A Straight Line with a Crooked Stick: How God works in broken people like us

Read Isaiah 45:1-11

The Old Testament tells us that certain special leaders were anointed with oil: prophets, priests, and kings. In addition to that sort of ‘anointing’ we read passages that refer to a coming ‘anointed one’, God’s promised Messiah (see Ps 72:8, Ps 18:44-48). This promised Messiah is the one whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus Christ (see Matthew 16:16).

What surprises me in Isaiah 45 is that this term is applied to Cyrus, a Persian ruler. Cyrus was a non-Jew. He was not a worshipper of the One True God. He was devoted to Marduk and other pagan deities. Had he ever presented himself to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, he would not have been accepted as a worshipper with the people of Israel, and instead he would have been confined to the outer courts. So it’s pretty amazing that the Lord calls Cyrus ‘his anointed’. The Hebrew is even more challenging: the words ‘messiah’ is used.

History tells us that in the first year of his reign, Cyrus issued a decree which allowed all exiles to return to Jerusalem, worship the Lord, and rebuild the Temple (2 Chr 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–3; 6:2–5). So this pagan king was used by God to bring his promises to fulfilment. God used a crooked stick to draw a very straight line.

We are all crooked sticks, but God does his work through us

But then, was Cyrus so special in that regard? Sure he was, in the historical sense, and by reason of the fact that he’s the only pagan to be called a ‘messiah’ in the Bible.

On the other hand, doesn’t God use all of us to bring his purposes to completion? Even if we were to regard ourselves as mature Christians and devoted followers of Jesus, isn’t it true that we are all failed and fallen people? Crooked sticks, all of us? For sure. Still, God promises to work through us, and bring his will to completion as he works through people in his world. Even through people who would not identify themselves as ‘his people’.

When our culture is so driven by self interest and cynicism, it is overwhelming to know that we are not left at the mercy of random and naked forces. In some mysterious and incredibly comforting way, God is at work in our world. We are not on our own, not left to our own devices.

Today, this day, with all the stuff you have to deal with, this God has chosen you to do his will. He will work through you. He loves to do that, and he wants you to love him and honour him in return. Your commitment to delight in this is called ‘obedience’ – your glad response to his overwhelming love, grace and power.

Q: How does this truth help you survive in a world where there is so much evil? Does this truth help you worship God, or make it harder for you to do so?

John Piper interviews Rick Warren – a definite ‘must watch’

I have just taken 90 mins to watch this excellent interview between John Piper and Rick Warren. It is definitely worth your time to do the same. Here’s why…

Piper  Warren

You can view the interview here:

My interest was piqued because Warren’s Purpose Driven Life was incredibly influential some years ago, having become one of the biggest selling books of all time (after the Bible). PDL was also a great resource for the development of the small group ministry at Redlands Christian Reformed Church in 2003. That we could have sermons, small group studies, and reading materials all themed together was a terrific way to launch into our small group ministry. We have never looked back.

Beyond any organisational aspects, the subject matter of the Purpose Driven Life was also a great encouragement and stimulation to us. That’s why we could not understand some of the negative criticism levelled at the book. Rick Warren was denounced from some quarters as a mean centred theologian, light on theology, as one who played fast and loose with the text of the Bible, as well as a raft of other criticisms.

So when Rick Warren recently published the interview between John Piper and himself, I thought that was not to be missed. John Piper is of course one of the more popular reformed evangelical voices in the USA. His views are widely received and respected in circles where I serve amongst the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia.

If you’re a person who loves the reformed heritage, I would encourage you to watch the interview in its entirety. As you do, you may just

* Be challenged: that there is good reason to be respectful of Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’ and thankful for the contribution his work has made to Jesus’ Kingdom and glory

* Be surprised: that there is not so much separating Rick Warren and John Piper. Well, that’s how I saw it. You draw your own conclusions

* Be reminded: that we need to be balanced and gracious in the way we deal with what other Christian leaders say and do. Australian Christian leaders are sometimes a little too quick to engage in the tall poppy syndrome. We are not immune to this weakness, friends.

