Wednesday, September 18, 2013

John 1: Can I Get a Witness?

Last week, my husband's grandfather, the patriarch of our family and a beloved pastor, passed away suddenly. Though in the following hours and days our world would become a flurry of activity, making phone calls and arrangements to travel, comforting and visiting family and friends, taking care of business, there was a stolen moment before we snapped into action, a tender one, when I sat at the feet of my grieving husband and listened to him recount a lifetime of memories he shared with this very special man.

He told me about the many jobs he had held, even selling shoes to women, which he liked to report was the most challenging job he'd ever done. He taught Michael to cast a fishing rod in the driveway as a young boy, and they had shared many sweet memories on his boat, "Visitation." He had provided spiritual encouragement through the years, and had even performed our marriage ceremony. He had left his mark on our lives and in our hearts in a most profound way. Though the sad reality of life without this wonderful person loomed ahead, it was in looking back at his life that we found a great deal of joy, of comfort, and even of hope. Following the funeral, hundreds of people came to the family visitation to share how Grandaddy had touched their lives. What a comfort that witness was in our time of sadness. What great work he had done in his time on earth. He lived a very full, very meaningful life. He invested in people, he loved well, and as a believer and a pastor, he fought the good fight for God until the end. Those stories, those testimonies, solidified in our memory the kind of person he really was, and what a joy it was to know that he is now sitting in the presence of our Lord.

Interestingly, as I was preparing this lesson on John 1, I saw a beautiful theme of the description and value of the witness in Scripture. Often we see that a witness in the Bible as a person, but in John we see that one of the greatest testimonies of all are the prophecies YHWH has give to us throughout history. I read, to paraphrase, that prophecy’s greatest value is not in knowing the future, but rather in looking back at the faithfulness of God in fulfilling all that He promises. It builds faith, comfort and hope when we look back through the Old Testament scriptures to find that God does do what He says He will do. In a world that is so preoccupied with the future, the end, with death and what lies beyond, I think it is such a message of value that there is great comfort in looking back - not only in our own life history, but also back to the Old Testament Scriptures, to remember and rediscover the character of our God as perfect, appropriate, timely, faithful and true. Just like looking back to celebrate someone's life, we can look back and truly know and celebrate our God's great story; that while He's not yet finished and at times the end is unclear, He is most certainly moving and working out His great plan.

The Scriptures: Our Witness of God's Character

With that as a back drop, the story of the Gospel of John really begins in the Old Testament scriptures. The story of Israel is a tragic one. God redeemed a people out of Egyptian bondage. He brought them to a desert, isolated them to begin the process of their rebirth as His own people. He made an offer to enter into a vassal covenant with them - He taught them a new way of life, the way of holiness, His law, as the terms of that covenant. If they adhered to the terms, they would always have His protection and blessing. If they broke their covenant, there would be consequences, death, destruction, and even an eventual return to the bondage from which they had been saved. The people accepted this covenant and YHWH and the people of Israel became united.

God gave them time to prepare themselves to enter a new land, to adjust to the new way of life that would be expected in the promised land. They made mistakes as they learned to obey and to trust, but they grew. On the brink of their crossover, Moses, their great leader and mediator, made a prophecy: a day would come that they would abandon their covenant. Even before they entered the land, God knew what was in their hearts. But He loved them and gave them an opportunity to do what was right.

In the days that followed, they entered that land victoriously, and as they became comfortable, they quickly made compromises. They were intrigued by and loved the world’s way of living, let idolatry creep in, and forgot the commitment they had made to YHWH. This breaking of their covenant's terms broke God's heart. In His patience and mercy, He sent prophets to warn his people to repent, to return to obedience, to shed the idols they had let run rampant in the land. But they refused. So, in accordance with His covenant, the consequences came.

Over the course of many generations, they were destroyed by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, exiled, and later ruled by the Persian and Greek and Roman empires as they rose to power. They lost the promised land and their identity, they were separated from their families and their God. But even in the midst of their exile, He sent a message of hope: it’s not too late, Beloved. Return to me, return to your covenant, and I will restore you and gather you again to the land I gave to you. Further, He spoke of a new covenant through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, one where the Law he had given would be written on men’s hearts, where the spirit of God would dwell in men. But they had to repent and return first.

