9. Faith Expectations

Ways of Seeing Meditations: 9. Faith Expectations

Acts 12:5 Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”

Recap: We have been considering how we view impressive buildings or impressive people, and then how we view ourselves. We have rejected doing good or performing spiritual acts as ways of gaining self-esteem or building our self-image. In the previous study that took us on to considering how we pray, but now we want to consider another aspect of the way we view prayer. Yesterday it was seeing it as a spiritual activity to be done as part of our relationship with God, but now I want us to face the uncomfortable question of how we see what we speak. Do we just utter words or are we declaring words that will change the world, change the circumstances?

Jesus’ Example: I first observed the significance of how we pray when I noted something in John’s Gospel. At the feeding of the five thousand, John records, Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated.” (Jn 6:11) Later, after Jesus and his disciples had gone back across the lake, John records, Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” (v.23) He doesn’t say, “the place where Jesus had performed the miracle,” for it seems he has something else in mind. He doesn’t even say “where Jesus had broken the bread and fed the crowd.”

The strange words that almost seem out of place are “after the Lord had given thanks.” Before a meal the head of the family would have given thanks for the food. John doesn’t record the Last Supper words about bread and wine (the other three Gospels have covered it adequately). Luke includes that (Lk 22:17,19) but also the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and it was only when Jesus gave thanks and broke bread that they realised who he was. It almost seems as if there is something significant about the way Jesus gave thanks. What could it be?

Watch how leaders, for example, pray at the beginning of some Christian activity. There are those who just instantly plough in with words, and that is all they are, and ‘pray’. There are others who pause to acknowledge the presence of God, the One to whom they are speaking and only then do they speak. There is far more of a personal sense, a sense of intimacy, of relationship, with this latter group and I think, in that, they emulate Jesus. Prayer was not formality for Jesus, it was a time when he spoke personally, intimately with his Father in heaven. Giving thanks was no mere formula, it was a sacred act of Son to Father, the Son of God to the Almighty One, ruler of heaven and earth.

Expectancy: How do we view prayer? We have just suggested prayer as a time of intimacy with the Father, but how do we see what we are praying? Is it simply uttering words and hoping for the best – but not having too high hopes?  In our starter verse, the church was surprised when Peter turned up, while they were still praying. No, it can’t be Peter, that would require a miracle. But it is. You prayed, you asked, and God did it. Why be so surprised? Because we don’t believe it can be that easy. Sometimes it’s not, and we need to keep praying and persevering as Jesus taught in his parable of the unjust judge, to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1) but I also believe the truth is that God loves to bring us to a place of simple believing where we pray and rest and rejoice, like little kids trusting DAD.

Intimacy plus Expectancy: Little children expect answers when they ask. When Christmas or a birthday approaches they may come out with a list of things they want. Money permitting they may well get them. As they get older they come to realise they don’t always get their demands. But the childlike faith of small children is challenging. When prayer is indeed an intimate experience with the Father we find that we start to catch Father’s heart, and prayer is not so much a shopping list, as a list of things we believe the Father wants to bring about.  It’s fine to be childish as we grow in faith, chattering stuff at the Father, but as we grow, we can learn something deeper.

The apostle Paul taught, pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” (Eph 6:18) or as the Living Bible puts it, “Pray all the time. Ask God for anything in line with the Holy Spirit’s wishes.”  The emphasis is on being led by the Spirit. When we combine this with the Father’s love, this intimacy inspired by the Spirit, focused on the Father, coming in line with the rule of the Son reigning at the Father’s right hand, we may expect faith to rise in us, a sign that we’re on the right track and we may expect to see what we are praying coming about. If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!(Mt 7:11) or as Luke records it, no doubt on another occasion of Jesus’ teaching, If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And Us? Can these things thus mature our praying to have an intimate element which in turn develops a higher level of expectancy so that when we pray for someone to be released from prison (of whatever sort), we will not be surprised when they turn up at the door, delivered.

11. Changeover

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 11. Changeover

Mk 1:14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

If we were first time readers of this Gospel we might, at this point, be somewhat startled by the abruptness of what we read: “After John was put in prison.” Pardon? How did that suddenly happen? Where did that come from? Why was John put in prison? Peter, who we believe is the source behind Mark, has this somewhat abrupt style. Often we find the word ‘suddenly’ being used by him. It was all a bit of a rush in his eyes, a surprise. I’m sure if you were a disciple of Jesus, life was like that. You got up in the morning never knowing what the day was going to bring, and when it did come, it was a surprise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons behind Peter’s style.

