December 9, 2012

When God Is Late

By most observations, being a prophet of the Old Testament was no light duty.  They were entrusted by God with helping their people see where they stood in the grand story God was writing.  You would think that being a dedicated servant of the creator of the universe would carry with it a few more obvious perks in this life.  Instead what we find are a bunch of guys with messages nobody wanted to hear which they themselves weren’t terribly interested in sharing and often facing various kinds of persecution for doing so.  Where can I sign up?  It must have been bad enough predicting far off doom for the people even if hope was the more dominant theme.  But I have to think that the real trouble would have been for the prophets who were given messages for their contemporaries.  Having to walk down the street and proclaim that some people are going to face judgment soon is never a terribly welcome prospect even if it is only part of the story.  Today folks who walk up and down the street proclaiming our nation’s soon-coming doom generally aren’t in much danger of facing physical harm, but most of us write them off as mental cases.  I remember a time in college when a doom and gloom evangelist came on campus and started shouting at everyone who passed that if they didn’t all get Jesus they were all going straight to Hell.  Yeah, his reception wasn’t all that warm and fuzzy.  I confess that I was pretty put off and I agreed with most of what he had to say.

Now, while many of the Old Testament prophets had some strong words for their contemporaries, not very many lived to see those words fulfilled.  But there were a few who had that distinct misfortune.  One such prophet was Jeremiah.  Jeremiah never wanted the job in the first place.  When God showed up and said that He had been preparing Jeremiah for this job since before he was even born Jeremiah fired up a litany of excuses to rival Moses.  There are several places throughout his lengthy book where he writes about how miserable he was.  The messages that God gave him to share with his people tore him up.  What more, he was routinely ignored by the people even when he was proven right.  And unfortunately, he lived to see some of the worst of what he had to say come to pass.  I mean, he lived through the complete destruction of Jerusalem.  But, as much doom and gloom as he did preach, it was far from all bad news.  In fact, in one of the most important chapters in the whole book in terms of our understanding the story God was (and is) writing Jeremiah shares this gem: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Talk about the Gospel in a nutshell.  The story of Judah was not going to end with judgment.  It was going to end with hope.  This was incredible news of the first order and yet it came within a matter of months before Jerusalem fell and was completely destroyed by Babylon.  Judea became a wasteland.  Jeremiah had been entrusted with this incredible message of hope and yet, when he died sometime in the 6th century B. C., God had done no such thing as He had promised.  Jeremiah died without ever seeing this new covenant made.  I wonder how many subsequent Israelites who knew of Jeremiah’s words were hopefully confident that they would see them fulfilled in their lifetimes.  Yet generations came and generations went all without seeing the content of their hope realized.  Their lives ended before the story did.  God, it seems, was late with His entrance.

Well, this morning finds us in the second part of our series: Notes on the Right Time.  The big idea here is that all of us are waiting on something to happen, for God to do something, much the same way that the Israelites prior to the arrival of the Christ-child were waiting on the Messiah to come and make things right.  As we got into this conversation last week we started out by wrestling with understanding the idea of the “right time” in the first place.  We found that the right time is defined by God’s action in it.  We were led to this conclusion by Paul’s affirmation that God sent Jesus at the fullness of time.  Given the monumental amount of often seemingly insignificant details God had to manage in order to make sure that something on this scale happened just when it did, He can probably manage the seemingly insignificant details in our own lives as well.  He is the grand storyteller.  When He acts, it’s always at the right time.

The thing is, we don’t always or even often recognize that action until long after the fact.  Obsessing over trying to ferret out whether something is an indication of God’s action or not will prove a fruitless endeavor because we’ll be fixated on something other than mimicking the action of God in our own lives.  This will always lead us off track and increase the likelihood of our missing out on the very object of our search in the first place.  The idea which is to be held before us like a banner is this: God’s time is always the right time.  Now, I know this still leaves some big questions on the table (what could have been God’s timing about Sandy or Katrina or the Southeast Asian Tsunami or 9/11 or any other mammothly tragic event?), and the most straightforward answer to most of these right now is: “I don’t know.”  The tension and uncertainty in this drives us crazy because we like things in life to exist in nice, neat little packages that make for easy understanding.  We like Hollywood stories with clear plots and easily recognizable heroes and villains.  There are two things working against this, though.  First, life is by nature chaotic and impossible for us to predict.  Second, serving a God who is so far beyond our understanding (“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”) is bound to leave some tension with which we must wrestle.  Our part is to seek to understand His character and manage the tension through that lens.  And through the lens of His character, Galatians 4:4 suggested that God’s time is always the right time.  And yet, if you’re at all like me there’s still a question hanging out there in your mind: but what about when God’s late?  I know that’s not being asked through our lens, but it’s still there all the same.  Okay then, how about this: what about what God seems to be late?  How do we handle that?  We do we do?  What do we do when we’ve waited far longer than we feel we should have for a relationship to be reconciled, for a prodigal to return, for a family member to finally embrace the Gospel, for a physical or emotional wound to heal, for the world to get better?

