What a Hope and Future Really Means

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

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As a new Christian, did you have a rosy view of your new Christian life? I know I did. And Jeremiah 29:11 was one of the first verses I heard as a new Christian. It was easy to think that meant that from now on I would always prosper and never get harmed.

It took a while to realize I was misunderstanding God’s promises. God’s promises did not mean I was magically protected from broken relationships and being fired from a job.

Today’s verse comes from a letter that Jeremiah wrote to the Jews who were carried away into exile, away from their home in the promised land. These Jews longed to go back home, and many despaired, thinking they never could go back. So, the context of this verse is Jeremiah preaching during calamity. Deep in exile they are told that God will take care of them to give them hope and a future.

So, the promise gives us encouragement of God’s sustaining presence during life’s trials rather than a promise that we will avoid all trials.

How easy it is to overestimate how much God will perfect now, and underestimate how much he will do later. Even when we have been Christians for quite a few years, it is still easy to grow impatient and want the change now.

So, broken relationships, being fired from a job, and having loved ones die are inevitable parts of this life. But today’s verse is an antidote to entering despair or escapism. We have something in common with those Jews. Like them, we Christians now are living in exile from our true home.

The book of Hebrews expresses that truth beautifully, as Christians going through tough times were encouraged to keep persevering and holding on to their faith.  They too were encouraged to look to a future hope:

For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13 :14)

What an encouragement for us today, anytime we struggle with the gap between what’s going on now and the fullness of all that God has promised will happen !

Take Back the Country?

Found a thought I wrote in my personal journal last summer that I would like to expand into a blog post for you. Here’s the beginning of what I wrote last July….

“This week as I write we are blessed by bright blue skies, very low humidity, and temperatures that will barely reach 80 ˚F. Pleasantly different from the stifling heat waves we often get in July here in New Jersey……”

At that time, I was writing some devotions on the Parable of the Sower, but I glanced at some other parables and was struck by how Jesus often says, “The Kingdom of God is like……”  Several of these “like” parables show the way the kingdom of God is often hidden and yet has a quiet power. A great example of this is the Parable of the Leaven.

Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”   (Matthew 13:33)

Sometimes I hear people complain “We used to have a Christian country…..but not any more”. I won’t try to settle the argument here of how Christian we used to be, but right now it sure does seem that Christian influence in our culture is decreasing rather than increasing.

response

 

What is our response? In the U.S., what is the connection between Christianity and the red white and blue? Does scripture encourage us to try to dominate the culture? Or does it challenge us to exert a more effective behind-the-scenes influence in our families, jobs, and neighborhoods?

Consider Paul’s request:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Corinthians 2:1-4)

Does Paul urge us “To live lives that are filled with anger and protest at our corrupt culture?”

No! Look at how prayer is directed here.  Are we praying to take over? Not at all, we are praying that we may be able to live a peaceful quiet life in godliness and holiness.  And what is the result? A Christian takeover? No, somehow the lives we live should allow people to get to know the truth and to get saved.

Ironically, there’s a way in which being less of a “Christian country” can be an encouragement to us. For then, we have something in common with the very first Christians. They were not getting into fights with the power players who were running society, but they impressed many outsiders with the love and courage they showed in their lives.

 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

Maybe we should think of these believers who lived in a pagan country the next time we start to rant, embittered at all the things going on in our country that we do not like.  Might our country change in a rant-free way, from the bottom up, through the influence of many changed lives, people getting saved and then living quietly but powerfully for the Lord?

Crazed Robin Continually Crashing

We had an unfortunate aftermath after our window cleaning business friend did a great job at cleaning our windows. A crazed Robin, caught in motion in the picture, kept flying into our window.

cbird - crop snapshot

The steady clunk clunk clunk became quite annoying so we hoped the bird might knock itself silly and stop. But he did not!

From a birder friend and the internet, we learned that the bird sees his reflection and thinks it’s a rival male bird who’s going to mess around with Mrs. Bird and their Nest.

How many hundreds of times would the bird hit the window and not learn anything? There’s no limit because the bird is programmed to react this way.

I started to think “What a stupid birdbrain!” But then I reflected on how many times might we sin and knock our silly heads and not learn?

