A Whirlwind Relationship

One of the interesting “appearances” of our Creator in the Hebrew Scriptures is as a “whirlwind”. There is a term that is commonly thought of in this way, the Hebrew word, “sa’arah”. It’s used when Elijah is taken up by Yahweh (2 Kings 2:11), and this is the word for the whirlwind out of which Yahweh speaks to Job (Job 38:1). It isn’t always the appearance of Yahweh, sometimes it is an actual storm.

Having said that, it is used in Ezekiel for the appearance of Yahweh to Ezekiel at the River Chebar:

As I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire.
Ezekiel 1:4 NASB

Ezekiel goes on to describe an inexplicable sight of the creatures about the throne of Yahweh. Still, all of that happens within this cloud or fiery whirlwind. Which reminded me of the appearance of Yahweh on  Mount Sinai in Exodus:

So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
Exodus 19:16-20

The same word, sa’arah, is not used in Exodus, but the imagery sure sounds similar. There are other visions of Yahweh which don’t involve the whirlwind, so why do some? I’m not sure, and conjecture at this point is probably not helpful. It most likely has to do with the particular people at that particular point in human history, and I don’t know enough detail about either.

Yet, I learn something of my Savior from these appearances. I learn things like these:

  1. He is willing to come to His people and be seen by them
  2. He is powerful, frighteningly so, possibly terrifyingly (yet, see Judges 13:21-23)
  3. He reveals Himself to His people in ways that communicate a message we need, at that point in time.

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. The vision of Elisha of the chariots of fire and horses of fire as Elijah is taken by the whirlwind, combined with the vision of Ezekiel of the creatures within the storming whirlwind makes me wonder. What would it be like to see that? What would such an appearance of my Creator be like to experience? Would I, like Ezekiel, be silenced for a week? Would I, like Isaiah, have the presence of mind to volunteer for my Savior’s purpose? Or would I blather on like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration? I suspect I’d blather.

My Creator has not shown up to speak with me like that. I haven’t seen Him enthroned with the four creatures around Him. I haven’t heard the loud thundering trumpet of His voice. I believe Hollywood cannot reproduce, or even come close, to what Elisha or Ezekiel saw, nor adequately depict the glory of my Creator showing up on Mount Sinai. I want to see it. I want to be so awed I collapse in a quivering heap on the ground, babbling in a fetal position for a week. Bring it on! Sigh, alas, it is not to be. And that’s okay, honestly.

The thing is, I can get so caught up in the physical sight that I miss the fact that I have Him with me all the time. It would be cool to see the whirlwind, don’t get me wrong. And I would be ecstatic to experience that (and, yes, terrified). Yet, my Savior dwells within me at every moment.

Therefore, when I am behaving, He is with me. And when I am misbehaving, He is with me. He is with me when I travel, when I am at home, and when I am somewhere else. If I would live that way all the time, I would be different. I would treat others differently, I would see this world differently, I would think differently. And, perhaps, living that way might make it more likely that I will see such a sight. Yet, even if it doesn’t, and I don’t, I will in heaven. Eventually, we will all of us see Him, in all His glory, and every knee will bow, and every will tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It will happen, eventually. So, in the meantime, how will I live today?

Wrath, Grace, and Justice

I get why a lot of people referring to themselves as “Christ-followers” don’t particularly like the Hebrew Scriptures. I have changed my term to disciple of Jesus. Not that I am particularly disciplined, or not as much as I should be. I choose it because it is more subordinate in my mind. I need something more intentional and committed, because I don’t particularly like what I find in the Hebrew Scriptures either. Yet it’s still true about my Creator and Savior.

For instance, when David sins by counting the people, Yahweh is very displeased. After David repents (at least in the order things are recorded), Yahweh gives David a choice of three punishments: 1) Three years of famine, 2) Three months of battle loss, or 3) Three days of pestilence. Pestilence doesn’t sound so bad, but here’s how Yahweh describes it to Gad, David’s seer:

So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Take for yourself either three years of famine, or three months to be swept away before your foes, while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the LORD, even pestilence in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now, therefore, consider what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.”
(1 Chronicles 21:11-12 NASB)

David’s response is that he would rather fall into the hands of Yahweh than the hands of men, so he chooses three days. The angel of Yahweh goes through the land and 70,000 die from north to south in the land. And then there’s this dramatic scene:

And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but as he was about to destroy it, the LORD saw and was sorry over the calamity, and said to the destroying angel, “It is enough; now relax your hand.” And the angel of the LORD was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Then David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, covered with sackcloth, fell on their faces. David said to God, “Is it not I who commanded to count the people? Indeed, I am the one who has sinned and done very wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done? O LORD my God, please let Your hand be against me and my father’s household, but not against Your people that they should be plagued.”

