Thoughts on a Snowy Day

January 22, 2016

Snow and sleet cover the ground this morning. All is white. Clean. Pure. And brilliant, should the sun ever poke through the clouds.

So I turned this morning to Scripture, to see how the biblical authors refer to snow.

Only in one incident in the Bible is snow referred to in a weather report – Benaiah kills a lion in a pit on a snowy day (2 Samuel 23:20, 1 Chronicles 11:22). The other occurrences speak of characteristics of snow, or use snow figuratively. Six ways of speaking of snow stand out:

First, as we would expect, the biblical authors use snow as an image of purity. So God, Jesus, and an angel are pictured as having hair or clothing as white as snow (Daniel 7:9, Revelation 1:14, Matthew 28:3). And after David’s adultery and murder, he cries out to God, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Similarly, God calls to His people through the prophet Isaiah, telling them their rebellion against Him is stupid and foolish:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; . . . learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.  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 1:16-20)

So in this sense, God’s people should be like Him, white as snow. We should be pure, spotless, undefiled. Like the new-fallen snow around us this morning, there should be no speck of dirt, no hint of rebellion in us.

But, secondly, Scripture also uses the image of snow in a negative sense. Three times leprosy is pictured as “like snow” (Exodus 4:6, Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:27). And leprosy ironically is an image of deep-seated sinfulness in us. So we are to be white, pure as snow; yet skin which shouldn’t be pure white becoming pure white indicates our rebellious, fallen nature.

Third, snow can be dangerous. We are all conscious of that today as we stay at home and avoid the roads. For the ancient Israelites, the danger was especially from exposure to cold. But the excellent wife of Proverbs 31 is not fearful of the snow; she has clothed her family not only with practical warmth but also with beautiful adornment (Proverbs 31:21).

Fourth: Isaiah 55 speaks of snow as the source of fruitfulness. Snow, like rain, is the necessary source of water for nourishing crops and forests. God’s Word similarly produces fruitfulness:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Fifth: Two passages refer to snow having its place; we humans similarly should have our place:

Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool. (Proverbs 26:1)

Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams?  But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway. (Jeremiah 18:14-15)

In these verses, the authors say: Snow belongs in winter, especially in deep fissures in mountains. Snow doesn’t belong in summer, and just so honor does not belong with fools. The people of God, on the other hand, have a purpose and a place: They are to love God, honor Him, and walk in His paths. But God’s people in Jeremiah’s day were rebelling against the purpose for which God had chosen them.

Finally, God’s control of the snow is evidence of His majesty, His authority, His awesome power (Job 37:6, Psalm 147:16). When Job raises questions about God, the Almighty turns the table and questions him: “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (Job 38:22). Indeed, the psalmist calls on the snow (together with fire, hail, mist, and stormy winds) to praise the Lord! (Psalm 147:8).

So look out on this weekend’s snow and reflect on these truths. You are born with a leprosy-like disease, deep within you, disfiguring you, making white what should not be white; but through the blood of our Savior and the power of the Spirit, you can be properly white as snow. There are dangers around us – but God grants us wisdom and resources to protect ourselves from those dangers. And as the snow itself will melt and be God’s provision for forest and field, just so His Word will nourish us and build us up to become what He intends us to be. In this way we can find our rightful place, we can fulfill His plans, delighting in the place and function He grants us.

And then as you look at the snow falling and hear of the blizzards further up the coast, stand in awe: Our God controls it all. The power of the storm is one minuscule part of His majesty. There is no power that can stand against Him. May the snow praise the Lord!

 

What Might God Do in 2016?

January 8, 2016

What might God do in 2016?

What might God do through you in 2016?

We must be careful when asking such questions. God does not need our skills, our intelligence, our education, our experience, or our wisdom. Indeed, God chooses to work mightily through the foolish, through the weak, through the low, through the despised, “so that no human being might boast” before Him (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). If we even begin to think, “Look how much I have to offer – I’m such an asset to God!” – then we are headed to a fall (Proverbs 16:18).

But God always is at work through small, weak, insignificant people to fulfill His great plans.  On the last night before His crucifixion, our Lord said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  (John 14:12-13)

He promises us the opportunity, the power, and the ability, through dependence on Him, to do greater works than He accomplished in His earthly life. He continues to act today – through you. Indeed, the Apostle John tells us, “As [God] is, so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17b)

C.S. Lewis captures this idea marvelously. In That Hideous Strength, all humanity is threatened by the forces of evil. All the powerful elements in society have been co-opted by this force. A small band of believers is able to seek assistance from a man from another century; he asks the band’s leader, “Are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?” The reply: “We are four men, some women, and a bear” (chapter 13). Yet in the end God uses these few not only to overcome but also to embarrass and mock the evil forces.

In Lewis’ Perelandra, the evil man Weston and the follower of God Ransom are both on the planet we call Venus. The first rational beings on the planet, a man and a woman, are in their innocence, and Weston, playing the role of the serpent in the Garden, tries to turn the woman away from God (“Maleldil”). The temptation goes on and on; Ransom sees her slipping away, despite all his efforts. He asks himself:

Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person. . . .

