Leaning Trees of Worship

By faith, Jacob, when he was dying,

blessed each of the sons of Joseph,

and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.

(Heb. 11:21)


Joseph was displeased. His father Jacob had just extended his right hand, laid it on Ephraim’s head, and blessed him. Then, with his left hand, he had done the same for Manasseh.

But Manasseh was the older, the first-born! By rights, by custom, by time-honored tradition, the greater blessing—the blessing of the right hand—should have fallen upon him!

Having explained it to Joseph as best he could, Jacob rose from his bed, stood on his feet, took up his staff, leaned comfortingly upon it, and worshiped.

As he prayed, he reflected: Ever since that night at the ford of Jabbok it had been this way. Before the wrestling, he had indeed honored the LORD, but also walked tall, confident, and self-assured, guided by the wisdom of man.

But afterwards—after the Angel touched the socket of his hip, blessed him, and changed his name to Israel—he had walked with a limp, leaning upon his staff. And in so doing, he had somehow learned to receive the word of the LORD—the inheritance of wisdom from above—and to bestow it upon the beloved children of God.

If only Joseph could understand.


Of Pillars and Leaning Trees

In our mixed up world there are two postures of worship.

The first is that of a pillar. In exemplary fashion, it was struck long ago by the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. Standing very tall and very erect, he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess!” A pillar of righteousness, in his own sight.

The second posture is that of a leaning tree. In exemplary fashion, it too was struck in Jesus’ parable, this time by a trembling tax collector. Standing far off, unwilling even to raise his eyes to heaven, he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Can you not see him leaning? He is leaning far, far away from himself, his character, and his accomplishments, all of which, in his own eyesight, seem like iron chains, ready to drag him down to hell. Can you not see him leaning, as far and as hard as he possibly can into the strong wind of God’s raw mercy.

A leaning tree of worship—who alone, according to Jesus, returned to his house justified in God’s sight.


Learning to Lean

But we dare not misunderstand.

To be sure, God is merciful: His great Father heart inclines him to it always. But his holiness, sovereignty, and paternal responsibility for the proper government of his world do not permit him simply to show mercy at his pleasure. No, he must show mercy by finding a way to satisfy his own justice, placate his own anger, and make guilty tax collectors—as well as self-centered Pharisees—righteous in his sight.

Just here we meet the Glad Tidings: In Christ Jesus—the Staff of God—he has done this very thing.

By his perfectly righteous life, he has won a perfect righteousness for all—for all who will lean on him.

By his atoning death, he has paid the just penalty for the sins of all, and placated the divine wrath against all—all who will lean on him.

Before Christ had finished his course, the poor tax collector cried out to God for mercy—and trembled in fear and uncertainty. Had he cried out after Pentecost, God would have replied, “Lean on the Staff that I have just provided, and like Jacob of old you shall have mercy, and a new name besides: Prince with God, and My Beloved Son in Whom I am Well Pleased!”


Princely Sons

When I imagine the aged Jacob standing before Joseph and his sons, leaning upon his staff and worshiping the One who had lovingly brought him so near, I think I hear him saying, “LORD, bring them all to an understanding; but as you do, please, be as gentle as you can.”

For it is no light thing to become a leaning tree of worship. The Angel of the LORD himself must come to you by night. He must cast his dreadful gaze upon the libertine—or the proud, self-righteous Pharisee—within. And he must also cast your gaze upon the heavenly wrath and hellish torments that the libertine and the Pharisee so richly deserve.

Moreover, if he does come, you must not let him go. Rather, in fear and trembling, you must wrestle until you prevail; until you receive the holy wound with which you will walk—haltingly and in frequent pain—for the rest of your days. And you must wrestle until you receive the holy Staff that will enable you to do so.

No, it is no light thing to become a leaning tree. And yet, for the sinful sons of Adam, there is no richer gift, no higher honor, no sweeter pleasure. For now, having become such a tree, you learn to worship.

Since it is precious in your sight, you take your Staff in hand and say, “Thank you God for having mercy on me, a sinner. Thank you for the visitation, the wrestling, the wounding, the placing of your dear Son securely beneath my arm. Thank you that I can now walk—be it ever so haltingly—in your holy presence.

