Knock Knock

I saw this performance the other day:

As someone who teaches in a low income, urban setting, I can’t even begin to describe what this poem means to me. As someone who still thinks racism is alive and well, as someone who wants better for the next generation, as someone who sees the struggle Mr. Beaty describes unfold every day – words fail me. But I also started thinking about our own spiritual imprisonment and the freedom we have in Christ, so I thought I’d share those thoughts, at least.

One of the hardest things to overcome is the past. We sometimes joke about the Freudian tendency to blame everything on our childhood while we silently act on those lessons and influences of that childhood every day. We are who we were shaped to be, and it can be very difficult to break out of the mold in which we were cast as children. If we were raised in a house where terrible influences were prevalent, our homes will likely be similar. If we saw our parents in bad relationships, we will likely be in bad relationships. If we were in a house where yelling and abuse were prevalent, we may yell and abuse. It can be hard to leap out of those footprints left by our parents or whoever else raised us, and, no matter how hard we try to be individuals, we all have those realizations where we say to ourselves, “Oh my goodness, I am just like my dad (or mom).”

But, if our families were poor influences, we don’t have to suffer those same choices and consequences. We can choose to be better. We can choose to be different. Remember Ezekiel 18:5-18. (I’ve truncated the text below.)

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right…commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully — he is righteous; he shall surely live…

If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery…He shall not live. He has done all these abominations…

 Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise…obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live…

Yet, as hard as it is to leap free from the trenches dug by the footsteps of those before, harder still is it to escape from our own worn paths. We know, however, that we can. With Christ, it is possible, but it takes effort and dedication. When we convert to Him, we leave behind our former selves. “We may be our fathers’ sons and daughters,” Daniel Beaty proclaims, “but we are no their choices.” Likewise, we may have been one type of person in the past, but we are no longer defined by those values, those priorities, those choices. We are someone new. We have a fresh start. We have a chance to begin again.

Romans 12:1-2 says,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We see this transformation in effect with the church at Corinth in I Corinthians 6:9-11 (emphasis mine):

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

At some point, we have all been guilty of murdering Jesus on that cross with our sins. We have all been enclosed in the prison of our sins, isolated from our brothers and sisters, isolated from our God, alone and sad. Every day, Jesus comes into our prison, and he approaches that glass barrier separating Him from us. Knock knock, he says. Knock knock. Unlike the Daniel Beaty’s father, however, we can respond. We can allow Him to remove the barrier. We don’t have to live in isolation. We don’t have to remain a prisoner. We can seek pardon and forgiveness, but we have to make sure we haven’t built up security walls of pride and resentment that will indefinitely keep our Savior out.

Knock knock. Will you answer the call? Knock knock. Will you let Him into your heart and your life? Will you submit to His word? Our Savior is watching and waiting. He is always there, patiently knocking, patiently inviting, patiently waiting. But every one of us is on his or her own death row; we only have so long to respond, and we don’t know when the end will come. Won’t you respond to His invitation? Won’t you let Jesus take you out of prison? Won’t you free yourself from the worn paths of sin and worldliness. You have but to submit to His word and reach out to Him. He will tear down the walls of your prison. He will lift you from the beaten path. He will redeem. Knock knock.

Memorializing the Innocent

Standing before the Lord’s Table, we often revisit thoughts surrounding the various memorials we have in our culture, whether they be monuments, days, or ceremonies. The vast majority of these memorials center around the numerous military conflicts this nation has been a part of, and we memorialize soldiers who have fallen and great leaders that led us to triumph. We lionize and idealize those to whom these numerous memorials are dedicated, but there are two groups involved in these conflicts we seldom commemorate, or indeed recognize at all: our enemies and the innocents.

The past hundred years or so have seen some of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in the history of this world. Sennacherib’s loss of 185,000 at the hands of Jehovah in II Kings 19 is mere child’s play by today’s standards. War casualties in the last century number in the millions, and if you break it down only to civilians, some casualty  figures look like this:

  • WWI: almost 7 million
  • WWII: 40-52 million
  • Korean War: 1.5 million
  • Vietnam War: 2 million
  • Iraq + Afghanistan: as many as 1 million

Counting only these conflicts – a small fraction of the wars and battles that have been fought the last hundred years – over 60 million have died in the crossfire of opposing armies. It may surprise you (as it did me) that in every conflict listed, except World War I, civilian death tolls outnumbered military deaths by a margin of at least 2-to-1. In almost every case, the number of innocents who died were more than double those actually involved in the conflict, and, with a couple notable exceptions, these lives are seldom remembered. (Memorials dedicated to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.)

