In the Office: Prayers on the Way

Of the many things about my church for which I’m thankful, one that ranks near the top is the commitment to prayer that is shared by so many in the congregation. I’ll make no grand claims about the power or efficacy of our praying; that’s in God’s hands. But I will say that folks here are faithful; and when we know about a need, we pray about it.

In the OfficeOf course, as devoted as we are to lifting up the needs of others, I wonder sometimes how thoroughly we embrace the “full range” of prayer as we see it modeled for us in the scriptures. Leaving aside for the time being the question of how passionately we praise God, or offer thanks, or confess our sins (which are “modes” of prayer to which many of us could devote some extra attention); I wonder how eagerly we seek the expansion of God’s work within the hearts and lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, as we read the letters of the New Testament it seems that we find relatively few examples of the apostles praying for “Brother Jim’s broken arm” or “Sister Sally’s illness” (although I have no doubt that they did pray about such things). But we find multiple examples of the apostles praying for God to fill His people with power, with wisdom, and with a deeper understanding of His love (just see, for example, Ephesians 3:14-19).

Today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 13:17-25) offers an excellent example. After offering his readers important truth about the glory of the new covenant, the author closes with this benediction (emphasis added):

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (vs. 20-21)

Now, reading a passage like this makes it seem fairly obvious. But let’s be honest, when was the last time we prayed for our friends to be more thoroughly equipped for the service of God’s kingdom? How often do we pray — not just for “God’s will to be done” in the lives of our friends — but for “God to work in our friends” (and for “God to work in and among us“) so that what is pleasing to Him (think “holiness” and “witness” and “ministry” and “joy”) may blossom and flourish?

I’m confident that just about anybody who’s taking the time to read these words is also taking the time to pray for others. And I do hope that we’re lifting the illnesses and the losses and the anxieties of those friends into the arms of our Faithful Father. But I hope, too, that we’re asking that Father to “expand the embrace of His kingdom” — in their hearts, in their lives, and (through them) in the world.

May His kingdom come and His will be done in us, through us, and around us. Amen.

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In the Office: Despising the Birthright

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 25:19-34) serves up one of those Sunday School stories that I remember learning as a child, but which — to my loss — I haven’t reflected on in a while. Perhaps you remember it, too. We’re introduced the Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. We’re told that Esau is an outdoorsman and the favorite of his father, while Jacob is more of a homebody and the favorite of his mother. And then we come to the part of the story that captures my attention this morning…

Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

So Esau despised his birthright.

In the OfficeOf course, we need to bear in mind that this story is set within a culture where birthright meant everything. The firstborn son was given a position of prominence and leadership in the family, and he inherited a double portion of his father’s estate. And yet, because of a momentary craving, Esau gave that all away. He was destined for abundance, but he despised the birthright.

We, too, are given an incredible birthright. Scripture says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:16-17) Through God’s grace, we’ve been given “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.” (1 Peter 1:4) But how often do we lose sight of that inheritance while we go rushing after things that, at best, will satisfy our momentary cravings. How easily do we despise our birthright?

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul prays for God’s people and asks “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19) May we cherish our birthright today — and live as sons and daughters who are destined for the abundance of our Father.

In the Office: Thirsting for the God of the Victor’s Crown

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

Psalm 42:1-2; 5

As I read these words from today’s Daily Office, I can’t help but think of the situation currently being faced by two sisters in Christ. Both have been valiantly battling cancer during the past year. Both have recently learned that their cancer has spread. Both have decided not to seek any additional aggressive treatment. And their decision — which I deeply admire for the faith that it demonstrates — also invites me to wonder: How will I respond when the time comes for me in which my “thirst for life” begins to be outpaced by my “thirst for God” and the peace that only He can give?

ps42-1In saying that, I certainly don’t want to ignore or minimize the very real burden that these two friends and their families must be carrying as they contemplate such weighty decisions. Like the writer of Psalm 42, I’m sure that they’ve done their share of lamenting: “My tears have been my food day and night” (verse 3). “I say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?'” (verse 9). “My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me” (verse 10). But throughout their cancer battle, I have witnessed the kind of trust in God that has enabled them to place their fight in His hands. And now that the efforts of modern medicine have reached anend, I am privileged to witness the kind of faith in God that enables them to leave their fight in His hands — and to declare through their decisions: “I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God” (verses 5 and 11).

Many years after the psalmist’s thirst for God was quenched, the Apostle Paul would write: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

May God so order our faith and our thirsts that we long for His crown of righteousness more than life — and that we long for Him more than any crown.

 

In the Office: The Promise Awaits

Today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 11:32-12:2) offers these well-known words:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (12:1-2)

Of course, as inspiring and motivating as they are on their own, these words take on an added dimension, I think, if we consider them in the context that precedes them. Having spent all of chapter 11 describing the heroes of faith, the writer has this to say:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us (emphasis added) would they be made perfect. (11:39-40)

Heb12 (1-2)Allow me to “spin” that like this: Our God is planning the greatest celebration that creation has ever known. The A-List of “biblical heroes” will be there — along with all the “personal heroes” who have nurtured your faith, encouraged you, and shown you what it means to be a follower of Christ. Naturally, Jesus will be there; for He is the “Life” of the party. But here’s the thing. The party can’t begin — the promise won’t be complete — until you’re there, too. That’s why we throw off everything that hinders, and that’s why we run the race. That’s why we look to Jesus — longing not only for the day when we will see His face — but yearning for that day when “God’s dwelling place will be among the people; and He will dwell with them…and be their God” (Rev. 21:3)

May God’s Spirit empower you to “run with perseverance” today, as you look forward to the Promise whose fulfillment awaits.

