There is no peace in thinking that you can control life to avoid trouble and sorry. There is no peace in trying to figure out why God does or doesn’t do particular things. Although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

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Trust Beyond Understanding. Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; Mark 1:29-39

Whenever I preach on the Lectionary, I read all of the passages, and pray, and listen to see if the Holy Spirit is bringing up something in one or more of the readings. It’s a slightly different thing than preaching through a book of the Bible. Anyway, I trust that this time, the Spirit has been speaking, and has also been making me able to hear what he is saying.

Some of you may know all about the Church Year, and some may not. The lectionary readings are organized around the themes of the church year. Presently, we are in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany is all about God revealing himself to human beings. It is about the Lord illuminating His Truth and His personality to all the people of the world. So there are themes of wisdom and understanding; themes about the mission of taking the gospel into all the world. But this week, which is technically the last week of Epiphany, the Holy Spirit seems to be saying something slightly different: that although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

I strongly encourage you to read all of the scripture passages I have listed above. Please take time to do that now.

I want to begin with the gospel reading for this week from Mark, which is familiar to many people. Jesus came to Peter’s house, and found his mother-in-law sick. Jesus healed her. Word spread rapidly, and then from all over the town, people brought sick people for Jesus to heal. He worked at it all evening. The next morning he got up early, and left, and the disciples found him in a lonely place praying. So far, all that is good and familiar. Jesus heals the sick. Right on! Jesus got up early, and went out by himself to pray. A generation of Christians insisted that this means we should have our quiet times in the mornings. But none of that is what this passage is about, in context. Listen to how it goes down:

36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mark 1:36-38, ESV2011)

I think we often miss how shocking this incident was for the disciples. Here he was, in their home-town, healing their friends and neighbors. Mark says he healed “many” (Greek: “pollous”)  but he doesn’t use the word “all” (Greek: “panta”). In other words, he wasn’t done healing people. But the next day, instead of getting up, having breakfast, and resuming the healing ministry, he slipped away before dawn, to get away from everyone. When the disciples found him, he wouldn’t go back there with them. The impression you get from reading the Greek is this: “I’ve come to preach in many places, and that is why I came away from there.” What is implied is also this: “I haven’t come mainly to heal, or make life easier for people. I’ve come to tell them about something more important than that.”

But what could be more important than physical healing? I mean, if we don’t have physical health, how can we serve God? Jesus took the same strange attitude about feeding people, also. After he fed the five thousand, they were ready to make him king. But he hid himself from them, and later told them, basically, “There’s something far more important here than food,” (John 6:26-35). Though Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry as he went along, that wasn’t the reason he came. His primary mission was something different, and that perplexed many people.

The truth is, sometimes God behaves in ways that we ourselves don’t understand. Perhaps it seems like Jesus turns away, and moves on to another place, just as you needed him. It must have seemed that way to the people in Capernaum. Maybe you need healing, but he doesn’t give it. Maybe you need financial help, and none seems to come. Maybe you have simply asked him to show you some kind of a sign, just to let you know that he sees you, but if he sent it, you certainly missed it. Maybe you are reading the scripture, and you find some passage you just can’t wrap your head around, and you can’t make sense of it even after you pray and ask for insight.

Let me make myself clear. I absolutely know (not believe, but know) that God answers prayer. I know that many, many times if you pray for help, you will find it, just as you ask for it. I know that there are many wonderful promises in God’s word, and many people fail to take hold of them by faith, and so they miss out on great things.

I could tell you story after story of how God showed up when his people prayed. But there is a kind of shallowness to a relationship when it is all about what one person does for the other. We scorn someone who “uses” another for their money. We find it contemptible if someone is in a relationship  only in order to get something from the other person. And properly speaking, God doesn’t exist to help us: rather, we exist to bring glory to him. It’s easy to start to love God’s blessings more than God himself. It’s easy to become arrogant about your faith, and cold and hurtful to those who struggle.

