Living with Purpose (Exodus 19:1-9a)

Moses, by Marc Chagall, 1956

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (New International Version)

If I were to list every job I’ve ever had in my life, it would be a long list. I’m sure, at this point in my life, that I wouldn’t immediately recall some of them. Some workplaces were run well. Others, especially in the factories I worked, were characterized by inattention to working conditions and expected employees to be more like extensions of their machines than like people. And I typically never knew why we were doing what we were doing.

I’ve also been in many churches and pastored a wide array of congregations. Some of the churches were run well and were attentive to their mission and service to the world. Others left a lot to be desired. Without trying to be simplistic, today’s Old Testament lesson gives the clue to what makes the difference: a clear sense of purpose. 

God made it clear that Israel was given the mandate “to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Although there was always a remnant of Israelites who held to this original purpose, we know the end of the story. Israel largely failed to fulfill their God-given reason for existence and did not follow through with their missionary goal. They ended up in exile, mostly because of straying from their intended purpose, which then also led to a lack of holiness.

When Christians, Churches, and faith communities of all kinds lose sight of why they exist, they degenerate into a bunch of finicky cats who want ever richer food and a lusher bed to sleep on. 

So, let’s be clear about the reason for our existence as an institutional Body of believers: We exist not to be catered to, but to be people who do the priestly work of interceding for others so that the nations might come to know the God of all the earth. 

“Intercessory prayer might be defined as loving our neighbor on our knees.”

Charles Bent

We exist for holiness, set apart to be the conduit between heaven and earth so that others might come to embrace the life that is truly life. 

Christianity recognizes that it was Christ who fulfilled the great promises of God as the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. Through his holy life, Christ became the priest who made the once for all sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He reigns over a moral kingdom which is a light to the nations. And the Church, as Christ’s Body, is to continue this purpose of kingdom ethics by letting the light of Jesus shine into the shadowy dark places of this world.

Wherever you find complaining, backbiting, gossip, and slander, there you will find a profound lack of purpose. Because without a “why,” people fill the vacuum with endless squabbling about petty affairs which amount to nothing, in the scope of eternity.

And wherever there is only talk of how others can meet personal needs and satisfy pet desires, in that place there is a lost mandate to be a priest bringing others to God. 

The gracious and priestly work of intercession is the purpose many are lacking. Believers everywhere must return to this holy and sacred vocation.

Jesus modeled for us the work of intercession when he prayed:

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:24-26, NIV)

The Lord has said what the divine purpose is. It is our task, therefore, to do everything God has spoken.

O sovereign and majestic God, you are holy. So, I choose to be holy in all I do. I intercede for those around me who either cannot or will not come to you on their own. Draw them to yourself so that they might experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 20 – There Is Help from Heaven: Just Ask

I pray that the Lord answers you
        whenever you are in trouble.
    Let the name of Jacob’s God protect you.
Let God send help to you from the sanctuary
    and support you from Zion.
Let God recall your many grain offerings;
    let him savor your entirely burned offerings. Selah
Let God grant what is in your heart
    and fulfill all your plans.
Then we will rejoice that you’ve been helped.
    We will fly our flags in the name of our God.
    Let the Lord fulfill all your requests!

Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed one;
    God answers his anointed one
        from his heavenly sanctuary,
    answering with mighty acts of salvation
        achieved by his strong hand.
Some people trust in chariots, others in horses;
    but we praise the Lord’s name.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we will stand up straight and strong.

Lord, save the king!
    Let him answer us when we cry out!
(Common English Bible)

Sometimes, the connection between our present situations and the past biblical historical context is readily apparent; and sometimes it’s not so clear. In the crucible of life, and the struggles of daily living, we might too quickly pass over the grace, relevance, and truth of God’s Word to us. 

The psalms are both prayer and worship directed to God. Many of those prayers are for oneself. Others, like today’s psalm, are intercessions for others. It is my sincere and ardent desire that you will experience a good life, even when that life has a bevy of challenges, stresses, and difficulties baked into it. And so:

May the Lord answer you in the stress of your life.

May the name of the ever-living, ever-present God protect you.

May the Lord send you help from the holy habitation, and give you support from heaven itself!

May God almighty remember all the ways you have given and served.

May the Lord be pleased with everything you have sacrificed on behalf of divine purposes and plans.

May God grant your heart’s deep longing and carry out every good plan you conceive.

May we together shout for joy when you overcome incredible pressure, and in the name of God throw a big ol’ party because of answered prayer!

May the Lord bring to fruition every one of your prayers.

I have supreme confidence God’s people shall be delivered. The Lord will answer from heaven with the full force of saving power. Some put their ultimate trust in military might. Others place faith in financial security. But the people of God trust in the name of the Lord our God.

We may collapse and fall. There might be obstacles galore. Stress and pressure may be our constant companions. No matter. We get up and stand again with confidence. The Lord will save us. God will answer when we call.

For the Christian, all God’s good promises are realized in Jesus. Ultimate help and deliverance come from Christ. Even more, Jesus came to give victory to all people. Consider the following New Testament expressions of salvation’s opportunity for everyone:

Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. (John 3:16, ERV)

This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12, CEB)

God made a promise to our ancestors. And we are here to tell you the good news that he has kept this promise to us. It is just as the second Psalm says about Jesus,

“You are my son because today
    I have become your Father.”

God raised Jesus from death and will never let his body decay. It is just as God said,

“I will make to you
    the same holy promise
    that I made to David.”

