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 heard 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 discussions 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 offering made to him and everyone fell flat on their faces with a shout! What a sight that must have been!  Nadab and Abihu seem to be the only ones who were not on their faces.  Instead, they offered 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 were then 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 appropriate.  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 understandably 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 inappropriate 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 had something to do with what God desired and had communicated.  "By 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 responded to Eleazar and Ithamar differently than he did to Nadab and Abihu. 

If I am correct in understanding this correctly, it says something about God.  He has 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 less would God 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 and ritual or any other heartless words directed towards God.  In fact, words and service without love has the same effect as a clanging gong or cymbal, which indicates that God may find it repugnant and irritating rather than pleasing and beautiful.  Motivation is just as important, if not more important than the activity itself.  Wrong motivation can cancel out a right action.  

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.