This week’s story, told through the Bible readings for October 23, is about seeking God to find Him, and it explores how the route to this is humbly accepting what God offers as a gracious gift — not something which can be earned or received as any kind of right.
Trials and difficulties are part of life and part of the world we live in. We can’t change that — only influence it (and the prayer of Christians agreeing together for God’s order is a powerful influence).
Whether it’s the cost of food and the gigantic electricity bill, pandemic sweeping across the world and putting many at risk of death, or a neighbour country that is destroying ours and killing our friends and relatives, trouble is something that we live with. But it has a good side. We may actually need difficulty to live our best — because it directs our attention back to relying on God, who is the source of all we need, our refuge and our deliverance.
The people of God in the Old Testament experienced many miraculous deliverances as well as God’s provision in desert country where food was lacking and water hard to find. But this was also a time when they experienced God day by day. The real trouble began when they were more comfortably settled. They had to re-learn the lesson of going through the Valley of Baka (which means weeping or difficulty) and turning it into a place of springs, symbolic of refreshment or blessing. And that’s where the scene is set for our story with these verses from Psalm 84:
How lovely is Your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!…Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they are ever praising You. Blessed are those whose strength is in You… As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs… They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:1-7 excerpted
• See also The Living Word Bible Study with verse-by-verse commentary and reflections on the Bible readings used as excerpts in this story
• Watch this week’s video God Says Those Who Seek Me Find Me (approx 15 min) in widescreen format for desktop, or tall format for mobiles
The people of Israel, and later the neighbouring kingdom of Judah, got themselves into real difficulty with God. Or perhaps we should say, without Him. The inhabitants of both kingdoms prospered, and got comfortable, and at the same time became complacent. They didn’t need God – not day to day, anyway, or so they thought. God raised up prophets to speak for Him, and shock them into returning to Him. And they did offer Him sacrifices, but to hedge their bets they did the same to the idol gods of the nations around them. Of all the wrong actions this was the most forbidden. And the inevitable happened, with them being overrun by Assyria and Babylon, with vast numbers deported and taken into virtual slavery in a distant and pagan land.
Over the following century there was a gradual return to Israel — but would the God of Israel’s people give them another chance? To find relationship with God again? We are going to hear how two prophets of that exile time spoke for God, the same message but with different emphases. This was not only a spiritually desert time but also a severe drought that threatened famine, and it got their attention back on God and what He was saying through Jeremiah:
We acknowledge our wickedness, Lord, and the guilt of our ancestors; we have indeed sinned against You. [But] for the sake of Your name… remember Your covenant with us.
Do any of the… idols of the nations bring rain [or] the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is You, Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in You…
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 excerpted
Those who seek God find Him – and seeking God begins with recognising our need of Him, and the extent to which we have become independent and distant from Him. When we say, with Jeremiah, “we have indeed sinned against You“ we are really expressing how we have moved away from dependence on God, to living life our own way, and depending on ourselves. And that always has to be put right.
Jeremiah appeals to God that although, the human condition is to be like sheep that wander, God is renowned as a merciful Saviour and Shepherd. He entreats God that, for the sake of His covenant and reputation, He will receive our turning to Him again, and hear our appeal. Only He can bring the rain of spiritual refreshment and growth. And that is His promise to those who call on His name, the emphasis brought by Jeremiah’s contemporary, the prophet Joel:
People of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for… He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before. The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten… My great army that I sent among you… Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will My people be shamed.
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days… And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved…
Joel 2:23-32 excerpted
In seeking God and finding Him, Jeremiah leans more to the seeking, and Joel to the finding. God’s promise for those who call on Him, is for salvation and deliverance in a new season of blessing. His spirit is to be poured out on all people, old and young, male and female, people of substance and ordinary ones and those in poverty. This points to the time of revival when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
You might recognise these words as the ones quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost, and we recall them every year on Pentecost Sunday. This is an important milestone for us – as important as the birth of Jesus and the death of Jesus. Really? Yes, because this is about His Son making a way for everyone who calls on Him, to know God — majestic, holy, all-powerful God — in a personal relationship through Jesus. That first revival has been replicated more or less every century subsequently.
