A Prophet Like Me

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Today's Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-19

The Gospel of Matthew goes to great lengths to show the correlations between Jesus and Moses. If you were to glance back at the early chapters of Matthew, what you see is a story ripe with parallels and similarities between the two.  Both were survivors of an attempt at killing off young boys, both found themselves in Egypt, both came out of Egypt in their own sort of Exodus, both go up on a mountain to receive and present the Law to the people.  All of this is tied to a Jewish belief that no prophet has ever, or ever will, exceed Moses.  In fact, in Judaism, the "pre-eminence of Moses among the prophets" is considered a fundamental belief akin to the Christian belief in Jesus' divinity; by an large, you will not be considered a true Jew if you do not believe that Moses was the best of the best.  Matthew then comes along and says "Jesus is the one like Moses - he is even better than Moses!"

While this would have been considered heresy by Jews of the day, it was firmly in line with what Moses himself said would happen: that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself and that the people must listen to him.  But what's more, the people aren't just supposed to listen to him, God says that he will judge and assess the people's faith on the basis of whether or not they heed this new prophet's words.

While we may acknowledge that Jesus is prophet, priest, and king, we tend to put all our attention on the priest and king parts.  But Jesus was also prophet - he was God's spokesman, the final word on what God was and is doing in our world, and the good news of forgiveness and salvation.  He is a prophet - a messenger - like Moses, but not exactly Moses...he is better than Moses.  He has shown the way from captivity to the true Promised Land!

God Makes a Promise

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Today's Reading: Genesis 3:8-15

The story of Christmas doesn't begin with an angel or a young girl, it begins way back in Genesis. To really grasp what happened with the birth of Jesus, we have to understand why this was needed in the first place.

The birth was the fulfillment of a promise - a promise to make things right.  Human were first created in order to be image bearers of the Creator.  But with the fall into sin and brokenness, humanity no longer reflected the perfect image of God.  In order to regain what was lost, God had to step and do something.  He could rely on humans to fix the brokenness because of our inclination to do things for ourselves.  Besides, what is broken cannot fix itself.  

So God made a promise.  He promised that the day would come when he would put "enmity between [the serpent] and the woman."  In other words, while the human race might now be buddy-buddy with the one who caused us to fall into sin, one day that toxic relationship would be destroyed.  That's grace and an incredibly important piece of the overall story of the gospel!

However, the entire scene in Genesis 3 is something more like what happened at that first Christmas...

Adam and Eve sinned and were no longer worthy of being in God's perfect presence.  And God knows that.  Yet he still comes to them!  One of the names given to Jesus in the Bible is "Immanuel," which means "God With Us."  Almost immediately after the fall, God becomes Immanuel.  Rather than cutting himself off from humans, he comes to them and ministers to them, and promises to fix the brokenness.  The people were afraid, but God was with them.  With the very first Christmas, God voluntarily and by his grace and love, came to broken humanity, dwelt among us, and was with us.  And in doing so, he made things right...he fixed the brokenness.

Paul's Conversion

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Today's Reading: Acts 9:1-31

Conversion stories are always fun to hear.  I love hearing how people came to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior, the twists and turns, the encouragements, the affirmations.  Some conversion stories are packed full of messiness, while others are testimonies to God's long faithfulness in the same direction.

But as much as I love hearing how people came to a point of owning their faith and consciously committing to a life-long, life-altering relationship with Jesus, I personally get even more excited about what happens after that moment.

For most people, when we read the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, our evangelical tendencies drive us to put all the focus on the dramatic change that took place with Paul.  He was once known as Saul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, who made it his personal calling to destroy as many Christians as possible.  He was a hero to Jews everywhere!  But then while traveling to Damascus on one of his "mission trips" he ran into a bright light that blinded him, threw him off his horse, and Jesus spoke to him.  He was never the same again.

It's dramatic and exciting...no doubt about that.

But Jesus demand was not that Saul suddenly start believing in him, but that he go into the city and wait further instruction.  At the same time, Jesus approached a disciple names Ananias and told him to go and search out Saul.  Ananias found him, there was a lot of teaching and discipling going on, and eventually Saul became Paul and probably the most prolific Christian missionary in history.

Our tendency to emphasize the moment of conversion does us a dis-service in our life with Jesus.  Saul's conversion - anyone's conversion! - as great as it is was not the end of the road; conversion is the beginning, or at least a significant stop along the way.  A person's maturity and faithfulness to following Jesus is not the result of how dramatic their conversion was, it's a result of what they do with it afterwards.  Unfortunately, far too many in our society put all their attention on getting a person dunked, and then setting them free to do whatever.  It's as if the most important thing is getting that baptism out of the way, and then calling it good.  A conversion means nothing if a person continue to sit where they are.  People need to be fed, groomed, pruned, and fertilized (there's a reason there are so many agricultural references and analogies in the Bible).

In a certain way, Paul was a unique case (just as we all are).  But I also think that we are capable of following in his footsteps more than we give ourself credit for.  What Paul achieved for the Kingdom can be accomplished by virtually anyone who makes the time and effort for continued, ongoing discipleship.  If Paul needed some heavy-duty, long-term discipleship before launching out, why should we think we'd be any different?