* Be encouraged: Piper and Warren are so gracious to one another and so warm in their interaction. I found myself saying ‘I wish I would interact a little more like that’. They made me desire to honour Jesus more in my work

Q: Leave a comment and let us know what you think about this interview

Grace is free, but it’s not cheap

Read: Deuteronomy 7:6-16

Have you ever noticed that we love hearing about God’s grace, but we are not so keen to hear his call to obedience?

Do you ever wonder how God feels about that? Maybe he feels like a lover who showers their mate with affection, gifts, and security only to find that their mate is indifferent and does not reciprocate. I don’t know: would God be more grieved, or broken, or angered? Maybe all of that together, and more.

Grace is free, but it is not cheap. If we have little desire to obey, we cheapen whatever it cost God to give grace in the first place. The cross of Jesus tells us the cost to God was beyond our imagination.

If we have little desire to obey, we cheapen whatever it cost God to give grace in the first place

In Deut 7, we hear how God acted in grace to draw people to himself. And as much as we believe in grace, the verses which follow remind us that we still have a deep sense of responsibility to obey. They also remind us that how we obey will have profound consequences in our lives.

Obedience is no burden. Is a lover burdened when they respond to their mate with warmth, love, and commitment? Is a lover burdened when they rest on the shoulder of their mate, keen to do whatever will express their joy and happiness to be in relationship? Obligation doesn’t even come into it. This is all about opportunity, privilege, and joy.

Our responses to God should be like that. As we obey God, we get to live for the sort of world that he delights in. His love is our motive. His love is the cause. His love is the goal.

Q: Think of one area were you have been resisting obedience to God. Think about how much he loves you, and what that love cost, and then make a resolution to change some specific behaviour and attitudes

The Interference of Self

Read: Heb 13:1-6

Sometimes when I am met by a need or a context where I know I should move forward and respond, I push back and either procrastinate or simply turn away.

Why do I do that? Is it fear that my incompetence might be exposed Is it a sense that I might not be safe? Or is it prejudice? Or some combination of a whole raft of reasons? This passage speaks of ministering to prisoners (v.3) – do I fear their violence, and back off? We also read of strangers (v.2) – can they be trusted? Sometimes I am so prejudiced and governed by insecurity with moves me toward self protection and avoidance. Too easily, my fears blind me to what I really need to see. This is the interference of self.

Quite often the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable

Quite often, the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable. It interferes with the ‘realities’ we construct to protect ourselves from inconvenience. If one of these uncomfortable truths threatens my material wealth, my financial independence, or my leisure, I often try to push it away. Sometimes, I don’t even think I realise what I am doing. Yet through defensiveness or dismissal, or something as harmless as well directed humour, I persist in my denial. I would rather that people affirm me, and confirm the sometimes lesser story I have chosen to live at that time.

Well, there is only one affirmation that really matters. One reality worth living for. On Kingdom deserving the focus of my life, one relationship that brings love, peace, life and hope. And it is God (v.6). I don’t have to worry about what others may think, because living with God, or rather Him with me, I have all I need to survive the day.

Q: Does relationship with God really make that much difference to you? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

Watch what God does, and then you do it

Read Eph 5:1-20

The command to ‘imitate God’ seems impossible to honour. How can failed and fallen human beings imitate God? True, but that’s not what Paul is getting at. He is asking us to imitate God in his values and character toward people and their world. This makes it more exciting than impossible, right?

The immediate context has to do with forgiveness and love, but as we move through the chapter we hear the writer dealing with the broad scope of life, and how relationship with Jesus transforms it.

Make no mistake, we do these things because God is making us new through Jesus, and because he is at work in us (Eph 3:14-21). God’s work through Jesus means the changes he calls us to are not impossible. What God calls us to attempt he will enable us to achieve.

With that in mind, here are a few questions to get you thinking about how you can watch what God does, and then start to do it:

* How can I show grace and forgiveness to those who have hurt me? Who are the people who are waiting for my words of grace? What will I do to bring grace in these situation?

