Monday, August 22, 2016

Starting Over...Again

But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Matthew 1:20-21

What a glorious sight it must have been to behold the first temple in Jerusalem. Generations upon generations fought, and died for their promised land. Many grew up hearing of God’s promise, but never saw it fulfilled. So what better way to honor the God who brought them through all that hardship than to build a temple in His name. It was conceived by David, who thought that God deserved more than the tent and tabernacle they had been using. God’s response was along the lines of a parent who receives some macaroni art from a child,

“Oh, thank you, David. I don’t remember asking for this, but thank you.”

God knew that David’s heart was in the right place, but, after all, God has all of heaven as a dwelling place. God didn’t let David build the temple because he already had other things planned for him, but said he would let his son and successor to the throne, Solomon, build it. So, it came to pass that the temple was completed sometime in the mid-10th century BC during the reign of Solomon as King of Israel. The splendor and glory of the temple was due to much more than its size, much more than its priceless materials, but was due to being a sign of God’s presence and providence.

Unfortunately, just 410 years later, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar II. He laid waste to not only the temple, but to the very walls surrounding Jerusalem. Many were killed during the siege, and others were taken into captivity. The Jews had to start all over.

The overwhelming majority of surviving literature from the earliest centuries are autobiographies from the Kings, Pharaohs, and other rulers of the time. The rest come from historians, sometimes called chroniclers, and prophets like Moses, Samuel, and others. The Bible, as you may have realized, is mostly written by God’s prophets. However, there are a few examples that do not follow this formula. One such example is the Book of Nehemiah. In it we find a new kind of story not just unlike any other in the Bible, but unlike any other writing of the time. Nehemiah’s lack of noble birth, his relationship with God, and his complete faithfulness in God’s promises makes his story more relatable to the times in which we live today than any other book of the Bible.

Nehemiah is not called by hearing God’s voice like the prophets. Nehemiah is not moved into action by an encounter with an angel. He doesn’t see a vision, dream a dream, or interpret a sign. The single most important thing that sets his story apart from all others in the Bible is that Nehemiah takes it upon himself to rebuild the broken walls of Jerusalem. He has no noble birth which obligates him to this task, and completely lacks any divine decree or appointment. While serving as a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes I of Persia Nehemiah hears of the destruction of Jerusalem, and is so affected by the news that he breaks down into tears. He then begins a period of fasting and prayer to ask God for forgiveness and grace. Nehemiah shows complete faithfulness to God in his prayer:

Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.' Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. Nehemiah 1:8-11

Now, I don’t know about you, but God has never spoke to me through a burning bush. Nor have I ever met an angel. Nehemiah never experiences these things either, but still has such faith in God that he doesn't hesitate to begin the monumental task of rebuilding Jerusalem. His faith is exactly the kind that is often asked of us in this age, for Jesus said,

“Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe.” John 20:29

Nehemiah petitions his King for resources, he collects supplies, and organizes labor. He fights the opposition from the enemies which surround Jerusalem on every side. He even combats opposition from other Jews inside Jerusalem, but completes his task of rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah may have never experienced the divine, but look at all he accomplished for God.

However, the second temple would be destroyed just 420 years later in 70 AD by the Roman occupation. Jewish historian Josephus had this to say about the destruction of Jerusalem,

Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, and the wall which enclosed the city on the west side. Part of the wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for those who were to lie in garrison in the Upper City, as were the towers also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but as for all the rest of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, it was so thoroughly destroyed that there was nothing left to make those that came to Jerusalem believe it had ever been inhabited. -Josephus, The Wars of the Jews

All their hard work was undone.

