First-World Frustrations

When I was a kid, I would get all worked up over something, cranky about whatever wasn’t working like it was supposed to, I’d snap at people, and be basically crabby. My mom would always, and I mean always, ask, “Did you have your quiet time this morning?” It was like putting out a fire with gas…BOOM!

The thing is, she was right, and I knew it. It distracted from my viscerally felt validity of my problem, but it was still accurate. Last night we had a Bible study on thankfulness. I am thankful, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention. When I got home, I setup an astronomical telescope to attempt to connect it to my computer to run it. What could go wrong?

I got it aligned with the earth’s axial tilt, and tried to orient it to my specific location on the earth. I needed a couple of stars to point it at. I typically use my smart phone for that. There are free apps that will show you the constellations and stars you are looking at in the sky by holding it up against your view of the sky.

On this particular night, my phone decided that orienting itself to where I was and what I was looking at was not what it wanted to do. I’d used two different astronomical apps and it just spun around. I had to work it manually. Grrr. But I have a phone, a smart phone. That’s actually pretty cool.

I found two stars to use to orient the scope to my location. It worked, but had an “error” that was actually HUGE. I was a little concerned but it seem to track well. So, I didn’t worry about it. Now to connect the computer. But first, let’s see if I can take a picture.

I connect the camera to the scope, and get…nothing. What I see in the scope is not anywhere in the view of the camera, and they’re looking in the same “tube”. How is that even possible? No idea why that is. I change some settings on the camera, nothing. I verify that the image is in the center, change back to the camera, still nothing. But, you know what? I have this nice DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex). That’s actually pretty cool too.

Anyway, I was out here in the cold dark late night to connect my computer, not my camera. Let’s try that. Long story short, it didn’t work…at all. In fact it jacked up the computer programs and the computer. But you know what? I have a computer, a nice one. And have the time and place (my back deck) to setup a telescope and look at the night sky.

I can complain, but why? Sure, what I tried didn’t work. What I wanted to do didn’t happen. Instead I was able to see Mars, but not take a pic to share with you this morning. It would have been nice, but it wasn’t as interesting as those amazing pics from orbiters around Mars. It would have been a round white spot against black. You wouldn’t have been able to figure out what it was just from the picture. Honestly, not a huge loss. 

What we read last night was Deuteronomy 28:1-11, but look at the verses immediately following that:

The LORD will open for you his good treasure house, the heavens, to give you rain for the land in its season and to bless all you do; you will lend to many nations but you will not borrow from any. The LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always end up at the top and not at the bottom, if you obey his commandments that I am urging you today to be careful to do. But you must not turn away from all the commandments I am giving you today, to either the right or left, nor pursue other gods and worship them.

Deuteronomy 28:12-14 NET

Yay! The storehouses of heaven, rains, we will lend and not borrow, be the head not the tail, on top not the bottom…oh wait, “If you obey his commandments…”. Would it be fair to say that praising our Savior is a command? Would it be within the realm of possibility that thankfulness in me is a desire of my Savior? 

I honestly don’t know what it would mean for me that I would be the head not the tail, on top not the bottom, or experience the treasure house of heaven. I’m guessing it doesn’t mean that my telescope will work like I want. It may mean that I get to see amazing views of what my Savior created, and marvel that He knows my name.

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.

Mad Cow Disease

My internet is out at home. Thankfully, my business phone functions quite well as a mobile hotspot. It frustrates me when stuff is out of my control, I can’t fix it, don’t truly understand it, or simply have to wait, whether I understand it or not. I feel like I should be in a therapy group, introducing myself, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m a selfish whiner”, imagining the rest of the group replying, “Hi Matt…” I don’t think there’s a 12-step for that, though. There sure should be.

And yet, even though I dislike, intensely, wandering around my life without a map, my King has dropped me into a “Bible study” situation where I begin each session with, “what have you read, and what are your questions?” How terrifying is that? Yesterday, someone asked a question I truly thought I’d never hear, “What about that guy in the Bible who God turned into a beast?”

Can you just sense the palpable collision of synapses, with the imagined sounds of a 100-car pile up added for good measure? Where do you start trying to untangle everything that’s wrong with that question? There are absolutely no werewolves in  Scripture! NONE! My mind is racing around trying to guess what movie is being overlaid on top of some Scripture passage, twisted to fit a corrupt modern interpretation or adaptation.