I could tell you, but I’d rather show you.  The answer isn’t a very easy one to swallow.  In order to unpack it, though, I want to walk with you through one of the more famous chapters in the Bible.  It is a chapter which, on the surface seems to have nothing at all to do with the topic at hand.  On the surface, and by reputation, it is all about faith.  What is faith?  What does it look like?  How do we live it out?  These and other similar questions seem to be most clearly in view by any quick read of Hebrews 11’s Hall of Faith.  Indeed they are.  In Hebrews 11 we are told the stories of folks from a long, long, long time ago who were faithful to God in the face of incredible odds.  These are the guys and gals who make us feel badly about ourselves.  They also charge us up to want to do better than we have in the past.  We tend to put these folks up on pedestals.  I mean, come on: look at some of the names here: Enoch (who was so faithful God didn’t make him die), Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on.  Their stories should rightly be encouraging to us.  This is how they were intended to be taken by the author of Hebrews.  But, in being so encouraged, we must not lose sight of the places in the chapter which sometimes go overlooked.  I recently listened to a really good sermon series on this chapter that focused on telling the stories of all the people mentioned here.  It jumped from big story to big story through the chapter.  But, it never really dealt with the words that come in between the stories.  It is these words that I think hold an answer to our question of how we handle God’s apparent tardiness.  If you’ll open your Bibles to Hebrews 11, we’ll take a few minutes and see if we can’t sketch out an answer.

Hebrews 11 begins by defining what faith is.  Follow along with me as I read starting at v. 1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  In other words, faith is acting in confidence now based on a reality which is either already past or yet still future and thus unseen at the current moment.  It is living like you know the end of the story when in fact you are merely a player in it.  More specifically, living by faith in this present world means acting now as if we were already living in the kingdom of God and thus subject to its laws and expectations even though it is not fully present yet.  We act in this manner because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which served to validate His words and the lifestyle He proclaimed as necessary to inhabit this kingdom.  And this is not merely a statement regarding belief.  It goes beyond that to acting on the belief.  It is not enough to simply aver: I believe Jesus is the Son of God who was crucified but on the third day rose again and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  We can only make such an acknowledgement truly with the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing magical about the words.  When the Spirit is present behind them a lifestyle flows from the confession.  This is living in and acting by faith.

The author goes on from here: “For by it [faith] the people of old received their commendation.”  What the author is getting at here is this: in a day before Christ it was this confident action in light of past events and a future unseen reality that garnered the faith-filled men and women in the days before His coming their right-standing before God.  Abraham was justified by faith, Paul said in Romans.  In other words, these folks were acting based on something which they had never seen but which they were somehow assured was coming.  The author goes on to give several examples.  Abel offered a better sacrifice than his brother.  Enoch never had to face death because he lived so consistently out of this place.  Noah built a huge boat a long ways from the ocean in a world that had never experienced rain.  Abraham left everything familiar and walked boldly out into the unknown.  He and his wife Sarah took actions necessary to produce a child even though they were in their nineties.  Abraham later took this child to make a sacrifice out of him, confident that God was going to honor His promise to make a great nation from his and Sarah’s biological descendants.  Moses left the comforts of the Pharaoh’s court in order to be identified with an enslaved people and lead them to freedom.  Joshua attacked the most heavily fortified city in the world by conducting a parade exercise.  Rahab gave up on her own people and joined the other side because she saw victory there.  The list goes on and on.  The demanding question here is this: what propelled these folks?  What drove them to act in ways that went against their own self-preservation instinct?  What led them to endure all manner of persecutions and even executions about which their unfaithful contemporaries never had to worry?  The author answered this question right out of the gate: it was their confident behavior based on a reality they could not see.

What was this reality, though?  Well, v. 26 appears to shed at least a bit of light here.  The author makes this observation: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”  Huh?  Moses lived almost 2,000 years before Christ.  To what reward was he looking and how could he consider the reproach of a man he’d never known a greater reward than the treasures of Egypt?  Could Moses have had a vision of Christ in which he grasped the larger significance of what he was doing?  Humanly speaking, no, there’s no way he could have.  But, I don’t think that’s what the author’s getting at.  Moses did know that God was up to something in His efforts with the people of Israel and God had given him the foresight to recognize that striving even imperfectly (thus enduring the reproach of Christ) to be a part of this action was going to prove a better gamble than receiving the luxurious life to which he was entitled by being a member of the Pharaoh’s household.  What the author here does is to speak knowledge into what would have likely been Moses’ faithful ignorance.  The point, though, is that Moses was acting on behalf of Christ.  It was a vision of Christ and the salvific action of God in His broken world that ultimately drove each of these individuals to pursue the kinds of faithful lifestyles they did even if they could not have spoken to such a vision in what we recognize today to be the proper theological terms.  In other words, even though they may not have been able to fully put words to their actions, hindsight enables us to recognize that their confident, faithful behavior was based on the reality of Christ and His kingdom.  This was their driving force.

