|Great Themes of the Bible (#9 - Trusting in God)
"[Yahweh] fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them."
Don't you love all those great Bible stories about the heroes and heroines of faith? They are the stories most of us were taught as children about human faith in divine faithfulness. We learned the stories of Noah and Abraham, Ruth and Esther. And we were told that the same God who honored and vindicated their trust in him would be with us in our times of crisis, if we would trust him too.
The unnamed writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews must have had similar feelings about his background in the Torah and synagogue. So Hebrews 11 is a veritable litany of heroes of faith. Interestingly, he cites not only the triumphant stories of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab but the accounts of people who appear to have been discredited and triumphed over in their circumstances. For example, he begins his list with Abel, the murdered son of Adam and Eve who provoked Cain's bloodthirsty anger by offering the Lord an acceptable sacrifice. "And by faith he still speaks," he writes, "even though he is dead" (Heb. 11:4).
Perhaps this reminds us that one's trust in God does not have to be vindicated with an immediate deliverance, triumph, or healing in order to be justified. As Hebrews 11 moves to a close, the writer resorts to a common preacher's device (i.e., "I'm running out of time here, so I'll just summarize!") and begins compressing stories. He lists the names of Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and "the prophets" and then leaves nameless several saints who "conquered kingdoms" and "received back their dead, raised to life again." He adds: "Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground" (Heb. 11:35b-38).
That's not the outcome I want to my faith! I want to be vindicated immediately. I want to get well now. I want my prayers answered positively in the short term. Are you really that different? Be honest now! But the correctness of trusting God isn't always conspicuous in the immediate context. Think about the experience of Jesus.
Life's "Mixed Bag"
Life on Planet Earth is a "mixed bag" of triumphs and tragedies, victories and reversals. What did ABC Sports used to say about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat"? Why that could have been the title of a series on The History of the Human Race.
We prayed for Nick Walker, and this young man seems to be beating his cancer. But many of us prayed for Carol Lee after her terrible horse-riding accident, and she still died. If faith and prayer were a formula for guaranteed outcomes of the sort we want, everyone would be a prayerful Christian for the simple reason that we are all selfish. The practical challenge to a child is to trust his mother when he doesn't understand why she's letting a nurse stick him with that long needle. The practical challenge to the children of God comes when we don't understand why he permits certain things to happen in this fallen world.
Se we hear this challenge: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Prov. 3:5). We read Job's words in the midst of his terrible illness and even greater confusion about its true source: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job 13:15, NKJV). And in one of the most impressive case studies in all the Bible you hear the bold faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when the king of Babylon is threatening them with annihilation. "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king," they said. "But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Dan. 3:17- 18). Now that's faith in and faithfulness to the Lord!
Life's mixed bag has good days and bad ones. Optimistic beginnings trail off into absolute disaster, and faltering starts come to glorious ends. Good people sometimes suffer terrible injustices, and villains get by with murder. When someone who has declared his or her trust in the Lord seems to be getting a "bad deal," the great temptation is to sell out to the other side. And that is where faith is tested and approved.
Paul Azinger, after battling back from cancer to resume playing on the PGA tour, said there are two ways to react to something like he had gone through. "You can say, Why me, God? Why me?'" he told a reporter. "Or you can do an about-face and run to God and cling to him for your security and your hope. That's what I did."
Lately, for example, we have been praying in our assemblies, in our small groups, and in our private prayers for Mark Burress. With huge bone-marrow testing drives here and in Dallas, with the search for a potential donor extending into public and private data banks, the news has continued to be discouraging. Some of us may have backed off the intensity and frequency of our prayers for this young man's recovery from leukemia. Then a phone call came Friday afternoon that Mark's "perfect match" has been found! The potential donor is a female outside the United States, and there are still permissions to be reaffirmed, more tests to be run, and more anxieties to be faced. Even with the best outcomes to all these conditions, his transplant isn't likely to happen for six to eight weeks yet. It has been a mixed bag so far, and we aren't out of the woods yet. But this should be renewed incentive for you to continue knocking on heaven's door for Mark.
The Divine Invitation
God invites us to trust him on the good days and the bad ones, when we are enjoying every moment of life or when we are discouraged to the point of depression. His promise is that he will never abandon us, that our faith will never be fruitless, that he will work everything to the long-term good of those who trust him. But trusting in God against the appearances of the moment is so hard!
