And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7 ESV)

There is no old wineskin that the new wine of the Gospel does not threaten.  It bubbles in the boardroom of business, the bedroom of common life, and the back-room of politics. Jesus had something to say about all of it.  But the running conflict of his earthly ministry was with religious authority.  The Pharisees’ dogged determination to bring Jesus to heel followed him all the way to the cross.  Abused religious authority does the same thing today.

Matthew 12:7 was the second instance of Jesus’ invocation of Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”  The first time was at Matthew’s house and authority was offended by the presence of those styled ‘sinners.’  Jesus told them to go and learn what Hosea 6:6 means.

But they did not go and learn.  Perhaps it was the same men from Matthew’s house who followed Jesus and company through the grain fields that Sabbath.  Or perhaps they were fresh troops from Jerusalem.  Either way, they represented the same kingdom, a kingdom that was increasingly threatened by a power they could not contain.  And now his disciples were working on the Sabbath, plucking the heads of grain.  Keeping up with Jesus had given them the munchies.  It will do the same for you if you try to keep up with him.  Apparently, he approves of munchies on the Sabbath if the hunger is created by chasing after God.

Boardroom, bedroom, back-room, or vestibule, the issue is always control.  And no one feels more out of control than those who think they have God in a box, only to find that he is loose in the world and working all manner of wonders while they get no credit.  It is in fact the principle cause of the death of a local church.  The fishers of men morph into the guardians of the gate.  The lights of the world pull the bushel basket of control down over their own heads.

But Jesus is who he is all the time.  Mercy means relief.  He wants his people to bring relief because he has relieved his people.  Mercy was upright and walking through a grain field that day and his bumbling disciples were trying hard to keep up with him.  He was merciful to call them.  He was merciful to forgive them.  What surprise is it, then, that he was merciful to feed them?

O broken sinner, do not lose heart!  To be sure, there is enough religion in the world to kill you.  But the Savior of the world has not changed.  Never a sinner has come to him in honest confession who went away empty.  Relief!  Sweet relief!

O what a Savior he is!

Sacred Memory

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

In Just a Few Minutes

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. (Revelation 1:1 ESV)

I was walking though a medical facility and observed a waiting room full of people, a patient standing at the admissions window, and a medical staff person handing the patient some papers.  The staff person said, “Have a seat over there and they will be with you in just a few minutes.”

Obviously, ‘just a few minutes’ means different things in different contexts.  Imagine the difference in hearing “the doctor will be with you in just a few minutes” and hearing “that bomb will detonate in just a few minutes.”  In the first case, you probably don’t believe it, you may even be disgruntled by it, but you will likely endure it and wait.  In the second case, you will not bother to examine the truth of it, you will be grateful for having heard it, and you most certainly will not wait.  All words need a context.

So, when John reports to the churches of Asia Minor that the things he has seen in this book of visions will ‘soon’ take place, how are we to understand it?  The answer is ‘in its context.’ What was happening to the churches of Asia Minor was the spiritual equivalent of bombs going off.  They were harassed.  Their things were being taken from them.  Some were in prison or soon would be.  They were mocked.  They were tempted to give up and to give in.

What they could not see, harassed as they were, was that the political entity that had become the fountain of this hellish trouble was itself already crumbling from within.  Rome could not see it.  Pride is so blinding.  How often the rosy glow of health turns out to be the fire of a fever!  Rome’s self-indulgence was eating away at the pillars that once made her strong.  Soon.  Soon.  Another spiritual explosion was on the horizon, this one from the hand of God, and the current topside would soon be the downside.  The presumed ‘right side of history’ would be revealed as the wrong side of eternity.

This is what makes the book of Revelation so enduring.  It is always relevant.  Surely it does speak of events beyond us.  It speaks magnificently of the destiny of the saints.  But it also speaks in every age and in every nation of that which must soon take place.  Wherever the people of God find themselves in a Revelation kind of experience, they are assured that there is Revelation kind of God who has not lost sight of them.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

The Power of Presence

Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there– is it not a little one?– and my life will be saved!”  He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.”  (Genesis 19:19-21 ESV)

The scene was just outside the city of Sodom.  A hesitant Lot had been forcefully removed from certain destruction.  True to both human nature and human need, Lot did not settle for grace, but asked for grace upon grace.  He thought he could not make it to the mountains.  A little reflection on what God had already done for him might have convinced him otherwise. But haste and clear thinking do not always make good companions.

