Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

The Pursuit of Truth

O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent (Jeremiah 5:3, ESV).

These ancient words are profoundly contemporary.

We live in a world where expediency is more desired than truth. Americans (especially) have always had a pragmatic bent to them. We like to use phrases like “like a well-oiled machine,” “We’re clicking on all cylinders,” and “now we’re cooking with gas” to describe the aspects of our lives that are going well and progressing. When things aren’t going so well, we assume that the machinery is somehow wrong.

This mindset is wonderful for overcoming obstacles that are physical in nature — we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out where the machinery is deficient. But not all problems are physical in nature; sometimes things don’t go well because we have failed to pursue the truth that the Lord is trying to communicate to us. He is — at least according to Christian orthodoxy — continually revealing His will to men.

Such was the case in Jeremiah’s day. God brought judgment because the people resorted to idolatry. They didn’t listen to His Word or His prophets or the Laws that their ancestors adopted. Instead, they chose to worship false gods and were surprised when they were “struck down” and “consumed.” They didn’t need better mechanics — they needed to repent.

Repentance is not preached much from America’s pulpits any more — to our detriment. Repentance is how we get right with the God that created us and how we stay in a right relationship. We usually define repentance as an act of turning from sin to Christ, and this is a proper definition. It implies, though, that this is a one time action. Contrition is a related word, but implies that the repentance is a “state,” an ongoing expression of repentance.

The price of repentance/contrition is often too high for us as Americans. Like the proverbial “average” student in school we assess what is the minimum amount of work to get by and we do that. For many of us it’s enough that we put on a show of repentance even if we have not really done so in the integrity of our hearts. Repentance involves real sorrow for sin; it involves the true admission guilt; it involves a lifestyle change that begins in our thoughts and carries through to our actions. It doesn’t mean perfection; but it does mean honesty. When David repented, he stated, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being (Psalm 51:6, ESV).

The people of our day are much like the people to whom Jeremiah was preaching in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of his prophecy. They are harder than rocks; they refuse to repent (5:3) because they have ignored the truth for expedience.

Truth Matters

…the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth (3 John 4).

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9).

Many people begin their walk with Jesus by asking, “What can I do to get rid of this guilt?”; I began my walk with Christ by asking, “What is the Truth?” That, in itself, makes me weird. Over the years I have habitually capitalized Truth in my writings to distinguish between those principles we call “truths” and the objective, unchangeable Truth of Scripture against which everyone one of us will be judged.

Admittedly, when we pursue the Truth, we must come face to face with our true moral guilt before the God that created us. He revealed Himself finally and completely in Jesus who declared unequivocally, “I am…the Truth…” (John 14:6) and died to remove our true moral guilt.

Beyond this declaration of Jesus, both Paul (in I Timothy) and John (in 3 John) recognized the importance of Truth in their writings.

But Truth is under assault in our modern world. Postmodern philosophy has capitalized upon the relativism that had been slowly becoming more pervasive since the end of WWII. Our world has received a steady diet of challenges to our moral absolutes as television shows and movies create scenarios in our minds where those who have been traditionally “bad” are suddenly shown to be the morally “good” and sympathetic characters. In the past few years this has played out in real life on the streets of some of our major cities.

We are not going to solve the problems of race relations, police brutality and government overreach until we return to the Truth. One hundred and fifty years ago, churches believed and taught the Bible; today major denominations stand against the explicit teachings in it. Isaiah warned us, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (5:20). One author has entitled his book, No Place for Truth, lamenting that modern churches have become bastions of pop psychology and “feel good” homilies, rather than places where Truth is declared.

Of course, these things should not be a surprise to anyone who truly does believe the Truth. The enemy of our souls has been called, “the father of lies,” (John 8:44) and “the one who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). He was the one whose first recorded words were, “Indeed, has God said…?”

The purpose of the Christian should be to align himself/herself with the Truth (and, yes, that begins with an admission of our true moral guilt and a confession of Christ); the purpose of the Church should be to strengthen and support that alignment through teaching the objective Truth, revealed in Jesus and the Scriptures — whether or not the crowds follow.

Earthquake!

God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; Though its waters roar and foam, Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. (Psalm 46:1-3 )

The recent earthquake in California’s Napa Valley was felt by my son and his family 20 miles away. Happily there was no damage to their possessions, and we are grateful that there was no loss of life (although I recall that there were a few serious injuries).

Although it is not mentioned explicitly, it appears that the Psalmist recognized the common phenomena of a resulting tsunami when he spoke of “the mountains [slipping] into the heart of the sea. Though its waters roar and foam…”

Fear is a common emotion in the midst of an earthquake. We often use the Latin phrase, “terra firma” so we can emphasize the “firm” in “firma.” An earthquake is anything but that. Somehow the fact that scientists can explain the shifting of the plates beneath the surface of the earth doesn’t alleviate our fears because even though they can explain them, they can’t predict them accurately or intervene to prevent them.

