Pictures of Faith: Certain Faith—Hebrews 11-12.2

“Free advice,” the sign read. These were my student days. I was biking around our inner-city lake were I used to exercise, and there he sat—a man next to the bike path, comfortable, in his lawn chair and with his sign.

Not able to pass up a curious encounter, I stopped but didn’t get off my bike.

“Totally free?” I asked.

“No charge,” he answered.

“All right,” I said, thinking what I could ask. “I’m considering getting married. What should I do?”

“Do it!!” the man offered, with great enthusiasm, and for free.

“Right on!” I said and went back to riding.

While at that juncture in my life I don’t think I even had a girlfriend, the encounter had just confirmed one thing: faith is only as good as good as the object (or person) in whom it is placed. Lawn chair guy and his advice wasn’t going to change my life.

This summer at Woodland we’ve considered a number of the Old Testament historical figures we meet in Hebrews 11. While few followed God without fault, all of them trusted God with a kind of faith God finds acceptable.

Faith God accepts embraces God’s real but invisible plan (11). This faith, we learn, involves confidence that comes from trusting in what is true. I like the NIV translation of verse 1: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Such faith operates like a kind of spiritual vision that helps us rest in what our eyes can’t see, possibly (like with Old Testament figures) because it hasn’t happened yet.

God accepted the faith of those who lived before Christ, even though He hadn’t revealed His entire plan. For by it the people of old received their commendation from God (11.2, ESV). They trusted in the God of Promise based on what He told them would happen, and this pleased God. Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain, by faith. Enoch lived in obedience as one who walks with God, by faith. Noah believed when nobody else did, by faith. Abraham offered Isaac, by faith, believing God would raise him. Moses passed on the riches of Egypt to see God, by faith … God accepted their faith because they placed their trust in the right object.

But, what was that object, really? 

Verses 39-40 close the loop in Hebrews 11: And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 

Each of these Old Testament saints died with their heart’s desire yet unfulfilled, because God hadn’t finished His plan yet. God hadn’t finished His plan yet, because He wanted to include us. And what was God’s plan? It was to provide a Redeemer. Those whom God accepted in the Old Testament were saved by faith in a Redeemer who would come! These were saved not on the basis of the intensity of their faith but because of the One they believed in. Jesus was the object of their faith!

Faith God accepts embraces Jesus and endures in dependance on Him (12.1-2). So, we come to chapter 12 which is really an application for those of us who live after the cross. We’re to run with this “cloud of witnesses” before us. We’re to run putting away sin and impediments that distract. But, most of all, we’re to ” … run with endurance the race that is before us” (12.1b).

This is a reminder that the Christian life is a life of endurance. And, how do we endure? By looking to Jesus (12.2a). Jesus is the “pioneer” of our faith. Jesus is the completion of everything God is doing. Jesus endured the cross, because He wanted to please God. Jesus is sitting at the Father’s right hand. Jesus is the One we’re to look to while we respond to the circumstances God has allowed into our lives (the “race” or “course,” verse 1b).

The “race” has been particularly hard here at Woodland this past week. Floods in the southern part of the state stranded one Woodlander in a hotel as she was driving home from work. A three-year-old fractured his leg. Cancer is among us in the Westboro-Rib Lake community. (Three situations come immediately to mind.) And, one of our own at Woodland is presently at the Mayo Clinic having been diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma on Monday.

All of this calls us to think carefully about our faith in the object of One who is worthy. We’ll need to learn to depend on God and His plan and live the life of faith together, especially since we can’t see everything God is doing right away.

Mostly, we’ll need to look to Jesus, whom the Ancients longed for, but whom we know. This is what our summer study has prepared us for. Would that we go forward into the school year ready to endure with joy.

Faith God accepts embraces Jesus and endures in dependance on Him. 

How has trusting Jesus helped you endure in your “race”? It’s a personal question, but sharing encourages others. Why not hit the “comments” field at the top left of this article and encourage us with your story?

And have a great week in the LORD.

Do His Thing!

You haven’t seen me much on Facebook, have you? I lurk there a bit to see what I ought to know people are doing, but I won’t show you my lunch or make you jealous with pictures of my vacation. Still, I have my show-and-tells, and sometimes  a story has to be shared …

My staycation last week yielded a wonderful artefact of purposeful image-bearing in the shape and form of my authentic Westboro, barn wood and plumbing-flange shelves. (Special thanks to Dick and Viv Angelo for the raw material!) I don’t think I’m boasting here, except on God, but there’s some inventiveness going on here. Barn wood comes in the shape(s) it comes off the barn in. So, the only standard dimensions are unique ones. Plumbing flanges and nipples make the perfect mount, because they can be mixed and switched out individually to fit irregular lengths and depths.