In the midst of the first conquest of Israel, the prophet Isaiah spoke these words:

A voice is calling, Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hills be made low; and let the rough ground become a pain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says,” Call out.” Then he answered, “What shall I call out?” ...“Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, Lift up your voice mightily, Oh Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, Here is your God!” (40:3-6, 9)

This passage speaks of a promised messenger to come, who would be called to proclaim repentance, to get the people ready to receive the Lord, and to ultimately identify to them their God.

In another prophetical book, a final warning through the prophet Malachi speaks of the end of days to the people:

Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.” (3:1)
For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts. Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (4:1-5)

Malachi spoke of the end of time and the judgement of the Lord. Here God pleads with His people to remember the covenant they made and to obey Him. He promises restoration and in His great mercy offers warning that before that day of judgement, He would send a messenger to prepare them, a prophet to warn them, a teacher to restore them, a sign prior to seeing the Lord in His temple.

So ultimately, it was expected that when the end was nigh, they would see this prophet Elijah, and that would appear right before the end of all things. The dispersed Israelites who heard that message never saw that day. 400 years passed, no more prophecies were given. God was silent, waiting for the fullness of time.

The Assyrian empire gave way to the Babylonian empire, which gave way the Persian and then the Greek empire, then there was the Roman empire. And then...suddenly things began to happen very quickly, prophecies began to be fulfilled – and that silence was broken:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesae – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
Luke 3:1-2

We read in the Gospels in Matthew 3, Mark 1 and Luke 3 the account of John (who we know as John the Baptist) receiving the call to act as that long awaited for messenger, and his ministry begins:  

And he came into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ..."
Luke 3:3, 15

John: Our Witness of the Messiah's Identity


Naturally, the Jewish authorities were curious about this man who would be instituting such cleansing outside of the temple. So they send a delegate to investigate the matter and to find out what was going on. He was, after all, attracting great crowds of people. Moving now to our text of focus, let's look at John 1:19:

This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
This 'confessed and did not deny but confessed' is emphatic. We might put it in all caps today, or italicize it. This is how the speakers of that day vehemently emphasized something. 

They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.”

Now you already know where that comes from, it is from Malachi. Why did he answer 'no' then? Particularly since later on Jesus would say that he was? (See Matthew 11) The answer is because he was not some reincarnated Elijah, he was telling the truth. Jesus explains that John came in the “power and spirit of Elijah,” that he fulfilled the ministry of Elijah. So, his answer was honest. He was not exactly Elijah, though he was the promised messenger.

“Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”

Now you must be wondering, what prophet? This one goes back to a time even before Elijah. Moses, in his final address to the people who had been ransomed from Egypt, actually prophesied that God would send a prophet like himself to them in the future. Deuteronomy 18 is where we find that prophecy:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him…I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

This prophecy was in actually reference to Christ, who, if we study, bears a striking (and not accidental) resemblance to Moses. Both were prophets, mediators between God and man, lawgivers, saviors and intercessors, teachers, anointed and selected by God to speak His words, and both offered to die for the sins of the people. I could go on, but we need to cover a lot more material! It is not a direct statement in the Bible, but a knowledge of the Word and a study of the lives of these two individuals will lead you to the conclusion that this prophet was Jesus, not John. And this is why he says no.

Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

Now no doubt exasperated, they are saying, well what do you have to say for yourself! Who in the world are you? His response, once again, you already know: it is a reference from Isaiah's prophecy. He is associating himself with that Scripture, telling them that he is the one who has been sent to preach repentance and to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, the one who would identify the Messiah and point Him out to the people.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
So now the authorities of the church demand to know why, if John is of no real authority, he has taken it upon himself to start baptizing people. Often we assume that rituals like baptism are only New Testament practices. But immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath of living water, or water from a natural running source) has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. This was an integral part of man's 'teshuvah' (repentance) process. We see it happen right before God appears to Israel in the wilderness at Sinai, for example, when God commands that they immerse themselves, consecrate themselves, in preparation for coming face to face with Him (Exodus 19:10-11). And upon the induction of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, they were also instructed to wash themselves (Numbers 8). In fact, any person who wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Lord in the days of the tabernacle and temples were greeted first with a lavar, which contained water, with which to wash themselves. They had to become purified, cleansed, before they could be atoned for by offering their sacrifice (Exodus 40).
The living water associated with the lavar and with baptism today are all a picture of the living Word, Christ. As believers in our Messiah, we must come willing to look into the reflection of that Word, measure ourselves against it, and remove the impurities and discrepancies we see in ourselves. We must come with hearts that recognize a need for a Savior, and must truly shed those things before we can hope to come into the presence of the Lord through a real relationship with Christ. In other words, John's purpose then for baptizing was the same as it is for us today - to give people an opportunity to show a physical, outward practice that signified the inward repentance on their hearts. He was indeed preparing them to see their Lord, their salvation.

Make no mistake, here friends. This is an important and intentional thing. John was ministering to Israel, those people who had been dispersed. He was calling them back. He was continuing the conversation that had started long ago. They knew the meaning of this baptism. It meant symbolically becoming repentant, shedding their evil deeds and the sin of the world, and readying themselves for the atonement that was about to come to make them holy, part of God’s new covenant. The message is clear: without repentance, there can be no atonement. And the Jews at that time were not ready for the Messiah. They needed to become purified, to prepare themselves for His coming, to wake up! Do we need to wake up too?

John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
He is saying, to paraphrase, “I’m baptizing in water to coincide with the message of repentance God has placed on my heart. I’m preparing the people to receive their atonement, their salvation." Again, humbly, he rejects the glory.

I learned something interesting about this sandal reference that I wanted to share. Disciples, in those days, did the bidding of the master, (prepared meals, made arrangements, served) but it was a bondservant dealt with the feet and shoes. This idiom or expression associates him as being even beneath a bondservant. It shows the extreme humility, and his understanding of his place with respect to the esteem and glory of the Lord. None of this is about me, he is saying. It’s about He who will come.

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

This is essentially the end of John’s ministry, the fulfillment of what he came to do, which was to proclaim, to warn, to bring a message of repentance, to usher in the Messiah. He has done it. From this point on, we will see John diminish in the story, replaced with a focus on Jesus.

Here is a question to ponder: What made him call Jesus the Lamb? John is the only one who calls Jesus the Lamb of God, and this is the first time this was spoken and associated with the Messiah directly. So what gives?

First of all, John was a prophet. It was part of his job to identify the Christ. And it was given to him as a prophet to have new, direct divine revelation. So that's one possibility. But also, I believe his word choice creates a connection for us between Christ and the Old Testament prophecies which contain shadows of that Messiah. For example:

• Abraham is instructed to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. At the moment right before the sacrifice takes place, God stops Abraham and provides a substitute - a ram (sheep).

• At Passover, it was a lamb that had to be sacrificed. This is the only sacrifice which God calls "My sacrifice." The blood covering on the doorposts of the homes of the Israelites created a covering and protection of death and ultimate deliverance. Paul identifies later that Christ is our Passover lamb, dying to make eternal life available to whomever will receive Him as Messiah.

• In one of the many prophecies about the Messiah, it is said "He was opposed and He was afflicted Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers So he did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7). This indicates that He would be a suffering servant.

So you can see now how those Jews who were exposed to these prophecies would now begin to connect the past with the present. This is who has been spoken of. Amazing!

This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.
Here John explains his call and mission – to reveal the Messiah. All that he did was in order to be obedient, that the Messiah might be revealed. How are we making Christ known to the world, what are we being obedient in, or can we be more obedient in? What task has God given you to do? John was to baptize, to proclaim, to serve as a witness. Guess what, Beloved? Yours is the same call. You are a witness, your role is to see Him (through exposure to the Word) and to testify to His people - your kids, coworkers, friends, etc. How are you doing?

