Sunday, January 30, 2022

LUSHNESS OF HELL - Isaiah 61 Devotional #13

"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion ... And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations."
– Isaiah 61:1b-4
The story is told about when Satan summoned the archdemon in charge of hell's wards and habitats to lead him on a surprise inspection. Entering the gateway to the first region, the archdemon showed off the new, highly efficient inferno-thermal energy furnaces used to power the hot tubs of boiling oil where hapless souls were subjected to their daily bath.
In the next region, the devil was given a demonstration of the latest upgrade -- maglev tracks where souls were fastened upside down by their ankles and whisked through a variety of automatic torture stations, where they were whipped, flayed, and flambéed in rapid succession.
And so it went. As the archdemon opened one massive gate after another and walked his master through the screaming hordes of tortured souls in each flaming ward, he received fresh plaudits for his fine work to improve the operations of hell.

Until they passed through another gate, where Satan was astonished to see ... orchards laden with summer fruit, birds twittering in the branches, towering palm trees, fields of wheat, a gentle breeze with the smell of fresh alfalfa. The devil was beside himself. "What the heaven is going on here!?"

"Oh, Master, you know...!" the archdemon whimpered. "It's just those dratted Jews and their irrigation projects!"
* * *

On our own grand tour of the Isaiah 61 Messianic Age prophecy, we have been studying Christ's chosen few -- the "Blessed Mourners," we call them -- whom He ordained and empowered to carry on His work on Earth. They have already been gloriously equipped in verse 3 with beauty, joy, praise, and towering righteousness, and the time has come at last for them to sally forth and ... do something! But, just what does our Lord have in mind for them to do?

"They shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations."

The language here could not be more precise, nor the picture painted, more vivid. We're not talking about a fresh coat of paint or patching up a leaky roof. No ... it's about RUINS. DESOLATION. RUINED CITIES. Think of the once-proud city of Cologne after World War II. Then imagine that it had lain abandoned and utterly crumbling for yet another hundred years. Now it's 2045 and ... in marches the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help repair, raise up, and rebuild.

Back to our little story about lush orchards in hell. (I happen to be of Jewish lineage, and we Jews do love to poke fun at ourselves! If you don't believe that, check out Dan Greenburg's 1960s bestseller, "How to Be a Jewish Mother.") But our mid-century anecdote about hell is actually a nod to the awesome tenacity of Jewish immigrants, especially those pouring into Palestine after World War II, as they set out to reclaim vast swaths of the most dry, desolate land -- what had been, three millennia earlier, known as the "land flowing with milk and honey." They faced a task nearly as daunting as did the Corps of Engineers in our Cologne analogy.

There's nothing esoteric about Isaiah 61:4. These Blessed Mourners are quite clearly anointed with the Holy Spirit and power to repair and rebuild, to raise up a "city set on a hill" whose light beckons all who are weary, downtrodden, and oppressed by the devil to find our Savior's life in abundance. And raise it up they shall.

In fact, the ruins of that city are with us today. It was powerhouse of glory in the first century but, as the faith of many grew cold, it metamorphosed into the twenty-first century "desolation." Granted, there is plenty of life among the ruins, but nothing that holds a candle to the Early Church.

And, just how do we go about rebuilding? In Jesus' day, crowds would follow Him out of town -- into the hilly pastures or by the seaside boat launches -- and listen to His words of life. Shall we plan "Jesus mega-rallies" at the nearest marina or cornfield?  Or perhaps ... As recently as the 1950s and '60s, healing evangelists toured the country in circus tents, drawing in thousands to hear the gospel. So, maybe we resurrect the mid-century "Jesus tent tour" model, complete with sawdust on the ground and wooden folding chairs?

Isaiah 43:19 suggests otherwise. "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but ... He is eternally full of surprises!

In the power of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mourners, the spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham, SHALL embark on the greatest "irrigation project" of all time, bringing streams into the wasteland -- abundant, vibrant life to the ruins of the Church in our generation. And it likely won't look anything like past revivals; it will be SOMETHING NEW.

