Long Obedience in God’s Direction

A Good Start: You know something of King Solomon, right? Folks with some knowledge of Scripture and history may know tidbits of his life. He is referred to, in his early life, as wise: “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt, For he was wiser than all other men …” (1 Kings 4:29-31). That was early on in Solomon’s life.

Solomon had the temple built in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3). His wealth grew to immense proportions (1 Kings 10:14-29). He had the ark of the covenant brought to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 5:2). He created beautiful architecture and landscapes in Israel by having artists and architects and designers design and create beautiful buildings, roads, and trees with meticulous detail (2 Chronicles 9). These were no small accomplishments.

A Compromising Middle: But Solomon was a sinner, too. He was far from a perfect ruler. He would not remain king. The perfect King would be later, the One would obey the Father’s will completely on behalf of all who believe. Solomon had a weakness for women (1 Kings 11). He had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Scripture records that they “turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father” (1 Kings 11:4). He erected idols. He not only allowed idolatry; he lauded it. He called evil good (1 Kings 11:7-8), and this from a man who began with such promise.

A Dark End: The remainder of 1 Kings 11 is a catalog of how Solomon’s compromises with sin cost him and his legacy and the nation and the world. False gods were worshiped. Foreign powers entered. Corruption characterized the nation. Solomon’s sons were wicked men. The kingdom split. The country’s wealth was squandered. Mob rule began. Despots arose. Exile occurred.

Segue: Recently at CNGC we had an event honoring our retirees. Community organizations came out to honor retired veterans and spoke to them about services and opportunities they have earned by virtue of their service. It was a sweet event, a compassionate one in my view. It was refreshing to see men and women who have contributed to this organization, who have made it and us, better. One of the most influential men in my life came. We spent much of the day together and I continued, as I’ve done for 15 years now, to pepper him with questions. “Sir, what have you learned? How have you seen the Lord’s providence through the years and now into retirement?” He sipped his coffee and in that deep pastoral voice, said, “Jon, to be who God calls us to be and trust Him with the results, as He sees more than we see. He sees the end from the beginning.” Yes and amen, sir, I thought. Yes and amen.

Takeaway/Encouragement: When we look at Solomon, we see a man who began well but who eventually fell very short due to his own sin, his unwillingness to kill it, and it (the sin) killed him, and much of the culture. But God also places those in our lives who demonstrate what faithfulness looks like, what long obedience in God’s direction, looks like. We all fall short; we all have sin in our lives. All except One. There is One who was made sin so that we might be declared righteous. “For our sake he [the Father] made him [the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [the Son] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the good news of the gospel, folks. The Righteous One was made sin so that we sinners who repent and believe upon the person and work of Christ are made righteous. It does not get better than that. Yes and amen. Yes and amen.

Gratitude

Illustration: A phrase from poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reads, “Glory be to God for dappled things” from his poem “Pied Beauty.” For the balance of the poem, the speaker describes finches’ wings, rose moles, skies of “couple-colour,” and the rainbow sheen of trout in water. The color, the arrangement, the intricate detail, the beautiful creations we may behold if we pause to look. It is as if the Creator speaks through his creation, saying, “Look; taste and see. These things are good.”

Segue: Yesterday I had another funeral for one of our fellow veterans. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War/Conflict. I talked with his family for quite some time prior to the honors ceremony. Nephews and nieces of the deceased recounted the veteran’s service in Vietnam to me, the Bronze Star he received, and of the way he volunteered for Vietnam rather than waiting to be drafted. Not only did he volunteer but he enlisted, even after he had graduated from college. Before I could ask the family why they thought he had done that, the nephew and niece said, “He was just that kind of man, Chaplain. He was grateful for the nation. He wasn’t a complainer. He was a contributor.” Then they paused, looking at me. Did they want me to respond? I looked at them and remained silent. “He never spoke about Vietnam, Chaplain, after he returned. But he was proud of his service. He was a grateful man.”

