Recovering hope by remembering God

A while back I was in a season of deep frustration where it was a real struggle to hope or trust God (as if it’s ever easy). I was having doubts about God’s presence and insecurities about my own capabilities. Whether memories of past failures or fears of future possibilities, worry and anxiety saturated most of my daily awareness. Many times it felt like the ground was crumbling beneath my feet; trying to find my footing seemed an hourly battle.

Around this time I read through Psalm 77. The psalmist is feeling distant from God. Disturbed in his soul, he asks several questions we would likely ask in our own sorrowful seasons; questions I was asking. “Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again? Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious, or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion? Then I said, ‘It is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’”

One of the most profound aspects about the Psalms is how often we can find ourselves and our own seasons amid their prayers and thoughts. Our tragedies, fears, failures, and all various reactions echo in the copious cries of the psalmists. That’s why the Psalms teach us how to pray. They also show us how to hope again, how to respond out of that hope. It often starts with simply going back to the beginning, as if for the first time, which the psalmist does here: “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds.”

Here the psalmist moves from his frets and fears to instead fixate his mind on memories of salvation moments. He concludes the psalm pondering the great God who worked wonders and salvation by delivering his ancestors from Egyptian slavery and leading them through the Red Sea.

Salvation memories like these are life-giving moments, wells to drink from when the soul is dry. In the midst of his questions, fears, worries, and doubts, the psalmist recognized the unchanging goodness of God in the past is inherent hopefulness for again encountering God’s goodness in the unseen future. Instead of fretting with fear, he fixates on the One in whom our faith is formed. It is this kind of thinking that expands our capacity to look beyond the factors we are often afraid control our fate and see the LORD God who holds us securely in his good sovereignty, restoring hope to our hearts.

This gave me an idea for a devotional project. First I would take some time to let my mind drift back to all the moments I could remember where God had taken care of me. Secondly, as each moment was recalled, I would write a brief statement summarizing God’s provision or protection. Finally, I would attach a post-script to the end of every statement that read in big, bold letters “GOD TOOK CARE OF ME”.

By the time I was finished, I had over three pages of chronologically-listed single-spaced bullet statements testifying to how God’s power, presence, and protection carried me through precarious and perilous moments. As I looked back over the completed list, which amounted to the past twenty years of God’s faithfulness (and that was just the moments I could remember), a contented hush of wonder and gratitude held me.

Just because we can’t see our hope doesn’t mean that it’s not there. When we choose to prayerfully remember the LORD and how he has worked wonders, hope comprised of Him is revealed as plentifully present.

Advertisements

Past Sorrow as Anticipation of Future Salvation | Matthew 2:14-23

As Matthew concludes Jesus’ birth narratives in the latter half of chapter 2, he references three prophetic fulfillments, which I will explore in chronological order.

The first occurs amidst a shockingly tragic moment.  Enraged the magi never returned to him with information on Jesus’ whereabouts, Herod orders all males in Bethlehem under age two to be slaughtered.  It’s every parent’s nightmare coming true in life-shattering horror.  There are no words to soothe such sadness.  It’s a kind of deep-cutting event that can completely redefine a community; a dark cloud of shock, anger, and bitterness could have very well hung over those homes and community for the rest of their lives.  I try imagining the fathers going to synagogue and trying to prayerfully mouth some semblance of the Psalms in an effort to find some glimmer of hope in their inexpressible sadness.  The only comment Matthew makes about this great tragedy is from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

Decades removed from the event when he writes these words, Matthew might be seeing something typical of Israel’s history playing out in this early moment of Jesus’ story.

The events of this Jeremiah text had already tragically happened centuries earlier.  When the culture of entrenched idolatrous indifference in the southern kingdom of Judah had climaxed, God brought the Babylonian Empire against them in judgment.  Jerusalem was destroyed, many of its citizens slaughtered, and the survivors were exiled to Babylon.  Departing Jerusalem, one of the first towns they passed through was Ramah; heartbroken over Jerusalem’s destruction and bereaved of their loved ones, they mournfully wandered through, wondering what the future held or if hope was possible after this, probably much like how the Bethlehem parents felt.  So as Matthew recounts this tragic event from which Jesus escaped, he may be interpreting it as an echo typical of Israel’s story.

While some prophecies can be fairly literal predictions of what will happen, other prophecies can be more typological, in that what is happening is a type of what has already happened.  New Testament scholar R.T. France clarifies typology as “the recognition of a correspondence between New and Old Testament events, based on a conviction of the unchanging character of the principles of God’s working, and a consequent understanding and description of the New Testament event in terms of the Old Testament model.”  I believe Matthew’s three prophetic references here are examples of typological prophecy.

The second prophetic passage occurs after Joseph, Mary, and the child have fled to Egypt, escaping Herod’s rage.  The text doesn’t detail how long they stayed there, but it was until Herod’s death, at which point an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, which Joseph did, exiting Egypt to enter the land of Israel.  Matthew again comments on these events with a prophetic reference from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Again the event spoken of had already taken place.  This time it’s the northern kingdom of Israel that had grown so idolatrously indifferent to what God had called them to be and would thus suffer the consequences of God’s judgment by the Assyrian Empire.  Perhaps as a disappointed parent might, God uses Hosea to recall how youthfully loveable Israel was when he initially called them out of Egypt, lamenting how their own rebellion has brought them to this judgment.  It’s a memory of God’s salvation amidst a moment of impending judgment; as tragic judgment approaches, Hosea’s thoughts turn to their past salvation from slavery, perhaps hoping that, even as judgment descends upon them, God’s salvation may one day return to Israel.

