Thursday, March 01, 2018

Following the Example of Christ

He couldn't believe what he saw. He drove around the block to see if he saw what he thought he did. Sure enough, there was a lady on a wheelchair trying to shovel her driveway with a snow shovel. He noticed many drivers going by straining their necks to see this unusual sight. "Hmmmm," he thought to himself, "I wonder if I should stop and help." There were still a bunch of errands he needed to get done before it got dark. Then he remembered, "I am a Christian. My Lord washed his disciples feet, and one of them had become his enemy." With that, he stopped the car and got out. She looked startled at first as he walked toward her. Then she smiled. "Would it be okay if I were to help?" He asked. With a smile on her face, she handed him the snow shovel. Then she said, "I am trying to clear it off so I can get in and out on my chair." The city snow plows had gone by and created a hard mound of snow at the end of her drive way. He introduced himself and then went to work on the driveway. The snow was hard and icy at the end of the driveway. There would have been no way she would have gotten it off in her wheel chair. After he finished, he looked up and saw she was still smiling. He handed the shovel back to her. The look on her face was one of deep appreciation. "Will that do it?" He asked. "Yes, and then some," she replied. "God bless, and have a happy New Year," he said. He could see the look of relief on her face that the job was done. He knew another snow would be coming, so he made a mental note to go by again and see if she might need help.

Jesus stated emphatically that he did not come to be served, but to serve (Mt 20:28). He demonstrated this toward the end of his ministry.  At the last supper, even though he was the head of the table, he got up, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and went to work washing his disciples feet Jn 13:1f).  This demonstration of servanthood must have shocked his disciples.  After all, he was their teacher and Lord.  It has been pointed out that this was the job for the low man on the household servant roster.  It would have been like that job no one wants that always goes to the new guy.  When I picture Jesus volunteering to do that task that goes to the low man on the totem pole, I begin to get a sense of why Peter reacted in the way that he did. 

The text says that Jesus "loved them to the end," and therefore began to wash his disciples feet.  Love trumps pride.  Love gives generously.  Love serves above and beyond.  Love is the example that Jesus demonstrated for us.  He asked, "Do you understand what I have done for you?  You call me teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for this is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feed, you also should wash one another's feet.  I have set an example for you to do as I have done for you.  Truly I tell you that no servant is greater than his master…"

I need to remember that I am not greater than him that I should find any kind of service beneath me.  Love for God and love for neighbor should motivate me to serve.  I am reminded of those historical accounts where outsiders found it strange among the Christians that masters were serving their slaves.  But this is nothing unusual in the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom turns the world's values on its head.  The nobody becomes somebody, and the somebody becomes nobody in the kingdom.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  God exalts the humble and humbles the exalted.  Jesus said that a mark of discipleship is to love as he loved (Jn 13:35).  Jesus demonstrated part of what love looks like in the upper room. 

Years ago, I heard a story about a woman who had just about lost hope, and stumbled onto a church and walked in asking, "Is this the church that helps people?" The brethren all came together to help this single mother, from repair of her car, to helping her get a new home for her family and finding a job. She was overwhelmed at the benevolent goodwill of these brethren. She experienced the love of God through these brethren. She became a Christian and promptly began a lifestyle of also helping other people even through her humble means. She felt it a great blessing to have the ability to help other people.  This is not extraordinary, but is rather ordinary in the Kingdom of God. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Deuteronomy 1): Age of Accountability

In my reading, I was reminded of a question that comes up regularly.  At what age should my son or daughter consider being baptized?  When I was younger, I remember discussions about reaching what people called the "age of accountability," which is a point in a person's life where they become mature enough to be held accountable as an adult.  Of course, the problem was that no one seemed to know what that age of accountability was.  Some placed it as young as 10, others placed it closer to age 16.  I always felt a little uneasy about baptizing a ten year old for the simple fact that in no other area of life would we even dream of holding a person that young accountable as an adult.  We would not support marriage at such a young age nor would we hold someone legally accountable as an adult at that age.  If being baptized is analogous to becoming married to Christ, then it is a very adult decision.

When God redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt, he led them to freedom toward a new home.  However, they were rebellious and stubborn and initially refused to enter the land, opting to elect a new leader and return to Egypt.  As a result, God told them this:

 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die" ( Numb 14:27-35).

The children under 20 years old would suffer for the sins of their fathers by being stuck living in the wilderness for forty years.  However, God does not hold those under twenty years responsible in the same way he does those who are twenty and older.  Those under twenty would enter the land after their parents had all died in the wilderness.

In Deuteronomy, those who were under twenty are now adults and their parents have all died in the wilderness. Moses is preparing them to enter the land God granted to them.  Moses recounted their history, and how their parents had rebelled against God, refusing to enter the land, making plans to return to Egypt.  Then Moses reminded them of what God had said:

"When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: 'No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the Lord wholeheartedly.'

Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, 'You shall not enter it, either. But your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it. And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it" (Dt 1:34-39).

This text jumped out at me: " And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land…"  This group included everyone under twenty years old.  God did not hold those who were under twenty responsible as an adult. 

