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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Vision Thing (28): What Keeps Us Going

A true vision from God cannot but entail hardship.

Every person in the Bible who saw a vision of God and a vision from God suffered because of it. All were hated by someone. Some were cast out. Some were even killed. All had to give up something comfortable and familiar as a result of what they saw and step into the air where only God could support them.

Amos the Prophet is illustrative (Amos 7:10-17). A priest at Bethel, where Yahweh was worshiped in golden-calf form, vigorously opposed the prophet for his doom-and-gloom messages. "Leave, you visionary!" he said. "Run away to the land of Judah! Earn your living and prophesy there!"

Amos, the visionary, replied, "I was not a prophet by profession. No, I was a herdsman who also took care of sycamore fig trees. Then the LORD took me from tending flocks and gave me this commission, 'Go! Prophesy to my people Israel!' " Amos' vision impelled him out of an ordinary life into a world of hostility.

But the vision that drives us into suffering is the very thing that keeps us going through the suffering. What we see ahead is what makes it all worth it. Paul's magnificent exposition of the implications of seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ bears this out. "[W]e are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen," he writes mysteriously. "For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). It is this vision of the invisible that compels us to endure "momentary, light suffering"—which in Paul's case, as he describes elsewhere, included severe floggings (five times with the lash, three with the rod), stoning, shipwreck (twice), hunger, exposure to the elements, muggings, and rejection and disgrace from all directions—because it "is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (v. 17). So "we live by faith"—vision of and from the invisible God—"not by sight" of this world (5:7).

All the heroes of the faith did this. Abraham lived and died a nomad, seeing the eternal city promised him in the distance (Heb. 11:13-16). Moses "regarded abuse suffered for Christ," who was to come far in the future, "to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward. . . . [H]e persevered as though he could see the one who is invisible" (vv. 26-27). And finally the climax of this train of visionaries, Christ himself, "endured the cross, disregarding its shame" because his eyes were fixed on "the joy set out for him." Therefore, as we keep our eyes fixed on him, we too "may not grow weary in [our] souls and give up" (12:2-3).

Paul prayed for the church at Ephesus that, because "the eyes of your heart have been enlightened . . . you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe" (Eph. 1:18-19). That enlightenment, God's opening of our heart's eyes so that we can see his glory, the glory coming for us, drives us inexorably into conflict with this dark world and into suffering at the hands of its human and angelic powers. But it also keeps us going, driving ever onward, ever upward into the glorious rest that is himself that our heart's eyes have beheld and can't be torn away from.

True vision is not a light thing. It is not a buzzword; it is more than a diagram on a napkin, though those things might in a humble way exhibit it. True vision compels people to sacrifice everything. But the same vision assures us that the suffering it requires is worth it. Oh, yes—it is so worth it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Vision Thing (27): Our Failures or Christ's Glory

When the disciples went to the other side, they forgot to take bread. "Watch out," Jesus said to them. "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." So they began to discuss among themselves saying, "It is because we brought no bread" [Matt. 16:5-7].
True vision from God starts with having a true vision of God. One of the many obstacles to attaining a vision of God is one's own failures. I don't mean that your failures disqualify you from seeing God. If so, no one would see God—at least, no one would see him and live to tell about it. I mean that your failures can grab your attention so fully that you are blind to the glory of God right in front of you.

This is Jesus' disciples' situation in Matthew 16. Jesus warns them against "the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees," and all these poor guys can think is that Jesus is chastising them for not having remembered to bring the bread. Jesus could certainly be cryptic, but comparing their supply of bread to "the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" is a stretch even for him!

Besides that, as Jesus reminds them, they had recently experienced him multiply five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 men and later multiply seven loaves to feed 4,000. Why would Jesus care about whether they had remembered to bring bread? Hadn't Jesus already proven that they would never starve as long as he was around? Almost exasperated, Jesus sighs, "How could you not understand that I was not speaking to you about bread?" (v. 11).

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus' disciples thought he was speaking about. Their eyes were so quick to look at how they had messed up that they couldn't see what Jesus was saying to them. And they couldn't see what Jesus was saying to them because they couldn't see Jesus himself—the true bread from heaven that a person could eat and not die, who proved his inexhaustible power to give life by astoundingly multiplying bread twice.

Fortunately, Jesus' admonition broke their gaze from their mistake of forgetting bread and redirected it to his glory. "Then they understood that he had not told them to be on guard against the yeast in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (v. 12).

May Jesus' word interrupt our focus on our failures and replace it with a focus on his all-sufficient excellency! Then we too will see the world around us rightly, be warned of dangers, and recognize the mission he has for us.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Vision Thing (26): Seeking and Seeing

In a previous post I claimed that a person doesn't attain true vision by merely looking harder at the world around them. No matter how hard one looks, God's supernatural revelation is required. This comes entirely from him by his sheer grace.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that vision and attention are totally unrelated. What we're looking at—and more importantly, what we're looking for—goes a long way toward determining what we see.

Consider Jesus' teaching. Jesus proposed a truly novel solution to individual poverty. "So then, don't worry saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' . . . But above all pursue [God's] kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:31, 33). In other words, look for, anticipate God's just government that's coming over everything—even let it come early into your own life by obeying him above all other demands and desires—even pray for its arrival before you ask for your own needs—and before the day is done you will see God providing for your needs when you need them. If you look for God's reign, you will see your needs met, but ironically if you look to meet your needs you may fail to see it happen.