* How can I help the people around me to thrive? What are their needs and how can I address them?

* How can I help my community to show grace to the poor, the needy, and the helpless?

* How can I help my neighbourhood to be a community that God would delight in? What needs to be done, or developed?

* What injustices are there around me, and how can I join others in addressing and correcting them?

Q: If we ere to do these things consistently, do you think Christians and the church would have more credibility?

Q: What other questions might be helpful as we consider this topic?

The Surprise of Grace

Read Romans 5:-11

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his doors to us … we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God graciously pours into our lives through his Holy Spirit.”

Grace surprises us. Sometimes this comes with the realisation that even though we thought we had chosen for God – and in our experience that is often what happens – he has always been at work in us first. It seems that things are not always as they seem.

Why do we hang on to this notion that it is us who have made the difference? Is it because we desperately want to believe that we are still in control? That we can influence God? Is it because we are horrified by the thought that our rebellion and the fall have warped us at our core? Is it because we want to make some contribution to our eternal security? I am not sure. It could be a lot of things.

Our utter inability finds is glorious resolution in God’s love through Jesus

Truth is: we were sinners. We were God’s enemies. We were weak (too weak to make a difference). We were ungodly.

An yet God acted in Christ to change all that. Christ gave his life for us. God loved us. We were saved from God’s wrath. We were reconciled. God loved us. We were rescued. Our utter inability finds is glorious resolution in God’s love through Jesus.

You may not like this truth, but it is your reality. Good thing, too. Because being a rebel, a sinner, an enemy of God, it could not have happened without God initiating your rescue through Jesus.

But it has happened – how good is that? Through Jesus we have peace with God, and we rejoice in the truth that while we may not understand, we gladly accept that he has opened his door to us. First.

Power and Self

Read: Gal 5:13, John 13:3,4

When we think of power, and self, and what we might do if we had unlimited power and freedom, it is understandable that we start to think about ourselves. Take a different career track. Or retire and cruise the Whitsundays. Buy a new house. Deal with the challenging relational situation which has been keeping us down, and out.

God’s plan for restored humanity, and therefore for you and me, is different. His plan is for us not to use our freedom for ourselves, but instead to serve others humbly in love (Gal 5:13). Want to be like God? Then use your freedom to address the needs of others.

Same with power. God’s plan is not for us to use our power to bolster our own authority, to build our own kingdom, or to serve our own wants, but to serve others. Power, in God’s economy, is to help others thrive, and to lift up the helpless.

Power, in God’s economy, is to help others thrive

There is an astounding couplet on John 13, where we read that Jesus knew that the Father has put all things under his power – did he use this for himself? Or even to receive something he might rightfully have deserved? No. He directed this power towards others and to cause them to thrive in his grace and his mercy: He got up, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waste, and washed his disciples’ feet.

It is any wonder that God reminds us that love is the mark of the Christian? The measure of those who are in relationship with him?

Can you imagine the power of good that would be poured into our world if every Christian and every church were to do this filly and freely?

This can only happen in us when God rules our hearts and values: when his Son and Spirit transforms us into his image and character.

Q: What would change in your church, community, or family if you were to embrace these values fully?

Not much to look at…

Read: 2 Cor 4

I don’t like being weak, and I certainly don’t like being perceived as weak. So I engage in the stupidity of covering up. It is a clumsy attempt to project some other reality, one of relative strength and having it together.

I think I shortchange God when I do this. Paul was a man who was in touch with his weakness. I can imagine his CV saying ‘excellent education under Gamaliel, and later, Jesus himself, but I am not much to listen to, and i have several persistent and debilitating personal issues…’ Would you hire someone like that?

When I seek to give the impression of strength, the focus is on me, and the Gospel is masked. We have all seen mega churches which advertise their senior pastors with larger than life airbrushed images. What images might there have been outside Paul’s church (even though he was regional and itinerant, and not bound to a ‘church building’). A cross? A gallows and noose? A broken terra cotta pot? A picture of disability?

