“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of…” “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:34b, 37 (NIV)
Every morning, Wendy and I sit at the kitchen island with our coffee and our blueberry-spinach smoothies. We share a quick devotional thought and a prayer for the day ahead. We then catch up on what is happening in the world. On occasion, I’ll finish reading an article and then glance at the comments that have been made by other readers below it. I don’t know why I even do this. I always regret doing so because the comments have such little worthwhile content and so much worthless vitriol. It doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle the article comes from.
I find the same to be true even among groups of supposedly like-minded individuals. Years ago I joined fan groups of my favorite teams on social media. I rarely visit them anymore. Even among people who cheer for the same team, I find the conflict and negative discourse over really trivial matters is often off-the-charts. I don’t find it worthwhile to spend my time and energy falling down that rabbit hole.
In today’s chapter, Jesus states a very simple spiritual truth that packs a punch:
Whatever is inside my heart and soul will come out of my mouth (and onto my social media posts) as words.
In the quiet this morning, I didn’t have to search for, or think hard about, what God had for me and my day from today’s chapter. I found myself thinking long and hard about Jesus’ observation: the words I speak, type, write, and use are a leading indicator of my soul’s health and content. I immediately thought of careless words I regret speaking to a friend last week. I then had two other passages that Holy Spirit brought to mind:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1:19 (NIV)
My soul operates on the basic computer principle I learned when I was in high school: garbage in, garbage out.
I head into my day with two questions I’m pondering:
What am I feeding my heart and mind?
What do my words, tweets, posts, and comments reveal about the health and condition of my soul?
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:15 (NIV)
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” John 6:26 (NIV)
Of late, I’ve been working on classes in order to be a certified Enneagram coach. It’s been a fascinating process, and Wendy has been joining me in going through all of the coursework. It takes longer to get through material together because we stop and talk about it incessantly, but it’s also been really good to chew on things and learn from each other’s thoughts and observations.
Over the years, I’ve done all of the major assessments that are out there, and I’ve found them all helpful. The thing that I’ve come to love about the Enneagram is that it gets below behaviors and personality to mine our core motivations. It unearths the core desires and core fears that drive our thoughts and behaviors.
In today’s chapter, John relates an event that gets to the heart of the identities of Jesus and His followers. Jesus and The Twelve are together along the shores of the Sea of Galilee when a huge crowd of people come looking for Jesus. Jesus had been carrying out His Magical Ministry Tour in the region, and the crowds were swelling as the ate up Jesus’ miracles.
The Twelve were Jesus’ disciples, protégés, apprentices, padawans; They are supposed to walking in His steps and learning from Him at all times. Jesus asks them where they can get enough bread to feed the crowd. Despite the miracles they’d seen Jesus perform, the thoughts of The Twelve remain steadfastly shackled to earthly reason. All they know is that they have neither the bread, nor the money, to feed the thousands of people who just showed up.
Jesus miraculously takes a couple of loaves and fish from a boy and produces enough filet o’fish sandwiches to feed the entire crowd and still have twelve baskets full of leftovers. The crowd goes wild. Jesus popularity is at an all-time high. Five thousand “Likes” with one miracle. Word of mouth marketing is out of control. He’s numero uno on the trending charts: #JesusFeeds #FreeFish4All. Jesus can ride this wave of popularity all the way to Jerusalem and take over.
Instead, Jesus sneaks away in the middle of the night across the lake. The crowd wakes up and immediately they search to find out where their miracle man and His Magical Ministry Tour has gone. They find him in the town of Capernaum. Immediately, Jesus makes a crucial observation:
“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
I find it critically important to see what’s happening, not on the surface of the events in today’s chapter, but in the hearts and motives of those involved. The Twelve, the crowd, and the religious leaders are all acting out of their instinctual human motivations while Jesus is doing the exact opposite.
Jesus miraculously produces enough bread for 5000 people to have their fill, hoping that the miracle will lead people to realize His true identify, hear His real message, and understand His true goal: “I am the Bread of Life. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood (foreshadowing His death and the word picture He would give His followers to remember it) will never die but will live forever.”
