The Context of Grace

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1

Beautiful words! But they do not stand alone. It is flippant to think we are not worthy of that condemnation. I’ve recently heard from several, in different contexts, that “man is basically good;” if that is true, then this statement would be unnecessary, or at least, hold no punch. In order for this statement to carry the weight it deserves, to know its truth, we must recognize that we own something deserving condemnation. The beauty of grace is that Jesus bore our condemnation for us, serving justice perfectly.

The “therefore” at the start of chapter 8 refers to the truths explained in prior chapters: we are all sinners, and deserve the wages of death, yet “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 3:10-12,23; 5:21; 8:2-11) 

Sunset, August

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 This is no cheap ‘overlooking,’ or ‘that’s-OK’ forgiveness. God’s justice was served at the Cross, where our loving Savior, Jesus, took the wrath we deserve. Hallelujah! Because of this, we have no condemnation! We have a mind of life and peace! I am no longer a slave to sin! God’s Spirit testifies with ours that we are His children! My current suffering promises future glory! God’s Spirit helps me in weakness! God works all things together for my good because I am in Him! And nothing can separate me from His love! All because of Jesus. I am a debtor to His amazing grace. (Romans 8)

Lord, may I keep my mind set on, and live according to, the Spirit, not the flesh. Cause me never to slip into thinking I do not deserve condemnation, but always to bow in gratitude before Your grace that bore the punishment for me.

Ebed-Melech

After hearing Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s judgment on Jerusalem, and that the only way to spare their lives was surrender, some important-sounding men in the city insisted King Zedekiah put him to death. They did not like his message. The king weakly submitted and put Jeremiah into their hands, and they cast him into a muddy cistern to die.

When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate— Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, ‘My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.’ Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.’ So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, ‘Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.’ Jeremiah did so. Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.” Jeremiah 38:7-13

Turkey, gravel path through arched tunnel

Blessed, shining Ebed-Melech! He was attentive to all that happened around him, and he was brave. This unpedigreed eunuch in the king’s palace stood up boldly for Jeremiah, risking his own well-being out of compassion for one unjustly punished. Again, the weak king complied. Ebed-Melech engaged others in his rescue of Jeremiah, and kindly padded the ropes he used to pull him out of the well. And he saved him! What a man, whose heart beat for others and energies were spent for their good. Whether a publicly-known figure with known heritage and popular sway, or a background-living servant in another’s service, every one determines whether to squelch or promote God’s truth, to disdain or love His people. Ebed-Melech is commended in chapter 39. Go, and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city.  But I will deliver you on that day, declares the Lord, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid. For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the Lord.’”

Lord, make me an Ebed-Meech, ever aware and open to opportunities to stand up and act for the needy. And send Ebed-Melechs to loved ones who need hope and rescue.

The Thrill of the Call

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.” Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” 1 Samuel 3:1,3-11

Morning food, bird on beach

I remember well the thrill in my soul the first time I was certain God called me for a specific task. I had regularly read and studied the Scriptures, and spent time in prayer worshiping, thanking, and asking, but the clear sense of His specific voice to me was at once humbling, powerful, personal, and overwhelming. It was through my regular reading that God’s holy word addressed so clearly three specific questions I had, I knew it was the Lord calling me to a new role in ministry. Over the years there have been many times He has, through His good word, led in moves and decisions, confirmed courses of action, given wisdom or ideas or creativity, inspired work and conversations, promised exactly what I sought or lacked or another needed. God still speaks!!

Samuel did not have the Bible as we do, but he was in the right place, in God’s presence, listening and responding as he knew how. His willingness to hear and obey acquainted him with God, fed his faith, and nurtured his growth. And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord.  And the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” Today, the revelation in God’s complete word beckons us to come, dig, partake, and say, “Speak, Your servant is listening.” It is as we respond, and apply the truths we glean, that He brings deeper and greater understanding, causing roots to grow and fruit to be borne.

Lord, I come and call to You, knowing You will answer. Awaken me morning by morning, to hear as one who is taught. Keep me making time to seek You with my whole heart through Your word, meditating on Your precepts, learning Your ways, delighting in Your personal, limitless word. (Psalm 17:6; Isaiah 50:4; Psalm 119:10,14-16)

Smile!

“Happy are you! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!” “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed. The cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” Deuteronomy 33:29; Proverbs 15:13,15

I noticed recently at the post office all the new ads have people looking down–no eye contact. So much of our society exists this way, with virtual communication, and in public places, harried, insulated hustle. But there is something magic, something captivating, about a look-deep-in-your-eyes smile shared with another. It quickens the heart; it awakens hope and security and the sense of being valued; it sparks joy.