Ultimately, God wants to take us beyond the place where we need his blessings in order to feel good about Him. This is what the Spirit is saying today through the  reading from Isaiah:

25 “Who will you compare Me to,

or who is My equal? ” asks the Holy One.

 26 Look up and see:

who created these?

He brings out the starry host by number;

He calls all of them by name.

Because of His great power and strength,

not one of them is missing.

 27 Jacob, why do you say,

and Israel, why do you assert:

“My way is hidden from the LORD,

and my claim is ignored by my God”?

 28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

* Yahweh is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the whole earth.

He never grows faint or weary;

there is no limit to His understanding. (Isaiah 40:25-28)

These texts today tell us that God can do whatever he wants. We can’t use the Bible as some sort of legal document, and say, “God you must heal in every situation. God you must provide.” I know this is really difficult. I know it might challenge, or even offend some of you. But I encourage you to look beyond a shallow reading of scripture, and beware of arrogance. Job’s friends thought they had it figured out, and they had a very hard time with Job, who challenged there simple view of God. When they saw him suffering, they decided it must be because he wasn’t trusting the Lord, or praying in the right way, or… something. Because they were afraid. But Job noted that they saw what they did not understand, and it frightened them. God agreed with Job, and rebuked his friends for thinking that they could control Him or understand him.

For you have now become nothing;
you see my calamity and are afraid. (Job 6:21)

Job understood better than his friends. He knew that God is always in control.

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)

Somewhere along the line, our Christian culture has decided that God needs our help defending or explaining himself. We hurry to say things like: “God didn’t want this to happen.” But that is a tremendously unsettling idea. Are things happening to you that God didn’t want? Then why? Is he unable to protect us, or unable to help us?

I know all about the consequences of original sin, as well as our own personal sins. And it is true that some people are in a fix because they have made poor choices; because they haven’t listened to God. But some people have followed the Lord faithfully, and they are still in a fix. It isn’t their own doing. And even if the problem is the result of being in a fallen world (like cancer), or someone else’s sin (like a drunk driver) are we going to say that God couldn’t stop it? Is he really that weak?

There is another way. I think it is the Biblical way. We are not called to defend God’s actions, or even explain them. He does not need to justify himself to human beings. We are finite, and God is infinite. Trying to understand him is like trying to empty a garden hose into a tablespoon. The tablespoon holds almost nothing, and there is no end to the water coming out of the hose.

The texts tell us that we don’t need to explain or justify God’s actions. We cannot understand God. But what we do need to do is trust him. Our Isaiah text puts it like this:

30 Youths may faint and grow weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

 31 but those who trust in the LORD

will renew their strength;

they will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary;

they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

This doesn’t mean everything will go the way we want it to. It means that our strength and hope are found only in trusting God. The Psalmist agrees:

The Lord values those who fear Him, those who put their hope in His faithful love. (Psalm 147:11)

The great English preacher, Charles Spurgeon suffered greatly during his life. He battled very serious and dark depression. He had a kidney disease, as well as gout, and both were so intensely painful, that they often laid him up for weeks at a time. He was frequently harshly criticized, and even slandered, by others. But Spurgeon held to an unwavering belief that God was sovereign in all things, even the things that were difficult for him. He trusted that God was at work, even in his difficulties, and it made all the difference. He wrote:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity” (John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity).

David Brainerd, that missionary who has inspired many generations of missionaries, wrote this:

In this world I expect tribulation; and it does not now, as formerly, appear strange to me; I don’t in such seasons of difficulty flatter myself that it will be better hereafter; but rather think how much worse it might be; how much greater trials others of God’s children have endured; and how much greater are yet perhaps reserved for me. Blessed be God that he makes the comfort to me, under my sharpest trials; and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror or melancholy; but they are attended frequently with great joy”

We will not always understand God. We cannot understand how some terrible thing could be part of his plan for us. We don’t know how he can make good out of evil. The only way to truly find peace about these things is to trust Him. Trust that he sees something that you cannot. Trust that even when it seems contrary to his very nature, he is so far beyond us that it can, and does, work for your good (Romans 8:28).