Called by some ‘Bela,’ there was a little town on which Lot set his hope of escape.  Lot described it as an insignificant place.  Thereafter, its name was Zoar or, if you will, Insignificance.  The residents of Zoar probably thought it was a highly significant place.  But if they ever understood how the name came to be and how they were spared the fate of not only Sodom and Gomorrah but all of the cities of the plain, they would have loved the name “Insignificance.”

Did they?  Do you suppose that the citizens of Zoar ever knew why they were spared what fell upon every city around them?  Did they ever discern that the presence of Lot, and back of that the prayers of Abraham, and back of that the mercy of God himself, had been a shield around them on such a terrible day?

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. (Genesis 19:30 ESV)  If they had understood, it seems that Lot would have been an honored man.  Lot was not honored but scared.  The man whose presence had made all the difference was effectually driven from town.

The world little knows the war that is being waged on its behalf by intercessors like Abraham.  It does not perceive the value of the presence of a believing community.  But the world’s ignorance does not diminish the power and effect of even a single praying believer in her midst.  Wherever you are, you may be that kind of difference today.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)

What a wonderful Savior he is!

No Regrets

He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. And he departed with no one’s regret. They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings. (2 Chronicles 21:20 ESV)

No one’s regret?  No one.  King Jehoram was his name, but who cared?  They wouldn’t even bury him with the other dead kings!  It is one thing to slap the face of the living, but when they keep on slapping after you die, well, somebody doesn’t like you.

It would not be right to say that Jehoram had no impact.  You and I are still reading about him and wondering.  What sort of person must he have been that no one, absolutely no one, regretted his passing?  That is impact, only not a good one.

If the world endures, there will be seven billion funerals in the next one hundred years.  I use the word ‘funeral’ loosely.  Some will be piled into mass graves while others are paraded down streets and followed by crowds.  Yet most of the people now living and many of those born in the meantime will leave here and each one will have made an impact for good or ill.

Of those seven billion plus funerals, a few will be deeply regretted by you.  A friend, a hero, a mentor, even a worthy foe will leave and you will feel the loss.  Yet of those seven billion funerals there is only one over which you have any sway.  What people regret or don’t regret at your passing is up to you.

You have no control over your spiritual heritage.  Jehoram had a father who, though a mixed bag of wisdom and folly, left a void his son did not even try to fill.  Hezekiah had a father who was a blight on the nation from beginning to end.  Yet Hezekiah became an outstanding reformer.  You may have no control over your spiritual heritage, but you have much to say about your spiritual legacy.  Live without regret before the Lord and someone will regret your passing.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Believing Is Seeing

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!  (Matthew 6:22-23 ESV)

I have the most amazing Bible software.  It will convert the keyboard from English to Greek or Hebrew, which is to say, it is a lot smarter than me.  I do not even know all that it will do.  But if I take my glasses off, it does not matter what it can do.  The screen becomes a jumble of lines and squiggles.  All that power becomes useless to me because I cannot see clearly.

Jesus’ illustration of healthy eyes and bad eyes is not about eyesight but insight.  Those two verses are sandwiched between two passages about divided loyalties.  In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus challenged his hearers to consider where they were investing themselves.  For treasure is directly connected to heart.  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus warned that it was not possible to continue in the service of two masters.  Somebody or something wins in the end.

Where the ESV translates ‘healthy,’ the KJV translates ‘single.’  We might say ‘no double vision.’  That would fit well the context both before and after the illustration.  Investing in a world that is passing away will at last be revealed as folly.  Attempting to invest in both God and worldly possessions will at last be revealed to be impossible.

It is the ultimate futility to give your all to that which cannot endure.  You will lose your investment.  It is the ultimate tragedy to think you can do both.  You will lose your soul.  Jesus declares it an impossibility that you can succeed at serving God and possessions.  You will finally be the servant of one or the other.

