New beginnings

Some see the first day of a new year as nothing special.  To them, it is just another Sunday or another Tuesday.  The life they led before that day does not change simply because the clock has struck twelve.  For others, the new year brings hope for a positive difference.  Whatever problems or issues they have encountered can be put in the rearview mirror.  They resolve to make changes that they know should be made but have not gotten around to making.  They wake up on the first of the year thinking that the next twelve months will be not only different but better because they believe change can come that quickly. There are many figures in the bible whose lives changed in a day or an instant. Perhaps when least expected, something occurred which let them know that nothing would be the same again.  As we enter this new year, let us seek the Lord for something new not because the calendar is changing but because each day is a new opportunity for incredible things.

Jon. 1:11-16

Then [the men] said to [Jonah], “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?”  For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.  He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”  Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.  Therefore, they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”  So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

There are many times when I have read the story of Jonah and focused on two things.  The first is that God wanted to redeem Nineveh from its wickedness.  The second is that Jonah did not want to be the one to help.  This is the classic struggle of the Lord’s perspective and will opposing ours.  Where God wanted to see Nineveh repent, Jonah wanted to see God punish the wicked.  We see Jonah go through a change in the belly of that fish, and it appears that his heart had now aligned with the Lord’s.  Yet, once Jonah had done the work that was ordained for him, his attitude went right back to hardness and resentment.  He pivoted back and forth between wanting what God wants then wanting his own plan.  We also see Nineveh go through a great change that mirrors our own picture of redemption.  It gives us a glimpse of the Lord’s desire to save those who are as wicked as we are.  However, Jonah and Nineveh are not the only ones touched by this journey.  I think there is another transformation to discuss here, and it can be lost in the beginning of the story.

The passage above gives us the end of Jonah’s experience on that ship heading west.  His goal was to escape God, but we know that is not possible.  In Jonah’s disobedience and rebellion, the Lord found a way not only to bring him back but to call others to repentance as well.  The men who were on that boat with him probably had no idea what was in store for them on that trip.  When the storm started, they knew that this was no ordinary tempest.  They had to admit that they were encountering some great God, so they began to call out to the ones they had known.  It was not until Jonah revealed his faith and his God that these men began to truly fear, and this was a healthy fear of the Lord.  They wanted to save themselves, but they did not want to put a servant of this great God in danger.  Ultimately, they followed Jonah’s request, and the result was proof that his God is the one true God.  We know that they offered sacrifices and vows on that ship, and I think we can rest assured that life was never the same again for any of them.

Lk. 7:44-50

Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.  But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”  And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The alabaster box which figures in this story is famous.  There are songs which mention it and writings which expound on its symbolism for us.  The owner of the box is just as famous.  The two key facts here are that she was a sinful woman and that this container held very valuable oil.  We see someone who needed forgiveness and redemption, and she paid a great cost for that.  The oil being offered up as an act of sacrificial worship shows us that she understood how valuable Jesus is.  He is worth pouring out such a priceless fragrant offering, and the reaction of the other men there speak of what her perceived value was.  Being described as a sinful woman, we can assume that she was sexually impure.  Either she was a prostitute or an adulterous, and these men thought that she was not worth an interaction with Jesus.  He, on the other hand, thought very differently.  She poured out that oil as a way of showing him what she thought He was worth, but his actions also speak of her value in his eyes.

When Jesus accepted this loving offering from this woman and absolved her of her sins, He made her a child of God and co-heir with him. Her value no longer rested in her sinful nature or sinful actions. Her value rested in him from that point forward.  We must remember that Jesus sacrificed himself willingly out of love not because of the value we inherently carry but because of the value He can give us.  Left to our own devices and in our original sin, we deserve spiritual death. Apart from God, we have nothing of worth to bring him.  This loving offering was a response to who Jesus is, which means that she was driven by the Spirit to do this.  She acted not out of her own love but out of the love that the Lord allowed her to experience.  Her change was not about an encounter on that day.  Her change was about a spiritual transformation of the heart, which is a lasting change.  It goes beyond a memory to recall or a story to tell.  Her worth changed because of the love she reciprocated to Jesus, and He responded by establishing peace between her and God.

Job 42:1-6

Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’  Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’  I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job’s words here are in response to the Lord’s challenge.  Like so many people throughout the millennia, Job wanted answers.  He did not understand why things had gone so badly.  This was a man who had been apparently highly favored and blessed.  He had a family and property and animals and wealth.  He had a good name.  Even God himself had called Job upright and blameless.  Then, things went south. His circumstances seem to have affected his faith.  He thought that his complaints were just.  He started to loathe his life and see it as doomed. He even started to think that perhaps it would be better for him not to have been born.  Job’s questions seem to follow an if/then pattern.  If living righteously results in this, then how is this better than remaining in my sin?  Job wanted God to answer him the way he desired to be answered, but God is not one to be told what to do by man.  In fact, his answer to Job was very different than the question.