Weakness is God’s favourite work context

God uses weakness to reveal the beauty of his grace and character. This may unnerve us. Even so, that is how it is. He chose weak and underdeveloped Israel. Abraham and Sarah were old and past it. Moses was not a great speaker. David was too small for a soldier’s armour. Jesus was viewed as a reject, and gathered other rejects to himself. The cross is seen as foolishness. Jesus’ followers, small in number and uneducated, were given the task of making disciples of all nations.

Weakness is God’s favourite work context. Weakness is how he perfectly shows his power (2 Cor 12:9).

So I have my weaknesses and so do you. I should not feed them, thinking that a worse situation will end up being a context for greater power. That’s like sinning more to get more grace (Rom 6:1).

So while I work on my weaknesses, I will simply pray that God’s grace and power will be at work despite my weaknesses. I will pray that God’s work, God’s character, and God’s grace might be more clearly seen. That my work, my character or gifts might not be the focus.

I am a jar of clay. A cracked clay pot. So let the treasure of grace and the wonder of Christ be more clearly seen.

Q: How might God use your specific weaknesses and frustrations to reveal his power today?

If you’d like further encouragement to be open about your weaknesses, check out Michael Hyatt’s excellent piece, published yesterday: ‘Tell Your Story, The Good and The Bad’

Offended?

Read Ezekiel 34 (again)

The audacious message of grace is Jesus has offensive undercurrents. Not that God is offensive, but more that we might find his grace offensive.Think about it: Paul reminds us that the message of the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness to many (1 Cor 1:23). That puts it mildly. It was so offensive to Jews in his day that several times they sought to kill Paul. Stephen was put to death because the Gospel tripped the religious leaders up (Acts 7). Other NT church leaders were also put to death. Jesus himself dies on a torturous cross.

Why does the message of Jesus provoke such strong reactions? Maybe it’s because God himself becomes the shepherd, and take on a position of weakness and powerlessness. It does not sit right with our human categories of power, authority and leadership. But that is what God does. Jesus, true God, made himself nothing (Phil 2:7). On the cross, Jesus takes into himself the sin, guilt and punishment of those who hate him. As he does, we observe a heinous transfer where Jesus becomes becomes our sin. And why? So that you and I might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

The offence, then, is how Jesus – God’s perfect Son – had to become our sin in order to set us free. The other angle is this: we could not, can not, and never will be able to bring ourselves to God, and find his life, without Jesus. Jesus is our only hope, because all we have to offer, even our very best, is stained with the fall’s ugly pollution.

I am broken and humbled by this Jesus, who just keeps loving me, and others, and he does not stop. This love is the measure of my own. And God’s own commitment to rescue and redeem through his servant hearted, sacrificial act in Jesus, is the measure of my own commitment to mission.

Q: What does this audacious grace of Jesus say to your inability and failing? How does it make a difference to what lies before you today?

The Audacity of Grace

Read Ezekiel 34:11-16

I am struck by the contrast between the abusive shepherds of Israel and the Lord, who is the good shepherd. A context of the shepherd’s self interest and abuse we are drawn to the breathtaking faithfulness of the Sovereign Lord. He knows all, and decides to do all to change this ugly pastoral picture into a one of peace, tranquility, protection and blessing.

More amazing is that God does this despite the terrible situation before him. He could have sold the farm, written off the loss, and done one huge cull. His lavish grace draws him to do something else: he took on the shepherds job himself and got to work changing the situation.

What he promises here: to search to restore, to care for, to rescue, to bring to pasture, he has done in Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10), and Jesus continues this work through his church (Matt 28:16-20; John 21:15-19).

When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment

God takes our failing and rebellion upon himself. God steps in and brings restoration and hope to our brokenness. This is the audacity of grace. And we have to learn from his undying commitment to his own saving purpose. When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment. Jesus’ death and rising is all the proof we need.

Q: What do these verses say about your own style of leadership, or about the challenges faced by your own church?