that I can trust that my present circumstances are part of the plan.

You do not know now what I am doing,” Jesus says to His followers, “but later you will understand.”

Indeed.

So, go with it. Trust. Have faith.

Embrace the mystery of the moment.

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featured image by odreamer via Flickr

Calm Assurance in Stormy Seas

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee

Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.  Acts 27:33-36 (NRSV)

I grew up on the water, and as a boy I wanted nothing more than to be a sailor. There was a period of my childhood, around the age of nine, that I wore a sailor hat all of the time. My mother still jokes about finding me asleep in bed with my sailor hat on and jumping into the pool forgetting it was still on my head.

Our summer vacation every year was two weeks on Rainy Lake which lies on the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada. It’s a large lake and our daily fishing excursion normally entailed a long trip in our rented john boat across a vast expanse of open water. When storms came up, the white caps could swell to decent heights. It could definitely make the trip back to camp in our small boat a rather frightening affair for a small kid.

I can remember as a young boy paying attention to my dad during those seemingly endless trips in stormy waters. If dad was calm as the boat rocked and rolled, if I looked back at dad and received a “Isn’t this fun?” smile, then I knew everything was going to be okay.

I thought about those moments this morning as I read the chapter and imagined being on board the ship with Paul and Dr. Luke as their small ship was mercilessly pounded by a raging storm for two entire weeks. The fear and mental weariness among passengers and crew had to have been immeasurable. And then Paul speaks with faith and assurance. He smiles, and encourages them. “Take some food. Be strong. Don’t be afraid. Everything is going to be okay. We’re all going to make it through this.”

This morning I’m thankful for parents who comforted me as a child in stormy times. I’m thankful for teachers, counselors, mentors and friends who walked with me through various difficult stretches of life’s journey and gave me the encouragement I needed to weather the storm. I’m praying today that I might return the favor to those in my sphere of influence who face their own frightening storm clouds and the gusty winds of life change.