As I crossed the lake yesterday en route to Georgia National Cemetery, I had Hopkins’ poem in my mind: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Just 30 minutes later, I was speaking with families of veterans. And I listened to them talk of their loved one. And I presided as the chaplain for yet another military funeral honors, while our excellent Soldiers and NCOs played “Taps” and folded the flag and handed it to me, and I then presented it to the veteran’s wife, as she patted her face with her son’s handkerchief, and tried to restrain more of her tears. I approached her and knelt and presented: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s faithful and honorable service.” Then I rendered my salute.

I’ve done it hundreds of times. But it moves me each time. I think it’s because when you speak with folks and their facades are removed, you may find that there are still good men and women about, those who are grateful, those who understand gratitude makes sense because of the One who created all beauty.

Encouragement: If you take your worldview from mainstream media, you will likely be bitter and resentful. You may find yourself stirring up controversy where there need not be any. Why? Because most media thrive on whipping up emotion, on “Us vs. Them” paradigms.

But for the Christian, he understands what Hopkins understood, and what the Vietnam veteran and his family understood. Thanklessness/ingratitude is an ugly thing. Remember Lear’s line in the play that bears his name? “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is [t]o have a thankless child,” (King Lear,1.4.295-96).

 Striking beauty surrounds us but we must pay attention. The Christian, unlike the pagan, understands that good things exist because of the good Creator. This is not a random, accidental, happenstance world. It is the creation of Creator God. We should be grateful because there is a personal God to whom we are accountable and before whom we should be grateful—for the “dappled things,” as Hopkins wrote, and for the wisps of clouds above a glassy lake, and for the vets who served with honor, etc. You see, the creation attests to its Creator. We creatures are to see that, and to draw near. As David wrote in one of his poems in the Bible, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).  

For the Love of Books

Sutherland’s books invariably stimulate bibliophiles to closer and deeper reading. I completed his Curiosities of Literature recently. Following are a few of the said curiosities:

  1. Balzac would drink up to forty cups of coffee a day (130).
  2. The shortest novel to win the Pulitzer Prize? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (113).
  3. The most difficult reading? The list includes Robert Browning’s Sordello, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (103).
  4. The paralyzed French writer, Jean-Dominique Bauby, “dictated his post-stroke memoir, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), with an alphabetic code, involving 200,000 blinks of his left eyelid, the only functioning part of his body” (106).
  5. Earlier and mercifully abolished titles of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were Trimalchio in West Egg and The High-Bouncing Lover. And Orwell’s earlier title for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe (178).

For the remnant of bibliophiles scattered hither and yon, read on.

The oft-quoted maxim from Francis Bacon still holds: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested.”

A Call for Clarity

Illustration: I have a friend who has never been in the military but he is an American patriot and a Christian. We are on opposite sleep schedules. I go to bed early and rise early. When I woke up recently at my normal hour I had a text from him waiting on my phone. He was asking for my thoughts on the continuing destruction across the nation by various insurrectionist groups. I texted him back after I drank my coffee, saying I was unfamiliar with the latest destruction. He later asked about Portland, Oregon, about cities in Minnesota, and whether America’s Guardsmen would continue to be called up and put on duty to protect Americans from Americans. I wrote back saying, “I don’t know, brother; it appears to me the train has left the tracks. Just keep your head on a swivel and your powder dry.”

Segue: Few qualities are more important to me when it comes to understanding than clarity. One of my favorite maxims is, “Clarity is more important than agreement.” When folks are clear about what they believe and why they believe it, that can make life so much easier. Of course, many wicked people are crystal clear in their thinking; they just choose wickedness, so I am aware of the perils of oversimplification. A common issue, however, is that many folks don’t know what they believe. They’re “all over the map,” so to speak. Their worldview is a hodgepodge conglomeration of inconsistent and often contradictory ideas. Picture a Jackson Pollock piece—a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a pastiche ostensibly suggesting chaos rather than order, cacophony rather than harmony, strife instead of peace.