According to the political correctness that dictates speech today, we are forbidden in our day to attribute earthquakes to God. Random naturalism created everything according to their view, so earthquakes are also random events. “God” is just the metaphysical coping mechanism that helps us deal with this or any other fearful event. Although they deny the Scriptures, modern proponents of political correctness would point out that even in this verse God is not seen as the source of the natural phenomena.

This is, however, a ridiculous argument. The God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is revealed as the Sovereign God who created and maintains the laws that keep the universe operational. He is revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ and is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light…to Him be honor and eternal dominion” (I Timothy 6:15-16, emphasis added). In another place Jesus is described as the One who “holds all things together by the Word of His power” (Colossians 1:17). This is the same Jesus that predicted an increase in earthquakes leading up to His return (Matthew 24:7).

So, if we believe the Scriptures, it makes sense that we would turn to Him during the fearful time of an earthquake. He created the earth; He is Sovereign over its operations; and He holds it all together. Ultimately the earthquake is a harbinger of that day when we will meet Him, when He will judge our works. And, given that we will have one chance to stand before Him (Hebrews 9:27), we should get to know what He requires. Happily that is written for us, if we will just choose to read it.

To Whom Much is Given

Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the LORD And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).

To a man, the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance to a people who said they trusted God but in reality followed after idols. Sometimes that message was a message of the tender love of God for his erring people (Hosea); sometimes it was a general call to repentance (Joel); and sometimes it was an in-your-face demand for repentance. That was Amos’ message; he wasn’t subtle at all.

The first two chapters of Amos’ prophecy pronounced judgment upon Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. The often-repeated phrase “For three transgressions of _____ and for four…” is a Hebrew phrase that communicates the same message as our English phrase, “The straw that broke the camel’s back…” Sin upon sin had piled up against these nations until God had to bring judgment for “the final straw,” which He names in each case.

As the judgments are pronounced for some very violent and egregious sins of the nations, similar judgments are pronounced upon Israel and Judah for much less sins – or so it would seem (see 2:4, 6). Most of us today would think it unfair that the same severity of punishment would be meted out against Judah who merely “rejected the law of God” as it was against those who “ripped open pregnant women” (1:13) simply to enlarge their borders.

To us in the conservative, right-wing movement of America, there is hardly a more vile sinner than the abortionist who employs procedures like “partial birth abortion,” except perhaps the lawyer or politician that legalizes such a procedure (and lives high off the proceeds of their actions). But in God’s eyes, there is no hierarchy of sins. The immediate consequences of the abortionist’s sin may be more apparent, but every vile consequence had its root in the first act of disobedience, the first act of justification.

Perhaps that’s why disobedience to God’s Word is a more significant sin than we in America would like to believe.

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

Weeping Prophets

Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely.” O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent (Jer 5:2-3).

             The indictment that Jeremiah levels against the people of his day could equally be applied to America today. Many in our society use language that suggests they believe in the Lord, but there is little evidence apart from their speech. When God corrected ancient Judah – perhaps through economic struggles or natural disasters – they did not repent. When He disciplined them, they acted like they felt no pain. At the very least, they weren’t changed by the painful trouble.

             This wasn’t merely a phenomenon among one socio-economic class either. The verses that follow the ones above indicate that Jeremiah discovered that it didn’t matter what the individual’s financial status was. Rich and poor alike hardened their hearts and refused to repent.

             But the real tragedy was that he discovered that even the political and religious leadership possessed the same unrepentant spirit.

             A cursory scan of the American Church will reveal a similar heart among our people. Churches are more concerned with full seats than they are with full hearts. Few churches will take a stand against sin for fear of offending the network of family and friends of the sinner in the process.

             It doesn’t seem to phase us that there are more and more natural disasters plaguing our country. We don’t seem to care that our politicians wink at the most sordid immorality. We are willing to justify anything in the name of “tolerance,” lest we offend someone. God, by definition, must love us and therefore put up with any sin we choose to embrace, so we’re not concerned about offending Him. Yet these things and the problems they create should cause us to fall on our knees to wail over the offense we have brought to the true and living God.

             The unrepentant spirit of his people created in Jeremiah a mournful spirit that led subsequent generations to call him “The Weeping Prophet.” That same spirit appears to be returning to those who grieve the aforementioned sins. It’s not a spirit of depression so much as it is a spirit of mourning over the low spiritual fervor of the American Church. We see how few people consult God through the Scriptures; people who pray appear to be the exception rather than the rule in the Church; few denominations are growing statistically, and those that are have only marginal increases. One of the few positive signs is that those that are earnest in spirit are beginning to revive the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting as a way of appealing to the God of Israel.

             The answer to America’s problems will not be found in an election – even if it is wildly successful to conservative causes. The answer – just as in Jeremiah’s day – will only be found in a people willing to fall before the Lord without any hint of self- righteousness, who will grieve and repent of the sins of this land.