70 times 7??

How can we be so foolish like the bird?  Are we programmed to sin?

(a) Is there hope if we have sinned as many times as the bird hit our window?

(b) Is there a remedy to keep us from knocking ourselves silly?

Scripture does provide us with an answer and hope for these questions.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.  (1 John 2:1-2)

Of course, as Christians we have made up our mind that we do not want to sin. But, any attempts we make to get rid of sin on our own are as effective as the bird’s futile attempt to get rid of his rival by pecking at our window!

What can break our pattern?  What would work?  The answer: We need to be cleansed.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

Our forgiveness from the penalty of sin by Jesus is once and for all, but the cleansing  from sin is an ongoing process. We continue  to walk in the light, we continue  to have fellowship with each other, and we continue  to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Because of all this, over time, I can’t say we never crash into the window, but by grace those painful collisions are happening less and less often!

You talking to me?

Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:1b-3)

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It’s easy for me to read today’s verses and say “Ha! Jesus is talking about the Pharisees. I am no Pharisee! But, I can sure think of some other people that do need to hear this!”

However, a good rule of Bible interpretation is that rarely, if ever, does scripture give us the luxury of relaxing with a self-satisfied smirk as we bask in the feeling of security that our own moral superiority gives us!

So, I need to back off and ask the question that Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver “You talking to me?” And to that question I might add: “You mean my secret stuff?”

Yes, there is no thought, action or attitude I have that God does not hear or know about.

Now, that truth used to seem rather ominous to me: that one day I would be confronted with a videotape of all I thought I could get away with! But there’s been a change in how I look at it. I no longer want to push the edge of what I can get away with before it gets recorded on the tape.  This is partly due to fear and awe of God, but even more from sensing something wonderful about how God’s love works.

Psalm 139 sums this up beautifully:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.     (verses23-24)

This Psalm shows that God is highly benevolent and loving, not a gotcha judge. Indeed, he loves us too much to let us stay where we are at, so he wants to lovingly correct when we have thoughts, feelings and actions that don’t match his will.

So, while it can be painful, I am learning to welcome it when God disciplines and corrects me.

When darkness comes and you don’t know why

All this came upon us,
   though we had not forgotten you;
   we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
   our feet had not strayed from your path. (Psalm 44:17-18)

I often go on a morning run. Sometimes I can’t do this until later in the morning. But I am not able to have coffee until my run is complete. So, as my day begins caffeine free, I can feel a little sluggish or unmotivated or even have shockingly negative feelings and attitudes..… Then I need to pray and be reminded that God is still a caring God even if I don’t strongly feel God’s care.

Today, in Psalm 44, the Psalmist has an important message for us. It’s to reflect on all that we know is good about God, that we know is true outside of what we are  feeling.

On a bad day, it’s human nature to want to dwell on our struggle first. “I feel so bad. Why me?”  But that is not at all what the Psalmist does. No, he begins with proclaiming many good things about who God is. What God has done. And how praiseworthy God is.

In the first 8 verses, he talks about how it’s God who gave and gives the victory over enemies —it was God’s power doing it because he loved them. This section reaches a great climax in verse 8:

In God we make our boast all day long,
 and we will praise your name forever.

Unlike what I often do, it is then and only then, after a full acknowledgement of God’s power and past help, that you hear the Psalmist’s lament.  Only now does he pour out the sadness in his heart.

But now you have rejected and humbled us;
    you no longer go out with our armies. (verse 9) 

He is finally saying, “Hey, what did we do wrong? We are walking strong in loving obedience to you, Lord.  We’re not being rebellious! What happened?”

 All this came upon us,
 though we had not forgotten you;
 we had not been false to your covenant. (verse 17)

The low point of the Psalm is reached in verse 19:

 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
    you covered us over with deep darkness.

Isn’t this the hardest time to trust the Lord? We’re feeling so far from him. It may be due to trying circumstances in our life, or opposition we are facing. Or we feel far from him for no apparent reason.

Sometimes this darkness even happens when we know we are spending lots of time and energy working especially hard for the Lord; we may be seized by a feeling of futility, wondering whether God is using our lives to cause any good results in other people’s lives.

