Spring is here. You can see the signs of it everywhere. The Redbud are in bloom, and the Service-berries. Little green leaves are popping out of trees and bushes all over the place. The temperatures are getting warmer, here in Missouri. And traffic on Highway 5 is getting heavier by the day as the week-enders, the summer people, and tourists begin to descend on this vacation spot called the Lake of the Ozarks.
Just so, the signs of God’s love are everywhere to be seen as well. I hesitate to point at outward signs of prosperity or blessings. I know that each blessing is a sign of God’s love, but when people hear such talk they begin to think that the better you have it, the more God must love you, and, conversely, the worse off you are, the less He must love you. Such an attitude is absolutely normal. It is simply wrong. The Bible teaches us that we cannot take our outward circumstances as a reliable indicator of our standing with God.
Good comes from God, but then, so do some things that we don’t enjoy. Pain, sickness, suffering, these are all tools God uses. Sometimes they are blessings that we don’t recognize until much later. Misfortune and failure can be God’s way of steering us away from trouble ahead, or forcing us to go where we don’t want to go and do things we would never choose to do willingly so that we may discover greater blessings, or so that we can become the blessing God would have us be in the life of someone else.
Look at the example of Joseph in the Bible. His brothers hated him. Not a good situation in a world centered on family. They sold him into slavery in a time and place where slavery was dangerous in the extreme. He started to do well only to be sabotaged by a woman who felt scorned by Joseph’s commitment to morality. That earned him a prison sentence in a world where prisoners died for lack of care and food and such, many times. While in prison, he helped others out by interpreting their troubling dreams for them and when their situations improved, they forgot all about him, even though they had pledged to remember him.
Yes, God blessed Joseph with success wherever he went and in whatever endeavor he put his hand to, but Joseph had hard times and difficulties pile up around him for the simple crime of being the favorite of his father by virtue of being the youngest. Well, that and a little youthful foolishness about telling his brothers about his dreams, which irritated them a bit more. All of the misfortunes of Joseph put him in the place God wanted him for the purpose of preserving God’s chosen people through his management of resources during the famine in Egypt and the surrounding countries. It also served to bring the people of Israel to Egypt to set in motion the horrible things that happened to them that led to their cry for rescue and the eventual rescue from bondage in Israel by means of the Passover and the Exodus.
Judging by how often the children of Israel grumbled during the Exodus, their status as the Chosen People did not bring them uniformly wonderful conditions – or at least conditions they liked uniformly. They had free food fall from the sky, water pour of rocks, and a visible sign of the presence of God day and night with them for forty years, and still they grumbled. In fact, their forty year camping trip through the Sinai desert happened because they did not trust God after He had rescued them in such an ostentatious fashion in answer to their prayers. Instead, they chose to grumble. But through it all, and through the hundreds of years of their personal and national unfaithfulness as a nation, God continued to call them “His people”.
God continued to speak to them through the Prophets, although it appears that they did not trust the prophets much, or listen to them well. The prophets often had to act out their prophecies in strange seeming ways. I think some of that was to get the attention of the people and illustrate the message in very striking ways. Ezekiel had to lay on his side, tied up for years and cook his very limited meals over burning dung. (Yummm?) Yet he was the prophet of the Most High. Hosea had to marry a prostitute, and he had to name his children really strange names. And he was the prophet of the Most High. Jeremiah had to prophecy and witness the near obliteration of his country and his people. He was thrown into prison, tossed into a pit – an old cistern – ate very limited rations at times, and He was the chosen spokesman of God. He ended up being put in a hollow log and sawn in two, according to tradition, for being the prophet of God. Did that mean that these men were not beloved of the Lord? No. It meant that God had some special and difficult things for them to do.
Elijah found life so difficult that he prayed for death. He was afraid for his life, and distressed by what he had to do and say, although some of it was downright miraculous. In the end, he got a chariot ride to heaven, clear testimony to his relationship with the Lord, but only at the end of a long and difficult and distressing career as a prophet, and it was probably done as much for Elisha, his replacement, as it was done for Elijah. Elijah got to do that amazing sacrifice thing in competition against the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the Asherah, but when all was said and done, he was running for his life from Queen Jezebel who swore an oath to kill him, and to do so within the next day.
King Ahab was rich and powerful, but he was not faithful nor did he stand in the favor of the Lord. Jezebel was rich and powerful, and yet she was rejected by the Lord. Elijah was the prophet of God and poor and hunted and frightened. Throughout the Scriptures, we see the chosen and beloved of God facing difficulty and danger and even being killed, like Stephen in the New Testament, or all of the Apostles, except, perhaps, one. The comfortable and natural notion that success and wealth and abundance indicated God’s particular favor is shown to be dead wrong.