The religious leaders are worried about their own earthly power, wealth, and prestige. Their identity as the learned religious teachers is threatened by Jesus’ popularity and power. In order to maintain their power and appearances, they’re looking for a reason to discredit Jesus, and Jesus gives it to them.
The crowds just want more entertaining miracles, especially the fish sandwiches out of thin air. Most of them haven’t eaten like that in a long time. What a life this could be following Jesus around. It’s like a Grateful Dead summer concert tour. Free food, unbelievable wonders, great storytelling: “Let’s get this party started and keep it going!” Instead, Jesus starts talking crazy about being bread to be cannibalized. “Dude, I don’t think he’s serving fish sandwiches anymore. Let’s get out of here. It sucks, man. That could have been epic.”
The Twelve are beside themselves. Jesus turns from the crowd and looks at them. He knows they’re on the verge of bailing out, too. On the surface, Jesus has just shot Himself in the foot and ruined His best chance at riding the wave of popularity, fame, and fortune to become a King.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that Jesus told The Twelve that He was “not of this world.” Before Jesus’ ministry began, the Prince of this World offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” if Jesus would only bow and worship him. Jesus refused, and that gives me a glimpse into Jesus words and actions in today’s chapter. It appears to me that Jesus’ motive was to bring a Kingdom to this world that looks nothing like the kingdoms of this world. In fact, I’ve come to realize that the Kingdom Jesus came to share is opposite the kingdoms of this world that He turned down. It’s no wonder that His actions made zero sense from a human perspective.
The further I get in my journey the more wary I’ve become of institutions and popular trends that are really just another kingdom of this world serving fish sandwiches under the guise of promoting God’s Kingdom. Yet when I try to discern their motives I’m left sensing that it’s the same motives as any other kingdom of this world. But, of course, while Jesus called His followers to be discerning, He forbid us to judge. I’ll leave that to Him. It is my motivations that are my responsibility.
Why do I do the things I do?
What is truly driving my thoughts, words, actions and relationships?
If following Jesus means shunning the kingdoms of this world and living out the Kingdom of God as He prescribed and exemplified, then how am I doing with that?
Good questions to mull over as I enter another work week. What I’m doing on my personal and vocational task lists doesn’t really matter all that much if I don’t have clarity with regard to why I’m doing any of it.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
This past week, as I traversed America, I had numerous daily encounters with numerous people. Many of them were momentary interactions, but I couldn’t help but notice that people were almost universally kind, conversational, and cheerful no matter the age or the color of their skin. When I realized that I’d left my phone in the car of a friend, I was amazed at how quickly complete strangers offered to let me use their phone and immediately offered to help me above and beyond what I expected.
Early Saturday morning I was filling the car at a Shell gas station outside Memphis, Tennessee. I was engaged by the black guy in his security guard uniform at the pump next to mine. I asked if he was going to work or getting off. We talked about music. He loves jazz, just like me. He was driving away while I was still pumping gas. He pulled up, rolled down his window, and wanted to show me a pair of bluetooth speakers he uses in his car because of the quality of sound he gets out of them. We chatted some more. Nice dude. Our conversation was a pick-me-up to start the day.
There is a young lady on social media who posts a daily video teaching the language of Scotland. Only a few seconds long, she typically defines a word and then uses it in a sentence. It’s a quirky little thing that I find engaging. In the last week or so she posted a video responding to the mean-spirited and vicious comments people had made on her posts. I simply can’t understand why anyone would be so vile. She’s not being political. She’s not talking about any issues. She is simply teaching people a Scottish word. Seriously. If you don’t like it, scroll on.
I’m observing more-and-more that there is a level of anger, meanness, and vitriol that people feel comfortable expressing in the rather anonymous online world. People feel free to be snarky, rude, and downright brutal. Because online news allows for comments to any story, Wendy and I often will glance at what people have posted at the end of a news piece we’re reading each morning during breakfast. We’re often shocked at how bombastic and ugly people can be over issues that are relatively insignificant.
There’s a contrast there that struck me on my road trip last week. Maybe it was because I hardly spent any time on social media last week. At the same time, I had far more random and personal interactions with humans than normal, especially after a year of COVID quarantine. Every one of those pleasant, cheerful, and kind interactions lifted my spirit more than I would have ever expected.