The challenge, you will remember from Proverbs 3:5 is this: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding." But we tend to panic in a crisis and fall back on our own ingenuity and devices.
In the eighth century before Christ, Isaiah was Yahweh's prophet to a declining Israel in a time of Assyrian expansion into the region of Canaan. Instead of trusting the Lord in this crisis time, Israel's kings made unholy alliances with Assyria a decision of political convenience that was condemned forthrightly by Isaiah (cf. 7:1ff). It was for this sin among others that Israel was later brought into captivity by Babylon. In the midst of these machinations, listen to Isaiah's prophetic message: "This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it'" (30:15). What a paradigm for human faithlessness before an utterly trustworthy God!
Hear these words from another Old Testament prophet from several decades after Isaiah's time:
This is what the LORD says:
"Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who depends on flesh for his strength
and whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He will be like a bush in the wastelands;
he will not see prosperity when it comes.
He will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit" (Jer. 17:5-8).
Dwight L. Moody said it this way: "Trust in yourself, and you are doomed to disappointment; trust in your friends, and they will die and leave you; trust in money, and you may have it taken from you; trust in reputation, and some slanderous tongue may blast it; but trust in God, and you are never to be confounded in time or eternity."
In the short term, evil often has the upper hand. In the short term, injustice may prevail. In the short term, there may be poverty or suffering. In the short term, you may lose everything and everybody you deemed important to your life. In the long term, however, evil cannot win and every injustice will be overthrown; in the long term, those who have put their trust in the Lord will share in his glory, wealth, and life. All the darkness of evil will give way to the brilliant light of the Lord!
Our primary text for this week is from a psalm that Walter Brueggemann calls "a representative statement of Israel's joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator." From beginning to end, it touts the theme that Yahweh is the Great King who governs the universe and whose faithfulness to his people can be relied upon.
The psalm is an acrostic poem in which each successive line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. We lose that feature, of course, in English translation. But the point of it remains obvious enough. The Lord God of Israel has created this world and arranged everything about its function so that nothing is beyond his ability to bring to the end he has announced in advance. The rule of the Great King of the Universe is well-arranged and its holy outcomes assured, from A-to-Z.
After the expected praise to God's mighty acts and gracious deeds in verses 1-13a,
verses 13b-20a make a shift that surprises us and provides the main clue for the psalm. In a bold evangelical move the psalm asserts that Yahweh's great power is directed especially toward the weak and the needy. There is no further reflection on God's regal person, but only on God's self-giving attentiveness to God's creatures, the ones who have no claim but depend solely on God's inclination.
Psalm 145 affirms what everyone would like to know, but the circumstances of life often take away such confidence in God. It can only be known by faith and not by sight in those unsettling times (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7).
The LORD is faithful to all his promises
and loving toward all he has made.
The LORD upholds all those who fall
and lifts up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
The LORD is righteous in all his ways
and loving toward all he has made.
The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them.
The LORD watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.
The Creator God of the Universe has carefully positioned himself to break our fall into oblivion, to catch us when we feel we are tumbling head over heels into the abyss.
Shortly before his death, Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled Sabbatical Journeys. In it he tells about some people he knew who were trapeze artists, the Flying Roudellas. They explained to Nouwen that there is a special relationship between "flyer" and "catcher" on the trapeze. The flyer is the one who lets go, and the catcher is the one who snatches him from free fall.
As the flyer swings high above the crowd and ground below, that fateful instant comes when he must let go. He must release his grasp on the device that is bearing his full weight and arc out into the air. If it is exhilarating, it must also be terrifying! Then his job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to find him, pluck him from the air, and bring him to safety.
One of the Flying Roudellas told Nouwen: "The flyer must never try to catch the catcher." He must wait in absolute trust. It is the catcher's job to find, grab, and haul him in, and his task in that nerve-wracking instant is to wait and trust.
You and I are "flyers" in the circus called life. God is the "catcher." Our job is to wait for him in absolute trust, to know that it is his responsibility to watch us and keep us from falling and to present us before his presence in triumph. God's never missed anyone yet who put his trust in him and waited for him to keep his promises!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen (Jude 24-25).
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), p. 28.
Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, p. 30.
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