 

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

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Today's Reading: Acts 2:1-41

For whatever reason, I've been coming across a lot of stuff lately about Millennials and mental health.  I'm not sure if a number of "groundbreaking" studies were recently published or what, but there's been a lot coming across my various feeds.  Millennials, however exactly we might define this generation, are showing signs of tremendous mental health challenges.  Before we jump on the bandwagon of blaming it all on social media or a "cupcake" mentality, there is very little consensus about the what and why behind it.

Millennials are extremely stressed out right now.  It's debatable whether or not I myself am a Millennial, but I know that even for myself, like often feels very overwhelming, chaotic, and complex.  There's constant pressure to be nearly perfect in everything we do, while the world seems to be constantly rooting for us to fail.  There's financial concerns, that, frankly, virtually no previous generation has had to deal with - save for the one that went through the Great Depression.  There's the fact that in our mid-30's and early 40's, many of us are already experiencing the pressure of supporting and caring for parents and our own kids.  Many Millennials constantly feel like their playing catch-up, never able to get a handle or stability in ay area of their life.  So we do our best to survive in the hopes that one day things might settle down and we'll be able to catch our breath and have confidence that everything won't come crashing down around us if we let our guard down for an hour or two.

On top of all this complexity and chaos, there's also a desire and compulsion to have an impact on the world.  I want to die knowing that I did something worthwhile.  Because it's how I feel, my assumption is that most people feel this same way.  I'm not sure anyone wants to find themselves staring death in the face and wondering what they accomplished.  The result is that we all can put tremendous pressure on ourselves, and to a greater or lesser degree, that keeps the chaos going and makes it even harder to do what we want to do or ever feel that sense of arrival and satisfaction that we all long far.

In other words, humans have a tendency to over-complicate matters...

Here's what I like about Acts 2: It's simple.  And it's not about us.

The disciples were all hanging out together in a room, worshiping, doing their thing.  They were, in a way of speaking, being good, faithful, disciples and worshipers of God.  It was in that moment without any doing of their own, that the Holy Spirit came over them and gave them power to do great things.  Then Peter gets up and talks.  When it comes to evangelistic success in the Bible, I always think of Paul.  Granted, Paul may have had the bigger impact over the course of his life in terms of numerical growth, but Peter has the biggest one-day impact.  Peter's success wasn't because he was a great speaker or an mission expert, it was because he had the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit was working through him.  Peter was simply obedient and willing to be the Spirit's tool.

It's also simple because the Holy Spirit didn't launch a fund-raising or people-raising campaign, it didn't instigate an elaborate strategy of demographic studies and service opportunities and multimedia marketing efforts.  With the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Peter simply told the story.  He told the story of Jesus, from beginning to end, and he made it very clear what the whole point was.

In our over-complicated and messy world, a simple story is often overlooked and lost in the "noise."  For those of us raised in the church, we've heard so many times that it no longer inspires us.  For the world, it's lack of excitement and plainness is drowned out by the constant bombardment of our senses.  But it's the story that has the ability to change lives; it's the gospel - when heard - that causes people to re-evaluate and correct.

I remind myself of the story, weekly.  I have to.  Because it's too easy to get caught up in the demands and stresses of life and forget about Jesus and the cross and the empty tomb.  Too often lately, I've been going to people and saying, "I don't need another ear, I need answers; I need someone to tell me what I'm supposed to do."  The story of a God and savior who loved me enough to die on a cross and who is powerful enough to rise from the dead, to put his story on my heart and mind, and give me opportunities to share it, is what I need to remind myself that in order to have an impact on the world, I need to be more like Peter and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through me.

Jesus' Resurrection & Ascension

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Today's Reading: Luke 24

The resurrection is hard to put into words.  Part of that is that, as Christians, we've heard the message so many times that you start to wonder what do we say about that hasn't been said already.  If Jesus' crucifixion and his status as king is the issue that separates disciples from non-disciples, it's his resurrection that secures our place in his throne room.

I find that one of the most difficult things about accepting Jesus' resurrection is that in our very limited and finite world, death is perceived as having the final word.  It's one of the few things that every humanbeing will experience (the other being birth).  It's a shared experience that is 100% unavoidable and doesn't care one bit about what we do with our lives.  Everyone from the poorest of the poor, to the richest of the rich, the most sickly and the healthy, everyone experiences death.

Not long ago I was eating lunch with a couple pot-head friends of mine (and yes, that is a somewhat humorous thought) and the topic of death came up (because, why not).  The reality is that one of them recently lost a good friend by heroine overdose, I was in the midst of ministering and supporting a family who just lost a loved one, and my own family is carrying the weight of watching a loved one slowly deteriorate and die.  I mentioned that another friend of mine once observed that realistically we're all terminal.  And as we sat there eating burritos, we talked about how we all approach and deal with death, and how death has the ability to put life in perspective. Death causes us to think a bit more about what, how, and why we do what we do - to cherish what we have.

But what if death isn't the last word?  How does that change things?

On one hand, if could have the effect of minimizing the meaning and significance of what happens to us.  But on the other hand, it could also bring a certain level of peace to our desperate minds.

Jesus' resurrection and the promise of our own show us that life is the controlling factor for us, not death.  Our hope and promise is in the assurance that life goes on.  In some ways, the change is subtle (we are now controlled by hope in life, rather than fear of death).  But at the same time, it changes how we think, approach, and go through our existence.  I was talking to my chiropractor the other day and he was talking about the move from this life to the next as a transition.  He had a particularly scientific reason for it that was mostly about our inability to create or destroy matter, but it made sense.  Physical death is a transition more than anything else; because of Jesus' own death and resurrection, we move from this life as we know it, to a different sort of life -  a better life.  And for that, we live now in thanksgiving and praise for what we know is still ahead.

