M. W. Bassford
UselessnessTuesday, August 16, 2022
Of late, it seems like I've been collecting a lot of compliments about how well I have been handling the changes that ALS has brought. I deeply appreciate the love and goodwill behind these words, but I'm not sure that I deserve them yet. Though I have lost many things, I have not yet lost the ability to write.
I speak in metaphor, of course. Literally, my hands are crippled and nearly useless. I can’t write out a comprehensible sentence. However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can still write by dictation. Though the process is sometimes frustrating, it scratches the itch well enough.
Like most in the arts, I long have been ambivalent about my gift and what I create with it. In my younger years, I wavered between wishing that I weren't a writer at all and wishing that I had been an inspired writer. I write in part for the endorphin rush. Just imagine what it must feel like to be the instrument of the Holy Spirit in producing the greatest writing of all time!
Now that I have grown older and somewhat wiser, I no longer aspire to such heights. To write like the prophets, one must be a prophet, and all of them lived lives of great suffering. What sane person would want to trade places with Jeremiah or Paul?
I also have shed much of my ambivalence. Terminal illness is good at dispelling illusions, and with its help I can see that I have received a great blessing. Though I think I could have done more with it, I believe that it generally has been useful to God and to his people.
To me, “useful” is a word of great power. All my life, I have wanted to be useful: to my family, to my friends, to my church, and to my God. My ambivalence about compliments nearly matches my ambivalence about writing, but over time, I have learned to reply, “Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful!”
If I can write, I can be useful. If I can be useful, I can take pride in and find meaning in helping others. Thus, if I can write, things won't get too bad.
Of course, when ALS takes my ability to speak, it will take my writing too. What, then, of my usefulness?
It is a great grief for any writer to lose the ability to write. The English poet John Milton produced many great works, but one of his greatest is a sonnet entitled, “On His Blindness”. The poem is about Milton’s struggles with losing his eyesight and so becoming unable to write, written from the perspective of faith. He concludes it by observing that God is served not only by those who act but also by those who wait.
I love “On His Blindness”. When I encountered it for the first time in high school, I memorized it. However, I now think Milton missed something. Sometimes the action is not in the writing. Sometimes it is in the waiting.
Recently, I have been drawn to James’ discussion of suffering, and his words in James 5:10 are precisely on point here. He writes about the prophets, those who spoke in the name of the Lord, past tense, and are an example of suffering and patience, present tense.
The final witness that God asked from the prophets was not in their last words. It was in the mute testimony of their suffering and death. Though dead, they still speak through the triumph of faith that endured to the end.
The day will come when I will write either with great difficulty or not at all. However, my usefulness in the kingdom (indeed, anyone's usefulness) will continue for as long as I steadfastly cling to the Lord. It is not the path I would have chosen in my pride and self-reliance, but it is the opportunity that He has provided.
May I have the courage to take it.
So Others Can Be FreeTuesday, August 09, 2022
When tax collectors came to Christ,
He paid them what was due;
Two drachmas was the sacrifice
Required of every Jew,
Yet this the Lord need not have done
Despite the Law’s decree;
No king will ever tax his son,
So they are always free.
Though born to freedom, Jesus died,
Condemned by wicked men;
The royal Son was crucified;
He paid the price for sin.
The King had heard His anguished prayer,
“Remove this cup from Me,”
But awesome love still sent Him there
So strangers could be free.
Now with Him we are sons and heirs,
Adopted by His grace;
He bore our burdens and our cares;
In turn, we seek His face,
But everyone must pay the price
Who joins His family;
Like Him, we serve and sacrifice
So others can be free.
Isaac's BlessingMonday, August 08, 2022
We often remark how reassuring it is that the great men and women of faith in the Bible are so obviously flawed. However, at some point, these flaws stop being reassuring and start becoming cringey! For me, this is the case in the narrative of Genesis 27.
It’s one of the many places in Scripture where we see the dysfunction of a godly family on full display. Isaac and Rebekah have two sons, and Isaac prefers the elder while Rebekah prefers the younger. Rebekah takes advantage of Isaac's blindness to procure the blessing for her favorite, Jacob, even though Isaac is clearly mistrustful and suspects that something funny is going on. In the end, he is forced to give his favorite, Esau, an inferior blessing.
Admittedly, Rebekah did know that God had predicted that Esau would serve Jacob. However, rather than being straightforward and trusting God to fulfill His promise, she takes matters into her own hands. Sadly, this is nothing unusual. Indeed, from Genesis 12 on, nearly every member of Abraham's family (everybody except Benjamin) engages in subterfuge and deceit to pursue their goals. This reminds us of the antics of a clan of rednecks out in a trailer someplace, except the stories are of tent-dwelling nomads from 4000 years ago.