John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Here John explains how he came to this conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah. Friends, we have been given all the tools we need to recognize Christ– the old testament scriptures and prophecies contain everything about how He would behave and love and come and what He would do. The New Testament describes the encounters of others who lived life alongside Him. But would be know Him if we saw Him? Would we invite Him over? Would He 'fit in' to our culture or our friend circles? I often wonder if we have been attentive to the direction that God has given us to know and recognize our Savior when He comes. Or if have we determined based on tradition and our own agendas how He will be, since that better accommodates us? Be so careful, friends, when drawing conclusions that are not in Scripture about what Christ is like. That is exactly why our Jewish friends didn't know Him when He came the first time.

Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means teacher), where are You staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

Notice, John proclaims Jesus with every opportunity. When he sees Him, he says it. Do we do that daily in our walk? Also take note that John was not possessive – he knew he was not the source or the draw in the grand scheme. It was a joy to pass his own followers into Christ’s possession, and it was his job. We are tempted every day to take credit for things that have been bestowed upon us by God. Let's be like John, constantly diverting and reflecting back on the Source of light and Giver of all good things.

Another very important aspect of this dialogue is that Christ demands change of direction and loyalty before He reveals things to us. See how He draws the two away, sparks their curiosity? It works this way in the study of the Word. We begin with a question, which leads to a hunger that requires that we pursue it actively in order to receive the answer. We must seek after Christ with the intent to OBEY what he reveals if we are to truly receive the revelation. He knows our hearts and our intents. That's when the journey begins, when we say yes. He is inviting us to reside where He resides, to be a part of it, not just to know about it but to experience it for ourselves. But we must make some direction changes in our lives before that's possible. Who or what are you following after today?


Am I a Witness?

The final parts of the chapter show the beautiful effect of a willing witness. There is exponential growth in the kingdom of God because of the obedience of John to see and to speak. If we want to be a real witness for Christ, we must remember what a witness does. We have to SEE our Messiah for who He really is by looking back into the Scriptures; we have to spend time investigating the Word, so that we can become acquainted and familiar, a credible witness. We must look back at His intervention in our own lives, developing our testimony. And from there, we must be willing to testify. We must proclaim and announce Him with every opportunity. When people see His light within us, we must point to Him as its source. We must be willing to give Him the glory and reserve no attention for ourselves. The effects are far reaching and life changing. Are we bringing Him fame and glory through the work and word in our lives? I pray, Beloved, that we are.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Our Horn of Salvation: Why Yom Teruah IS For Christ Followers


Michael and I have a running joke in the car about the horn. I hate confrontation, so I never use it. Michael, having lived in New York City for a number of years, happens to be best friends with the horn. “People need to know when they are doing something wrong,” he often exclaims when I give him my look of disapproval. I, on the other hand, opt for grace...unless there is imminent danger. It’s not out of impatience that I use the horn, it’s a warning that something is about to happen, attention needs to be paid and behavior probably needs to change before something disastrous happens.
And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have an holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work: it is a day of blowing the trumpets unto you.
Numbers 29:1
You may have noticed on your calendars that this week marked Rosh Hashanah. While this is a well-known Jewish holiday marking the "head of the year," the Bible originally called this day Yom Teruah, which means literally, "a day for blowing trumpets." This Feast of Trumpets, in a sense, is God's ultimate car horn. 

The Annual Feasts/Moedim

The picture above depicts the seven annual feast days prescribed by God. Note: they are not traditions created by the Jews. As we have discussed in prior posts this year, the feast days are a prophetic picture of the redemptive work of the Lord throughout time. The spring festivals were fulfilled during the first appearance of Christ, our Messiah, and give us annual reminders that Christ died to atone for us (Passover), that He lived and died completely without sin (Unleavened Bread) and He rose on the third day, a sign of a great harvest of souls and of life eternal (First Fruits). The fourth feast reminds us of the giving of the Law, the fulfillment of God's promise to write His law on our hearts through the giving of the Holy Spirit (Shavuot/Pentecost). The fall festivals, however, have yet to be fulfilled and allow us to anticipate Christ's return (Yom Teruah/Day of Trumpets), the great day of judgment (Yom Kippur/The Day of Atonement) and the celebration of the ingathering and millennial reign when God will reside among His people once again (Sukkot/Tabernacles).
So if you're wondering why on earth it is necessary to know or observe these things, just think about it this way: we rehearse these things every year to remind ourselves and celebrate what Christ has done and to remind ourselves to continue to run the race with endurance, to anticipate the day the Lord will return to restore His people and His world. A great friend and Bible teacher of mine likens it to a wedding rehearsal. She always says, "We practice these things just like we practice for a wedding, so we know what to expect and where to stand when the big day comes." I have always loved that analogy.