In today’s chapter, James instructs followers of Jesus not to show favoritism. He particularly calls out the favoritism that is often shown to rich-and-powerful individuals at the expense of the poor-and-marginalized. One of the calling cards of the early Jesus Movement was the fact that everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, politics, or socio-economic status. James tells the followers of Jesus now scattered among the nations to continue engaging others without judgment or pre-judgement. Rather, others are to be shown mercy. In the Great Story, it is kindness that leads people to repentance, not judgment or condemnation.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded of the simple power that mercy, kindness, goodness, and gentleness can generate. This is especially true when they are exemplified in a time and culture in which cancelling, condemnation, contempt, and coarse discourtesy run amok.
I choose this day to be counter-cultural by choosing to show mercy others, and to be kind.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. Luke 20:20 (NIV)
It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.
They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Acts 17:11 (NIV)
My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.
The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.
So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.
Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.
Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:17 (NIV)
Yesterday Wendy and I were with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I met young ladies who were from Honduras, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. I was told that the first time my young sister from Afghanistan joined us I happened to give the message that day, and she was relatively new to living here in the States. At some point during the message I began to cry (that happens quite frequently, I’m afraid). She, however, was taken aback. Culturally, men in Afghanistan do not cry, especially in public. She laughed about it now, and the moment became an opportunity for her to learn and grow on a number of different levels. Very cool.
Along my journey I have encountered people from all manner of cultural, religious, and denominational backgrounds. People have all sorts of things that are important to them religiously, spiritually, or culturally from things you eat (or don’t), things you wear (or don’t), and certain days that are special (or not). We’re not talking here about matters of civil law or basic morality. This conversation is about preferences, practices, customs and traditions that are not the command of Christ, though they may hold some special spiritual significance to a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.
As Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he is aware that among all the fledgling local gatherings of believers there are very diverse cross-sections of humanity. Not just Jews and Gentiles, but people from different nations, tribes, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic positions. This would especially have been true in Rome which was the cosmopolitan epicenter of the western world at the time. The Jesus Movement was breaking down barriers between people for the first time history and for the first time people were interacting with one another, eating together, worshipping together, and speaking to one another as equals on a regular basis. Of course this is going to create all sorts of minor clashes between people from diverse cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds.
In today’s chapter Paul gives some very clear teaching on these various and sundry differences.
First, he points out that what a person eats and drinks (or doesn’t) and what days are of special spiritual significance (or not) are really of no concern to God but are merely concerns of personal, individual conscience. This, in and of itself, might be a huge eye-opener if my ego has convinced me that I am the universal spiritual template and standard by which all other followers of Jesus should abide by and be judged. Each individual, Paul instructs, should worry only about herself/himself and her/his own behavior in accordance with her/his own conscience before God.
Second, Paul explains that because many different believers have very different matters of conscience on these matters there is no binary “right” and “wrong” in these matters except within my own heart and mind. These things are a private matter between me and God.
That being said and established, Paul urges me to take off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stop playing spiritual judge, jury, and executioner applying my personal conscience before God onto others who have very different consciences before the same God. “Worry about yourself,” Paul is saying, “and let God worry about others.”
Finally, Paul exhorts me to follow the example of Christ and put others and their personal consciences above my own right to exercise my very different conscience. If I know that a person holds that Sabbath is sacred, I’m not going to ask her/him to come over and help me move my couch that day. If I know that another person finds alcohol to be evil and prohibitive, I’m not going to make an appointment to meet that person at the local pub and I’m going to abstain from drinking in her/his presence.
And, if a sister finds that a man crying in public is wrong, well…I’ll try to hold it together!
And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through. Jeremiah 39:2 (NIV)
It’s an old-time phrase: “day of reckoning.” I learned this morning in a brief etymology search that the root of the word reckoning is Dutch in origin. Reckon in Dutch and German means “to count.” The original meaning phrase is rooted in commerce and the settling of accounts. Which makes sense if you know that in the 1600-1700s the port of Amsterdam was the epicenter of global trade and commerce. Dutch bankers were the Wall Street brokers of their day.
