|Series Theme: Living with Uncertainty|
PART ONE: General Ponderings on Uncertainty and Certainty
PART TWO: On the Way
PART THREE: The Last Week
PART FOUR: Aftermath
PART FIVE:Key Questions
‘Living with Uncertainty': 1. Introducing Uncertainty: Follow Me
Mt 4:19,20 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Introduction: It may be the age we are living in – post-Brexit in the UK, and the advent of coronavirus across the globe, pre-another Presidential election in the US – but it seems more and more people are expressing concerns about the uncertainty of modern life and are worrying about it. As we are also approaching Easter it has set me thinking about how, contrary to the beliefs of many Christians, uncertainty is at the heart of the Christian life. It is certainly no more than that which non-Christians suffer but it is there and it is a different sort of uncertainty, brought about by the very real aspects of the Bible story and how it is worked out in our daily lives. Wonderfully, and I hope we will see it in these studies, this uncertainty is underpinned by a certainty that is inexplicable yet cast iron sure. As I watch Christians around me struggling to cope with the uncertainties of the coming of the Coronavirus, or even with the various trials that come through modern life, I perceive an inadequacy of holding a correct biblical view that should help them. It just doesn't seem to be there and so for many, the uncertainties of life and also of the Christian life in particular, causes worry and anxiety and simply quoting Bible verses doesn't seem to help. It is this sort of thing that I believe we should be addressing in this series running up to Easter.
The Uncertainty of Discipleship: Because we rarely seem able to truly identify with the early apostles we are also unable to comprehend the true nature of the discipleship to which they, and we, have been called. I wrote elsewhere recently, “ Letting Jesus go ahead sounds the simplest description of being a disciple. I mean, it was the only thing the first disciples were called to do – follow me. Where Lord? That doesn't matter, I'll show you, just follow me. And he went ahead. Lord, what do you call us to do? That doesn't matter, you'll know when the time comes and you find someone or some situation before you that I've led you to, just follow me and watch me, sense what I want to do – through you – and do it. It will be that simple, just follow me. And that's what they did!
It WAS that simple but compare their lives as disciples from what they had been. Some of them had been fishermen and the only thing that governed their lives was the weather. As long as it allowed them, they went out on the Sea of Galilee and fished. No problem. One of them was a tax collector who probably sat in a tax booth collecting taxes; easy! Then Jesus says come, follow me, and there is something about him that compelled them to go on this nomadic life of ministry, and it's quite clear that most of the time most of them hadn't a clue where they were going and what was going to happen. I hope we'll be able to see this as we observe the final weeks before Easter.
We often laugh about the way the apostle Peter only opened his mouth to change feet, but that was simply an expression of his uncertainty, of what was happening. Remember when Jesus started telling them about his impending death. Peter's response? “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22) Ooops! To be uncertain means to be unsure and Peter is seriously unsure about the will of God. Oh yes, our uncertainty can manifest itself in apparent certainty, that's how we handle it like Peter here, but our certainty is wrong. That's the wrong sort of certainty. But then, God doesn't work like that, we say, or God doesn't do that sort of thing! And so often we're wrong! He does. Handling uncertainty means growing up, becoming mature in understanding.
So why are we surprised when suggestions like this arise, that the Christian life is a life of uncertainty? Why are preachers so specifically confident and so adamant about the nature of the Christian life, that it's all good stuff? It is but not in the way we so often think! And yet, how easily, I wonder, do we read Paul's words, “For we live by faith, not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) and think that's easy. But the reality is that most of us prefer to know what we're doing, where we're going, yet Paul tells us the life we live is to be one in response to what God says, not only what He says in His word, but also by what He says by His Spirit, and if we dare be honest, that isn't always easy. We struggle with this concept, I suggest, because of our insecurity; we only feel secure when we can see what's happening, we haven't learned to trust God when the sky seems to be falling on us!
The Core of the Faith: What we're talking about here are the fundamental basics of the Christian Faith. We follow a God we cannot see but who somehow has communicated to us in the crises of life and drawn us to Himself. Yes, we have His word but there is so much of it that we don't understand for the moment. Trials and tribulations of life come along and we get overrun by the negatives that pull us down, cause anxiety and so on.
Learning God's Ways: Moses once asked God, “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (Ex 33:13) That's what was going on while the disciples travelled around with Jesus, they were being taught God's ways, not in any formal way but in an on-the-job-and-life way. Before understanding comes trust and they were learning to trust Jesus, that he knew best and he was for them. I suspect they didn't realise that this was what was happening, but it was. And that is so often true of you and me. Life is uncertain, the world is uncertain, but in the midst of it all Jesus is trying to teach us that he is in charge and uses both the good and the bad to work out the Father's purposes, and even if we don't understand – as so often we don't – that's how it is, so rest in his love.
And Us? So as we come to the end of this first introductory study, may I invite you to pray? Just recently, not only with the things going on out there in the world, but things that were happening to me, I confessed to the Lord that I felt like I was a cork bobbing around in the sea of uncertainty, but then as He drew near, I suddenly realised that the truth was that I was bobbing about in His love and, as a friend put it, changing the analogy, he was there in the boat with me. Awesome! So can you pray that, thanking Him that if life seems uncertain, the truth is that you're in His love and even more, in the storms of life, he's there in the boat with you? Can you declare that in prayer and praise him in the midst of it all? May it be so. Let's think some more about these things in the weeks running up to Easter.
‘Living with Uncertainty': 2. The Storms of Life (1)
Mt 8:25,26 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.
Recap: In the first study I suggested that contrary to much popular preaching, the Christian life is often a life of uncertainty. Yes, the life of the non-believer is even more uncertain but the honest reality is that the life ‘walking with Jesus' is also often uncertain and the only way we can cope with it is to realise there is a greater certainty underpinning it.
The Aslan Analogy: I think the only way I can explain what I mean is by referring to C.S.Lewis's children's book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If you have read it (and if you haven't, why not?) you may remember Aslan the lion, representing Jesus, is killed by the Witch, because one of the children had sinned and the Deep Magic of Narnia demanded punishment, but then he comes back from the dead. He explains to the two girls who had been watching from afar, “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” That was Lewis's way of saying in a children's story that Jesus death had been agreed within the Godhead before the foundation of the world, a testimony found seven times in the New Testament.
The Fallen World: We refer to this word as ‘fallen' because of the rejection of God by mankind, initially by Adam and Eve, but subsequently by each of us, what has become almost a ‘natural', inborn propensity to self-centred godlessness, the fruit of free-will. Because of this, forces are unleashed that we won't understand until we see God face to face, forces that mean the world no longer works like it did originally when God first made it. The greatest mystery is that God allowed us to have free-will, knowing what the consequences would be, knowing what Jesus would have to do to reconcile us to Him. And yet in His love for us He did. Now the wonder is that we have to offer up this free will to Him to receive the wonders that He has for us in a relationship with Him, earned by Jesus on the Cross, and worked out by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This ‘certainty' is what holds you and me as we encounter the ‘uncertainties' of this current fallen world, which is what I hope we will see more and more in the days ahead of us.
The Dark World: But for the disciples who we find in the early chapters of the Gospels, this is all yet to come, they are staggering around in a world of dark uncertainty. The apostle John in his Gospel refers to this darkness and Jesus coming as a light into it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” (Jn 1:5) and later, “ Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil,” (Jn 3:19) and later records Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” (Jn 8:12) and, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” (Jn 12:46) Thus as we watch the disciples in the Gospels, we see men and women floundering in darkness while the Light walks with them, illuminating them and the world around them. One day when the Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost the light will be within them but for the moment ‘uncertainty' is the name of the game! Darkness restricts vision, restricts sight, and thus limits understanding and exists in uncertainty.
Today when you and I listen to the world, we need to realise we are listening to darkness and we need to turn back from the world and face Him, and let His light shine upon us and His light within us blaze forth to dispel doubt, dispel uncertainty, for we are now vessels of light, made to receive it, hold it, give it out. Life and our daily circumstances sometimes seem to create uncertainty within us at which point we must turn back to the ‘deep certainty' we referred to above.
Watch the Disciples: As we observe the disciples with Jesus in the Gospels we should learn these things. Our starter verses take us back to a time when they were together in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a furious storm blew up threatening to swamp the boat and drown them. Some of them are fishermen and they know this lake and they know the threat – but Jesus is sleeping. Their future suddenly seems uncertain and, even worse, they are uncertain about Jesus. They have seen him do wonderful things already and perhaps deep down they feel he can do something about this, but that doesn't stop them panicking. They wake Jesus, he rebukes the storm and peace comes. He is the certainty in the midst of their uncertainty, he is God, he is the one with all power that even stills storms, but they have yet to learn that, and so until they do, they will remain uncertain.
And Us? So here we are in an uncertain world with viruses threatening and who knows what else ‘going wrong', and the more we let our minds dwell on these uncertainties the more they pull us down. We may feel we are in the midst of a growing storm, or even that we've been in one for some time, and storms are definitely bringers of uncertainty, and so the call from heaven is, “Look who's in the boat with you!” As we wait on him, realise his presence, the uncertainty fades into the background as the light before us fills our vision and certainty establishes peace. How he will get us to shore is his business; ours is to trust him to do that. Amen? Amen! We will see more about ‘storms' in the days to come but this is sufficient for now. Rejoice again that he is with us in it, whatever comes! Hallelujah!