We have to wait until chapter 6 to see what happened with John and so for now we’ll simply note it happened and move on. But it is necessary to say that he was imprisoned and killed at the hands of a sinful Herod and his family. It wasn’t a good thing. So, we might have thought that Jesus starting his ministry, waiting until John was gone, was a planned thing, but the events that remove John are really out of his hands.

We might wonder what might have happened if John hadn’t gone to prison. Would he have just stopped preaching and let Jesus take centre stage? Of course we don’t know. It just happened. That’s how life is so often. It just seems to happen and so we have to take the circumstances and get on with them. So John, who has been preaching in Judea in the south, is off the scene and so Jesus starts his preaching as a continuation, it seems, but he moves north to Galilee where he spends most of the next three years exercising his ministry.

Why Galilee? Perhaps because it was furthest from Jerusalem and possible interference from the religious authorities based there. God certainly knew that this is what would happen: in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isa 9:1,2). The light has now arrived, just like Isaiah had prophesied!

Lord, thank you for coming into this world and revealing yourself. Thank you for the light you bring us. Lord, help me to just take the circumstances that I find facing me today, and live with your love and grace – whatever!

42. No Escape

Meditations in Job : 42.  No Escape

Job 16:6 Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away

Within the various ‘speeches’ in the book of Job, we find various themes or refrains being repeated. It’s a big book with many words, so it is indeed helpful to be reminded from time to time the same things. Job has just been expressing what he feels about his friends but now he moves on to express again something of the sense of hopelessness that he feels, locked in to what is happening to him, unable to do anything about it.

This sense of helplessness is common to sinful mankind living in this fallen world. In its simplest form we find it when we go to the doctor and he tells us that we have ‘a virus’ and so all we can do is go away and rest. We can’t just get rid of it. We may try and suppress the common cold, but we are stuck with it until it works its way out. We break an arm, say, and we are stuck with a plaster caste until it heals up, and that takes weeks! We give way to some wrong act and are caught. Now there is the process of law which grinds on. We wish we could turn back the clock so that it had never happened but we can’t and so we are stuck with it. Then there are the prisons of living in a deteriorating body or a body that just doesn’t function fully or properly. There are the prisons of addiction and we wish we had never started down this path, but now we are trapped in this prison. Or there is the prison of simple poverty or debt and we can see no way out. As we look on these things, we realise that, humanly speaking, there seems no way out.

Job clearly felt like this.  Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away.” (v.6). Whatever he says does nothing to relieve him of his pain and if he stays quiet, it is still there. He feels utterly exhausted and there is nothing he can do to change it: “Surely, O God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household.” (v.7). It has affected the whole of his life and so there is nowhere to turn for respite. How terrible it is when families are split up and you find yourself in devastating circumstances when you really need the comfort of the family, but there is no one there for you! How many children in the West today are with only one parent and feel bereft when the trials of life hit and they long for the other one to be there for them.

He declares this is the work of God, which in some senses makes it worse for there is no escape from His divine, sovereign will: “You have bound me–and it has become a witness; my gauntness rises up and testifies against me.” (v.8) You have bound me! This is no accident of life; this is a sovereign work of God. Bound? Tied up in this situation so there is no escape. It has become a witness? The fact that he is locked into this position of suffering, unable to do anything about it, suggests that all it not right in his life. His friends suggest it is because of sin.  My gauntness rises up and testifies against me! His obvious appearance speaks volumes.

He continues: “God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes his teeth at me; my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.” (v.9) He feels that God is angry with him and is tearing him to shreds, and is glaring at him. The result of the Lord’s activity, he says, is that, “Men open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.” (v.10) He is a laughing stock, he says, and everyone says the same thing.  He is sure that this is God’s work: God has turned me over to evil men and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked.” (v.11) When God moves it has practical outworkings in our everyday lives. God has given Job over to others it appears. He further describes what he feels: “All was well with me, but he shattered me; he seized me by the neck and crushed me. He has made me his target; his archers surround me. Without pity, he pierces my kidneys and spills my gall on the ground. Again and again he bursts upon me; he rushes at me like a warrior.” (v.12-14) His life had been fine until God moved against him and like a wrestler threw him down, or like an archer pierced him with many arrows. It seems like He comes at him again and again in a whole variety of ways.