This reminds me of some of the scientific literature I have seen on human growth and development.  Apparently, the brain is the last part of the human body to physically mature.  Even though the rest of the body looks like an adult body, the brain is still developing until about age twenty.  This is why a seventeen or eighteen year old might respond to a situation more on emotion and impulse rather than sound judgment.  Perhaps this is why God does not hold them responsible as adults.  They were not yet fully mature.

As I think about the implications this has for the conversion of children, I wonder about the wisdom in pushing teenagers to be baptized.  If it is an adult decision, and if it is the most important decision one will make in life more than even marriage, then pushing a teen toward it may not be the best course of action.  Expecting a life-long adult commitment, with adult understanding that requires an adult level of emotional maturity may be setting a teen up for failure and discouragement, not because he or she is not committed, but because he or she may not yet be emotionally capable of such a decision.  This means that if a child wants to be baptized, a parent may hold them off for the same reason they would hold them off from getting married.  One would not disfellowship a child for the same reason one would not try a juvenile in an adult court.  The child is the responsibility of the parent until he or she begins to transition into adulthood.  Childhood is a time of preparation, training, instruction, and encouragement.

As a practice, I do not discourage children who want to make that commitment.  They love God and want to please him, which pleases God.  They want to follow Jesus, which I encourage.  However, it is a marriage, and I explain it in terms of marriage.  It is a very adult decision.  I have often thought about whether starting a tradition of a formal period of betrothal up till the day of baptism would be a good thing.  This would involve instruction and guided growth in service and ministry.  Something to act as a symbol of that betrothal might help to strengthen a child's faith and commitment.  This might help with the child's desire to express his commitment to Christ even though he or she may not be emotionally or spiritually ready for baptism. 

In the end, I suppose the encouragement for parents in this regard is to not get bent out of shape if a child is not yet beating down the doors to the baptistery yet.  The more important thing is not so much whether they have been baptized, but whether parents are instructing them regularly, whether parents are including them in service and ministry in the name of Christ, and whether parents are modeling love for God and for the neighbor.  I have known kids who were pushed toward baptism by parents, but they were never really committed.  Baptism is not some magic ritual that equates to commitment. 

I think of my own experience with my own children.  I included them in ministry, service, and discussions about God, scripture, and service.   I had not yet considered the age twenty marker that God identified in the text from my reading.  My younger two children were older teens when they made the decision to be baptized.  However, they had reached a level of emotional maturity that they understood the level of commitment this would take.  They were what some people called, "an old soul."  They have been involved and committed and are still faithful Christians today. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Loving God's Law

The Psalmist often declares his love for God's law.  One might wonder how one could love any kind of law to the point of writing poetry and music about it.  With the exception of School House Rock, I have never heart any songs on the radio or television extolling the beauty, desirability, and delightfulness for law.  Poring through volumes of dusty law books is not typically part of a person's top ten favorite things to do.  Many hire lawyers and other professionals to do this for them. 

What about God's law?  Many have similar feelings toward God's law, which may stem from the word, "law."  Granted, it is God's law and not man's law, but many still do not find delight or beauty in it.  On the other hand, the New Testament assessment is that the law is good.

"So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom 7:12)

"…I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good" (Rom 7:16).

"But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8).

When we hear the word, "law," our prior experience and culture colors how we understand that word.  We most likely think of courts, lawyers, policemen, and public statutes that permit or prohibit.  We think of dos and don'ts.  While the law of God does have this aspect, it fails to capture the true essence of God's law.  The Hebrew word for law is Torah.  It usually does not mean "law" in the same way our English word means law.  It often has the more general meaning, "instruction."  The Hebrew word, torah has several other forms that demonstrate this.  The verb form, yarah, is often translated, "to teach, instruct, direct."  A related noun form, moreh,  means, "teacher." 

Torah is not just a list of dos and don'ts, it is instruction about God and life.  This becomes even more apparent when you consider what the Torah consists of.  Genesis through Deuteronomy is what is classified as Torah, or books of law.  With this designation, you might expect something that looks a little like our constitution or local statutes.  However, it reads more like a history book that lends itself to life lessons and instructions.  God "instructs" through history, through teaching about himself and ourselves, and through statutes.  It is truly God's instruction.  Even the rules within the Torah are not empty rules for the sake of rules.  All of it was designed to instruct.  In fact, throughout the Bible, Torah is often used interchangeably with God's "word, instruction, meditations, statutes, commandments, judgments, etc."  Our English concept of "law" is too limited and confining to capture the beauty and goodness of the Lord's Torah.

Many remember how a bill becomes a law from that old catchy School House Rock tune, "I'm just a Bill…"  The Psalmist also wrote songs extolling the beauty, goodness, wisdom, sweetness, and life giving nature of God's Torah.
The Psalmist's song celebrates the fact that through Torah, God's people could grow in wisdom:  "Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine" (Ps 119:98).

His law could guide his people successfully through the challenges of life:  "Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path" (Ps 119:105).  "Those who love Your law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble. (Ps 119:165)

His commandment helped his people gain greater insight;  "The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes (Ps 19:8).

The Torah of God restores the soul:  "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul" (Ps 19:7).   "Hear my voice according to Your lovingkindness; Revive me, O Lord, according to Your ordinances (Ps 119:149).

God's instruction was given to learn, meditate on, and form the heart and character of his people. In fact, the New Testament says that the law has become our "tutor" or "schoolmaster" to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24).