‘Living with Uncertainty': 3. The Storms of Life (2)
Mt 7:25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
Recap: We have so far, in the first two studies, considered the reality that we live in a ‘fallen world', a world full of uncertainties and that when we become a Christian we exchange one set of uncertainties for another set of uncertainties but those are undergirded by the certainties of the gospel, the good news of the love of God for us. We considered briefly the instance of the disciples in the uncertainties of a storm on the Sea of Galilee but in their presence, admittedly asleep, was ‘the certainty' that was Jesus, the all-powerful Son of God.
A Telling Parable: Now I have found myself a number of times recently referring to Jesus' parable of the two house builders in Matt 7, which might be summarised as ‘failure to do what Jesus says means our lives get undermined by the storms of life'. We live in a fallen world, we've said, where things go wrong – and God even uses those ‘going wrong' things for his purposes – but the parable characterizes these things going wrong as the ‘storms of life' which have the power to undermine our lives. However, the point of the parable is that if we trust in the one who I have referred to as ‘The Certainty' and allow him to lead us through life, obeying all he says, his presence, his certainty, will enable our lives to stand in the face of those storms.
The facts of ‘storms': It is perhaps important that we look a bit more closely at these ‘storms' otherwise we might find ourselves suffering the uncertainty of wondering are we suffering punishment and if so, what for? These ‘storms' can come for a variety of reasons and most of them are not down to us. Yes, it is possible that we have said or done something wrong that has caused upset to come on us, but there are a lot of other reasons for these storms that, I say again, were not down to us. For instance if you are laid off from work because of a financial recession, you did not cause that recession and it was not your fault you were laid off, but now you are in a time of uncertainty, wondering where or when you may get work again. Or perhaps you get ill. In the first part of 2020 the world woke up to a new word – Coronavirus. You did not bring that about.
‘National storms': Sometimes the things that other people do, bring about an apparent storm in your life. I always think of Jeremiah in this instance. For decades he has been prophesying and warning about the impending destruction of Jerusalem. When it comes, he is saved, but the last we see of him is being carried away to Egypt with a rebellious remnant. Being swept along by the tide of mankind is not uncommon. Some feel it in the UK at this time, as we have stepped out of the European Union. In the USA a number felt that with the arrival of a new President. National politics as with leaders of old, is so often a cause of change or upheaval and such things come as storms of uncertainty. That is must have been the case for Mary and Joseph when the emperor issued an edict that uprooted them from Nazareth and required them to go to Bethlehem, just as Mary was expecting her baby. Upheaval. Uncertainty. Yet for Jeremiah and for Mary and Joseph the environment of uncertainty was made bearable by the greater certainty, that they were moving in the declared will of God.
Multiple Causes: Sometimes such ‘storms' have multiple causes and so, for instance, when Joseph in the Old Testament gets sold into slavery, it is a combination of his unwise father making him his favourite, his brothers' jealousy, and his own arrogant way of prophesying. Those three things could have been the cause of his destruction if there hadn't been a greater certainty prevailing behind the scenes, the will of God to save the world from a famine that would come in a couple of decades. Now the will of God, I will suggest in this situation, spoken out later by Joseph (see Gen 50:20), was to allow these negative things of his father, his brothers and himself, to happen so that Joseph would be carried away, eventually to a place where the revelation of God would promote him and cast him in the role of a saviour.
Now of course this is exactly what we see happened in the case of Jesus as revealed to the anointed apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost: “This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) This ‘storm' that came down on Jesus and resulted in him dying on the Cross for our sins, was brought about because of a) Jesus' goodness that b) provoked the sinfulness of the authorities to rise up against him and kill him. A combination of good and evil coming together to bring about the sacrifice of the Son of God for our redemption, all within that greater certainty, the will of God.
The Anguish of the Storm: We will, no doubt, come here again as we approach Easter but in the Garden of Gethsemane we see Jesus crying out in anguish in prayer to be spared this ordeal yet the greater certainty of his Father's will prevailed over the human uncertainty of that ordeal. Storms may be long lasting or short. In the storm on the lake when Jesus walked to them on the water, the disciples “cried out in fear” (Mt 14:26). When Peter stepped out of the boat, walked on water and then began to sink, he, “cried out, ‘Lord save me.” (v.30)
Sometimes life seems like one long continuous storm of uncertainty and we see that in the way various people cried out to Jesus to help them, for instance, “A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.” (Lk 9:38) and, “ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Lk 17:12,13) and, “ He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk 18:38,39)
In the first of those examples, the man explains about his son, “A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” (9:39,40) In the second example the ten lepers were desperate about their lives of isolation. In the third case, the man crying out was a blind beggar. Consider the uncertainties of the lives of these, a man anguishing for his possessed son, ten lepers cursed with an incurable illness, and a man cursed with loss of sight and confined to begging in the streets. These are the uncertainties that plague lives in this fallen world and in each case they have heard something about Jesus, and somehow that had stirred in them a hope, the possibility, maybe even a certainty, that this man could change their lives.
The first case above involved the disciples in a literal storm and in the next study we're going to see it was caused by Jesus, but for the rest, the anguishing father, the anguishing lepers, the anguishing blind man, they are all trapped in storms not of their making but storms never the less, storms of lives of uncertainty that are so common in this fallen world. The Certainty, the Son of God was the only one who could change their lives, a child brought peace, ten men brought cleansing and one man brought sight. Suddenly the lives of uncertainty are transformed; that is what the Son of God does. Hallelujah!
And Us? This not just pure academic interest, this is the stuff that impacts our lives, uncertainties that come from a variety of sources. The psalmist in Psa 91 speaks of such ‘storms' and starts out, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (v.1) Dwelling? Abiding was the word Jesus used (Jn 15:4, older versions) meaning to stay close to. The psalmist proceeds to use poetic or picturesque or allegorical language to speak of living in a world of uncertainty, and he speaks of:
a) Things that come against us in life:
- deadly pestilence (v.3,6) that destroys many around us – illness, sicknesses, viruses.
- harm or disaster (v.10) – work of others, or accidents that can happen
- creatures that might attack us (v.13) – spiritual attacks on our lives.
He counters all of these by:
b) The certainty that the Lord will be there for him:
- his refuge and fortress (v.2),
- his shield and rampart (v.4),
- his refuge, his dwelling (v.9),
- his angelic protection (v.11,12) and
- the Lord Himself (v.14-16)All these threatening uncertainties are annulled by the wonder of God being there for him and that reality is the certainty that enables him to sleep soundly at night! May that be true for us as well!
‘Living with Uncertainty' : 4. Led into Uncertainty by Jesus (1)
Mt 4:35 when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
Recap: We have been pursuing this idea of the uncertainty that comes with the storms of life and the certainty that Jesus Christ, the Son of God brings, but I finished the last study commenting that the experience the disciples had in a storm on the Sea of Galilee was brought about by Jesus, and so we pursue this thought that sometimes as Jesus leads us, he leads us into uncertainty – for a purpose!
Does Jesus know? The question must arise, did Jesus know what was immediately about to happen? Well Jesus taught, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working… I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” (Jn 5:17,19,20) In other words the Father initiates and the Son puts it into action, the Father knows and the Son follows. Now how much Jesus ‘knew' about every coming situation is not made clear but from what he tells us here, wherever he went and whatever activity he initiated it was because he was following his Father's leading. God is all-knowing, He knows everything so whether it was Father or Son ‘in the know' the Godhead knows what is about to happen. That verse we've already recently quoted about Peter tells us that: “This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” (Acts 2:23) So, whether by the foreknowledge of the Father and/or the Son, the activities we observe in the Gospel, we have to conclude, are not only God initiated, but they are initiated with a purpose. Let's start looking at some challenging examples.
1. The Feeding of the Five Thousand: Have you ever wondered how Jesus and the disciples ended up in a) a lonely place, b) at the end of a day with, c) a very large hungry crowd? Well we read, “because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” (Mk 6:31,32) That's the practical reasoning that started this off but of course the people saw him going and followed him. So he has compassion on them, teaches them until “it was late in the day.” Too late to start thinking about going and searching for food. Jesus has brought about a crisis situation, a major need, and so he turns the problem over to the disciples. A contrived learning situation? It has to be!
So does Jesus lead us into times where our grace resources run low so that we will learn that in the midst of the uncertainty that comes with such times, he is our certainty, he is the one we can trust to provide whatever the circumstance demands? This instance suggests he does!
2. The Lake Experience: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” (Mk 6:45,46) This follows the amazing feeding of the five thousand we've just considered and we mentioned this before but let's put it in fresh context. Having dismissed the crowd, Jesus purposefully sends his disciples off in their boat across the Sea of Galilee while he goes off to pray. In the middle of the night a strong wind is blowing against them making sailing impossible and rowing almost impossible. At this point if you were one of these very human disciples, I suspect you might have been fighting back negative thoughts about Jesus sending you into this situation – and where is he anyway? It may be exaggerating to say it was a storm but John adds, “and the waters grew rough.” (Jn 6:18) It was a tough situation and they were tired – and alone – if only Jesus had been with them! And then he was – at least someone or something was coming towards them across the water and they were terrified.