How long will Antifa continue their Sherman-like method of burning almost everything they can? Will America allow the defunding of her own police? In short, will the thugs be allowed to win because law-abiding citizens are afraid to stand up to the mobs? I don’t know. However, I do have clarity regarding this: we continue to disintegrate. That is, we are dis (not) + integrated (together). Scripture phrases it thus:

 “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 57:21, ESV)

Our spiritual house is divided against itself:

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

These are part of the inevitable consequences of suppressing God and his revelation for us. These are consequences of reaping what we have sown. This is the law of the harvest:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:7-10)

Encouragement: Again, clarity is so helpful. What is to be our governing authority? Will it be secularism? How is that working out for us? Will it be the overthrow of biblical morality? How is that working out for us? Will it be identity politics? How is that working out for us? Will it be judging people based upon the amount of melanin in our skin? How is that working out for us? You see, beloved, we are witnessing what happens when a ship has severed her moorings. She has severed her moorings and failed to explain why she is to sail at all—or even where or how. She is being tossed by tempests that come from not thinking through the consequences, of not being clear. How much clearer must things become?

And yet the God of Scripture calls out to all who will hear, “do not harden your hearts” (Psalm 95:8a). May we be mature and clear in our thoughts and in our actions. My friend is both clear-headed and courageous. The time for such men (and women) has long been upon us.

With Isaiah on the Water

Illustration: Spring finds a lot of folks enjoying the outdoors, relishing the blessings of creation. I completely track with that. When I unloaded the kayak from the truck and put in at the water’s edge recently, a father and his two children were fishing for bream. I could see their bright lime green and blaze orange corks floating on the water. A light wind blew across the lake. Around the edge of the lake, yellow-green pollen coagulated on the shoreline in bubbly hillocks. The sun had another 90 minutes before it would descend upon the ridge to the west. The light breeze was already beginning to taper off. It was just right for kayaking. The last 90 minutes of these spring days are nearly perfect for kayaking and paddle boarding. A young couple was paddle boarding near where I put in my kayak, and we exchanged pleasantries about the evening.

I took the prophet Isaiah kayaking with me. Isaiah, from the 700s B.C., the poetic prophet who held forth the truth to Israel and Judah in the 700s-late 600s B.C.  Isaiah’s messages were not for the faint of heart. He spoke about God’s holiness, about man’s sin, about God’s sovereign plan to execute judgment his own way and for his own glory. Listen to how direct Isaiah’s message was:

Ah, sinful nation,

   a people laden with iniquity,

offspring of evildoers,

   children who deal corruptly!

They have forsaken the LORD,

   they have despised the Holy One of Israel,

   they are utterly estranged. (Isaiah 1:4, ESV)

That’s not the sort of message that wins popularity contests. But Isaiah, like all authentic prophets, spoke the truth. He was God’s man who “spoke truth to power,” as a hackneyed phrase puts it. He saw his nation immersed in sin. It was not primarily a political tragedy; it was not primarily an economic tragedy; it was not primarily a military tragedy; it was not primarily a racial or ethnic tragedy. It was a sin tragedy. And God’s prophet longed to see people humble themselves before God so that judgment would not fall upon them. God had sovereignly created and ordained a nation, Israel, to be a light to the nations. But they fell short; they became idolatrous; they wanted to be like the world’s other nations; they didn’t have hearts faithful to the Lord. In precise fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel and Judah (the northern and southern kingdoms respectively) were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Judgment came in the forms of invasions, in abominable forms of moral melee, and in the forms of control by wicked empires by reprobate rulers. All this I thought about as I paddled the lake in my kayak.

Connection: As I paddled and slid out to deeper water, a mallard paddled by me, just a few yards out. Mallards are stunningly beautiful. The richness of the green head, the necklace of white ringing the throat, the sable eyes behind the bright yellow bill, and the ways the water beads upon their feathers. I tried to take some pictures with my iPhone as he moved with apparent ease across the lake and occasionally dipped his head under now and again in rhythmic beauty. It all seemed so natural. He was doing exactly what he was designed for. His legs paddled invisibly below the surface; his colors advertised his place among his own; the lake provided seeds and stems for his diet, etc. All seemed in order.

