Monday, April 27, 2015

A Promise Given in the Dark. Ezra 1:1

Though the book of Ezra appears relatively early in your Bible, it represents events that happen at the very tail end of recorded Old Testament history. What happens in Ezra, and the companion volume, Nehemiah, happen 400-500 years before the birth of Christ, so there is a lot of history and theology that gets focused in this book that then leads us straight to the New Testament and God's plan in Christ.

To begin with, God's people are captives in Babylon when Cyrus the king of the Persians defeats the Babylonians. Some of God's people have been in captivity for almost 200 years, and others only for a few decades. But because of their rebellion, the land has sat nearly empty for a long time. After the fires of conquest, the dust has settled, the embers have grown cold, and a long dark night has settled in on the Promised Land. But as Ezra opens, the light of dawn begins to crack over the horizon.

Cyrus decided it was time to send God's people home with plenty of wealth to rebuild the Temple. But this isn't just the kindness of a benevolent dictator. God stirred his heart. God laid out this plan since the days of Jeremiah the prophet, and even earlier. Through Isaiah the prophet, God called Cyrus by name and laid out what he was going to do for his people, temple, and city nearly 200 years before he was born. Then, decades before Cyrus defeats the Babylonians, God says through Jeremiah that he is going to send his exiled people home. In fact, this is the context of the most well known passage in Jeremiah,

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a home. Then you will call upon me and some and pray to me, and I will hear you" (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

When God tells his people this, they are powerless captives in a foreign and pagan land. Just before Ezra 1:1 opens, God's people have been given the promise that they will return home, but they have absolutely no earthly power to make that happen. If they do go home, it will have to be because someone more powerful than they are makes it happen. And so it does,

"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus" (Ezra 1:1).

Something incredible is true for the follower of Jesus Christ - you can be utterly powerless in this world and still have good reason for hope. God's people were powerless captives, but got to go home anyway. They did not have what we would call economic leverage, but they went home loaded to the gills with Persian treasure and all the valuables plundered from the temple a generation before. And it all happened because God performed it and showed faithful love to broken and enslaved people.

God rebuilds his people. God has every desire to fill his children's life with his. God is powerful enough to not be put on his heels by any complication or disadvantage we have. God's promise to the exiles in Babylon belongs to all his children, but note what the promise is. It is that he will gather us in his presence, we will seek him, we will find him, we will pray to him, and he will hear us.

This is the promise given in our darkness and is the light of God dawning in our lives.

Monday, September 15, 2014

God Shows No Partiality. Neither Should We.

Part of the simple logic of the Christian faith flows from the nature of God. God reveals himself to
have certain qualities, and since his people belong to him, they ought to begin displaying the same qualities.  At a crucial point in the life of the early church, the typically heavy-footed Peter came face to face with this logic when he entered the home of Cornelius the Roman Centurion.

Peter had been raised, along with all his Jewish brothers and sisters, to believe that Gentiles were beneath them and the Romans were oppressors who needed to go.  But one afternoon he was praying on a rooftop on the shore of the Mediterranean when God began to change that. While he was staying in the home of a leather maker (an ironic twist in the story seeing that the job of leather making made one unclean), God put him in a trance and showed him a sheet full of unclean animals.  When God told him to rise and eat, Peter responded out of his upbringing and faithfulness to Old Testament Law. “Never,” he said. “I have not eaten anything unclean and I won’t start now.”  But God’s response is what changes things.  God told him to never call anything unclean, or common, that he has called clean.

At that moment an envoy from Cornelius shows up at the house where Peter is staying and asks him to come.  God told Cornelius to send for Peter.  God told Peter to go. God was up to something big.  As soon as Peter enters the house of the Roman Centurion something strikes him as so important he repeats the topic twice in a short span of time. He says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29). And then, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

Peter was raised to show a harsh partiality.  He was raised with a strict “us vs. them” ethic and now God was teaching him something very different.  He was taught to see people like Cornelius as beneath the honor of his presence and on this day Peter brings a whole group of Jewish Christians into his house to fellowship, eat with him, and talk about Jesus.  Peter came face to face that day with a truth woven into the bones of the Christian faith: no human being is unclean.  Every human being is of inestimable value. Every human being is worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No human being is beneath a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The logic is clear – no human being is beneath Jesus Christ, the God who emptied himself and became flesh. Thus, no human being is “less than” any other human being, and certainly not “less than” a follower of Jesus Christ. And every human life can become something that glorifies its Savior, Jesus Christ.

