Desperation in a polytheistic culture…

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Psalm 106: 32 They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account; 33 for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke words that were rash. 34 They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, 35 but they mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. 36 They served their idols, which became a snare to them. 37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; 38 they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. 39 Thus they became unclean by their acts, and prostituted themselves in their doings. 

Here the Lord chastises Israel for unfaithfulness while in the wilderness with Moses. I’m particularly struck by two things in this passage:

First, in a world in which there were assumed to be many gods not just one (a polytheistic culture), I expect switching allegiance from one god to another was not as rare as it is today – in our mostly monotheistic culture (there are some exceptions). If one god didn’t deliver, you could always try another. It was a more practical approach to spirituality based on outcomes. Did the god of the day protect? Provide? Prosper its followers? When the Hebrews struggled for 40 years in the wilderness it would likely have been considered normal to adopt another god. Hence Israel’s shifting allegiance.

The second thing that gets my attention this morning is v.37-38. We are told the Hebrews sacrificed their own children to the pagan gods of Canaan in a desperate attempt at survival. Humans are hard-wired to protect our children above just about anything else. We might choose to sacrifice ourselves for a just cause, but our children? That’s an entirely different discussion. For the people of Israel to have been willing to sacrifice their own children to a pagan god, their level of desperation must have been extremely severe.

So while I do not condone the unfaithfulness of Israel in the wilderness I think I can empathize. I’m not sure I would have done much better under their extreme circumstances. Lord, save us from the time of trial and deliver us from every evil. Amen.

Giving up on God…

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Jeremiah 44:15 Then all the men who were aware that their wives had been making offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: 16 “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. 17 Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. 18 But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.”

God, through the prophet Jeremiah, had warned the people of Israel against fleeing to Egypt when the Babylonians invaded Judah. They fled anyway. It did not go well. What’s interesting about this passage is the open defiance from the people of God against the word from Jeremiah.

This passage reflects a very practical faith on the part of Israel. They had embraced worship of the “queen of heaven” because it seemed to work (v.17). When they stopped worship of the queen of heaven things went poorly – though they may have expected God to bless them. That’s not how it worked out. Later in Jeremiah 44 we are told God was punishing Israel for their idolatry. Turning back to God didn’t produce the results Israel was looking for (provision and protection) so – back to queen of heaven.

It might seem absurd to us to read this story, but I understand the impulse. There are times when I get tired of waiting for God to act. To respond. To speak. So I turn elsewhere. It doesn’t generally go well. I want to be faithful to God, but I want results – NOW. I’m wondering how this behavior represents idolatry on my part – placing my faith in things other than the Lord.

Heavenly Father forgive me when I give up on you and turn elsewhere. Give me grace to depend on you first and only. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Waiting on a word from the Lord…

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Jeremiah 42: (The Jews remaining in Judah) in their turn said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the Lord your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.” At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.

V.7 got my attention today. The people asked Jeremiah to seek the Lord on their behalf and, after 10 days, the word of God came. This morning I wonder what Jeremiah was doing for 10 days. Did he go on a fast and sit in the temple waiting? Did he just go about his business as usual? Were there special prayers he offered? We aren’t told what those 10 days looked like, but I’m curious. Nor are we told how Jeremiah received the word from God. Was it in a dream? Did he hear a voice? Did another person speak this to him?

I am definitely curious, but I also wonder if it really mattered HOW Jeremiah sought the Lord. Perhaps the key was simply Jeremiah’s willingness to humble himself before the Lord and wait – for as long as it took to get a response. 10 days sounds like a long time, but it’s really not.

Lord in these uncertain times we all need a word from you. We may not be “prophets” as was Jeremiah, but you still speak to your people. Give us grace to humble ourselves before you. For as long as necessary. Amen.

What exactly is the church?

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Philemon 1: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

What gets my attention this morning is v.2 “and to the church in your house”. Notice the house itself isn’t the church, but the church gathers in Philemon’s house. The church is the gathered body of believers, not a building. Covid time has forced us to remember this important point. In fact, our new reality is that the majority of people who currently participate in our church (worship, bible study, life group, youth activities, and more) do so online rather than in-person.

This new reality stretches our notions of what it means to be “the church”. This is both challenging and exciting! Lord Jesus teach us to align our thinking with our new reality. Show us what it means – now – to be your church. We ask this in your holy name. Amen.

Remember me, O Lord…

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Psalm 106: 3 Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times. 4 Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you deliver them; 5 that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation, that I may glory in your heritage. 

Verse three leads the reader to believe the psalmist is tooting his own horn – giving the assumption that he is among those “who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times”. I sort of roll my eyes when I read such things, knowing how God’s people failed to do this very thing over and over again. But then there’s a turn in v.4-5. Rather than highlight his deeds, the writer mentions the favor God shows to Israel, the prosperity of God’s chosen, “that I may glory in your heritage”.

The psalmist depends on is his identity as a child of a merciful God, not on his track record of righteous deeds.

Lord this passage is good news for me today. The truth is that I fall short of your justice and righteousness every single day. Were my future hanging on my deeds I would surely be condemned. The words of the psalmist remind me where my hope comes from. I hope in you, O God. I surrender myself to your mercies and trust in your abundance love to forgive my sin for Jesus’ sake. It is in his name I pray. Amen.