And yet, I thought, how differently humanity is portrayed in Isaiah’s words, and, ergo, in the eyes of God. We tend to kick against the goads. We tend to rebel. We are moral creatures. We have choice. We don’t just swim upon the surface of life and eat. No, we are God’s special creatures, created for fellowship with him and with one another and with the earth. But we’ve made a mess of things. Again I listened to Isaiah’s words and felt the irony as I imbibed the peace of the evening. Listen to God’s heart for people via his prophet, Isaiah:

                                    Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:

                                    though your sins are like scarlet,

                                       they shall be as white as snow;

                                    though they are red like crimson,

                                       they shall become like wool.

                                    If you are willing and obedient,

                                       you shall eat the good of the land;

                                    but if you refuse and rebel,

                                       you shall be eaten by the sword;

                                       for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 1:18-20, ESV)

Takeaway: I have never been a political person; I don’t like how politics tends to replace God in people’s lives. When people neither know nor fear the Lord, they fashion God substitutes. In short, they prove what the Scriptures teach, namely, that sinful man is an idolater. And very often that idolatry in world history has led to tyrannical government. It is a form of judgment allowed by God to teach and discipline us. Isaiah knew it, and he proclaimed it to all who would listen in his day.

God sent prophets to speak the truth, to point even to the obvious when necessary, to bear witness to God’s way vs. sinful men’s ways. “Let us reason together,” the Lord said through Isaiah.

Yes, Lord, I pray we would, for we seem very unlike this mallard swimming past me on the lake this evening. He seems to be right where he is supposed to be, and doing things the way you intended. May you raise up faithful truth-tellers to warn the bellicose, to woo the backslidden, and to welcome the prodigals. May you raise them up, Lord, and make them faithful.

And Yet You Are Mindful of Him …

Illustration: You probably noticed it, too—the brightness of the moon. When I walk outside early each morning to walk my dogs before leaving for work, the very early mornings are normally dark, even amidst the starlight. But not this morning. The trees surrounding me appeared as clearly as if it were daylight. The moon was so bright the forest floor was washed in milky whiteness. Normally I would wear my headlamp when I take the dogs out but that was unnecessary this morning. I could clearly see the ridge to the south of our property. The limbs of the hickories and oaks limned the periphery of my steps as I watched the dogs go out into the woods for their morning routine. It was quiet. Moonlight washed over all. And the only sounds were from the dogs as they walked on the leaves. I could see our cat under the magnolia bush in the front of the house, where she perches each morning, waiting on the first birds to appear at the birdfeeder when the sun rises in a couple of hours.

Slightly over every 27 days the moon orbits the earth. The precision is remarkable. I only took one astronomy class in my college days, and it blew my mind. When you study the heavens, the precision of the heavenly bodies, the rotation of earth on its axis, the ways in which the moon is used vis-à-vis the earth’s tides and rhythms, it redounds to its brilliant Creator.  

Scripture: Psalm 8 is one of the most beautiful of poems in the Old Testament book of Psalms. The first few lines read this way:

                  O LORD, our Lord,

     how majestic is your name in all the

earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens (v.1)

Then in the following verses, David makes profound observations and follows them with profound questions:

                  When I look at your heavens, the work

                             of your fingers,

                       the moon and the stars, which you

                              have set in place,

                  what is man that you are mindful of

                               him,

                  and the son of man that you care for

                           him? (Ps 8:3-4, ESV)

Encouragement: Sometimes when it’s quiet like it was this morning, and you listen to your dogs scamper on the forest floor, and you look around at the hills suffused in moonlight, and you hear the creeks running fast below, and you see the massive trees with their limbs webbing upward towards the heavens from whence come their necessary light and rains, and you see yourself as a partaker in a script wherein the Author of the moon, the stars, the trees, the creeks, the beauty and mystery of it all calls out. Every poem has its poet; every painting has its painter; every song has its composer; every story has its writer. And every moon-bathed morning, too, has its Maker. And the Maker says, He is mindful of you.