Jesus' Crucifixion

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Today's Reading: John 19:1-42

I'm in a place with my relationship with God in which themes of kingdom, kingship, lordship, and loyalty have been pretty big for me.  These themes have forced me to wrestle with questions of who and what my motivation is: Who/What gets my attention and loyalty?  What is motivating/driving me in my life?  Who is my king?  What is my kingdom?

For that reason, it's these words that hit me the hardest in this read-through (vss 14b-16):

"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"

"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.

"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Jesus forces us to choose with who and where our loyalties lie.  And I can't help but think that the words of the chief priests are the words that I have proclaimed so often.  Perhaps the only exception is that I don't have a literal Caesar; instead, my Caesar is my career, my kids, my preferences and opinions, my personal goal, the car I want, the church I want...In other words, my Caesar is anything that I routinely give more attention and devotion to than God.

This is where today's reading comes to rub me so hard.  For whatever reason, I have become extremely aware and sensitive to the various ways that my priorities and values become disordered.  The Jews claimed Caesar as their king (in all honesty a certain kind of blasphemy in its own right) over Jesus.  Realistically, they didn't really accept Caesar as their king because he wasn't Jewish and was seen as the foreign occupier and oppressor.  The Jews didn't want a king, they wanted to be king; they didn't want to submit to anyone's law or rule but their own...and that includes God himself.  Likewise, I rarely have any interest in voluntarily submitting and placing myself under any law that I don't create for myself.  It's hard to escape the reality that I'm not really any different from those who were rejecting Jesus as their king in exchange for a king of my own making...

Hence the reason why the story of Jesus' crucifixion and death is so important. Faith in the work and efficacy of the crucifixion is what separates those who accept Jesus as king, and those who do not.  The crucifixion is the lynchpin.  And every day for me is a constant struggle to keep myself under the lordship of Jesus - to resist the desire to reject him and set myself up as king.  

Jesus is king!

 

The Last Supper & Jesus' Arrest

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Today's Reading: Mark 14:12-50

The darkest night in the entire story of the Bible...

If you've ever felt like you were betrayed and abandoned by a friend when you needed them most, you have some sense of what Jesus experience that night.  He had spent the last 3 or so years with a  small group of 12 young men teaching them everything they needed to know about his existence and purpose in life.  Every single one of these 12 men were hand-picked, by Jesus, for this task.  And being God, Jesus knew these men better than they knew themselves.

That's a piece of this story that may not sit well with us: Over the centuries Christians have come to vilify Judas and Peter and the others for running away and leaving Jesus to the Sanhedrin and the Romans.  But Jesus picked these kids.  Judas may be the worst of the worst, but to say that meant his entire life was a waste is probably going a bit to far.  Within the circle of disciples, Judas was considered trustworthy, reliable, and a true disciple...even if he did have a life-long struggle with greed.  Peter was pegged pretty early on as the leader of the group, even if he was revealed as a coward that night.  In other words, these 12 were just like us.

There's are few things that feel worse in life than being abandoned by your friends.  It makes you want to blow them off and say "Forget it!"  And if I'm going to be honest, that's what I'v done in the past.

But that's not what Jesus did.  Jesus came to die on a cross, to take the weight of the world's sin on himself, and then beat death at it's own game and return to life.  He went out to the garden with his disciples in order to pray, and his disciples fell asleep.  The temple guard arrived with their swords and looking threatening, and the disciples ran away.  They said they'd die with and for him...but they ran.

And Jesus was alone...

Jesus' Triumphal Entry

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Today's Reading: Luke 19:29-48

I can't help but notice the parallels between Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem and his birth...

Both situations come with a declaration of glory.  Both also come with a royal proclamation.  For Luke, the big thing to see is Jesus' royal lineage and his role as the long-promised descendant of David, and therefore Israel's rightful king.  The triumphal entry was, then, essentially Jesus' coronation parade.  And although Jesus didn't go to great lengths to make it that way, the crowd and his disciples certain did and Jesus wasn't about to stop them.

As Jesus approaches the city from the Mount of Olives, he begins to cry.  Jesus had a tendency to be quite emotional.  We might think his tears were a result of what he knew was about to happen to him, and maybe to a certain degree they were.  But when he begins to speak about Jerusalem, there also seems to be a sense that his tears are from the fact that Jerusalem (and by extension, Israel) simply doesn't get it - they simply do not understand what is about to happen and what is necessary for them to receive the salvation they have been desperately looking for ever since they were invaded and carried off into captivity by the Babylonians.

This coronation was going to be painful in a way that Israel could never imagine.  Jesus was going to confront them with truths and realities they never imagined.  Within the week, they would feel compelled to crucify the man they were currently celebrating as their new king.  And when all was said and done, they were going to find that salvation was not a political reality, but a cosmic reality.  And the single defining factor for whether or not this cosmic reality would become their personal reality was their willingness to accept that the person they killed was actually the promised messiah and God.

That's a tough pill to swallow...