Calling the Troops

The picture above shows a man blowing what is called a shofar, an ancient instrument made of a ram's horn.

If you want to hear what it sounds like, listen to this beautiful recording.

Did you hear its loud, rich and billowing sound? It is so soothing, yet it certainly is attention grabbing. Even in our culture, trumpets have been used to signal the time to awaken - just think of that timeless Bugle Call, played on military bases around the world. This is not specific to American culture. in the same way, the shofar was used by the military and had almost an entire language in the variety of blasts that were played to signal different activity - a meeting, an announcement, or a battle cry. When those men and women heard the shofar, they knew they needed to listen. It meant something important was about to happen, that they needed to pay attention.


Making the Connection

So what are we to get out of this blowing of the trumpets? If this is signaling something prophetic that is to come, what is it? Hopefully you have begun to look for relationships between stories in the Bible in your own personal study, so you might have already thought there might be some connection to the seven trumpets of the end times. And you would be right.
Let's look at a few places in the Bible where trumpets are discussed; this might help us to put the picture together, starting with the Old Testament passage of Joshua 6. Keep in mind the context here as you read: Israel has been redeemed from Egyptian slavery, has been in the wilderness for 40 years where they received the Law from God, and now, led by Joshua, they are going to cross over into their promised land in Canaan.
Read Joshua 6:1-21
Now if you're like me, you never noticed just how many times that word was in that passage before. But with it pointed out, you start to get the idea that the Lord is trying to make a point. The trumpets are the signal that comes before the massacre of the enemies of God and the entrance of God's people into their promised land. Notice that only Rahab, who had made a declaration of trust in God by lacing the red cord in her window and building an alliance with the people of God, was spared. (Also, this is just one of the many indications that gentiles were welcomed into the family of God before Christ's advent.)
This is a prophetic picture, friends! Israel's experience here serves as a shadow of things to come for the children of God at the end of time. Read John's account of those last days in Revelation 8-11 and I think you'll see what I mean. It is summarized below:
When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them...The seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them...
Revelation 8:1-2, 6


What we see here is the same thing we saw in Joshua: that the trumpets in the last days will signal judgement for the enemies of the Lord. It is no accident that there are seven trumpets in Joshua and seven trumpets in Revelation. We are supposed to make the connection that the wrath poured at the end times is much like the wrath that was poured out on Jericho. These Canaanites were not the enemies of the people of Israel; they were the enemies of God. But it's not only about the judgement. Notice that at the end of the trumpet blast, in both cases, God's people are brought to their promised land, ushered in by their leaders names"Yeshua." That's right, Joshua and Jesus actually have the same name in Hebrew, and it means salvation. Again, not a coincidence. The message here is by following Jesus that we have salvation and so have access to this promised land. In fact, the seven trumpets of Revelation mark the grand entrance of our Messiah, and the world transitioning into becoming His Kingdom, our promised land:

15Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” 16And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17saying, “We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18“And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”
19And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm.
Revelation 11

Just as the walls of Jericho fell, so will the  physical and spiritual barriers fall away from earth and God's heavenly realm on that day to come. We will see Him, in all His glory. His Kingdom, our promised land, will come.

Living with Expectancy

So Yom Teruah, the Day for Blowing Trumpets, is an annual reminder from the Lord that we, His Bride, must live in a state of expectancy for His return. We must be vigilant and take time to evaluate ourselves. Are we ready to take hold of our promised land? Are we living in such a way that we will not be ashamed when He reveals Himself? Or worse, are we living as enemies of God? This is a day to celebrate if you are in covenant with the Lord. But if you are not, or if you're not sure, or if you are not living a life that reflects that covenant, then this is your annual wake up call. The trumpet sounds as a reminder, a warning. One day it will not be an exercise - will we be ready?  