The ultimate Torah of God is Jesus who is literally the personification of the word of God.  The Bible says that the Word became flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14).  He "explained" or "interpreted" God (Jn 1:18).   Jesus expounded on God and on God's instruction throughout his ministry as he did in the Sermon on the Mount.  He also demonstrated God's Torah in the way his lived his life.  Therefore, as Christians, our meditation on God's instruction centers on Jesus Christ, the personification of Torah.  No instruction is clearer than the person of Jesus Christ himself.  He is our wisdom, our guide, our Lord, our life.  He is our meditation and our delight. He is sweeter than the honey of the honeycomb.  He restores our soul when we are weary.  He is the bread of life.  He is the living water.

What a great blessing that God has now given us his Torah in the flesh, Jesus Christ himself, who not only instructs us, but has become our redemption, reconciliation, and reformation. 

Thank you Lord for the way you have provided instruction for us.  May we learn to long for, savor, and delight in the sweetness of your word, which is our life.  Thank you Lord for your patience. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Rebellion is as the Sin of Divination (Reflecton on Num 12-17)

One of the recurring themes in the book of Numbers is outright rebellion.  It could no longer be characterized as doubt or fear as in the book of Exodus because the people of Israel have seen God's deliverance and faithfulness to them demonstrated time after time.  Rebellion against Moses and Aaron amounted to rebellion against God.  They were God's chosen leaders.  Several times, God was ready to wipe out the people.  God had already warned them of the danger they, a stiff-necked and rebellious people, were in by being in close proximity to God.  Moses intervened each time.  One time he had Aaron make atonement for the people so that they would not be wiped out by a plague of God's wrath.

No wonder there were so many reminders placed before the people.  The gold censors of those Levites who rebelled against Moses and the Priests were hammered into gold plating for the altar out front was a reminder.  The tassels God told them to attach to the edges of their garments as a reminder to obey the Lord's commands was another reminder.  Aaron's staff that had budded was a reminder of God's choice for priestly leadership.  And the list goes on and on.

The sad thing is that the children were going to suffer for the sins of the fathers.  Because of their pattern of rebellion, all of the adults were condemned to live the rest of their lives in the wilderness.  The rest of their life would always be a struggle, and their children were going to struggle too.

What is the lesson for me as a Christian in all of this?  This is a reminder of the enormous significance of honor.  The Bible tells me as a Christian to honor kings, governors, and anyone who is in authority over me.  All authority comes from God, and to dishonor those in authority is to dishonor God.  I know that if it came down to choosing to obey God or obeying men who give instructions contrary to God's ethics and instructions, that I choose to obey God rather than men.  But with that aside, I need to remember to give honor to whom honor is due and to pray for those in authority.

If this is how it is with authorities in the world, how much more so is it when it comes to authority in the Kingdom of God?  Whether it is fathers in the home or elders in the church, I need to remember to give honor where honor is due.  Elders are to be given double honor.  To dishonor them is to dishonor God.

When I read these texts in the book of Numbers, this message reaches out and grabs me.  Speaking out against God's appointed leaders, disrespecting them, defaming them, ridiculing them, or doing anything like this is done not only against them, but against God.  It is no small or trifling matter.  This is a hard lesson to swallow, especially in a culture that sees these sorts of things almost as a civic virtue.  This is not the way things should be in God's church.  The Kingdom of God is not the kingdom of this world.

I am reminded of what Samuel told King Saul after he disregarded the instruction given to him, "Rebellion is as the sin of divination."  It is not a small trifling matter.

Lord, help me to set aside pride and learn humility.  Help me to trust in your presence enough to honor those in authority.  Help me to learn to disagree with meekness and modesty.  Help me to balance respect with responsibility.  Remind me of the necessity to find ways to encourage the leaders in my life.  Help me to see prayer for them as part of my duty.  Thank you Lord for your patience. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Reflection on Our Shepherd

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  We hear those words from the 23rd Psalm typically at funerals.  What many of us may not realize is that this is not a funeral Psalm.  It is not about the Lord being our shepherd after we die, but when we are in danger.  The comfort of the Psalmist comes from the nearness of God.  Left to himself, he would be pursued by his enemies who would overtake him.  Instead, the Psalmist declares that it is goodness and mercy that follows him all the days of his life, not his enemies.  The shepherd watches over his sheep, he protects them, examines them, binds up wounds, leads them to clean water and good pastures where there is plenty of food.  If a sheep wanders away from the fold, he is in trouble even if there are no predators.  What happens when there is no shepherd to shear his wool?  I read about a lot sheep that would have died if he had not been found.  His wool was so thick, he got an infection from it, especially in the areas where he had to try and relieve himself.  Jesus said in John 10 that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  He has come to give us abundant life.  In Matthew 18, he points out how the shepherd will leave the 99 sheep and go out in search of one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he rejoices and brings the lost sheep back home.  I can imagine the lost sheep pictured in the photo was so glad to have been found, and especially when all of that matted wool was sheared off so he could be healthy again.  If this sheep had remained lost, he would have died.  Thank God that Jesus the good shepherd came after us and began the process of making our hearts healthy and whole again.  He laid down his life for us, and rose from the grave, and because of this, he has the power to save us when we are lost. 

