Then Elkanah her husband said to her,

“Hannah, why do you weep, why aren’t you eating, and why is your heart sad?

Am I not better to you than ten sons?”

1 Samuel 1:8

 

Hannah really, really wanted babies. She was a woman, she lived in a culture that exalted motherhood, and she had an adversary who tormented her with gloating and scorn, for her adversary had many babies, whereas Hannah had none.

Elkanah, Hannah’s loving husband, sought to comfort her with the words found in the text above. But, like Rachel of old, she refused to be comforted.

Perhaps she should have been. For as close as motherhood is to the heart woman, closer still is wife-hood. For a woman, no relationship, apart from the one with God, should take higher priority. And as a rule, no relationship does. This is how things are, and this how they ought to be.

In all this, I hear a message to the Church. All Christians, and Christian leaders in particular, would love to see babies born into the Kingdom. The Church is the Mother of the Living, so she always yearns to see her children coming into the world.

But in the providence of God, she does not always see what she longs for. There are obstacles, delays, missteps. And sometimes there are impure motives as well. Sometimes we see souls and megachurches as little planets, orbiting around our own egos and ambitions. In such cases, purification and patience will be required as the the Spirit of Holiness works his way in the circumstances of life.

At such times we must ever keep before us the good words of Elkanah— but we must hear our Heavenly Husband speaking them:

“Am I not better than ten sons? Am I not better than hundreds of decisions? Am I not better than a dozen satellite campuses? If not, there is a problem. If not, we must work together on our marriage. For when I am better than ten sons in your sight, then our love will bear much fruit, and so you will prove to be my disciples.”

 

“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”

(John 14:6)

In the upper room, just prior to Jesus’ passion, Thomas had said to his master, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Verse 6, cited above, gives us the Lord’s famous answer to that all-important question: The destination is God the Father, and Jesus Christ himself is the way into his presence, now and forever.

But notice something special: Jesus not only told Thomas that he was the way, but also that he was the truth and the life. Why did he add these extra words?

Speaking as one who studied and practiced eastern religion for many years, my thought is that Jesus was no longer speaking just to Thomas, but to the whole wide world, and in particular to seekers everywhere who are longing to experience the ultimate spiritual reality for themselves.

Here in northern California where I live, such folks are legion. Some practice Zen, others yoga, others Wicca, others Tai Chi, and so on. Though their practices differ, they all are seeking the same thing. Jesus tells us what that is:

The way: the door through which they might enter into an abiding experience of the ultimate spiritual reality.

The truth: the one true worldview, by which they might come to see all reality as it really is, do what it requires, and so be reconciled to it once and for all.

The life: the divine life, come to live within them once and for all, so that death itself becomes but a doorway to further life, eternal life, life to the full.

The way, the truth, the life. What big big words these are, so big they can overshadow the whole wide world, giving hope to all who seek!

Now then, give me this hill country about which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as the LORD has spoken.

Joshua 14:12

 

These are the words of Caleb to Joshua. Caleb is now 85 years old. He has journeyed through the wilderness with the Israelites for 45 years. The rebels, who refused to take the land when God first offered it to them, have died off. Their children, however, have now entered it, destroyed many (though not yet all) of the Canaanite kings and peoples, and taken their cities. And now Joshua is bestowing upon each tribe and each family its allotment of territory in the Promised Land. Joshua’s friend Caleb knows exactly the parcel he desires.

“Give me this hill country,” he cries. Why? Presumably because he had caught a glimpse of it 45 years earlier, when he and the other eleven spies had done reconnaissance in the land, and marveled at the majestic city of Hebron. Yes, he had seen the Anakim there—the giant forefathers of Goliath. Yes, he had seen their great cities and fortifications, seemingly rising up to heaven itself. And yes, for a moment at least, he may have felt like a grasshopper in the face of such mighty warriors, cities, and fortifications.

But none of that stopped Caleb then, and none of it would stop him now. For he had also seen the goodness of that hill country, how it flowed with milk and honey, how it dripped with beauty, how it beckoned to be sown and cultivated, how it whispered soul-stirring promises of massive crops thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. Oh yes, Caleb had seen all that as well, and he had not forgotten. The vision still burned in his heart. He wanted to seize and occupy forever the hill country of the Amorites—and if God was pleased with him, he would.