So yes, if you're wondering, we do sound our own trumpet at our house in honor of the day. Doing this was a real treat for my husband the first time we did it. We got out his beautiful horn, which he travelled around the world playing. He loves that there is a God-ordained time to make noise. We got it out as the sun came down, and he played it for us, he played for our home, and our hearts were filled with awe and peace. I just couldn’t help wondering if God was smiling down, pleased that we were acknowledging Him in our own little trumpet blowing. In my heart I thought, “God, I want you to know that we ARE choosing to live expectantly, and that we are living our lives, each day, in anticipation of your return.

Friends, if you have never done it before, take the opportunity between now and Yom Kippur (September 13th this year) to reflect on the past year and to think about how you measure up in the area of reflecting Christ. As believers in Messiah, we need not fear eternal condemnation. But we are told that we will all give an account of our deeds and our words (Matthew 12:36). Are you honoring His sacrifice through your life or have you forgotten your covenant? Now is the time to return, to 'shuvah,' as they say in Hebrew. Take the opportunity this year to reflect inwardly, to see just how far the grace of God can reach and has come to cover you. It fills me to the brim with gratitude that God’s sacrificial act reaches all the way to me, to my dark, shameful past, to my failures, to my selfish decisions. Just thinking about it makes me want to commit to purging them to commit to being as spotless as possible on the great day of His return. And I think that’s the point.


My prayer for us today:

Thank you, Lord, for your beautiful reminders. We are so forgetful, and we need these appointed times to keep us on Your path, to remind us of our salvation story and to remain aware that You're not finished yet. In this world where so much hurt and brokenness exists, where so many distractions pull us, we thank you for your Day of Blowing Trumpets, for the reminder of the restoration of your return, to focus us anew on You as our greatest priority. In the day of the blowing of your great trump, Lord, may we be prepared and alert for You. Thank you for reminders, for your abundant grace, and for a new year ahead to learn, to grow, and to become more intimate with You.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Perspective in Pain: Why God's Laws Are a Gift, Not a Burden

It was probably the most excruciating pain I've felt in my life.

At the tail end of my vacation this past month, at the precise moment when I was truly beginning to relax, it began. Who knew that one tiny part of my body, a little gland with a big infection, could escalate to the point of causing such traumatic physical and emotional stress? Swelling quickly to the size of a golf ball, overnight it went to a pesky discomfort to an inescapable prison. It kept me (and so also my poor husband) from sleep for days with its constant stabbing pain. No positioning of myself removed the pressure, and no pain medication could dull it. When I finally relented and went to the urgent care center, the sweet doctor sympathetically admitted, "I'm so sorry, until we can get you in the operating room, it's just going to hurt." And so, for five days and five nights I wrestled, waiting for my desperately longed-for remedy.

It is in moments like this, moments of constant, nagging physical and mental discomfort, when we are alone in our anguish, that we are tempted to cry out to God in despair. We find out what our faith is really made of. We hear a small, angry voice echoing over and over, begging us to invite its poison into our hearts:

"God, are you even there? Don't you care about me?? Why are you doing this to me???"

When difficulties inevitably come and, in response to our prayer for relief, the mountains don't quite move the way we expected, we can wrestle with understanding God's character, intentions, or worse - His very existence. Becoming aware of our tendency toward uncertainty and mistrust in difficulty is important. It can lead to a strengthening and healing in our hearts, if we choose the right perspective.

Beloved, we can respond to that voice in one of two ways. I'll be honest with you. This trial around, I surprised myself. There have been plenty of moments in my life - health issues, insurmountable hurdles, emotional hurt, career disappointments - when I let that poisonous doubt in, when I allowed it to drive and embitter me. But something was different this time. When that small voice whispered in my ear, telling me to blame God and to rebel, I overcame it. Want to know how? Read on!