“But most of all, thank you for my strong Staff. Thank you for placing my sins upon him. Thank you for placing his righteousness upon me. And thank you for placing his Spirit deep within, that I might become a Christ-centered son, rather than remain a self-centered sinner.”

Beloveds, the eyes of our heavenly Father are seeking all over the world for worshipers like this. Truly, they are the joy of his heart.

And if you are among them—standing before his throne, leaning upon your Staff—be prepared! For like Jacob of old, you are sure to find yourself filled with the Spirit, and receiving words of wisdom from above.

When you do, simply extend your hands, lay them on the heads of God’s dear children (as he directs!), and speak the words boldly.

Behold, they too will become trees of worship, leaning on their Staff; they too will receive the inheritance of the princely sons of God!

I AM a Winner!

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,

For He who promised is faithful.

(Heb. 10:23)

It is a no good, very bad, horrible day.

The Titans are 13 and 0. Last night, they won the Regional Championship. Last night, the whole town—only months back torn and bleeding with racial strife—was deliriously united in the joy of victory. Last night, the eyes of all together were zeroing in on the prize: a win in the State Finals, and a walk into the history books.

But today, Gary Bertier—the all-American defensive linebacker and captain of the team—lies in a hospital, crippled for life. The automobile accident has changed everything.

Or almost everything.

Bill Yoast, coach of the defensive team, enters his office at the high school. Herman Boon, head coach of the Titans, joins him. Bertier’s presence—and his absence–fills the room.

Says Boon, “Here’s the Marshal film. We’ve got to be sharp offensively and defensively, got to stay focused, do a couple of extra practices. I’ve scheduled a press conference. . . ”

Interrupts Yoast, “Press conference! Look, what we do here, between ourselves, that’s one thing; but this is no time to be parading around . . . ”

Objects Boon, “It’s not about parading around, it’s about staying unified. Look, I’m hurting just like you. But I didn’t . . . we didn’t come this far just to break down and lose . . .”

Cries Yoast, “You know, Herman, everything’s not always about winning and losing; it’s about . . ”

Declares Boon, in no uncertain terms: “I am a winner. I am going to win.”


So what do you think? Is Boon a callous, self-absorbed egomaniac? Yoast thought so. But the end of the matter—which was indeed a state championship for the Titans—proved otherwise. Boon really was a winner—and so was the whole team and the whole town that he loved and served, including Gary Bertier.

When Boon affirmed that he was a winner, it wasn’t ego; it was simply that the Truth had spoken through him.

Saints of God, days are coming when the storms of Providence will rage against you; when gale force winds threaten to blow you all the way back to Egypt, back into the very jowls of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Then is the time you need to hold fast the confession of your hope, without wavering, and to remember that he who promised is faithful.

Has he promised that He chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world?

Has he assured you  that it is finished; that Christ has laid down his life for the sheep, so that not a single one shall ever perish, nor shall any ever snatch them out of his hand?

Has he guaranteed you that the saints are sealed with the Holy Spirit , who is the deposit  and pledge of your inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession at the resurrection of the dead, to the praise of his glory?

Has he made you to see and believe and thrill to the thought that whom he foreknew, these he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son; and whom he predestined, these he also called; and whom he called, these he also justified; and whom he justified, these He also glorified?

If so, when the winds begin to rage, you must confess it. Confess it all. Confess it aloud to the entire stadium, to the whole great cloud of witnesses watching you run—to God, the angels, the saints above, your friends below, and to your own wavering self.

Say, “I am a Christian.

Say, “I will enter Heaven.”

Say, I am a winner, I am going to win.

Beloveds, it will be neither ego nor presumption, but simply the Truth—the voice of the faithful One who has promised—speaking through you.

And the great cloud of witnesses will cheer you on to victory.



In this the love of God was manifested toward us,
that God sent His only-begotten Son into the world
that we might live through Him.

1 John 4:9


It’s morning on the moon, and you’re liking it less and less.

When the crackling voice on the radio woke you up, you somehow expected to see a tide of golden sunlight pouring onto carpets of green grass. Instinctively, you listened for birds, for water rushing over rocks, for saws or cars or kids. Immersed in a childhood memory, you even thought you caught the scent of bacon, cold cantaloupe, hotcakes, and maple syrup.

