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?

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Blooming Where Planted: Joseph IV

If I can’t judge the love of my Master for me when I’m in the crusher, then can I do so when things are going really good?  Nope.  Paul claims that he learned the secret of being content in plenty and in poverty (Philippians 4:11-13).  A change happens for Joseph, but his behavior remains consistently focused on his Master, Yahweh.

Now in the morning his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.  Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh, saying, “I would make mention today of my own offenses. (Genesis 41:8-9 NASB)

The cup bearer has an opportunity to remember Joseph, and what he did for him while in the jail.  Joseph is brought out, cleaned up, and given an opportunity to come before Pharaoh.  When he does, what does Joseph say? He points to God.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”  Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”  (Genesis 41:15-16 NASB)

And God does give Pharaoh a favorable answer, but there’s more than just the answer God gives to understand the dream.  Joseph also gives Pharaoh guidance in how to respond to the meaning.  There’s an important element to how Joseph does that.

“Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about.  Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance.  Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it.  Let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish during the famine.”  Now the proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants. (Genesis 41:32-37 NASB)

Whether Joseph did this with the hope that he would be “the man discerning and wise”, or whether he simply saw the answer and gave it without hope to be that man, is debated.  It’s not easy to know.  In every previous circumstance we’re not given the initial response of Joseph to his masters, merely that he succeed under each master.

So, it’s possible that he uses this suggestion as a way to get in good with Pharaoh, who has already demonstrated a lack of wise magicians.  But it’s also possible that Joseph is simply without guile by this time, and makes the suggestion knowing that this will be the best response for whoever Pharaoh appoints.

Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?”  So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are.  You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.”  Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:38-41 NASB)

But it works out that Pharaoh has no qualms about who Joseph has been, only for what he has said to Pharaoh now.  There’s no “class” problem with Joseph having been a slave, or a felon, or even a Hebrew.  Pharaoh makes Joseph the second in the Kingdom of Egypt because it’s clear he has a plan.  Joseph has arrived.

Right away, Joseph gets busy implementing his plan for surviving the seven years of famine.  And he collects so much grain in the seven years of plenty that they stop counting it.  But Joseph also is fruitful personally…

Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him.  Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”  He named the second Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 41:50-52 NASB)

The names of Joseph’s sons is an important view into Joseph, and how he sees what God is doing with him.  Think about why he names his sons as he does.  “God has made me forget all my troubles, and all my father’s household.”  He’s done with where he has come from, and is totally invested in his present.  His past wiped away his dreams.  He has forgotten his father’s house, their dysfunction, their treatment of him, his loss, and his pain.

To Joseph, this is what God is doing in him, this is his “payback” for all he has suffered.
“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”  He is finally being blessed for his faithfulness to God.  So, the lesson for Joseph is that, if we hold fast to our faith in God, then, eventually, we’ll be blessed wherever we are!  God is good, see?  Look what He did for Joseph, rewarding his faithfulness.

So, decisions we make, decisions to remain faithful to God, these eventually work in our favor.  The question is timing.  The problem with pragmatism is that, way too often, time is too heavy of a factor.  Understanding and wisdom comes over long periods of time, but we’re impatient.  Often it’s the spectrum of experience, bad and good, that helps us better understand where we are, and what our Master is doing around and through us.  But keep in mind, the goal isn’t the achievement of power God granted to Joseph, but the serenity Paul learned.  We, too, can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

What’s your view through the knothole?

BLOOMING WHERE PLANTED: JOSEPH III

Do what’s right, and you’ll succeed, all will be well, flowers will bloom, birds sing, and the sun will finally come out from behind the stormy clouds.  Right?  Or, you might end up in jail.  On this day celebrating the reformation, perhaps it will do us good to remember one who fought against tyranny, named for the reformer, Martin Luther, who wound up shot for his good and faithful service.  There’s a sad saying that, “No good deed goes unpunished.”  We can, perhaps imagine this on a plaque in Joseph’s cell.  But, still…

But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.  The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it.  The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper. (Genesis 39:21-23 NASB)

Joseph resists the temptation to take more than Yahweh provides to him, and he’s thrown in jail.  Awesome.  And yet, all he does there Yahweh blesses, and makes prosper.  It’s even something that rubs off on all Joseph touches, so, the entire jail ran better, and the jailer is blessed because of Joseph.  But, before you might think that this sunny ray of goodness is always cheery and has no concept of the bad situation in which he lives, just read further.