Here’s where things spin off into theology. All this is like what God does. In the work of redemption, God takes all our irregular dimensions, and He adapts us, fits us, and repurposes us for His uses.

Reclaiming us is His Thing!

But, there’s more. Genesis 1.27-28 describes humankind’s creation in God’s image. Then, we’re told that God’s blessing carried the mandate to “be fruitful … multiply … fill the earth … subdue [the earth] … and have dominion …” Significantly, that’s basically what God had just done in the work of creation. So, our first purpose is to imitate God in His creative work. Imitating God in creation and doing good work in Christ is much of what we’re reclaimed by God to do.

Bearing God’s image in creation in imitation of God is our Thing!

Seg back to my shelves. There’s satisfaction here, because such inventiveness (the Latin root means “to discover”) involves careful planning, repurposing, adapting for new and good work, and filling (my house, in this case) with purposeful, creative design.

A woodworking craftsman could have built better shelves. But, anybody, working by faith in Christ, can connect his thing to God’s thing. And, there’s enormous satisfaction in that. It’s worth a staycation even.

How about you? What purposeful work are you doing this summer, or planning to do this fall? How does this work reflect our first purpose of bearing God’s image? How does it reflect God’s further work of reclaiming us in Christ?

Why not hit the comment link and share your thoughts for the good of everybody?

Have a great weekend. And find joy in doing His thing!

Watch it, slow …

Youth baseball has ended in the Northwoods, at least for now. But before we pack the gloves and balls away in the sports tub for the year, I have a thought, and it has something to do with the pleasant month of August.

There’s a saying in baseball (at least they used in say it to me) that when you’re batting you’re supposed to “Watch the ball come in, slow.” So, you anticipate the pitch, and see it (laces and spin and all) as though it were in slow motion. It doesn’t make a world of sense, really. The ball moves just as fast as if you’re not really “seeing it,” but, somehow, getting your mind around the spinning pitch this way can turn a batter into a hitter.

August is a month of goodness. Still, it spins toward us just as fast as any other month—and maybe a little faster, what with everybody breathlessly trying to slip in an eleventh-hour vacation, while getting nervous already and trying not to think about everything rushing toward us in the fall. But, it’s a month with an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to consider our God, the Father of all goodness. And, to “Watch it, slow” … 

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 

They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light (Psalm 36.7-9, ESV).

Do we believe, in this month of goodness, that God is really the source of all goodness? If we do, and press ourselves to see the month of August in this light, I bet we’ll each take some time to ponder a bit—to sit in that lawn chair for an extra ten minutes, to putter in the garden an extra hour, and consciously give praise and thanks to our God of goodness.

We’ll take the time to “Watch it, slow”.

Pictures of Faith: Certain Strength—Judges 16.4-31

What’s the source of your strength?

That might sound like a funny opener, so just think of your strength as being your “thing”—that part of your life that gives you significance and helps you get ahead. Up here in the Northwoods, our “things” might be our connection to our possessions (especially boats, guns, wheelers), our ability to spend our time the way we want, or even our special relationships—families even.

This week in our annual Ice Age Days service in Rib Lake we at Woodland are thinking about an historical figure who lived in the 11th century before Christ in the Ancient Near Eastern nation of Israel. Everybody wanted to know where this guy’s strength came from. “How’d you get that ‘thing’?” they might have asked.

The account of Samson begins in Judges 13 when the LORD himself appeared to Manoah and his wife and informed them they’d have a very special child. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (:5).

Nazarite. The word means “set apart one”. Ancient Israelites would take Nazarite vows (sometimes for only a period of time) and then abstain from alcohol and from the touching of dead bodies, and from cutting of the hair. This boy would be set apart for God’s purposes for his whole life.

Samson is born, but at age 20 and by the beginning of Judges chapter 14, he’s not grown into a choir boy. In fact, he’s like a tatted-up bar fighter. It’s my imagination, but I can see him walking the streets of Rib Lake—about 275 pounds, tattoos, really long dreadlocks. He’d once gone out for football, maybe, but now he’s flunked out of school, and he’s just mad. Alcohol doesn’t mix right with his meds;  he’s a little bi-polar, and the cops are scared to death of him. Samson.

The rest of chapters 14 and 15 describe Samson’s great strength. He meets and marries a Philistine woman from among Israel’s enemies. Leading to the engagement he kills a lion with his own hands. After the engagement he visits the lion’s carcass and extracts honey and eats it—so much for being a Nazarite! He throws a wild party with lots of drinking, then kills 30 Philistines, so that  he can give their garments to the 30 men who’d won a bet against him by bribing his new Philistine wife for the answer to a riddle. After his wife is given to another man he captures 30 foxes and ties torches to their tails so that they burn the Philistine crops and vineyards. Then, he hides in the wilderness. After the international incident, the Philistines encamp against Israel. Three-thousand Israelites find Samson who allows them to bind him, since he’d caused so much trouble for them. But, he snaps the ropes and kills 1,000 men once he’s delivered to the Philistines. He goes to Gaza where the Philistines find him with a prostitute. His enemies wait to catch him at dawn, but he slips out at midnight, wrenches the city gates from their moorings and plants them on a nearby hill.