But now, as you look out the window of your module, you see no movement at all. As you listen for sounds and voices, there is only silence. As your mind imagines colors, your eyes find only black and white. A little flurry of panic hits you as you realize the stark truth: This place is dead.

Almost frantically, you search for Earth. Ah yes, there she is–the blue seas, the swirling clouds, the shapely continents of land. Family and friends. Hopes and dreams. Life.

It will be good be home.


The Fight of His Life

The plight of our imaginary astronaut reveals something intriguing about “life”: we are so completely enveloped in it that we can barely see it! We live it, we enjoy it, we daily seek more of it. But it’s not until we take a trip to Death Valley, or Antarctica, or maybe even the moon, that we begin to think about “life,” and to realize how strange and amazing and precious it really is.

As in the natural, so in the spiritual: It is usually a brush with death that makes us appreciate the true richness of eternal life.

We see this clearly in John’s first epistle. Writing to the churches in Asia, the apostle went toe to toe with a heresy called Gnosticism, a heresy that denied the deity of Christ, licensed immorality, and encouraged a loveless pride based on mystical “revelations” from above.

Many of John’s close friends had been taken in. Error, fear, and temptation to sin had arisen in their midst. Death was stalking the camp of the saints. So he wrote—passionately—to confront the heretics and to call the faithful back to the true gift of God: eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

But what exactly is this “life” that God gives his people; this life that moved God to send us his very Son; this life that demons and heretics and sinful flesh hate and oppose; this life that the apostle rose boldly to protect and defend; that roused him from Jesus’ breast and turned him, once again, into a Son of Thunder?


Life in the Holy Family

Like physical life, it’s hard to define. But—leaning hard on Scripture—we can perhaps say that eternal life is essentially the character and quality of existence that God experiences in himself.

Very importantly, it is trinitarian life–for the Bible reveals that the one God exists as a “holy family” comprised of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is relational life, marked by contemplation, communication, service, sharing, pleasure, and mutual love.

It is purposeful life, full of planning, creativity, division of labor, energy, work, rest, and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

And it is overflowing life, charged with freedom, joy, and unbounded enthusiasm.

This life is the pattern and fountainhead of life everywhere. But for all it’s glory and grandeur, the trickle of physical and spiritual life that we see in nature and society is only the faintest intimation of the torrent of life that lives in the triune God.

Here then, in a word, is the glory of our most holy faith: life. And here is the sacred deposit which we must protect and defend from every heretical counterfeit, including religion, philosophy, and mere ethics.


The Deadly Counterfeits

Christianity is not a religion, if by “religion” we mean a set of techniques or ritual requirements by which men think to reach God, appease him, or win his favor. Such religions—and they are legion—breed only fear, toil, and frustration. They are the very antithesis of the free gift of life that God invites us to receive–in all simplicity and gratitude–by receiving Christ as our savior and friend.

Nor is Christianity essentially a philosophy. True, the Bible provides ample material from which to contruct, not simply a worldview, but the one true worldview–the holy grail of all philosophy. But to what end does God give so great a wisdom? That we might have life–and that we might have it more abundantly.

Nor is Christianity essentially an ethical system. Yes, God is a holy sovereign over his universe; and yes, he has therefore laid down his Law. But holiness and lawkeeping are not ends in themselves. Rather, God’s laws are like a corral, fencing us in and keeping us on safe turf. But the real purpose of the corral–the one nearest and dearest to God’s heart–is that we might be free to graze and run and kick up our heels–with him! In short, that we might live.


Coming Home to Stay

Have you ever been to the moon, spiritually speaking? The Christians in Asia had. And to Death Valley and Antarctica as well. They had been deceived. They had lost touch with the living One who came to give them life. John wrote to awaken them to the death all around them, and to get them back home.

In these difficult last days, when the moonscape of our present evil world abounds with so many deadly counterfeits, let’s listen to what the apostle has to say.

Let’s remember that God sent his Son, so that through him we might live.

Let’s come home, and let’s stay home–ever rejoicing in his LIFE!