Does Jesus lead us into trying circumstances where we appear to be on our own? Does he seek to teach us lessons in this way? The record suggests he does! Two sets of trying circumstances that are linked and which create uncertainty. Let's see two more.
3. More Trying Circumstances: The Sea of Galilee turned out to be a great classroom in which to teach the disciples. In what was probably an earlier incident the disciples, as we noted in a previous study, were on the lake in their boat with Jesus – who is asleep when a storm or at least a squall comes up and nearly swamps them. Jesus rebukes the elements and peace is restored to nature but not to the disciples! (Mk 4:37-41) And yes, Jesus had led them into this situation (v.35) surely knowing what was coming!
But it doesn't stop there because “the other side” he had suggested (v.35) was in fact the area of the Gerasenes (5:1) and there is a welcoming party there, a seriously scary man (read Mk 5:3-5). So there they are, tired and shattered by their experience on the lake in the night, probably without any sleep and they are confronted by a raving lunatic, well a wild demoniac to be precise. How do you confront the powers of darkness when you are tired, jaded, don't know how to put one foot in front of the other, and really would just prefer to lie down and go to sleep? The answer is let Jesus do it. But of course for you and me, we don't have a physical Jesus with us, just his indwelling Holy Spirit. Did I just use the word ‘just' as if to imply ‘only'? He is the same God that we've just been reading about. The only added dimension is that we have to learn to be sensitive to His presence and His leading in the same way that Jesus did. Then watch out!
And So? Well there are other stories to watch, which we'll continue to do in the next study, but for now the big question has to be, how do I respond when the Lord either lets trying circumstances of the fallen world come, or even leads us into them? When resources appear to be too small, as with the feeding of the five thousand, and uncertainty about how to cope reigns, will we let Jesus provide? When the seas of life seem too rough to handle and Jesus seems asleep, will we learn to trust so when we do wake him up (turn to him in prayer) it isn't in panic but calm realisation that he can calm storms? When we are confronted by evil will we refuse to let fear paralyse us but instead immediately turn to Jesus?
So, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jas 4:7,8) That is the wise order to be learnt: turning life over to God so we can resist the enemy as we rest in “the shelter of the Most High”, that we saw before(Psa 91:1). That delivers us from uncertainty into security. Hallelujah!
‘Living with Uncertainty': 5. Led into Uncertainty by Jesus (2)
Mt 15:21,22 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out
Recap: We've just been seeing some instances of Jesus leading his disciples into what can only be described as seriously concerning and uncertain situations – a crowd without food, two instances of a sea threatening their lives, and a raving super-strong demoniac, each one stretching the disciples physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. It is the last of those four descriptions that presses in on the uncertainty of life and provides a possibility of unseen certainty. In the first study I started us off thinking about Jesus' command to his would-be disciples to, “Come and follow me.” Let's think some more about that call which applies not only when we first turn to him but also every day of our subsequent lives.
A Memory: I have a memory of something that happened in my life many years ago which provoked a situation that required the same outlook as that which Jesus was developing in his twelve disciples. An evangelical denomination in East Malaysia had graciously invited me to take a small team there to teach in their churches in the interior of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. When we arrived at their denominational headquarters they provided us with an itinerary and plane tickets to get around the interior of the country. On the first leg of this trip, a small plane carrying about twenty locals flew us into the interior to land on a small gravel air-strip on the side of a hill. When we arrived we were clearly the only Westerners (perhaps seen by our foolishly large suitcases!) and so when we landed there was no one around who spoke English. Three small local men came up to us and signed that we should follow them and they with some others took our cases on their backs and we followed them a few miles through the jungle to a village where we were guided to a house on stilts. To cut a long story short it was a few hours before an interpreter arrived and we were left wondering how to behave when food arrived. A day of uncertainty.
The next leg of the trip took the four of us (me plus three young people) again by small plane to a town, the name of which escapes me where we were, thankfully, picked up by a local who spoke English and who loaded our luggage in the back of his open top truck and took us into the town. When we arrived in this fairly busy, semi-western looking town he indicated we should jump out and he off-loaded our luggage onto the pavement (side-walk) and promptly climbed back in and drove off. To this day I don't know why this happened. So as the four of us stood at the roadside, the others looked at me in amazement, and asked, “What do we do now.” My reply was truthful: “I haven't a clue.” We couldn't speak the local language and could do nothing but stand there for a quarter of an hour when he arrived back with his truck, loaded us and our luggage back on and drove us to a church a few miles away where we were to minister. Politeness meant we didn't ask, “What was all that about?”
And Jesus? Those experiences suggest to me that that was quite likely what it was like travelling with Jesus. There is no indication that he told his disciples where they were going and the experience taught them to trust him. For example, according to Matthew at one point (Mt 14:34) they were in Gennesaret, south west of Capernaum, but then we find, “Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” (Mt 15:21) When they get there, “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” ( Mt 15:22) He deal with her and then we read, “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee.” (15:29) Hold on, Jesus travelled 50 miles each way simply to minister to a ‘Canaanite woman'? Wow! But perhaps it is not so simple as that. Mark's Gospel possibly sheds more light on this: “Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.” (Mk 7:24,25) i.e. it appears that Jesus left Israel, travelled fifty miles north to the area of Tyre presumably for a retreat, to rest.
After this encounter Mark tells us, “Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis,” (v.31) to the land to the east of the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus ministered to a deaf man (v.32). Now of course we don't know if both Matthew and Mark are simply reporting odd incidents along the way but the locations mentioned show us clearly that Jesus often did a lot a travelling around – and the disciples just followed.
A Set Programme? It is difficult to discern any set pattern in Jesus' travels and we've already noted him saying he only did what his Father was doing. The only things that seemed the fix his itinerary were the Feasts in Jerusalem which he often (if not usually) attended. I suspect this ‘random' ministry as we might think it, led by the Father in heaven, would be unsettling for many of us.
Another memory: I cited earlier two incidents in ministry in East Malaysia, so let me conclude with another on one of these small-group trips. Early on we found how regimented in mind we westerners were when, at the first stop, staying with the pastor of a local church somewhere in the interior of Borneo, we asked the pastor when the evening meeting was, expecting a time. “After the evening meal,” he replied. The evening meal came and at its conclusion he went outside and beat on a large log drum hanging outside his front door, apparently to call the saints to church. We mentally geared up, preparing to go to the church next door. He came back in, sat down relaxed and carried on chatting. Through the windows we could see people streaming towards the church from all directions. A half an hour passed and he went outside and beat the drum again, came back in and sat down again. This must be it, we mentally concluded, and prepared to get up, collect our things and join the service, for we could hear singing starting next door. But no, he continues chatting for another twenty minutes and only then got up and indicated it was time to join the service.
Time was not a big issue: It wasn't until a week later in another similar location when we were sitting around outside the pastor's house and the first drum had been sounded, that I realised how much we had changed. One of the other team member casually said, “I think I could do with a shower,” and wandered round to the shed where the shower was. When he returned some minutes later, it was without much thought, that I got up and stretched and said, “Yes, I think I could do with one as well,” and headed for the shower shed. Slightly different from the ‘bang on the dot of ten thirty' start we're used to here!
With Jesus? But without a cell phone, a fit-bit or even a wristwatch, I suspect that was what it was like travelling with Jesus. He sensed the Father's directing, went with it and the disciples tagged along. When he met the crowds, he did what came naturally, and taught or healed. He carried on doing it until the people ran out or he deemed they all needed a rest and tried to leave. But I suspect that the disciples were quite happy with this life of uncertainty in a way we are not. All that was certain was that as long as Jesus obeyed his Father's prompting, the Father blessed what he did and crowds came and were healed or delivered and miracles occurred. I wonder if we need to get back to that approach?
‘Living with Uncertainty': 6. Uncertainty when Jesus delays
Jn 11:6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Ongoing: If you are someone who prays, I guess your greatest desire is that Jesus answers your prayers and life changes and/or people are changed. Arguably the best book around on why prayers are often not answered is Pete Greig's ‘God on Mute'. Often we use prayer as a way of venting our wishes, our hopes and desires, trying to get God to conform to what we think should happen. The problem of suffering is an ongoing one. Philosophers, contemplating suffering and God, wonder if God CAN alleviate suffering, why doesn't He, if God IS compassionate and loving, surely He wants to alleviate suffering, so why doesn't He? This is sometimes summarised as, ”Can He – is he powerful enough, does He want to – is He truly compassionate?” But then we put up the answer to both as ‘Yes' so then comes the big question, “Why doesn't He?”
The Prayer Dilemma: Praying for sick people, especially those who are perhaps terminally ill, is not an area for the faint-hearted to enter, for it can be an area of great uncertainty. When we pray and people are healed, great, but when we pray and pray and pray and they still die, not so great! The complexity of who God steps up for and who He doesn't is always a mystery. I think a shorthand answer is seen in Acts 12 where James is killed by Herod but Peter is saved by angelic intervention (yet still to die years later as a martyr!). Our role is to pray and pray, and then trust. Our trust is in a God who is love (1 Jn 4:8,16) and who is perfect, which means He cannot be improved upon, which includes action and inaction. Faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17) but trust is when you hang in when you hear nothing. Both are needed in the Christian life. Some find this a disquieting answer for it smacks of agnosticism, the great ‘I don't know people'. So where can we find some answers?
