It’s All Good, But Not Really

Have you ever read some account in Scripture of somebody, and then thought, “I wonder if there’s more to that story.” I certainly hope so. Gideon, Jephthah, Ehud, and especially Shamgar are just a few people around whom is certainly “more to the story”. Unfortunately, this side of heaven, we’re not going to get the “rest of the story”.

On the other hand, there are times when we sort of stumble on “the rest of the story” somewhere else in Scripture. For instance, have you ever wondered why the people of Judah seemed to weave in and out of faithfulness to God with each king? It sounds a lot like the US, with each president bringing an entirely different view point and, sometimes, set of values. The kings of Judah reigned longer than four or eight years, the stories read like their short.

But even so, how do you go from the faithlessness of Ahaz who models the temple worship after pagan Assyria, to Hezekiah, who thoroughly turns the worship back to Yahweh and resists the Assyrians who had just wiped out Israel? How do the general population not get whiplash going back and forth? How do they really know what to do, what will last, what is true? What do they do when nobody’s looking? Who do they worship in secret?

No king before or after repented before the LORD as he did, with his whole heart, soul, and being in accordance with the whole law of Moses. Yet the LORD’s great anger against Judah did not subside; he was still infuriated by all the things Manasseh had done. The LORD announced, “I will also spurn Judah, just as I spurned Israel. I will reject this city that I chose—both Jerusalem and the temple, about which I said, ‘I will live there.’
(2 Kings 23:25-27 NET)

If you read the preceding verses of chapter 23 (and 22 for context), you will see the extensive reforms, which had not been done previously. And yet, clearly it’s not enough for the LORD. Why? What are we not seeing? Something is clearly missing from this story, for we know that when Ahab repented, Yahweh relented. Why not now? What’s “the rest of the story”?

The following is a record of what Jeremiah son of Hilkiah prophesied. He was one of the priests who lived at Anathoth in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. The LORD’s message came to him in the thirteenth year that Josiah son of Amon ruled over Judah. It also came in the days of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, and continued until the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the people of Jerusalem were taken into exile in the fifth month of that year.
(Jeremiah 1:1-3 NET)

According to 2 Kings 22, Josiah started his reforms in his eighteenth year (2 Kings 22:3) by repairing the Temple. So, Jeremiah had been prophesying for 5 years by then. If you look at all the stuff taken from the temple during Josiah’s reform, Jeremiah is prophesying among pagan shrines, statues, altars and sacred poles inside the temple. It looked almost nothing like the building Solomon had built by then.

On the other hand, in 2 Chronicles 34, we’re told that Josiah actually started purifying the land before Jeremiah’s prophecies. In verse 3, it says the 8th year of his reign was when he started, 5 years prior to Jeremiah. Then, 5 years after Jeremiah begins, he cleans the temple. So, you might expect that Jeremiah has a lot to say to encourage this activity, right? You would think that he would speak of how great all these changes were, how fantastic the king was leading…

Or he could say this:

“So, once more I will state my case against you,” says the LORD.
“I will also state it against your children and grandchildren.
Go west across the sea to the coasts of Cyprus and see.
Send someone east to Kedar and have them look carefully.
See if such a thing as this has ever happened:
Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)?
But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God,
for a god that cannot help them at all!
Be amazed at this, O heavens.
Be shocked and utterly dumbfounded,”
says the LORD.
“Do so because my people have committed a double wrong:
They have rejected me,
the fountain of life-giving water,
and they have dug cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that cannot even hold water.
(Jeremiah 2:9-13 NET)

But wait, this was written during Josiah’s reign. How can that be? How can these reforms be happening, and Jeremiah hears this from Yahweh? Well, maybe this will help explain:

So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shullam son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, the supervisor of the wardrobe. (She lived in Jerusalem in the Mishneh district.) They stated their business, and she said to them: “This is what the LORD God of Israel has said: ‘Say this to the man who sent you to me: “This is what the LORD has said: ‘I am about to bring disaster on this place and its residents, all the things in the scroll that the king of Judah has read. This will happen because they have abandoned me and offered sacrifices to other gods, angering me with all the idols they have made. My anger will ignite against this place and will not be extinguished!’” Say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to seek an oracle from the LORD: “This is what the LORD God of Israel has said concerning the words you have heard: ‘You displayed a sensitive spirit and humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard how I intended to make this place and its residents into an appalling example of an accursed people. You tore your clothes and wept before me, and I have heard you,’ says the LORD. ‘Therefore I will allow you to die and be buried in peace. You will not have to witness all the disaster I will bring on this place.’”’” Then they reported back to the king.
2 Kings 22:14-20 NET

They don’t take the scroll to Jeremiah. But Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet. They do take it to one they know speaks for Yahweh, and she does. What she says is that all Josiah is doing will only save him from seeing the curses in this book, not save the nation. Why? Is it becoming obvious yet?