However, we, being redeemed people, know that the presence of God no longer resides in a temple, tabernacle, or ark, but occupies His people. The entire life of Jesus Christ is proof that God is always willing to help us begin again. Christ himself did not come as a fully grown man, but started his life from scratch. God came as a child just as Isaiah prophesied,

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

Not long after our creation we messed things up, but God helped us begin again by sending His son Jesus to make us new. Even today, Jesus lives so that any who come to God can begin a new life free from addiction, sin, anxiety, and despair. Sometimes, God is completely silent when we ask for a miracle. Perhaps in those times God is saying, “Just like Nehemiah, you don’t need a miracle, you just need to start over.” Often we pray for a miracle, but what we really need is to simply try again. Never be afraid to start all over. Grace only happens when we feel the conviction to start over. God said you deserve a fresh start. Who are you to disagree?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Living Water

On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! John 7:37

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt is likely familiar to everyone whether or not they were raised in a church. The Israelites were suffering under the rule of the Egyptians, and Moses, being chosen by God to lead the Israelites, formally requests their freedom with those famous words, “Let my people go.”

When this bureaucratic approach doesn’t work, God brings plagues upon the land, being careful to instruct the Israelites on how to protect themselves from this wrath. These plagues eventually convince the Pharaoh to let Moses and his people go; a decision that is quickly reversed by the leadership in Egypt. The Egyptians chase the Israelites to the Red Sea, which is parted for the people of God who pass through unharmed. The Red Sea then destroys the Egyptian army when it closes upon them. These miracles which ensured the deliverance of the Israelites provided some of the first proof to the Israelites that God will protect them and provide for them.

It was not long after their liberation from Egypt that the Israelites begin to fall into that all-too-easy human behavior; complaining. It only takes one chapter for the people to become agitated at their discomfort. At the beginning of Exodus 15 we read a song of praise for the God that delivered them. The chapter begins, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him."

The beginning of Exodus 16 is a stark contrast to the praises of the previous chapter. The Word tells us “on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.  In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

God has provided for them, and met their every need. However, they are unsatisfied. Not even two months in they are already sick of the food, and ready to go back to Egypt. God sometimes gets an undeserved bad reputation; especially when people read the Old Testament. “The Old Testament God” I’ve heard people call him. They characterize him as vengeful, wrathful, and furious. However, I think God proves them all wrong in this chapter. Rather than curse the Israelites for their ungratefulness; rather than destroy them for their unfaithfulness; God listens to them, and sends manna and quail to feed his people.

In the next chapter we read that they traveled, but couldn’t find water. What do they do? They aggravate Moses like a van full of kids aggravates their father on a road trip. I can almost see it now…


“What? What? What could you possibly want now?"

“Well, we are thirsty, Moses.”

“I’ll turn this Exodus around if you all don’t stop complaining!”

Again, we see that God meets their needs. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t curse them. He doesn’t say, “Keep going another hundred miles, and I will put water there." God meets them where they are. His children are thirsty, so he gives them water. He instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and outpours the running water. Not just a pool of stagnant water, but a fresh spring of running, living water.

If you’re wondering why I would start with a verse from the Gospel and immediately begin a long explanation of the Exodus in the desert, it’s because I said all that to explain and give weight to what Jesus is saying in that verse. The festival they are celebrating at this time is called the Feast of the Tabernacle. It was a joyous celebration of the days when God’s people roamed the desert while God miraculously met their every need. Think of how you feel after working all day in the hot sun, and you get that first ice-cold drink. This very moment in their history is what they are celebrating years later in the time of Jesus.

Tradition says that every day during the festival a Jewish priest would go to the wells of salvation, from the spring of Gihon, the same water used to anoint Solomon as king of Israel, and would draw a jug full of water. The people would follow the priest like a parade. They would sing and dance behind the priest all the way through town on their way back to the temple. Once there, the priest would pour the water on the altar; reminiscent of the day when God caused water to spring out of the rock in the desert. On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus shows up, and decides to steal the show by saying, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink!”