In fact, far from being memorialized, these deaths are often marginalized and trivialized. They are reported as “collateral damage,” or we breathe a sigh of relief that “at least they are not American lives.” Then we forget them as readily as any other unpleasant fact we’d rather not dwell on. Try, however, to tell an Afghani mother whose son was cut down in a skirmish on the streets of her hometown that her child was merely collateral damage in a conflict for a greater good. Tell an elderly Japanese man or woman who lost loved ones in Hiroshima or Nagasaki that their loss saved American lives in the long run. See how it goes. Who memorializes the innocents, lives cut short by the choices made by others?

Now I want you to imagine, for a moment, that Great Britain launched a war against us. Imagine they carpet bombed strategic locations and major metropolitan areas to cripple us quickly. Imagine you had a son or daughter in one of those locations who was killed in those bombings – not because they were part of the military trying to fight the invading forces, but simply because they were in the way when the bombs fell. Imagine that son or daughter became “collateral damage.” How would you feel after that?

After the dust cleared, the treaties had been signed, and the troops gone home, would you ever be able to look at England the same way again? Would you ever be able to forgive them? Might you cringe every time you heard and English accent? Would you throw away all of your old Beatles albums? Adding to this, what if the attack on our soil was completely justifiable by political standards? What if history was on the side of Great Britain? Would that change how you feel? Would the pain be erased, knowing that your child’s death, in the long run, saved the lives of those you view as enemies? Somehow I doubt it.

This, however, is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice was, and it is what God did for us.

  • Jesus was an innocent death. II Corinthians 5:21 and Isaiah 53:9 refer to Christ as sinless or blameless. Even Pilate attests to Jesus’ innocence in the face of unjust accusations.
  • Jesus was “collateral damage.” Repeatedly, in Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us God’s chosen Servant would be bruised, beaten, and killed in our place. We should be the casualties of the war with sin, but those sins cut Him down instead.
  • Jesus died for His enemies. The first few verses of Romans 5 make it clear that Christ came and died for us while we were at enmity with God. Where few would think to die for a righteous man, Christ laid down His life to save those opposed to Him.

Unlike the numerous civilian casualties of war, however, Jesus was not merely caught in the crossfire haphazardly. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death was no accident. He walked into the conflict willingly to be the innocent sacrifice that would save those who would reject Him. God sacrificed His child that those who set themselves against Him might not perish but have eternal life, and I have to ask myself, “How could God do this? How could He send His Son to die in my place? How could He offer such a sacrifice for an enemy?” Then I read Isaiah 55:6-9, where the prophet extends an invitation of forgiveness to a people who rejected God:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are higher than our ways. His love is greater than our love. He was willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of those on the side of sin and lawlessness that we may have hope of life after death. That’s why we take the time to memorialize this innocent death.

My Redeemer Lives

We sometimes sing a song called I Know That My Redeemer Lives, and it may come as some surprise that the words from that song are inspired by an Old Testament passage. In Job 19:25, Job states:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

The term redeemer comes up some twenty-five times in the Bible, and, with just a couple notable exceptions, the term almost always refers to the Messiah. In this context, Job has lost everything, but he expresses confidence that His Lord will be a mediator, and advocate, a messenger, and a redeemer. Two thousand years before the birth of Christ, Job shows understanding that God will not leave His creation without access to Him.

Job’s Redeemer

In Job 9:33, Job longs for an arbiter, or a mediator, between him and God, so that one might argue his case. In I Timothy 2:5, Paul explains that we do have a Mediator between God and man who is both man and God – Jesus Christ. Then, in Job 16:18-19, Job expresses confidence in a witness in Heaven. He understands he has an Advocate before the father, one who will serve to represent those who cannot represent themselves. Job knows he has divine representation before the Father, and I John 2:1 reminds us that we also have an Advocate in Jesus Christ.

Returning to Job 19:23-25, Job expresses a desire to have his words recorded that others may know as he does that his Redeemer lives. Despite his deteriorating health and morale, he seems to be growing spiritually, expressing confidence in a Redeemer and a Savior who would appear before God with him. I Peter 1:18 reminds us we were delivered and redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. Christ is our final Redeemer who delivers us from the chains of this life.

Finally, in Job 33:23-24, as Elihu is reminding Job not to be so self righteous, he speaks of a messenger without equal who lifts us from the pit. Isaiah speaks of such a one in Isaiah 61:1-3 who lifts His own out of darkness, cleansing them, and delivering them. Jesus, when speaking in His hometown, applies this passage to Himself. He is the messenger who soars above the thousands.