Much has been written about the nature of a Christian's relationship to the state.  There are some who would love to see a uniquely Christian country established.  For some, there's a feeling that the key to experiencing life in the kingdom of God is to create and establish a literal kingdom.  The kingship that was proclaimed when Jesus entered Jerusalem was a kingship over a kingdom that is in no way subject to the limitations of the world - it's a kingdom that belongs to God, with it's own set of rules and lifestyle, and it acts like yeast: it's here, yet it permeates and infects every facet of the world we can see and touch.  It's in America, Canada, Britain, China, Russia, North Korea, and Australia.  And it doesn't care what human is controlling or ruling over what geographical territory.  Its only concern is that we see and recognize and accept it's king as the one, true king in our lives, and submit to him as our Lord. 

Jesus' Baptism & Temptation

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Today's Reading: Matthew 3:13-4:11

Jesus' baptism and temptation is a favorite topic for papers in college and seminary theology classes.  These passages propose an interesting question: If Jesus is God, why did he have to be baptized, and why/how could the temptation thing work?

One of the the things that makes the gospel unique among world religions is that our god wasn't like any of the other gods who's stories have them doing great things for the "salvation" of their people.  In general, stories of other savior-type gods are either about demi-god humans (the product of a god reproducing with a human) and winning a few great battles, but the salvation in those stories is largely limited to a short-term peace and deliverance from some worldly enemy.  The oppression will return.

On the other side is a being who is said to be fully divine, but these gods keep their distance because the human world is considered too profane for their holiness to mix with.  The impurity and imperfection of the created world and its inhabitants isn't good enough for the gods, and even seems to present a danger to the gods.

Jesus' baptism and temptation takes on at least one of those themes: that God is too good to mix with human life.  One of the key pieces to Jesus' life and ministry is that Jesus was 100% God and 100% human.  Although there was nothing about Jesus that in any way compromised God's divinity, Jesus still experienced the full-breadth of human life.  The result is that when he speaks of dealing with temptation and the hardships of life that we all face on a daily basis, he's not simply speaking platitudes that sound good but he has no basis for personal experience; Jesus has faced all the temptations that you have faced (yes, probably even including all the sex stuff...why do we always want to make an exception when sex comes into the picture?)!

The gospel is so profound because the God of the Bible considered humans and creation to be so important to him that he voluntarily intermingled with the same messy world that we wake up to every morning.  God himself, came down and entered into and experienced the entirety of human experience.  No other god has ever done that; no other god has voluntarily entered the physical world, saw the mess that it was, and then voluntarily stuck around to see it become better.

Jesus' Birth

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Today's Reading: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-21

Okay, so it's kind of a weird time of the year to be thinking about Christmas, but I also like to keep in mind that Jesus' birth was not just something for a few weeks every year, it's for all year round.  And maybe by spending time on it in October before we officially hit the Advent season, we will be able to reflect more deeply on what took place there.

The story of Jesus' birth is profound.  This was the moment that God physically inserted himself into the fabric of space and time and took on human flesh and the full-breadth of human experience.  Jesus was not a demi-god of the sort you find in Greek mythology (though the claim is often made), Jesus is God.  There is no distinction or separation between the two.  And that is what makes this birth story so unique.

This year marks my 37th Christmas.  After 37 years, I'm still just as much in awe of what took place as I've always been.  I find it hard to put into words what I feel and see in this event.  I continue to find myself simply wanting to worship...like the angels, and the shepherds, and the magi.  This story leaves me speechless...

Job's Life & Suffering

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Today's Reading: Job 1:1-2:13; 42:10-17

The big question of the story of Job is "Why do bad things happen to good people?"  That is an enormously big question, it's a very old question, and it's a question that has resulted in at a few thousand attempts at trying to find a satisfactory answer.  And if we're honest, no one has yet to come up with an answer that actually is satisfying.

The thing about Job, is that despite it's location in the OT, there considerable opinion that it may actually be the oldest book in the Bible, pre-dating Genesis-Deuteronomy.  Yes, Genesis deals with creation and nothing in human history pre-dates creation, but it's thoughts that somewhere in those earliest days, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of Genesis 4-6, the story of Job occurred.  

Another common opinion (and I recognize that this can be quite controversial) is that Job's story has been highly edited, if not completely made-up.  It reasonable to think that at some point in the very distant past there was a man who experienced much of what Job experienced.  His experiences raised the question of suffering and evil, and resulted in an oral tradition that attempted to bring some meaning and explanation for what had happened.  Pieces of the story were tweaked and elaborated, or perhaps even added altogether.  And the result is a story about God and Satan making a bet and Job becomes the unfortunate science experiment in this bet.

Does that mean that Job should be cut out of the Bible because we can't trust it?  That depends on what you believe about the Bible's inspiration.  I believe that the entire Bible is inspired by the Spirit and it's there (even Job) because God wants it there and it teaches us something about God.  I don't consider God's truth compromised in way by a story that may actually be some weird combination fact and fiction, if that is in fact what Job is.  Job still teaches us something about suffering and how God works.  I will also admit that from my messed-up human perspective, while I can find some comfort in this story, the explanation for bad things happening to good people contained in this story is unsatisfying.