Bible Reading Reflection (Lev 10) - Strange Fire

I am very familiar with the story of Nadab and Abihu.  In a discussion on treating God as holy through obedience to his specific commands and instructions on how to approach him, this is often cited as an example.  Reading the text again, I am trying to picture the scene.  Fire came from God and consumed the offered made to him and every falls flat on their faces with a shout. What a sight that must have been!  Nadab and Abihu, seem to be the only one who were not on their faces.  Instead, they offer strange fire before the Lord which God did not command.  I don't know if it also included strange incense, but what ever they did, it was in clear disregard for the very specific instructions God had given them.  Once again, fire comes out from God and consumes them!  Aaron and his remaining sons are instructed by God not to tear their robes or mourn them.  The rest of the people would mourn, but Aaron and his sons were not to mourn, at least not visibly.  As leaders in the sanctuary, they apparently needed to demonstrate to the people that God's response was one they did not disagree with.  They needed to keep their composure and show how important it is to approach the holy God in the way that he had instructed.  They needed to provide an example in discerning between the holy and unholy, the clean and the unclean, when it comes to approaching the Lord with and offering. 

Here is what is curious.  The latter half of the chapter has an account of how Aaron's remaining sons did not treat the goat of the sin offering properly according to God's instructions.  The entire offering had been burned up.  They were supposed to have eaten part of it as God had instructed.  Moses was understandable angry at Aaron's remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, especially in light of what had just happened with Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron's response was that they did this in light of what had just happened to Nadab and Abihu.  It seemed in appropriate to feast when that sin had been committed.  Aaron asked, "Would it have been good in the sight of the Lord?"  It did not seem to them that this would have been pleasing to God.  This answer seemed to satisfy Moses.

The curious thing is why was this deviation seemed to be accepted.  Why did God strike down Nadab and Abihu, but not Eleazar and Ithamar?  Maybe it has something to do with what God desires and had communicated.  "Be those who come before me, I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored."  Eleazar and Ithamar surely understood the gravity of the situation.  Their refraining from feasting does not seem to stem from treating God flippantly.  They attempted to honor God, but it must have seem less than honorable in light of the sin of Nadab and Abihu and God's response to be feasting on that day.  They apparently chose to fast instead.  This was something they had apparently put a lot of though into.  Perhaps they agonized over it.  Their desire was to honor God and please him.  Maybe this is why God response to Eleazar and Ithamar differently than he did to Nadab and Abihu. 

If I am correct in understand this correctly, it says something about God.  He had never been interested in obedience that amounts to empty compliance.  It is not about conformity to arbitrary rules.  It is about what is going on inside of me.  As a husband would hardly delight in his wife's heartless and outward acquiescence to his desires, how much more does God not delight in me if I do something similar?  The greatest command according to Jesus is to love God.  This is to be the root of my relationship with God.  All that I think, say, and do needs to grow out of this one command.  God only delights in my fruit when all of my devotion grows out of this command.  This is why God is deaf to meaningless repetition or ritual for the sake of checking off a list.  I am reminded that the Bible teaches us that God usually finds this repugnant. 

Lord, help me to grow in love for you above all else.  Help me to understand your presence.  Help me to understand what it means to love and honor you.  Water the root so that my love for you can grow and bear all kinds of fruit that is delightful to you.  I want every branch of my life be connected to love for you.  I cannot do this on my own.  I am often selfish and clueless.  Fill me with your Spirit.  Thank you Lord for your patience and mercy.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Lev 1-8)

The New Testament states that the things written before are for our learning.  The law is a school master to lead us to Christ.  Even though we are not under the law that was given specifically to Israel, and not to the church, there are still vivid lessons to learn.  I need to slow down and read more carefully.  I need to ask, "What does this teach me about God, myself, and my relationship with God?"

I am struck by the fact that when there is sin among the people it is not just the priests that act on their behalf for atonement.  The elders are instructed to bring a bull for a sin offering.  Instead of pointing a finger and saying "they" sinned, the elders represent the people in making atonement for sin in the camp.  The offering required is larger than the offering required for any individual that sins. 

Unlike the sin offering for an individual, the blood is required to be brought into the sanctuary by the priest, sprinkled before the veil seven times, and put some of the blood on the horns of the incense altar in the sanctuary.  The rest of the blood is to be poured at the base of the altar in front of the sanctuary, then burn the fat, kidneys, long lobe of the liver, and burn the rest of the carcass outside of the camp.

God doesn't give the specific rationale for all these details, but the vivid visual of all of this happening brings several things to mind.

First, there is the sheer gravity of sin.  Life blood offered before the Lord shows that sin is a matter of life and death.  Sin, which is disobedience to God, forfeits what God offers in fellowship to him, which includes life.  There are sin offerings, guilt offerings, the morning and evening offerings, and more.  I wonder how much blood there might have been over time before the veil in the sanctuary and on the horns of the incense altar, and on the altar in front of the sanctuary.  These blood stains would have been constant reminders of sin, and the danger that sin poses to life and fellowship with God.