Wood, Hay, & Straw

Illustration: Who would think a hay bale could be so dangerous? Let me explain. This morning on the drive south, traffic was doing between 65-75 mph, and heading south towards the city. All seemed normal. Finally we neared the merge of 575 with 75S. Suddenly, the drivers in front of me hit their brakes, swerved right, then left, and some crossed several lanes—all in an instant. Brake lights. Horns. In short, it appeared we were all about to be involved in big pileup on the interstate at the I75-575 merge. Why? Some hay bales had fallen from a truck bed and littered the interstate. Hay was blowing everywhere due to the draughts of wind from vehicles zooming past. I swerved, too, just like the other drivers, trying to navigate through the hay blowing across five lanes of morning traffic. And just as quickly as it happened, it was over. I had made it through. I caught my breath. I felt my chest relax. I felt suddenly super-spiritual, like God had shaken me by the shoulder and called my name.  

Connection to Scripture: I cannot get the image of hay out of my mind. It blew across the interstate this morning and it continues to blow across my imagination still. Paul used the image of hay (wood, hay, and stubble in the older English translations) to describe how insubstantial our lives are if not built upon truth and Christ as the foundation. Here is the way Paul put it:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:11-15, ESV).  

Encouragement: Traffic was shaken in an instant. Many pulses, I dare say, raced this morning. Mine certainly did. Verses of Scripture came to my mind instantly: “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14) and one of my favorites that Peter adopts from Isaiah:

For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pt 1:24-25).

It is easy for us to forget, but our days are numbered. May we know the truth, live the truth, proclaim the truth, because it is truth alone that sets sinners free. All else is wood, hay, and straw.

Not Bowing to Baal

Illustration: We are over halfway through March 2021 and property in some American cities continues to be burned to the ground. This week it is Portland … again. Portland’s federal courthouse is again barricaded. Around it are border fences and T-walls. Why? Because Portland’s elected politicians decided the wise thing to do was to defund their police. The result surprised no one who recognizes the spiritual rebellion characteristic of the mob. Rioters shattered glass windows with steel poles, spray painted federal property in graffiti, and set the facility ablaze.

And if you listened to folks not directly affected, you may have heard some comments like the following:

  • “They asked for it; let it burn.”
  • “They voted for lawlessness; well, this is what lawlessness looks like.”
  • “They don’t want cops? Okay then. They made their bed. Let them lie in it.”

It is heartbreaking to hear things like this. But comments like this are growing more common. A coarsening is taking place. There is a great sifting taking place. There is a separation taking place. And people are dividing. It is blatant. Just pay attention to what people are actually saying and doing.

To state the obvious, we are in a spiritual crisis. There is a spiritual famine in the land. It is actually worse than that. Why? Because it is self-inflicted. We are a culture hostile to God, his revelation in the Bible, Judeo-Christian values, and to the foundations that have undergirded the West for centuries.

“No more of that!” the mobs scream. They demand “progress,” while they loot your cities. See how well that progress is working out? Just go to Portland. It’s the new Eden. 

Godless mobs do what they have always done: steal, kill, and destroy. Property, life, civilization, art, culture, law, beauty, safety, etc., the mobs don’t care. No self-restraint, no self-discipline, and certainly no responsibility. And hard work? No, that’s systemically oppressive, don’t you know? The 20-year olds Tweet on their iPhones their mommies bought. They’re the enlightened ones, don’t you know? If they don’t have what they want, they scream, “I’m oppressed!” and point in derision at the freest country the world has ever known.  

Segue: Like most of the people with whom I associate, I am a patriot. I love my country. I have read and love the Founding Fathers, and many of the documents they produced. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Constitution are magnificent world-changing documents that the mobs neither know nor care to know. They just want power. And, folks, as alarmist or paranoid as this may sound, I don’t see this ending well unless there is a biblical revival. I don’t mean a patriotic emotional flag-waving jingoism. No, I mean a God-sent biblical revival wherein we plead for God to spare a nation under divine judgment.