The Lazarus Drama: On the way to Jerusalem on his last journey, Jesus is told about the illness of his friend Lazarus but, “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (Jn 11:4-6) It would appear that at the time Jesus had recently been in Jerusalem (see Jn 10:22,23) but had gone out of town to a place across the Jordan (v.40,41), possibly some twenty miles away. Bethany, where Lazarus lived, was just a few miles from Jerusalem and thus still about 16-18 miles probably from where Jesus was teaching. It would take a while for the message to have reached Jesus and so in declining health, Lazarus needed Jesus quickly. How often do we sense urgency in our circumstances?
Delay: But Jesus stays where he is for another two days. He will not be rushed for he knows the outcome and he knows what has to happen before he arrives – Lazarus is going to die (11:14) and it's going to take at least another couple of days to get back to Bethany (their arrival was four days after Lazarus had actually died - 11:39). In this four days anguish has set in.
Martha: One of Lazarus's two sisters, Martha is the first one to greet Jesus: “Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (11:21) There is a sense of reproach about this that undergirds anything else she might feel. It is difficult not to feel aggrieved when God doesn't turn up and you know He can. But she grabs hold of a vestige of faith, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (v.22)
The things that go around our minds at such times as this are often confusing, certainly uncertain, often mixed with wonderings about what could have been, but then struggling with the reality. When the messenger had gone to Jesus with the news of Lazarus's illness, Jesus had responded, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it,” (v.4) and he had not doubt conveyed that back to the sisters, maybe also intimating the Jesus had not seemed in any hurry to come. Martha, no doubt realistically, faced the fact that Lazarus had died even before the messenger had got back probably, and so unless Jesus had been able to get there earlier, it was hopeless. But then there were those words. What did they mean? Perhaps she has them in mind when she makes this last assertion. Is there a glimmer of hope within her, one that she dare not utter, that yet, four days on, Jesus might be able to do something? Four days! It seems impossible.
Mary: When Mary comes out, she is the one who had sat at Jesus' feet, imbibing his presence and his words (Lk 10:39), and so his absence when she needed him was doubly troubling. She can only come out with the reproach (v.32) as she collapses at his feet weeping. The previous time she had sat at his feet it had been a joyful time but all of that is gone now. Jesus does not rebuke her for her lack of faith, but just, “ was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (v.33)
Jesus: At such times as this realise the Son of God empathizes with us. The verb here in the Greek that we have rendered, ‘deeply moved' has a sense about it of indignation, even anger, the same as used in v.38. But see how it is worked out.
And then as they go to the tomb, “Jesus wept.” (v.35) As one scholar put it, ‘ This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but no verse carries more meaning in it.' They agree this is not wailing crying but it simply best put as “Jesus burst into tears.” This is Jesus who feels for the loss of Lazarus, Jesus who feels the pain of Mary and Martha and the struggles they are enduring, this is Jesus whose feelings for them are so strong that they cannot be contained and so flow out in tears of compassion. But then we find again, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” (v.38) There is (according to the original Greek) within all this sympathy, empathy, compassion that is blended with a righteous anger at the effect that Sin has, bringing death and pain and anguish and mourning. This is never how it was supposed to be when God first created the world, but this is how it has become when sin entered the world at the Fall. It is the curse of free-will, and yet an absolute necessity if we were to be the incredible beings we are in the image of God, with all that means. And then Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. Incredible!
And Us? There is more to think about in this realm of God and suffering but we will leave it to the next study. For the moment, let's hold on to some of the things that have come out of this episode involving Lazarus:
- death comes to us all (Heb 9:27)
- death brings a sense of loss and anguish
- often within that anguish our minds wrestle unsuccessfully about where God is in it all
- Jesus understands this anguish and wrestling and empathizes with us, not condemns us
- the power of death is in his hands (and we'll see more of that in the next study)
- and it is that which brings questions to us so often.
Many of us may have lost loved ones with question marks hanging over their deaths. There may be no easy answers this side of heaven but there are some helps and we'll go on to consider them in the next study. In the meantime, even though it may sound trite from our position of anguish, it is the truth, trust is what holds us, that even though we may not understand, we trust that He does all things well.(Mk 7:37)
‘Living with Uncertainty': 7. God is Too Big to Argue with
Job 42:1-6 Then Job replied to the Lord … Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Ongoing: In a quest to make some sense of this world of uncertainty, a stop off in the book of Job must be essential. Thought of as possibly the oldest book in the Bible we might be unwise to declare it factual history or simply an allegory. We really don't know, but whichever it is it conveys some amazing truths for a book of such antiquity. Be honest, it is not easy to read, in fact I think I have found it the most difficult book in the Bible to read, perhaps it is simply because the arguments that Job's friends often put forward are only partial truths or even no truths, yet I found many years ago, doing a verse by verse study of it, thoroughly rewarding. So what are the main things that appear to come through in it, things that might help us get a clearer picture of the world of existence that we know? Here are some:
God the Initiator: One of the apparently awful things about this book is that Job's sufferings appear to be initiated by God. Chapters 1 & 2 give us this picture of heaven as a place where God meets with his angelic beings and considers humanity. God trusts Job and He wants us to see that trust at work. He extols Job: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8) We must assume He knows how such a statement of truth will provoke Satan. He Himself will not cause Job's misery but having pointed Job out as outstanding, He must let Satan test him (and yet again reveal Satan for what he is!).
Satan the Adversary: The writer of Job presumably knows of Satan's part in the Fall but he sees Satan as there in heaven, one of the heavenly beings, allowed in the courts of the Lord, but still an adversary who takes whatever opportunities he is given to spoil the works of God and harm mankind. Yet in the incredible wisdom of God he is allowed to do that, to become a bringer of discipline or judgment, even on God's behalf. He is allowed to stir up pagan attackers to bring death (Job 1:15,17), to use the elements to bring destruction (Job 1:16,19), and to bring sickness (Job 2:7)
Job the Enduring: The first wave of these things destroy Job's property and family and we read, “At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” (Job 1:20-22) What maturity. I came from nothing, I've been returned to nothing. If that is what God decrees, so be it! Then it comes very close and he is afflicted and when his wife seeks to incite him to curse God, he replies, “He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” (Job 2:10)
Meaning? But if you think this is easy, think again, for this is what the large part of the rest of this book is about, his struggles to cope with this and make sense of it and, of course, the truth is that from his earthly point of view there is no sense in it. When we put it in the context of the first two chapters, we see a heavenly conflict going on that goes to the very heart of why God should create mankind, perfect and with free will, knowing sin will come out of that free will. Can any good come out of that original decision? Is it possible for there to come a relationship between holy God and fallen mankind? When things go wrong on this fallen world – as they surely will, catastrophes caused by the weather, catastrophes caused by the sinful acts of men killing men, catastrophes of illness and death – can out of these things any good thing come? That is at the heart of the arguments of this book.
The Motivations of Arguing: Why do the following chapters happen, why do these conversations ensue? Job's three friends hear of his plight and determine to “go and sympathize with him and comfort him.” (Job 2:11) When they first see him they are devastated at his state (v.12) and then, bless them, they sit with him in silence for seven days. Amazing! What empathy. So often when we are in such depths of despair all we want is someone to be there. But then Job can't hold himself in any longer and he expresses the anguish he feels by cursing his very existence (Ch.3). It is a very human response to such overwhelming anguish. That is too much for one of his friends: “who can keep from speaking? ” (4:2) He gently chides him and says, remember who you have been, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” (4:6) And so it begins. Job in his anguish seeks to justify himself while his friends work on the basis of ‘no smoke without fire', and it goes on and on getting more and more theological.
Life can be a storm: Eventually God intervenes and speaks, “out of the storm.” (Job 38:1) Interesting! No mention of a physical storm. Earlier Job had said, “He would crush me with a storm,” (Job 9:17) and later, “You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm,” (Job 30:22) and later Elihu uses the same sort of language, “His thunder announces the coming storm,” (Job 36:33) and so now in 38:1 and later in 40:6 we have this phrase, “Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm.” We have used this picture of storms on the Sea of Galilee to portray the world of uncertainty and confusion that we experience so often in this fallen world, and here it is used again. Job has been battling a sea of uncertainty and his friends really haven't helped.
God who is too big to argue with: And so we come to the crisis point of this book, God has come to declare His verdict but before He does, He does something quite unexpected, He does NOT justify Himself. Instead He simply declares His greatness as Creator of all things (Ch.38-41). Does that explain all this? Only in as far as He shows Himself as the all-powerful One who made everything we know, but that doesn't explain Job's anguish. Look at how it concludes. The Lord chides Job's three friends: “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, repeated in v.8) Wow, despite all his rantings, despite the Lord quelling him with His might and majesty, he is still in God's good books we might say today. Indeed the Lord restores him in such a way he is even far better off than he had been before. Job has come through triumphantly.