Job was a man of great faith who routinely went above and beyond in his worship in order to make sure that all the bases were covered.  He was probably the best God-fearer that's ever lived, which means that if anyone could be certain of God's protection, Job was that person.  But then God takes Satan up on his challenge and Job, unjustly, loses everything!  His farm, his house, his kids...everything!  His wife and his closest friends who know full-well what kind of man Job is, push him hard to curse God because obviously none of this would happen God really was as good as Job believed he was.  In the end, God wins the bet, and blesses Job by repaying him for everything he's lost.  It may be a bit crude, but the whole almost reads like the experience of a miscarriage could be wiped away simply by having more kids...no one who has ever experience a miscarriage has found the birth of another child to fix the pain and loss of earlier.

What's worse is God's own explanation in chapters 38-41: "I'm God and you're not. I can do what I want.  Deal with it!"

I don't have a satisfying answer for Job.  But I accept it as part of God's word and revelation to us.  And I continue to believe, much like Job, that God is still good and worthy of my worship and glory even when I don't feel like he deserves it.

Return From Exile

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Today's Reading: Ezra 1:1-11; 2:68-70; 3:8-13

The previous reading gave a hint at the restoration that was promised to Israel following the Babylonia conquest.  The book of Ezra presents us with the fulfillment of the restoration that had once been promised.

It makes sense that after a traumatic defeat (literal or figurative) that we would become discouraged. It's only human.  What we knew may not have been idea or enjoyable or healthy, but it was what we knew and there's something comforting about sticking with what we know rather than venturing out into the unknown.  I have a friend who likes to say, "Different isn't always better, but better is always different."  We can often be really hung-up on what is different and miss what is better...

The Babylonian Captivity was never intended to be the final word.  Many nations will be defeated in conquest and then ceased to exist as they are swallowed up by a more powerful army.  But that was never the case with Israel.  Babylon was God's tool of discipline and restoration for Israel.

When an invading army conquer a particular kingdom, they would take loot, and often, anything that wasn't already a jewel or money, would be destroyed and turned into something valuable to the victors.  Most often this would be done with religious and royal items.  But Nebuchadnezzar never did that...instead, he put all of Israel's most valuable and important temple artifacts into storage, almost as if he planned to pull them out again one day.  And one day, they were pulled out of storage, dusted off, and returned to the Israelites.

In Cyrus' first year as king of Persia, he freed the Jews.  There was absolutely no benefit to him in doing this and the very act completely defies logic.  Hence the reason Ezra says, "in order to fulfill the word of the LORD...the LORD moved the heard of Cyrus..."  This was always God's plan, and he made sure it was carried out.  The result: everything taken from the temple was returned to the Israelites, and the Israelites were allowed to return to what used to be Jerusalem, and the temple was rebuilt.  And as a testament to the change that had taken place in Israel's heart, the temple was rebuilt on the exact location it once stood and it was built to the exact specifications of the original.  In other words, they returned to original will of God...they built what God wanted for them, not what they wanted!

Restoration is the great goal of the Bible.  God is constantly on a mission of renewal and restoration.  He fought for the restoration of humanity on the cross, and he continues to work toward the full restoration of all creation.  The day is coming when all things will be made new again.  This has always been the intention.  Death, pain, misery was never the end game.  And like Israel, we will experience restoration, in full, and in all it's glory!

Judah is Conquered

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Today's Reading: 2 Kings 25:1-30

There are two things that I think the Bible tends to be most-often characterized as: 1) a book of hope and grace, and 2) a book of judgement and destruction.  We will often struggle with reconciling the two "natures" and tones of the Bible.  But a passage like today's brings both together seamlessly.

Babylon has finally invaded Judah (the southern kingdom) and laid siege to Jerusalem.  The city fell, the temple (built by Solomon) was sacked and destroyed, and the people were marched off to Babylon into captivity.  Worth noting is that, unlike their time in Egypt, the Israelites were not taken as slaves; they may have been lesser citizens, but they were not slaves.  In Babylon, Israel was permitted considerable freedom to makes lives of their own.  In fact, through Jeremiah (29:4-7), God actually encouraged Israel put down roots, to work, thrive, and prosper!

Our thinking and perspective is different, but to Israel, what they were experiencing was nothing short of a complete abandonment and rejection by God.  The mindset was that gods were restricted to specified territory and only resided in a single house (temple).  In Israel's thinking, God lived in the temple in Jerusalem, and his power only extended to Israel's borders.  The logical conclusion was that God couldn't help Israel in Babylon even if he wanted to.  He wasn't powerful enough.

This is where a text like 2 Kings 25 comes into play.  We need to remember that while we are able to read these stories and glean something from them, they were originally intended for the Israelites in captivity, or soon after returning to Jerusalem.  The description of the temple being looted and Jerusalem being destroyed is devastating. And yet, after everything comes down, look what Nebuchadnezzar does: he appoints a man named Gedaliah son of Ahikam as governor.

Ahikam was a close advisor of King Josiah (2 Kings 22:12).  So the new governor was not a Babylonian, but an Israelite.  Jeremiah also refers to him as a good friend.  And Gedaliah's advice?  "Chill out, serve Babylon, and everything will be fine."  Gedaliah would then be assassinated, but he had sought to encourage Israel with a message that many Christian Americans continue to struggle with: it's okay to "serve" your country, whoever is leading it, and still be faithful to God.  In fact, serving our country (whatever country it is) might actually be one of the best ways to be a "God-fearer."

Fast-forward 37 years, and the last king of Judah is still alive and in prison.  The new Babylonian king breaks "tradition" and frees Jehoiachin, and actually gives him an official position within the empire.  There's a taste of restoration taking place.