The “day of reckoning” is, therefore, the day the bill comes due and accounts are settled. It later took on a broader metaphorical meaning and became “The Day of Reckoning” meaning spiritual judgement and becoming synonymous with what theologians dubbed The Judgement Day of Christ. Most popular in the early 1800s, use of the phrase “day of reckoning” has been in steady decline since then, though there was a slight resurgence of use around the turn of the century when the world was a bit more obsessed with impending apocalypse and the Y2K virus.
The phrase came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. It tells the story of the day that Jerusalem falls to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army, just as Jeremiah has been steadfastly and prophetically predicting for 38 long chapters.
Specifically, today’s chapter is about the “day of reckoning” for King Zedekiah of Judah. Just yesterday, Jeremiah was still assuring Zed that if he surrendered he would be spared and the city would not be destroyed. Whether it was pride, political expediency, or a little of both that led to Zedekiah’s continuous refusal to believe or trust Jeremiah, we’ll never know. As the Babylonian army breaches the wall ofJerusalem Zedekiah flees with his officials. They are quickly caught. It didn’t turn out well for Zed or his family.
The chapter ends, however, with a ray of hope. Jeremiah is spared by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah sends a prophetic word to Ebed-Melek, the African eunuch of Zedekiah’s court who had Jeremiah rescued from the bottom of the well. Jeremiah prophesies that Ebed-Melek will escape the horrible end he fears at the hand of the Babylonians as a reward of his faithfulness.
This morning I’m thinking back on my life journey up to this point. There have been several events in my life and the lives of my loved ones that I would label days of reckoning. The day an unexpected phone call brought surprising news of death. The day the security of a dad’s job melted into fear of poverty. The day my high school friend uttered the words “she’s pregnant.” The day the divorce decree was final. The day the contract ended. These are just the ones that quickly come to mind as I sip my coffee. There are others. I’m sure you have a few of your own that come to mind.
There is a spiritual lesson, I believe, staring me right in the face this morning. It is rooted in simple wisdom as much as it is in the dramatic telling of Zedekiah and the supernatural messages of the prophet Jeremiah. “You reap what you sow,” is one way we say it. “What goes around, comes around,” is another. Each day my thoughts, words, and actions are a spiritual, relational, physical, and/or social expenditure or deposit. Mindlessly we go about our day either investing or squandering life. Eventually, the bill comes due. There is a day of reckoning.
This morning I’m meditating on the day ahead, and the ways I can make better investment of my thoughts, words, and actions.
Then I looked up—and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth. Zechariah 5:9 (NIV)
In my casual reading this week I came across a historical figure I’d not remembered learning about in history. Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who led his own version of puritanical reign for a brief period on time in the city of Florence during the Renaissance. The fire-and-brimstone friar led a coup against the Medici family then set up his own regime designed to purge Florence of wickedness and turn it into the “New Jerusalem.” Of course, with himself acting as God’s ordained judge, jury, and executioner.
Savonarola went about bringing his version of moral righteousness by force, as religious tyrants of all faiths throughout history have done. Bands of young men dubbed “little angels” wandered the streets harassing women who wore clothing that was too bright. They broke into homes looking for evidence of “wickedness” such as playing cards, cosmetics, or pornography which was then brought into the streets and burned in a “bonfire of vanities.”
I was reminded of Savonarola’s version of religious fascism as I read today’s chapter in Zechariah. The ancient prophet’s vision addresses one of the major obstacles the rebuilders of Jerusalem were facing in his day. Thieves and false accusations drained precious time and resources from the monumental job at hand, as well as the everyday illicit behaviors that disrupted unity and diminished the rebuilding project. In one vision, God curses the thieves, false accusers, and their households. In another vision God sends two messengers on the Spirit wind to remove wickedness from the land.
What struck me about Zac’s visions is that God was the one responsible for judging and dealing with sin, not Zechariah or the high priest Joshua or the governor Zerubbabel. Unlike friar Savonarola and his ilk, Zechariah’s visions were not self-centric visions bestowing divine responsibility for purging the people and the land of evil. Dealing with iniquity and wickedness were God’s to deal with. Zechariah and the boys had a more important task at hand.