Now this is certainly not the most enlightening of Scripture but it does reveal the sense of awful, almost fatalistic, inability to escape from these apparent attacks from the enemy. This suffering of Job is not merely like having a headache; he is covered with sores, you may remember, is in immense discomfort and pain, looks terrible and is the scorn of all who pass by and see him. It is a reminder to those of us who may have friends who are going through hard times, not expect them to “snap out of it”. It is quite likely that they just can’t do that! They feel totally unable and whatever victorious viewpoint we have arrived at in our Christian lives, THEY may not be in the same place, so ‘praising the Lord’ or whatever other medicine you use, may be just be outside their reach at the moment; later on they may be ready to receive help and climb out of the slough of despair, but for this moment, they may be stuck there and just need your comforting presence.

I like the story I once heard on a well known TV series in the past: a man was walking down the street at dusk when he fell into a very deep hole left by the road workers. He cried out for help but there was no one there. A little time passed and he heard footsteps. A doctor arrived and peered down at him. He scribbled on a small pad and threw down a prescription and walked off. The man felt utterly alone. Just then he heard more footsteps and a Rabbi peered over the edge of the hole. “Rabbi, pleased help pull me out of the hole,” the man cried. “My son, the hole is too deep,” the Rabbi replied, “I will go away and pray for you.” And with that he left. Time passed and he heard more footsteps. To his delight, when he looked up the man saw his friend, Joe, peering down. “Joe, help me out,” the man cried. Suddenly the opening of the hole was darkened as Joe jumped in. “Joe, what are you doing? Now we’re both down here?” the man asked. “It’s all right,” said Joe, “I’ve been down here before. I know how to get out.”

It’s not smart or even critical words we need when we’re ‘in a hole’, it’s loving friendship, that understands and accepts. If only Job had received that!

30. Guilt?

Meditations in Job : 30 :  Prison means Guilt?

Job 11:10,11 “If he comes along and confines you in prison and convenes a court, who can oppose him? Surely he recognizes deceitful men; and when he sees evil, does he not take note?

We’ve just seen Zophar condemning Job for being a sinner, even if he doesn’t realise it. Now he leans back on the wisdom of God and the next three verses might be summarised as, “He’s a lot smarter than you are, Job.” Observe: Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens–what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave–what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.” (v.7-9) That is pretty simple and straight forward.

Then he comes up with our verse at the top today, “If he comes along and confines you in prison and convenes a court, who can oppose him?” (v.10). In other words, if God decides to put you in ‘prison’ there’s not a lot you can do about it! But then comes the crunch line: “Surely he recognizes deceitful men; and when he sees evil, does he not take note?” (v.11) which is surely another way of saying, you can’t sneak past God with your deceit and, by implication, that means you, Job! Nasty! But it gets worse: “But a witless man can no more become wise than a wild donkey’s colt can be born a man.” (v.12). i.e. you can’t make a stupid man wise any more than a wild donkey can be born human – no hope! (Seems like another nasty implication in that!)

It’s that word ‘prison’ that stands out. “If he comes along and confines you in prison”. A prison is a place, not of your choice, where you are restrained and cannot get out. Psalm 107 speaks of prisoners: “Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains, for they had rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High.” (Psa 107:10,11) Clearly there ‘prison’ is the outworking of rebelling against and rejecting the Lord, but elsewhere it speaks about the Lord releasing from prison: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down.” (Psa 146:7,8). There ‘prison’ is simply being oppressed and not being able to do anything about it, being hungry and not being able to find food, being blind and not being able to see, and being bowed down by burdens and not being able to get rid of them and stand upright. Each of these things is a ‘prison’ from which the prisoner cannot escape on their own. The messianic cry in Isa 61 opens with this, The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me…. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isa 61:1) Jesus comes to release us from such prisons.