It's easy for us to become discouraged and maybe even jaded by feeling like God has abandoned us.  Maybe our faith is waning, or our church is declining, or we simply feel distanced from God's presence.  Often times, there are hints and signs that God is not as distant or that things aren't as bad as we may think.  Sometimes, like Israel and the Babylon Captivity, God has just shaken things up a bit to force us to re-descover our zeal and to worship/serve him and the world in a different way.  Without a doubt, this is a certain kind of loss...but there's also something to be gained...

Solomon Builds the Temple

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Today's Reading: 1 Kings 3:1-2; 5:1-6:11

"The people...were still sacrificing at the high places, because a temple had to yet been built for the Name of the LORD."

Looking at a Bible timeline, there was roughly 500 years between Israel leaving Egypt and Solomon building the first temple.  The Tabernacle - a sort of tent-temple was built during the exodus.  So for 500 years, Israel lacked a church building.  

Think about that a second.  Most churches will never hit the 500 year mark.  There are a number of churches in Europe that have been around and functional that long.  In the continental US, the oldest continually operating congregation is Marble Collegiate Church in New York City; they started meeting together in 1628 and have met continually, without changing affiliation or experiencing any sort of stoppage for the past 389 years.  If they were Israel at the time of today's reading, they would have another 111 years before they would finally build their first building.  Today, it's hard to imagine a group of people meeting together for worship on a regular basis and not making a push for a permanent home within the first 5 years.  Israel waited nearly 500 years!

There's a couple things going on here: 1) Israel's commitment to worshiping God and being patient for him, and 2) God's faithfulness.

God doesn't work on the same timeline that we do.  And so often we forget that.  God wasn't in a hurry to get a temple.  Eventually he promised that one day a temple would be built for him, but that was still a generation or so out.  In the meantime, the people continued to worship in the places and the ways they always had and that were available to them.

We have a tendency to get wrapped up into thinking that we have to have a place to worship. I was almost obsessed with this when I was a church planter.  But realistically, God doesn't need a place to be worshiped - and he said as much to David through Nathan.  A building is for us, not God.

God accepts our worship whenever and where ever we offer it.  But he's also faithful in showing that he knows we need the help.  But the next time you're at the beach, or hiking through the woods, or enjoying the peace and quiet in your own backyard, worship God.  He'll hear you, see you, and be glorified through you.  But also, come together with others.  Israel may not have had a temple, but they still gathered together.  When Marble Collegiate Church began meeting, they "did church" in a gristmill that probably smelled like manure and was covered in grain dust.  God was still worshiped and glorified by them.

David & Goliath

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Today's Reading: 1 Samuel 17:12-58

Like the story of Noah, or Daniel in the Lion's Den, or Jonah, David & Goliath is a story that we love to tell our kids but is also much darker and more serious than we often let on.

Israel is once again taking on the Philistines.  The two sides meet in a field, line up in battle formations, and then from the Philistine side comes a man initially described as being nearly 8-feet tall.  He's a mountain of a man, that no one has ever beat  in battle.  The proposal is that both sides send out their best fighters, let them duke it out on the field, and the side who's man manages to stay alive is declared the winner.

Typically when we tell this story, we focus in on the fact that David, a boy of probably 10ish (In Judaism, 13 is considered adulthood and David is consistently described as a boy), was victorious and defeated this unbeatable Goliath with nothing more than a sling-shot.  It's a great story that lends itself well to the idea that with God we can overcome our "Goliath's," no matter the odds.

I don't want to take too much away from that message, as there are other places in the Bible that bring a similar message, such as Philippians 4:13.  But I also have a tendency to constantly ask, "Is that really what this is about?"

Maybe the idea of overcoming enormous odds is there, and I can mostly accept that.  But this time through, something new jumped out at me that I hadn't ever noticed before.

Israel's role and place in the Bible is pretty special, and Israel often stands-in for a lot of of different things.  In the OT world, Israel represented God and his Kingdom and everything connected to it.  When Goliath comes out on the field every morning and mocks Israel, he's not just mocking a rival army, he's mocking and attacking God himself.  David hears it, and his response is telling: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?"  Unlike the vast majority of Israel, for David, this is all about God's own reputation; David is angry that God is being defied and disrespected!

At 10 years old, David stands up and fights.  Not because he wants the gold or the girl, but because he wants to defend God (and not that God needs David or anyone else to defend him).  God rewards him - does great things through him.

On one hand, I can look at this story and see it as an example of how we can defeat our "Goliath's" with God's help.  But this morning, I'm seeing a story that shows me what God promises if I will faithfully stand-up for him when the world attacks.  Will I speak truth when God's kingdom is not being upheld?  Will I cower in fear of what may happen to me if try to defend the Kingdom?  Will I be bold in proclaiming - through word and deed - the good news of the Kingdom?  Do I believe that God will bless those efforts?

The Israelites Request a King

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Today's Reading: 1 Samuel 8:1-22

I've been thinking a lot lately about something that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  The basic idea is that no mater what we might say we want, we will always pursue and do that things that line up with our real treasures.

I can't help but see this very thing happening in 1 Samuel...