And why is it no human is beneath another in the eyes of God? It is by virtue of our creation in the image of God, and, as God told Peter, God has called every human clean. In other words, our status measured in earthly or ethnic terms does not determine our worth. The creation and decision of God does. No human lacks the image of God. No human is unclean.

One of the radical beliefs a Christian carries into this world is that God does not show partiality.  For all of its bluster about equality and human rights, our culture loves to decide who is and who is not worthy of life and privilege.  Our culture loves building ladders out of people. The abortion rate for children diagnosed with Down Syndrome is 94%. In a now infamous study, the abortion rate for African-American children in the city of Manhattan is over 80%. Children are still sold as slaves on the streets of Western, advanced cities. Political schemes rely on dividing people into groups that suspect and hate each other. Politicians have become wealthy beyond reason stoking those fires. And we all know the story goes on, and on.

But the Christian belongs to another God, a different kind of God. One who does not show partiality. God does not draw distinctions between people, calling one better than another.  And thus, by the grace and strength of God, neither do we.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

We Worship

Worship is a life transforming activity.  And because Scripture tells us that we become like what we worship, we must be deliberate and attentive to whom and what we worship.  If we are careful and honest when we search out the things we worship, we may discover the answer is not as clear as we would like.  Our attentions are usually divided among many things and people each vying for our attention and worship; each doing its part to turn us into copies of itself.

The worship of idols and false gods diminishes and shrivels our souls and turns us into shadowy reflections of lifeless things while the worship of the Beautiful Creator is part of the process of being transformed into the image of the Son.  As Paul puts it, when God does the work of transformation we are changed from glory to glory.

In this chapter Isaiah erupts in a psalm of worship. He not only reminds us of our great God and all he has done, he engages us in worship.  Here we catch a glimpse of what full-blooded worship feels like.  We hear the voices of the people of God lift up the God they adore.  Here we engage with Isaiah and the throngs of thousands upon thousands of the redeemed.  And we begin by giving thanks.

The role and power of thanksgiving cannot be underemphasized in the life of the disciple.  In fact, a thankless disciple is a person who simply has not come in contact with their God.  At the very least, the habit of thanksgiving turns us out of ourselves and puts our minds and hearts on the great things of God.  When we are most consumed with ourselves – either through pride or anxiety – is when our hearts are darkest.  Thanksgiving is light.  It is the eternal light of a Savior who is always great and good.

The thing Isaiah hears the people of God giving thanks for is the triumph of God’s grace.  They are fully aware that God was angry at their sin and rebellion and they deserved his wrath.  Consequently, they are overjoyed that this same God turned away from wrath and toward comfort.  It turns out that in my sin I deserve the full weight of God’s wrath, but in his grace the full force of his anger fell on my Substitute instead.  The saved are eternally grateful for the exchange of wrath for comfort at the cross.

The worshiper knows the difference between trust and fear.  In fear there is no stability or strength, but in trust the Lord is known as both strength and song.  Those who trust in the Lord alone experience his power and care in unique ways, and their worship overflows in song.  The disciple should never devalue the benefit of singing praises to God!  Music touches us mind, soul, and body, and is an activity of eternity (Rev 5).  Could it be that when we sing praises to our Lord there is a taste of heaven on our lips?

And worship helps transform us into people who glorify and proclaim.  We lift him up because he is worthy to be praised – in all seasons of life and all circumstances I face, God remains great.  And though our praises do not make him greater than he already is, for God cannot be made greater, our praises and lives of worship may make him greater in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Engage in worship of the one and only God, and you will begin to find the joy of people who live in the kingdom of the great and glorious One.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

God with Us?

In this story, Isaiah speaks to a king and a nation in stressful times.  There are two nations in league against them, King Ahaz has already lost battles to both nations, and now he hears they plan on taking his city and setting up their own king.  The result is, as Isaiah so vividly puts it, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (vs. 2).  The way things look to Ahaz, there is very little hope of success unless he is able to form an allegiance with another, stronger nation, so that is what he does by sending treasures from the Temple to the nation of Assyria (2 Kings 16). He hopes to buy their support and save the day.  Isaiah sees things differently.

Ahaz is shaken at the prospect of enemies at the gate and an uncertain future.  Isaiah, though a citizen of the city in danger, is not shaken by foreign nations no matter how strong.  Isaiah has seen the One who shakes the foundations of the earth and whose glory saturates everything that exists, so the fears of this world pale in comparison to him.  Isaiah has seen the Lord and there is now no question of his faith and trust.  Ahaz only sees the foreign threat and everything that could possibly go wrong, so his faith and trust in God is shaky at best.  The difference is in what each man sees; one trusts God in the face of anything and everything, and the other cannot trust God no matter what God does.  And in the end, this difference is also the difference in how the greatest gift of God to a broken people in a difficult world is received.  What does it mean that, “God is with us”?

