Why Read the Bible: To Learn What the Goal of Our Relationship With God Should Be

You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.
He humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor.
The path of the righteous is level;
you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.
Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws,
we wait for you;
your name and renown
are the desire of our hearts.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
in the morning my spirit longs for you.
When your judgments come upon the earth,
the people of the world learn righteousness.

–Isaiah 26.3-9

In today’s passage, the prophet gives us helpful information regarding our relationship with God. He tells us that God’s name (synonymous with God himself in ancient Jewish culture) and renown is the desire of the people’s heart. When we develop in our relationship with God to the point where we desire to see him honored and glorified before we are, we truly have developed the kind of relationship with God that is pleasing to him. When that happens, as the prophet reminds us, we can expect to experience real and perfect peace. We can also expect that our minds will be steadfast so that we are not tossed about by the uncertainty and changeability of life like a windblown ship on a stormy sea.

Isaiah goes on to explain why we should want to live our lives in ways that will point people toward God and not us. In this passage, he speaks of God’s justice and his desire to teach all people righteousness. Contrary to the popular belief that being righteous is no fun, the prophet reminds us that righteous living, i.e., the way God created us to live, is the one and only ticket to enjoying a happy and fulfilling life. Righteous living is not so much about following a bunch of rules as it is a state of being and having a proper relationship with God, not one of equals but one of Creator-creature.

Elsewhere, Scripture is full of reasons why we should want to love God. Psalm 103 is a wonderful place to begin reading about why God is lovable and worth our love. And as we saw yesterday, we have the hope of New Creation, which may be the best reason of all to love and adore God, given that it is a free and undeserved gift offered to us.

Once we have this principle firmly in mind that God loves us and created us to have a relationship with him rather than to destroy us, the Bible’s constant warnings about judgment on those who stubbornly refuse to live as God created them to live begin to make more sense. We don’t hear a Resident Cop bent on ruining all our fun. Instead, we hear a loving Father pleading with and warning his rebellious children of the dire consequences of their behavior. Anyone who has raised kids will understand this dynamic intuitively. After all, love desires the best for the beloved and God certainly knows best. Real love is never schmaltzy or excessively indulgent, giving the beloved whatever the beloved desires, because we humans more often than not don’t really know what is good for us and therefore do not always desire what is best. Here, Isaiah lets us know what our end game in our relationship with God should be, i.e., what is best for us in terms of our relationship with God–to yearn for his very Presence and renown.

Is God’s Presence and renown the desire of your heart? How you answer this question will go a long way in helping you see exactly who or what you are worshiping–and make no mistake, we all worship something. The key question is this. Will the object of our worship bring us life or death? May you always choose life.

Why Read the Bible: To Learn How to Cultivate Real Hope

LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
you have done wonderful things,
things planned long ago.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
In that day they will say,
“Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

–Isaiah 25.1, 6-9 (NIV)

We live in a world created good but which has gone terribly wrong. We needn’t look any further than the daily news to know this is true. The same world that presents us with breathtaking natural beauty also gives us natural disasters of all kinds. The same world that allows us to develop intimate fellowship with, and a deep love for, family and friends also confronts us with all kinds of human evil–injustice, poverty, racism, exploitation of all sorts, murder, violence, and betrayal to name just a few. And behind all this nastiness lurks the knowledge that we are mortal, that no matter what we do to prevent it or how hard we try, we and our loved ones are going to die someday. We don’t like to talk or think about it, but that does not change the rules of the game. All of this can fill us with fear, despair, and hopelessness.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fear, despair, and hopelessness do not have to have the final say. I am not suggesting there is some kind of magic potion that will suddenly make us immune from all that can go wrong with the heart or this world. I do not know why bad things can happen to good people because I am not God.

What I am suggesting is this. Instead of wondering why God allows evil in his good creation and creatures created in his own Image, i.e., human beings, we ought to be asking ourselves this question. Are we going to try to deal with our hurts and heartaches on our own–surely an exercise in utter futility if we are honest with ourselves–or are we are going to do what is necessary to cultivate a power within ourselves, yet beyond ourselves, that will help us deal with all that can go wrong in this life with real power and grace?