Can this indeed happen right here in America? Nothing is impossible for God. Let's just give Him something to work with! A few "Blessed Mourners" who care enough to give their "utmost for His highest."
* * *

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father, as I ponder the "dry bones" of spiritual life in my generation ... they seem desperately dry. But reading Isaiah 61:4, there's a glimmer of hope! If I'm truly called to continue Jesus' ministry on Earth, I have to believe that these dry bones can live again, that revival can come to America once again. And never have we needed it so! Yet ... I don't know where to begin, but I'm willing. I want to be part of the solution, no longer part of the problem. Please, Lord, show me where to get started: this year, this month, this week! I'll be watching and listening for your answer.
In Jesus' name. Amen"

Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 1/30/2022.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

PLANT MY HEAD ON THE FRONT SEAT - Isaiah 61 Devotional #12

"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion ... That they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified."
– Isaiah 61:1b-3e
"I remember another experience I used to have in Atlanta. I went to high school on the other side of town--to the Booker T. Washington High School. I had to get the bus in what was known as the Fourth Ward and ride over to the West Side. In those days, rigid patterns of segregation existed on the buses, so that Negroes had to sit in the backs of buses. Whites were seated in the front, and often if whites didn't get on the buses, those seats were still reserved for whites only, so Negroes had to stand over empty seats. I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'm going to put my body up there where my mind is.'"

- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
* * *

By happy coincidence, just as we're crossing into a new year at the time of this writing, our journey through Isaiah 61, the "Messianic Playbook," turns a corner as well.  In fact, whenever roads appear to intersect in time and eternity, God's people are called to "lift up [our] heads, awake out of sleep" (Luke 21:28, Rom. 13:11-12), for the breath of God may be blowing afresh.  His desire is for us to "understand the times, and what [we] should do" (1 Chronicles 12:32).  So, let's consider what God may be saying to us ... you and me, PERSONALLY ... at this juncture.

In review: Jesus' earthly ministry, which He launched on the first two verses of Isaiah 61, began with His broad redemptive plan for all of mankind.  But it didn't stop there, as we've seen already.  Verse 3 shifts the focus to a very special group, the "Blessed Mourners," the soil of whose hearts has been tenderized by tears on account of the ravages of sin they witness all around them, to the point that ... well, things begin to happen!

As the Gospel seed germinates gloriously within the mourner's heart, it first brings "comfort, beauty, joy, and praise" (which we've observed in the latest four devotional segments).  But there's no stopping it now!  Turn the corner, and behold!  Verse 3 concludes with a monument to God's handiwork that cannot be missed: Where the seed fell, there now stands a "tree of righteousness" for all to see, an unmistakable work of God to the glory of His name.  Hallelujah!

Hmmm ... OK, but just what does that mean?  Poetic hyperbole?

Not at all.  First, think of a TREE ... sprung from a SEED.  Now, there's nothing as prophetic as a seed.  Within its little body there are three crucial elements: life, character, and connection.  Meaning, it's every bit as alive as the tree that will grow from it ("life"), and it knows precisely how to grow itself into that tree--every wrinkle of the bark, every branch crotch, every leaf node--is all pre-programmed into the tiny seed's DNA ("character").  
And yet, as Jesus said in John 12:24, the seed must "die" before it can become a fruit-bearing tree.  And that's where "connection" comes in.  That little seed knows how to respond and interact with the moisture and temperature of the soil around it, by splitting open and launching itself forth as a new creation, connecting with air, water, and soil nutrients to produce what we call FRUIT.  That is, a product beneficial to the world in which it exists.

Back to us, the "trees of righteousness."  What sort of fruit would you expect from such a tree?  Righteousness!  Now, unfortunately, that's not a word we use much in our generation.  To put it in modern vernacular, "righteousness" is really "justice," but on steroids -- enriched with moral and spiritual goodness, which transcend the judgment of human laws.  So, when these trees start sprouting everywhere within our society, producing the fruit that it's in their nature to bring forth, the result is a rising tide of righteousness that floats the nation. ("Righteousness exalts a nation..." Proverbs 14:34)

Now, the opening paragraph mentioned something of "roads intersecting in time and eternity."  That wasn't poetic hyperbole either.  Seriously, America stands at a threshold today, wondering what lies beyond.  We're launching into a new year bewildered and fearful.  Just in the last two years, we've been blindsided by a pandemic that's still raging, witnessed near-unprecedented political warfare, rioting and crime, and many have lost their jobs or have a vague premonition of imminent financial ruin in the months ahead.  Not to mention ticking time bombs such as Iran and North Korea, which could conceivably reappear on the world stage and trigger a nasty armed conflict at any time.