Once more, dreams enter into Joseph’s life.  It’s possible that they remind him of his own, or it could be those dreams never left him.  But two newer criminals have dreams.  The cupbearer to Pharaoh and his chief baker both have dreams.  Joseph interprets them for these two bewildered criminals, but see what he says, all that he says to the cupbearer:

Then Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh’s cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer.  Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house.  For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” (Genesis 40:12-15 NASB)

It’s easy to believe that Joseph’s success was due to his sunny disposition.  But we learn here that he is very aware that he doesn’t belong there.  He’s not happy that he’s been wrongly accused, that his brothers sold him into slavery, that he’s deserved none of this.  His success isn’t due to his attitude, it’s due to Yahweh.  It’s Yahweh’s work in his life and through him, into the lives of others that brings this success.  It’s very possible Joseph would have traded all the success to be out of the jail, no longer a slave, and back home, even with his brothers.  But Yahweh wasn’t done yet.

Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants.  He restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them.  Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. (Genesis 40:20-23 NASB)

Joseph wants out, helps another, sees a way out, and…remains where he is.  Joseph’s Master wasn’t done yet.  It wasn’t time.  Maybe Joseph needed to “marinate” a little more, or maybe his Master was setting up the other characters in the play.  Either way, Joseph remained there for another two years.

The philosophy unique to Americans is “Pragmatism”.  It’s a wonderful system where, if it works, it must be right.  We bandy about the cliche, “Whatever works!” not even realizing it’s the expression of the root of the “American Spirit” and the “American Way”.  Think through that for a moment, “whatever works”.  Really?  Any means to an end is right?  Well, perhaps, if the end sought includes good for all involved, maybe then, any means to get there would be right.  But even so, at its core, it’s actually creepy.

What if our Master leads us through a path, which, for every right choice we make, increases our misery?  We remain faithful to Him, and our life here becomes more unbearable?  That does not follow the “pragmatism” of our culture and society.  How will we be able to remain faithful to our Master when He doesn’t improve our situation?  If we are faithful and end up in jail, will we continue in faithfulness?  Martin Luther King Jr. did.  He continued to do the right thing and eventually was killed for it.

What will you do, when it actually gets worse for you, what will you do?  Will you judge the Almighty by your circumstances?  I do.  It doesn’t work, but I do it anyway.  In the end, it’s not very pragmatic to judge the Creator of the universe by my circumstances on one crumb of that creation.

What’s your view of our Master through the fence this morning?

Grace In The Picking

The LORD looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”  He said to Him, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.”  But the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.”  So Gideon said to Him, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me.” (Judges 6:14-17 NASB)

When confronted by God, the first thing Gideon does is show off his ignorance.  He is in a culture completely unaware they live in violation of their covenant with God.  And yet, God doesn’t say to Gideon, “What’s wrong with you people?”  We say that as we read, but God’s response is different.  He drags this guy back into a covenant relationship with Him.

There are some interesting details given about God’s interaction with Gideon.  For instance, the Angel of Yahweh sits under the oak in Ophrah, and then appears to him.  The language is specific that Gideon couldn’t see Him until after He sat under the oak.  And now, we have the description that Yahweh looks directly at Gideon.  Gideon has His full attention, a dangerous thing of Yahweh’s to have.

These details may not seem like much, but they provide some insight into God’s character.  And it’s His character here that I think is so important.  Gideon gives one excuse after the other, and Yahweh patiently ignores and sweeps them aside.  First, Gideon is a “valiant warrior” with whom Yahweh hangs out, but Gideon asks the insulting question of where is this Yahweh.  Then Yahweh ignores the response, stares at him and tells him to go “in this your strength” and defeat Midian.

The fact that Yahweh doesn’t debate the first question, nor accept the falsely humble statements of Gideon about his family, and then waits around for the first “test”, all indicate that Yahweh is patient.  When He sends the prophet with the scathing rebuke, we think Him harsh.  But we forget that Yahweh didn’t wait around for their repentance.  In fact, there’s no real indication that the people truly repented.

God’s grace in this story is truly grace.  It’s not conditional on the objects of His favor, it didn’t wait around for some criteria other than the people calling out for God.  He just wanted to be acknowledged.  Clearly they didn’t understand their covenant relationship with Him.  Obviously they didn’t change their ways, they try to worship the stupid gold pendant Gideon has made at the end.