Conclusion

Throughout Job, a picture begins to form, and that picture finds clarity and resolution in the personage of Christ. Whether or not he understood the full import of his words, job looked beyond the things of this live, looking for reconciliation with His God. He had faith that such a Redeemer lives, and we can have that same hope. Jesus is our Advocate, our Mediator, and our Redeemer. He is what we need most, and He will cleanse us and lift us up when we turn to Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Faithful Hope

The Bible is full of individuals who stand up and declare the word of the Lord in the face of public and political opposition. People like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and more – these face threats, persecutions, and ridicule for delivering a message that the people do not necessarily wish to hear. Among these great messengers is a man named Jeremiah, commonly known as the weeping prophet for the bitterness of his message to the prophet.

In Lamentation 1, we see Jeremiah writing a song of mourning, told from the perspective of the city as it is being besieged. He calls the city a widow. He writes of Jerusalem’s enemies mocking the city and taking joy in her demise. Jerusalem mourns her lost children. Then, in chapter 3, the prophet begins to insert his own voice, bemoaning the tragedies he is forced to witness. It is a book of sorrow and pain over the destruction of God’s holy city.

A Glimmer of Hope

In the midst of this, in Jeremiah 3:21-25, the prophet remembers hope:

But this I call to mind,and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

The LORD is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.

The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.

In the middle of sorrow and despair, Jeremiah remembers God’s mercy and the renewal available in Him. He remembers hope in God’s faithfulness. All of us face failure in our lives. We face difficulties, sorrow, and ridicule. Like Jeremiah, we can remember the portion we have in Jehovah.

Hope in God’s Faithfulness, Mercy, and Renewal

Jeremiah calls God’s mercies unending. Psalm 136 repeats again and again that God’s steadfast love endures forever. His mercies, His compassion, His love is faithful and enduring. In Luke 1:76-79, Zechariah praises God for the endurance of His tender mercies, and Romans 15:1-9 exults God for His mercy and calls the Lord a God of hope, of endurance, and of comfort. Ephesians 1:1-7 says God makes us alive in Christ because of His mercy and love. We know the God’s mercy does not fail, and we can trust in those mercies to deliver us.

Jeremiah also speaks of having hope in his God. In Psalm 130 calls on God’s people to hope in Him, in His love and His mercies. Psalm 31:24 and Psalm 38:15 both express hope in God’s deliverance and His mercy. I Thessalonians 5, Paul contrasts hope with hopelessness, and he writes that we should wear hope of salvation like a helmet in verse 8. Romans 8:24 simply states that our salvation is based upon hope, and Paul goes on to make the case that hope sustains us in the face of every trial this world can throw at us. Finally, Hebrews 6:17-20 speaks of our hope anchoring our souls. In the middle of this world’s tragedies and difficulties, this is the hope we can have.

We hope for renewal in God, and II Corinthians 5:17 calls those who live in Christ new creatures. Chapter 4:16-18 of the same book tells us we look away from our former physical concerns to spiritual hopes. We are renewed in the image of our Creator and Savior, and Romans 6 tells us we raise to walk in newness of life after our conversion to Christ. Ephesians 4:17-24 calls on us to clothe ourselves in newness and renewal, discarding our former selves and replacing that with a new creation. We all want a fresh start, and God promises we can be renewed in Christ when we sacrifice self and allow Him to transform our lives.

We can hope these things because God is faithful, and, if He is faithful to us, we should be as faithful to Him. I Corinthians 1:9 begins a very difficult letter with the assurance that God is indeed faithful. Hebrews 10:22-23 calls on us to hold onto our hope in a faithful God, and I John 1:9 assures us God’s forgiveness is faithful. If we place our hope in Him, if we trust His mercy, if we are faithful – then we can trust His faithfulness to us.

Conclusion

Jeremiah 3:21-25 stands as a testament of faith in a faithful God. God is good to the soul that seeks Him and waits on Him. Our renewal is found in Him alone, and our responsibility then is to seek Him and come to Him on His terms. He is available to us. The Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s time never turns to embrace God’s mercy and deliverance. They fall into captivity because of their slavery to sin. We, however, do not have to share that fate. We can take hold of the hope we have in God. We can trust His mercies and find renewal in Him. He can be our hope if we faithfully trust in Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Price of Spiritual Freedom

Whenever there is a federal holiday set aside to commemorate those who have given themselves in service, whether, the Independence Day, Memorial Day, or Veterans Day, we should always remember that every Sunday should be a memorial for Christians. These are commemorative of those who have died, those who have served, and those who currently serve our country sacrificially, and over 1.3 million Americans have given themselves in that service. Despite speeches and ceremonies, many forget the significance among other things we associate with Memorial Day.

Freedom From Captivity

Freedom comes with a price, but we do not always appreciate that price from which so many of us are far removed. A parallel exists in John 8:31-33 where the Pharisees answer to Jesus that they have never been in bondage to anyone, despite a history of captivity to Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria. They feel removed enough from those terrible events it is as if they never happened. In these case, though, they not only forget the horror of bondage, they also forget the glory of God’s deliverance.

