Is anything too hard for God – even if we laugh?

“Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh” (Genesis 18:14-15).

Having been promised that in her old age she would have a child, Sarah had responded as most of us would. I know my own too-often lack of faith; I would have laughed, too. Once she was called and confronted with her laughter, fear followed doubt and she denied she had laughed. But God knew the truth and simply said, “Yes, you did laugh.” He didn’t grind her to powder or condemn her or anything other than let her know that HE KNEW.

Of course, before we condemn Sarah harshly, we should keep in mind that Abraham laughed, likewise, when he had been given the same promise sometime before (Genesis 17:17). Here, Abraham tried to reason out what God really meant or to figure out using earthly means what God had promised supernaturally. So Abraham pronounced a blessing on Ishmael, the son that he had fathered earlier with his servant when he and Sarah had tried to help God’s plan along. God, then, said He would, indeed, bless Ishmael for Abraham’s sake, but He also said He meant what He had said, that a child of promise through Sarah would be Abraham’s promise come true.

Is there a lesson here? Yes, many, but one comes to mind at the moment. It’s simple. God doesn’t need our help and can even work in the midst of doubt and even laughter at His plan. He can bring it to pass. And when He does, He’ll even name it for the doubt that challenged it. “Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac [laughter] was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:5 – 7). Isaac – laughter – was the fulfillment of the promise. God has a sense of humor. Abraham and Sarah had laughed in doubt at the promise of God; then they laughed in joy at the fulfillment of the promise.

Hold on the promises, even if it seems they can’t happen – even if you have doubted and laughed at the prospect. (Been there, done that, got that T-shirt.) Now, God won’t let it slide. He’ll check you and say, “Yes, you did laugh.” But, He’s the one responsible for bringing the promise to fulfillment. He will. And when He does it will be clear He did it in His time and His own way. Then, laugh again at the promise fulfilled.

How religious can we be and still be sinful?

How religious can we be and still be sinful? Matthew 27:3 tells us that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders.” The religious leaders were unconcerned with Judas’ admission of sin. They didn’t seek to restore him. In fact, they essentially told him that his sin was his problem. Throwing down the pieces of silver, he left and took his own life. Taking up the pieces of silver, the priests admitted the money had purchased a murder. But instead of concern over the sin that they had initiated, facilitated, and purchased with the money, they only saw the taint on the money, not on themselves. It was the money that was tainted, so it could not go into the Temple offering. They were concerned about the right religious practice, not righteousness. They somehow did not feel nor see that their evil deeds disqualified them from entering the temple more so than the money was disqualified as an offering for the Temple.

Lord, what religious observances do I follow while I neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”? Forgive me and show me, so I can repent.

God works in mysterious ways…. that are as obvious as the nose on your face.

To me, one of the most sublime and understated passages in the Bible is Jonah 3:3: “This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command…” Jonah has been thrown overboard during a massive storm at sea, spent three days being digested alive in the belly of a fish, and has just been vomited up on the beach. God said, “Go” for the second time. OK, who wouldn’t obey “then”? I almost laugh when I read this passage. There’s a serious aspect as well since clearly God knows how to get the attention of His disobedient children, and yet the chapter reveals more than this about God’s ability to work with or in spite of us. Chapter 3 tells us that the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s prophecy of destruction and repented and were spared. If we’re not careful, we’ll read right over this passage with a quick “praise the Lord” without realizing they mystery and intricacy of God’s working. Sure, the Word is sharp as a sword and surely pierced their hearts, but God knows how to set the stage for the greatest delivery and the greatest good. Consider the following.

First, Jonah has just experienced God’s judgment and then mercy firsthand. He knows judgment! He can speak to it with the passion of someone who has “been there and done that.” Fresh on his mind are the waves that crashed over him as he sank into the sea. Then, in his watery grave a living coffin in the form of a great fish engulfed him. Surely, he felt his deserved doom as the fish swallowed him. But he repented and the coffin became a lifeboat. God’s instrument of judgment turned into His vehicle of mercy and of Jonah’s salvation. Spat up on the shore of Nineveh, Jonah understood God’s great judgment but also His great mercy and surely preached this with the fervency of someone who had experienced both. Even if he wanted to hide this, I’m sure he couldn’t. Even if the spiritual understanding of his recent experience had not yet fully been formed in him, the psychological state of having lived through this trauma of his own making would have come through in his preaching. But it gets better.