The point of this story, for the author and for us, is that God’s mercy is always available.  It may not look like we want.  It may not involve the people we would choose.  It may not be the most comfortable thing to receive.  But it’s always available, and available for the asking.  We may be amazed at how much we can survive, but we’ll survive.  It may be we only see the sheer amount of mercy He shows when we are before Him in heaven.

The thing is, God is merciful to the idiot, the ignorant, and the bonehead.  He is faithful to the unfaithful.  So, what are we?  Do we have all the answers?  Do we “get it”?  Are we faithful?  Don’t we have altars to other gods in our front yards?  Don’t we demonstrate the same level of ineptitude that Gideon showed?  Sure we do.  Daily, we display our ignorance and arrogance before God and everybody.  And yet, He continues to show His love for us.

The truth is that we are as dependent upon our Master as any believer in a third-world country.  In some ways we’re probably worse off.  And yet, as bad off as we may be, or may get, the love of God for us is as strong as His love for those more faithful followers in other countries.  He doesn’t wait for us to “get it”, to understand Him more, or even to repent.  Repenting is good, but God doesn’t wait for us to be faithful to Him, He simply is to us regardless.

Even repentance is a response to the love and faithfulness of God.  Even falling before Him in anguish over our sinful ignorance and boneheadedness is a response to His mercy.  We worship because He already loves us.  We honor Him because we’re already accepted.  We serve because we have already received His blessing.

I suppose the question for today is, what will you do in response to Him today?

That’s my view through the knothole.  What’s your view of God this morning?

Spiritual Investing

And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  They who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”  But He said, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.”  Peter said, “Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.”  And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”  (Luke 18:24-30 NASB)

Sometimes, I find that promises in Scripture, from Jesus Himself even, are hard to swallow.  Will I really gain much more than I sacrifice in this life?  I leave my family, goods, and whatnot for the Kingdom of God and I will gain many times as much at this time? Seriously?  I find that strangely at odds with themes we covered prior.  What about the cost of discipleship?  So, I can safely cast away everything now, and have much more at this time not just eternal life in the age to come?

Yes, I doubt. I do.  I’m not apologetic about it, I doubt.  I read the Hebrew Scriptures about how the people followed God, and then fell away.  I see how they were oppressed and cried out and God delivered.  I think of God watching them worship after deliverance, only to have them fall away again, be oppressed, and delivered all over again.  It’s the “Judges Cycle”, but repeated in Samuel and Kings as well.  It happens when the rain doesn’t fall, the crops aren’t ripening, and the grapes and olives fail.  Their neighbors seem fine and worship another god, some storm god, and their crops look good.  So the people hedge their bets and worship both.  I’ve read it dozens of times, and I’ve seen the pattern in my own culture, sometimes even in my own life.

The problem with which I wrestle is what if I don’t receive many times more?  What if God’s promise doesn’t come about?  Peter is crucified upside down, not in a bigger house with a bigger family.  John dies after somehow surviving Patmos with criminals.  The other ten are all killed for their faith, James almost immediately.  Where was the “many times more at this time” that Jesus promised?  I don’t see that but I do see the faithfulness of the ones Jesus told that to.  They heard that, invested, but didn’t record how they experienced that blessing at that time.  We hear later they all died.  Is it a “Role Call of Faith” sort of thing where they all died without seeing what was promised?  Why even put that tidbit in there about “at this time” in the first place?

I struggle with it.  I read it, but I struggle with believing it.  I suppose the answer is to invest and learn what it really means.  Perhaps I need to sacrifice to understand what exactly Jesus meant by gaining much more at this time.  I don’t see it, but trust Him.  I don’t read about how the disciples and followers gained much more of the same sort of thing, but so what?  Do it anyway.  They did.  And they still recorded this promise, do you get that?  This promise of Jesus was heard by all three sources used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  And they heard it and the Gospel writers recorded it.  And yet no one felt compelled to explain how it was true in the lives of the disciples.  It was supposed to be obvious without the need for explanation.

So, I don’t get it, but there’s so much that goes into that category.  I don’t really understand how the promise was fulfilled in the life of Peter, James, John, Paul, or the others.  I don’t understand, but I won’t either until I invest, and wait for the return on that investment from my Master.  And so here I go…

What’s your view through this knothole?  What do you learn from this assurance from Jesus that it’s safe to invest everything with Him and for His Kingdom?