Brothers and sisters, do you hear the Spirit of Promise speaking to you through this text? I think you do, for if you have been born again you have already caught a glimpse of what the hill country represents. It is not just heaven, the Land and City above, though it is indeed that. Rather, it is the One who created the Land and City above, the One who lives there, seated at the right hand of the Father. John writes, “And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” You have glimpsed the grace and truth, for you have glimpsed the Holy One in whom they reside.

But like Caleb of old, you and I have not yet fully occupied the heavenly Hebron; we have not yet fully come to know the Lord who calls us to the deep spiritual knowledge of himself (John 17:3). And yet, also like Caleb of old, we are intent on doing so. Indeed, what choice do we have? God’s Calebs cannot possibly be content with the lowlands. Moreover, they know this good hill country is theirs for the taking, for through the Spirit they know the LORD is with them, pleased with them, and (no matter what their age) eager to give them strength to fight, prevail, and enter in.

If you doubt all this, please listen to the voice of an outstanding New Testament Caleb: Not that I have already obtained these things, or already reached perfection; but I eagerly pursue them, so that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself as having attained. But this one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forward to the things up ahead, I race towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:12f) Where does such a spirit come from? Surely it comes from God himself, who is at work within us, both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. Surely it is God himself who offers us the hill country of the Amorites.

At the close of our text it is written that Hebron was formerly called Kiriath-arba, for Arba—the greatest man among the Anakim—once lived there. He still does. Your adversary the devil did not create the hill country, nor does he own it. As a matter of fact, he altogether hates it. And yet, in a mystery, he surrounds it and has a measure of power to keep people from it.

But not the Caleb’s of God. By God’s purpose and grace, they WILL take it and keep it. For as their strength was in the day when they caught their first glimpse of Christ, so it is now, only more. More than ever, the fire burns. More than ever they are eager and ready for war with every enemy of their sanctification. More than ever they go out and come in, joyful and victorious after the fight.

Yes, more than ever they are indeed occupying the hill country for which they pleaded with their dear friend and comrade, Joshua. And more than ever he thoroughly delights to give it to them.

 

“Go and report to John what you see and hear . . . that the poor have good news proclaimed to them!”

(Mt. 11:4-5)

 

What makes the poor poor? Surprisingly, it often has little to do with health, wealth, or station in life. There are many who have humble incomes, or who are sick in their bodies, or who live in obscurity, but who would never dream of calling themselves poor. In fact, despite their hard circumstances, they would tell you they feel quite rich.

That’s because real poverty–the kind Jesus has in mind–is spiritual. In particular, it is the poverty of hopelessness. No matter how much money we may have, or how many businesses or houses or lands or cars we may own, if we walk through this world without hope, we are paupers.

But to fully appreciate the good news that Jesus was speaking of, we need first to pause a moment and consider the bad.

Unless we enjoyed the special blessings of coming up in a Christian home, we enter this world and walk through it with no real hope. Yes, in many ways it’s a beautiful world, lavish with pleasures to receive and enjoy. And yes, for a season such goodness can stimulate worthy temporal hopes, whether of a good education, a happy family, a meaningful job, a solid income, etc.  Indeed, from time to time we cannot help but see the hand of a kind and loving Creator at work in such a world, bestowing both opportunity and blessing upon it.

Yet sooner or later we begin to realize that something is dreadfully wrong; that ours is also a mysteriously and maddeningly mixed world. For woven deep into the fabric of daily life are thick, dark strands of ignorance, confusion, fear, guilt, evil, injustice, suffering, and—hovering over them all—the all-consuming specter of death itself.

Just here is where we encounter our native spiritual poverty. For as we confront these enemies, we find we have no answers to the great questions they bring to our minds: Where did this world come from? Why are we even here? Is there any remedy for all this evil and suffering? What’s going to happen when I die? And in the end, what will become of the universe, life, and man?

Moreover, it’s not just these unanswerable questions that make us feel poor; it’s also our constant contact with the palpable realities of evil, suffering, and death themselves, together with our inability to defeat or even escape them in any permanent way. As these menacing opponents press in around us, we find we have not a penny’s worth of wisdom or power to push them back once and for all.