God wants Ahaz to learn to trust him.  Isaiah tells the king, “If you are not firm in the faith, you will not be firm at all” (vs 9).  What God means is that the only place to stand firm and secure in a world like ours is in him.  Even if Assyria sends the treaty back with good news, they will fail (and ultimately attack) Judah.  Ahaz will fall no matter where he stands unless he stands on God alone.  When God presents himself as the answer to our fears, he does not make our fears small, he makes himself great.  Our fears are real, but our God is greater than any fear we do or will possibly ever face.  Isaiah knew this.  Ahaz needed to learn it.

It is true that without God, Ahaz, and I, have everything to fear.  Every conspiracy has the potential to destroy me.  Every relationship has the potential to leave me hurt and alone.  Every career has the possibility of failure.  Every bank can collapse.  And on it goes ad infinitum, ad phobium.  But with God, it turns out that none of those fears are greater than he is and all of them put together are smaller than he is.  So standing in faith in God is the only safe place to stand.

I said God wanted Ahaz to have faith in him.  He wants it so much he goes to the extraordinary length of offering the king the opportunity to ask him for a sign – anything he can imagine.  And when he refuses out of false piety, God in exasperation offers a sign that would blow anyone’s mind – a virgin will give birth to a son whose life will mean salvation for God’s people.  And his life is a message – “God with us.”

Ahaz was waiting for a treaty to be signed that meant, “Assyria is with you!”  God was giving him what only God can possibly give, “God is with you!”  Ahaz missed it.  Will we? 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Voice and Character of Wisdom

The voice of Folly in Proverbs speaks at twilight and into the night to foolish and simple young men who have wandered down the wrong streets.  Foolishness appeals to the simpleton within us and uses crooked and deceptive speech to lure us into her traps.  Wisdom, on the other hand, could not be more different.  Not only does she cry out on in the streets and marketplaces pleading with men and women to listen to her ways, but everything she says is trustworthy, straight, right, and true.  We can trust everything Wisdom has to say.  When we do not understand or agree with the particulars, we can know that what she has said is righteous and that there is nothing twisted or crooked in it.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul admonishes them to meditate on the kinds of things that are true, noble, just, praiseworthy, and so forth.  Hearing Wisdom speak in Proverbs chapter 8 we learn that all these things turn out to be the voice of Wisdom.  Paul notes that when we think on these kinds of things the God of peace will be with us, will keep our heart and minds in Christ Jesus, will lead us through life.  And Solomon is just as sure of it – when we hear the voice of Wisdom our lives will become rightly-ordered.

Everything Wisdom utters is true, and she hates evil: “for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips” (vs 7).  It turns out that truth valued and held to creates a disposition of distaste for wickedness.  When we long for truth and work for it, we not only reveal a taste of truth, we create a hunger for it.  We may long for an entire well-grilled steak at its first bite, but we eventually find ourselves full and a little sluggish.  And while truth also creates that longing at first bite, it is an inexhaustible source of nourishment.  We can eat and eat of it and never reach its end.  And along the way we learn to develop a distaste for wickedness.  Not only will the wise person recognize evil, they will also recognize it for the pain and destruction it causes in the human life.  And because Wisdom loves God’s creation, she hates its destruction.

All these characteristics highlight the inner landscaping Wisdom performs in the submitted human soul.  When we listen to Wisdom and when we meditate on these things our inner lives are reshaped to fit the way God created us and the rest of the world.  When a puzzle fits together the pieces do two things – they fit with each other and they match the picture on the box.  The way a rightly-ordered puzzle works is a lot like the way our rightly-ordered souls work.  When God’s wisdom has its way within us the pieces of our lives will fit together and our lives as a whole will fit the picture of what God created us to be.

So this passage on the voice and character of Wisdom is not just a story of what Wisdom sounds like, it is the template for what the follower of Jesus Christ begins to look like.  Is our voice in line with the truth, righteousness, and nobility of the voice of Wisdom?  Are our lives conforming to that very character, or are we still mired in the simplistic and destructive ways of folly?  Have the people of God become people of his Wisdom?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Keeping the Ways of the Lord

The wise person recognizes they are surrounded by temptation every day.  If there isn’t an external pressure to ignore the ways of God, there are internal pressures that lure us from the path of Wisdom.  So what is it this wise person does to not only recognize temptation but to avoid it?  The Apostle Paul once told the Corinthians that the Lord does not allow us to be tempted beyond our power to overcome, and yet we continue to fall.  How do we learn to break that cycle?