Second, there is the condition of the heart.  God instructed that these offerings were for those who sinned "unintentionally."  This was not intended as a means by which one could buy his way into sinning willfully.  Perhaps this is why the offerings were to be from the flock or the fields, and not something they picked up from the wild that cost them nothing.  There is so much emphasis on "purity" in these passages, which are supposed to teach a lesson about remaining pure.  True purity is not mere ceremonial purity, but purity of the heart.  My desire should be to have a pure heart, as the Psalm says, "Create in me a pure heart O God."  Jesus said that the pure in heart will see God.  This reminds me that outward obedience to a ritual in itself does not magically remove sin.  Obedience must be obedience from the heart, rather than going through the motions as if the actions have some magical power in themselves.  God is not like this.  He is the living God and desires a change in heart.  Whether it is baptism, repentance, prayers of confession, I need to realize that it is much more than an outward ritual, but an inward submission of the will and heart to God.

Third, there is solidarity.  It seems that the attitude of the elders was to be to act on behalf of the people rather than to point a finger at them and separate themselves from them.  As shepherds, they took responsibility for the people as a whole.  It would be similar to elders in the church having a special prayer service where they confess to God that there is sin in the body and ask for forgiveness.  They prayer is not for them, but for "us" together as a people.  As a people, "we" have sinned.  It seems to me that there has to be an attitude of humility and solidarity in order to do this.  Pride and arrogance would cause me to think in terms of "them" rather than "us."  God redeemed a people, not just a bunch of separate individuals.  I tend to think more in terms of individual responsibility, which is definitely a biblical concept, but I do not tend this think in terms of collective responsibility and collective guilt, which is also a biblical concept.  As a leader in the body, I need to take this to heart.

Fourth, there is grace.  I usually don't hear Christians talk about this in terms of grace, but what else can it be?  God has declared that he is slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love.  It is covenant love.  Because of this, God provided a way for redemption and reconciliation.  These were not arbitrary rules, but show us some lessons we need to learn about sin.  Also, these are a shadow of the ultimate sacrifice.  This is not a sacrifice that we make, but one that the Lord makes for us.  Jesus, because of his steadfast love, offered not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own blood in order to provide eternal redemption.  The New Testament says that the blood of bulls and goats could never really take away sin.  They are a reminder of sin.  It is the blood of Jesus that once for all takes away sin.  This makes sense, because the only one that can forgive sins against our Lord is the Lord himself.  He offers his life for ours.  This shows in an even more vivid way the sheer gravity of sin along with the sheer gravity of God's undying love and loyalty to us.

Lord, may I see sin as you so.  Help me to be able to look past the initial enticement to see the devastation and death it brings.  Purify my heart.  May I learn to enjoy the pleasures of life in the way that you intended with joy, peace, and holiness.  The blood of the Lord offered for me?  For us?  How can it be? How great is your love!  How great is your loyalty!  How great is your mercy!  Thank you Lord for your patience. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Exodus 25-40)

I have always found most of this section of Exodus to be somewhat tedious.  I typically find myself just trying to get through reading the text and hurrying through it. 

As I meditate on this text, it occurs to me that this is exactly the opposite of how the Israelites would have treated these passages.  There are several sections that conclude with something like "Do this so that you will not die."  Several times, God was adamant that they make everything exactly like the plan that God showed Moses on the mountain.  God's blueprints for the construction of the sanctuary, its furniture, its utensils, the anointing oil, incense, the clothing of the priests, and even the ordination ceremony were to be followed according to God's instructions without any deviation. 

Part of what I have found tedious is the text seems redundant to me.  After giving such detailed instructions, the text gives a detailed account of the execution of those instructions.  It is almost as if I am reading those instructions a second time.  It is nearly a minute by minute account of how they made the sanctuary, its furniture, its utensils, the anointing oil, incense, the clothing of the priests, and even the ordination ceremony.  Why not simply say, "And they did as the Lord commanded?"  It seems redundant.

I am reminded that the New Testament says that the law is our schoolmaster intended to lead us to Christ.  The former things were written for our instruction.  What lesson am I supposed to get from this?  Did I read it too quickly? 

Perhaps the lesson has something to do with the people's attention to detail.  After all, this is God's sanctuary, not some other common place.  God wanted it made a certain way, and he wanted things to be done a certain way.  God gives few detailed explanations as to why each piece was to be done a certain way.  I am convinced they are not just arbitrary.  There is a reason.  Perhaps for his people, it was to teach them something about treating the holy God as holy.  Paul said to the Athenians that God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything.  All of these instructions are not for his benefit, but for our benefit.  What does it mean to honor God?  Part of it has to mean to honor his instructions with faithful obedience without deviation.  It means not rushing through reading his word, but to digest each part of it and put it into action.  To do otherwise is to dishonor him and not treat him as holy.

It occurs to me that God does not give such detailed instruction on building a physical sanctuary for Christians today.  However, the New Testament says that we, God's people, are his sanctuary.  God's sanctuary is made up of his people rather than wood, gold, and various materials.  God's instruction on how we as his people are to be formed, or rather transformed, in order to act as his sanctuary should be taken with the same level of attention as Israel gave to inanimate objects for the sanctuary.  Forming people is a bit messier that hammering out gold, silver, or bronze, but it is how we honor God and treat him as holy.  We ourselves become holy for the holy God.  For me, this means that I am devoted to God without reservation, even if it means I am out of step with my family, neighbors, and society. 