Even though they were led to worship faithfully, their hearts were not sold out to Yahweh. Josiah can do what he wants, destroy pagan altars, burn up pagan artifacts, smash them to dust and spread the dust on graves. The heart of the people aren’t in it. They simply watch, and go along with the “religion de jure”, knowing that once this king passes, all will return to “normal”. These people are so completely twisted away from Yahweh, listen to their perspective on all the disaster that Yahweh brings on them, destruction of Jerusalem, deportation of the people, all of it:

Then all the men who were aware that their wives were sacrificing to other gods, as well as all their wives, answered Jeremiah—there was a great crowd of them representing all the people who lived in northern and southern Egypt — “We will not listen to what you claim the LORD has spoken to us! Instead we will do everything we vowed we would do. We will sacrifice and pour out drink offerings to the goddess called the Queen of Heaven just as we and our ancestors, our kings, and our leaders previously did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, were well off, and had no troubles. But ever since we stopped sacrificing and pouring out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven, we have been in great need. Our people have died in wars or of starvation.” The women added, “We did indeed sacrifice and pour out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven. But it was with the full knowledge and approval of our husbands that we made cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her.”
(Jeremiah 44:15-19 NET, emphasis mine)

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, clearly, the reforms of Josiah did not reach the people’s heart, but only their actions. They went through the motions, but their heart was truly far from Yahweh. The appearance was great, but the substance was insufficient.

How about us? Are we more interested in appearance than substance? Are we more interested in how the band sounds, the singers, the lights? Are we singing our favorite songs? Is the preacher articulate? What’s the focus? Where is our attention?

Are we more focused on the gifts or the Giver of all good gifts? Are we focused on the work, or the One for Whom we work? Do we walk with our Savior? Do we even walk before our Savior? Or does our worship happen, and we hope He attends? Are we even aware we serve a KING, that we are subjects in a KINGDOM, or that we are not our own for we have been redeemed, purchased at an enormous price? 

These aren’t questions about what you do, but a heart check. Where’s the focus, what gets you upset, and how do you live out the worship from Sunday? Because if you don’t care, it won’t bother you. But if something bothers you, clearly, you care. I suppose, then, you can see what I care about…

What about you?

How Rejects are Accepted

Have you ever just wanted our Creator to cut-to-the-chase, and give us the “bottom line”? What does it take to be “accepted” by Him. Let’s be honest, it is Jesus, His death, burial, and resurrection that makes any sort of relationship with our Creator possible. But still…

Our behavior matters to our Savior. There are plenty of passages, statements of Jesus, writings of Paul, that clearly indicate that our Creator cares how we behave. So, what is it He wants from us? Can we sum it up? For the Jews of Jesus’ day, it was Sabbath-keeping and circumcision. That was pretty much it. Sounds weird huh? And yet…

This is what the LORD says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
(Isaiah 56:1-2 NET)

Sounds pretty simple, promote justice and do what is “right”. Commit ourselves to obedience and guard the Sabbath. Wait, what? The Sabbath? I know, right? What’s up with this Sabbath-keeping business? Is it really important? Well…yes.

No foreigner who becomes a follower of the LORD should say,
‘The LORD will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the LORD says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
(Isaiah 56:3-5 NET)

Foreigners and eunuchs were excluded from worship, from the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1-8). And yet, here we have them included, if they observe the Sabbath, choose what pleases their Creator, and are faithful to His covenant. If eunuchs do that, their Creator will setup a monument better than sons and daughters…Seriously? But what about “foreigners”?

No foreigner who becomes a follower of the LORD should say,
‘The LORD will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”

As for foreigners who become followers of the LORD and serve him,
who love the name of the LORD and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
The Sovereign LORD says this,
the one who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
“I will still gather them up.”
(Isaiah 56:3, 6-8 NET)

Oy with the Sabbath-keeping! If foreigners keep the covenant and the Sabbath, their Creator will bring them to His holy mountain, to His temple, to His place of prayer, their sacrifices will be accepted. His temple will be known as a house of prayer. Sound familiar? Maybe something Jesus said when He “cleansed” the temple?