But what about? But what about the truth, what about the suffering? OK, you won't find it in the text but as I have pondered this over the years, and only seen it just recently, I conclude that when God goes on at great length about His power, wisdom and might, as the Creator of all things, it is as if He is saying for those who will have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand, “If I have all this, do you think I make mistakes?” What????? Yes, look, the Bible declares God is perfect and my definition of ‘perfect' is ‘cannot be improved upon', i.e. everything about God and everything He thinks, says or does (or doesn't do) cannot be improved upon. I often find myself saying it, but I am certain that when we get to heaven, if the Lord allows us to look back over existence – and my life in particular – with all of His vision, knowledge, wisdom and insight, we will never ever be able to criticise Him for any of it.
And So? So the big difficulty in all this is that at this moment in our existence we cannot see all of that, we are in a sea of uncertainty, even a storm of uncertainty and that, as we said before, is where trust comes in, that God is there, He is love, He doesn't make mistakes, He is working for our good (Rom 8:28), He has got a plan for our lives (Eph 2:10) and He has provided all we need in Christ and by His Spirit and our hope is secure awaiting us in heaven. Yes, we may have read all that in His word and heard it preached many times, but when we're in the middle of the lake in the middle of a storm that threatens our very lives, that is the time for trust, that is the time it becomes real! And whether you like it or not, may I say this very gently, I believe trust is one of the most important things God is seeking to work in us as He matures us, and trust is observed as we remain in peace, secure in His love. May we each know it. Amen.
‘Living with Uncertainty': 8. Responding to the Uncertainties of God
Lk 5:8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
Ezek 37:3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Ongoing: If we were playing one of those games where someone says a word and the next person has to say something different and yet with a clear link to the first word, and we were using the Bible, then having just seen the response of Job to God, my next link would be that of Peter to Jesus. Job concluded, “my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 4:5,6) Peter, after having given his boat over to let Jesus use it as a pulpit, concluded, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Lk 5:8 AV)
The Uncertainties of God: One of our greatest dangers is making God ‘manageable'. The Anglican translator of the mid-twentieth century, J.B.Phillips, ended up writing a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small”. Both Job and Peter, I suggest, caught something of the uncertainty of God.
After Job had listened to God going on for chapter after chapter about what He could do and what Job couldn't do, Job began to be overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the enormity of God. You need to prayerfully read those chapters over and over again and let the reality of them get through to you, for perhaps the modern church needs more than anything to be delivered from the ‘God is my buddy' mentality by seeing Him as the most awesome being we can ever encounter. But God who is Spirit – power and energy with personality – permeates every minute piece of space that fills billions and billions of light years of deep space in every direction, a description that utterly defeats our finite minds. And this energy, this power with personality, has the capability of expressing a communication we would hear in, for example, four words, “Let there be light,” and instantly with no apparent cause, or original resource, light appears. If only we could grasp that it would almost scare the life out of us which is why, I believe, when we find heavenly revelations in the Bible (e.g. Ezek 1, Rev 4) the word that is so often used is ‘like' because we would be unable to comprehend an iota of the reality. Instead we have imagery.
then there is Peter as we see him in Lk 5. It appears
he's met Jesus before (see Jn 1 etc.) and perhaps he's caught something
about Jesus, although he's not sure what. Lk 5 seems to be an expanded
version of the abbreviated calling we find in Mt 4:18-20 and Mk 1:16-20
or it is possible each of the accounts we've referred to here, had time
gaps between them and the Lk 5 account is the last of them. Whichever
is the truth, Jesus asks Peter to allow him to use his boat to preach
from. This happens and when he has finished preaching there is a sequence
of events that conclude in our verse above:
- Peter the fisherman knows these waters, had been out all night and caught nothing.
- Peter the fisherman knows there are no fish there (If you've ever lived by the sea perhaps you have seen the movement of the water, even the shimmering silver, that denotes the presence of fish).
- Yet something about Jesus makes Peter want to please him so he throws the nets out – probably with no hope of anything.
But then the nets are full to breaking point! Where did these fish come from? Why didn't I see them? One minute they weren't there, the next they were. This is scary. (The cogs of his mind are now rapidly churning over). Oh, my goodness, Jesus knew! Or is there something scarier here, he called them to come? Who is he? Or is there something yet even more scary, did he somehow make them? Who is he? This is someone out of my league, this guy isn't religious for religion can't do this stuff, thus guy is something or someone greater than anything we've ever encountered, someone greater than anyone we've ever dreamed of. This guy makes me feel like I'm just a kid playing in an uncertain world who really hasn't a clue about fishing. Who is he? I'm starting to feel seriously uncomfortable being in his presence even. If he knows more about fishing than I do, he must know all there is to know about me. Wow, that is seriously uncomfortable! “Lord, please go away, I can't cope with this. You know all things, you know me, and that's not good.” “Yes, I do know you and that's why I'm calling you to come with me, to follow me and I'll teach you a new kind of fishing – for people.”
Three years later, after three years of the most incredible events the world has ever seen, he's going to be on this shore again, and if the above is anything like what went on in the first episode, we aren't left wondering. A question. “you know I love you.” A second question. “you know I love you.” A third question. “Master, you know everything there is to know. You've got to know that I love you .” (Jn 21:15-19 Msg) Yes, Jesus, in the midst of all our uncertainties is the Great Certainty, the one who knows all things about us and is there for us with access to a power that can bring light when there was no light, fishes when they were no fishes, and life when there is no life.
And that's when the ‘word game' takes us back to Ezekiel and his valley of dry bones. When the Lord gives him a vision of this valley full of bones and asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (37:3a) He is questioning Ezekiel's uncertainty about Him. Now dry bones are all that are left after death and decomposition and the birds have picked them clean. There is, humanly speaking NO hope, but why should God ask such a thing if He hasn't got something in mind. What is He thinking? Uncertainty! “Sovereign Lord , you alone know.” (v.3b)
And us? So there it is. A God greater than anything we can comprehend. A God who draws close and interacts with us. A God who knows all things and can do all things. A God who, we've suggested before, doesn't make mistakes. A God who calls us, forgives us and cleanses us, equips us and sends us. Certainties in the midst of the uncertainties? Let Him impact you with this truth – and be at peace.
‘Living with Uncertainty': 9. The Certainty of the Kingdom
Ex 3:7-9 I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt….. So I have come down to rescue them ….I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.'
Ongoing: The good news is that there was only one Exodus and so the Lord will not be sending you and me to deliver a nation….. or will He? Well not a whole nation perhaps, but who knows what He has on His heart for you and me yet to achieve? In the uncertainties of this world in which we live, as we worry about getting by, perhaps we need to go back to that well known verse, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” (Mt 6:33) which we might put as, “put seeking God's will and then doing it first of all, before all things, and then all the rest will fall into place as He provides for you.” Let's ponder on this a bit more.
Moses? If you were a friend of God and you were standing beside Him as He spoke to Moses beside the burning bush, I have a feeling you might be feeling ever so slightly exasperated with the Prince of Egypt who is now a shepherd. In fact you might be wondering why the Lord had decided to stop by and talk to this guy. After all, he had squandered an amazing lifestyle in the royal palace in Egypt by suddenly getting the idea that he could be the saviour of his own people, Israel. See how that worked out! Well actually it had worked out by him fleeing Egypt and becoming a shepherd – a shepherd!!! an outcast in the desert with only sheep for company - for forty years! He's a nobody, so what are we doing here at this burning bush trying to suggest a path ahead that he's clearly not interested in. In fact it's much stronger than that, he's dead set against it! So why is the Lord bothering with him?
Well pause up a moment, will you, remember we've said the Lord doesn't make mistakes? Tack on to that one or two other things we know – the Lord takes the weak and foolish things (people!) to confound the strong and the wise, and He clearly knows people and what He can get them to achieve. So Moses? Well let's add in a few more things the Lord says in this rather strange two-chapter conversation. “I will be with you,” (3:12) and, “I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians,” (3:20) and then He gives him two miracles (4:2-8), and He then lays out the plan (4:9), and “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say,” (4:12) and then He gives him Aaron his brother to help him (4:14-16) and, finally, He had said his past is gone and will not come back to bite him (4:19). In other words, the Lord covers all the bases, Moses has nothing to worry about. It may be a bit of a rocky ride but the Lord will be there AND He will be doing the stuff – through Moses – so what more is there to worry about?
And Jesus? Put like that it sounds simple doesn't it, but it still required Moses to step up to the mark and do his side of it all, and that is pretty scary and coming to think about it, stepping out of a boat and walking on water is pretty scary, but with the Lord we can do it – IF he calls us to do it! And this takes us back to the talk about the kingdom that we are to seek – Jesus' reign on his Father's behalf that he spoke about as soon as he started speaking and ministering in Galilee. It was the message of John the Baptist – “John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:1) and it was Jesus' message – “Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17) It is also the message of the apostles: “ the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26)
Establishing the Kingdom: ‘The kingdom' is all about Jesus' reigning in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2) working to destroy all the things that were NOT there in Eden when the Father first made the world. The last thing is to be death, but before that there is Sin in all its many forms to be dealt with. He deals with that by first of all convicting us by his Spirit so that we repent and die to the old life. The root of sin in us is thus dealt with and the ongoing, indwelling Holy Spirit within us will be working to overcome any resurrection-of-the-old-life attempts by the enemy. And every time we blow it, the Spirit is there, seeking to convict us afresh about that thing so that we may bring it back to the Lord, receive fresh forgiveness and cleansing and the thing be put to death and put under our feet. And so his work in dealing with the things of ‘the old life' continue as he seeks to destroy them in us and replace them with the fruit of his Spirit. That's the way he starts to bring about and establish his reign in us.