However, the bad behavior that sets our teeth on edge is a vital theme of the story. As God says a few hundred years later in Deuteronomy 9:5, He does not give the Israelites the land because of their righteousness or integrity. Instead, it is entirely because of the promise made to the fathers.
Similarly, the promise is not made to the fathers because of their righteousness or integrity either. It is because they had faith, and their faith was reckoned to them as righteousness. Whenever we start questioning our salvation because we think we're not good enough, we should remember that the heroes of faith definitely weren't good enough!
It is easy to overlook the presence of faith in the story of Genesis 27, but it's there too. After all, the blessing that Rebekah and Jacob schemed to obtain for him wasn't anything as tangible as a herd of camels or a flock of sheep. Instead, it was a promise that the descendants of one man would grow into a mighty nation, and that the people who didn't own any more property than the family cemetery would inherit the entire land. Both Rebekah and Jacob would die centuries before the promise was fulfilled, but it mattered deeply to them anyway.
The same is true for Isaac. He played favorites with his sons and tried to pass his wife off as his sister, but he was a man of faith too. As Hebrews 11:20 shows, the very act of giving a blessing at all is an act of faith. He had no reason to believe that anything he said was more than spit in the wind except that God had promised him otherwise. Absent faith, this story of petty behavior simply doesn't happen.
This should hearten every Christian whose family life is not picture-perfect. Yes, it would be good if everyone in all of our families behaved uprightly, but we don't inherit the blessing because of our good works. What matters is our untiring faith in God. If we spend our lives seeking Him, no matter how imperfectly, it will be well with us.
In the Breaking of the BreadThursday, August 04, 2022
In the gospel of Luke, the primary resurrection appearance of Jesus is when He reveals Himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. After they explain the events of the past few days to Him, not realizing that He is Jesus, He takes over the conversation. The rest of the account appears in Luke 24:25-35.
Within this story, several things stand out. The first is that He upbraids His disciples for missing the significance of His crucifixion and resurrection. He makes an extremely strong claim, that the promised Messiah had to suffer before entering into His glory. Then, He backs up that claim by interpreting for the two disciples everything that the Scriptures said about Him. I don't know about the rest of you, but I would have purely loved to have heard that!
They arrive in Emmaus, sit down to supper, and as Jesus so often does in the gospels, He blesses the bread, breaks it, and distributes it to His disciples. Then, He reveals Himself and vanishes. Later, the disciples report that Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. I'm not going to say that this is the first example of the Lord’s Supper in Scripture, but I'm not going to say it's not either!
This is our goal too. As we partake, we want to recognize Jesus. In this, we can do far worse than following the Lord's outline. We must accept Him as the Messiah and remember His sufferings and glories, as predicted by the prophets. Let's consider how He can reveal Himself to us through these things in the breaking of the bread.
The first such prediction allows us to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Let's look at both prophecy and fulfillment in Luke 4:16-21. This too would have been an awesome scene! A man who had grown up living in Nazareth and worshiping in its synagogue reads a Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 61 and announces that He has fulfilled it.
To modern audiences, it is not immediately obvious that Jesus is claiming here to be the Messiah, but the Nazarenes would have taken His point immediately. We look at “Christ” and see Jesus’ last name, and “Messiah” is just a weird word that means “Jesus”. However, both of those words in their original languages carry the meaning of “anointed one”. In the old Israelite kingdoms, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed.
In those cases, the chosen were anointed with oil, typically by another prophet. However, the subject of the Isaiah 61 prophecy has been anointed with the Holy Spirit. This can only be the capital-M Messiah! Indeed, only someone who could back up this claim with undeniable miracles could get away with making it.
It's equally important, though, for us to recognize who the beneficiaries of the Messiah's message are. It's not a very impressive group! Instead, the Messiah is bringing the gospel to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. If people weren't in those categories, the Messiah wasn't for them.
The Jews of the New Testament didn't like hearing this. In the gospel of John, they explicitly reject the notion of being captives or blind. They had too high an opinion of themselves. In doing so, they also rejected Jesus.
Today, we can have the same problem. Like the Laodiceans, we can conclude that we are wealthy and in need of nothing. However, believing it doesn't make it so. As we share in the Lord’s Supper, then, we should remember not only Jesus but also our great need for Him.
Next, we must contemplate the suffering of the Messiah. Our story here appears in Acts 8:27-35. We can describe this as a coincidence exploited by providence. The Ethiopian eunuch happens to be reading from what we call Isaiah 53. Nudged by God, Phillip approaches the chariot and happens to overhear him. Then, the eunuch invites Philip to explain the perplexing prophecy.
It's easy to understand why the eunuch was perplexed! We tend to think of Isaiah 53 as an isolated prophecy, and its significance has been drummed into us by countless Scripture readings before the Lord’s Supper. However, that chapter is only part of a much larger prophecy called the Song of the Servant, and without the benefit of hindsight, its meaning is not at all clear.