Notice this doesn’t replace exiled Israel, they will still be gathered up, but along with these previously excluded groups. And what is the sign of their obedience? What is the activity by which they will be known to their Savior? Sabbath-keeping. How weird is that?

Here’s a real simple take away: Attend church. Go, participate, worship. And don’t stop once the scheduled service is over. Dedicate the day, live out the message you heard, make real the songs you sang. Set your week by the day starting it off. Dedicate yourself to your Savior and your time for the whole day to His purpose.

Honestly, I don’t. Yesterday, I rearranged my home-office to make it more functional (it’s different anyway). But I think this passage may be pushing me to rethink my Sunday’s. Not that I should only worship or serve my Savior on Sunday, but that this one day should His, not mine.

He made the Sabbath for us, not us for the Sabbath, but He still made it. And it seems He wants us to take it seriously. What will that look like? I don’t know, honestly. I think it may look different for you than for me. All I know that He wants me to honor Him with it.

Pagan Messiahs?

Unworthy. Ever felt that way? It seems there was an instructor to preachers who claimed that, “If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, He can speak through you.” Oddly, that never helped me much. It’s the challenge to believe that my worth is entirely founded on Jesus: dead, buried, and raised.

While I know that Jesus’ death atoned for my offenses toward my Creator, and I know His burial removed the safety of the enemy, and I know it is the power of His resurrection that empowers my walk with Him; I don’t always feel those things. This is no surprise to my Savior, so He preserves this odd poetic prophecy in Isaiah 45. It begins with this statement:

“This is what the LORD says to his chosen one,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I hold
in order to subdue nations before him,
and disarm kings,
to open doors before him,
so gates remain unclosed:
‘I will go before you
and level mountains.
Bronze doors I will shatter
and iron bars I will hack through. (Isaiah 45:1-2 NET)

In case you were curious, “chosen one” is actually the Hebrew word, messiah. You can see the Strong’s reference here. Notice that it has a special reference to “Cyrus”. That’s because this reference is weird. You might think that’s because God knows that Cyrus’ heart will change toward him, but those kings are Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, in Daniel. Cyrus’ heart is never said to have acknowledged the God of Israel.

As this poetic prophecy continues, Yahweh says He gives Cyrus a bunch of blessings to reveal Himself to him. Look at the following verses:

I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stashed away in secret places,
so you may recognize that I am the LORD,
the one who calls you by name, the God of Israel.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
Israel, my chosen one,
I call you by name
and give you a title of respect, even though you do not submit to me.
I am the LORD, I have no peer,
there is no God but me.
I arm you for battle, even though you do not recognize me. (Isaiah 45:3-5 NET)

God gives this pagan king “hidden treasures”, “title of respect” and “arms him for battle”, all this even though “you do not submit to me” and “you do not recognize me”. Why? “For the sake of my servant, Jacob, Israel my chosen one”. Unfortunately, the NET translators chose “chosen one” for both the Hebrew adjective “chosen” in verse 4, and “messiah” in verse 1. That’s not really helpful, in my opinion. Even so, it’s clear God uses this pagan king in spite of his lack of acknowledgement of the God of Israel.

The prophecy concludes with these verses:

I do this so people will recognize from east to west
that there is no God but me;
I am the LORD, I have no peer.
I am the one who forms light
and creates darkness;
the one who brings about peace
and creates calamity.
I am the LORD, who accomplishes all these things. (Isaiah 45:6-7 NET)

So we’re clear about this, when there is only one God, even evil has its source in Him. Which is why the verse has the line, “the One making peace and creating evil”. It almost never is translated that way, but check out the King James Version. And that’s not embarrassing, it’s true, and should give us encouragement.

Don’t focus on God creating “evil”, focus on the whole point of these two verses: There is no god (no Elohim) but Yahweh, He has no peer, no equal, no true rival. All things, whether we like them or not, have their ultimate source in Him. Which means, they also can be destroyed by Him. And yet, that’s not even the best part.

Now go back and read all seven verses together. Our Creator uses this boastful pagan king to accomplish His plan. Cyrus can boast, conquer, posture, threaten, do whatever, but, in the end, remains a tool of his Creator. And, so it is today.

In our country, some have celebrated the new president, some have lamented. Some were sure the previous guy was the “antichrist”, others think it’s the new guy. I look at Isaiah 45, and I think, who cares? As long as our Creator remains on His throne (no worries there), any ruler, of any type, will merely be His pawn, for His purposes. That view of history can be really unsettling, considering the horrific leaders who have marred the history of this world.