(1 Chronicles 21:15-17 NASB)

This is a difficult account of our Savior punishing sin among His people. It’s a window into His relationship with David, with Israel, with His human creatures, and, potentially, with us. We don’t like it when our Savior get’s angry, we’re uncomfortable, and squirm in our seats. This is how He dealt with His people, not gentiles, not pagans worshipping other gods, His chosen ones. How, then, will we escape when our Father in Heaven seems so severe?

Our hope is in His grace. Our Savior is just. And, because of His just nature, there is wrath. Yet, there is also grace. Yahweh saw what His angel was about to do to Jerusalem, and “relented” or “was sorry”. Our Creator changed His mind. Isn’t that what we want from a just God? Do we really want justice? Wouldn’t that wipe us out, utterly destroy us? Isn’t that a global flood, thorough destruction, maybe with only a single family left?

I want grace. I want my Savior to change His mind about me. I want something to appease my Creator. Eventually, my Creator provided Himself as my Savior. He took away the wrath by taking it on Himself. He appeased Himself, His just nature was settled through Jesus on a cross. And so, grace reigned over my sin, my failure, as David experienced. David saw the angel of Yahweh standing over Jerusalem with sword drawn, ready to destroy there too. And David saw it all stop, in grace. Yahweh changed His mind, relented of the evil about to happen, was sorry for the people of Jerusalem, and stopped it. 

Read the Hebrew Scriptures and discover the grace of our Creator in fresh ways. The accounts of our Creator demonstrating grace among these accounts helps us better appreciate Jesus, and ourselves before His presence. On the threshing floor of Ornan (Arunah in 2 Samuel 24), David makes an altar, and offers an offering to Yahweh. According to tradition, eventually, on that site, David’s son, Solomon will build the temple. And, eventually, the Savior will teach in the courts there, teach of the grace of Yahweh.

Loving People

I have said for years, and I should never say this – yet I still do – Church would be great except for the people. And I am one of those people. You probably know, or can imagine, what sort of people I’m referring to. They are annoying in some way. They follow the pastor around incessantly asking questions, or worse, making suggestions. They have opinions about everything, whether they know anything about the topic or situation or not. They complain about almost everything, although most often about people who annoy them at church.

Yes, these are the “hypocrites” of which those who criticize the church from the outside seem to know so well. Rather than explore the strange irony of that, I want to show something I found very encouraging in Scripture which shows Jesus’ perspective on “those annoying church people”. First, the setting, Jesus leads His disciples away to rest…

The apostles *gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught. And He *said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves.
Mark 6:30-32 NASB

The apostles had just come from their first “missionary journey” to the villages of Judah. They had cast out demons, healed the sick, and preached the Kingdom of God to the people. And, when they returned, a bunch of people either came with them to see Jesus, or were already swarming around Him while they were gone. Either way, it’s pandemonium around them. So, Jesus leads them to a quiet place to rest and rejuvenate. Only, it doesn’t work…

The people saw them going, and many recognized them and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.
Mark 6:33-34 NASB

These people are geniuses. They see the boat leaving, figure out where it’s going, and get there first on foot. And not just those around Jesus when He leaves, but “…from all the cities” they gather together ahead of them. That’s a spectacular failure to find rest. Now the pandemonium not only continues, it worsens. They weren’t able to eat before, now what is it like? Don’t you hate it when people do that, interrupt your plans, hijack your vacation, invade your “sanctum”? So annoying! And yet, Jesus looks at them with compassion. 

I confess, I’m not there yet. I like my “space”, I like having that “cushion” around me, this is definitely an “area of growth” for me. I’m not like Jesus in this respect, and need to submit my desires for “space”, for individuality, for safety, for “my right to rest” to my Savior. Because He looked at them with compassion, because He saw they were like sheep without a shepherd. They had no idea who they were, where they were going, and what they were supposed to do (who else heard Yoda’s voice when they read that?). I’m like them, and I need to be like Him.

I believe we can be like Jesus in this regard. It won’t be easy, it will be very counter-culture, counter pop-psychology, counter conventional wisdom, and counter to a lot of other stuff we take for granted. It means taking Philippians 2:1-11 seriously and applying those verses rigorously to our decision-making, attitudes, and priorities. I admit, I’m not a fan, I’m not looking forward to it, dying to self is dying, don’t think it’s easy or happy. But it is joyous, it is peaceful, it is freeing in ways I am looking forward to. For when I die to myself, I rise to live within my Savior, and walk within His Spirit.