In the same way, surely Job is ‘in prison’ in the prison of suffering from which there appears no escape. That’s how Zophar sees it, and he sees it as of God’s making and in this respect he is right – but he’s got the wrong reason. It wasn’t because of Job’s sin; it wasn’t because Job was wicked or deceitful!  All that follows would be right if Job had sinned but because he hasn’t it is truth but applied in the wrong place!

In what follows we have a condition followed by an outcome, and both are legitimate IF there is sin. First, the condition which is a double thing: Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,” (v.13,14). For God to bring forgiveness, cleansing and restoration there needs first to be repentance and repentance involves a determination not to continue the sin of the past. This is a simple but vital principle for salvation. For God to bring salvation there does have to be a renouncing of the past.

But then comes a whole series of outcomes that will mean total change, and again these are truths, if only they are applied in the right place. Observe again: then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear.” (v.15) i.e. you can start feeling good about life again. Then, “You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by.” (v.16) i.e. you can forget about this miserable experience. Then, “Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning.” (v.17)  i.e. your life will be totally transformed. Then, “You will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you and take your rest in safety.” (v.18) i.e. you will have a new sense of security and peace because of the awareness of being safe in God’s hands, and because of that, “You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid, and many will court your favor.” (v.19). It will be a new day where peace reigns! That’s what it will be like for you, but in the meantime, the eyes of the wicked will fail, and escape will elude them; their hope will become a dying gasp.” (v.20). Those who are wicked will know what you are experiencing at the moment (implied) and they will feel trapped by their suffering.

Now, please, realise that this IS all truth. It does work like that – so often! There isn’t a guarantee as much as we’d like to think there is, for things DO go wrong in life. However repentance and renouncing sin DOES lead on to blessing and salvation, which means that life is often a blend of the wonderful together with the occasional hiccup which can appear nasty until we receive God’s grace, wisdom and guidance. But, if we’re in a time of testing, it may have nothing to do with sin; it may simply be your time in heaven’s gymnasium, getting fitter and stronger spiritually. Zophar, unfortunately, doesn’t know the difference!

God who Delivers

God in the Psalms No.4 

Psa 3:8 From the LORD comes deliverance.

So we have seen previously that the Lord reigns from heaven, and that He sees and acts, and the things He does affect us here and now. In fact David was able to say that God was a shield to him, as He came and stood between David and those who would harm him. Thus God was not ‘out there’ but ‘down here’ right now.

Now, at the end of that same psalm comes this claim, that from the LORD comes deliverance. This phrase is worth pondering upon because it is an extension of what we considered in the previous meditation. God doesn’t stand outside our affairs when people rise against us, but He stands between them and us. But He doesn’t just stand there, maintaining the situation as it was, He changes it, and He delivers us.

Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? When David came to his brothers at the battlefront, he found the two armies in a place of stalemate, or of stand-off. For forty days Goliath came out and taunted the Israelites and nothing happened (1 Sam 17:16). It needed someone to DO something, to change the situation, to deliver Israel from this place. You sometimes see it in a playground at school, two groups of children challenging each other, but no one actually wanting to provoke the situation further because they are unsure of the outcome. That’s what happens to us sometimes. Something happens and a bad situation forms. We want to do something about it but we don’t know how. We’d love to break through to change the thing but we feel powerless. We need delivering out of this situation, and that’s what the Lord does.

Paul conveyed the same sense in his letter to the Colossians: he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son (Col 1:13). We had been in darkness but God came and lifted us up and transferred – or delivered – us from that into a place of great light; in other words into Jesus’ kingdom.

The thing about deliverance, is that it is something we couldn’t do ourselves. Israel couldn’t get themselves out of slavery in Egypt (Ex 1:11 -14). Only God could do it – I have come down to rescue them (Ex 3:8). Peter couldn’t get himself out of prison (Acts 12:5) but as the church prayed, an angel from God came and rescued him (Acts 12:11). This is deliverance, being rescued from a bad place that you cannot get free from on your own, God stepping in and taking you out.

We couldn’t get free from sin (Rom 7:24) but Jesus came and, by his work on the Cross and by the power of his Spirit, he set us free (Rom 8:2). We couldn’t do it but he did. As Paul put it when writing to the Ephesians, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions (Eph 2:4,5). Paul says it was like we were dead (spiritually at least) when we lived self-centred lives, doing wrong. We were powerless to change that, but God came and delivered us by making us alive with Christ by the power of his Spirit, released in us simply because we accepted what Jesus had done for us.