By quoting the Hosea text in the context of Jesus exiting Egypt and entering Israel, Matthew may be reframing the Exodus memory, that memory of past salvation Hosea recalled, as an anticipation of the impending salvation Jesus would bring upon the land and people of Israel.

Both of these cited prophecies were delivered at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel both underwent tragic consequences for their great idolatry and indifference; moments that shaped within the surviving remnant’s post-exilic mindset a shameful sense of what was historically typical for their people.  But what Matthew hopes his readers will observe in the text is that with God, salvation is also typical.

The third prophetic comment is actually not a prophecy at all, but more of a Messianic characterization built on other prophetic statements.  As Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settle in the city of Nazareth, Matthew comments “This was to fulfill what was spoke through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”

These exact words are found nowhere in Scripture.  Two theories thrive here.  First, other Messianic prophecies say Messiah would be despised and rejected; in John 1:46, Nazareth seems to personify a sense of worthlessness.  The second theory is, since the word Nazareth is similar to the Hebrew word for branch, Matthew may possibly be alluding to the Isaiah 11:1 prophecy about a branch springing up from David’s line, bearing righteous fruit.

Considering the context already discussed, I think both theories are plausible.  Having been battered by God’s judgment and years of post-exilic shame, an atmosphere of worthlessness or despair permeates Israel, shaping much of how they perceive themselves.  Who can lift such a soul-crushing burden?  Only one who knows its weight himself.  To truly be Messiah, Jesus must empathize with the people, living life as they have, know what it is to be despised and stung with sorrow.  In doing so, Jesus is identified, not just with his own people, but with all humanity.  Jesus is one of us.  Only after he is identified with us can he be revealed as so much more.  The shameful history that has come to shape Israel’s downcast identity is the soil from out of which the righteous branch shall grow and produce a redemption that redefines everything.

We are all shaped by our history.  We’ve all had moments that may mold in us a cynicism or downheartedness that redefines our perceptions of what we think is typical.  We may express these perceptions through learned phrases like “story of my life”, “just my luck”, or “it is what it is”.  We may be living according to a script in our heads that says our role is that of a worthless one or a sorrowful wretch or someone who has nothing to look forward to.  The role of Messiah, however, is meant to show us we’re reading the wrong script; that this story is about salvation.  Though life may teach us that sorrow is typical, Jesus shows us that with God, salvation is typical.  A part of learning to follow Jesus means adjusting the perceptions of our minds and hearts to the salvation reality embodied in Jesus.  I pray the eyes of your heart be saturated with the salvation permeating this world through the presence of Messiah Jesus.

Arising in the Reality of the Resurrection

“I don’t want to die before I’m dead”.  It’s a thought I seem to keep encountering.

At the risk of digressing into all manner of generalizing examples of how our lives could fit that statement, suffice it to say that in our fallen world, death and its despairing degenerative darkness contaminates how we think, how we observe and interpret, how we respond, how we hope. Our perceptions of reality are so dampened with drudgery and disappointment on what seems like a daily basis, it’s barely surprising anymore if we do “die” before we’re actually dead. Despair or apathy can often seem to be reality’s only consistent state.

Such was the mindset of the women approaching Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning after Passover. They had followed him through villages, heard him teach, saw him heal, began believing he was Messiah, anticipated a political shift during Passover—suddenly, he was dead. No longer alive, no longer a hope, just a dead friend in a dead place. As they approached this place to preserve their friend’s remains, the death within this dark enclosure mirrored the grim, grieving reality dominating their minds. Reality, however, had just changed.

Finding the large tombstone rolled away and Jesus’ body gone, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”

The angels ask this question as if it is they who are truly surprised, perhaps, that living is no longer an adjective resonating with the women’s perception of Jesus. A great many of us go through life as if Jesus is still “among the dead”; not a “living One”, but a memory of one who lies decaying in our minds like the ragged remnants of the worn out cultural Christianity we utilize just to get us through the day. Snatching us from a darkness masquerading as light, the angels’ question both calls our despairing tendencies into question and declares the one single truth that defies such despair—Jesus lives. It’s as if they’re asking “Why are you still holding to an old, dead reality when a new, living one is now what is true and must be inhabited?”

Having declared “He is not here, but He has risen”, the angels then connect the women’s returning hopes to what Jesus had been saying all along: “’Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words.”

In his predictions, Jesus never denied the darkness he was about to enter; but he did defy its finality. He told them beforehand he was coming back, wanting their faith to defy reality’s darkness. Like their father, Abraham, Jesus wanted his followers to contemplate his own dead body, “yet, with respect to the promise of God…not waver in unbelief but [grow] strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.”

Life disappoints on a daily basis, creating diminishing patterns of thought and habit—cynicisms, self-pity, despair, apathy—that can beat us and our perceptions into hopeless submission. But within this reality lived “among the dead”, there is also a “living One” whose followers “will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

Every step we’ve taken this week toward Good Friday is also a step towards Resurrection Sunday; keep walking forward, embodying Jesus’ resurrection in your own life. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection breathes new life into this story we’re often tempted to give up on, raising us from the dead long before we actually die. Holding fast to Jesus’ words and walking forward in that faith keeps us rooted in his resurrection, connected to a Life that takes us to and through the darkness and, ultimately, on and beyond.