Jonah’s spiritual and psychological condition would have surely infused his preaching with a passion he didn’t have before spending three days in the belly of the fish. But consider his physical condition as well; he must have been a mess. Now, I must give credit where credit is due. This idea is not original to me. Years ago I heard Christian comedian Mike Warnke discuss this. Mike has had his own issues since I heard his presentation, but his point is yet a valid one. What must Jonah have looked and smelled like after spending three days in the digestive system of a fish. Gastric fluids have bleached him white. His hair has been digested right off his head. And I just don’t think a quick bath on the beach got the smell of fish guts off him before he hit downtown Nineveh.

Picture this. A guy walks into your town, bleached white and smelling of fish guts, and says something like this. “Hey, I’m one of God’s Chosen People and His prophet. He did this to me because I disobeyed. Oh, and now you’re on His list. He’s gonna destroy you because of your sins.” If you had been there, you’d have to think that if God did this to one of His own, what will He do to me. Well, I don’t know about you, but I guarantee I’d repent! And in a hurry! So did Nineveh, from the lowliest servant on the street all the way to the king in his palace. And God forgave them and didn’t destroy them. Yes, God is mysterious, but if we pay attention when we read His Word we can see His mysteries unfold. No, God didn’t make Jonah disobey, but I personally think He used this to fulfill his plan. Of course, the rest of the story is that the very reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh is that he knew God was merciful and would forgive if Nineveh repented. Nineveh was Jonah’s enemy, and he wanted it destroyed. How ironic, then, that Jonah’s disobedience is the very thing that God might have used to bring about Nineveh’s salvation.

I take two things away from this story. First, even when they’re as obvious as the nose on your face, God’s ways are still mysterious. Consider this. He saved both his disobedient servant and a sinful city, oh, and a boatload of sailors in the process, and all in spite of everyone. Second, sometimes His ways are hilarious, too. “This time Jonah obeyed…” It’s still funny.

And then there was this student who owed me a late paper, a REALLY, REALLY late paper

I have a student who owes me a late paper. In fact, she might read this blog and know I’m writing about her. Of course, the truth of the matter is that I probably have several students at any given time who owe me late papers. But I’m thinking about one in particular at the moment. She had a legitimate reason for turning IT in late, and I gave her the OK to turn it in late. But time has run on and on and the paper has become later and later. I’ve sent her e-mails and spoke to her in passing in the hallway. I’ve even sent her messages by her friends to come by and see me about the paper, but now I’m hearing back from them that she is feeling uncomfortable and guilty about the paper being so late.

She’s avoiding coming to see me because she feels awkward about how late the paper is, yet the paper gets later and later as she continues to struggle with it. It appears to her that I would be a source of discomfort, so she avoids coming to see me. But here’s the ironic thing. I’m not really the source of discomfort: I’m the source of help. I have all the resources she needs to write the paper. I have all the expertise that she needs to draw on to write the paper. I’m the one who gave the assignment and could modify or even cancel it if I so choose. I’m not the source of discomfort; rather, I’m the source of her solution, even if she doesn’t avail herself of it. You see, I love my students. I really do. I’m not going to beat her up and shame her. (OK, some of you know me too well. Yes, I’m going to tease her a bit when she finally gets up the nerve to come to my office.) I’m also going to help her if she’ll only allow me. Her momentary discomfort of coming to my office will ultimately be replaced by relief as she completes the assignment and then moves on with her academic life without the late paper hanging over her head.