En route very early to my gate in an airport, I passed a family and was melted when a young girl caught my eye and gave me a huge, genuine smile. Of course I smiled back–a piece of happiness, ‘thankful-to-be-alive-today’ passed between us in that quick moment. A few hours later, still quite early in another airport, a young couple with sleepy toddlers smiled knowingly at each other, sharing a beautiful, intimate moment of humor and loving joy that arrested me; I whispered, “Thank You, Lord.” Looking around, so many are serious and isolated, so few smiling.

An older woman in our church when I was growing up told me a smile was a gift from God to be used for others. Her simple message stuck with me. I used to hear my mother smile over the phone- it was contagious, communicating such delight for me that I couldn’t help but spontaneously smile back, “I love you too.” Parting with loved ones and sharing the benediction of a smile as we say good-bye squeezes the heart something fierce, and lingers. Job described the power of a smile to refresh and encourage: They waited for me as for the rain, and they opened their mouths as for the spring rain. I smiled on them when they had no confidence, and the light of my face they did not cast down.” (Job 29:23-24)

Lord, keep me joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the You have shown. Lift Your countenance upon me, cause Your face to shine on me and radiate to others. Make me ever aware of those around me, and may I always be generous with the gift of a smile that says, “You are special, you are an image bearer of God, and life is meaningful.” (1 Kings 8:66; Numbers 6:26; Psalm 67:1)

Bring the Rain!

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.” Isaiah 55:1,10-13

Every surface glistened when I first looked out this morning; I saw the soft drops tickling leaves and grass, dotting the water. After days of more menace than wet, I welcome the grumbling sky and its steady rain. What languished is lustily drinking, what drooped is reviving. As I used to tell the children, everything is saying ‘thank you, thank you’ to their Creator and Keeper.

O fainting heart, listless passion, spent vitality, weary soul, drink in the Rain! Take your fill of Jesus, and leap for joy! Lord on high, rinse my mind of thorn and brier, slake my thirst with Your word, revive me to bloom, bear fruit, and sing!

Questions for Answers

In Mark 2, Jesus confounds the Scribes, and Pharisees and others, by answering their questions with questions. Their curiosity at His behavior and deeds is shallow and critical, and rather than answering their superficial inquiries, He responds by asking questions back to penetrate the surface of their prejudices, to unearth their sinister motives, to expose their self-righteousness. Not only does He know all, but He does not waste any opportunity to act according to His redemptive purposes. Jesus persists to awaken deeper thought and loftier living, to exchange our human perspective for His high and holy one.

“’Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise, take up your bed and walk”?’… People came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?’… And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’”

Bahamas from the sky, perspective

There is nothing like a question to make us stop, consider, and dig a bit in order to reply. Jesus doesn’t spoon-feed His own, but knows that what we uncover and discover ourselves has greater effect and bears more meaning that what is forced upon us. After stirring their thinking, what were His concluding statements? The Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, New wine is for fresh wineskins, The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. In other words, ‘I am the Lord and you are not, and I’ve come to bring salvation and healing and rest and to make all things new.’ Why would we choose to nitpick and argue and condescend when such a Savior comes to offer so much to us, and others?

O God, peel away the superficiality of my thoughts and desires. Call me to deeper compassion, understanding, mercy, desire, prayer, that I, with amazement, say, “I never saw anything like this!”

A Tragic (Glorious) Death

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Acts 7:54-60

The stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 always brings me to tears. This humble, reputable, brave, wise, Spirit-filled man (6:3,5,8) has just orated a beautiful account of the God of glory and His unfolding plan for Israel from Abraham to the Righteous One, Jesus, to the High Priest and his council. But the truth enraged them, so, to eliminate the conviction it bore, they killed the messenger. That part of the story is enough to evoke emotion over their hardness of heart and catch-your-breath-grief at the horrifying injustice.

high-noon-sky-w-clouds.jpg

But it is the remarkable description of Stephen and Jesus that gets to me most. Turning his eyes from the shouting, frenzied men moments from murdering him, Stephen gazes upward (a gaze is peaceful, lingering) and sees the glory of God, and Jesus standing at His right hand! We know the risen, glorified Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (Luke 22:69; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 8:1), so the image of His standing to receive His servant Stephen is moving. Jesus, the Gentleman. Jesus, the Coach urging on His charge. Jesus, the Fan cheering His hero across the finish line. Jesus, the Father welcoming home His beloved child with open arms. Stephen, while entangled in the dark rage and intense pain of being dragged and stoned, is caught up in the heavenlies. God unveils for us the beauty of tragic death for those in Christ.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4  

Heavenly Lord, whatever the madding opposition, the rage of disease or injustice or sorrow or loneliness or persecution, wherever the darkness, Your glory shines. And You are near. Keep me gazing upward, entrusting my spirit to You.