The times they are a changin’…

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Titus 1:Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited. 

Here the apostle Paul is giving direction related to deportment of women in the Christian community. Reading this passage from a 21st century Western perspective, the words paint the picture of a very traditional role for women – which is to be expected given this writing is 2,000 years old. I hesitate to call this description “dated” because this traditional interpretation of wife/mother is still very much present in our day and works well for some families. That said, the possible roles for women today are much broader than in Paul’s day and are thus not reflected above.

What strikes me this morning is how this description of a woman’s role in the family from 2,000 years ago sounds very much like mid-20th century America. In other words, the movement of cultural expectations for women from the 1st century A.D. to 1950 America is in some ways far less than the shift from 1950 to now. I think perhaps this is one reason why there is so much cultural/political conflict in our day. Some people cheer the rapid changes in culture while others want to slow it down. I don’t know that anyone is right or wrong, but the tension that rapid cultural change produces is very real.

Gracious God give us grace to be persons of peace and understanding in an anxious time. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Love not judgment…

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Psalm 104:35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord! 

It strikes me that the writer here doesn’t ask for “sinners” to repent of their sin and be restored to God. He just wants them gone, “let the wicked be no more”. I see and hear this sort of thing a lot these days, sometimes even from my own mouth. We have grown increasingly intolerant of those who think differently than we do – our version of “sinners”.

People are generally pretty good at confessing other peoples’ sins – and ignoring our own. Jesus understood how toxic this frame of mind can be so he addressed it in the gospels:

Matthew 7:“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Lord we love being “right” and pointing out where others are “wrong” – as if we were without sin, which we most certainly are not. Give us grace to lead with love rather than judgement. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

But the word of God is not chained…

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2 Timothy 2:Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 

The apostle Paul is instructing his young protege Timothy who emerged as a key leader of the early church. Paul is an apostle, which is the English translation of the Greek word “ἀπόστολος” (apostolos) which means “sent one”. He’s not just sent, but he’s sent with a purpose, to proclaim the message of hope in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

It’s the last sentence above which gets my attention this morning, “But the word of God is not chained”. Paul was often jailed, imprisoned, held in chains. But the message he carried could not be chained. In fact, rather than stopping his ministry, Paul’s imprisonment often drew more attention to Paul – and therefore to the gospel he proclaimed.

Chains actually made Paul more effective, not less.

When we understand the “word of God” as more than the written word, lots of things become possible. Remember it was the “word” which God spoke in the beginning to create the heavens and earth. That same word came to life in a new way via Jesus Christ, who was the “word made flesh” (John 1:14). The miracles he performed were evidence of God’s creative/generative word embodied in Jesus. When we come together for worship we hear this word spoken, read, sung. The word of God is let loose among God’s people, bringing us strength, hope, peace, and more. God does this work via the word, not us. Our job is simply to let the word of God loose in our reading, speaking, singing, and so on. God does the rest.

Paul understood this, which is why he gave thanks to God as he was bound in chains and called upon to defend himself to the authorities. Each time he did so the word of God was loosed again, penetrating the hearts and minds of those whom God had prepared to hear the message of the gospel. And though Paul was eventually put to death in the city of Rome, the word of God let loose through him lived on. In Paul’s day there were a relative handful of Christians. Today it’s estimated there are 2.8 billion Christians in the world.

“But the word of God is not chained.”

Amen.

For surely I know the plans I have for you…

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Jeremiah 29: For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart…

V.11 is a particularly well-known verse with universal application. God creates with purpose in everything he creates, including people. God indeed formed you and me to serve him and to do his will on earth. What I find interesting this morning is the context in which v.11 is given.

The people of Israel finally paid the price for their unfaithfulness to God, being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile as slaves. In this section of Jeremiah we learn that many prophets of Israel had been saying their captivity would be over quickly, but Jeremiah said otherwise as we read in v.10, “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you…”. In other words, they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon – no matter what the other so-called prophets were saying. But then there is the promise of v.11 that captivity wouldn’t last forever, that God had not forgotten them, that Israel would indeed have a future.

I don’t know what your situation is as you read this blog post today. Maybe things are going well and maybe they’re not. We are all living in a time of uncertainty as the Covid pandemic drags on. Whatever your situation know that v.11 is true for you and me today. God indeed has a plan for us, and in that knowledge there is hope for us. No matter what our circumstances. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Sharing faith with the next generation…

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2 Timothy 1:I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.  

It’s interesting to me how often the faith-bearer in a family system is a woman. This is not universal, of course, but it happens a lot. Paul writes about the faith-bearers in Timothy’s family, his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. I can imagine how proud they are of Timothy, who has grown to become an important leader in the early church.

Whether man or woman, one of the responsibilities and privileges of a Christian is to pass along the faith to younger generations. This morning I’m thinking of the young people I’ve known over the years with whom I’ve been blessed to share faith in Jesus. There are my own three children, certainly, but others as well. Of course, as a pastor you would expect this, but you don’t have to be a pastor to share your Christian faith.

Question: Can you name someone in your relational orbit, younger or older, with whom you might share your faith in Jesus?

Lord, like Louis and Eunice, give us grace to give our faith away. Amen.