So, even though every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights (I’m loosely quoting James), the abundance of blessings do not mark the recipient(s) as necessarily God’s favorite(s), nor does the hard things and pain and privation and persecution mark the one as rejected or despised by God. So, even though it is tempting to do so, we cannot mark our circumstances as a sign of God’s favor or love, or of His disfavor and judgment. That sort of judgment is sinful, which is why it is so natural. Our nature is sinful, and the devil, who is always around suggesting thoughts and attitudes to us, would love us to think that way. We call such thinking a “theology of glory”.
The sign of God’s love is, first, the cross of Jesus Christ. He loves you that much. We think we have problems when, after sixty or seventy years of life, we develop a potentially life-threatening condition. Jesus died at about thirty-three, in great agony. We think God is angry with us when we face a financial reversal and have to struggle a little in the land of the greatest abundance ever known to man - an abundance that is almost always available to us to some degree, even in our distress. Jesus lived in a third-rate country, known for its poverty and harsh conditions, under brutal foreign domination, and He was poor even by that nations’s standards. And He is the Son of God. He gave all of that up (being God and all) at least for a time, in exchange for the poverty, human hatred, abuse, and the passion and crucifixion, for us. He loves us that much.
The cross tells you what God’s heart and mind is toward you. He did all of that so that you would not have to, or worse, face eternal condemnation – you know, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, “where the fire never goes out and the worm never dies.”
Another sign of the love of God for you is the Church. You were baptized, and there is a faithful church somewhere near enough to you to be attended, or at least shared in on the internet, although most everyone who receives this newsletter directly has a congregation to call home. If it is not a faithful congregation, and you still attend it, the lack of faithfulness there is not a sign of God’s attitude toward you, but of yours toward Him. The typical case here is that God called you to be His child through Baptism, and has nurtured you with worship and the Word and Sacrament for however long you may have been a Christian. Since only those that believe – Christians in fact – have the hope of everlasting life, your participation in that group (Christians) marks you as one beloved of God.
Now, congregations have their struggles too, but where the Word of God is taught in truth and purity – meaning just the truth, not mixed with false doctrines – there is the Church, the family of God, where God is at work through His Word in the hearts and minds of His people. There may be a number of those who don’t take it seriously, or don’t really believe, in the congregation as well, but the fact that God provides you with His Word, and works in you through it with His Holy Spirit, marks you as one He loves particularly well. Word and Sacrament are signs of the love of God for you that should never be taken for granted or under-valued.
When people do take it for granted, it often goes away, sometimes permanently.
Having a Bible, and the skill to read it is also a sign of the love of God for you. It tells you that God intends to take care of you even if the church around you should fail. Having the Lutheran Confessions available to you is another wonderful gift and sign of His love. The Confessions unscramble so much that the world around us has twisted up and confused so badly. God is saying that He wants you to be well-grounded and clear on the faith when He provides these blessings to you.
Okay, I suppose it has occurred to you that many who do not believe, or who do not believe the truth much have these same resources available to them. They may live just down the block from a faithful church that they never attend. They may attend, but only for the appearance of it, or the social life, and don’t believe a thing. They may have a fine display Bible in their home, but never bother to read it or study it. If they have all those things, and yet they remain unbelievers and hypocrites, how can those things be a sign of the love of God for you?
Simple. God loves them, too! They just don’t love Him back. They fight His influence and reject the approaches of His Holy Spirit. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Just because they spurn His love doesn’t mean He doesn’t love them. But those same signs, ignored by so many in this world, are clear signs of the love of God for you.
When you approach the altar, for example, to receive the Lord’s Supper, take note that God has arranged for you to receive it individually. He hands it right to you. It is not the ‘firehose’ approach. He doesn’t just spray everyone with it. People can just sit there and not participate, and often do. But when you come to the altar, the Lord has so arranged the things of this world that His body and His blood are placed into your mouth by His called servant, or at least placed into your hands to put into your mouth, for your blessing and strengthening and forgiveness.
Ancient Israel got accustomed to the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. Even when they could see the sign of the presence of God, they got so blasé about it that they could sin and grumble and complain that God wasn’t there, even while He clearly was. The prophets of old were God’s men and messengers, but the people got so jaded that they would not listen, and could not tell the difference between the true prophet and the false prophet.
Today we have churches with pastors who, when faithful, are God’s men and God’s messengers. We have Bibles to read so that we can identify who is faithful and who is false. We have the Lutheran Confessions to remind us of how the world has twisted God’s Word and misconstrued it, and so taught falsely about it. We have the tools, and we have the signs of God’s love for us. We don’t want to make the same old mistakes of the past and fail to see the signs, or to use the blessings God has poured out abundantly around us. Jesus pointed to the signs. We should pay attention to them.
Yours in the Lord,