Believing didn’t suddenly make us capable of change (like self-help courses suggest), but believing opened the door for God to come by His Spirit and empower us so that we were no longer spiritually dead, and we now had His power to live as His children (Jn 1:12). David knew that God, who was his shield, was also his deliverer. Deliverance is God’s business because He knows that we are incapable of delivering ourselves. Have you reached this same glorious conclusion?   Have you known this wonderful deliverance?

Rebuke & Reprisal

Readings in Luke Continued – No.3

Lk 3:19,20
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

Chapter three of Luke is largely about John the Baptist’s ministry because it leads in to the arrival and baptism of Jesus. The back half of the chapter is the genealogy of Jesus, probably through Mary, but we won’t be looking at that in these meditations. These two verses today are sort of summary verses that Luke puts in, almost as an aside before he moves on to cover Jesus’ baptism by John.

We live in a sinful world and people do wrong things. Israel were governed by God’s Law, whether they were royalty or ordinary people – or at least they should have been. Herod who is spoken of here, was Herod Antipas, and he had married the daughter of Aretas IV of Arabia . Marrying outside Israel was bad enough, but he then divorced her to marry his own niece, Herodias, who was already his brother’s wife. Herod Philip was his brother (see Mt 14:3; Mk 6:17). John, presumably in his preaching, had publicly rebuked Herod Antipas for this behaviour and when the word got back to him, Herod had John arrested and put in prison. (All this happened after John had baptized Jesus). Now that is what happened in its simplest terms, but it raises two questions. First why did John speak out in a way that he knew must provoke a reprisal and second, couldn’t God have stopped this happening and how did John being put in prison fit into God’s plans?

Neither question is answered from Scripture. We are just left to speculate, but that is what you have to do sometimes when you are pondering Scripture and chewing it over in a meditation. Is it that John just can’t help himself? Jeremiah said, “his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jer 20:9). In other words, he just couldn’t hold himself back, he had to speak. John had been living in the desert, aware of God’s presence, receiving his calling to prepare the people – all the people! Is Herod any different? No, he too needs to hear the truth – regardless! If he refuses it, then he will be answerable to God. Prophets are often too concerned with the truth and the glory of God to worry about the consequences! The worst that Herod can do is put him in prison and kill him! That just means promotion to heaven for John.

That in its turn raises the question for us: how real is the reality of heaven for us? Do we fear death? Do we fear the future? Are we worried about what might happen to us in the future? If we struggle with these things we need to ask the Lord to bring us into a place of security so that, like David, we can say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psa 23:4)

So, to pursue our second question, why did God not step in and save John? Yes, the Lord does sometimes step in and do the dramatic, and yes He could have brought judgement upon Herod, but in His wisdom He chose not to. There will be mysteries in life that we are going to have to leave as mysteries until we get to heaven. Perhaps there is an element of the ‘free will’ question here, perhaps God wasn’t willing to take Herod’s life and He certainly wasn’t willing to overrule his free-will. How much more He could achieve if He hadn’t granted us free-will.

And so we are left struggling with an injustice. I find this sort of thing one of the things that add to the credibility of the Bible. If I wanted to write a book that would convince everyone of its main themes, then I would make sure there were no questions, no doubts, that everything was crystal clear. However, in a sin-filled world, it is not like that. There ARE injustices, there are times when you want to cry, “Lord, why don’t you step in and do something?”

That was exactly the problem faced by Habakkuk when he cried, “How long, O LORD , must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.(Hab 1:2-4) By the end of the book he was able to say, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab 3:17,18)

He came to a point that I believe we will all come to when we reach heaven where, if the Lord grants it, we will be able to look back with the Lord’s eyes and know without a doubt that there is nothing for which we can criticize the Lord! As Paul was later to write, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.(1 Cor 13:12 ) Now it is not clear; now we have questions, but one day we will see and understand. Is this ‘blind faith’? No, this is faith built on what we CAN see. There is so much revealed in the Bible that does give us confidence, that when we come to the bits we don’t understand, we can still trust in God’s incredible love and wisdom and say, I may not understand but I will still praise Him.