In the midst of all this, we observe a renewed yearning in America's soul for righteousness.  From the platforms of "social justice warriors," civil rights activists, paramilitary clubs of all persuasions--right, left, or sideways--and from the halls of congress down to the local bar stool, the national awareness has shifted dramatically to the plight of marginalized groups within our society, to laws that are "unjust" (whether in reality or perception), to the issues of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and ... you name it.  What our nation craves, without knowing it, is RIGHTEOUSNESS.

What about the Church?  Our knee-jerk reaction, more often than not, is to condemn these voices for justice, to avoid unpleasant conversations or gatherings, to retreat into our little safe spaces hoping the conflagration passes over us quickly so we can go back to minding our own business undisturbed.

But this is a prophetic moment!  Church, let us not miss the window.  Think of it: a new year, a new climate in our nation, people yearning for righteousness and willing to take action (misguided though it may often be) to make our country a better place.  Why, we haven't seen such a perfect storm since the '60s!

"Prophetic" ... a curious word, though it really shouldn't be mysterious or spooky to us believers. In fact, I Samuel 9:9 breaks it down for us: "(Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: 'Come, let us go to the seer'; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.)" So, a prophetic person is simply one who has God-given insight into -- who SEES -- what God is doing. And, through the work of the Holy Spirit Who abides in us, we should all have a measure of "seeing," especially as it relates to our mission in this world.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 16 because they failed to "discern the signs of the times."  In contrast, the Sons of Issachar (which we already alluded to) in David's day were commended because they "understood the times and what they should do."  For my part, I want to be a Son of Issachar.  That means "awakening out of sleep" and "lifting up my (ostrich) head" out of the sand to see what's going on and ... most importantly ... to "see what the Father is doing," as Jesus said, so that I may be a part of it.

Let’s consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe this month. (Another intersection of time and eternity.)  Dr. King is the only man to have a U.S. holiday named in his honor who was not a U.S. president.  At the age of 35, Dr. King was the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.  He may also have been the man who traveled the longest road to that prize--cussed out, abused, and arrested 29 times in his fight for righteousness, this modern-day prophet never quit because, as he said in his famous speech two days before his assassination, "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop.... And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his flaws.  Every human vessel does.  But he was fit for the Master's use because he had those three crucial qualities that made him a seed of righteousness: LIFE, CHARACTER, and CONNECTION.  We know that he was tapped into Jesus, the source of true LIFE, without Whom he could never have faced down the Goliaths of racial injustice and prevailed.  But let's take a closer look at the other two qualities.

A seed of righteousness--which is to become a tree of righteousness--has its CHARACTER, its life plan, imprinted into its DNA.  Now, whether we realize it or not, each of us was conceived in the heart of our Creator and imprinted with His life plan before the human conception event took place.  We just need to find out what that plan is ... or, at least, the first bread crumb He is pleased to reveal, which will start us down the path to finding the next bread crumb, then the next, until we attain that destiny.  

Jesus, for example, being God Himself, knew precisely what the plan was in full detail.  Hence, we see Him at the age of twelve already "about His Father's business."  Some believers may have a similar experience of realizing their life calling quite early on.  Dr. King had such an experience, as we saw in the opening quote from his autobiography where he tells about riding the bus to high school.  Not only did he have a deep passion for righteousness--in the area of racial justice, in this case--but he handled it in a prophetic way.

"I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'm going to put my body up there where my mind is.'"

In other words, when the young M.L. King boarded the school bus each day, he would envision his mind being planted on the very front seat of the bus.  And he knew that one day the rest of him would follow ... which symbolized, from his adolescent perspective, the glorious achievement of racial justice for himself and his people.  Wow!  Now, he surely didn't have a clue of how he would ultimately get to sit in that front seat, but he did have a passion and a vision.  Oh, and one more thing: CONNECTION.