This reminds me of the children's song, "Trust and obey. . ."  This is how we treat God as holy.  We live in a time where there is a disdain for authority, rules, and boundaries.  The redefinition of morality, ethics, and other such things are a reflection of this.  Christians are not removed from this.  We live in the ocean of this culture.  But we belong to a different kingdom that is not of this world.  To simply go along with the current indiscriminately dishonors a holy God.

Lord, we are a mess.  You give clear instructions, and we seem to be very good at finding ways around them.  Please forgive us for not treating you as holy.  Thank you for your mercy and patience. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Stranger

I heard a knock on the door while I was in my warm office studying and preparing for my next lesson to teach.  He was a tall skinny man with an unkempt red hair and beard and a huge backpack.  He explained his situation.  He was trying to get to California and had been riding the rails.  I didn't know anyone did that sort of thing any more.  He said the train stopped downtown, and he got off.  He was asleep and did not get off where he had intended.  He had come from Boston where he had been staying with family.  They took all his money and were into drugs, so he got out of there.  He said he used to travel by rail, but gave it up over ten years ago.  But he had no way to get back.  I wasn't sure what he wanted.  I offered him money, but he didn't want any money.  He wanted some way to continue his journey.  It would be hard to do in a little town like this.  He needed to be either at a truck stop, or some place like Lincoln or Omaha.  I told him that I didn't know what else to tell him.

As he walked away, I felt convicted.  I was concerned for my safety and would have preferred he took my money and went on his way.  I would have felt I did something to help.  However, he didn't want money.  As I watched him go up the hill and start to cross the bridge, I began to remember some of the sermons I have preached.  Jesus told the story about the Samaritan who helped someone by the side of the road.  He took a risk to do so.  Why did Jesus tell that story?  Oh yes.  After Jesus taught that we need to love God and love our neighbor, a person asked, "Who is my neighbor?"  I was watching my neighbor walk up the hill and over the bridge.  Suddenly, I felt a wave of shame come over me.

I hopped in my car and went after him.  I pulled into Casey's and waited for him to get there.  When he got there, I stopped him and offered to give him a ride to the truck stop, or if he could wait a couple hours, to Omaha.  We visited for a bit about the possible merits of either destination, and he decided on the truck stop on I-29.  As he put his back pack in the back seat and climbed into the car, the thought came across my mind again.  I don't know this guy.  He could pull a knife or a gun on me.  This is not safe.  Then I remembered the story again that Jesus told about the Samaritan who stopped to help someone in need.

He tried to tell me the story of his life on our trip over to the truck stop and how he had gotten stuck in the situation he is in.  If it wasn't the middle of the winter, he said it wouldn't be as bad.  But it was so cold out.  When we pulled up in front of truck stop, he thanked me.  I told him that the reason I decided to help him in this way was because Jesus tells me that he is my neighbor, and therefore I needed to help him.  I wasn't going to at first because of concern for safety.  But Jesus didn't stop from serving people out of concern for safety.  Do I think I am greater than him that I don't have to?  Jesus reminded me that servant is not greater than his master.   Before he got out of the car, I asked him if we could pray together.  I asked God to help Robert to be able to finish his trip, to help bring him and other Christians together to help him along the way, to keep him safe, and to bless him.  It was at that point that I noticed the tear running down his cheek.

On the drive back to my office, the odor of that stranger lingered in my car.  It caused me to reflect on the whole experience, especially my reluctance and the source of it.  A flood of Bible passages started running through my head as well.  There is the one about entertaining angels unawares.  There is the one about saying "be warmed and be filled" and not doing anything about it.  Then of course there is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which answers the question of "Who is my neighbor?" when we are instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The only regret I now have is not taking the time to share the Gospel with him.  Even though I told him that Jesus is the reason I am helping him, I didn't take the time to share the Gospel with him, which is a much greater need than finishing his trip to California.  The Gospel would help him to make the journey to Heaven.

Lord, please help me not to become so cautious that I pass by those who need help.  Help me not to put your light under a basket due to fear or inconvenience.  Help me to remember that so much of the ministry Jesus performed was in those times he was on his way somewhere but was "interrupted" by someone in need.  Help me never to fail to take the opportunity to share the Gospel, which is the greatest need.  Thank you for your patience and mercy.

Meditation on Time

Ps 90:12 - Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (NIV)

Col 1:25 … I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you (ESV)

1 Pet 4:10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms (NIV)

1 Cor 12:4-6  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (ESV).

In thinking on these scriptures, I am reminded that we are stewards of God's resources and gifts.  All of us have received gifts.  I am also reminded from the Corinthians passage that various kinds of gifts, service, and activities, are all really the same thing.  They represent faithfulness in stewardship for God.

One of the most precious resources in any kind of service is time.  How quickly it can get away from us.  I am reminded of how Jesus maximized his time.  It seems that much of his best activity took place in the "interruptions" of his travels and plans.  The disciples were often impatient, but Jesus saw each of these as opportunities to demonstrate the love of God through service and to share God's message.