Connection: In Romans 11, Paul wrote extensively about Israel. God had chosen a remnant of people out of his sheer grace. Why? To bear witness to the glory of God. The nation had mostly rejected Jesus as Messiah. They did not want God or his rule over their lives. Most wanted to remain in their rebellion. Sound familiar?

Paul grieved over the spiritual malaise, the rebellion, and the destruction. The first five verses of Romans 11 are deeply moving. But pay special attention to verses 4-5:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So the at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (Rom 11:1-5, ESV).

Encouragement: When most of Paul’s fellow Jews wanted nothing to do with God, with Christ the God-man, Paul wrote and reminded those with ears to hear: God has “kept for [him]self seven thousand men who ha[d] not bowed the knee to Baal” (v.4). That was a reference to Elijah’s ministry in the Old Testament. How was that possible? They had been “chosen by grace” (v.5).

This world, we must remember, is passing away. If it weren’t the mobs now, it would be divine judgment later. Why? Because life is, ultimately, quite serious and God will not be mocked. Rebellion and sin merit justice.

And do you really want justice? Have you thought about what justice means from holy God?

These vapid mobs scream about justice but I have rather serious doubts they have thought much about it. “Justice,” we need to understand, is rooted in the Latin iustitia, which means “righteousness.” It means “right order, the rewarding to everyone of that which is his due.” And what is due us sinners? Judgment. Let that sink in. I know that doesn’t get thumbs up and likes on social media, but that is because it is the truth. And when truth shows up, people tend to crucify it. That is the way of mobs.

Takeaway: But Paul reminded those with ears to hear that there was a remnant. Seven thousand, chosen by grace, had not bowed the knee to the idol, Baal, in Elijah’s day. And there is a remnant still, beloved. But it requires you to acknowledge that justice is inseparable from God himself. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31, ESV). The wrath and judgment of God are not popular ear-tickling truths, but they are truths nonetheless. And I contend that we need to pay attention, to speak and live the truth, and to ask ourselves if we have counted the costs of rejecting God and his gospel. A beautiful way to begin might sound like this: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Why Spring Matters

You can sense it. Spring is near. Technically, spring’s entrance is 20 March 2021, just over a week from now. I get excited each year. I love to fish, kayak, turkey hunt, swim, hike, and just be outdoors in spring. Spring is musical and magical. One of the most moving songs I listen to is by the Indigo Girls. Part of their ditty’s lyrics to “Southland in the Springtime” reads this way:

And there’s something ‘bout the Southland in the springtime
Where the waters flow with confidence and reason
Though I miss her when I’m gone it won’t ever be too long
‘Til I’m home again to spend my favorite season

When God made me born a Yankee He was teasin’
There’s no place like home and none more pleasin’
Than the Southland in the springtime

In Georgia nights are softer than a whisper
Beneath a quilt somebody’s mother made by hand
With the farmland like a tapestry passed down through generations
And the peach trees stitched across the land

There’ll be cider up near Helen off the roadside
And boiled peanuts in a bag to warm your fingers
And the smoke from the chimney meets its maker in the sky
With a song that winter wrote whose melody lingers.

Sure, it is a sentimental song, but it is nonetheless true and moving.

Scripture: In perhaps my favorite book of the Bible (Ecclesiastes), Solomon penned the world’s most famous poem on the subject of time. The metaphor Solomon uses is seasons:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to see, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time for hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace (Eccl 3:1-8).

Time matters, you see, because it is the gift of God. We have a certain amount allotted to us. How are we using it?

Encouragement: When spring bursts into its colorful glory each year here in our state and abroad, it trumpets its Maker. It attests to life coming from the ground. Adam was fashioned from the ground: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). Spring matters because it is the gift of God.