Who is the source of Samson’s strength? What is the secret of Samson’s strength? His hair? … really? 

The story comes to a climax in chapter 16 when God’s enemies seek the source of Samson’s strength (16.4-22). 

Samson meets another woman named Delilah. As they’d done before, the leaders of the Philistines bribe Samson’s girl to get the secret of his strength. “Please tell me where your great strength lies,” Delilah pleads. In three separate incidents, Samson deceives Delilah and her fellow-conspirators. “Bind me with fresh bowstrings” (probably woven-up animal guts) … “Tie me up with new ropes” … “Weave my lovey-locks into the loom and pin them to the floor”. In three separate incidents Delilah puts Samson to sleep, performs the hinted-at action, then calls out “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

Samson responds with strength. He’s got the tiger by the tail, having a great time. But then, Delilah appeals to his love for her. Now Samson must choose between his God and and his girl. And here, he strays too close to the source of his strength.

“If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man” Samson tells her (:17).

Delilah put him to sleep on her knees and has his hair shorn. At her signal to the Philistines hidden in the room, Samson thinks, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free” But, as the text tells us, he did not know that the LORD had left him (:20).

The Philistines seize him, shackle him, put out his eyes, and put him to grind grain in the prison. But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved (:22).

Does Samson know the secret of his own, former strength? we have to ask.

Samson finds the source of his strength (16.23-31). God’s enemies boast over Samson. They gather at the temple of Dagon saying, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand“. Big mistake. They call for Samson to have him perform for them. But after entertaining them Samson plays on his own weakness. “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them,” he tells the boy leading him by the hand.

The temple would have been supported by two pillars with the majority of the 3,000 guests seated on a balcony above where they could view the courtyard below. Pretending to be exhausted, he rests his hands on the two pillars and prays, “O LORD God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God …” (:28). Then the Spirit of God returns, and Samson pulls the house down, on himself and on God’s enemies … so the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life (:30).

The lesson of Samson is that God through His Spirit is the source of Samson’ strength, not Samson himself … and not his hair.

In the years that followed God would raise up the great prophet Samuel and the great king David, who prefigures the once and forever King Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to reign at His first coming, but to die and be raised from the dead to newness of life. That’s where we are today, awaiting Jesus’ second coming in power. And, those of us who live between Jesus’ two comings find our connection to Jesus through the Spirit of God.

One of the lessons I can take from the account of Samson is that God’s Spirit is the source of my strength.

Locating myself in God’s plan of redemption like this allows me to realize some truths about God’s Spirit in my life.

First, God’s Spirit enters my life when I trust in Jesus. (See Galatians 3.2). In contrast to the time before Jesus when God’s Spirit came on people for specific purposes and then left, we receive the Spirit who connects us to Jesus and then stays, preparing us for the time when we’ll really be with Jesus. Incredible!

Then, and second, God’s Spirit remains with me to remind me that I am set apart for Jesus. Romans 9.15-16 says, For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. 

God’s Spirit is now the warm, internal witness to the truth of the Gospel. It’s like He takes up residence in me to say, “It’s real! It’s real. You are set apart to God!”

Finally, the Spirit of God brings about life change. We didn’t really see this in Samson, did we? But, when God’s Spirit enters our lives, He comes to make us holy in our thoughts, words and deeds.

And that’s really important for each of us in our situations. Some of us are in tough places. Maybe, we have a young adult child who’s rebellious like Samson. We just can’t see a pathway forward. But, God can change hearts, so we pray the our child will trust God and that God’s strength will be released in his or her life. Or, we’re in an impossible family situation where there appears to be no human way our family tailspin will be stopped. Here again, God through His Spirit can be the source of our strength, and God wants to be approached by faith.

God’s Spirit is the source of your strength! What do you have to trust Him for, in Jesus? In the end, it’s not your “thing” that gives you strength. He is the Lord, and He would do business with you today.

See you Sunday in Rib Lake. And, have a great weekend, in the Lord …!


Pictures of Faith: Certain Manipulation—Judges 10.6-11.40

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” So said a famous football coach who once lived up here in the North.

This week at Woodland we meet an Old Testament figure who clearly believed in winning at any cost. It’s a tragic and horrific story that (frankly) I wish weren’t included in the Bible. Even so, I believe with Paul in Roman 15.4 that ” … whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” 

So, let’s look for this hope.