Israel was a theocracy is the truest sense of the word.  They were ruled directly by God, who then appointed judges and prophets to speak through and make his will known to the people.  At first this worked, but as is often the case, the people started to despise the fact that they were different from everyone else.  They wanted a human king to tell them what to do.  They were insecure with the fact that things worked differently for them.

I also see something about faith.  Israel lacked faith that a God they couldn't see really was taking care of them and could command the respect of the nations.  They didn't trust that God's plan and approach would work for their long-term wellbeing.  Hence the reason God says to Samuel, "...it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king."  God was no longer good enough, and God's ways were no longer productive in their minds.  And rather than continue to sit and rest in and trust that God was still just as powerful as he showed himself to be during the exodus, they opted for putting their faith in a human and human plans.

I think about this in regard to how I conduct myself.  Yes, on a certain level I have be pro-active in working and making sure I keep a job so that I can pay bills; I can't just sit back with the attitude of "God will make sure my bills get paid" and use that as some kind of holy excuse for laziness.  But at the same time, do I trust God and what he has revealed for me enough to sit and rest in what he's doing?  Do I trust that the ways he says things do and will happen in the Bible are still that way today?  Or am I acting like Israel and running off looking for a human, earth-bound solution to the things I ought to be trusting God to handle?

Joshua's Farewell Speech

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Today's Reading: Joshua 24:1-33

I love the Bible.  I know I say that a lot.  I love the story of the Bible, I love the drama of the Bible, I love the rhythm and cadence and patterns of the Bible.  I love reading about the multi-millennia story of God and his people that we see in the Bible.  And I have to admit, that sometimes I am more in love with the Bible than with the God of the Bible...

That's a constant tension for me...to look past the intricacies and nuances of the text - to peel all that away - and see God; to see and contact with the singular focus and object of everything in the Bible.  Who is God?  What is he doing?  How do we connect with him?  What is the nature of our relationship with him?  I have to constantly ask myself these questions otherwise I lose touch with what is most important about the Bible.

I love what is happening in Joshua 24 because it's one of those scenes that forces me to refocus and get back to what the Bible is ultimately all about: God.  The book of Joshua is a dramatic book packed full of some of the most exciting stories in the Bible.  After wandering for 40 years around the wilderness learning how to depend on God, they are finally allowed to enter the Promised Land, where they see God do even more neat stuff.  Israel (and by proxy, us) gets a front row seat to watching God's power on full display.  This entire book is like long, detailed account of what will ultimately take place during the three days form the cross to the empty tomb.  In fact, Jesus' real name - his Hebrew name - is Joshua ("Jesus" is a Greek transliteration).

When all is said and done, there's a call and opportunity to renew the covenant - the relationship between God and his people.  It's essentially laid out as "Look at everything you have seen and heard that God has done for you!  Don't forget this.  The time has come to make a choice: will you choose to live here in this land and worship the God who has done all these things?  Or will you reject this God and continue worshiping the other gods?"

Ultimately, for this moment anyway, the people unanimously declare that they will be faithful to God.  But I'm struck once again by the fact that, based on Joshua's speech, God has done everything he's done despite the persistence of Israel (at least some) to continue to worship God alongside gods.  They continue to group God in among a whole bunch of other gods they can pick and choose from when it's most convenient.  God still blessed them and did some pretty amazing things for them!

For me, a passage like this is one more reason I feel like it's good to have a healthy sense of our own sin and brokenness.  Not to wallow in it, but to be very aware of it.  God's grace is not just something we are given when we've managed to overcome and eliminate sin and unfaithfulness in our life; God's grace is precisely for those moments when we are sinful.  Sin does not preclude us from being able to enjoy God's grace - it's the reason God's grace is so incredible!  It's the reason why we may be moved to echo the same words that Israel declared that day: "We will serve the LORD our God and obey him!"

The 10 Commandments

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Today's Reading: Exodus 20:1-21; Deuteronomy 5:1-21 

When I was in HS, my view of the Law was pretty negative...like most people.  Because I attended a Christian school, one of my required classes was Bible, and one year we were required to read The Law of Perfect Freedom by Michael Horton.  I also remember my Bible teacher making a pretty big deal out of the fact that the title sounds like a massive contradiction.  I do not remember much in the way of what was discussed in the book, but I do remember that whole situation being the beginning of my shifting view on the Law.

I grew up with a weird mix of influences when it comes to using and applying the 10 Commandments.  The church I grew up in was fairly conservative, my home life definitely was not (we were probably the only Democratic household I knew), and my Bible teacher considered my solidly conservative church to be dangerously liberal, i.e. he was the most conservative out of them all.  I learned to love the Law, to delight in it (to use mildly "Biblical" vocabulary).  But I also learned to love it for what it was intended to be: something more than a legal, moralistic code.  I came to see the Law as an important part of God's grace and a necessary component of fully living into the life that Jesus has invited his disciples.

For that reason, while many grow tired of hearing and will even seek ways to outright avoid the 10 Commandments, I love them.  While the language is heavily dominated by "Thou shalt not..." I see in those words a God who is fully embracing and offering himself as the loving Father that he is; he is simply doing what good parents do - he is watching over, instructing, and showing his children the best way to live and how to get the most of their relationship with Him.

Every good, solid, and healthy relationship has standards, expectations, and boundaries.  Our relationship with God is no different.  God is love and grace, but not to the extent that we can do whatever we want and still expect the relationship to thrive.  Relationships are two-way streets.  God promises and gives us grace (more grace than we could possibly know what to do with), and in return, we respond by committed to live in a way that bring honor and glory to Him.  We do that by living within the Law.