In the Office: Faith’s Long View

Sometimes, I wonder what we think we’re supposed to “get” out of faith. Clearly, we “ask in faith” for many things — for healing and guidance, for peace and security. And God is good! Quite often, we receive the blessings for which we’ve prayed (and so much more), even though we don’t deserve them. But are we prepared to ask in faith for blessings which the world might deem to be curses, but which — in the long run — turn out to be the most important gifts of all?

In today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 11:23-31), we continue to make our way through the “Faith Chapter” in Hebrews, and our attention turns to Moses, who passed up the easy life he could have had in order to embrace a path, which — while difficult — led ultimately to blessing.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (verses 24-26)

In the OfficeI like to think of myself as a person of faith; and to be sure, I do trust God…at least in some ways and at some times. But do I have the kind of faith that enables me to embrace hardship over the short-term because my real desire is focused on what God wants to do in me and in the world over the long term? A faith that refuses to take advantage of any status, position, or privilege that might be available to me so that I can be counted among the least? A faith that chooses mistreatment rather than the pleasures that come from compromise? A faith that regards disgrace for Christ’s sake as more to be desired than any fame that comes my way for achievements of my own?

Many years after Moses was gone, the Apostle Paul would write: “Whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8).

Today, may our short and limited view be enlarged by the longer and grander view of His glory and His purpose. And may we rest securely in the promise that when we live in faith: “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

In the Office: Faith in the Promiser More Than the Promise

Today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 11:13-22) continues my time in the great “Faith Chapter” of the Bible, and it reminds me that several of the sermons and Bible studies with which I’ve been engaged recently are built on they key idea that faith provides the “firm footing” that makes “walking with Christ” possible. Faith allows us to be “anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6) — as one of our mid-week Bible studies has emphasized. And faith makes it possible for us to “get out of the boat” (Matthew 14:28-30) so that we can take risks, overcome obstacles, and deal with failure — as our current sermon series has suggested.

In the OfficeAnd yet, I think it’s fair to observe that in much of our teaching about faith (including, for better or worse, my own) we tend to highlight faith’s power and potential by sharing stories where the promises in which we’re trusting get fulfilled. Because of faith, prayers get answered; relationships get restored; healing comes. And while we can thank God that this is, in fact, the way that some stories end; we should acknowledge that such happy endings aren’t always forthcoming. And very significantly, that doesn’t mean that there was anything “wrong” with the faith of those involved — nor with the promise in which they trusted.

After listing many of the Bible’s faith heroes, the author of Hebrews makes this important statement: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (verse 13). Let’s pay close attention to that. All these heroes were “living by faith;” and yet, they didn’t receive the things promised. In fact, if we keep reading in this chapter, we learn that many heroes not only didn’t receive the promises; they also suffered along the way: “Some faced jeers and flogging…they were put to death by stoning…they were killed by the sword” (Hebrews 11:36-37). How then, are we supposed to hold tightly to faith — even when we become aware that it may not bring the blessings for which we’ve hoped?

The answer, of course, is that we make sure our faith is in the “Promiser” rather than in the promises alone. Admittedly, such faith can be far easier to claim than it is to practice. But ultimately, our hope and trust aren’t placed in the good things we want God to provide (although, in His mercy, God provides many good things). Instead, our hope and trust are placed in God Himself. And as long as we have Him, we have everything we need.

The psalm from which I preached last Sunday put it like this: “You, LORD, are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Ps. 142:5). May we trust deeply in the Promiser today; and may those promises that are fulfilled in us make us yearn all the more for His presence.

In the Office: Best Faith Forward

Today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 11:1-12) comes from what many of us know as the “Faith Chapter” of the Bible, and it contains one of my favorite passages:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Verses 8-10)

In the OfficeAs much as we might prefer it to be otherwise; faith, I think, always has this “unknown” quality to it. God calls — rarely providing a detailed map of where we’re going or how we’re going to get there — and we set off on the journey. We shouldn’t expect the trip to be easy. We are, after all, “strangers in a foreign country,” who are “living in tents” rather than putting down roots and building kingdoms for ourselves. But we keep moving anyway, because we know that somewhere out before us awaits a home of permanence and peace, fashioned by our Faithful Father.

In the early weeks of this new year, my congregation and I have been examining these dynamics in a sermon series that I’ve called “Putting Your Best Faith Forward.” As we’ve discussed, part of the challenge before us is to keep stepping out in trust — even when we know that there may be risks, obstacles and failures ahead.

Where might God be calling us today? And will we have the faith to go — to “put our best faith forward” — because we trust that He is both our destination and our companion on the Way?