Let me explain.

In today’s passage from Isaiah, we get another glimpse of God’s promised New Creation. In wondrous eschatological language (language that speaks of the end times), God promises to put to right all the wrongs of his current creation, wrongs that were caused by human sin and rebellion. Among other things, he promises to wipe the tears from our faces and abolish death forever. All of this, of course, will evoke our praise and thanksgiving to God for doing the impossible for us. What a glorious and magnificent promise!

The fifty-cent question is this, however. Do you believe God’s promise?

Well, if you do not know God and the history of his working in the lives of his people, especially your own, there is little reason for you to believe it. After all, how many of us when we stop to think about it will readily accept the word of a perfect stranger as being true? Most of us do not. But we do believe the word of those whom we know intimately and trust because of their past track record with us. Likewise with God.

So how do we get to know God? Start by reading his story in the Bible. Get to know that God is true to his word, that he is utterly reliable and never inconsistent. Read the stories of Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Ruth and Naomi, Mary, and Paul to see what I mean. Stop and read passages like today’s. Read them repeatedly until they become part of you so that you do not forget (and if my experience is typical, you will forget if you do not do this).

Take a couple of minutes each day out of your busy life and consciously look for God’s blessings in it, even if you are experiencing utter chaos at the moment. You may find those blessings in the circumstances of your life, good and bad. You may find them in family or friends or even from those who do not like you and wish to see you harmed. You may find them from a sudden insight or an “aha!” moment. The opportunities are literally endless, but you have to take the time and make the effort. Otherwise, the distractions of life will get the better of you and you will forget.

Part of the hope of knowing the promise of New Creation is that while it points to a time in the future it also reminds us that the God who promises us this glorious hope is also the same God who loves us and is intimately involved in our lives right now. It makes no sense at all to think that the same good God who promises us New Creation in Christ is not the same good God who loves us here and now. God is not schizophrenic. He isn’t bad to us now and then good to us at some future time. He does not change and so the promise of New Creation serves to remind us of his goodness and love for us right here and now. Mysteries and enigmas in this life there surely are, but that is where faith comes in, a faith built on past experience and knowledge of God so that we are convinced of his trustworthiness in all circumstances. This in turns helps fortify our faith and build our trust.

We will never be immune to the hurts and heartaches of life. But we can deal with them with real hope and power, the very hope and power of God, and that will make all the difference for us. We acquire that hope first and foremost by the grace of God, but we have to do our part in developing the relationship. We have to get to know God. We have to learn how he has dealt and is dealing with his people. In other words, we have to ultimately learn about Jesus Christ and his Gospel, and a good place to start is by reading about it in Scripture. As you do, by God’s grace you will appropriate it. You will move from knowing about to knowing. And when that happens you will find that not even the gates of Hell can shake your hope and trust in God and his promises.

If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, do yourself a favor and make this it. Do the things necessary to cultivate the basis for real hope in your life. If you have not already done so, ask God to help you make him the center of your life, not you. If you do, you have the very promise of God and the testimony of countless witnesses that you will not be disappointed.

Albert Mohler: Must We Believe the Virgin Birth?

An excellent piece by Dr. Mohler on why the Virgin birth is essential to the Christian faith, despite the sniggers and sneers from our more “enlightened” friends.

Implications, indeed. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.

Read it all and reflect on it.

A Prayer for the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your
great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Will Willimon: From a God We Hardly Knew

Another excellent piece on Christmas from one of my favorite Methodist writers. This also appeared as a chapter in the book, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers — powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we — with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities — had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.

Read it all.

N.T. Wright: Meanings of Christmas: In the New World There Will be no More Sea

An excellent piece from the former Bishop of Durham.