Before that, by the time God sent His Son Jesus to be born as man, there was regular worship at the temple, where people could go and offer their own prayers of devotion. Jesus describes a familiar picture. Some came to pray and worship, confident and even proud of their good standing with God through having kept all the rules, performed all the actions and made all the right offerings. They were religiously correct.
Others entered the temple courts with more trepidation, aware of their flawed, lives, and humbly seeking God’s mercy, as they sought a word, a sign, a sense of His comfort to help them make sense of life.
Jesus, speaking to a mixed audience, told a story which confronted the religious piety common in Judaism of His time. And at the same time, He poses a challenge to our exclusive rituals which can be a substitute for real trusting faith.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray… a Pharisee and… a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance…would not… look up to heaven, but beat his breast [saying] ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14 excerpted
Jesus made it very clear, which of them received a hearing, and could go away with the peace of knowing they had met with God. And at the same time, He exposes how our present-day ‘churchianity’ confuses faith with religious form and ritual, using that as a man-made substitute for real trusting faith. One of the problems with empty religious form — apart from its deception — is that it relies on elevated people with distinctive roles and dress and titles who do distinctive things in their desire to be the champions of religious orthodoxy. And that is just what this Pharisee man, and his judgmental fellow Pharisees were doing. Not ministering to those around them, but condemning them. It’s a word to reflect on carefully when our churches look more like exclusive clubs for the initiated, than mission gateways offering God’s timely and encouraging word for the modern-day ‘tax collectors’ and outcasts who are seeking Him.
Paul, a Jew with a particular call to reach Gentiles of Greek culture with the Good News of Jesus’ salvation for all, spent more than 30 years travelling, and planting churches. He didn’t go to a temple or holy place to seek and to find God — He knew God personally, because he had submitted to Jesus Christ as His Lord in that encounter close to Damascus all those years earlier. Listen to what he writes to Timothy about God’s presence with him while under arrest in Rome and awaiting execution. Hear how he reflects on more than three decades of dangerous and challenging mission, and how his faith was both tested and strengthened in those trials.
For…the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. [And] now there is… the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day. Not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.
At my defence, no one came to my support… But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. The Lord will rescue me… and… bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory for ever.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 excerpted
Paul’s testimony is that he has always known God standing with him, and being close, giving him strength to proclaim the message he had been given of a new life in Jesus. And in this last challenge, which he knew would end his earthly life, he was confident that in the next, Jesus would still be at his side, speaking for him as one of His.
Do we have that confidence? Have we truly put our trust for salvation in Jesus and what He has done, or do we still think that our good actions and religious participation count in our favour?
Are we seeking God and finding Him where we are, whether in peaceful circumstances or perilous ones? Or are we coming, aware of our failings and need to be put right with holy God, unsure how to draw close, aware of the barrier between our life on earth and what happens in heaven? Why not join me in this prayer:
Lord, we receive Your promise that those who seek You will find You. You make Yourself known to us. Indeed, You have made Yourself known through Jesus, whose blood-stained Cross has become a bridge for us to cross over from death to life.
You promise that when we draw near to You, You draw near to us. When we call upon Your name, we step into the flow of Your outpoured Spirit and are washed in salvation.
We put aside every man-made contrivance that offers only a form of godliness, choosing to reach out in hear-to-heart believing, trusting faith in who Jesus is and what He has done in being sin’s sacrifice for us in His death. Recognising that gift as something we can receive but never earn, we seek You, Father God, through Jesus, not in the assurance of what we have done like the Pharisee man, but in the assurance of what He has done for us, the connection of Your mercy.
Thank You that in Him, You can be found by us. To be made alive by Your Spirit. To experience Your love. In Christ Jesus, Amen.
Here are links to the NIV Bible readings from which the excerpts in the story are taken:
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 — An appeal to God on the basis of His covenant
Joel 2:23-32 — The promise of being able to be right with God
Luke 18:9-14 — Humble repentance, not proud piety, finds God’s peace
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 — Paul knows his righteousness is in Jesus