As the angel Clarence's character said in "It's a Wonderful Life," "One man's life touches so many others..." Just as a seed must interact with the soil, nutrients, heat, and ultimately sunlight and air, to become a fruit-bearing tree, we trees of righteousness require CONNECTION.  We will never bear fruit in a vacuum.  Those connections may vary widely depending how God programmed us, but there must be connection nonetheless.  For some of us, it's a church prayer group, social media outlets, or "networking" in our career.  Dr. King not only learned to socialize and seek input from others at a young age (as his autobiography tells us), but he trained in public speaking during his high school years and planned to attend seminary.

"My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something. On the contrary, it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entered Crozer Seminary at the age of nineteen and graduated three years later.  CONNECTION.  Without it, we are lifeless and fruitless.

What is the most productive way we can kick off this new year?  Lift up our heads, seek to understand the times and what we should do, and learn more about saints gone before us who have fallen into the ground, died, and emerged as towering trees of righteousness, serving the purposes of God in their generation.

In conclusion, let's review a few well-known, inspirational quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters."

"Communism will never be defeated by atomic bombs. Our greatest defense against Communism is to take offensive action on behalf of justice and righteousness. We must seek to remove conditions of poverty, injustice, and racial discrimination."

"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father: Joining the ranks of those who mourn our fallen society, I truly want to make a difference. I look not to the past -- years I've wasted, opportunities missed -- but to the future. Thank You for being the ever-merciful and loving God of second, third, and infinite chances.  But I don't want to miss the ones you send my way this year, this week ... TODAY.  I can't go on comfortably isolating myself from Your flow of LIFE, from the CHARACTER and calling You've programmed into me, and from the CONNECTIONS I need with those You've placed in my life.  Please heal my vision, fan the flames of my first love, and grow me into a tree bearing fruit of righteousness in abundance. I know I'm not Dr. King.  But I also know that You have a unique part for me to play as I seek Your kingdom, Your righteousness. Plant my head on the front seat of the bus -- whatever bus You've called me to board -- and help me work tirelessly till the day when I see my whole body in that seat as well!
In Jesus' name. Amen"

Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 1/9/2022.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

HORSIE RIDES WITH HAMAN - Isaiah 61 Devotional #11

"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them ... the garment [mantle, cloak] of praise for [instead of] the spirit of heaviness [grief, fainting, despair]..."
– Isaiah 61:1b-3d
"When Haman entered, the king asked him, 'What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?'

"Now Haman thought to himself, 'Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?' So he answered the king, 'For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, "This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”'

"'Go at once,' the king commanded Haman. 'Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.'

"So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, 'This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!'

"Afterward Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman rushed home, with his head covered in grief, and told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him.

"His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, 'Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!'"

- Esther 6:6-13 (NIV)
* * *

Today's Isaiah 61 devotional comes direct from Holy Scripture's grandest "fairy tale" love story -- complete with handsome young king, scumbag villain, and lowly damsel who becomes queen through a series of serendipitous events. The best part is that it all happened in REAL LIFE -- a treasure box of allegory and inspiration from the pages of Bible history.

But what makes this particular scene from the Book of Esther most poignant is its backstory.  Mordecai's niece -- now the grand Queen Esther of Persia -- had him mobilize the city's entire Jewish population to three days of affliction, fasting, and prayer against Haman's murderous extermination plan ... a plan that would not stop at the palace gate, but would include the death of the queen herself, since she was a Jew.  

The king, of course, was blissfully oblivious to all of this when he ordered his trusty minister to parade Mordecai the Jew through the streets of the capital, wearing the king's own cloak and seated on his royal steed.  (Oh say, can you say ... "irony"?)

But, how does this relate to Isaiah 61?

As our Lord Jesus made known in his great inaugural speech -- Luke chapter 4 (quoting from Isaiah 61) -- He was anointed and sent forth by the Father to rescue those "blessed mourners" (that's us!) who lament the sinful state of mankind and afflict their souls in prayer to see His saving hand.  And one of the first things He'll do?  Give them "the mantle of praise" in exchange for their heaviness and grief.