People today assume that a “religious” view of life must address “the problem of evil”, the toughest part of which is so-called “natural evil”. Evil isn’t as bad as it seems, say some; or it’s all someone’s fault (or, with natural evil, Satan’s fault); or it offers a chance for greater moral virtue (courage, and so on). One major tsunami does to theories like that what it does to buildings and people: it crushes them to matchwood.

In a culture heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity, one might have hoped that the Bible would play a part in the discussion. People seem to assume that it’s irrelevant. The general view is that the Bible offers an escape from the world into a personal religion. But that view is itself the result of the Enlightenment’s reductionism.

The Bible itself resists such treatment. It constantly acknowledges evil – “human” and “natural” alike – as a terrible reality. It doesn’t try to minimise it, to explain that good will come of it, or to blame someone (reactions which correspond uncomfortably closely to the excuses offered by immoral or warmongering politicians). It tells a story about the Creator’s plan to put the world to rights, a plan which involves a people who are themselves part of the problem as well as the bearers of the solution.

Read it all.

Why Read the Bible: To Learn the Need to Count the Cost of Discipleship

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied. When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

–Matthew 2.1-5a, 13-16 (NIV)

Today we observe the slaughter of the innocents (the actual feast day is transferred to tomorrow), the awful event described by Matthew in today’s passage. There are some who question the historicity of this account. Critics who doubt the veracity of this story usually point out that this sad event is not mentioned anywhere else outside of the Bible. They therefore conclude that the slaughter of the innocents is probably a story Matthew concocted to support his particular apologetic.

But this criticism does not hold up under careful examination. First, Bethlehem was an obscure village in the Roman Empire and there were no means of instantaneous and mass communication. News of this event would likely have been contained to the immediate surrounding area and stopped there (cf. Luke 1.65). Second, while the slaughter of innocents is a terrible event, it is likely that the scale of slaughter was simply insufficient to garner the attention necessary for it to be noticed and chronicled in extra-biblical sources. Bethlehem was not a major population center and the number of boys killed would have likely been relatively small (although not too small for the families who had their babies killed by a cruel ruler). There is therefore no good reason to question the historicity of this sad event.

Third, and for the purposes of today’s reflection, we see in this story what can happen when human fear is allowed to go unchecked. One of the things Matthew is telling us is that those who choose to follow Christ can expect to encounter opposition along the way, sometimes lethal opposition. He tells us that from the very beginning, Jesus’ enemies have been hellbent to destroy him because he is a threat to their power, status, and security. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, represents a threat to the false and corrupt values of God’s broken and fallen world. He makes us afraid because deep down we know there is something here that far surpasses our pettiness and selfish ambitions and we don’t like it one bit. When we are afraid, we seek to put an end to our source of fear by whatever means possible. And when we can get away with it, killing our source of fear is the most effective and permanent solution. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Herod acted as he did. This is what sin and lawlessness bring about.

Likewise for those who follow Christ. We can expect opposition and persecution from a variety of places, sometimes sadly from within the Church itself. And where lawlessness reigns, this opposition often turns deadly. We don’t have to look very far in today’s world to see the truth of this. Christians around the world face persecution and death everyday from the various enemies of the cross. The danger is real and it can be terribly frightening. It has the potential to make the faint of heart and faith fall away.

In this country, persecution usually doesn’t turn deadly. Instead, it frequently takes the form of ridicule for holding Christian beliefs and values. Unfortunately, enemies of the cross have been successful in challenging and changing many of our traditional values, all in the name of tolerance and freedom, and most Christians have let that happen because we do not want to speak out for fear of being labeled “intolerant” or a “bigot.” Many Christians simply do not believe there are people who hate Christians and Christianity enough to want to destroy the faith and silence them. They simply refuse to believe that the motives of Christ’s enemies could possibly stem from malice or hatred of him and his followers. Today’s story, however, reminds us how wrongheaded this thinking is. The enemies of Christ are real and given half a chance, will move to eliminate his followers with ruthless and cunning determination.