And in another psalm, it says, “God will never let the body of his Holy One decay.” When David was alive, he obeyed God. Then after he died, he was buried in the family grave, and his body decayed. But God raised Jesus from death, and his body did not decay. My friends, the message is that Jesus can forgive your sins! The Law of Moses could not set you free from all your sins. But everyone who has faith in Jesus is set free. (Acts 13:32-39, CEV)

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need humans to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?”

“God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged, and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-31, MSG)

There is help from heaven. It is available to us – if we but ask…

*Above art by Stushie Art of Psalm 20:4

Pentecost: Where We Want to Be, and Where We Are

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope, we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:22-27, NIV)

Pentecostal Groanings

“Pentecost” is the Latin word for “fifty.” Each year, fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church with power. This Pentecostal energy is not just dynamite with an explosion of spiritual gifts and energizing ministry. Spiritual power certainly is and can be optimistic, positive, and full of faith. 

More than that, Holy Spirit power can also be found in the travails and tribulations we face. It can be discovered in the dark night of the soul, in times of loneliness and doubt, and in the constant need for prayerful intercession. The Spirit is both a mighty wind and a gentle breeze.

The good news of Pentecost is that when we are not powerful, the Spirit helps us in our weakness – that is our hope and our quiet strength. The Apostle Paul used the experience of childbirth to communicate and illustrate what the experience of the Christian life is like. Growth, wonder, expectation, hope, patience, pain, and joy are all words to describe pregnancy and childbirth. 

Pentecostal Prayer

When it comes to the Church and the Christian life, believers are in the gestation period. Our salvation has not yet come to full term. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart. When we are limited in what we can do, we pray. When we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, we may not be able to utter any words in prayer.

My dear wife and I know something about pregnancy and prayer. We did not know, twenty-six years ago, whether we would have our third child, or not. Our lives were turned upside-down for nearly four months, as we did everything possible to deal with an overwhelming situation, not knowing if our little peanut of a daughter was going to live or die in the womb.

Pentecostal Patience

We had to wait. We had to force patience on ourselves. It really was a life and death situation. As Christians, we are waiting for our complete redemption. If we are not patient and do not focus on our hope, we will not make it. 

To be sure, in difficult times it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it equally does no one any good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. To take such a posture toward the awful challenges of life is to, at best, ignore the power of lament, and, at worst, live in abject denial about what our true situation really is with all its weakness and inability to control most of what is going on.

In the teeth of adverse circumstances, enter God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit resides with us and strengthens us with Pentecostal power. So, on this Day of Pentecost, we not only celebrate the Spirit’s mighty power to blow a violent wind and upturn history; we also proclaim and praise the Spirit’s power to come alongside and provide the deep inner strength necessary to fortify us for all we must face.

Pentecostal Awkwardness

We cannot run away from what God has put in front of us. We live in an awkward time of spiritual pregnancy in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness. There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be.  If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain, I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now (I know I would!).

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and all living things are presently experiencing decay and death. The earth is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the planet convulses and contracts with natural disasters and diseases because we live in a fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

People groan because they fall victim to circumstances beyond their control. We also groan because of our own poor choices which grieve us. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell, and experience spiritual power, we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies. 

We are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It feels like Pinocchio, who is not yet a real boy, and must deal with strings and other puppeteers who don’t care about him, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequences of his nose growing.

But we are not left to fend for ourselves. Because the Spirit groans on our behalf, uttering prayerful sounds that words cannot express. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, in our pregnant state of discomfort and wondering. 

The Holy Spirit is an expert on knowing our concerns, knowing God’s will, and bringing the two in harmony with each other.

Mit Tdrahrhe

Pentecostal Hope

So, we focus on hope – the confident expectation we will not always be in this position. In the meantime, we learn to enjoy the process of growing in the Lord and discovering the ways of Jesus. We learn to slow down to listen to the gentle voice and the refreshing breeze of the Spirit. During this interim time, this gestation period, we develop new rhythms of life, moving back-and-forth between rejoicing and groaning; praising and grieving; hoping and lamenting; believing and doubting – all with agonizing patience.

Living patiently and hopefully in the Christian life will be worth it all when we see Jesus. We must walk through the valley; yet we never do it alone – God’s presence is with us in the personal provision of the Holy Spirit.

Do not give up in prayer. Even if you do not know what to say or cannot even speak, you can groan because the Spirit will pick up those groans and groan them in the ear of our gracious heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit stands in the gap between where we are and where we need to be. The Spirit intercedes for us, bridging that wide chasm, and bringing us practical deliverance from our impatience.

One of the oldest definitions of prayer is this: Lifting mind and heart to God. Too often in our efforts to pray formally, we fail to truly lift our hearts and minds to God. That’s because what is really in our hearts and minds is not something we generally connect with prayer, at all. Our frustrations, bitterness, jealousies, lusts, curses, sloth, and quiet despair are sometimes understood to be the opposite of prayer, as if they are things overcome so that we can pray.

Pentecostal Power

However, something deeper is happening within: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, the things we are fearful and ashamed to name in prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

If you are carrying a heavy burden, take the light yoke of Jesus and offload your worries to the Holy Spirit who is waiting to intercede for you. And if there is no immediate relief, persevere in prayer without giving up. Pentecostal power is available, but it is not cheap; it will cost us time in prayer as well as patience for the Spirit to work on our behalf. For the Christian life is a lifelong process of becoming.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts. Kindle within us the fire of your love. Send the gentle breeze of your Spirit, and we shall be renewed into patient people, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Spirit of the living God, we invite you to wring the death out of our hearts and saturate our souls with your breath and life.  Hoping against all hope we lay defeat aside. We grab for the corner of your cloak and wait for a miracle. Amen.

*Above artwork by Rebecca Brogan