We are admonished over and over in the first few chapters of Proverbs to pay close attention to the voice of Wisdom.  We are supposed to learn how to recognize her voice, bind her sayings around our necks, and write her ways on our hearts.  And in this way the simple heart learns not just the words of Wisdom but her ways.  And her ways become the guardrails for our path.  If we are pulled too close to the edge of the path, we hit a guardrail – a precept – and we know what needs to be done.  In short, if we keep the ways of the Lord, the ways of the Lord keep us.

Solomon says that when we are attentive to Wisdom, “Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, and every good path” (vs. 9).  Wisdom is understanding – an understanding of the ways of the Lord.  If Wisdom decrees that we ought not be selfish but share our goods with those in need, we will only find the truth of that if we are walking in Wisdom’s path.  The fool, however, sees their goods in a different way and hordes instead of gives.  Or even if they give, do they do so with a heart inclined in the right direction?  How many of us give to be seen giving?

And Wisdom is a matter of both heart and hands: “for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (vs 10).  A wise life constructs in us a taste for God’s truth and His ways.  The wiser we are, the more we love the truth and revelation of God.  We will love getting to know him.  And as part of this path, our hearts are changed.  The wise life is lived from the inside out.  We can fake a wise act from time to time, but the insight and motivation that Wisdom creates in us cannot be counterfeited for very long.  Wisdom is an inclination; it is a way of perceiving and filtering the world.  Wise acts are like the surface spring of an underground stream.

This underground stream of wisdom, will in turn guide a life in the ways of the Lord.  “Discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil” (vs 11-12).  Thinking again of Paul’s remark about temptation and our ability to overcome, we see in the ways of Wisdom our path through temptation.  Discretion and understanding are results of a person’s dedication to the knowledge of God, and they turn into the clarity with which we see temptation and its destruction.  Then we gain, more and more, the strength to overcome.

The Lord will keep his people from the ravages of foolishness and sin, but his people need to hear and heed his voice.  Wisdom cries aloud in the streets and in the marketplace asking us to learn what she says.  Humans don’t magically or mistakenly avoid folly and end up living lives of wisdom.  That is a job – a life-long job of seeking after and valuing the wisdom of the Lord.  But in the end our lives are kept safe from our own folly when we learn to keep the ways of the Lord.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Seek Wisdom

Proverbs 2:1-5

The things we value go a long way toward making us the kinds of people we will become. We have heard the saying, "you are what you eat," and in a way it is true. On a soulish level it is also true that, "you are what you pursue." In more ways that we might expect, we get the things we strive for in life: if we value the praise of people we will become a fame-hound, if we value financial success we might become workaholics, and if we value the wisdom of God we might become disciples of Jesus Christ. If this is all true, and Solomon things it is, then we have an opportunity to seek wisdom and gain the grace of God.

Solomon wants us to "receive" the word of God and "treasure" them up in our hearts. When we receive something we wrap our hands around it. It has been extended to us, and now we take it. And to treasure a thing seems to mean we write it on our hearts and minds - we memorize it. I might be able to recite several lines from my favorite songs or movies with the right inflection and melody in place. But can the Word of God flow so easily from my lips? Do I have enough of it in my heart so that it comes to mind at appropriate moments? Is enough of it in me so that in my down time, my heart is meditating on what the Lord has said? This may sound like a tall order for many of us, but recall what does come to your mind now when you think of nothing else. Do those things teach you the fear of the Lord?

And we must seek for it like silver, like a hidden treasure. This is the value and effort the disciple puts on the wisdom of the Lord. We commonly seek silver. You may not actually mine silver ore from the ground, separate the rock, and refine the metal, but you seek silver. You wake up most mornings and prepare yourself to acquire it. You educate yourself so you can make as much of it as you need (or more). You encourage your children to do the same so that they will never go without it. None of this is evil, but reflect for a moment on how much effort you put into seeking and acquiring silver. Hidden treasure is even harder to find. It takes more of our time and resources to find it and make it our own.

So it is the believer ought to look for the wisdom of the Lord. We must awake with the driving desire to hear the voice of wisdom. We must be ready for the resources of our heart and home to be consumed finding her. In reality, silver is ash in the presence of God's wisdom and hidden treasure is a common trinket.

We strive in such a way to hear the voice of wisdom because it teaches us the fear of the Lord, and only then will we really come to terms with the knowledge of God. Listen for her tonight. Endeavor to wake up with your ears and mind open to what wisdom has to say. Read the Word of the Lord. Pray in listening silence for the voice that calls out to save God's people.