Is Isaiah talking about himself? The nation of Israel? Somebody else? If I were a first-century Jew, I don't think I would have understood it either.
However, Philip explains this confusing text by proclaiming the good news about Jesus. To us, it may seem odd that the news from Isaiah 53 is good. Sometimes, we fall into the habit of treating the Lord’s Supper like a funeral service. We mourn that all of the horrible predictions in that chapter were fulfilled by somebody who didn't deserve for any of it to happen to Him.
That's true, but it's incomplete. Despite the gory details, Isaiah 53 is good news! He became a curse for us so that we could receive blessing through faith in Him. He Himself didn't stay in the rich man's tomb. Instead, He was raised from the dead to demonstrate the efficacy of His atoning sacrifice. We should mourn at the thought of what Jesus endured, but as we partake, we also should rejoice.
Our final fulfilled prophecy concerns the glories of the Messiah. We find it in Acts 2:22-33. This is, of course, part of the first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost. Here, Peter is using a prophecy from Psalm 16 to show that the resurrection of Christ was foreknown long before He was born.
This is one of the characteristics of Old Testament prophecy. It usually doesn't make sense outside of its fulfillment in Christ. In this case, as Peter points out, even though David is speaking, it is not true of him. David did see decay! This passage is only true of someone who rose from the dead never to die again, and that description only applies to Jesus.
Also in this text, we see the three-legged stool of Acts 2. Peter doesn't only rely on prophecy to prove his claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, he also employs two other forms of proof.
The first of these is the eyewitness testimony of the disciples who saw the risen Lord. interestingly, this proof is stronger for us today than it was for Peter's audience on Pentecost. After all, we know what those people did not. We know that the early witnesses to the resurrection of the Christ were so sure of what they had seen that they were willing to die defending that truth. It's hard to reject the testimony of a witness like that!
Finally, Peter uses the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a third proof. All of the people in the crowd had heard a bunch of Galileans speaking in a multitude of foreign languages. They certainly couldn't have done that on their own! Instead, they clearly have been endowed with power from on high, and Peter identifies Jesus as the One who has poured out the Spirit. That too shows His glorification.
When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we need to remember Jesus not only as humble sacrifice but also as triumphant Lord. The narrative of the crucifixion does not end with Him in the tomb. It ends with Him seated at the right hand of the throne of God. When we remember Him, then, we ought to reflect not only on what He has done for us but also on what we must do for Him.
Selling Our BirthrightsMonday, August 01, 2022
We know from the story of the anointing of David that God does not see as man sees. In the case of David, God saw potential where no one else did. However, God is equally likely to judge more harshly than we do.
We see an instance of this in Genesis 25:27-34. It’s one of a frustrating series of stories in this portion of the book featuring Jacob the trickster and Esau the sucker. Repeatedly, Jacob uses his cleverness either to get something valuable belonging to Esau or to protect himself from Esau's very reasonable indignation.
In this case, Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright, the double portion of the inheritance from Isaac that was due to the firstborn. Esau has returned from hunting, unsuccessful and starving. A decent brother would have fed him out of kindness, but Jacob demands the birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Esau takes the deal and loses the double portion.
In this story, Jacob is the villain, right? He schemes to take advantage of his own flesh and blood in a moment of need. However, that is not how the story is treated in the New Testament. In Hebrews 12:16, we are not warned against imitating Jacob. We are warned against imitating Esau!
For all of his questionable morality, Jacob possesses one vital attribute that Esau does not. Jacob looks to the future and does what he must now to receive good things later. Though he is not commended explicitly by the writer here, he falls into the same category as some other sketchy characters who are commended, like Rahab the harlot and the unrighteous steward of Luke 16. We are not to imitate them in sharp practice, lying, or embezzling, but we are to imitate them in looking to the future and acting accordingly.
Esau, by contrast, is so focused on his immediate desires that he forgets what fulfilling them will cost him. For this reason, the Hebrews writer condemns him as immoral and irreverent. This may seem harsh to us, but Esau has failed to keep his eyes on the prize, the very thing that everyone who hopes to inherit eternal life must do.
Certainly, Esau's foolishness was exploited by a trickster, but every one of us is the target of a deceiver who makes Jacob look naive by comparison. Constantly, the devil takes advantage of our moments of weakness to try to get us to give away our birthrights as children of the King. We shake our heads at the short-sightedness of the man who traded away his inheritance for a bowl of lentils, but everyone who surrenders their soul in exchange for earthly pleasure is making a far worse bargain!
When we are tempted, then, we should remember Esau. No matter what delights the evil one is dangling in front of us, they don't amount to a hill of beans next to what we would surrender. Only a Jacob-like focus on our ultimate reward will keep us safe.