Kari and I often read from a devotional called “Streams in the desert.” While I was preparing this message this week, one of the readings went like this:

My child, I have a message for you today. Let me whisper it in your ear so any storm clouds that may arise will shine with glory, and the rough places you may have to walk will be made smooth. It is only four words, but let them sink into your inner being, and use them as a pillow to rest your weary head. “This is my doing.”

Have you ever realized that whatever concerns you concerns Me too? “For whoever touches you touches the apple of [my] eye” (Zech. 2:8). “You are precious and honored in my sight” (Isa. 43:4). Therefore it is My special delight to teach you.

I want you to learn when temptations attack you, and the enemy comes in “like a pent up flood” (Isa. 59:19)., that “this is my doing” and that your weakness needs My strength, and your safety lies in letting Me fight for you.

Are you in difficult circumstances, surrounded by people who do not understand you, never ask your opinion, and always push you aside? “This is my doing.” I am the God of circumstances. You did not come to this place by accident — you are exactly where I meant for you to be.

Have you not asked Me to make you humble? Then see that I have placed you in the perfect school where this lesson is taught. Your circumstances and the people around you are only being used to accomplish My will.

Are you having problems with money, finding it hard to make ends meet? “This is my doing,” for I am the One who keeps your finances, and I want you to learn to depend upon Me. My supply is limitless and I “will meet your needs” (Phil. 4:19). I want you to prove My promises so no one may say, “You did not trust in the Lord your God” (Deut. 1:32).

Are you experiencing a time of sorrow? “This is my doing.” I am “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isa. 53:3). I have allowed your earthly comforters to fail you, so that by turning to Me you may receive “eternal encouragement and good hope” (2 Thess. 2:16). Have you longed to do some great work for Me but instead have been set aside on a bed of sickness and pain? “This is my doing.” You were so busy I could not get your attention, and I wanted to teach you some of My deepest truths. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In fact, some of My greatest workers are those physically unable to serve, but who have learned to wield the powerful weapon of prayer.

Today I place a cup of holy oil in your hands. Use it freely, My child. Anoint with it every new circumstance, every word that hurts you, every interruption that makes you impatient, and every weakness you have. The pain will leave as you learn to see Me in all things.
–Laura A. Barter Snow


Rephaim Canyon 2

David rarely viewed his life as a story with himself as the Hero. The story of his life was consistently about God, not David. This enabled him to face outward troubles with inner conviction and peace.


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2 Samuel #5 . 2 Samuel 5:12-25; 1 Chronicles 11:15-19; 1 Chronicles 14:1-17

I want to revisit something we skipped over rather quickly last time. 2 Samuel 5:12 says this:

“Then David knew that the Lord had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (italics added for emphasis)

I think this is a key to most of this chapter, and actually, to the entire life of David. David did not consider his monarchy to be his doing, or his kingdom. David did not consider his life to be about himself. The Lord was the main character in the story of the David’s life. David wasn’t king for fifteen years because God didn’t want him to be king yet. When he finally became king, it was because God wanted him to be king. The Lord did it, for the Lord’s own glory and purposes. It wasn’t about David. It was about God.

The incidents that follow this verse confirm that David maintained this attitude, especially about his kingdom.

5:17-25 appears to describe the same event as 1 Chronicles 11:15-20, and also 1 Chronicles 14:1-17. What happened is this. When Saul was king of Israel, David was his enemy. For the Philistines, that meant that Israel was divided, and less of a threat. But now David alone is king over a united Israel. The Philistines rightly perceive this as a threat to them, so they immediately go looking for David, to bring him to battle and kill him if possible.