“The Enemy is really here, really saying and doing things. Where is Maleldil’s representative?”

The answer which came back to him . . . almost took his breath away. It seemed blasphemous. “Anyway, what can I do?” babbled the voluble self. “I’ve done all I can.” . . . And then – he wondered how it had escaped him till now – he was forced to perceive that his own coming to Perelandra was at least as much of a marvel as the Enemy’s. That miracle on the right side, which he had demanded, had in fact occurred. He himself was the miracle. (Chapter 11)

He was the miracle! God had put him there for His purposes. God was working through him to defeat Evil and to magnify His Name. And just so with you and me. We are God’s miracle, placed in our time, in our place, as His agents to fulfill His plan, His story.

Later, when Ransom wonders at this, he is told:

Be comforted. . . . It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. (Chapter 17)

Just so with us. We are not great. We gain no merit. We are small. We are a few men and women – without even the bear!

And yet we are as God in this world. God will do great works through us. Sometimes through our small, spontaneous acts of love. Sometimes through planning and strategizing on how to glorify His Name. But in all ways, at all times, God is powerfully at work through His people.

So what might God do through you in 2016?

Be confident. Be dependent. Be humble. Be in prayer. And look forward expectantly to how our Lord will use the weak and insignificant to advance His great Plan in 2016.

Bonhoeffer on Confession, Counseling, and the Cross

January 5, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the Cross can hear a confession.

It is not experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Life Together (published in German in 1939; English edition: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 118-119.

Read the Bible in its Entirety in 2016

January 2, 2016

Should you read the Bible?

Jesus says, “Blessed . . . are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28)

How will reading the Bible bless you?

Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

How then should you read God’s Word?

Those same verses from Paul imply that we should read all of it, since every part of it is profitable.

Surely also you should read it daily; in addition you should read it submissively. In Proverbs 8, personified Wisdom cries out:

“Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death“ (Proverbs 8:33-36, emphasis added).

But what does this look like on a day to day and year to year basis?

If we are to read the Bible daily, with a goal of reading it in its entirety, we will need a plan. I first followed an annual, comprehensive Bible reading plan in 1984. This plan was purely chronological; I began reading with Genesis 1 on January 1 and finished with Revelation 22 on December 31, but in between the plan guided me through Scripture in the order in which events and prophecies occurred. This was eye-opening to me. Though I had grown up in church and in fact had read all of Scripture previously, I had never before seen the overall flow of God’s plan of redemption. In particular, the writings of prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah became much more meaningful to me as I read them in conjunction with the historical books. In addition, many psalms came to life as I read them in the context of surrounding events.

I followed chronological plans several more times in subsequent years. However, there are significant weaknesses in following such a plan repeatedly for your daily devotional reading. First of all, you read nothing from the New Testament for more than nine months of the year. Second, a strictly chronological plan jumps around in the four Gospels. The reader therefore misses what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John communicate through the way they each order and select from the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, following chronological plans requires a lot of page flipping.

So in December of 2000, I developed the Bible Unity Reading Plan, which yields the benefits of a chronological approach while avoiding these weaknesses.  The Bible Unity Plan has two tracks for each day. The longer track – the left hand column in each day’s reading – is chronological. The second track, in the right column, is a shorter reading from another part of Scripture. This second track includes Mark, Luke, and John – read straight through – and several epistles while the chronological track makes its way through the Old Testament; it then focuses on Psalms and Proverbs while the chronological track takes you through the remaining books of the New Testament. And with only two passages to read most days, there is minimal page-flipping. The Plan also follows a helpful feature of the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan, scheduling only 25 days of reading per month. This allows you to read something else on Sundays (which I like to do), or to catch up easily if you miss an occasional day.

I have used this plan (or a variant of it) every year from 2001 to the present. I enjoy beginning each New Year with Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-3:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

I also enjoy the 14th reading in November, which pairs the message of Acts 15 – those from other nations need not become Jewish to be saved – with the foundation of that message in Psalm 67: “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”

In 2001 – the first time I read through the Bible following the plan – I was astounded by God’s providence. Living in West Africa, on September 11 we did not hear about the destruction of the Twin Towers until late afternoon. That evening I turned to the 11th reading for September – and read three times of the heart-rending but long-prophesied destruction of Jerusalem from 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 39, and Jeremiah 52.

Finally, every year I look forward to the final day’s readings, which sum up the entire storyline of the Bible:

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” . . . The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. . . . He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:12-13, 17, 20)

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven (Psalm 148:7-13).

I expect to follow this plan, and to finish each year reading those words, as long as I live. I encourage you to join me in 2016.

[A shorter version of the Bible Unity Plan – which covers all the New Testament and about half the Old – is available here.  This Sunday, copies of both plans will be on the table in the foyer. David and Amber Benton have also developed an app, available at the Google Play Store, which makes it easy to use the Plan on any Android device.  Search the Play Store for “Bible Unity Reading Plan.”  This article is edited slightly from the original, published in December 2012.]