There is a fine line between desiring to understand the Lord and expecting him to answer for himself.  We certainly want to know why God does what He does sometimes, but we cannot demand that knowledge. We also must remember that attributing works to the Lord means that we already believe they come out of his character, which is righteousness and justice.  While we might not understand parts of the course of this life, we must confess that God is just in what He brings and allows.  Job’s change of heart here is about accepting that God is no better, worse or different because of Job’s circumstances.  Whether a child of God is reveling in joy or challenged with affliction, the Lord has not changed.  Whether that child is poor or rich, the Lord has not changed.  The child’s perspective of the heavenly Father cannot depend on the course of life.  We are not here to be satisfied by our days but to satisfy him with our days.

Jn. 4:27-30, 39-42

Just then his disciples came back.  They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?”  So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?”  They went out of the town and were coming to him.  Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”  So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of his word.  They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

I am certain that I am not alone in seeing the Christian faith as one thing.  What I mean by this is that either one has faith in Christ or does not have faith in Christ.  To me, this always has been a black-and-white issue.  Yet, this story of the Samaritans and their faith seems to indicate otherwise because there are two kinds of faith being discussed here. The woman who encountered Jesus at the well had an experience.  She saw him and spoke with him.  What He showed her during that encounter made her believe that He could be Messiah.  Then, she went and told others.  Because of the story they heard from her, some also believed in Christ.  Then, some of them spent time with Jesus as well, and their words are not inconsequential.  Those people first believed based on what that woman had told them.  Then, they made a point of telling her that their faith changed based on their experience with Jesus. This added something to their faith.  Believing in Christ based not on her experience but on their own encounter made a difference.

The idea of our making disciples of the world rests on there being these two kinds of faith.  If it were sufficient for us simply to tell others of Christ, this would not be a command.  Instead, we would be told just to tell our testimony of Jesus, but we are not told to do that.  There is a difference between telling and showing. Sharing the gospel message is telling it, but making disciples is showing it.  That is when we walk alongside someone else in their experience with Jesus Christ.  First, this woman told of the man she had met.  Then, she took others to meet him as well.  They first believed based on her words and then believed based on their encounter.  It is the difference between saying that we have heard of God or that we know of this Jesus and being able to say that we actually know the Lord.  Faith comes from hearing, but hearing comes from the word of Christ. [Rom. 10:17] To get there, we must hear from him.

Acts 9:17-22

So Ananias departed and entered the house.  And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.  Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.  For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.  And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”  And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name?  And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?”  But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

When we think of great personal transformations in the scriptures, the story of Saul of Tarsus surely comes to mind.  We might rarely think of his history when studying the instructions he gave us through his many letters. We might forget that he persecuted the Church in ways that we probably cannot imagine today.  We might forget that he murdered brothers and sisters of ours.  There is such a difference between Saul and Paul, and I think there is a great reason for this.  His story of transformation gives us hope that anyone, no matter how far gone, can meet Jesus and be changed.  It certainly gives us a reason to believe in our own transformations.  It also shows us that we have the capacity to do something that we know God does but that we often might find it difficult to do.  If we are able to look at Paul and not be reminded of Saul at all, we are seeing him the way God sees him, and we are able to see others this way as well.

When we are transformed, it is not just a little change.  This is not like slapping a new coat of paint on the house or buying a new jacket. Justification actually makes a person a new creation, not a different creation.  While believers will go through changes slowly over time as they develop new godly habits and learn more about the word, these people have been made completely new already.  When we know someone from their history before salvation and then after believing in Christ, it can be difficult for us at times to see the new creation and not the old one.  We might deceive ourselves into thinking that we are unable to forget who or what that person was, or that we are just protecting ourselves by remembering what he or she is capable of.  I am not sure that this is a biblical perspective to have, and I think our perception of Paul tells us that.  Knowing who he was before that encounter with Christ only makes us celebrate his transformation more, not be skeptical of it or him.  The hope is that we can see every believer as the new creation that person has become because that is what the Lord sees.

Your life might not change drastically on the first of the year.  You might go through the whole month of January and feel like you lived the same stale day over and over again.  This does not mean that there are no great opportunities in store.  This Christian life of ours is about transformation.  Until the day when Christ returns and makes us perfect, there is much to be changed.  Whether the course of life brings us that which we see as positive developments or undesirable setbacks, whether our days bring us what is obviously God’s favor or what seems like one long, bad day, this is all part of the process.  We never know when God will allow darkness in order for us to become a greater light or even to add a new sheep to the fold.  By now, we should know that He works in mysterious ways, and many of those mysteries will remain just that for now.  Every day is a day that the Lord has made, and we cannot foresee the great purpose any day holds.  Let us welcome the changes God has in store for us with faith and discernment.