Suddenly, across the room, another guy says, “Yeah, my mom was teaching us about that.” (more brain concussive activity, flashing red light in the corner of my eye, a winking “idiot light” – “danger! danger!”) “He had long hair and nails…like a cow or something.” Sudden flash of insight, relief and joy! Nebuchadnezzar! It was like Jesus calming the storm on Galilee, only in my soul. 

We spent the next 15 to 20 minutes going through Daniel 4, one of the only passages in Daniel, not written by Daniel. It is purportedly written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. And it is a fascinating story.

The account begins with King Nebby having a bad dream. It started well, with an impressive tree, but then the tree is cut down and the stump capped with iron and bronze. All the “wise men” of Babylon can’t (or are too afraid to) tell the king what it means, until Daniel shows up. He explains the dream, but then warns and encourages the king to desist in his “pride”. And he does, for about a year.

A year after the dream, King Nebby is on his roof looking at his “hanging gardens”, the splendor of Babylon, and starts extoling himself. Here’s how it reads:

Now all this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on the battlements of the royal palace of Babylon. The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” While these words were still on the king’s lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.”

Now in that very moment this pronouncement about Nebuchadnezzar came true. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws.

Daniel 4:28-33 NET

“Brag, brag, brag…mooo”. That’s pretty much how it went. When you look at the description of what he becomes, I can see the whole “beast-man” thing. It never occurred to me before, but leave it to the imagination of a bunch of young people to totally see something new (or new to me).

Pride is a constant problem for lots of people, and I count myself among them. Wanting control, to have a “map”, to know or understand, are all prideful responses to fear. But, I also have a sneaky evil suspicion that I’m somehow better than other people, that I have “it” figured out, and that others don’t. That’s not fear, it’s the “original sin” of selfish pride, self-centered godless arrogance. 

That selfish pride is what plagued King Nebby. He thought he had “arrived”. He had no fear, and that is a dangerous place to be. “Brag, brag, brag…moo”. That’s where anyone not facing their selfish pride authentically is headed. And my King knows it. So, he sent King Nebby a dream, He sent Daniel, and He knows there will be failure in spite of all that.

But there is also redemption:

But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me.
I extolled the Most High,
and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever.
For his authority is an everlasting authority,
and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next.
 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he wishes with the army of heaven
and with those who inhabit the earth.
No one slaps his hand
and says to him, ‘What have you done?’
At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my nobles were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. I became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring down those who live in pride.

Daniel 4:34-37 NET

Fortunately for me, pride is not necessarily terminal. The Creator of the universe seeks me in spite of my pride and restores me as I repent. It sometimes feels like a game of “Whack-a-Mole”, trying to keep the pride in the grave. But all my Master wants of me is to keep working at it. He restores me when I look to Him and praise Him. 

Have you ever felt like that?

Relating to Our Creator

The popular phrase, “It’s a relationship, not a religion” has always bothered me. Like teachings that claim Jesus would have gone to the cross had it been only me who was lost, something rubs me wrong with claims like that. I am processing an idea about why it bothers me. I think I know at least one reason.

My relationship with my wife and daughter, the two closest people to me, run into trouble when I have a false concept of who they are. When I don’t allow my daughter to grow up, when I see my wife the way I want her, not as she is, I am relating wrongly to them.

My daughter lives 5 hours from us, and we don’t hear everything that happens in her life. Sometimes, it seems we only hear the bad stuff. It’s easy for us to believe her life is all bad or tough, and we want to be the ones to rescue her. The truth is often very different. She often shares the good with her closest friends, rather than us.

My wife has “issues”. She has amazing strengths, talents, gifts, and skills. She also struggles in areas, sometimes in her walk with her Savior. In general terms, she’s just like everyone else, including me. So, when I make decisions, react, or act without considering all of who she is, or without consulting her, I am liable to make a bad “relational” decision, action, or reaction. Again, this is generally true for all of us.

Not only are these example not unusual, they are truly common. We know we need, should, or will work on our earthly relationships. How common is it for us to do the same with our Creator? How common is it for us to try to get to know Him truly, as He is? It’s not easy work, and there are dangers.