An Ancient Perspective

In the week that followed, I remembered an ancient Mesopotamian poem I heard a pastor reference, written at about the time of Abraham in the Bible lived:

A Penitent Prayer to Every God

May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.
A gracious name may my god announce!
A gracious name may my goddess announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown god announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown goddess announce!
Pure food have I not eaten,
Clear water have I not drunk.
An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
A transgression against my goddess I have unwittingly done.
O Lord, my sins are many, great are my iniquities!
My god, my sins are many, great are my iniquities! . . .
The sin, which I have committed, I know not.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The offense, which I have committed, I know not.
The transgression I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
The goddess hath become angry with me, and hath grievously stricken me.
The known or unknown god hath straitened me.
The known or unknown goddess hath brought affliction upon me.
I sought for help, but no one taketh my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.
I lamented, but no one hearkens to me.
I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
Unto my merciful god I turn, I make supplication.
I kiss the feet of my goddess and [crawl before her] . . .
How tong, my god . . .
How long, my goddess, until thy face be turned toward me?
How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?
How long, known and unknown goddess, until thy unfriendly heart be pacified?
Mankind is perverted and has no judgment.
Of all men who are alive, who knows anything?
They do not know whether they do good or evil.
O lord, do not cast aside thy servant!
He is cast into the mire; take his hand.
The sin which I have sinned, turn to mercy!
The iniquity which I have committed, let the wind carry away.
My many transgressions tear off like a garment!
My god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
My goddess, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.
What a terribly heart-breaking poem, right? I hear such desperation in its tone. I'm sure your first thought was "Wow, this is long!" And it is. But look at why it's long: it is because the afflicted writer is addressing every possible god or goddess that could potentially be responsible for inflicting the pain. The ancient Mesopotamian world was polytheistic. For every land one entered it was believed that there were a unique set of gods and demi-gods ruling and reigning. These gods were thought to be very capricious, temperamental and unstable. There was no way to prevent offending them because there were no consistent rules. Worship of these deities was mostly centered around manipulating their behavior through their offerings, to win their favor and prevent calamity. You'll notice the offense of the writer is unnamed, and in all probability that is because he has no idea what he has done to offend in the first place. Can you imagine living a life like that? To have no idea what God is up to or what you did to provoke His anger? You would live in constant fear about every decision you made, there would be no sense of security or safety. You would cower and worry and in times of struggle, you would collapse in hopelessness and desperation.

A Perpetual Problem

As old as this poem is and as foreign as it might seem, we find that very mindset in the world today. When we don't really know the one true God, YHWH, intimately, then encountering disaster, hardship or struggle can lead to a reaction of confusion and frustration. If we aren't familiar with His personality or His expectations, we have no sense of why things happen, of God's intentions or of our responsibility for what we have experienced. We cry out to the creator, to whatever god is listening, begging for mercy and forgiveness for offenses we can't define.
Now imagine if the writer of this poem had only been able to see the Law of Moses, the spoken words from God to His people outlining His expectations. He would see a merciful God taking the time to reveal Himself to His people. He would see the kindness of being allowed to know what God expects from man. He would have seen opportunity to discover how to avoid calamity, how to please God, and he would see that He is knowable, merciful and just in all His doings. He would have learned that man does not have to fear or live in confusion. I bet that Law would have been welcomed by this writer. He would probably wonder why it is that we have been given all the keys we need to understanding God's likes and dislikes, and yet we continue to disregard and even to disdain it, to regard it as a curse. What irony that is to me.
Beloved, when we close our eyes to any of God's Word, it is to close our eyes to developing more intimacy with Him. It is to reject certain aspects of His character. I cannot ask my husband to never talk to me about what pleases him in our relationship, nor can I totally disregard the things he has revealed to me about who he is (if I truly love him). For example, knowing that my husband is allergic to cats, let's say I decide that I really want one. I like cats, but isn't it more important for me to please him than to satiate my own desires? How frustrated would he be with me if he had told me repeatedly that he didn't like cats, yet I brought one home anyway, and then acted shocked and inconvenienced by his negative reaction to my decision? What kind of marriage would that be? Yet in our divine covenant with the Lord, we continue to do just that - we ignore His revealed preferences and character, insisting that we are not 'under the law' and so have no obligation to know what He values.
What happens as a result is that when faced with that voice of doubt in those dark moments, we don't know God's character enough to stand against it. He has revealed Himself to us, yet we choose to live as that ancient Mesopotamian poet. We continue to respond with the shock and confusion of a people who do not know God when we are put to the test. We are unprepared for the darkness because we have hidden ourselves from the light of His revealed person and character - and so we doubt, we blame, and we curse God in our hour of tribulation.