I am also reminded that ministry is messy.  Jesus was willing to enter into our messy world and our messy lives to restore the stability and beauty of God to them.  The needs, problems, and challenges were endless.  Many who came to Christ were "invisible" to everyone else, whether it was the beggar by the road, the leper, the poor, etc.  Yet, Jesus didn't just hurriedly pronounced a blessing on them and move on.  He gave them his time.  He showed that they were precious to God, that all were precious to God.

I guess it really is not that complicated.  Just slowing down and being with people is huge.  Jesus never seemed to be in such a hurry that he neglected this.  Time, such a simple thing, yet so much can be done when we recognize the value of just a little time. 

I remember reading a little saying that said, "No man on his death bed, surrounded by his loved ones, ever says, "I regret not spending more time at the office."  When you have little time left, suddenly what is most precious becomes vividly clear.  Time devoted to faith, family, and service to people in the name of Christ are what has substance.  Everything else is just a vapor.  The word, "vapor" reminds me of the Hebrew word that appears repeatedly in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It is usually translated "meaningless."  So much of what we think are things of substance have no substance at all.  Many do not realize it until they have wasted most of their time on it.  This is why Qohelet, the author of that book, warns us toward the end of his life not to make the same mistakes he did. 

New Years resolutions?  I am not sure how wise it is to wait until a new year to make resolutions I will not keep.  I only have a limited number of new years in my lifetime.  As long as it is called "today," I need to make the most of our time.  The time is now.

Lord, may I never be in such a hurry to maximize my time that I lose out on the most important and precious things.  Help me to number my days and gain a heart of wisdom.  Help me to slow down and savor life and love.   Help me to be less passive and devote my time to the things of lasting substance that will last beyond this life.  God, you have devoted your time to people.  People, the most precious thing to you.  Help me to learn from Jesus, and to order my time as he did.  Thank you for your patience and mercy. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Ex 13-16)

So, God takes Israel the long way to Canaan.  The most direct route would lead them through Philistine territory, and God thought that if Israel faced war, they would change their minds and return to Egypt.  Curiously, the text says that Israel left Egypt and was "ready for battle," yet God led them away from war with the Philistines.  Even though Israel was "ready for battle," they were not ready at all.  God had purposefully led them to an area that was strategically poor.  If they would to face an enemy on land, they would have been boxed in with the sea behind them and the enemy in front of them and have no place to turn.  God wanted Pharaoh to pursue Israel.  The ever ready Israel saw Pharaoh and his army approaching, but instead of mustering for battle, their confidence, if they had any at all, melted away.  They were terrified and accused Moses of leading them out to the desert to die at the hands of the Egyptians.  There was no thought of victory or deliverance in their minds.  Moses told them to stand firm, and see the deliverance of Yahweh.  They would not have to fight at all, but Yahweh would fight for them.  God opened the sea and Israel passed through to safety, while God drowned the pursuing Egyptians in the sea.  How poetically appropriate.  The Egyptians, who had drowned male Hebrews babies in the water in an effort to destroy them are now themselves drowned in the water.

As I reflect on the "readiness" of the Hebrews, I am reminded of myself.  I feel confident.  I feel ready to take on anything.  Then God leads me to a place where I am boxed in.  There is no place to turn.  In spite of my confident readiness, I am not ready at all.  My fear, doubt, and even unbelief come to the surface.  My confidence melts away in the face of an unbeatable challenge.  I cry.  I complain.  I lash out at those close to me.  I isolate myself.  I have a pity party.

I have to wonder.  Where did my confidence and readiness come from?  Did I really trust God, or was I just saying that I did because it sounded good?  Do I truly trust God, or is my trust in a government program to bail me out?  Do I have confidence in God's promises, or is my confidence in my perceived ability to control and handle things on my own?   Do I calm myself in God's presence, or do I frantically look everywhere but up?

Lord, I cannot do this.  I really cannot.  I thought I could, but I can't.  I am admitting my impotence and powerlessness and utter lack of control.  I thought it might go one way, but instead it went a completely different way.  Help me to see past of the illusion of control.  Help me to squash the deceitfulness of pride.  Help me acquire true courage and confidence from faith in you.  Thank you for your mercy and patience. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Gen 46-50)

It has been mentioned at least twice in Genesis that Joseph married an Egyptian woman.  Not unusual, considering he spent most of his life there.  However, the text mentions twice that Asenath, his wife, was the daughter of an Egyptian priest.  I am not sure why these details are mentioned.  Scripture typically disapproves of Israelites marrying pagans, especially Canaanite ones.  The Canaanites were so wicked and detestable with their cult prostitution, child sacrifices, and other abominable practices that the land vomited them out.  Maybe since Asenath was an Egyptian and not a Canaanite, there is no condemnation or hint of disapproval?