Expanding the Kingdom: ‘Establishing' is all about working character into us, Jesus' character, but while He does that God does not wait around until we are perfect before He can use us. As we saw with Moses, God takes us with our failures and sets us off down the path of service, because He knows that the very progress down that path will help bring about those character changes we referred to above. We get changed as we go, as we do, as we let Him lead us into joining Him in expanding that work of establishing the kingdom in others.
Trying to tie down how that happens is an impossibility because every situation, every moment with God, is unique. The way He used Moses against Pharaoh was one thing, the way He used Joshua to take the Land was another. The way, for instance, He used and worked through Elijah was one thing, the way He used and worked through Elisha, is another. Every person is tailormade for the situation God puts before them. Every situation ultimately has the same goal – to bring the situation under the rule of Jesus for him to deal with and put to death all the wrongs that came post the Fall – but the way the Lord brings it about will be unique for you and unique for me.
Refocusing: So here we are thinking through some of the ways this fallen world manifests uncertainty, pondering our part in it all and, in this study, seeing that part in the light of the kingdom. Very often believers find themselves swamped by that uncertainty because they forget (or maybe never learnt) The Certainty that we have been considering here. It isn't ‘just Jesus' but Jesus whose goal is utterly set in concrete, to establish and expand the kingdom of God to fulfil the purpose established by the Godhead before the foundation of the world: it is to restore us after the Fall, to redeem us, so that we can enter into a relationship with the Father whereby we can receive all the good He has on His heart for us, be transformed and know the wonder of being His children here on earth as we prepare to enter in more fully to that as we move on from this life to the one in heaven. If you've never seen it like that, grab hold of it and never let it go.
And Us – along the way: We're usually OK with the ‘establishing' bit but may be a bit fearful about the ‘expanding' bit. If that is so, remember the things we saw with Moses: the Lord comes with us, never leaves us, is there to guide us and resource us, and provides others alongside us so we are not alone in it (whatever the ‘it' is) and remember, I used the phrase ‘tailormade for the situation' just now. God chose the path He has for you and me knowing that with Him we CAN handle it. There may come times when we don't feel that and even the great apostle Paul confessed that there were times when he and those with him “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8) but, remember, when he wrote that he was looking back so that the truth was the Lord had brought him through that and he was still going strong. The Lord never promises that it will always be easy (though it will be sometimes) but that He will be there with us to see us through to the end, i.e. “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) In the midst of the uncertainties of the world around us, let's make sure we hold on to this confidence, this certainty. Amen? Amen!
‘Living with Uncertainty' : 10. A Kaleidoscope of Uncertainties – the Psalms
Psa 2:1 Why do the nations conspire?
Psa 6:3 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord , how long?
Psa 10:1 Why, Lord , do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Psa 13:1 How long, Lord ? Will you forget me forever?
Psa 15:1 Lord , who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Psa 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
Psa 42:5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Biblical Realism: Have a realistic view of this world with its uncertainties but make sure you hold on to The Certainty we have been talking about in these recent studies. That is the message that I have felt coming out in all these studies, this is what I have felt the Lord saying to me. Sometimes we have such a romantic view of the Psalms that we lose a vital truth that comes through in them. Yes, sometimes they are songs of praise, songs of triumph, songs of worship, but quite often they are also cries of anguish. Have you ever noticed how many question the psalmists present to God? Those questions flow out of uncertainty and the anguish that goes with that uncertainty. But let's extend our consideration of uncertainty to pinpoint three different causes.
1. Varying Circumstances: Is David a schizophrenic? I ask that because there are times when he comes out with such dynamic faith in both his psalms and his history, that it almost feels difficult to believe it is the same man who is now bewailing his plight. I think one of my favourite quotes of his is, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26) and then later, “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Sam 17:36,37) Brilliant, what faith! No, I don't think he's schizophrenic, it's just at different times of life the pressures are different, so yes there are times when David was strong and full of faith, and other times, perhaps feeling tired and jaded, he is struggling.
2. Burnt Out: We could ask the same thing about Elijah. He does some great stuff, the peak of which is challenging Ahab and his prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. What a miracle, what a triumph, so much so that he goes running ahead of Ahab all the way back to Jezreel (1 Kings 18), but then Ahab's wife threatens him and he does a runner to a cave in Sinai on Mount Horeb, as far away as possible from Jezreel, where the Lord finds him in a miserable state. He's on the verge of a breakdown it seems, utterly wiped out. Perhaps we should realise that sometimes when we fight a great battle against the enemy and triumph, there is a price to be paid. Perhaps it shouldn't be like that, I'm not sure, but it often is.
3. Enormity of the Future: I think it is indisputable that one of the two greatest cries of anguish in the Bible comes from Jesus as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He faces the greatest of anguishes, not merely physical but certainly spiritual in what is about to come: “ Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” …. And being in anguish , he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Lk 22:42-44) A prayer of immense human anguish, and yet I believe it was more than human fear; there was also, I believe, the awareness that having been through one separation from the Father – leaving heaven his eternal dwelling – he was about to face an even greater separation when he took the sin of the world on himself in such a measure that it would blot out the awareness of the Father that had kept him going for three years of ministry, and that second great cry would be dragged out of him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34)
In the face of the enormity of the awfulness of what was about to come, Jesus shows us himself in immense anguish. He shares in the same experiences that we encounter. How did he cope with it? It is too easy to say, well he was God and had all of that strength, but that ignores the humanity that he carried. Listen to the writer to the Hebrews: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1,2) How did he do it? He looked beyond it to what would follow.
And Us? Look beyond today or tomorrow to the vision that God will give you of what will yet come. Let that be part of the strength (as well as His presence and purpose and power) that keeps you today. There is a new day yet to come! Don't be put off by ‘bad days'; we all have them. Look past them to the next new day, who knows what it will hold. If you read David's psalms rejoice when he rejoices, empathize with him when he anguishes and learn from him when he starts out ‘down', pours out his heart in anguish but comes through to a new place of certainty and is able to praise the Lord and declare his trust.
If, like Elijah, on one day you give out a lot and are feeling wiped out the next day, find a quiet place and regroup, get refreshed, you are still a much-loved servant of God and there is more to do – when you have been freshly resourced. The wonderful thing is that the Lord understands these low times we go through brought on by tough circumstances and enemy opposition, and He's there with us, watching, understanding, feeling with us, and ready to restore us.
And when the future looks daunting, stretching out ahead of us with trying and difficult circumstances yet to come – whether health issues, work issues, or people issues – grab for His resources for today, receive His peace to be able to face the future, and look beyond the ‘tough stuff' to see the glory the other side of it. Can we do that? I'm sure we can – with Him.
‘Living with Uncertainty': 11. Uncertainties of Provision (1)
Gen 22:14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.
Present Day: I write this particular study (for those who might come across it in the years ahead) in the early months of 2020, the year we suspect will go down in history as either the Year of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic, or the Year of the Great Coronavirus Panic. If I had written about God's provision a few months ago, I guess most Christian readers would have read it with a big yawn. After all, we live in an age of immense abundance and so have no fears of running short. That was a few months ago. Since then we have seen reports of panic buying in both the UK and the USA, so much so, and creating so much government concern, that we even saw the American President on television at a press conference appealing to his people not to panic-buy.
Abraham: It is the incident involving Abraham going to sacrifice the miraculous child of promise, Isaac, that provokes the first reference to God being a provider. In his case it was simply the provision of a ram to use instead of his son, prefiguring Jesus being our lamb who is offered instead of us. But a Provider is one who supplies something to meet a need, whether it be Jesus to replace us at the Great Judgment or simply physical needs being met to preserve and continue life. It is the latter we will consider in this study.
Manna: It is the need of Israel in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land that has the Lord providing in a most incredible way with this miraculous “bread from heaven” (Gen 16:4), that appeared as ‘thin flakes like frost' , (v.14) “white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” (v.31) I called it miraculous because
- it appeared every morning, except on the Sabbath,
- if you collected too much of it, the excess went off the next day,
- on the sixth day you collected twice as much to cover the Sabbath – which didn't go off!
- it continued coming for forty years until they went to enter the Land.
It was supposed to have been a provision for a month or so until they entered the Land but when they refused and ended up wandering the desert it continued for the next forty years. No doubt, as they had herds of cattle and sheep they sometimes supplemented it with meat but it was God's basic provision for them throughout that time.
Joseph: Special provision is meeting needs in special times of need and so the onset of a famine would be such a time. I suspect we rarely think of the story of Joseph in Genesis as a story about provision, but it is 100% that. God knows that in a couple of decades a famine is going to strike the whole of what we refer to as the Middle East. The story of Joseph is the story of God choosing a man who will be open to His prophetic leading and come up with divinely inspired wisdom so that in seven good years of abundance, cereal is saved in large quantities in order to feed the nations in seven years of famine. Whether we say God caused the famine or God simply knew it would happen, is really irrelevant. The key issue is that He provided for the world through His wisdom, a multiple provision if you like:
- the amazing circumstances that brought Joseph to power, that a number of times involved ‘the favour of the Lord' opening the way up for him,
- the gift of interpretation of dreams that opened the door into the palace,
- the gift of wisdom to know how to handle the revelatory dreams,
- seven years of great abundance,
- grace and insight to understand God's purposes and deal kindly with his brothers.
