Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Day of Big Things

A handful of times throughout our earth’s history God has made major public statements. Big things.

The Bible records a number of these great and unambiguous events: the Flood; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Israel’s delivery from Egypt, passage through the Red Sea and miraculous conquest of Canaan. Even when Israel and Judah went into their various captivities, God still made appearances to miraculously shut the mouths of lions, walk around in fiery furnaces and write on the walls of pagan kings.

Then came the first century miracles of Jesus, and later his apostles. Big things.

In between these major events were long periods of what appeared to be nothing much at all. People lived and died. They believed other men’s written and oral testimonies about God ... or else they didn’t. But dramatic confirmation of those claims was simply not to be had. There were no big things in evidence.

Mostly Unremarkable Lives

Sound familiar? Well, you are I are living at what may well be the tail end of the longest period of Nothing Verifiably Miraculous ever.

Then again, if you think about it, even the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs to whom God appeared were mostly miracle-free. Abraham, for instance, had multiple encounters with God — big things — punctuated by year after endless year of comparative minutia. He sojourned in a foreign land. He raised flocks and herds. He acquired wealth. He did all the normal things people do as part of daily living. Small things. Unremarkable for the most part. The miraculous moments in Abraham’s life were few and far between, and the specific, personal instructions from God so infrequent that he made many decisions entirely on his own, and naturally got more than a few of these wrong.

When thirty or more very ordinary years had passed with no visions, dreams or appearances to direct his way in the world, Abraham may have asked himself from time to time, “Did I imagine all that?” He hadn’t, but it could easily have felt that way.

Did I Imagine That?

I feel that way sometimes, and I know other Christians who do too. We ask God for certain results. Sometimes we don’t get them. That should not alarm us unduly. Scripture gives us all kinds of reasons some prayers are not immediately answered, from sin to unseen hindrances in the spirit realm to the free wills of men and women to the fact that what we are asking is simply not in line with the plans and purposes of God. A mostly-silent Heaven is not a conundrum. It’s a regular feature of Christian living.

Even the prayers that DO get answered are rarely answered unequivocally and with the sort of finality Abraham experienced in the presence of God. Yes, I asked for a certain result and I got it. I even said Thank you, Lord. But then I start to wonder … was that REALLY God working, or am I just imagining it? After all, there was a 50/50 chance of getting that result anyway. The thing was either going to happen or it wasn’t. It could easily have been a coincidence. And truly, it’s not like questioning the source of an apparent answer to prayer displays a lack of faith in God’s existence or love. The issues are unrelated. So maybe in this particular instance I’m just kidding myself, falling prey to confirmation bias like those cartoon-pious folks who see God around every corner, and sometimes even where he demonstrably isn’t.

Did I imagine that? Only the Lord knows.

Natural Questions

These are the sorts of natural questions that arise even in believing hearts when an act of faith is not immediately validated by an obviously miraculous answer. You can never be 100% sure. This too is normal for Christian living. Throughout the history of the faithful, those who expected big things and unambiguous answers from God within their own lifetimes have more often than not been disappointed. They lived in days of small things, and small things were what they got.

I know other believers have felt that way I do from time to time. Zechariah talks about people in Israel who “despised the day of small things”. They were looking for God to fulfill his promises visibly and unequivocally as he had done in the past. They would rejoice when they finally began to see even the faintest beginning of the realization of their hopes.

Living at what may be the tail end of the longest period in history during which nothing verifiably miraculous has occurred, you and I may find ourselves inclined to despise the day of small things too.

Life in a Parenthesis

It has been said many times that first century Christians expected the Lord Jesus to return within their lifetimes. They couldn’t in their wildest dreams have conceived of a two-thousand-year (or longer) parenthesis in God’s plans to bring the kingdom to Israel in the person of its returning Messiah.

This was certainly true of some believers. The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians out of concern that they might erroneously conclude the Lord had already returned, and that they had somehow missed it. Maybe they thought some of the “big things” Paul had told them about weren’t actually as big as they were cracked up to be.

Later, Paul comments that some in Thessalonica had become idle, passing their days in gossip. It would certainly have been ironic if they did so because they assumed the Lord’s return was so close that providing for the future was a wasted effort. Or perhaps they were just lazy. Either way, the apostle instructs them to get to work. From this we get the strong sense that even if some first century Christians fully expected major prophetic events to be realized in their lifetimes, others hoped for it enthusiastically but did not assume that showing them his hand on demand was the only possible way God could keep his promises.

Grace and Patience

One of the later New Testament books gives us solid reason not to be discouraged by the apparent smallness of our lives and the sometimes-ambiguous nature of the answers we receive from Heaven. Peter speaks of the “last days”, and how the apparent lack of God’s visible activity in the world leads unbelievers to scoff and assume that a long delay means God will never fulfill his promises. But he goes on to famously confirm that:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
In other words, where the return of the Lord is concerned, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s evidence of grace and patience, not indifference.

That’s encouraging.

A Second Reason

But the words of the Lord Jesus, though not fully understood by his disciples at the time, hint at a second reason we rarely glimpse the unequivocal movement of God in the world, and that is that it is only in the ongoing absence of the Master that the character of his servants can fully be revealed to the universe:
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
“My master is delayed in coming.” What a sad and ultimately false assumption. What if the apparent “delay” is nothing more than the Master gathering evidence for the judgments and rewards he plans to mete out?

Four Kinds of Servants

Some who claim to be servants of Christ are phonies. They are not servants at all, but deceivers. The passage of time will display their character, as they abuse the privileges they have assumed within Christendom, and the Master will cut them in pieces and assign them a place with the rest of the unfaithful. After all, they are literally without faith.

Others are genuine servants, but slow in responding to their Master’s commands. They are informed but uncompliant. Time, and doing their jobs without being micromanaged, will reveal their character too.

A third group of servants fail to do their jobs not out of rebellion but out of ignorance. Many believers throughout history have been put in this position because those who assumed the responsibility of managing God’s “household” have failed to do their job. They never taught the people of God to do theirs. What a shame. These failed servants will be appropriately critiqued, of course, but it is understood much of the fault for their failure lies elsewhere. Again, time and observation are required in order for a fair judgment to be rendered.

Finally, throughout the entirety of church history, there have been men and women who served Christ faithfully. This is not because they all saw miracles. Most did not. It is not because all their prayers were answered completely and unequivocally. Many were not. It is not because they could pick up the phone and get a new set of current orders when the old ones didn’t seem to be working out all that well. They had no special inside line to Heaven. The Master was away.

No, these faithful servants had the same weathered, yellowing set of written instructions that had been given to the household when the Master took his leave. They were in the exact same position as all the other servants, except for this: that in the day of small things, they kept on plugging away.

Looking for Big Things

Did this last group of servants have doubts about their ability to do the job from time to time? Maybe they did. Did they wonder if their small successes in management were a product of obedience or maybe just happy accidents? Maybe they did. When some of the other so-called servants mocked at them for working away in the heat of the day when nobody was watching them, did they secretly wish they could sit down with their critics and take a load off for a bit? Quite possibly.

The thing is they didn’t. In the day of small things, they looked for big things and behaved themselves accordingly.

And the day of big things is coming. Believe it.

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