What does this look like?

Think of a time when you were alarmed by a news story or appalled by a revelation on social media. When you felt the needle of disgust, grief, and -- yes, despair -- stab deep into your gut or, as it says in Acts 2:37, you were "pricked to the heart."  I mean, to the point where your jaw went unhinged and your knees went limp with heaviness and grief ... and all you could think was, "God, how can this be?"  And, "God, PLEASE ... DO something!"  (Remember September 11?)

As Nehemiah reacted, when he was first apprised of the desperate conditions under which the repatriated captives in Jerusalem were living: "I sat weeping and mourning for DAYS, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven." (Nehemiah 1:4)   Or, as Ezra the Priest reacted when they told him how quickly the people had backslidden into sin with their idolatrous neighbors: "When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled." (Ezra 9:3)  Or, as Mordecai reacted in today's passage from the Book of Esther, wrapping himself in sackcloth and leading the Jews of Shushan in three days of desperate appeal to God for their lives ...

When you have that sort of a Nehemiah moment -- Ezra moment -- Mordecai moment -- THAT'S when you know you've joined the ranks of the "blessed mourners." THAT'S when you've become a mighty intercessory hammer in the Master's hand.  The kind of that is "made powerful by God to tear down strongholds" (2 Corinthians 10:4) in prayer.

And it's from the very womb of that gripping backstory that the transcendent episode of today's passage is birthed.

Picture Mordecai, still swathed in sackcloth, passed out on the floor after three days of passionate prayer and fasting.  And at sunrise, a knock on the door -- his archnemesis, Haman!  Who proceeds to clothe him in the king's own mantle, set him on the king's horse, and herald him all through the city as "the man the king delights to honor!"  (And the true spectacle here was not Mordecai, but Haman -- humiliated beyond recovery, as his own wife and advisers were quick to point out upon his return home.)

Unspeakable joy! ... and, incidentally, a profound allegory of the dawn of the Messianic Age almost five centuries later.  After three days in the valley of grief and impending death, Mordecai is wrapped in the king's own mantle -- symbolic of the king's delight.  After three days in the tomb, Christ arose victorious, making a public spectacle of principalities and powers, so that -- IN HIM, wrapped in the mantle of His Spirit -- we too, may burst forth to joyous abundant life. 

Now, as we continue Jesus' work on Earth -- "Just as the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (John 20:21b, NASB) -- let's employ all the mighty tools He's equipped us with, INCLUDING the "mantle of praise in exchange for heaviness."   It's a powerful cloak of transcendent joy, reserved for the "blessed mournful," who have obtained it ONLY in exchange for heaviness -- grief, fainting, and desperate intercessory pursuit of God.

As the psalmist said, "He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." (Psalms 126:6)

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father, I thank You for calling me to take up Your yoke, to share Your intercessory heart for a lost and dying world.  So, whatever specific yoke You have for me TODAY, please lay it on me thick!  And help me bear it faithfully and fervently, so I'll be worthy to exchange it tomorrow for Your glorious mantle of joy. 
In Jesus' name. Amen"

Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 12/12/2021.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

JOE COOL & THE GOLD RUSH GIRLS - Isaiah 61 Devotional #10

"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them ... the oil of joy for mourning..."
– Isaiah 61:1b-3c
"So [King David] got the Covenant Box from Obed's house to take it to Jerusalem with a great celebration. After the men carrying the Covenant Box had gone six steps, David had them stop while he offered the Lord a sacrifice of a bull and a fattened calf. David, wearing only a linen cloth around his waist, danced with all his might to honor the Lord. And so he and all the Israelites took the Covenant Box up to Jerusalem with shouts of joy and the sound of trumpets.

"As the Box was being brought into the city, Michal, Saul's daughter, looked out of the window and saw King David dancing and jumping around in the sacred dance, and she was disgusted with him. Afterward, when David went home to greet his family, Michal came out to meet him. 'The king of Israel made a big name for himself today!' she said. 'He exposed himself like a fool in the sight of the servant women of his officials!'