Relationships are messy. So, when we use some version of a claim to have a “relationship” with our Savior, we should expect it to be messy, and not entirely on our part. Think about WHO we have that relationship with. He is not your spouse, nor your parent or child. We may use those terms as metaphors, but they are not adequate descriptions.

In the vacuum of our understanding of our Creator, we tend to “fill in the blanks” on our own. The truth is often very different than our imagination. Consider just the crazy difference between how we imagine our Savior, and someone capable of forming stars and galaxies with the spoken word. Those two things are very different. And we sort of fill in the blanks in between. But with what?

In this context, this passage may apply to us:

To whom can you compare God?
To what image can you liken him?
A craftsman casts an idol;
a metalsmith overlays it with gold
and forges silver chains for it.
To make a contribution one selects wood that will not rot;
he then seeks a skilled craftsman
to make an idol that will not fall over.

Isaiah 40:18-20 NET

We skip right through these passages, assuming they don’t apply to us, the dangers described are no our dangers. The truth may be more unsettling. Think through the pragmatic elements described. The idol is more “tangible”, the idol is propped up so it doesn’t totter, the wood that won’t rot, it’s gold-plated, silver chains.

We like to worship a “good god”. But what do we mean by that? Is God still good when my circumstances aren’t? We say that God is loving, or God is love. But when we hurt, when disaster or catastrophe strikes, do we still think of God as loving? 

And those may be when our Savior shines the brightest for you. So, is your Savior the one who caused a man to be born blind for His glory? Do you worship a Creator who heals a guy who shows no faith or interest in following Him, and yet, doesn’t heal everyone? Do you praise the God who destroyed everyone the planet, except a single family? 

Sure, we love to quote Jeremiah 29:11, but what about 1 through 10? Are we willing to consider the One with plans for us but leaves us in captivity? Are you willing to worship Job’s God? When we say “God is good, all the time” and echo back, “And all the time, God is good”, do we have in mind the God brining disaster on cities (Amos 3:6). 

I’ll bring it up again, Jephthah, after the Spirt of Yahweh came upon him, offered God whatever came through his door first. His daughter came through the door and, though it wrecked him, he offered her up. He gave God the choice, and God chose his only daughter. And the faith of Jephthah (see Hebrews 11:32) was present in his daughter, who submitted willingly to the sacrifice. And before you claim Jephthah was wrong, consider Hebrews 11. And consider God required the same of Abraham with Isaac. There God changed his mind, but up to that point, His command and its effect remained on Abraham. What if the order had not changed?

Will you worship your Savior knowing these things about Him? Consider the parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 22:1-14, the king is harsh and that is heaven. Consider the parable of of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27, especially verse 27. This is heaven. Is this what you look forward to, Who you worship? Is your Savior truly good, as you define the word? When you think of God as love, what do you have in mind? Is it these things?

You have probably guessed where I’m going with this. The uncomfortable reality is that, unless we worship our Creator as He has revealed Himself, we worship idols. As the nation of Israel suffered for this sin, so will we. Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 7:21-23 NET

Did you notice that, even though they prophesied, cast out demons, and did many powerful deeds in your name, they were cast out. Tremble. This is the sort of thing that should help us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Is your Savior your “friend”? Okay, but consider that means you are close, very close to the most dangerous being in existence. 

It is with good reason that James calls us to weep and wail before our Creator (James 4:4-10). I suppose instead of “fearless” we should dive into the truths of God in spite of fear. Stand near Him, trembling and nearly wetting our pants. Be unsure about whether to embrace, fall on our face, or bow our heads before Him. Stutter and stammer in our words to Him because we are in awe of Him. 

So, is it still “about a relationship, not about a religion”? If, for you, it is, then be sure you are relating to the right God, not some god which only exists in your imagination. Religion, whatever that means for you, may help remind you of the awe of your Creator. On the other hand, religion, if it’s only rote, separates and insulates you from your Savior. 

Both approaches have dangers and flaws. And both approaches can be correct. Each can serve to deepen the other and give meaning to the other. Maybe our “call to worship” should sound more like this:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this who darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?
Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me.

Job 38:1-3 NET

Times of Change

“Some things change, some don’t” I suppose the saying goes. Perhaps it is more of a cliche. We set our clocks forward an hour, entering into a tradition I would love to see die. That is a change of which I’m no fan. I’ve lived in two states that refuse to do so, and loved living in both. Okay, one was Hawaii, and it was a long time ago, but still.