Whatever the cause, we’ve entered an emotional state where we feel far away from God …. we long and plead for his closeness to be restored.

So, the Psalmist arrives at a beautiful conclusion: no matter how dark things appear, this darkness is only a temporary state of affairs.    

 Rise up and help us;
 rescue us because of your unfailing love. (verse 26)

I conclude today with three prayers for us to bring before the Lord:

  • Show us more of your unfailing love.
  • Let your unfailing love give us hope even in times of oppression and depression.
  • Show us that your promise of rescue is true, even when we don’t feel that it’s true.

From Fog to Sunshine

For  God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

On a recent morning, my home in the valley was enveloped in thick fog. I planned to go for a run in Mountain Lakes. Its elevation is several hundred feet higher than where I live. To get there, I first drove  uphill through the town of Boonton. As I climbed in altitude, suddenly I left the fog and burst into bright sunshine. All the scenery that was hidden from my view suddenly became bright and clear and filled with color!

My climbing out of the fog illustrates two different things about how we relate to Christ. First, before we knew Christ in the first place, we were walking around with scales in our eyes.  God unblinded us and had the scales fall from our eyes to invite us in to believe in Christ. Before the apostle Paul got baptized, when he was still called Saul, he was temporarily blinded after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus—and then:

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. (Acts 9:18)

Second, once we have decided for Christ, we still have remaining sin and deception in our lives. Often, this kind of deceptive sin is something we are not even aware of. (Even if it is obvious to everyone else!)  I am praying for someone who has an attitude that subtly puts people down.  No one even dares to mention it any longer, knowing how defensive this person is: “What gives you the right to say that and judge me!” But at the right time, God will bring them out of their fog and they will say, “Yes, Lord, you are right.” Then, they will have the beautiful experience of seeing how God’s sunlight replaces the fog as the scales fall from their eyes.

Just as it was for Paul, scales in our eyes are only temporary. It is wonderful when God causes them to fall! I know I have plenty of them left and most likely you have some too. Let’s pray that we both get freed from them.  Then, like when I climbed the hill into Boonton, something that was hidden from our view suddenly becomes bright and clear and filled with the light of the knowledge of God’s glory.

Little Faith ?

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”                                                                               He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. (Matthew 8:23-26)

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A certain family wanted a good guard dog and they came upon a picture of a Siberian Husky. “What a fierce looking dog!” they said. “And full grown he can give us up to 60 pounds of ferocity. We have faith that our new pup will grow up to be a good guard dog for us; we’ll name him Myka.”

But as their pup grew, they were shocked to see how, instead of being suspicious and aggressive towards strangers, Myka was good natured and welcomed strangers. He wanted to play with them. Some guard dog!

We can’t say that the family did not have “enough” faith in Myka.  Rather, this family’s faith was based on a flawed understanding of what a Siberian Husky is really like.

Similarly, we can’t say that the disciples did not have “enough” faith in Jesus, but, just as the Husky owners had a flawed understanding of who Myka was, the disciples had a flawed understanding of who Jesus really was.

The disciples may have believed Jesus was a great guy and a good teacher who would say challenging, provocative and enigmatic things. But they did not understand that he was actually the Lord of creation who had authority over creation. Instead of being terrified by the storm, they needed to see that Jesus was Lord over the storm. They had the opposite problem of Myka’s owners : Myka’s owners did not understand how little Myka could protect them from danger; and Jesus’ disciples did not understand how much Jesus could protect them from danger.

Thankfully, Jesus was, and is, patient and compassionate when people have flawed faith. Think how compassionate Jesus was with the father who found it hard to believe that Jesus could heal his son. The passage begins with the father’s request:

But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”                                                                                                        “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”                                        Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b-24).

Jesus will help you overcome your unbelief too, if you ask.Do you believe that Jesus is the Lord who saves us from sin and death? If you don’t, ask him for the faith to believe.

Do you have an area of life where it’s difficult to believe Jesus? In this difficult zone, ask him to help your unbelief.  Sometimes he will resolve the difficult situation exactly the way you want, but that is not guaranteed. It is guaranteed, however, that Jesus will alleviate the worry and doubt you may have in the situation. Do ask him!