When I walked out of the office the other day, the sky was cerulean blue. The dogwoods were beginning to bud. I looked at the flags flying high on their staffs in front of the chapel. The GA flag and the national flag were completely unfurled and waving in the sun. I could hear the fabric whip and make popping sounds on the breeze. Someone had laid flowering wreaths down at our Memorial Wall for our fellow Guardsmen. And I knew it viscerally–in my bones: spring matters because it reminds us of time, of how fleeting our days are, and of how filled they are with beauty that deserves to be appreciated and celebrated. Spring matters because it reminds those with eyes to see and ears to hear that it is not happenstance, accidental, unplanned, or random. It is right on time, just as Solomon in the Scriptures penned. Happy spring!

The Mark of Cain: A Foretaste of the Gospel of Christ

Illustration: Killing has been around a long time. In Scripture, the first murder was recorded in the book of beginnings. In Genesis 4, Moses recorded that Cain murdered his own brother, Abel:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:3-10, ESV).

Why was Cain’s offering rejected? What was it about Cain’s nature? Obviously, Cain’s anger was a recurring sin pattern in his life. He resented being questioned by God (v.9). He did not honor God faithfully. He did not trust God. He does not seem to have had faith in God as God had revealed himself. Yet God told Cain that sin was crouching at his door. The question was simply this: Who would rule Cain’s life, God or Satan? Cain was repeatedly pictured as angry, resentful, and obstinate. He was described as “angry” and “against.” He opposed God; he resented God; and he persisted in his rebellion. Cain was a textbook adversary. In short, Cain did not have faith in God or in God’s good will. He was a natural rebel postured against the revealed will of God.

Abel, on the other hand, was characterized as honoring the Lord. He kept God central in his thinking, his life, and worship. My own view with regard to how God treated the two brothers differently hinges upon Abel honoring the Lord with the “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (v.4). Abel was pictured as a devout man, a man called by God, a man with a will to honor God via obedience. In short, Abel was a man of faith in the revealed will of God. And his life demonstrated that.

What happened because of what rebellious Cain did? What became of the murderer? Did God immediately exact justice upon him? No. But that would have been completely just. God demonstrated patience, grace, and mercy. God cursed the murderer Cain (Gen 4:11) and made him a wanderer and fugitive (v.12). But what should astonish us still more is the mercy and grace of God when he marked Cain (v.15).

Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken of him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen 4:13-16).

The murderous brother Cain became the sorrowful pariah. He cried out to God because he (Cain) knew that other people would want to execute him for the sake of justice. And he was rightfully fearful. Yet what happened? Did God turn Cain over to the mob? No. Did God abandon him? No. Did God give Cain immediate justice for first-degree murder of his own kinsman? No. God marked him. The mark preserved Cain’s life from those who would otherwise take it. Cain, the angry young man, the murderer, the one who scoffed at the idea of being his brother’s keeper, was shown mercy by God.

Takeaway: Centuries later,the ground still cries out from all the murdered, all the hate, all the sin. And still rebels try to flee from God, from justice, and from the sins that crouch at our doors. And yet what has God done? Has he executed immediate justice upon us for harboring murder in our hearts (1 Jn 3:15)? No.

What God has done is immeasurably more profound than that. Rest assured, he has executed justice. But he marked another One in our place. He condemned the spotless lamb (Jesus) so we dirty sheep (rebellious sinners who repent and believe) might be made clean. The mark, you see, was not just a mark upon Cain for his temporal protection, but the mark was the curse that Jesus became in the place of individual sinners who respond, like Abel, in faith and obedience.

The NT records it this way:

                  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 4:13).

I don’t know how we can look at history, or study the tragedy of Cain and Abel, or see how the ground still cries out due to our sin, or look at God’s acts of restraint and mercy over centuries, or study the life and work of Jesus Christ, and then think on the cross of Christ … and not be moved to repentance and faith. It is a hard heart indeed that persists in resisting God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It may sound banal or saccharine or irrelevant to some contemporary readers, but rather than fret about that, it seems wiser just to point. You see, once you understand who God is, who we are (and the fact that we’re a lot more Cain-like than Abel-like), you will marvel at this reality—namely, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). He who has ears to hear, let him hear.