While the time changed, the tradition of changing time did not. Something changed, something didn’t. One thing that has changed is how I teach a class for youth at my church. I let them ask anything about the Bible. I don’t prepare, there’s no notes, no plan (there’s a backup plan just in case). Right after we pray, I ask, “What have you read, and what are your questions.”

It’s not a class where we find a lot of answers. It’s not about what I know. It’s about their search, and encouraging their search through the Scriptures. I try and help them either find answers, or be okay without them. I challenge them to fearlessly explore the weirdness of our Creator and Savior. 

One of the things I do in this class is attempt to connect the world in which Scripture was written with the world in which we live. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” or something like that. I point out that, instead of worshipping idols made of stone and wood, people today worship idols of wealth and popularity. 

One of them brought up Psalm 1:1:

How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the pathway with sinners,
or sit in the assembly of scoffers.

Psalms 1:1 NET

She asked, “Aren’t we supposed to be around them to be a witness?” That’s both an excuse, and also a reality. Churches have so separated us from the world through shame (how dare you be found in such a place/with such people), that we, as disciples of Jesus, can no longer reach those who need Him.

On the other hand, people, especially younger people, have used “reaching the lost” as an excuse to “hang out” with people who are more of an influence on them than they are being on the “lost”. I referred her to Paul’s quote of a Greek poet in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived, ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.'”

So, I gave them a guideline: who is influencing who? But that’s not really adequate is it? It’s not just about influence, it’s about how deeply we connect with those who are outside the family of faith. There is a danger here for me, in particular, because I find “lost people” somewhat refreshing in their views of “saved people”.

The truth is that few “lost people” really enjoy a talk about God, at least with me. That could be my problem, I admit. Even so, it’s something I have to confess when I find myself drawn to “hang out” with them. If I’m pretty sure God will not come up, why do I want to be around them?

So, which is it? Have times changed and now we should add those outside the faith to our circle of friends? Are times still dangerous and we should isolate ourselves from the world? Or is there some ground between these two where we can be lights in this wicked and perverse society (Philippians 2:15)?

I suppose, if we, like Paul, wrap our lives around the upward call of our Savior, then everyone around us will will be influenced by us, rather than we by them. And somewhere in that amorphous middle ground, we may find that we too, like Paul, will become all things to all people so that by all means we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:21-22).

Young people like concrete answers. I wish I had them. My continual mantra seems to be “walk with your Savior, and do what you can to encourage the walk of others.” I suppose if we do that, the rest, more or less, takes care of itself. I suppose. Sounds easy doesn’t? 

Why So Mysterious?

In working with young people, I love the questions they ask. Some are simply the most insightful stuff I have heard. Some of the questions are repeats of stuff I’ve studied before, and the review is really helpful. And some questions are those asked by just about every student of Scripture at some point.

It was one of those necessary questions asked by every student that came up yesterday. She referred to Colossians 1:26, where Paul refers to a “mystery”, hidden from the ages and generations, but now revealed. “What mystery?” It’s a great question because Paul uses that term fairly inconsistently.

The context of Paul’s statement is this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.

Colossians 1:24-29 NET (emphasis mine)

So, if you do a search of Paul’s use of “mystery” in his writings, you find that he does use it in several letters. When you examine each instance, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t use it to refer to the same thing, or at least not precisely the same thing. It always has to do with salvation through Jesus, but there seems to be some element which is “mysterious”.

Here, in Colossians, the mystery seems to be “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, at least according to the NET translation. Most modern translations have something very similar, but there is a possible connection to Gentiles. It seems that this “mystery” is Christ in Gentiles, that they have a hope of glory.

So, while everyone expects Jews to have this hope of glory, that the Messiah would come for them, that Jesus affects salvation for Gentiles is supposed to surprise everyone. Context is important here. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches seeks to correct, rather roughly, erroneous teaching that the Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law to be saved.

Considering this, it makes a lot of sense that Paul would refer to the salvation through faith in Jesus as a mystery. It clearly was to some people, namely those teaching this false doctrine of “circumcision for salvation”.