As I look over the story again, Joseph is the one who is front and center as a positive example in every way.  Even though Joseph lived the majority of his life in a land that was not his home, and in the shadow of gods that were not his, and in a marriage to the daughter of a priest of one of those gods, Joseph remained loyal and faithful to his heritage and his God.  He had a clear sense of identity that never faded even when he became a powerful government official in Egypt.  Joseph did not adopt his wife's gods, but was faithful to the true God, the God of his fathers. The text does not say, but I think it is reasonable to assume that Asenath became a follower of Yahweh, and made her husband's God her God.   After all, Ephraim and Manasseh, her sons, are part of the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

We live in two worlds as well.  Our true home, heritage, and identity is tied up in God.  Our temporary lodging place is here.  As Paul wrote in the New Testament, "Our citizenship is in Heaven."  We belong to the Kingdom of God.  Whether my boss is a Christian or not, whether my spouse is committed to God or not, whether my family, friends, and neighbors accept Jesus or not, Joseph's example reminds us that we need to remember who we are.  It is too easy to let our spouse, job, and family divide our loyalties.  
Lord, may we never forget in whose Kingdom we belong.  May we, like Joseph, never lose our sense of identity and remain loyal and faithful.  You have been loyal and faith to us even though we do not deserve it.  May we be loyal and faithful to you, the only one who is truly worthy.  Thank you for your mercy, love, and patience.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Gen 42-45)

Joseph must have had a keen sense of God's presence.  When he sees his brothers, the same brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before, he feels no resentment or righteous indignation toward them.  Even though he lived as a slave and was thrown into an Egyptian prison for many years, he does not retaliate or seek justice for the wrong done to him.  He understands that God's hand was in everything that happened.  The end result was that his father and the rest of his family were preserved from starvation from the seven year famine that had struck.  Who could have ever thought that this would be the end result?  I am reminded of that passage from Ecclesiastes 3 that says God has placed eternity in our hearts, but no one can fathom what God is doing from beginning to end.  I would like to see over the horizon of God's plan, but I am very limited in what I can see.  This story reminds me to trust God.  All things indeed do work out for good to those that love God. 

Lord, please help me to always be aware of your presence in all things, so that I am not shaken by what wrongly appears to be your absence, or what appears to be events outside of your control.  Help me to have the perspective and faith of Joseph so that I am always in harmony inwardly and with you. 

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Gen 38-41)

Why is chapter 38 here?  What a scandal!  Not sure what the takeaway is here.  I am immediately tempted to focus on Tamar and her sordid activity.  However, the text seems to focus on the unrighteousness of the men in the family.  Judah had left his brothers and became friends with an Adullamite, then took a Canaanite woman for a wife.  The text does not name her, though it does name her father.  Does this indicate disapproval in a subtle way?  Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman, Er, Onan, and Shelah.  Judah procured a woman by the name of Tamar as a wife for Er.  Before Er and Tamar could have a son, God struck him down because he was wicked.  Onan, the next oldest brother, was to fulfill his duty to his older brother by fathering a child with Tamar that would be considered Er's son.  This strange custom was actually common in that part of the world.  Onan went in to Tamar and would sleep with her, but would spill his seed on the ground so that she would not get pregnant.  The text says it was because he knew the child would not be his.  Interestingly, Onan would have been next in line for the family inheritance, but this would not be the case if he fathered a son for his dead older brother.  Because of Onan's wicked actions, God struck him down as well.  Judah promised his daughter-in-law the remaining son, Shelah, as a husband when he was old enough to marry.  Judah then sent his daughter-in-law away back to her father's house.  In the meantime, Judah's Canaanite wife died.  When Shelah grew up, Judah did not give him to Tamar as a husband.  So, Tamar put on the garments of a cult prostitute, veiling herself, and sat by the road where Judah would be passing by.  She seduced him in disguise, and conceived.  Of course, when Judah found out Tamar was pregnant, he wanted to have her put to death.

Judah, like myself, wanted to condemn Tamar.  Curiously, when Judah found out what had happened, he declared Tamar "more righteous" than himself.  Which are the greater infractions in the story?  Judah had broken his promise and left his daughter-in-law with nothing.  In a world where women depend on husbands and/or sons for safety and survival, Judah left her with nothing at all.  Instead of treating her like a daughter that married into the family, he sent her away back to her father's house.  Out of sight - out of mind.  If he had her put to death, she would definitely be out of sight and out of mind.  Tamar cunningly forced Judah not to dismiss or discard her.

Tamar gave birth to Judah's offspring, twins.  The family line continued not through Shelah, but through the younger of Tamar's twins, Perez.

Maybe the point is not Tamar and whether she was right or wrong.  Maybe the focus in on Judah and his sons as negative examples.  Judah and his sons stand in stark contrast to Joseph, who demonstrated honor and integrity even as a slave and in prison.  Joseph could have given up on God during those years in an Egyptian prison, far from home with no prospects of returning.  But the text says that Yahweh was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love and favor.  I don't have my Hebrew Bible handy, but I suspect "steadfast love" could be the Hebrew word, "hesed," which means covenant love and loyalty.  Joseph seemed to show love and loyalty to God, living honorably with integrity, even if it got him into trouble.  What a contrast!

Judah and his sons by the Canaanite woman seem to be examples of selfishness, dishonesty, dishonor, wickedness, and buddying up to the Canaanites, whom God had told Abraham he would dispossess from the land due to their ongoing wickedness.  They are also an example of not caring for your own.  The New Testament says that those who do not care for members of their household are worse than an infidel.

Lord, please do not let me focus so much on another's shortcomings that I become blind to my own faults.  Please help me to be an honorable person of my word that takes responsibility, even if it is difficult or dangerous.  Thank you Lord for taking care of us through the cross, and taking responsibility for your creation by carrying out your plan to provide a way of redemption and reformation.  Thank you for your patience and mercy.