Now, to this point, you might perhaps be wondering what all of this has to do with God showing up late.  Allow me to connect the dots.  Consider all the language we’ve been using so far. “It was their vision…”  “Moses was acting…” “Abel offered…”  “Noah built…”  Notice the theme?  It’s all past tense.  We’re talking about, the author of Hebrews is talking about a people who lived, moved, and had their being before Christ.  They were all long dead, buried, and their bones had probably turned to dust before Jesus entered the world.  Look with me at a couple of more verses out of Hebrews 11 starting with v. 13: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised…”  And again in v. 39: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…”  They were promised something by God and they didn’t get it.  God.  Was.  Late.  Think about what the author says here.  These folks had all been promised something.  They had been promised that God was going to act in the world to bring salvation to His people.  In order to receive this promise a certain lifestyle was necessary.  Each of these folks bought into this promise and lived the necessary lifestyle.  And yet to a person they didn’t receive the thing promised.  They waited and they waited and they waited.  While they waited some received glory because of their sacrifices.  For these, the waiting surely wasn’t so bad.  But others…well, listen again starting at v. 36: “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.  They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  Waiting didn’t go so well for these folks.  They waited on God to deliver the salvation of His people and were brutally murdered for it.  They did without their entire lives and died that way.  They lost friends and family and never got them back and never saw God’s salvation for all people.  Just like the prophet Jeremiah, they waited and waited for God’s right time to come and died before they saw it come.

Do you suppose they wrestled with questions like we’re asking?  Why is God late?  How about Habakkuk 1:2-4?  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?  Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.  For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”  You bet they asked the same kinds of questions.  Where is God?  What kinds of questions are you asking?  Where in your life do you feel like God is late?  Do you feel, like Jeremiah, that you have been given hope for God to do something positive, but feel you’ve waited past the point that it matters anymore and He still hasn’t acted?  Knowing that God’s time is always the right time and experiencing God’s action in what we’ve determined to be the right time are two very different things.  This is one of those places where life threatens to make a mess of all our nice, neat theology.  How did these faith heroes do it?  How did they keep walking forward through the desperation of longing?  How did people like Jeremiah who knew what God was going to do but never saw it keep going?  How did people like Abraham and Sarah remain so consistent in their pursuit of the lifestyle of Christ even more than 1,000 years before He could properly demonstrate it?  Well, the great secret is that they didn’t.  They messed up a lot.  They were plagued by doubt.  Their sins make some of us look like pretty petty sinners.  Much like the disciples, they were generally a wild and unruly bunch.  And yet they all had one thing in common: they kept pursuing the vision God had given them of this better life coming through His Messiah.  They knew the story wasn’t over yet even if their part in it was.

Look at v. 13 again with me as we place ourselves at the crux of the matter: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar [this vision we’ve been talking about], and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth [as Peter affirmed for us this past summer].”  Now the big idea.  Keep reading at v. 14: “For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire [notice that’s present tense meaning they still desire meaning they’re not yet dead and gone] a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”  And finally from v. 40: “…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  Okay, there’s a lot going on here, but here’s the heart of the matter: these folks were aiming toward something entirely larger than themselves and the worlds they inhabited.  There was a bigger story being written.  God had something better planned.   Someone else was going to be the beneficiary.  This is what they knew.  They were on track to stand on the shores of a distant land, a land marked by the full, unmitigated presence of the Lord, a heavenly land.  Furthermore, they were not on this journey alone.  They were traveling with their Lord.  But, whereas their part of the journey, the story, came to an end, God’s part of the story stays active all the way to the end.  In other words, even though their part of the story was over, the story itself had more to be told.  It is in this understanding that we find the secret of how to respond when God appears to not act on time in our lives.  You see, this principle that the story God is writing in history keeps going even when our parts of it are finished applies in the small as well.  God is the author of the story and He won’t stop writing until it’s over.  As the author, He knows the stories of the characters, how they fit together, and what needs to happen in what order.  When God seems late, then, we keep walking because the story’s not done yet.  When He seems to be late, we keep pursuing the faithfulness exemplified by those who have gone before us because the story’s not over yet.  When God seems late keep walking; the story’s not over.

Look with me at Paul’s final admonition starting in chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”  When God seems late keep walking; the story’s not over.  In fact, the author of Hebrews uses stronger language than that: keep running!  Get rid of the dead weight—false beliefs and the actions they produce which pull us off the path—and keep moving forward.  The story’s not over.  When God seems late keep walking; the story’s not over.  God surely seemed late for Joseph when Mary turned up pregnant before the wedding.  He kept walking.  God surely seemed late for Mary when there was no room for them in Bethlehem when the time came for her to deliver her child.  She kept walking.  God surely seemed late for Jesus Himself when He began walking the path of the cross without recourse.  He kept walking.  Indeed, we should look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him [in other words, He knew the end of the story and acted like it] endured the cross, despising [or disregarding] the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  When God seemed late Jesus kept walking because He knew the story wasn’t done yet.  There was still more to be written.  The kingdom was still coming.  When God seems late keep walking; the story’s not over.  Some of you are in places where God sure seems late and you’re tired of it.  Friends, keep walking.  The hope we have here is that the story’s not over.  These faith heroes are watching and cheering you on as you keep moving forward.  They did it and they want you to know the joy they now do.  When God seems late keep walking; the story’s not over.