A Light in the Darkness

So I told you I'd share with you what got me through those five days and five nights. And while I won't go in to great detail, I want you to know that I was able to draw on the knowledge I've gained in times of health and comfort and diligent study in order to understand that God is certainly present and He is not picking on me. There were three major points that came up as I went to the Lord's throne in search of comfort:
A Teacher Who Tests His Students
As I lay awake at night, I thought of Job. I imagined how he must have felt in his ash heap. I remembered that his entire body was covered with painful sores, that he had no family to comfort him, and his discomfort went on not for days, but months. It made me so grateful for God's provision of my husband. At the very least, I had an attentive and sympathetic caretaker. I had doctors caring for me. I had friends checking on me. When my mind wanted to ask God why He would allow me to go through this, I thought of how God used Job's distress to reveal his issue of pride, which ultimately led to personal growth and a richer blessing and relationship with God. There are character flaws and sins hidden under the surface of who we are that only adversity can bring into our zone of awareness. In my remembrance of that, I began to search my responses - was I reacting with faith or doubt? with humility or pride? Would I take this opportunity to search introspectively, or would I lash out?
For you have tried us, God, and you have proved us like silver is tried.
Psalm 66:10
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;
1 Peter 1:6-7

A Father Who Disciplines His Children
After this, I gained momentum and confidence. If God was allowing it, perhaps it was to teach me. And so I would be a diligent pupil. But I know that there are some problems that come our way that are the divinely ordered consequence of our own bad behavior. We are most certainly disciplined that we might become more holy. So was there any hidden sin that needed to be repented of in my own heart? I began to pray for God to reveal to me, to humble myself and examine my life before the Father.

But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you...
Deuteronomy 28:15
My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD or loathe His reproof, For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
Proverbs 3:12
He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Hebrews 12:10-11

A Creator Revealing the Brokenness Sin Has Caused
I also recalled the writings of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He expressed his utter frustration with life in its entirety. He confirmed for us that there is no satisfaction in this life without God, and reminds us that the consequences of sin's entrance into the world renders all things broken. We can only find hope and restoration in Him. He didn't create an imperfect world for us - He called it good. It was as a result of man's rebellion that the world became a darkened place. So in my pain I realized the great consequence of sin, and longed for the God who will one day restore all things.

In the end, my knowledge of God through the scripture I've studied finally brought me to a place of utter humility in knowing my place in the presence of the Master, as well as a complete gratitude that He is my father, my teacher and my hope in this broken world. After all that reminding, there was no chance that I was going to let that little voice steal that light from me. I opened my arms to Abba and said, "I'm here, your student, your clay, your redeemed, sin-filled child. I submit to you, I will not reject you or blame you for this. I know that in YOU is my only hope!" I claimed God's victory over my mind, my life and my problem. And when I came to the other side of that surgery I realized, I had learned a great deal. Most importantly, He has given us His word that we might be victorious, if we will only learn to wield it as a sword and not place it on temporarily like a bandaid.

It's Not About Me

This is not a story about my personal ability and strength of will. I am not sharing it so that you applaud me. This is about the burden God has laid on my heart to share with you the perspective that helped me to hold to my trust in the Lord. Wouldn't you like that kind of strength?

My prayer for you today is that you never buy in to the lie that God's words are obsolete, unimportant or invalid. Know that none of the scripture is irrelevant to your life, Beloved. These Words reveal God to us. The enemy wants to rob you of your victory in your own personal struggles by keeping you from investing in the book that brings intimacy with our Creator. I pray that we learn to reject the lie that God's words and laws are a burden and a curse, and instead to have the eyes to see that they are precious gift, ears to hear the Father revealing His heart to us, and a heart to obey and live victorious lives for our King.



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