David answered, 'I was dancing to honor the Lord, who chose me instead of your father and his family to make me the leader of his people Israel. And I will go on dancing to honor the Lord, and will disgrace myself even more.'"
- 2 Samuel 6:12b-22 (GNT, excerpts)
* * *

To fully appreciate what was going on in King David's head, we first need to rewind about three months, where there's quite a different scene being played out.

The "Covenant Box" -- you know, the Ark of the Covenant ... the Indiana Jones thing -- had been captured in battle quite some time ago by Israel's arch-enemies, the Philistines, who had then reluctantly given it back after God struck them with a plague. Since then, it had been sitting in a sort of prolonged quarantine at Abinadab's house, while Israel went through a period of mourning and licking their wounds.

What King David needed was a morale-booster event, and he knew just the thing. He would be the One Who Brought Back the Box! He'd lead a pompous procession to outshine all other pompous processions ... ushering the Covenant Box back to its rightful place in Jerusalem. So, David had convened 30,000 noble men for the occasion, along with a marching orchestra with himself at the head -- most likely playing the finest of instruments, and most likely singing, in five-part harmony, ceremonious psalms that he himself had written for the occasion -- as he solemnly led the procession from Abinadab's house.

To make a long story short ... well, in fact, God did make the long story short! The somber procession which, though well intentioned, was both illegal and ill-conceived, quickly came to a tragic end. In His eternal righteousness, God was forced to cut it short with a lightning bolt from heaven, resulting in the death of one of Abinadab's sons, Uzzah, who was driving the ox-cart. Ox-cart?? Yeah, that was the illegal part: because God's Law strictly laid out the method for transporting His holy Covenant Box. It was to be borne by the priestly class, not the beastly class. 

But ill-conceived? Though a bit more subtle, King David "got it." See, his morale-booster event was all about HIM -- David -- leading HIS procession, leading HIS music, with the Covenant Box meekly following the oxen back to its assigned place in HIS capital. 

But something snapped in King David's brain (and heart) that day. Call it a God-snap ... something like that white-hot lightning bolt he'd witnessed! And NOW, fast-forward three months later, and he was ready to try this thing again. To get it RIGHT this time!

"The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them ... the oil of joy for mourning." That's our Lord's own heart for his people, and that's the heart we see in David when it comes time for the Parade Sequel, in 2 Samuel chapter 6, starting at verse 12 -- this time bringing up the Covenant Box from Obed's house instead of Abinadab's. 

He'd come to realize that it wasn't all about David himself, but about God Himself. Yes, the idea of a morale-booster was born in his heart by God Himself. God was turning Israel's page from the failed reign of King Saul to a new beginning with David. From oppression to praise. From MOURNING to JOY.

This called, not for a solemn procession, but a wild parade! God was figuratively bringing back the captivity of Israel, breaking the yoke of the Philistines from their neck, and turning their mourning into dancing! Sure, there was music this time, but it was music you could really rock to. 

And rock they all did! Back to our lead-in Scripture, we now see David rocking it out in front of them all, not seeking to make himself the hero, but rather wildly praising God -- the True Hero of the day. Cross-referencing details of this event in 1 Chronicles chapter 16, we understand that David started the parade wearing a fine royal robe, but as things got joyfully hot, he shed the robe and continued with just a linen cloth around his waist, whirling, leaping, and shouting joyful praises to Almighty God, Who had delivered His Covenant Box, and His people, from their mourning.

To grasp the impact of King David's un-kingly behavior -- which left his wife (Saul's daughter) horror-stricken as she observed the parade from the security of her window -- think of "Joe Cool" Montana, greatest of the great, the impeccably-mannered quarterback, ready to throw his historic pass against the Cowboys in January 1982. Montana lines up at the five ... on third down and three ... He's got the ball! Montana rolls right, looking, looking to throw! NFL history is about to be made....

But then something snaps. Joe drops the ball carelessly on the field, sprints over to where the Gold Rush Girls are standing, strips down to his boxers and tee shirt, and leads them in a wild sequence of cheers for the crowd, cheers for the teams, cheers for the love of Football!