The account of Jephthah begins in Judges 10 with Israel returning again, in a pattern that has now lasted for 300 years, to the worship of its neighbors’ gods. God’s people are now oppressed in the west by the Philistines and in the east by the Ammonites. And this time, maybe, God is really finished with His rebellious people!

Anticipation of God’s deliverance (10.6-18). Important for understanding this account is the recollection that, east of the Jordan River in the region known as Gilead, Israel has three cousin nations. The Edomites descend from Esau, Jacob’s older brother. The Moabites descend from Lot, Abraham’s nephew, through his incestuous relationship with his older daughter (see Genesis 19). The Ammonites descend from Lot through his relationship with his younger daughter. God never gave the land of these three nations to the Israelites. But, God did give the land of the neighboring Amorites (also called Cananites) to Israel, and that’s where the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh settled, east of the Jordan in Gilead.

Now, in chapter 10, the Ammonites have moved into Gilead and massed for war. Israel is without a champion, and it looks like God has forgotten them. But, wait …

Negotiation toward God’s deliverance (11.1-28). We meet Jephthah. Beginning life behind the 8-ball as the son of a harlot, he’s been disposed and has run off to the wilderness where he’s become a renowned fighting man. When the leaders of Gildead approach him, he promises to lead them, if they will give him total command.  Notice, God doesn’t “raise up” Jephthah. Jephthah promotes himself to be their “head”. Then, Jephthah negotiates with Ammon. Basically, the Ammonite king stakes claim to Israel’s land east of the Jordan (11.11b). Jephthah responds with a history lesson (11.27). The exchange doesn’t avert war, but it’s good. Jephthah remembers God, and I have to believe that his faith at this point is genuine, registering him even for the list in Hebrews 11.

But, there is a serious flaw in his thinking!

Manipulation of God’s deliverance (11.29-40). The Spirit of God comes on Jephthah, and God’s Spirit should have been enough for him. But, look what he does. Instead of trusting God, Jephthah makes a vow: And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’S, and I will give it up for a burnt offering. 

What’s gone wrong here? Well, Jephthah has begun to think about people like the Ammonites think about people. Worshippers of Molech (or Chemosh, as the same god is named here) offered their children to try to manipulate circumstances in their lives. The better the sacrifice, the better the expected results. Jephthah wants to give God his best, but he can’t imagine it will be his own daughter.

And, here’s what God thinks of this: … Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people … (Leviticus 20.2-3b).

Even worse, if possible, Jephthah has begun to think about God like the Ammonites think about their god. He’s assuming that the One, True, God of Israel must be  (can be) won over by something he has to offer!

Jephthah wins the war. His daughter runs out to greet him. And, Jephthah responds by blaming the victim: You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow (11.35).

He’s ruined his family, because he doesn’t have another heir. And, he can’t take back his vow, because, apparently, his reputation and self-righteousness is at stake. (See Leviticus 5.4 to learn how, even at this juncture, his oath was not binding, but who’s paying attention to God in Israel?)

Jephthah’s daughter the submits to her understanding of God’s will. She laments she’ll never have children, then offers herself to her father: My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies (11:36).

And, so, she’s sacrificed needlessly, so her father can save face, even though Jephthah could have glorified God by taking any curse on himself. His account ends in the next chapter with civil war and the desolation of Ephraim, Israel’s strongest tribe.

Jephthah’s daughter becomes the heroine of this account. She credits God with the victory, doesn’t try to manipulate the situation, commits herself willingly to her understanding of what God wants, and (I believe) points us to Christ.

In Matthew’s account Jesus prayed: My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (26.39). Jesus didn’t go to the cross because of a blunder, but willingly out of design. And Jesus didn’t go to the cross to manipulate the Father.  Instead, He went to satisfy the wrath of a holy God who allowed all the sins His people to be covered—Jephthah’s and mine.

The lesson of Jephthah is that God doesn’t have to be manipulated for blessing, but gives freely to this who depend on him by faith. 

There’s applications in this account we need to hear: First, bad things happen when God’s people misplace God’s Word. At a number of points in the account, Jephthah might have turned back. And His thinking about God could have been repaired, if the Israelites had risen up and opposed his sin. But, they’d forgotten God’s law. Disaster also results when we forget what God has said!

Also, many of us who read this account have done some terrible things. This account reminds us that we don’t need to go the rest of our lives trying to manipulate our way back to God’s good graces. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1.8).

Finally, the Spirit of God came on Jephthah to win a battle. On this side of the cross, He baptizes us and fills us when we trust Jesus by faith. Then, He works in us for a changed life. Romans 12.1-2 describes us as living sacrifices. So, we offer ourselves to God, not to manipulate our circumstances, but out of gratitude to our good God who gives freely.

God won’t be manipulated for blessing, but gives freely to those who depend on Him by faith. And, knowing this gives me hope and helps me understand why I find the account of Jephthah in my Bible.