What about Jesus saving His human creatures is a mystery to you? It’s a weird question, like “what don’t you know?”, but it is worth spending some time considering. For instance, are there people you functionally consider beyond the reach of Jesus? Allow me to be more pointed, who, in your community, are you intentionally leaving out of your community of faith?

Before you let yourself off the hook, think through who attends, who is among you weekly, who serve in worship, who help with various elements of the worship service, teach or participate in groups. And then, consider who do not attend weekly, who are not serving, participating, or leading. And then, why are they not? What would it take for them to consider themselves a part of your community?

You see, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We blow right passed this reference to “mystery” without considering that, like these “Judiasers” were creating barriers for Gentiles, we also create barriers for people. How should they dress, how should they look, speak, laugh, where should they live, what should they drive, or how often should they bathe?

I’m really struggling with this because I’m in a class challenging me to address poverty through relationships. I’m being challenged to view myself as impoverished, just as much, if not more, than those I seek to help. I’m being challenged to consider the attitude with which I minister, and I’m painfully aware that pride and arrogance, so much a part of our culture, pollutes my own service to my King.

So, let’s clarify the mystery of why we are such mopes, flailing about, trying to serve those who have so much to offer us, as if we have nothing to learn from them. Jesus wants to purify us as much as cleanse them. He seeks our hearts as He seeks theirs. So, let’s set ourselves up to learn, relationally, from those with fewer material goods, as we share with them the riches of the grace we have found in Jesus.

A Parable About Something Else

How often are you experiencing stress over things you cannot control? When was the last time you experienced peace releasing something which was not your responsibility? And don’t you just love it when someone you’re asking for help says, “That’s not my job” (okay, maybe not that one so much).

Jesus tells us to “take His yoke upon us”, because His burden is light and His yoke is easy. If you think about it, that’s a strange way to describe a yoke of any kind. And yet, He does. It’s one of the best ways He can describe our walk with Him, as opposed to our walk, blindly, in the dark.

One of the things you may be taking on yourself, which is not yours to take, is the responsibility of “saving” others. We are to reach out to others, to be a light of our Savior’s glory, and give explanations of our hope in Him. We are to be a witness to His existence, His love, and His desire for others.

We are not the “savior”, Jesus is the Savior. We are not their creator, our Father is our Creator. We are not one loving our family beyond measure. It may not feel like it, there is a measure to our love for anyone. Jesus’ love is immeasurable. It is the work of the Spirit of Jesus which changes lives.

He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground. He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 NET

The parable of the sower, previously, in this chapter had the “seed” being the “word”, or Jesus’ preaching. So, it is probably meant to be the same here. Rather than focusing on the soils, here the focus is on the responsibilities or duties for growing the seed. The seed may produce 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown, but how does that happen?

The breakdown of how this all happens can be viewed this way:

  1. The sower (us) sows the seed (the word)
  2. The we rise and sleep, day to day
  3. The word sprouts and grows, we do not know how
  4. The soil (hearer) by itself produces the grain in stages
  5. We harvest (disciple) the word

That’s not the only way to view this parable. This way borrows the imagery and meaning from the Parable of the Soils, which is a good place to start. Although, some of the elements may not be exact correlations.

The soil producing “by itself” may reflect the unseen work of the Holy Spirit, more than any particular quality of the soil. But, think through the parable of the soils. It seems to be a quality of the soil which makes it more effective for growing. So, the Holy Spirit works in all who hear, but some are more receptive to Him than others.

Either way, the sower, you and I, we are spectators more than agents in this parable. Jesus doesn’t point out the work of the sower after sowing. It is probably understood, but our Savior has another point to make. He wants to emphasize that it’s not about the sower. It’s not about the sower’s work beyond sowing and harvesting. The sower “doesn’t know how” the seed grows.

It’s not about you. How refreshing. It’s not about how you hammer away at someone with the words of Jesus. It’s not about how intensely you love them, how consistently you preach to them, how clearly you articulate the truth of the good news. It’s not about you.

So, scatter seed. There are different soils, and some of it is good soil. Even on good soil, much will happen you cannot see, and do not understand. That’s a “feature”, not a “flaw” to sowing seed. Share the good news, and leave room for the Spirit of our Savior to work. Don’t aim at the “good soil”, chances are we are not good judges of soil. Just sow away.