Elijah: During another such time, through the life of Elijah, we see multiple examples of the Lord's provision:
1. Famine ushered in by the word of the Lord through Elijah (1 Kings 17:1)
2. The famine would not have taken hold when the Lord tells Elijah that He will provide for him by ravens bringing food (1 Kings 17:4-6) while he lived in seclusion to the east of the Jordan
3. When his supply of water there runs out the Lord instructs him to go north of Israel to Sidon where a widow will provide for him (1 Kings 17:7-10)
4. She has run out of flour and oil but the Lord miraculously provides for her, and him! (v.12-16)
5. A while later her son dies and Elijah restores him (v.17-24)
6. In dealing with the prophets of Baal (v.19-41) fire consumes Elijah's offering
7. When it is all over, by Elijah's word the rain comes (v.41,45)
8. When Elijah flees Jezebel's wrath, the Lord sends an angelic provider (1 Kings 19:5-8)
9. The Lord also provides him with a successor (1 Kings 19:16)
10. Yet he still brings a convicting word from the Lord to Ahab that brings him to repentance (1 Kings 21:17-29)
11. Later Elijah challenges Ahaziah's messengers about his unbelief (2 Kings 1:3-5)
12. Again and again he receives protection against arrest (2 Kings 1:9-15)
13. He gets a word condemning the king who dies (2 Kings 1:16,17)
14. God sends a chariot of fire to take him home (2 Kings 2:11)
Summary: So how, in what situations full of uncertainty above, did God provide for Elijah, thus bringing certainty by His provision?
a) Prophetic words changing the circumstances (1 – famine, 7 – rain)
b) Prophetic words to individuals (10 – Ahab, 11,13 – Ahaziah)
c) Miraculous provision of food (2 – ravens, 8 – an angel)
d) General guidance (2 – go east, 3 – go north)
e) Fire from heaven (6 – against false prophets, 12 – against arrest)
f) Other miracles (4 – flour and oil, 5 – raising dead)
g) Ongoing (9 – a successor, 14 – transport to heaven)
A combination that we might boil down to revelation (prophecy etc.) and miracles (power).
And So? I remember the testimony of a man of God who was crying out to God, “Where is the God of Elijah?” and back from heaven came the challenge, “Where are the Elijahs?” The reality is that we may add a further list to clarify the point of this series, the uncertainties coming through the threats or spiritual apostasy that Elijah faced:
- unbelief in the nation and in kings, false prophets,
- threats brought by those rulers and spiritual deceivers, and threats to his very existence,
- the uncertainties of living in times of famine and personal shortage,
- the uncertainties of his role as a prophet.
I think the conclusion to all this about Elijah must be that he certainly was a somewhat scary guy to encounter, simply because God was so powerfully with him. The trouble about that is that it can disguise the uncertainties that he himself had, most clearly seen after Jezebel threatened him. If you were Elijah you certainly would have been able to look back at triumphs but that in no way detracts from the uncertainties that went with it. But then serving God by faith is like that.
And Us? That leaves me pondering, is it a case of the greater the faith we have, the greater God can use us? I suppose the corollary to that must be if we have little faith, God will be restricted in using us. Ah, but Jesus said you only need faith the size of a mustard seed (i.e. tiny) to be able to move mountains! (Mt 17:20) Where does faith come from? By hearing (Rom 10:17) so the more we learn to listen – and then obey the little bit we've heard – the more we can be used by God. Awesome! Let's go for it!
‘Living with Uncertainty': 12. Uncertainties of Provision (2)
2 Kings 2:9 Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
And So: As I suggested in the previous study, I suspect virtually all of us in the West take for granted the ease with which we can get hold of food, drink, etc. and I went on to examine some of the ways the Bible shows God supplied for some of His saints in the Old Testament period. However, and I don't know if it came out clearly enough in that study, provision is directly tied to need and need invariably involves uncertainty, as we are finding out today. (I stood in a queue for ten minutes recently waiting to do my usual weekly shop while security guards let people out to let people in!) Yet there is another side to this which we will shortly move on to consider in the next study after we have first picked up on that other amazing prophet, Elisha, who followed on from Elijah, and in a similar fashion observe how need and provision go together.
Elisha's Provision: Let's first note how God provided for him:
- he asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit (2 Kings 2:9) and apparently got it.
- he was enabled to cleanse a polluted spring (2 Kings 2:19-22)
- he receives God's protection of his reputation via two bears! (2 Kings 2:23-25)
- he brings reassurance to Jehoshaphat and Joram against Moab (2 Kings 3:14-19)
- he guided a widow into a miracle of provision of oil to cover her debts (2 Kings 4:1-7)
- he was given hospitality in Shumen (near the Jezreel valley, south of Nazareth) (2 Kings 4:8-10)
- he promised a son for the woman there, which she had (2 Kings 4:11-17)
- he raised up her sick (?dead) son (2 Kings 4:18-37)
- he cleansed some poisoned cooking (2 Kings 4:38-41)
- he fed a hundred men with only twenty loaves (2 Kings 4:42-44)
- he brought about Naaman's healing (2 Kings 5:1-19)
- he retrieved a lost axe-head (2 Kings 6:1-7)
- he blinded the Aramean army at Dothan (2 Kings 6:8-23)
- he foresaw and withstood arrest (2 Kings 6:30-33) and prophesied provision (2 Kings 7:1-20)
- he prophesied a seven-year famine and protected a woman (2 Kings 8:1-6)
- he prophesied over Hazael his future as leader over Aram (2 Kings 8:7-15)
- he instructed prophetic anointing of Jehu to be next king (2 Kings 9:1-13)
- on his deathbed he prophesied over Jehoash limited victory (2 Kings 13:14-20)
An Aside: When we compare Elijah and Elisha, it almost seems that Elijah's reputation is eclipsed by that of Elisha, for Elisha was clearly a miracle-working prophet in a way that Elijah had not been. Nevertheless Elijah's reputation stands having been the one who had stood in the face of Ahab's wickedness and the presence of the prophets of Baal and is clearly honoured by the Lord as he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Yet his ministry seemed to slide away after his apparent breakdown after the Carmel victory and we saw the Lord provided a successor for him in the form of Elisha, and only used him a further three times (items 10 to 13 in the list in the previous study). There seems to almost hang over him an element of failure that restricted his ongoing use. Now what is beautiful is that on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, we see that it was Moses and Elijah (summing up the Law and the Prophets?) who were seen with Jesus planning his departure (Lk 9:31). Was it that because there had been an element of failure hanging over both men (Moses having blown it with the water out of the rock) that the Lord in his grace has both men seen in this honoured role, as if to say, 'These are my honoured servants, even if they didn't always get it perfectly right' – an act of amazing grace?
Times of Need: Now we have said that miracles happen in the face of need and need is so often about uncertainty. Put the other way around times of uncertainty reveal a need and a need is an opportunity for God's glory to be seen. Now let's go back over those instances of provision in Elisha's ministry and now observe the uncertainty and the need that provoked the provision:
- Elijah is going, Elisha is uncertain as to how to proceed, he needs reassurance. (2 Kings 2:9)
- a spring is polluted and unusable (2 Kings 2:19-22)
- his reputation is at stake (2 Kings 2:23-25)
- the two kings need guidance (2 Kings 3:14-19)
- a widow is in financial need (2 Kings 4:1-7)
- he needs a base, somewhere to stay (2 Kings 4:8-10)
- the woman is childless (2 Kings 4:11-17)
- the son has apparently died (2 Kings 4:18-37)
- the cooking has been poisoned (2 Kings 4:38-41)
- there are a lot of hungry followers with no provisions (2 Kings 4:42-44)
- Naaman has leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19)
- an axe-head has been lost (2 Kings 6:1-7)
- the Aramean army at Dothan threatens him (2 Kings 6:8-23)
- he is likely to be arrested and killed (2 Kings 6:30-33) there is shortage(2 Kings 7:1-20)
- a seven-year famine is coming and the woman will be affected (2 Kings 8:1-6)
- the remaining ones were all about knowing the uncertain future (2 Kings 8:7-15, 9:1-13, 13:14-20)
Go back over this list and catch a sense of the uncertainty that would be prevailing in each and every case. These things range from providing food and finances, finding lost articles, bringing guidance, bringing childlessness to an end, bringing new life to the dead, making food or drink usable, dealing with enemy threats, and making the future clearer. It is perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of Old Testament history that reveals the Lord who is a provider. The New Testament equivalent with some remarkable similarities is, of course, the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels.
And us? The challenge here is that we are shown a God who clearly delights in moving in and through His servants to meet the need of the hour and remove the sense of uncertainty that hangs over it. Dare we step into the arena of belief and confront and put to death our unbelief and ask the Lord to enlarge our faith so that we bring every area of our daily needs to Him – expectantly! May it be so. Posted
‘Living with Uncertainty': 13. Provision – a different set of rules
Mt 13:12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
And Now: We have been considering the way the Lord meets the various needs of life that so often impose uncertainty on us, and we've just done it by reference to the life and ministry of Elisha. We noted the amazing range of daily needs that cropped up, each and every one of which the Lord met, and we challenged ourselves as to whether we let Him do that in our own personal circumstances. But it crosses my mind that sometimes we fail to remember that life in the kingdom of God works on very different rules from life in the world. Let's check some of these out.