The Philistines invaded by coming up a valley that led from their lands by the coast, up into the highlands that were controlled by the Israelis. They did this once before, early in the reign of Saul. The valley the Philistines used against David is called “Rephaim.” There is no place with that name any more, but scholars feel pretty sure that the lower end of the valley comes out on the plains by modern-day Beit Shemesh – or, as it is called in Samuel, Beth Shemesh. There are two main branches to this valley, one that comes out to the north of Ancient Jerusalem, and one that leads to a point to the south of Jerusalem, just north of Bethlehem. My personal opinion from reading the text is that Philistines were in between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In fact, 1 Chronicles 11 says that when they invaded up the valley of Rephaim, they took over Bethlehem and kept a garrison of soldiers there.

Some scholars feel that all this happened was before David captured Jerusalem, but it isn’t clear. One reason to think it was before the capture of Jerusalem is that Jerusalem was such a fortress, David didn’t need to go to a different stronghold. However, David, being the great tactician he was, may have decided he didn’t want his troops trapped in the city where he could not effectively do battle, and so he took them down to the south of the Philistine advance. There is no way to know for sure.

In any case, it appears that David took his army back to one of his old haunts – the Cave of Adullam, where he had previously hidden from both Saul and the Philistines (1 Samuel 22). Let’s pause here and consider a few things.

After probably fifteen years of running, hiding, eking out existence and barely surviving, David became king of Judah. After seven years as king of half of all he surveyed, he finally received the fulfillment of the Lord’s call on his life. Finally, he became king of all Israel.

The confetti had hardly settled to the ground before he was invaded. In short order indeed, David was right back to hiding in caves. Maybe an economic analogy would help us understand how this could have affected David. Think of a person who spent half her life in poverty, working steadily at a plan to build wealth, but seeing few results. None of the breaks ever seemed to come her way. After years, she finally reached the upper middle class. At last, seven years after that, she made her first million. Three weeks later she was flat broke again.

It had to be an awful feeling for David to find himself back in the caves where he hid from his enemies fifteen years or more before. If he was like me, he would have spent a lot of time whining to God about how he had done everything that was asked for him, and why couldn’t he ever catch a break? If he were like me, he would explained to the Lord that he had already been here and already learned this lesson, and what was the freaking point of this kind of hardship anyway? But David was not like me. He was like I want to become. He was like the person the Holy Spirit was showing the world through him – the true Messiah.

So when David went to the cave, he continued to trust the Lord. He asked God a simple question: What do you want to do here? What are you after in this situation? Shall I go and fight these guys or not?

By the way, there’s a cool story about something that happened while David was in the cave during the invasion. There is no doubt that he did experience distress – he was a human being, after all. The enemy were camped in his own home-town (Bethlehem, in case you have forgotten). It was a hot and dry day, and David said (this was as close as he got to complaining) “I wish I could get a drink from the well at Bethlehem.” I think he is expressing that he is hot and thirsty. I think he is also expressing sorrow that Bethlehem – his own town – is an enemy camp. I think he’s saying, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, right now, if we could just walk up to that beautiful cold well in Bethlehem and have a drink? Wouldn’t it be great if there were no invasion at all?”

David was a fearsome warrior, and he led a bunch of other very powerful warriors. Three of the mightiest took David at his word, and broke through the Philistine lines and brought David a drink from the well at Bethlehem. David’s response is interesting:

They brought it back to David, but he refused to drink it. Instead, he poured it out to the LORD. 19 David said, “I would never do such a thing in the presence of God! How can I drink the blood of these men who risked their lives? ” For they brought it at the risk of their lives. So he would not drink it. Such were the exploits of the three warriors. (1 Chronicles 11:18-19)

When I first read this, I thought, “I’d be angry if I were one of those three warriors.” But actually, I think what David was saying was this: “I am not worthy of such a costly drink. I can’t claim it. Only the Lord is worthy of that kind of effort and self-sacrifice.” He was actually honoring the men more by pouring it out than by drinking it. He “poured it out to the Lord.” There was a actually a type of offering called a drink offering, where a drink (usually wine) was poured into the ground. The idea was to say, “this is God’s, not mine, and I pour it out to show that everything I drink ultimately comes from God.” So David did not consider himself worthy of that kind of sacrifice from his men, and he directed their attention to the Lord. Life wasn’t about him, it was about God. God was the one who gave them the strength and flat-out guts to do this amazing deed. He was the one who was to be honored, not David.