Closer to home, though, if my Master can use such kings, then, even with my flaws, He can use me. He can use you. Perhaps, you might say, the more flaws, the more He shines. Why? So that people, from the east to the west, will recognize that our Creator has no competitor. 

Okay, if I have no other purpose than that, that’ll work.

Asking the Tough Questions

Yesterday was Easter, or, more properly, Resurrection Day. It’s been a rough weekend. I have been moving all weekend, trying to shoehorn 3,000 sq. ft. of stuff into 1,900 sq. ft. of house. The church family lined up to help couldn’t because the weekend was already full of church events. So, Friday my wife and I loaded a truck with several tons of boxes, which were easy to fit, but heavy. We couldn’t unload it because the transaction didn’t record and we didn’t get the keys until late Friday afternoon.

Still, Friends helped unload on Saturday, friends helped again empty out and clean the house on Sunday. We had to move quickly because on Friday, my mom fell, and is in the ICU in southern California. We are leaving today to head south to be with her and my family. With all this swirling around in my head, worship was very emotional for me. And I went from there into the Bible study with the youth.

Rather than ask them what question they had from the week, I had a set of questions from one of them from the week before. The questions came from Ephesians 4:1 – 

I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, (Ephesians 4:1 NET)

Here are the questions:

  1. What type of life is considered “worthy”?
  2. How can I develop such a life?
  3. Where does such a life come from? 3a. Are people born with it, do they DO certain things to have it, is it something given, or??
  4. What is the calling itself?
  5. How can someone “walk worthy” of such a calling? 5a. Is it even possible?
  6. What would such a “worthy” life look like practically lived out daily?
  7. How can you practice walking with god aside from praying and worshipping?
  8. How do you join God on his mission?

I don’t know adults who come up with such great questions. And I’m not sure this person came up with them on their own, but that’s what they claimed, so I’ll go with that.

To answer these questions, we continued on in Ephesians 4, clarifying elements that Paul used to try to explain these very questions. The questions break down into defining a few terms:

  1. Walk – What is our walk look like?
  2. Worthy – How do I show how much I value my Savior?
  3. Calling – What has my Savior called me to do/be?

Terms 1 through 3 are answered in verses 2 and 3. And the definition of 3 is continued in verses 4 through 6, but especially 4. The problem is that Paul really doesn’t define them in ways that we want. Instead, he refers to attitudes (humility, gentleness, patience, love) we are to have as we relate to other disciples. And then focuses on the singleness and superiority of our Savior.

So, the “walk” (or beliefs lived out in daily choices and actions) is characterized by the attitudes of humility, gentleness, patience, and love. The choice to live this way declares the value we place on our relationship with our Savior. It’s the calling that isn’t well defined, at least until you step back a bit. Verse four doesn’t help much:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, (Ephesians 4:4 NET)

We are called to one hope of our calling. But what is the calling? The way I tried to help them grapple with it was by stepping back and seeing all of it as our calling. But that’s not really complete either. When Paul uses the term “hope” it generally is a reference to heaven.

So, if that were true here (and that isn’t certain, only possible), then the calling would be the “end game”, not just the journey. I suppose you can make a case that the whole of it, the walk here, and the walk there, are what we are called to. If that is the case, then the “walk” is the content of the call. Conveniently, our walk is described further from verse 17 through the end of the chapter, specifically in verses 25 through 32:

Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity. The one who steals must steal no longer; instead he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he will have something to share with the one who has need. You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it would give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32 NET)

This is one of my favorite “behavior lists” of Paul. This one plays off negatives with positives side-by-side. So, lay aside falsehood and speak the truth. Don’t steal, but work. Don’t speak unwholesome words, but beneficial ones, building up others. Put away bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling and slander. Replace them with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

It is these sorts of things that form the boundaries and definition of our “walk”. These attitudes define the neighborhood in which we walk. As we walk before our Creator, we can be found walking with our Creator when this is what we behave like. When this is how others would describe us, then we know we are walking in a manner worthy of the amazing calling of our Creator. 

The thing is, they become true as we walk with Him. They don’t make us worthy to be in His presence. Only Jesus accomplishes that. These attitudes characterize someone who walks with their Creator, who walk with Him because of their Savior, and live in the joy of knowing they are One and same Person (or substance, with three Persons, for you staunch theologians). Basically, when we “hang out” with our Savior, we tend to be more like Him.