If we look for God's reign, it's because we consider it to be supremely valuable. Jesus instructed not to be about accumulating earthly valuables, because they are inherently insecure. By contrast, what is valuable in heaven—that is, what is valuable to God—is inherently secure; it is eternal and can never be lost. Jesus points out that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (v. 24). Our minds are on our money and our money is on our minds. But if what is most valuable to us is God's reign, then that will be on our minds all the time. Then suddenly having enough money becomes no problem, both because we have a revised standard of what constitutes "enough" and because God fully supplies it.

Where things get really interesting is when what we are looking for affects what other people see. There are people around us who have trouble seeing God's coming-and-already-here reign. Sometimes we think we see what the obstacle is that is obscuring their vision. But if, because we are looking for what blinds other people, we fail to see what is blinding us (which may be much larger!), then we are of no help to the other person. "You hypocrite!" Jesus says. "First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (7:5).

As I've maintained repeatedly through this series, if we seek a vision of God and for all obstacles to that vision to be taken away, we will not only see God but everything else besides. Indeed, our vision may allow others to see him too. But if we seek a vision of anything less than him, we will remain blind—and since we compare ourselves favorably to other people, we will not know that we cannot see.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Vision Thing (25): More Given, or Taken Away

One day Isaiah had a vision (Isa. 6). He saw himself in the innermost recess of the temple of God, and he saw the Lord in blazing, humanoid form sitting on an elevated throne, and in a mysterious, impossible-to-picture phrase, "the hem of his robe filled the temple." Fiery, multi-winged beings swirled around him crying out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!" The sound of praise was so deafening that the building shook, and smoke filled the temple.

It was only by seeing the terrifyingly awesome, barely describable visage of God that Isaiah could truly see himself: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (v. 5, NASB). When Isaiah saw God's holiness, he saw his own uncleanness, and he saw the uncleanness of the people of whom he was an inseparable part, and he believed that he was a dead man for having somehow disgustingly invaded the presence of the all-powerful, unyieldingly clean God.

But God intervened. The unimpeachably Pure One purified Isaiah with the symbol of a burning coal on his mouth, separating and sanctifying Isaiah from among his people to speak God's pure words to them. And at that moment, having seen God and then seeing himself, Isaiah saw his people, Israel, as God saw their present and future:
Listen continually, but don't understand!
Look continually, but don't perceive!
Make the hearts of these people calloused;

make their ears deaf and their eyes blind!
Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
their hearts might understand and they might repent and be healed.
Isaiah had seen a vision of God and did exactly the right thing—he humbled himself and submitted to the One he saw. As a result, Isaiah was given a vision of his people. He was given many more visions from God—according to the first verse of his book, all 66 chapters of it describe them. He received more vision because he cherished and obeyed the vision that he had already been given.

Israel had been given a vision too—a vision of God on Sinai, visions of him through his acts of deliverance on their behalf over centuries, and prophets' recounting of their visions of God as instructions for the people. But rather than cherish and obey the visions, they treated them casually and neglected them. The result for them was that rather than getting more visions, they received less. Even the visions they did receive were hidden from their eyes. Having chosen not to see, they could not unchoose—they could not even see enough to recognize seeing as an option.

Isaiah asked God how long he would have to proclaim this message: see, you will be blind! God replied that it would be until Israel's blindness took them all the way into devastation and exile.

So Isaiah proclaimed this message. One time he excoriated the people for going to occultists for a message when the vision in God's Law and prophetic oracles were right in front of them. Their stubbornness revealed that they had "no dawn" (8:20, NASB), no light by which to see. Hungry, angry, in "distress and darkness, gloom and anxiety," they would perish in their blindness (vv. 21-22).

The very words that God gave Isaiah in Isaiah 6 were on the lips of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were commented on by John, and were on Paul's lips as recorded in Acts.

Jesus taught using figures of speech that he sometimes deliberately chose not to explain, because the lack of understanding of those to whom he spoke was a self-confirming judgment, just as it was in Isaiah's day (Matt. 13:13-15). But Jesus called out a few students to see truly and listen fully just as God had called Isaiah. "You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven," he said, "but they have not. For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him" (vv. 11-12).

This is the awesome, frightening, and exciting principle of vision: God gives more vision of himself, of ourselves, and of the world to those who keep our eyes fixed on the vision we already have. On the flip side, whoever neglects or ignores the vision God has given them lose even that and wander around blind.

This applies to all people. The person who obeys the little light they have gets more; the person who avoids the vision of God for the self-concocted or world-promulgated vision they want for themselves winds up with no vision at all.

It also applies to all churches. The church that devotes itself to seeing God, seeing what God sees, and obeying what God has shown that church to do will find its vision widened, deepened, and multiplied, touching lives that would have been unimaginable. The church that neglects the vision of God for a vision of its own institutional comfort, stability, and security loses all its sight and soon wanders, gradually but inexorably, into annihilation.

What a high-risk privilege! We have access to more of God's sight than we can conceive if we only follow what we have. And yet if we neglect it, we may never see God again.

However, if you have stumbled into darkness by neglecting the vision God gave you, there may yet be hope. Sometimes by his grace God does break the deserving blind out of their trap so that they see again. Isaiah prophesied, "The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. . . . The people walking in darkness see a bright light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness" (9:1). Jesus himself is the light of the world who shines in the darkness, and though the darkness cannot make sense of it, some do take that second chance to see and believe.

But if you have taken that second chance, why risk it again?