The ‘Having' Principle: Our starter verse above is an instance of this that comes in the context of the Parable of the Sower, which provoked the disciples to ask Jesus why he used parables. The above verse follows Jesus referring to “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom.” (v.11) I like the way the Message version puts it: “You've been given insight into God's kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn't been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears.” Insights and Understanding. Sometimes people say, “But I don't seem to get anything out of the Bible,” to which the reply has to come, “But how much time do you spend reading His word, thinking about His word, studying it, meditating upon it, waiting on Him in prayer for understanding?” The absence of these things reveals the heart. The disciples had chosen to follow Jesus, to stick close to him and learn of him, that is what being a disciple is about. This is about provision which overcomes uncertainty, the uncertainty that fills so many minds. ‘Having' comes from being in his presence.
The 'Giving' Principle: Check this out: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Lk 6:38 NIV) The Message version puts it, “ Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity,” and Easy to Read version puts it, “Give to others, and you will receive. You will be given much. It will be poured into your hands—more than you can hold. You will be given so much that it will spill into your lap. The way you give to others is the way God will give to you.”
The whole question of giving reveals in quite an amazing way the state of our heart. Many people don't give because they feel insecure. It's not that they don't have anything, it's that they fear losing what they have and God not turning up to provide more for them. The whole of these recent studies has been about the certainty of God being a provider, but it is a learning process and the Bible clearly teaches that faith can grow. Now I confess to not believing we should just throw our money haphazardly around at charities etc. but instead seek the Lord for wisdom how to bless others, yes the church obviously, charities He may put on your heart, but also be open when He puts a specific person and their need before you. This takes us on to:
The 'Using' Principle: Did you note in that Lk 6:38 reference the phrase, “For the measure you USE it.” ? God doesn't only want us to have open, generous hearts but to also purposefully use what He has given us and when we do, He will multiply it. Jesus' parable of the ‘talents' is the classic teaching on this. Matthew records Jesus speaking about a man handing out bags of gold to his servants (Mt 25:14- older versions refer to ‘talents' being a monetary value) with the expectation that they would each use what he gave them. You probably know it well enough for me not to expound on it. Luke spoke of the same story (that Jesus probably told more than a few times around the country) but had the man handing out ‘minas' (Lk 19:11-) and it is in this context Jesus teaches, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” (Lk 19:26) which appears to have a much wider meaning than simply insight and understanding that we saw in the context of explaining the Parable of the Sower. This implies it applies to all the talents, abilities, resources, opportunities that we have. Will we let God have access to them for them to be used by Him as He sees fit?
Example: Elijah's Widow: We have already referred previously to the widow who Elijah stayed with who had, “only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.” i.e. she was at the end of her resources. Nevertheless the prophet presses her: “first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord , the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.'” (v.13,14) He asks her to make and give away to him the last of what she has, but adds that when she does that, God will bless her resources. She responds with faith and it happens.
Example: Boy with a little: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.” (Jn 6:9) At the feeding of the five thousand it is John who points out that Andrew (who seems good with people) finds a boy with the resources that Jesus then uses to feed the massive crowd. We tend to lose him in the midst of the miracle but the fact of the matter was that this boy will willing to give Jesus his supplies, and a miracle ensues.
And So? And thus we see the principle of the kingdom being worked out – when the need arises, give what you have into Jesus' hands and leave the rest to him. Uncertainty was the name of the game with Elijah's widow – whether she could survive, whether she could trust the prophet. It was also behind the small boy's offering – what could so little do, and can I trust Jesus? In both cases faith overcame uncertainty. When God's word comes, when the Son is on the scene, can we trust Him? May the answer be in the affirmative so that our uncertainties may become an opportunity for Him to transform the situation and reveal The Certainty. Amen? Amen!
‘Living with Uncertainty': 14. Coping with Jesus' Uncertainties
Jn 2:4 Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
Mt 15:26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.”
And So: In Study no.8 we thought about ‘Responding to the Uncertainties of God' and, before we move in to the next Part following Jesus in the weeks running up to Holy Week, I just want to do a follow-on to that previous study, perhaps as a way of setting the backdrop to all that is about to come. I often feel there are various dangers or pitfalls to be avoided in being a Christian and one of them, we will see here, is trying to be too confident in understanding Jesus. He is the Son of God and he tells us that he only does what he sees his Father doing (Jn 5:19) and it seems that sometimes that was slow in coming through, but it may not be his uncertainty but his way of testing the people before him. I have three instances in mind that show this.
1. A Matter of Teaching: The passage in Jn 3 where Jesus meets with Nicodemus highlights something which, when we are looking for it, comes up a number of times, either with his disciples or with the crowds: he says things in picture language that requires us to think, and when we've thought and not come up with answers, turn to him in prayer for clarification. Consider: Jesus talking about being ‘born again (Jn 3:3) naturally creates questions in Nicodemus. There is uncertainty in his mind: what does this mean? Then talk of the wind (v.8) which requires us to think. Again and again, especially when we are hearing something new, uncertainty springs up in our minds as we wonder how to take what we are hearing. I have seen it many times in students and I've experienced it often myself. There is nothing mysterious about this, it is quite natural but what it does mean, when it comes to the Bible, is that sometimes we really do need to slow up and think about what we read and then, as I said before, if we are still struggling with it, turn to God in prayer and listen – which in turn requires us to learn some new skills.
2. A Matter of Involvement: More than once in the gospels we see an expectation being placed on Jesus to do something. One of our starter verses above occurs in respect of the wedding in Cana where the wine runs out. Mary knows her son, knows something of what he is capable. Now whether she expects him to use his wisdom to resolve this present problem or something else is not clear, but it is clear she is gently nudging him to do something when she says, “They have no wine.” (v.3) Yes, Jesus probably knows that so it is an implied question – are you going to do something about this? When he uses the word, “Woman” , in his response to her, he is not disrespecting her but gently reminding her what she already knows – he is not the same as her, he is not a mere man and therefore, by implication, he is on a different path and thus it is legitimate to ask, “what does this have to do with me?” In a very gentle way, and he might even have been saying it with a smile on his face, he is saying, “Come on mother, you know better than that. I can't just go around performing miracles when I like it for the sake of it,” and then he adds, “My hour has not yet come.” i.e. “I can't rush things, I have an agenda to follow, I can only follow Father's leading.” Is he testing her out, is he gently giving his own mother a little challenge, “Let's see how you will respond if I appear slow to act?” She passes the test. She doesn't press him any further, she trusts him, and so simply tells the servants quietly, “Do whatever he tells you.” (v.5) Delightful! And then she waits, and yes he acts. Father and Son have it in mind to help out in this situation with the result that his glory was visible for those with eyes to see. (v.11)
3. Further Persistence: The situation involving the Canaanite women up in the area of Tyre and Sidon in the north is intriguing. This woman comes to him and pleads with him and cries, “ Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” (Mt 15:22) Have mercy on me? Think well of me, help me! Lord? Possibly just a term of respect. Son of David? Ah, that is more interesting. Does this imply something she thinks about him. My daughter? Yes, I have a problem with my daughter. Hold on a minute! You don't get oppressed by a demon unless you have opened yourself up to the enemy somehow? What has gone on in this family? Something is not good here!
“But he did not answer her a word.” (v.23) That seems a bit hard. Why is he remaining tight-lipped? His disciples take his silence as a sign of displeasure and urge him to send her away, but it's not displeasure, it is something else. He drops a truth before her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (v.24) That, quite amazingly, was his calling: “he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) That is the expectation in Israel, the Messiah comes for the Jews, but maybe what some forget is that throughout the Old Testament, the presence of Israel was to reveal God to the rest of the world. Yes, God is concerned for Jew AND Gentile. ‘His people' become any believer. Is she a believer? “But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” (v.25) That looks rather like a believer, but Jesus pushes it a little more: “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” (v.26) Ouch!
That sounds unkind. But it is at this point the self-righteous get up and stamp off muttering under their breath. It is only needy believers who stay around – and that‘s her! Are there smiles on both their faces in this interchange as she persists: “ Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Humility and grace, signs of the true seeker. Good enough!! Result: “ O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” See that, “great is your faith”! Awesome! It's like Jesus is saying, “Well done, my dear, you pass with flying colours, yes, let's deliver your daughter without any quibbles, let's not go into the past why she is like this, let's just free her.” End of story, she is!
And So? Isn't that a beautiful story! But three times now we have seen Jesus creating uncertainty in the minds of those conversing with him and it is clearly with the intention of gently pressing them to come to their own good conclusion and in the latter two cases, results in the power of God changing the situation. If there is uncertainty in our circumstances, it's not about whether God brought them but about how we will respond to them:
- Looking for a cause to blame God in the uncertain circumstances of life, reveals a poor heart that is just looking for an excuse to turn away from God and continue on in self-centred godlessness.- Simply looking to bring a godly response to the circumstances shows the heart of a believer, a mature follower, whose trust is in God and who recognises His love and His desire to help us in any and every circumstance. May we always fall into this latter category.