Here, then, is why the Gospel is such astonishingly good news: It equips us to confront and fight our enemies with confidence and joy, and to win!

How exactly does this work? It works because in the Gospel God gives us “exceedingly wonderful” truths, exceedingly wonderful promises, and through them both, exceedingly wonderful hopes!

For consider: In the Gospel God reveals the origin of evil, suffering, and death, taking us back to the sin and fall of man, and to a curse that He himself wisely placed upon the whole creation, with the result that all things are now subject to decay and futility. But then He gives us a countervailing hope by taking us to Christ, and by showing us that on the cross He freely suffered the penalty for our sin, so that we, by simple faith, might enjoy forgiveness and eternal spiritual life in Him.

But that is only the beginning, for now the good news gets better and better as we encounter more and more of the hope it gives. Thus, through the study of Scripture we learn that God will never leave us or forsake us; that in every circumstance He is working all things for our good; that in this process He is gradually conforming us to the image of His Son; that at the moment of death our spirits, now perfected, will ascend into heaven, where we will see and rejoice in Him; that at the end of the age Christ will return to join our spirits with glorious new resurrection bodies; and that in those bodies we will forever worship and live with the Triune God in a fabulously beautiful new World to Come. In that day, He who bore the curse of death for us will lift the curse from all things, once and for all.

The Bible refers to these as LIVING hopes. In part, that means the more we ponder them, the more they grow; and the more they grow, the more they crowd out fear, sorrow, and pain, rendering the momentary light afflictions of this present life unworthy to be compared with the glories that will soon be revealed to us.

In short, whatever  our physical circumstances may be, we become spiritually rich as our inner treasure chest is increasingly filled with the pure gold of Gospel hope!

These truths, these promises, and these hopes are the good news Jesus proclaimed to the poor. And despite the vast material wealth of our modern world, the poor are still very much with us today. Let us remember that fact, no matter how rich or happy people may look; and let us remember to proclaim the good news to such folks at every opportunity. Let us tell them, “Yes, in the world we will meet the painful mysteries of evil, suffering, and death; but in Christ Jesus we will meet the exceedingly wonderful HOPE that gives us final victory over them all!”

Reverently: As though you were coming to God himself, for in a sense you are, since in and through these words, and these alone, God is pleased to speak to his people (1 Thess. 2, John Calvin)

Prayerfully: Recognizing that we can do nothing—including understanding, enjoying, and rightly responding to Scripture—apart from him (John 15, Eph. 1)

Slowly: As though you were walking arm in arm with your beloved down a beautiful country lane, having a deep heart-to-heart talk; and stopping to linger over any word, phrase, verse, or thought to which the Spirit of your Beloved seems to be pointing (Luke 24)

Meditatively: Scanning the sky of your mind for the sudden appearance of biblical cross-references, memories, quotes, or images of everyday objects and events—anything that seems to illuminate the word, phrase, or verse you are reading (Psalm 1)

Expectantly: Waiting on spiritual tip-toe for new insights—or a holy rekindling of old insights—as though a storm were on the horizon, and you were watching for lightning and listening for thunder (1 Kings 18)

Believingly: Remembering that he is still teaching in the temple daily, that he has declared himself the Rewarder of all who diligently seek him, and that it is actually a mark of healthy faith to let him know, respectfully, that you are counting on it! (Luke 19, Hebrews 11)

Responsively: Praying, thanking, singing, dancing, kneeling, repenting, re-committing, delighting, calling, writing, going, or otherwise responding to the specific move of the Spirit in your heart as you read (Acts 2)

Joyfully: Choosing at all times—even in a seemingly dry Quiet Time—to celebrate the fact that he is eternally and immutably rejoicing over all who are in Christ; and cheerfully expressing confidence that if the promised blessing has not yet reached your heart, it surely will, in a time that Wisdom and Love have specially chosen for you (Zephaniah 3, Luke 15)

Wisely: Knowing that ours is a God who tests his people, to see if they will love him for who he is, and not simply for the good feelings he can give them; and that he is pleased to train them, sometimes with tough love, in this higher form of love for him (John 6)

Faithfully: Going out early every morning onto the broad plain of Scripture to gather up your meal of Manna, confident that it—and he—is waiting for you there (Exodus16)