This morning I’m reminded that history is full of individuals who use religion to justify their own self-centered agendas and ego-driven power grabs. God, on the other hand, repeatedly reminds us throughout the Great Story that judgement is not in our job description, just as His visions to Zechariah indicate. Jesus put it quite bluntly: “Don’t judge, or you will be judged.”
In the quiet I’m mulling over the fact that I’ve got enough on my plate trying to keep focus, energy, and love applied to the relationships and productive projects to which God has led me. If I believe what I really profess to believe, then God is perfectly capable and sufficient to manage the judgement end of things. And, this morning that feels like a particularly liberating thought.
There are times when focusing on one chapter each day risks losing continuity of the story that is important for the sake of context. Today is one of those days.
When we left yesterday’s chapter, Jesus had been teaching in the public courts of the Temple in Jerusalem during His final, climactic week of earthly life. The leaders of the institutional Hebrew religion had sent waves of envoys to test Jesus with hot political and religious questions of their day. They wanted to get a sound byte they could use to discredit Jesus, who was a threat to their power and religious racket. Jesus deftly answered each question then went on the offensive and stumped them with a question of their own.
This is a high stakes game being played between Jesus and the religious leadership. They want Jesus dead and out of the way so that they can carry on with their lives of localized power and greedy luxury. Jesus knows this, and having successfully played the cards in His hand He now doubles down and goes all in.
Jesus turns to His listeners and begins to publicly criticize the leaders of religion, and many of them are standing there listening. He acknowledges their systemic authority and tells His followers to honor that authority while refusing to follow their example. Jesus then turns to face the religious leaders and goes off.
Today’s chapter records the most intense and scathing rant Jesus ever offered. It is angry, pointed and provocative. What is essential to understand is that Jesus’ harshest words and most scathing criticisms were aimed at the most conservative, upstanding, strict rule-following religious people.
Jesus repeatedly called them names: hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, brood of vipers, sons of hell. He condemned them for their hypocrisy, their judgmental ways, and the selective ways they used God’s rules to make themselves look good and justify their poor treatment of the marginalized. These religious power brokers had already said they wanted Jesus dead, now with every word and every public criticism Jesus is upping the ante and forcing them to see His call and go all in against Him.
Jesus knows it.
At the end of Jesus’ rant He reminds the religious leaders that it was their predecessors who had killed God’s prophets in earlier centuries. It was the High Priests and religious keepers of the Temple who had violently silenced the ancient prophets. Now Jesus ends His tirade by saying, “Go ahead, finish what they started.”
Jesus was not a victim. Jesus was on a mission. He was pushing buttons. He was driving the action.
This morning I’m meditating on the Jesus who forgave the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. I’m remembering that Jesus broke all social, cultural, racial and religious barriers of His day when He conversed with a Samaritan woman while she drew water from a well. I’m recalling that Jesus healed the son of detested Roman officer and healed the child of a despised and “heathen” Gentile. It comes to mind this morning that Jesus hung out with “sinful” Tax Collectors and their worldly, sinful friends at loud parties where who-knows-what sinful things were going on.
I often encounter the misperception that Jesus is all about condemnation of sin and sinners. The record shows, however, that Jesus showed incredible mercy, tolerance and forgiveness to those we would terms sinners. Jesus reserved anger, judgment, and condemnation for “good” religious people who used religion to condemn sinners and make themselves look good.
“But I know where you are and when you come and go and how you rage against me. Because you rage against me and because your insolence has reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will make you return by the way you came. Isaiah 37:28-29 (NIV)
Things did not look hopeful for the residents of Jerusalem. The city was under siege by the Assyrians. The trash-talking parley of the Assyrian field commander had instilled fear in the hearts of the men on the walls, standing in defense of the city. Inside Jerusalem’s temple courts the king of Judah, Hezekiah, held conference. The ancient prophet Isaiah was there. Once again, we have a front row seat, and eye-witness account of history.
There are two things I find fascinating about the events described in today’s chapter.
First, Isaiah repeats an earlier prophetic message: The Assyrians had been acting as agents of God. Even the field commander in yesterday’s chapter claimed that they were acting at the behest of Israel’s God:
“‘Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.'”