The hero of this entire story is the Lord. David consciously realized this, and made statements to draw the attention to the Lord, not himself. We think of God as loving and gracious and giving and kind – like the best possible parent. And yet, he is also just the best. No NBA superstar has more game than the Holy Spirit. No downhill skier can take a mogul like God. No warrior can be more ferocious and cunning than Jesus. No writer can craft a better story, no historian can plumb more significance from events than the Father. Our Triune God is not just the writer and director of the play – he himself is the star performer, and he is brilliant at all he does.

I don’t know about you, but at my age, I don’t go in for hero-worship. Actually, I never did. Human heroes always suffer from significant flaws, and we get disappointed when we really give them our admiration. But there is one Person who is worthy of our hero-worship. David understood that, and he also understood who it was. It wasn’t him. The amazing feats we see in other people – or the amazing things we can do ourselves – are just tiny reflections of the overwhelming awesomeness of God.

So David hears that God wants to drive the Philistines out of Israel, and David obediently attacks. The Philistines were defeated, and David named the spot, “The Lord Breaks Out” (that’s what “baal-perazim” means). Not “I have gotten victory.” Not even, “God helped me get a victory,” or even yet, “God got victory – for me.” No – it was God’s victory for God’s purposes and God’s glory. David and his men got to be the fierce warriors that they were created to be – but it was all about the Lord and for the Lord.

The Philistines made a second try. I love the fact that David did not assume that he should do the same thing again, just because it was the same situation. Instead, once more, he asked God what he wanted to do. The Lord did want him to fight again, but he gave David a specific battle plan, along with the promise that God would be marching out in front of him, doing the real work of winning the battle.

So what do we take away from all this? The first thing I need to get straight is this business that my life is here for God’s plan, God’s purposes and his glory. None of what I am supposed to do is about me. Now God is amazing and gracious, and so even while he makes use of our lives for his own purposes, he blesses us in the midst of that. David got to be the king and lead like he was made to lead; he got to fight like the warrior he was created to be. I get to study the bible and think and use my brain and then share it with people who are willing to sit and listen to me. I get to sit here and tap on my keyboard and express the thoughts that the Lord gives me to express. I love it – I really do. It isn’t my message, and it isn’t about me, but I get blessed when I let God do his thing with my life. You will get blessed when you let him do his thing with your life – which is almost certainly going to look different from everybody else, because God has a unique purpose for each one of us. I don’t necessarily mean financially blessed – we Americans, especially think that’s the main kind of blessing (it’s not). But you will experience the grace and favor of God if you let him be the hero of your life’s story. You’ll appreciate the story he writes through you.

Second, I need to remember that one kind of hero-worship IS acceptable. I need to pay more attention to how skilled, talented, smart, funny, tender, fierce and truly excellent God is. He deserves my worship and admiration. He is the best – at everything.

Third, when life takes a turn for the worse – as it did for David, many times in his life – I need to remember that this is all in God’s hands. If he wants to hide this great leader of men, this fearsome warrior, in a cave, that’s his business – David is his man. If he wants to allow hardship in my life, I will certainly pray for it to be cut short, and I will certainly believe that he will bring better times too. But I will also trust in the meantime that he knows what he is doing and I am ALWAYS in his hands.

Finally, I want to take this away from the text: God is the one who fights the battles I have to be involved in. There are some battles we don’t have to fight. Sometimes we go to war without asking God, and so we end up fighting for ourselves. But David went to war only when God directed him. And when he did that, it was God who fought his battles for him. So if you are in a battle that you have to be in, one that you are supposed to fight, remember, it is God who really achieves the victory. All we need to do is show up and let him use us. I take great comfort in that.

What is the Lord saying to you today?