Review: Escaping with Jacob

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

What are you ashamed of?

With this simple question, David Ramos establishes the deep, freeing theme of this devotional, Escaping with Jacob: 30 Devotionals to Help You Find Your Identity, Forgive Your Past, and Walk in Your Purpose.

Reading about Jacob’s life is tough. Frankly, he’s not the most sympathetic of biblical characters. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who lies, cheats and schemes. And that, perhaps, is the point. The reader is moved to confront her own lack of goodness. We may not like Jacob, but we can relate to him.

Jacob’s life of running and wrestling is illuminated brilliantly through this book. At any point he could have turned around. He could have repented. In many ways, he knew better. But don’t we all?

Day 14, midway through the book, brings us to the crisis point in the life of the patriarch. “Many of us are like Jacob. We have something incredibly shameful in our past. A weight that is so heavy, it has in a big way defined and shaped who we have become.” God stands in Jacob’s way. He will not allow him to pass until the great burdens, the great shames, of his life are dealt with. That is our own great crisis point. We must also wrestle with God, allowing Him to draw us into submission. From here He takes the darkness of our pasts and shapes it in the light of His grace.

I appreciate that David Ramos keeps each day’s reflections brief. His focus is not on expounding on every point of the passage, but rather to prompt the reader to ponder the overarching truth of God’s graciousness. Over and over he asks us to recognize and celebrate the greatness and goodness of God. We are given permission to be small and human. This doesn’t mean we have no responsibility, but it does mean that we don’t have to waste time beating ourselves.

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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Review: Climbing with Abraham

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

Your story is part of something infinitely larger.

This sentence, tucked into the first devotional reading, sums up the journey of Abraham. The reader is prompted to realize that every plot twist and every character development that follows takes place within the context of something far greater.

What kind of man immediately obeys the voice of God, a God he cannot see, and picks up his entire family to move to a location he knows nothing about? What kind of man dares to engage with that same God, pleading for the people of the famous towns, Sodom and Gomorrah? What kind of man is willing to lay his precious miracle son on the altar? Abraham, the father of nations. Abraham, to whom the Gospel was preached thousands of years before Christ walked the earth. Abraham, blessed with riches and influence far beyond his imagining.

Yet this same man lied about his relationship with his wife and slept with a slave. We see him fearful. We hear his questions and doubts. Abraham was a sinful, imperfect man. In that, there is great encouragement for us today. Our stumbling and sin does not prevent God from calling, saving and using each of us in mighty ways both within our own stories and within the grand story of redemption.

I appreciate that David Ramos keeps each day’s reflections brief. His focus is not on expounding on every point of the passage, but rather to prompt the reader to ponder the overarching truth of God’s graciousness. Over and over he asks us to recognize and celebrate the greatness and goodness of God. We are given permission to be small and human. This doesn’t mean we have no responsibility, but it does mean that we don’t have to waste time beating ourselves.

Climbing with Abraham is an enjoyable read, whether you know the story of the patriarch well or it’s the first time you’ve ever encountered him. You will come away encouraged and with a deeper appreciation for God’s willingness to be intimately involved in every aspect of life. Worthwhile purchase!

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Review: New Morning Mercies

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Gentle Reader,

Paul David Tripp and I would have a lively debate over the Doctrines of Grace if we were to ever meet, but I’ll recommend this book to anyone (Calvinist or not).

For years I’ve struggled to find a good devotional. So many are shallow and sappy. While I don’t necessarily want an in-depth study with my breakfast (my brain’s not awake yet) I do want something meaty. Something I can chew on all day. Something that moves me to reflect on God and His goodness. This book does just that.

Each entry begins with a “Gospel tweet,” a one or two sentence declaration that immediately puts the reader’s focus on Christ. Tripp then launches into a reflection on God’s grace and the innumerable ways it impacts and shapes our lives. Sometimes he tells a personal story, sometimes he shares a few lines of poetry, other times it’s a straight-up mini-sermon. The reflection ends with a Scripture reference for further study and encouragement.

I usually skip to the end of the entry and look up the Scripture reference first. This gives me context for Tripp’s comments and reminds me to turn to the Word before anything or anyone else. That, therefore, is my only quibble; I wish the reference was printed at the top of the page in order to easily facilitate such practice. But we’re all adults and can figure it out, right?

“New Morning Mercies” is an excellent devotional tool. Tripp writes with humility and passion, pointing his readers to the Throne of Grace and the Lord who sits upon it forever. Great stuff!

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The Majestic King

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I live in a beautiful part of the world.

Gentle Reader,

Some friends of mine hosted a picnic down at the lake yesterday. The hostess asked if I would share a devotional, as part of her goal for the day was to keep God at the center of our time together. If I could have emailed everyone and had them read it on their smartphones at the same time, I would have.

But I had to stand up.

And talk.

With people looking at me.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d ever like to try preaching a sermon, and then things like this happen and I’m reminded quite forcefully that I am NOT a speaker. So, with paper in hand and refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, somewhere in the middle of the swimming, heavy application of sunscreen and the dropping of food in the sand (which is really more like rocks and dirt), this is what I shared. Or what I kind of shared. I got nervous and skipped over parts. But anyway:

I asked the Lord to bring to light a passage that would speak to where each of us at today. Of course, all of Scripture is truth and is useful to us (2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also true that He causes certain lines or words to leap off the page at just the right moment. It is as if a Divine highlighter descends and covers a section in neon. The Holy Spirit moves in our hearts and tells us to pay attention.

For this gathering, He drew my attention to Isaiah 33:5-6, two verses that contain rich treasures. In the NKJV, it reads:

The LORD is exalted, for He dwells on high;

He has filled Zion with justice and righteousness.

Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times,

And the strength of salvation;

The fear of the LORD is His treasure.

Before we begin to unpack this, it’s important that we take a look at the historical context. Isaiah was a prophet sent to the kingdom of Judah. He began his career “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), the year that Uzziah’s son, Jotham, came to power. Of Jotham, 2 Chronicles 27:2a notes that “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD.”

Unfortunately, Jotham’s devotion to God did not get passed on to his son, Ahaz, who did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD (2 Chronicles 28:1b). The rest of 2 Chronicles traces this back-and-forth, with Ahaz’s son Hezekiah showing great devotion to God but also sort of shrugging his shoulders when he’s told that destruction was going to come to the kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12-19). He was like, “Meh. Not my problem.” And then Manasseh ascended to the throne and was extremely evil, even going to far as to sacrifice his own children to a false god (2 Kings 21:6a). Though darkness never overtakes the light (John 1:5), it is also true that darkness grows when people choose it over the light, even if gradually.

Now, Isaiah’s career ended before Manasseh came to the throne, but, as a prophet of God, he knew what was coming. The book that bears his name is littered with oracles (sayings, judgments) directed toward Judah. He knew that any time the king or the people turned away from false gods and back to the Lord that it wasn’t going to last. The people were barreling toward destruction and exile. And none could say that they didn’t know what was going to happen because of their choices, because of the way they turned away from God (see the entire book of Deuteronomy for the specifics of the covenant between God and the Israelite people, and the consequences that would come if they broke the covenant).

Yet Isaiah’s message wasn’t just doom and gloom. Throughout Scripture, God continually calls people back to Him and He is always faithful to respond favorably to sincere repentance. Yes, the people brought judgment on themselves, but He would also gladly welcome them into His family, even in the midst of that judgment, if they cried out to Him with a broken heart.

This is the situation in our passage. The first rumblings of judgment came across the country through the kingdom of Assyria. The Assyrians were harassing Israel, and would eventually destroy the country. Those living in Israel were the relatives of the people living in Judah. The Asbury Bible Commentary notes of this passage:

The historical situation appears to be just before Sennacherib leads his Assyrian army in final assault against Jerusalem.

In order to get to Jerusalem, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, marched through Judah and destroyed several cities, despite the fact that King Hezekiah had paid him money to stay away (2 Kings 18:14). The commentary goes on:

As a final act of desperation, the king and people of Judah turn to Isaiah and ask him to pray for them. Isaiah does and assures them that God will route the Assyrian enemy and preserve the city of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:1-37).

Isaiah 33:1-4 is that prayer. The prophet pronounces judgment on Assyria for messing with Judah and then he asks God to be gracious to the people, even though they don’t deserve it. Verses 5-6 are also part of the prayer, but the focus shifts from asking God to rescue and onto the amazing nature of God Himself. The Message translates the verses this way:

God is supremely esteemed. His center holds.

Zion brims over with all that is just and right.

God keeps your days stable and secure—

salvation, wisdom, and knowledge in surplus,

and best of all, Zion’s treasure, Fear-of-God.

So, what’s he trying to say? To them? To us? I think the idea was the same for those ancient people as it is for those of us today. We can break it down like this:

1. The throne belongs to God…

God will be God whether anyone admits it or not. His identity doesn’t hinge on anyone’s input or definition. The Lord will be utterly secure in Himself whatever happens. However, He gives us the opportunity to recognize Him. He invites us to be in relationship with Him. Think on that! The King of Kings, the Righteous Lord who sits on the throne, the Totally Transcendent One extends the hand of fellowship. We don’t have to experience His judgment.

2. …therefore, nothing and nobody else has the right to sit on it.

God alone is to be exalted, or given the place of highest honor, in our lives. Only the Lord is pure and perfect. Only He exists without any flaw or dark side. Any time we put something else in His place – friendships, family, money, work – we are, in essence, denying reality. We are refusing to acknowledge that He is King. This is sin – rebellion – and it always leads us to a very dark place.

When we engage in idolatry, it’s as though we slap at God’s hand. We bat it away. We don’t want to grasp it and be part of His family, acknowledging the rightful place and order of things. We think, somehow, that we can get we want apart from God. How wrong that is! Because…

2. …all that we want comes from God.

Justice: the bad punished and the good rewarded. Righteousness: being right with God, being pure. Stability, security, salvation, wisdom, knowledge. Yes, please! Sign us up for all of that. Left to ourselves, we will play favorites and roll around in the dirt. We will be shaky, anxious, drowning, foolish and ignorant. Ultimately, we will be petty and selfish.

That’s what happens when we don’t obey God. When we try and do life without Him, we give reign to our bent wills, our twisted selves. We believe the lie that says being with God is slavery and that pushing away from Him will bring freedom, when, in fact, the opposite is true. We need to know God and be in relationship with Him. Let us be part of God’s treasure on earth, part of the people who know and love the Lord.

Isaiah reminds the people then and us now of who God is and what He has to offer. He draws both his ancient and modern audiences back to the truth of God’s Supreme Lordship and humanity’s utter dependence on Him. Going our own way leads to pain and darkness, just as the people of Judah experienced. Let’s not do that. Let’s dig into the Bible and learn the truth so we can stand on it. Let’s pour our worries out in prayer. Let’s find out what God wants us to do and then go do it.

But most importantly, let’s love God. Not what He can do for us or give to us, but Him. Just Him. Ponder that. Think about His creativity, His humor (come on; God is funny), His intelligence, His beauty, His consistency. Oh, yes, His wildness, too (check out Ezekiel 1 for a taste of that). God has the best personality in all of history. He is the most compelling, the most charismatic.

Let’s enjoy Him for who He is – the Majestic King.

The King who stoops to look into our eyes.

My journey to faith. (15)