 

The Storms of Life

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 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. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27).

I have always been a person who searches for people with spiritual integrity – people whose lives match their professions of faith. In this famous parable, Jesus calls these people “wise” because they practice His teachings. Often these people are easy to spot – they look you in the eye when you speak to them, they speak openly of Christ’s activity in their daily lives and their speech is seasoned with a healthy understanding of the Scriptures.

It is also usually pretty easy to spot most of the “foolish” people of the parable. Christ has no place in their conversation; there is little overlap between their Sunday morning behavior and the rest of their week’s activities. If they go to any sort of worship service, it takes the form of rote prayers and music, along with a quickly-forgotten homily from the preacher.

But while most of the population is pretty easy to assess, there are some who are good “actors.” For these the trials of life – the rain and the winds of Jesus’ parable – draw out the true assessment of their spiritual lives. In another place Jesus told His audience that the “rain falls on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), in other words, upon all of us. How we respond determines what foundation our lives are built upon.

As a teacher I have often given my students “tests.” At least we called them “tests” publicly and for some they were. There were enough questions about whether they understood the material that they had to be tested. For others, though, they were more like “affirmations.” It was clear from my interaction in class that these students had a grasp of the material, and the examination instrument merely confirmed this in the minds of the students.

Whether the trials of life are “tests” or “affirmations” is ultimately known only to God and the individual who experiences these trials, but the point is that, deep within, each of us knows. As a teacher I had to have an objective score by which to assess my students’ progress which may not be available in this spiritual realm, but as the storms get stronger, the foundation will be revealed.

Motives

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God (1 Cor 4:5).

 In a performance driven world, most of us are used to being judged on the basis of our work. Business managers are concerned over the “bottom line”; salesmen, on the amount they sell; teachers, on the progress of their students; and factory workers, on the amount they produce. But Paul notes here that our judgment before God will be on the basis of our motives, not our works. The “why” of what we do is more important to God than the “what” or “how much” of what we do. Two men were standing in the Temple one day praying – they were both doing the same thing – but one man was boasting in his prayers while the other man was humbling himself. Jesus said that the humble man was the one who was justified, not the braggart.

 Many people serve in the Church in an attempt to impress God with their service or sacrifice, but He is not impressed. They haven’t sacrificed anything compared to Him. Other people think that their service should be enough to overcome any negatives that they have done – they are trying to earn His favor. Again, He is not impressed because nothing we do is enough to pay the penalty owed to an infinitely holy God.

 But when we “Love the Lord [our] God with all our heart…soul…mind…and strength” we do for Him out of a motive of gratitude, not obligation. When a spouse prepares meals (or any of the plethora of duties within a marriage) for his/her partner, it is not usually done out of a sense of duty or obligation, but a joyful service to the one he/she loves. So it should be with service to the God that created, redeemed and sustained us.

 When we fail our spouse in some way, the wounds he/she feels are not assuaged by gifts or sacrifices, they are healed to genuine repentance. It is no different with God. He is not interested in our self-abasement or sacrifice – He is interested in real repentance, in our broken and contrite hearts (Ps 51:17).

 

Lord, make my motive always one where Your reputation is more important than my own. Deliver me from trying to make my service somehow to be about me instead of You. Forgive any times I have tried to impress You with my sacrifices or my dedication. I give You permission to expose the real motive of my heart in any service I render. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Trembling at the Word

This spring I have immersed myself in the Book. I have understood that the welfare of my family is somehow tied to how faithfully I adhere to the dictates of this Book. Admittedly there were some confusing parts, some passages that I didn’t understand but which applied to me and my family. I can’t say that I always applied those passages exactly in the right way, but I asked people that I trusted that did understand those passages and was able to correct the things that I had originally had mis-applied. The interpretations of those people I trusted – all professionals – didn’t always agree. There was some difference of opinion, but I had to finally interpret those passages as my conscience allowed me to, and if I am called to account for my interpretation, I won’t have to fumble around and point to someone else with the disclaimer, “It was their opinion…” I know my reasons for understanding and applying them as I did.

Every part of the Book had something for me, though not everything in every part. I admit to ignoring some parts that I didn’t understand but which didn’t apply to my situation anyway, but I at least skimmed over those sections to be sure nothing was pertinent to my life. Some parts I read multiple times and even found some of the same ideas in more than one place. I assumed that when that happened the authors did that to be sure I didn’t miss something important. I also noticed that the authors used different types of literary conventions in the Book, because it seemed that those different literary devices could more easily be understood.

In the end, I tried to be extremely careful that I did everything that the Book required of me, because I took seriously the warnings concerning penalties if I didn’t comply.

Oh, was I unclear? I was referring the IRS Instructions for the 1040 Tax Form. Did you think I was referring to a different Book?

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word (Is 66:2).

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:18-19).