Something else often overlooked when it comes to grace and Law...When God met with Israel at Sinai, he was officially codifying his relationship with Israel.  I tend to see the whole thing as something like a marriage ceremony.  In a wedding, bride and groom exchange vows making commitments to one another about what each will offer to the other and laying out the nature of this new relationship.  At Mount Sinai, a very similar thing happened.  God met with Israel, and said "This is how it's going to be.  I will be your God and will do great things through you.  You will be my people and conduct yourself in this way."  The marriage takes place in Exodus 20.  And then in Deuteronomy 5 when the Law is re-read, Israel is about to enter the Promised Land (the land promised to Abraham and his descendants), and we have something like a re-newing of the vows ceremony.

I find myself going back to the Law often.  I renew my commitment to it.  I confess and receive forgiveness when I break it.  I find myself worshiping God because despite my own repeated failure to obey, God has yet to break his promise to me...

The Israelites Leave Egypt

Today's Reading: Exodus 12:37-51; 13:17-22

A shared, common story and symbol or sign are vital to helping a group of people united together in community.  For the Israelites, the shared story is slavery in Egypt and Passover, and the sign is circumcision.  These two events - perhaps more than any other - give Jews their sense of identity.

Passover is a strange thing; as part of his plan to rescue the Israelites out of slavery, God promises to kill the first-born male in every house unless a very specific set of instructions are followed and the door frame is painted with sheep blood.  Somehow, for some reason, that's supposed to protect the people inside.

Likewise, circumcision was mandated as the "sign" that a person was a member of the Israelite community.

There's a few things that jump out at me:

  1. Circumcision was nothing new, or unique to Israel.  God had commanded Abraham to be circumcised and to have all the men in his household circumcised as part of the covenant between the two of them.  This is a return to how things always were, but had likely become forgotten during Israel's time in Egypt.  Also connected to circumcision is that this could easily be seen as a form of forgiveness: God is giving Israel a second chance to get back on track.
  2. For Christians, Passover must be seen as a precursor to Jesus' own death.

The exodus story as always fascinated me because of it's connections to Jesus' own story.  I know it can often be difficult to "see/find" Jesus in the OT, but there are few places where this is easier or more obvious than in the Exodus.  The Exodus was massive living example of what God was planning, and the entire experience was used to create an identity.

There's an arc to the story of the Bible.  God created everything and declared it perfect.  He established a special kind of relationship with humans.  Humans enjoyed an existence devoid of pain and death.  But humans messed it up by disobeying God in the Garden, and were then condemned to death.  Although cursed, God promised to fix the problem of death/sin.

In the exodus story, Israel - God's chosen people, the descendants of Abraham - finds itself in slavery to the biggest, baddest, strongest nation in the world.  They are oppressed under Egypt's power.  All of this represents the burden of death and sin.  After a very long time - long enough for Israel to give up hope - God delivers them from their captors.  In the process, he gives them a new identity through "blood of the lamb" and circumcision.

Fast-forward to the NT, and God sends his Son who is repeatedly identified as the "passover lamb" who sheds his blood for humans and, once and for all, crushes the "serpents" head!

The God of grace!  Showing himself dramatically in the story of Exodus!

The Israelites go to Egypt

Today's Reading: Genesis 46:1-30

Okay, so, let me just say it: reading lists of names in the Bible are boring.  One day I hope I'll figure out what the reason/purpose is behind putting all that in the Bible.  Until then, I'm slogging through it just like the rest of you.

I see God's providence.  We're 3 generations post-Abraham.  The family is still living in Canaan, where God would eventually tell Abraham to stop walking and settle, but there's a severe famine in the region and people are running out of food fast!

Thinking back through some Biblical history, Abraham had a son named Isaac; Isaac had twins name Jacob and Esau.  Esau was the first born and by birthright deserved to get all of Isaac's stuff, but Jacob was sneaky and managed to steal Esau's inheritance.  And by extension, he got God's blessing of being the line that would eventually become Israel.  Jacob had a bunch of sons...13 to be exact.  The second-youngest was his favorite, got a fancy coat, and his older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.  He eventually became second in command in Egypt.

The story itself shows how God's provision works in the messy world we live in.  People are messy and far more often than not, we do what we believe is in our own best interests.  And God uses that.  He made a promise; a promise that one day the serpent's head would be crushed and a descendant of Abraham would become a blessing to the nations.  That's by no means a green light to do whatever we want, though.

So there's a famine in the land, Abraham's family has only grown to roughly 70 over the last few generations, and the drama and tension is building to make us think that God's plan for redemption is about to come to a sudden end.  And then the second-youngest, Joseph, re-appears on the scene.

How often do we look at our situation and lose hope?  How often do we look at our life and wonder what could ever come out of it or how we're going to make ends meet?  How often do we look at the church and all we see is everything bad; all we see is the 7-year famine staring us in the face and dwindling grain supplies.

Verse 29 sees Joseph jumping on his chariot and rushing out to meet his family.  He goes straight to his father Jacob (who believed he was dead) and threw his arms around him.  They embraced and cried "for a long time."  Then Jacob says, "Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive."  Jacob was on the verge of death and God provided.  Jacob never lost hope.  He died happy.

And God provided...