One of the lessons that I have learned along my journey through God’s great story is that things aren’t always as cut and dried, black and white, or simple as some would like it to be. God using the “bad guys” as His agents? Really?!
This isn’t the only place in the Great Story in which this happens. The subsequent Babylonian empire would also be prophetically tapped as God’s agents. Reading the story of Daniel, we find that God took keen and special interest in Nebuchadnezzar, the evil king of Babylon. In the story of Israel’s greatest King, David, God seemingly pulls his support of the sitting King (Saul) and sends the anointed King David as a mercenary to fight for Israel’s enemies.
The second thing that strikes me in today’s chapter is the eucatastrophic deliverance of Jerusalem. Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that the Assyrians had been acting as agent’s of God, but now the jig was up and God was going to deliver Jerusalem from Assyria’s hands. At the moment when things seemed darkest for the people of Jerusalem, hope was going to miraculously break.
The next morning when light dawns, the Assyrian army were all laying dead.
The Assyrians had actually divided their army to conquer two different cities. King Sennacherib was laying siege to Lachish while his field commander was laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah records that when Sennacherib hears of the mysterious death of his forces at Jerusalem he withdraws from the region and heads home.
This morning I’m once again reminded not to place God in a box. I don’t completely understand why the Author of Life uses certain characters such as Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib in the plot line of the Great Story. I don’t understand why God miraculously delivers Jerusalem from Assyria and then allows Babylon to destroy it. It reminds me, however, to hold on loosely in judgement of current events on a grand scale. The Great Story is often a thriller with unexpected plot twists. Just ask the Assyrian field commander.
In recent months I’ve been reading articles about the release of the script of J.K. Rowling’s production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There is a certain amount of frustration among fans who purchased what they thought was a book, only to find that it is actually the script of the stage play. Of course, a novel and a script are two very different things. They both tell a story, but in very different ways. A script requires something more of you as a reader. The author gives you the characters words, but you have to use your imagination to fill in more of the blanks. It’s understandable that many are experiencing frustration with it.
Along my journey I’ve come to understand that there is a similar frustration among those who undertake the reading of God’s Message from Genesis through Revelation. It’s not a novel. It’s not a script. It’s a compilation of writings (and different types of writing) authored across a large section of history. The content is not categorized chronologically but by author and the type of writing. It tells a story, but in a very different way than the way we are used to reading stories. It requires something of me as a reader to connect the dots and see the larger picture.
Even as I wade into the writings of Isaiah, it’s important for me as a reader to understand that I’m reading a smaller compilation of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry. I have to step back and look at the larger picture. I have to connect the dots. I have to see the patterns.
One of the patterns that emerges in prophetic writing is the repeated, cyclical themes of sin, judgement, deliverance, and redemption. I can see it already in the first few chapters:
The people rebel against God:
I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. Isaiah 1:2
The consequences of rebellion are God’s judgement and punishment:
Your men shall fall by the sword and your warriors in battle. And her gates shall lament and mourn; ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.; Isaiah 2:25-26
When the people repent of their ways, God delivers:
On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.
Ultimately, God redeems and restores in glorious ways:
Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. Isaiah 4:5-6
This repetition happens over and over and over and over and over and over again. In the compilation of Isaiah’s writings this pattern can be seen on a macro level (Chapters 1-39 are much heavier on judgement; Chapters 40-66 are much heavier on deliverance and redemption). The pattern can also be seen on a micro-level within a chapter or a few verses. The theme is repeated continually.
This morning I’m thinking about the cyclical, repetitive nature of my own behaviors. No matter how hard I try, I sometimes do or say things that are just wrong or inappropriate. When that happens, things don’t go so well. Relationships are strained or broken. Sometimes I suffer from the consequences of those inappropriate words or actions. I feel guilty. I am guilty. I repent, turning to Jesus whose sacrifice for me on the cross affords forgiveness, mercy, and grace in spite of my repetitive bullheadedness and boneheadedness. Redeemed, not by what I’ve done, but what God has done for me, I humbly and gratefully continue to let go of what is behind and press on to love others as Jesus loved me.
Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over….again.