I’ve said before how I’ve learned a lot about God, my Heavenly Father, from being a parent. Likewise, I’ve learned from my experiences as a teacher and from my interactions with students. Our relationship with God is much the same as that of my student with me. We avoid God. We try to handle our own problems. We try to hide our sins. We avoid God because the closer we get to Him and His holiness, the more our failures, shortcomings, and sins are evident. We feel guilty, just as my student does because her paper is late. Just as she has been doing, we avoid the very source, not ultimately of our shame and guilt, but of our hope and help. Only God has the resources and power we need. In fact, He can even cancel our sins, blot them out, and forget them as if they never happened. But He can’t do that until we come to Him and accept His help.

Be Like Marvin

Early this morning, I was meditating on my Sunday school lesson for the day. It focuses on two sad Christmas gifts. One is the gift not received, the other the gift not offered.

The first is like the Gospel rejected, which is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18) “who ignore so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3). This is sad. Imagine a gift, bought and paid for, sitting under the tree as the intended recipient rejects it, leaving it unopened. That’s pretty sad. 

But the second is, to me, even sadder, the gift that is bought and paid for but never offered.

I never met my Granddaddy Rizzo. He passed a few years before I was born. But as I hear stories of him, I feel I know him because I have seen his character traits that come through in those stories exhibited in my dad, Aunt Susie, and Uncle Allen. There are lots of these anecdotes about his life that I have filed away in my mind, but about a year ago I learned a bit more about one of them. 

Just about everyone who talks about my grandfather says things about his jovial nature and how nice he was, but for most of his life he wasn’t a Christian. Then shortly before he passed he had a conversation with my Maw-maw’s brother Ralph Creel. Uncle Ralph was a minister, and I’m sure he had shared the Gospel with my grandfather. During one of their last visits together, my grandfather shared, “Ralph, I’ve met someone since I saw you last.” My uncle inquired who and the response was “Jesus.” My grandfather passed shortly after that conversation.

For years, I assumed it was my uncle’s and Maw-maw’s witness that brought Granddaddy to Christ. And I’m sure it was, but I never really knew the details of his friendship with Marvin Burns until last year. (If you attend church with me, Marvin is Wayne’s father and Rita’s father-in-law.) 

Marvin was a minister. He and my grandfather were friends, so my grandfather often chauffeured him to his speaking engagements. On these trips I’m sure they talked about kids and motorcycles and all kinds of things. But at each church service my grandfather heard Marvin offering him the gift of salvation through Jesus in his sermon and saw him living the gift as they rode along together. 

But with my lesson topic in mind, I began to ponder what if Marvin had never offered his friendship. Or what if he didn’t want to offend my grandfather? Or what if he felt religion is a personal matter? Or what if he for however many reasons never offered the gift of Christ’s love to my granddaddy? But he did, and sometime in 1955 or 56 my grandfather accepted “the” Christmas gift because someone offered it to him. 

So first, let me say if you have thus far left the gift of the love of Jesus and salvation through him under the tree, rejected and unopened, well, don’t. Just don’t. That’s just rude… and so sad and foolish. It is “the indescribable gift” (2 Cor 9:15) that was put there for you. It is a costly gift, one you could never afford on your own. Fortunately, “it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8), free for the receiving, purchased just for you. 

And if you have received this amazing gift, why aren’t you sharing it? Get busy and be like Marvin!

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

“Be kind. It really is important.” – Dr. David L. Walters

One of my dad’s best friends, Pastor William “Bill” Ridgeway, once said, “Life is a journey.” The statement is both simple and profound. Everyday, we travel through life. We make footprints of different sorts as we go along. These rambles and ruminations are the footprints of my journey. I hope you enjoy them. And as I share these footprints, I will try to follow the advice of my college band director, Dr. David L. Walters: “Be kind. It really is important.”
All images copyright Stephen W. B. Rizzo
“Tarantella Americana for Clarinet and Piano” (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

Just to be clear, all comments on this and all of my social media platforms are mine and mine alone. I am not speaking on behalf of any entity, organization, or individual with whom I am otherwise associated or employed, etc. Gotta love our litigious society!