So, let them come, let them steal my attention, derail my plans, invade my space, and interrupt my rest. It’s not just okay, it’s a joy and a privilege. It’s a messy relational Kingdom, my Father’s Kingdom. So, how can I help you?

He’s No John the Baptist

Another irony about Jesus can be found in clues tucked away in Scripture. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the death of John the Baptist with the same event, and most include this statement:

Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.

Mark 6:19-20 NASB

Notice that Herod was both afraid of John because Herod knew John was a righteous man (see also Matthew 14:5). John’s status kept him alive, whether from popularity or from real fear of his prophetic status.

Yet, when Jesus is sent to Herod by Pilate, it is a very different sort of treatment received. Herod desires to see Jesus, but has absolutely no respect for Him.

Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate.

Luke 23:8-11 NASB

Herod had been trying to see Jesus before (see Luke 9:7-9), but not because he had respect, but out of curiosity. Herod didn’t think Jesus was John the Baptist, whom he had beheaded, yet respected. His interest was to see some trick or entertaining miracle.

The irony in the difference of treatment between the two is what surprises me. Why was John the Baptist considered more “scary” to this completely secular autocrat?

We think of Jesus to be the most influential Person from history. In His earthly ministry, though, it seems He was considered a nobody, an annoyance, an anomaly, and He was easily silenced. He had three years when the only people among whom He was popular were those in need of healing. Those in power knew little of Him at all.

If we are to follow the ministry of model of Jesus, then, why seek fame? Why seek notoriety? Why seek the attention of the popular, and “try and get our message out there”? Jesus didn’t. And yet, He truly is the most prominent influential person in human history.

I suppose that’s the lesson for me. What do you see through this knothole?

Pack Light

In the past month, my wife and I have gone on two backpacking trips, our first. We learned a few things about backpacking on those two trips, like, how seriously out of shape we are. The four-mile hike was torturous, and that’s really not much of a hike. When you add a 30 pound pack – well, it still shouldn’t be torturous.

We also learned that suggested methods of making coffee (something I take very seriously) are not effective. We eventually broke down and bought an aeropress pack version. After the first trip, I repacked our cook kit to include the fuel and stove inside the kit. We didn’t need the two measuring cups they included. We added a “tarp”, or something, we could use to set stuff out so we could re-pack without laying everything out in the dirt. 

There were other lessons, but, to allow a short illustration remain short, we learned to pack light, real light, as light as possible. It was kind of funny. I brought full-size binoculars on the first trip. And I used them to look at the shockingly clear and bright stars. But I didn’t use the shovel. And so on, lessons learned, and then refined. If only we had a guide to help us weed that stuff out before we packed it four miles in the hot sun…

And He *summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt— but to wear sandals; and He added, “Do not put on two tunics.”
(Mark 6:7-9 NASB)

Jesus sends out His disciples into the towns and cities ahead of them with some instruction on how to pack. “He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey…” Who doesn’t want a couple of smelly travelers in their homes? Actually, in the Middle East, that’s not a rhetorical question. Maybe more nowadays, but certainly not back then. It was actually genius. Be in need and be dependent. 

We don’t always appreciate that detail. In our culture that is a horrible thought, well for some. In fact we exalt those who are more independent, and despise those who are not. It’s a culture that makes church a bit difficult with too many “doctors” and not enough “patience” (and I did not misspell that). We abhor dependence. We abhor weakness. We shall not ask for directions (and, let’s be honest, that’s not a “gender” thing).

Jesus didn’t stop there with His instructions, though. He didn’t just give them a packing list, He gave them instructions on how to act as well…

And He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave town. Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.”
(Mark 6:10-11 NASB)

Rather than speculate (one of my favorite things) about why they should stay in one house, I think it’s probably simpler, with Mark’s account anyway, to simply think of it as the antithetical corollary to the rejection. Sometimes we will be cared for when we depend on others. Sometimes we will not be. If not, take nothing with you from that place, not the dust, and certainly not the resentment. 

It’s a strange life with Jesus that asks us to be dependent. It borders on asking us to be vulnerable (how terrifying!). You may have learned that “church people” are not safe. If you haven’t, that’s awesome! I hope you never do. Because lessons like that make this request of our Savior all the more difficult. Yet, it’s no less of a request of no less of a Person. He’s still our Creator and Savior, and He still makes this request. The question is, how much do we trust HIM, not how much do we trust them.

Go to church, participate, love the people, and be dependent, ask for help for yourself, for what you go through, with your stuff. Be that person who helps, and that person who needs help. We all need help, and our Savior has provided a group of disciples, called out of a dead world into life, to help. We are them, and help. We are them, and need help. It’s okay, that’s how He designed it.