God intends nothing less for the saved than that his glory, from which he had to hide Moses in the cleft of the rock or destroy him, will one day be visible to them.  And not only will it not destroy them, but it will be their life.  Jesus calls us to singleness of vision now for the sake of the glorious vision that is coming.

They tell us that seeing is believing.  Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39 ESV)  The glory and power of God is hidden from unbelief.  It is all lines and squiggles.  Jesus taught that believing is seeing.  Put on the lens of faith and the vision begins to clear.

What a Savior!

The Year the King Died

They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. (Isaiah 5:12 ESV)  In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1 ESV)

Most years are known simply by their numbers. Some are known by the events that filled them. But no year can be remembered by the events forgotten. Perhaps they should be. Sometimes the things forgotten are far more important than the things remembered.

The works of God are easily squeezed out of the minds of forgetful men. So it was in the year that King Uzziah died. That year was remembered for the death of a king. Perhaps it should be remembered for what had been forgotten. Isaiah 5:12 says of the people of God that they did not pay attention to the deeds of the Lord nor did they consider the work of his hands. Of all the things known and remembered that year, the works of God could not be found among them.

Isaiah went into the temple one day and found what Israel forgot. As you read the description of Isaiah’s encounter with the living God, you have to wonder how anyone could forget a God like this! How does the mighty God of glory go unnoticed, while the trivia of the times, the mere asterisks of history, dance like visions of sugarplums in everyone’s head?

Yet that is just the case. In the year that King Uzziah died, in the year a baby was born in a stable, in the year a Jewish carpenter was killed by the Romans, in the year the towers fell, in the year the market crashed, in all the years that have been, and in all the years that will be until he comes, many will squeeze him out. But a few, like Isaiah, will get taken in, taken into a glory that will break your heart, bow your knee, and bend your will.

The most telling evidence of the power and presence of sin is not when a pagan world tries to squeeze God out of history or when an unbelieving world tries vainly to deny him through the delirium of sensual pleasure. Sin’s power is most evident when those who bear his name, those who have seen his glory, those who have worshiped at his feet, forget him while remembering so much that means so little.

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I have no idea what this year or any year will be remembered for. But every student of the Word of God knows exactly what will be forgotten if we do not make it our business to remember. Let us consider the work of his hands. If we do that, the world may never note how we spend our time. But if once, just once, you find yourself taken in by this King of glory, if just once you find your head bowed, your heart broken, your soul filled by this Lord of grace and truth, you will not forget it any more than Isaiah forgot the year that King Uzziah died.  For that was the year he encountered another king and it changed everything.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Swallow Hard

My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  (Psa 84:2-3 ESV)

The battle for the front porch of the parsonage has been intense.  No blood has been shed, but it has been close.

Last year the swallows slipped in unobserved and built nests, that’s right – plural, at the tops of the columns on the porch.  It was not enough that they had the run of the place for free. It was not enough that they regarded the porch floor as their personal bathroom.  But they had the cheek to swoop and dive at every person who approached the front door.  I thought that was a bit much.

This year I engaged.  My first line of battle was to spray those areas with the most foul smelling concoction known to man.  It had a foul price, too.  A gazillion dollars or something like that.  It is supposed to trigger the flight instinct.  It certainly did for me.  The swallows, however, thought it was Chanel No. 5.  It cast a spell over them and drew them in like magnets.

Then an unnamed retired pastor suggested that I stuff the corners with tin foil.  We will call this one the battle of the bulge.  Surely, surely, it was not humanly possible to find a purchase for a nest in that stuff.  Humanly possible?  No.  But these creatures are inhuman. I swallowed hard.

Chicken wire.  You can fix anything with chicken wire.  I fashioned a cone of chicken wire that ran like a cylinder from the post top to the ceiling.  Pure genius, right?  No, poor genius. How they began a nest on the inside of that cylinder I will never know.  How they proposed to get eggs into it is utterly beyond me.

I am at wit’s end.  I have only one recourse left.  I plan on marching around the porch once a day for seven days while reading Psalm 84:2-3.  On the seventh day I will march around it seven times, read the verses seven times, and point out the obvious fact the “courts of the Lord” are next door, across the parking lot, as any creature with a birdbrain should be able to see.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Pro 17:22 ESV)

What a wonderful Savior he is!