Jesus makes a bold, unmistakable proclamation here. He is saying, “I have something greater. I have something greater than water. I have something greater than a festival. I have something that will sustain you better than your parade, better than your traditions, and better than your history.”  We, being redeemed people, know that Jesus did not have water for our cups, but the Holy Spirit for our bodies. After Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended into Heaven the Holy Spirit poured out onto those with faith in God’s Son, and continues to do so to this very day.

This being said, it’s still human nature to complain. Just like the Israelites in Exodus, we all love to feel sorry for ourselves. We all love to amplify our sufferings, and downplay our blessings. Sometimes it may feel like you are going through a desert. Sometimes it may even feel like God has abandoned you. Sometimes it feels like God is never going to help. In those times I urge you to pray, and remember that the Spirit of God is always with you to provide for you wherever you are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Peace of God

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were locked where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19

Our lives and our times are a heavy burden to carry. It is easy to become overwhelmed with concern when so many terrible things are happening to everyone every day; disease, terrorism, famine. The list is too long to continue. Life has almost always been this way. In the story of life on Earth, we know the separation of man from the presence of God and the entrance of sin into the world begins a long history full of suffering.

Not long after this separation, God starts to inspire a hope for reconciliation and peace between us, the created order, and Him, the Creator. When the Old Testament prophets spoke about this peace they most commonly used that famous Hebrew word- Shalom. Shalom means much more than peace. It means wholeness, harmony, completeness, and tranquillity. This peace is perfectly described in Isaiah 65 where God speaks about a "new heavens and a new earth" where "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together." We see this poetry from Isaiah portrayed in paintings, movies, and coloring books. It inspires in us a feeling of peace and comfort that can only come from the final fulfillment of God's plan where we all share in the glory of all creation being made new.

This very same dream, this longed-for peace was deep in the heart of every Jewish child, and it was in the hearts of the disciples that day when they gathered together after the death of Christ. I'm sure they were told a thousand and more times as they grew up that one day a Messiah would come who would restore the kingdom of God and bring about that everlasting peace so desired by everyone. Yet, here they are, the man they thought was the Messiah has been killed, and they meet behind locked doors out of fear that the very same fate of crucifixion awaits all of them for being a part of the heretical ministry of Jesus. Everything they thought they knew for sure had just been ripped away. They thought they had found the Christ, the anointed One, the King, but could only watch hopelessly while he suffered a horrible death then meet days later to try and decide how they will make it out of the city alive. Instead of the redemption, reconciliation, and peace they were so sure had finally arrived, they find panic and despair.

Then, Jesus appears to them at their most desperate moment, and simply says, "Peace be with you."

I have to say, these are my favorite words of the whole Bible because it's here that everything truly sinks in for the disciples. They thought they were lost, but then their shepherd appears. Christ's words at this moment say much more than simply, "don't be afraid of the persecution you're currently under." With just these four words Jesus says, "You don't have to fear your death. You don't have to fear anything. The kingdom of God is here. I am the Christ. I have fulfilled the law, and I welcome you into the presence of God. Just as Adam and Eve once walked with God so many years ago, so now will you walk with God. The time of separation is over, and you will now know God's grace and His peace."

Then, Jesus breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. They became the living temples of God's presence, just like Paul would later talk about in his letters. Because Jesus had made the perfect, sufficient sacrifice, God's presence could now be with every human. Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected we, being redeemed people, could now be welcomed back into communion with God. Much more than a tabernacle inside a tent, more than a temple carved from stone, even more than the Son of God walking and talking with people during his ministry, God's Holy Spirit could now be with everyone everywhere to the ends of the Earth. Hallelujah.

We are redeemed people. We are invited to take part in the peace of God. We are invited to find solace in the fact that there is nothing more we can do to appeal to our God. Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice. It is faith in Him that washes our sins away, and brings everlasting peace by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The disciples left with peace, and kept that peace until their dying days. What was once despair and fear of their death was turned into peace that gave them the confidence to be martyrs for their faith. The disciples found that peace from Christ, and you are welcome to it, as well. You need only to ask God, who gives freely to all.

Peace be with you.