You're probably thinking by now how we've strayed a long way from the topic of Isaiah 61. But think again! Our Lord Jesus was anointed "... to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them ... the oil of joy for mourning..." It's HE Who came to turn the page. It's HE Who came to die and atone for our mournful state of Sin, to rise again, and to ascend to the Father's right hand, where He ever lives to make intercession for us. Hallelujah! If that doesn't call for stripping off our three-piece suits and dancing in joy and worship in our undies!... (Well, you get the point. And, maybe your "secret prayer closet" is the place for such exalted worship.)

Christianity is not about church, not about the worship band, nor the choir ... not even about the sermon. (Horrors! Dare we say that?) It's all about Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Deliverer of His people.

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father, thank you for Jesus' triumph over Sin, the Grave, and Mourning. Thank you that -- as 2 Corinthians 2:14 says, 'Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.' Please help me respond with abandon, with a dancing heart to honor the Lord and 'disgrace myself' even more, as King David did, to spread the oil of joy to those around me, and so continue the Isaiah 61 work of my Lord Christ.
In Jesus' name. Amen"

Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 11/21/2021.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

SMOKEY BEAR SAYS, 'LET IT BURN!' - Isaiah 61 Devotional #9

"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes ..."
– Isaiah 61:1b-3b
SMOKEY BEAR. More American than Thanksgiving turkey or Casey at the Bat, at 77 years and counting, Smokey Bear is the longest-running PSA (public service announcement).

Some SMOKEY Trivia ...

- MOST RECOGNIZABLE MUG: According to the American Ad Council, the source of PSAs, Smokey Bear's image was correctly identified, and the ad campaign messages recognized, by 80% of "outdoor recreationists."

- NO MIDDLE NAME: By solemn act of Congress (The Smokey Bear Act of 1952), his name was established as "Smokey Bear" -- NOT "Smokey The Bear."

- ALIVE BEFORE HE WAS BORN: We've all heard how Smokey Bear (as a cub) was rescued from a forest fire and came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. -- where he became the living mascot for fire safety. The truth, however, is that the U.S. Forest Service's first Smokey Bear campaign poster was issued in 1944 -- fully six years before our little cub was rescued from the Capitan Gap Fire in New Mexico.

- HIS FAMILY: While living at the National Zoo, Smokey Bear had a wife named Goldie Bear and an adopted son (because they were childless) whose name was Little Smokey.

- HIS OWN ZIP CODE: That's right! By 1964, Smokey Bear was receiving so much fan mail -- over 1800 pieces per day -- that the U.S. Postal Service had to assign him his own ZIP Code: 20252.

- BUT SADDEST OF ALL: During his 26 long years on Earth, Smokey Bear only learned to say one thing: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires." And HE WAS WRONG! Read on and find out why....

On our last Isaiah 61 visit, we met a new breed -- the "Blessed Mournful" -- who are so appalled by the ravishes of sin on the people, the nation, and the world they love that they are moved to weeping, prayer, and decisive action. Jesus came, not only to comfort these Mourners, but to shape them into a new world order -- His Kingdom order. And, in fact, the rest of the chapter is a playbook for how He makes that happen.

But verse 3 is all about how He COMFORTS them. And where does this comfort begin? "Beauty for ashes."

"Ah, yes! A pleasant thought," you say? No. Read it again. "Beauty for ashes. Beauty FOR ASHES." It's a trade: to get His beauty requires our ASHES FIRST.

This "ASHES FIRST" thing is an eternal truth. A Kingdom law with no exceptions and no shortcuts. If I sincerely desire life in abundance -- in all its fullness, shimmering with all the BEAUTY of His purposes made perfect in me -- then I must be ready for the part where my own schemes and dreams get reduced to ASHES.

Which leads to an uncomfortable thought!... Just as, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" ... "Where there's ASHES, there has surely been FIRE!" And FIRE means DEATH. Death of, not only my schemes and dreams, but -- get this! -- death, even, of my human efforts toward becoming the person God needs me to be. It must all be tried by fire, leading to death, leading to ASHES. And yet, ashes now is better than ashes later!

"Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire." (I Corinthians 3:13-15, NKJV)

So, I have a choice: submit to God's plan of FIRE, DEATH, ASHES during my lifetime ... resulting in His true BEAUTY blossoming forth in my life; or else skip all that uncomfortable stuff and muddle through on my own efforts. In the latter case, sure, I may still pass "the [Judgment] Day's" fire test, but I'll be left standing there naked and ashamed. So what it really comes down to is "ashes now (with an abundant life of God's BEAUTY) or ashes later (with nothing to show for it but REGRETS)."

All of which brings us back to the gospel according to Smokey Bear: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires." Interestingly, the Ad Council realized that Smokey's message was misfiring, and they quietly amended it in 2001 to be: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent WILDFIRES." See, ever since the 1940s, Smokey and his friends -- especially Bambi, who was another Forest Service spokesman -- had burned into our consciousness the images of FOREST FIRES, set by MAN, destroying innocent woodlands and the creatures that live there. Evil, evil, EVIL!

However, modern forest conservation science was quickly learning that forest fires can be beneficial. No, not the wildfires set by arsonists or accidentally kindled by careless campers. But controlled burns, whether initiated by nature or by human hands, are both helpful and essential to maintain healthy woodlands. Take Yellowstone National Park, for example. tells the story:

"Fire suppression in Yellowstone began with the arrival of the US Army, which was placed in charge of protecting the park in 1886. The Army, which was in Yellowstone until 1918, successfully extinguished some fires in the belief that suppression would help save the forests.... Records indicate fire was almost completely excluded (suppressed) from the Douglas-fir, sagebrush steppe, and aspen communities on the northern range from 1886 until 1987.

"By the 1940s, ecologists recognized fire was a natural and unavoidable change agent in many ecosystems... In the 1950s and 1960s, other parks and forests began to experiment with controlled burns. In 1972 ... two backcountry areas in [Yellowstone] park totaling 340,000 acres ... were designated as locations where natural fires could burn. After three years, during which 10 fires burned a total of 831 acres in the two natural fire zones, the non-suppression area was expanded to include most of the park.... From 1972 to 1987, 235 fires were allowed to burn 33,759 acres in Yellowstone."

But the average Joe and Jane American were left scratching their heads. How could the U.S. Forest Service be flouting the advice of their very own expert, Smokey Bear?

All of us must be open to new learning, even Smokey Bear, whose message finally changed in 2001 (posthumously, it would seem) to focus on wildfires, rather than forest fires in general. He learned that nature's law of forestry includes periodic forest fires, either set by lightning or intentionally by man, for a number of very good reasons:
- Clearing dead trees, underbrush, and leaves from the forest floor so new vegetation can emerge
- Allowing more sunlight through
- Returning nutrients (as ashes) to the forest topsoil
- Aiding certain trees that actually REQUIRE FIRE in order to release their seeds, for example, the lodgepole pine.

Scripture gives us numerous examples of heroes of faith whose prophetic vision of God's plan for them first had to be reduced to ashes before it could emerge in its full beauty. Think of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. Or, how about Joseph? Remember those splendid dreams, where his brothers were falling prostrate before him? Actually, they DID bow to him later, but not before he had been roughed up, cast into a pit and left for dead, sold as a slave to an alien land, falsely accused of a crime and locked up in prison. Talk about ashes! But -- on close examination -- each account reveals a deeply flawed human who had to run the gauntlet of adversity, seeing all his dreams and schemes reduced to ashes, before God could use him.

Hear Jesus' call today: "O Blessed Mourner! I treasure your heart of prayer and zeal for the Kingdom. Come join My army. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me. I'll make a man (or woman) out of you! Come experience DEATH ... ASHES ... and finally My BEAUTY as rivers of living water flow from you to a thirsty world!"

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father, help me live each day in perspective of "that Day." I don't want to enter Heaven with my tail between my legs, having relied on my own plans and efforts, only to see them burnt to ash at the last Judgment. Please bring on the fire, death, and ashes NOW, so Your beauty can burst forth as the seed of the lodgepole pine -- a tree of righteousness in your Kingdom's fine woodland!'
In Jesus' name. Amen"

Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 10/3/2021.