All of this is why our Lord himself cautioned those who would follow him to stop and count the cost of being his disciple because being a Christian is terribly costly (see Luke 14.25-35). It costs us our sinful and fallen self. It can cost us popularity or being perceived as being ignorant or unenlightened. It can cost us our families and sometimes our very lives. All of this can cause us to fall away and if that happens, it will cause the name of Christ to face additional ridicule from his enemies.

But here is the funny thing about the upside-down economy of the Kingdom (upside down at least from a worldly perspective). When we are persecuted, the world tells us to run like crazy from it or to change so that the persecution will stop. Jesus, on the other hand, tells us to stand our ground and rejoice because we are blessed when we are being persecuted for his Name’s sake (Matthew 5.1-12). We are to count it as joy when we are persecuted and ridiculed for Jesus’ sake (James 1.2ff). Why is that? Because we are attaching ourselves to Life, not death. We are acknowledging there is more to life than mortal existence or power or prestige or wealth or security or popularity. We are demonstrating our faith in the great love that God has for us in Jesus Christ. We believe the promise that there is something far better awaiting us and that we have the very real help of the Holy Spirit right now, to bolster and strengthen us as we deal with our fears and all else that can go wrong with the heart and this world.

If you are a Christian and have never suffered because of it, chances are you are only going the the motions. But when you suffer for Christ’s sake because you remain faithful to him and his Gospel, you can consider yourself blessed. You can experience real joy in the midst of your suffering and trials because you know you have the very promise and Power of God living in you to help you overcome all that the Evil One and this fallen world can throw at you. Surely the Holy Innocents would understand.

Chrysostom on the Mystery of the Conception

Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it something more than what it simply says. Do not ask, “But precisely how was it that the Spirit accomplished this in a virgin?” For even when nature is at work, it is impossible fully to explain the manner of the formation of the person. How then when the spirit is accomplishing miracles, shall we be able to express their precise causes?

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.3

Augustine: Notable and Quotable (3)

Awake mankind! God became a human being to save you from death. If he had not been born in time, a happy eternal life would have been impossible for you. You never would have escaped your sins if he had not taken on your humanity. It was only through his mercy that you escaped eternal unhappiness. You would have perished, had not he come. And so, let us celebrate the festive day on which Jesus-God, he who is the great and Eternal Day, came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

—Augustine, Sermon 185, 1-2

Augustine: Notable and Quotable (2)

Let us announce the coming of our Savior with joy! He lies in a manger but he holds the world in his hands; he is wrapped in swaddling clothes but he clothes us with immortality. We should not look down on his human birth but marvel that it occurred. On Christmas strength took on weakness that weakness might become strong. From his human birth let us come to understand how God emptied himself for our sake.

—Augustine, Sermon 190, 1

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Notable and Quotable

The divine quality of the Bible is not on display, it is not apparent to an inane, fatuous mind; just as the divine in the universe is not obvious to the debaucher. When we turn to the Bible with an empty spirit, moved by intellectual vanity, striving to show our superiority to the text; or as barren souls who go sightseeing to the words of the prophets, we discover the shells but miss the core. It is easier to enjoy beauty than to sense the holy. To be able to encounter the spirit within the words, we must learn to crave for an affinity with the pathos of God.

To sense the presence of God in the Bible, one must learn to be present to God in the Bible. Presence is not a concept, but a situation. To understand love it is not enough to read tales about it. One must be involved in the prophets to understand the prophets. One must be inspired to understand inspiration. Just as we cannot test thinking without thinking, we cannot sense holiness without being holy. Presence is not disclosed to those who are unattached and try to judge, to those who have no power to go beyond the values they cherish; to those who sense the story, not the pathos; the idea, not the realness of God.

The Bible is the frontier of the spirit where we must move and live in order to discover and to explore. It is open to him who gives himself to it, who lives with it intimately.

—From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel

A wonderful thing to remember as we grapple with the awesome wonder and mystery of the Incarnation.