Exodus 6:6-8, Micah 2:12-13, Zephaniah 3:14-20 – these passages are just a few that illustrate the wonder and magnitude of God redeeming and delivering His people. These give a small peek at what God has done for them, and we can even find examples in their captivities where the children of Israel would begin to tolerate, even take comfort in, their state of servitude.

Our Spiritual Deliverance

We wonder how the Jews of Jesus’ day could be so forgetful of their past captivities. We wonder how they could have been so dismissive of God’s deliverance, but we do the same thing. Romans 7:14, Romans 6:16, all Romans 6:6 refer to sin as a form of slavery. Romans 8:2 and Romans 6:17-18 remind us that Jesus redeems us in His death. He delivers us, but, because His sacrifice is so far removed from us, we sometimes downplay or forget the magnitude of His sacrifice. Also, like the Jews in captivity, we sometimes grow to tolerate sin in our lives.

Hebrews 10:26 warns us that sin erases Christ’s sacrifice. Verse 29 calls our sin trampling over that sacrifice and profaning His grace. How do we view the memorial of the cross? How do we view the captivity of our sins? How do we view our deliverance by God’s hand? Has the memorial of Christ’s death lost meaning and magnitude to us? Every Sunday is a time to reflect on the price paid for our sins and the victory our God had over the chains of sin and death. The captivity of sin is worse than any physical captivity, and the freedom found in Christ is greater than any that can be granted by man.

lesson by Tim Smelser

God’s People

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The wall had come tumbling down.

For two thousand years God worked with a specific group of people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.  The Israelites were uniquely the people of God (cf. Hebrews 11:25).  They were given the ability to stand before the One True God, the Creator God, YHWH (Isaiah 43:15).  They were very proud of this distinction – probably too proud (cf. John 8:31-58)!

Everyone else, however, was excluded.  If you were not an Israelite, you were without Christ, without the state of the people of God, without the covenant with God, without hope, and without God (cf. Ephesians 2:12).  It was a distressing place to be.

And then, in Jesus the Christ, everything changed.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by abolishing the law that separated them, thus allowing Him to bring both together in one body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18).  Jesus’ death was not effective only for the sins of the Jews, but for all people (cf. Acts 10:34-35, 11:17-18).  The Kingdom of God was not limited to any particular nation or ethnicity (Galatians 3:28)!

Peter eloquently describes exactly what this means for believers today in 1 Peter 2:9-10.  He cites many passages from the Old Testament that refer to physical Israel – Israel the “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20 LXX), Israel the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, 23:22 LXX), Israel the “people of God’s own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).  Peter also cites the passages in Hosea where the prophet had spoken of how God would cast off the Israelites and receive them back again in Hosea 1:9-10, 2:23.

But, as Peter indicated before, these prophets and messages were designed to benefit us (1 Peter 1:12).  Whereas physical Israel had been God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and a people for His own possession, now these benefits are bestowed upon Christians.  Whereas God once placed His Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with priests and sacrifices, now God places His presence with Christian believers who represent the Temple, the priests, and the sacrifices of the new covenant (1 Peter 2:4-5; cf. Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:19-21, Hebrews 13:15).

We are the people who were once not a people (Ephesians 2:11-12).  We are the people who were once without mercy (cf. Titus 3:3).  But now, through Jesus Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and have become His people (cf. Romans 8:15-17).  In Jesus Christ we have found mercy (Ephesians 2:4-9).  We are now God’s “chosen race,” His “royal priesthood,” His “holy nation,” and His “people for a possession.”

Despite what many may say, this definitively indicates that Israel according to the flesh has no more standing before God than anyone else.  The Israel that will be saved is the spiritual Israel, not Israel according to the flesh (Romans 11:1-32).  The destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of any hope of ever truly observing the Law of Moses that came as a result was God’s definitive judgment on Israel and the end of that covenant (Daniel 9:24-27, Matthew 24:1-36).  Those of physical Israel have as much opportunity to become believers in Jesus Christ and His obedient servants as the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Galatians 3:28).  Therefore, we ought not make distinctions based on nationality, as it is written (2 Corinthians 5:16).

Did we deserve the opportunity to become God’s people?  By no means!  If physical Israel found itself cast off because of disobedience, we in the spiritual Israel should not expect preferential treatment (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).  Instead, we should be thankful for the opportunity to become God’s people, and to never take that privilege for granted.  We ought to serve God with all of our hearts because of what He has done for us (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:10).  Let us represent God’s people and do His will on the earth, representing Him and His values in all things!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry