Day 283: Matthew 13-14; Parables and Miracles

Today we come to a section of Matthew that covers many of the well known parables of Jesus and some of the better known miracles as well.  In sermons we tend to hear bits and pieces of today’s reading so I thought it was very interesting to read them together as a united whole.  One thing that struck me right off the bat was Jesus’ explanation of the parable and the reasoning for it.  Immediately Jesus quotes the passage from Isaiah 6, when God commissions and sends Isaiah out to the people of Israel.

You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.

This is an interesting and hard teaching that Jesus quotes, and it is no less difficult in His day.  Jesus has been sent, bringing with Him the Kingdom of Heaven which we see breaking into this fallen world in practically every place Jesus goes.  So why is it that there are some people that just don’t seem to get it?  Why, when all these amazing things are happening, do the “religious leaders” question and criticize Jesus’ actions rather than seeing them as a sign from God as Scripture said?  It might have something to do with what God said to Isaiah and what Jesus quotes here.

These leaders, the “righteous” people have heard the message of Jesus, but they do not understand it.  They have seen with their eyes the works of Jesus by they do not perceive it.  Why is this?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that their hearts have “grown dull” trying to follow all the laws that they have set up for themselves.  They have become so consumed with their own righteousness that they have actually closed their eyes and ears to the reality of the Scriptures in front of them.  Sadly this was the story of Israel at the time of Isaiah and it is the story of many during the time of Jesus as well.

I have to admit that I am reflecting on this passage today in the midst of conversations about Classis Examinations and some of the dysfunction that comes along with them.  Often times, at least in some exams, candidates are grilled on certain topics because some pastors have decided to use that time to get on their soapbox about particular issues.  While the names and the issues are irrelevant, the point I am reflecting on is whether the Church, or perhaps parts of it have become a lot like these religious leaders.  We have the Gospel laid out before us and we have seen the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those that God has drawn to Himself, and yet we spend more time questioning people’s faith, making sure that they believe the same way that we do, than speaking the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I wonder if we have become so engrossed in our culture, in the “hot-button issues” of the day, that we are failing to God’s work in the world right now.  Are we at risk of our hearts becoming dull?  It’s time for us to open our eyes to the work of God and open our ears to the message of the Gospel once again!



Day 282: Matthew 10-12; Go and Tell What You Hear and See

While there are many different themes that present themselves in today’s reading, the one that sticks out most to me is that of those being sent out by Jesus.  As we pick up the narrative of Jesus’ ministry today we see Jesus preparing the disciples and then sending them out to the towns and villages of Israel, to the “lost sheep” spreading the news of the Kingdom of heaven.  He gives them specific instructions about how to prepare and what to expect, though we hear very little about the message that they are to give apart from the fact that “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”    Apart from that they are to heal the sick, raise the dead, and even cast out demons.  Generally speaking they are called to be and do what the people of Israel were called to be and do.  What we are seeing here is the beginnings of the “Kingdom of Heaven” or “the day of the Lord” as the prophets put it.  We don’t get a report back here, but in the book of Luke chapter 10 we hear the return of the 72 that Jesus sends out after He sends out the Twelve Disciples and the reports are astonishing.  All that they were sent to do was done and in each instance we see an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Later in today’s reading we see the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask questions of Him.  I love Jesus’ response here: “God and tell John what you hear and see.”  It’s as if Jesus is asking them if what they have experienced meant nothing… they needed confirmation still even in the midst of all these miracles.  The advance of the Kingdom of God on this world is well underway, yet still there are doubts.

I wonder if we too think in these manners.  I wonder if we have any experience that can share with others.  As many of the Christians I know discuss how to best do evangelism and reach out to “the lost” in their different churches, it seems as though we always come back to the question of “how inviting are we as a church” as if the call of God is to be the warmest, most comfortable church in town so that people will come to us.  Yet that’s not what we see as an example here.  Jesus hasn’t set Himself in a local synagogue to preach and teach and make it warm and welcoming, He is out in the neighborhoods and towns, and sending people out into other neighborhoods and towns to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven.  What is that proclamation?  It is the very thing that He sent His disciples to do: heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and preach the good news to the poor!  This is what Jesus is doing and this is what He sends His disciples to do.  They are a “sent community.”  This is a theme that will come back time and again in the Gospels and in the whole of the New Testament and it is not a new one either.  The people of Israel were not given the land of Canaan so they could build walls and keep the people of the world out, they were placed there because they were GUARANTEED to have interactions with the nations around them.  Have you received Jesus into your life?  Have you experienced the grace of God and the redemption that He offers?  Go and tell the world what you experience in the love of God!



Day 281: Matthew 8-9; Jesus Heals Many

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Honestly, I think that we could just stop with that for today, reading through all of the different healing that Jesus did throughout the beginning of his ministry, we just remember that this is indeed the culmination of the many promises of what was to come when the Messiah came.  Think back to all the different prophets that we have so recently read, all the times that they would say “In that day…” or talk about “the day of the Lord…”  The incarnation of Jesus, God putting on human flesh, it the very fulfillment of those words.

What we are seeing in Jesus’ ministry is an intentionally counter-cultural movement in which Jesus challenges all the norms that had been set up in the Jewish faith community, turns them on their head, and then demonstrates the true meaning of what is written about them in the Law.  Like we talked about yesterday, the purpose of the Law was not strictly moral living for its own sake and the message of the Law as not exclusion for the sake of “purity.”  Jesus challenges this directly in all that he does.  We see the lame, the sick, the blind, and the demon possessed all as outcasts in this society.  The lame and the blind are beggars, the sick are shunned for their impurity, but Jesus does what now Jewish person would even dream of… He touches them… and they are healed.  Here we see revealed to us the true mission of God’s people: healing and reconciliation.  Yes they were to be holy as God is holy, but not at the cost of loving their neighbor.  Not at the cost of caring for the poor.  They were given cleansing rituals to clean themselves when they went before God not so they could never use them because they didn’t associate with “unclean” persons.

I think Jesus makes this abundantly clear in chapter 9 when He is questioned as to why it is that He is eating with the “sinners and tax collectors.”

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

This really is contrary to everything that the religious leaders were teaching at the time.  They had set up the Law and the sacrificial system as an end to itself; moral living for the sake of moral living.  But that was never what the sacrificial system or the Law was about.  Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a place that people could come and encounter the love of God displayed through His people.  Yet that calling was twisted into something that was never meant to be, and Jesus challenges that in front of the very people that were being excluded.

I wonder if Jesus were to talk into our churches today if he would say the same thing.  Are we all about our programming?  Our preference of worship?  Our style of sermon?  The friend group we hang out with?  Do we welcome the “sinners and tax collectors” into our midst?  Or are we so focused on trying to do our own thing that we have lost sight of the true calling of the Body of Christ?  I wonder this about my own church as well… it is definitely food for thought this morning.



Day 280: Matthew 5-7; The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew is home to what many would consider the most popular Gospel passages of the four.  Apart from chapters 1 and possible 3 of John and the second chapter of Luke, the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the mount is likely one of the most used passages of the Gospels.  The actual passages though, Matthew 5 – 7 are more likely a conglomeration of a majority of the teachings of Jesus brought together by Matthew.  Whether or not Jesus actually sat down and taught all of this in one sitting is indeed debatable, however that debate largely misses the point of what Jesus is teaching here.  As we look through this passage and look into the context in which He delivers this, or these messages, we see that Jesus is openly challenging much of the religious teaching of the day and showing the people the true intent of the Law and the many commandments that were given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Many people have said that Jesus came to turn the Law on its head, to show the true way of God.  However, even Jesus Himself challenges that statement in chapter 5.  He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

So, if Jesus isn’t challenging the Law, what is he challenging?  Well, this is where context comes in.  Over the course of the history of Israel, and especially after the time of the exile, the Jewish religious leaders developed a system of laws to help protect the Law, like putting a fence around your fence so that you can be doubly sure that no one gets into a forbidden yard.  In doing this, the Jewish religious leaders wanted to make extra sure that the people of God did not transgress the Law once again thus causing the Lord to pass Judgment upon them.  However, what this really did was place the emphasis on an impossible standard of moral living for its own sake rather than living a life of gratitude, honor, praise, and worship to God.  It is into this context and understanding of the Law that Jesus speaks, rehashing what God truly meant when the Law was given.

Does this remind you of anything?  For me is screams “SHEMA!!!”  Why do I say this?  Well… because as Jesus will point out in Matthew 22, this really is the essence of the Law and if we read it with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Leveticus 19:18 in mind, the teachings of Jesus here make sense.  What we are called to is not a set of laws and regulations for moral living, but to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus even mentions this in chapter 5:43-48 as well.  Out of these things flow naturally all that which Christ teaches about here and God calls us to in our everyday living.  The challenge is also given to us in the Church today.  For a very long time we have equated Christianity with knowing rightly and living rightly.  While these two are indeed important for the life of believers, they are not an end in themselves, but part of the natural overflow of the life of faith lived out in loving God and loving neighbor.  Indeed all of the law and prophets hang on those two commands.



Day 279: Matthew 1-4; Intro to the New Testament, The Gospels, and Matthew

The New Testament Photo Credit: www.thinktheology.org

The New Testament
Photo Credit: www.thinktheology.org

And so we come to it at last, the New Testament, the fulfillment of God’s promises to send a Messiah, the fulfillment/expansion of the covenant that God made with His people.  In the New Testament, the term “God’s People” also takes on a new meaning as the promise of reconciliation and redemption extends outward from the people of Israel to encompass the whole world!  In addition to this, we see the culmination of God’s work throughout the whole of the Old Testament to bring about the coming of Jesus in the New Testament and the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies and covenantal promises that had been spoken of for over 1000 years, all coming to fruition in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The Gospels are the first books of the Old Testament, four books that recount the life and work of Jesus Christ from His birth all the way to His ascension.  Each book is written by a different person, two Apostles, Mark who was an associate of Paul, and Luke (also the author of Acts) who was a doctor and one of the first gentile Christians.  Each of the Gospels is written to a different audience with a different purpose.  This will become apparent as we read through each of these books, however here is some basic information about each of the four Gospels, taken from both the NIV Life Application Study Bible (Tyndale House Publishing, 1991) and Reading the New Testament Today by Robert E. VanVoorst (Wadsworth, 2005).

Wordle of the Gospels Photo Credit: www.petergalenmassey.com

Wordle of the Gospels
Photo Credit: www.petergalenmassey.com

Matthew: Written specifically to the Jews in an effort to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah that the prophets foretold and was the eternal King in the line of David.

Mark: Written to Christians in Rome to encourage the Christians who were undergoing persecutions by relating the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark is said to be the first of the Gospels written.

Luke: Written to “Theophilus” which mean one who loves God, but also to Gentiles and people everywhere in an effort to present an accurate account of the life of Christ and also to present Christ as the perfect human and Savior.  Luke also makes an effort here and in Acts to challenge believers to be more devoted to the faith, especially its growth and defense.

John: Written to Christians and searching Non-Christians to prove that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the Word of God incarnate, and also to deepen faith in Jesus as Son of God and the giver of life, and to encourage readers to confess this faith  openly in the face of threats from synagogue authorities.

The Gospel of Matthew Photo Credit: www.spreadjesus.org

The Gospel of Matthew
Photo Credit: www.spreadjesus.org

As I said, the book of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience, which is apparent right from the beginning of the book.  If you remember some of the culture we learned about the Hebrews, which are now referred to as “the Jews,” the orientation of their lives was towards God, which for them meant looking backward to creation and backing into the future.  This is a bit different than contemporary orientation of looking toward the future.  So naturally we being with a genealogy, a way of linking Jesus Christ with the ancestors of Israel, all the way back to Abraham and the original calling of the people of God by God Himself.  In effect, Matthew is proving right off the bat the Jesus is a decedent of Abraham and from the house and line of King David, two prerequisites for the coming Messiah which, as was said earlier, was one of the purposes of Matthew: to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the predicted King that was to come, in the line of David, to set up God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Saint Matthew Icon Photo Credit: www.internetmonk.com

Saint Matthew Icon
Photo Credit: www.internetmonk.com

Matthew does a great deal of linking the Old Testament Scriptures to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  There are multiple ways in which he does this.  The genealogy which we just talked about is just one way.  Matthew’s account of the angel visiting Joseph also signifies a divine happening, a message directly from God.  Matthew points to this as well, something he does throughout his book.  He writes, “All this took place to fulfill…” In this case, the happening of Mary’s conception took place to fulfill with Isaiah wrote about in Isaiah 7, “The virgin will be with child…”  Interestingly enough, the course of Jesus’ life in the book of Matthew actually mirrors that of the course of Israel’s life as well going to Egypt to escape death while he was very young, a wilderness experience which lasted for 40 days (a mirror of Israel’s wilderness wanderings), and a Baptism before he began His ministry (which is reminiscent of Israel crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan before entering the promised land).  This too, we see was “to fulfill all righteousness” as Jesus says.

Today we also see a taste of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as well.  The very route the Jesus took, Matthew says, was to fulfill what is written in Isaiah 9 about those being in darkness who have seen a great light.  From there he begins calling disciples, preaching and healing the sick.  For one reason of another, the work of Jesus as it has been preached in the Church is often boiled down to His work on the cross to die for our sins.  While this is a very major part of the work of Jesus, we also need to remember that His work was also with the sick, the poor, the homeless, and all those who were downtrodden.  As we will see in the coming chapters of books, Jesus work in the world is the very embodiment of what Israel was suppose to be, an assault on the powers of darkness in the world.   In many ways, Jesus too is an example of the outpouring of the wrath of God against sin, disease, and all forms of injustice.  He has come to bring healing, forgiveness, and restoration… the true nature of the Kingdom of heaven.



Day 278: Malachi 1-4; The Broken Covenant

Well friends, we have come to it at last.  The end of the Old Testament.  I have to say, I’m shocked that it has taken this long.  We emphasize the New Testament so much in contemporary Christianity that I guess I thought it was larger.  But in all honesty, its taken 3/4 of a year to get through the Old Testament, leaving less than 1/4 of the year to get from Matthew to Revelation.  Today though, we come to the final writing but canonically and chronologically in the Old Testament.  Malachi is the punctuation of the Old Testament, showing the people of Israel that have returned to Jerusalem and Judah that they cannot continue to break the covenant even after returning from exile.  Whether Malachi was actually one of the returned exiles or a post-exilic child is not known, but what is known is that he spoke to the people around the time that Nehemiah was dealing with the controversy of intermarriage with other nations that was going on in Judah, many years after the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.

If you remember back to that section of Nehemiah, when he arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon, he faced a great deal of challenges from both outside and in.  People resisted as he and the returned exiles sought to rebuild the wall.  Also, he was approached many times with issues concerning their faith and practices, which included the intermarriage of Hebrews with foreign women.  It is into this climate that Malachi speaks.  To be honest though, I think that at least 90% of what he had to say is completely applicable to us today as well.

Malachi (ortodox icon)

Malachi (ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Malachi was facing down an already unfaithful people.  They had just endured 70 years of exile as punishment for their sins and yet upon returning to their homeland, the started right back up with their sinful actions.  The religious leaders had once again become corrupt, neglecting worship by offering sacrifices of blemished animals.  This was a direct contradiction to the Law.  The people had also become corrupt in their worship, saying they will offer their best and then bringing their worst.  Malachi points out that they brought blind and debilitated animals for sacrifice, giving to the Lord that which they didn’t want anymore.  Sound familiar?  In my dealings with Churches, I’ve found that most abide by the 80/20 rule… 80% of the giving from 20% of the people.  We don’t give out of joy or even out of gratitude, but because our pulpit has shamed us into it for another year.  This reveals not only a lack of faith and trust, but a lack of understanding the true nature of giving to which we are called.  We follow the “give when you want to, or when you can” pattern, something Jesus will address in a rather harsh manner for us in the coming days.

The message of Malachi then turns to the people.  Apart from the sacrifices that they were offering inappropriately, an act that was unfaithful to God, they were also being unfaithful to their wives.  While the intermarriage controversy was one that Nehemiah had to deal with, it seems as though the people were dealing with the problem of marriage on the whole.  Men were getting divorced whenever they wanted to, not on account of marital unfaithfulness but by reason of marital boredom.  Sound familiar?  Divorce rates both in and out of the church are hovering around 50%.  Pastors and priests are caught day after day in sexual sin and marital infidelity.  Marriage itself is a pillar of society that has fallen by the wayside.  Why?  Are people being more unfaithful?  Maybe in some cases… But for the most part people are just being more selfish.  Rather than working on a relationship, they simply throw it away and get a new one.  Much like appliances in our culture, it is just easier (and often cheaper) to get a new one rather than work to fix the old.  And what of our faith?  It seems as though, with the rise of “spirituality” and the idea that there is no absolute truth, that faith too is simply a throwaway item.  Bored with your church?  Find another one.  Bored with God?  Try Hinduism for a while.  Bored with the truth that is right for you?  Try something different on for size.  We are shaped by the things that are around us, the culture in which we live.  Rather than being strong in our faith and then addressing culture, we have settled for being strong in our culture and then addressing faith.  And then we wonder where God has gone and why He is seemingly silent in our day to day lives.

But thank goodness for the covenant.  Thank God that He does not change.  Even when we turn away and do not keep the way of the Lord He still invites us back.  “Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.  Malachi speaks to this in chapter 4:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.  Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Bible Timeline Photo Credit: www.relevancy22.blogspot.com

Bible Timeline
Photo Credit: www.relevancy22.blogspot.com

These are the last writings of the Old Testament.  From here we enter the “inter-testamental period,” a time of over 400 years when God was seemingly silent.  Much happened during this time, some of which is included in the Apocrypha, the deutero-canonical books of the Bible that the Nicene Father’s considered somewhat helpful, but not inspired in the way that the Canonical Books of the Bible are.  Some day we may work through them, but in the mean time we wait… fortunately not for 400 years but roughly 24 hours until we enter Matthew and the Word of God becomes flesh!



Day 277: Zechariah 11-14; The Lord Comes and Reigns

The final chapters of Zechariah the coming of the Messiah and the time when He will set up his reign on earth.  There are a lot of varying images that come from this reading.  Zechariah is attempting to describe something here that is completely incomprehensible by human standards.  While the first coming of Jesus did indeed usher in a new age and a new time when the relationship between God and humanity is restored, the restoration of all creation has only begun to take place.  We cannot possibly comprehend what it will be like when Christ comes again in His glory and sets up His reign here on heart, so Zechariah, seeing these images from God, puts them into words used by common people.

We have seen some of this reality described for us in Isaiah 2 and in the book of Micah as well,  a vision of what the world will be like when the final consummation happens.  God will be raised up above all other powers and gods.  He will reign on high from His city, which is referred to here at Jerusalem, and all of the nations will either come to Him or be cast out forever.  Zechariah describes it quite uniquely in chapter 14,

On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness.  It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light. 
On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.

Some of this makes no sense to us.  Why does it matter where the water flows and when?  How can their be light in the evening?  The water if a vision of provision and plenty to the people of Israel.  Their planting and agriculture were dependent heavily on the rivers and the rains.  This river flows both to the East and to the West, which is seemingly impossible, and covers the whole land with the water needed for life.  The description of no need for lights and the days/nights being the same shows up in multiple places, many of which describe the presence of God and His glory being the only “light” we will need.

Finally, Zechariah talks about the words “Holy to the Lord” being inscribed on seemingly normal, everyday things.  This is actually a really cool image of what the world will be like when all things are made right.  When Christ comes again, everyday objects will become holy, an amplification of its former self.  What we are seeing here is a foreshadowing of the “already/not yet” reality in which we live.  Through Christ’s work on the cross, we find redemption and reconciliation, a foretaste of the glory that is to come.  We put on this cloak of righteousness after shedding our old self.  In the same way, all of creation will be glorified, transformed into its true self.  In eternity, all things will be holy.  As Zechariah says, “cooking posts in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the alter.  Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord.”  All things will be made right, reconciled, and transformed to the glory of of God!



Day 276: Zechariah 7-10; Who Are You Doing it For?

In chapter seven of Zechariah, God poses an rather pointed question to the people in response to their inquiry about fasting at certain times throughout the year.  When I read it, the words almost stung in my heart, their sharp truthfulness cutting to the very core of my being.  The Lord asked,

“When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?  And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?”

Ouch…

Not sure if I am having a guilty conscience issue, or if my worship leader training is just rushing back into my head, but it seriously made me stop and think about what it is that I do as a worship leader on Sunday morning… and what we do as we worship God corporately and individually.  Is it really for God that we come to worship?  Or are we more concerned with out we look to our neighbors and friends?

Is it really God we are singing to?  Or are we more concerned with the style of music?

Are we really listening for God’s voice?  Or do we get caught up looking around at other people or critiquing the sermon?

These are difficult questions for us because their penetrate deeper than the skin.  They literally get at the heart of the issue… and that is our hearts.  This is, once again, what the prophets have been saying all along.  Worship of God isn’t so much about what we do but the heart in which we do it.  Honoring God with our lives is not about what we do but the heart in which we do it.  God has no room for fake and/or false piety.

Yet even after posing these tough questions, God goes on to more prophecies about the coming glory of Jerusalem, the time when He will return to the city and dwell within it again, and the time when things will be made right and God will “care” for Judah once again.  It seems strange that these things would proceed from such difficult questions as those raised in chapter seven.  However, if we think about God and the covenantal relationship He has with His people, it makes perfect sense.  While there are still questions about faith, personal piety, and even the nature of our worship, none of these have any baring on the work that God is doing.  Sure, these are important questions to ask ourselves, and we are indeed called to live lives that are “worthy of the calling that we have received,” salvation, redemption, and God’s work towards the ultimately reconciliation are not effected by our inability to live up to God’s standards.  And really… THANK GOD for that!  We do not believe in a God that has set out a system of works righteousness in which we have to earn our way into heaven.  NO!  God has opened that door for us through the work of Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection.  God is working to bring about the reconciliation and consumation of all things regardless of our selfish natures.  This is the beauty of grace… and of the covenant.  God has formed a covenant with His people in which, no matter how many time and how badly they mess up, He is still working for them, still their God, and still the same loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love God that He always was.  Where we fail, God does not.  Hallelujah!



Day 275: Zechariah 1-6; Intro to Zechariah

Zechariah is the second of the three prophets that correspond with the final three books of the Old Testament Scriptures.  He, like Haggai and Malachi was one of the remnant of people that returned to Judah from the exile in Babylon during the reign of King Darius.  While Haggai’s message centered greatly on the rebuilding of the Temple and less on the glory of what was to come, Zechariah’s turns sharply from the rebuilding of the Temple to the coming of the Messiah.  In fact, apart from Isaiah, Zechariah holds the title as being the prophet that speaks most about the coming of the Messiah, speaking some 500 years before the prophecies would be fulfilled.

A great deal of Zechariah’s messages in the first eight chapters come while the Temple is being rebuilt and, while Haggai was also delivering messages to the Jewish remnant, Zechariah’s messages focused in on remaining faithful, casting out sin, and being purified while continuing their work on the Temple.  These messages were also filled with hope for the people.  If you remember back to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, everything was in ruins and there was a great deal of opposition from the locals as well.  People that lived in the land once the Hebrews were forcibly removed had absolutely no interest in the Temple or the walls of Jerusalem being rebuilt so they harassed and caused trouble for the Jews.  The message that Zechariah brought to the people gave them hope not only for completing the Temple, but for the future when their King would come and rule them again.  We also see pictures of the priesthood, which before the exile had become unbelievably corrupt, functioning in the way that it was meant to as a mediator between God and the people.  Zechariah also sets forth images of Israel as it was meant to be, with great prosperity and blessing as the people of God.

Zechariah is a very important book when it comes to understanding the coming of the Messiah.  He speaks God’s message to the people of Israel time and again about the coming of the true king that will reign over His people with justice and righteousness.  This message holds true for us as well.  While the hope that Zechariah first refers to is that of the coming of Jesus, the coming of which ushered in the Messianic age in which we can find salvation in Christ’s blood, we too look forward with anticipation to the second coming of Jesus.  When He comes again, we will see the truest and deepest fulfillment of these prophecies when all will be consumated to Him and made right for all eternity.  In our time of waiting, we too are called to cast off sin and continue to try and remain pure in all that we do, working each day in anticipation for Christ’s coming again.



Day 274: Haggai 1-2; Priorities

The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, one of the many returned exiles from Babylon under the reign of King Darius.  In fact, Haggai and his are mentioned in the book of Ezra.  Haggai returned with the first wave of exiles from Babylon.  After a few years of being in Jerusalem, the people had rebuilt their own houses and some of the city while the Temple, God’s house, stood in ruins.  Haggai’s message to the people was that they needed to get their priorities straight.  It was by the will of God that the people even returned to their homeland and to the city of God, yet right away they started in their bad habits again, thinking of themselves first.  Unlike some of the other prophets that had come before him, well accepted  by the people living in Jerusalem and they got right to work on rebuilding God’s house.

After the people had rebuilt the temple, we read in Ezra 3, that many of the old people, those who had seen the first Temple, wept at the sight of the second one because it was not as good.  These folks didn’t weep for themselves, but because they felt as though the second Temple had done an injustice to the Lord.  However, God spoke through Haggai again to remind them that it wasn’t the physical building, nor was it the things they adorned it with that made the Temple glorious, but it was the presence of God almighty there that fills the Temple with glory.  Here too we see a promise from God of a future glory, when all things will be made right again and the House of God will be in its fullest glory.

I think that one of the main themes in this story is that of priorities.  Too often we get our priorities completely mixed up, putting the things that we want over the things that God wants for us to do.  I’m sure that there wasn’t a sinister plot to not rebuild God’s house when the people returned.  They probably just got caught up in things like… surviving.  But Haggai points out that, once they had build their own houses, they needed to refocus their priorities and get to work on the things that were important.  This was one of the main reasons why they had returned to Jerusalem in the first place!  More important that the priorities here though is the reaction of the people to Haggai’s message.  They don’t hem and haw, they don’t call a consistory meeting or a town hall meeting, they don’t hire consultants to consider costs to see whether its worth it or not… THEY RESPOND and get to work!  This is what God wants from us when He speaks to us… when He shows us where we are mixed up in our priorities… He wants us to RESPOND.  I think that too often we try to think it through and see what we need to do rather than listen and do.  A great many movements from  God have been cut down in consistory meetings due to “lack of available funds.”  If God is calling us to do something, HE WILL PROVIDE all that we need to make it happen.  It may not be glorious.  It may not even be glamorous.  It might not look like the work of the Mega-Church a couple blocks away, but it will what God wants it to be: work for His Kingdom.



Day 273: Zephaniah 1-3; The Wilderness of Judgment and Exile

The prophet Zephaniah was another contemporary of Jeremiah, preaching the warning of the coming judgment and the message or the need for repentance for the people of Judah in much the same place and time that Jeremiah was.  Along with a couple of other prophets during this time, Zephaniah was part of what seemed like God’s last ditched effort to get the attention of His people before judgment was poured out on them.  While Zephaniah’s ministry actually ended well before the the people of Judah were conquered, the message that he delivered did take place starting about 15 years later.

As I was considering what to write about today, reflecting on this reading, I was wondering how to present the themes of the prophetic message in a way that would be somewhat different than before.  Being that roughly the same message is delivered time and again by the prophets, it seems that, as we near then end of our journey through the Old Testament, much of what is going to be said has been said.

Yet I was struck today by a theme that hasn’t been high on the conversational topic list in quite some time: wilderness.  Remember back with me to the stories of Abraham, JacobMoses, the Exodus, David, and then forward to the exile.  All of these narratives in Scripture depict some of the greater times of wilderness experiences in the Bible.  If you remember these discussions, the wilderness is a major theme, especially in the Old Testament (but also in the New Testament as well), which revolves around identity.  When Abraham was called by God, he was taken out of his homeland and wandered as an alien in Canaan.  In this time his identity as a person from UR of the Chaldeans, and re-identified as one called by God to be the father of God’s people.  This was done through a covenant, visions, and continuing faithfulness from God.

Jacob too has a wilderness experience where he is stripped of his identity as a cheating brother and re-identified as “Israel” in the culmination of his exile when He wrestled against God.  Moses too experienced the wilderness of life in his “exile” from Egypt.  Here he was stripped of his identity as an Egyptian Prince and re-identified as the leader of God’s people.  As a nation under that leadership, Israel is stripped of their identity as a group of Egyptian slaves and re-identified as a nation, the people of God in the wilderness of Sinai.  David too spends a great deal of time in the wilderness, on the run from Saul, and is transformed from a shepherd boy into the King of Israel.

The judgment and subsequent exile also serves this same function, a grand wilderness experience for all the nations of the world at that time.  It is clear that all of these nations have developed an identity that revolved around the idolatry that plagued Israel and those that surrounded them.  Zephaniah uses a variety of different ways to express this to the many nations upon which this judgment will fall.  Cities will be turned into pastures and lands on which animals both wild and domestic will lay.  Lands will become desolate and nations dismantled.  All that made them who they were will be stripped from them and they will be forced into the wilderness.

With all of this there is much talk about the coming day of the Lord.  In many ways, this is the ultimate goal of this wilderness experience.  Sure, the peoples would be punished, set away for their sins, but the point of judgment is not simply reproof, but correction.  God is not indiscriminately pouring our wrath without a goal,  He is showing His power and His might, alerting the nations to return back to Him.  While this will happen through judgment and exile, ultimately this will all culminate in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  This is the day of the Lord, the day when all people can truly find their identity a restored relationship with God.

At that time I will gather you;
    at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
    among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
    before your very eyes,”
says the Lord.



Day 272: Habakkuk 1-3; Habakkuk's complaint to God

For the most part, we have seen the prophets in one primary function of the prophetic office, the function bringing the Word of God to the people.  Often times this was a message of warning or judgment, a call to repentance or a description of what was to come for God’s people.  There were, of course, also the times when the prophets would deliver messages for or against other nations as well, warning them of the coming judgment that would be upon them if they did not repent.  This is the way that I’m sure 95% of people view the prophets.  Habakkuk kind of puts a spin on that view of the Hebrew prophets giving us a glimpse of the other side of the prophet; the side in which they also go before the Lord and take with them the cries and laments of the people.

However rare this is to see in the prophetic literature, it is not actually new to us.  We see this rather often in fact in the writings of Jeremiah as he both delivers the messages of God to the people and the surrounding nations, but also laments before God the coming calamity.  Laments like this could also be seen in many of the psalms that we read a couple months ago, pleading with God to save them from the struggles that they are currently facing.  Dr. Tom Boogaart, a professor at Western Theological Seminary writes this in relationship to this dual role of the prophets,

“The prophets were travelers on the road between heaven and earth.  Like the angels, they deliberated with God and carried the words that help the world together.  First they ascended to the throne room and pleased the people’s case before God in the words of laments, many of them now collected in the Psalms.  Second, they descended and pleased God’s case before the people in the words of indictments now collected in the books of the prophets.”  -Dr. Tom Boogaart, Travelers on the Road Between Heaven and Earth.

Habakkuk brings a complaint before God that the oppression of the Assyrians is too great.  Violence and destruction are all around him and it seems as though the Lord has forgotten His people.  The answer that God gives the prophet though, it rather unexpected; God even says that it is something that would amaze the people.  God says that He will raise up the Babylonians, even though they are a wicked people, and they will execute judgment upon the Assyrians and upon the nations of the world.

Even in this though, Habakkuk protests.  How is it that the Lord can use the wicked to punish his own people?  Are they just another fish in the sea?  To this God shows him the way that He is going to work.  While He may use wicked people to work His own will, He will not reward their wickedness.  Even Babylon the great will fall before the Lord.

As I read this, two things come to mind. First, the way of the Lord is indeed mysterious.  We cannot and do not know how it is that the Lord works in the lives of His people or in the larger world either.  It seems like things continuously go south, everything just being negative and destructive.  However, in reading this, God tells Habakkuk to pay attention and see what is to come because the Lord is working in ways that will shock and amaze him.  Second, even after God gives Habakkuk a direct answer, he still protests before the Lord bringing more complaints and questions before God.  Too often I think that we are simply resound to “playing the hand we are dealt” or just “taking it like a man,” but Habakkuk shows us that it is ok to bring our complaints before God.  Like many of the Psalmists, he goes straight to the source, not accusing but asking and petitioning.  Habakkuk knows and understands his place in the presence of God, but he also knows that God is not one who is uninterested in him either and invites the questions.  We too can come before God with questions and concerns… and should do so because God wishes to hear them.  Perhaps God will indeed change His mind, perhaps He will act on our behalf.  He might say “no” or “wait,” but the fact is that when we turn toward God in a time of difficulty, we are correctly oriented to face that trial by keeping our focus on God.

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
    I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
    in our time make them known;
    in wrath remember mercy.



Day 271: Nahum 1-3; Prophecy against Nineveh

It seemingly is a contradiction when God raises up a power in the world to use as a tool of His judgment only to bring forth a prophecy like this one about their coming demise.  If this is true, the whole book and prophecy of Nahum is a contradiction in terms, seeing God raise a nation only to smash it to pieces.  This isn’t, however, the first time that we’ve heard a prophecy or a reasoning for impending doom of Nineveh or the nation of Assyria which it was the capitol of.  And God has a perfectly good reason as well, one that has been cited for His own people’s impending judgment as well.  The simple fact is that God will not stand for any nation, no matter their purpose, who takes pride in their own physical strength, does evil before the Lord, and oppresses others.

Ultimately, God is working His will in all things.  History not some string of random events but rather the continuing revelation of God as He works His will and reveals Himself to His people.  Often times His workings are mysterious to us and we don’t understand why we go through what we go through.  When we look back on this though and remember the whole narrative of all that happened with the people of Israel, we can see how God is working to judge the Hebrews, but also make it known that He is God and He is almighty and in control.  No nation rises or falls without the will of God.  No military or political power can overpower the most high.  Whether He raises up a nation to be a tool of His work or He brings them low for their disobedience, God is the one that makes it happen; the one who ordains it all.

I do wonder about our own nation sometimes when I read things like this.  I don’t believe that Nahum was secretly referring to Washington or anything like that, but I do think that the words we read here do speak to our situation as a nation.  Personally, I don’t believe that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” in the way that Iran is an “Islamic” nation.  But it is abundantly clear that we have been blessed as a nation being arguably the strongest nation in the world just about every aspect that might involve a sort of “power” or “might” category.  Yet so often we act as though this was completely the result of our own works and our own ingenuity.  There is no nation or authority under heaven that is not raised up, or lowered by God.  This means that, no matter what we have accomplished as a nation, it is God who has blessed us and raised us up.  Are we going to glorify Him for that?  Or are we going to rest on our own works and “strength?”  It seems to me, as we continue in the prophets that we could learn something from these nations… that we need to truly acknowledge the true authority in this world… and it certainly isn’t us.



Day 270: Micah 5-7; What Does the Lord Desire?

In one verse, Micah summarizes pretty much the point of the entire message of all the prophets:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is indeed what the Lord is calling the people back to.  Idle repentance, veiled holiness, and pretend religiosity is nothing to the Lord.  Actions without inner change are worthless.  God does not want their sacrifices or offerings, He does not desire festivals or celebrations.  God desires those who walk along the path that He has set out for them, the path of justice and mercy, in a humble and contrite manner.

What is at the core of this statement?  The fact that this is exactly what the people of Israel were not doing.  In fact, as we read in Micah and other prophets, the people of Israel were acting unjustly towards all, especially those who were poor, downtrodden, and could not defend themselves.  The original call of God to His people was both to love Him with all of their heart, soul, and mind, but also to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  This idea was in contrast to that which the world seeks, motivated by self-interest and the desire to promote the self at the expense of others, particularly the poor.  This is not how God created the world and God wanted to show the world through Israel the right way to be in relationship with others, and the mercy that He shows to all those who are downtrodden.

Going along with this was the Lord’s desire to love mercy.  For many this goes along with the idea of acting justly, but in many ways it is completely different.  From a strictly justice standpoint, debtors that are indebted to someone should have to pay them back and when the loan is called, the debt collector is justified in taking a person’s belongings to satisfy the balance of the loan.  But to do this heartlessly, without understanding is not what God has in mind either.  In fact, the Law is full of examples of when loans are to be forgiven, slaves are to be set free, and land is to be returned to its original owner, no matter what the circumstances are.  This is what true mercy is… this is the way God has called us to live… and it is in response to the way that He has shown mercy on His people as well.  Whether it is freeing them from bondage in Egypt or dying for their sins on the cross, God has shown us mercy upon mercy, grace upon grace.  There is really no two ways about it.  We are to be merciful in the same way that we have been shown mercy.

Neither of these have any traction without a true posture of humility that comes with following God and walking with Him.  The true purpose of the people of Israel was not in the actions of justice or mercy that they took, but in the posture in which they took them.  As the Psalmist writes,

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

Actions can be empty.  Anyone can fake niceness or happiness when they want to.  God desires something much deeper from His people: their heart.  Micah uses the word and in this verse as well… like the commercials about ‘and‘ and ‘or’ say, “and is better.”  All of these are what the Lord desires of us…

To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.



Day 269: Micah 1-4; Human plans and God's plans

The prophet Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, call though to be a voice to the common people of Judah rather than in the courts of the king.  Yet as we listen and read carefully the text of this Prophet, we can see that there are marked similarities between the words of Micah and the words of Isaiah, ultimately culminating in the grand vision of “the Day of the Lord” that we had read in Isaiah 2 and read again here in Micah 4.  In fact, this is almost a verbatim description of the vision that Isaiah saw and recorded in Isaiah 2.  He again casts a vision of the reality that awaits us in the last days, where the “mountain of the Lord” will be established as chief of the mountains.  For the people of this time, the imagery of a mountain being established above all the other mountains would show the true superiority of God’s reign over that of other earthly kingdoms and even the gods of the world that would have been worshiped on the mountains.  The Mountain of the Lord would be the chief mountain and it would be one that people would want to go to.  Why?  Because it is from there that the Word of the Lord would go out.  This place is a place of teaching and of transformation, but also a place of justice, righteousness and peace.

I think, in the interest of current social events, the vision that we see here of the people is most interesting.  The people desire to go to the house of the Lord and one of the results is this idea that there will be no more war or struggle, neither will there be any sort of training for war.  This is a rather anti-militaristic image that we get in which all people will dwell together in unity, not simply because they are forced to, but because they want to.  Indeed it isn’t because their weapons have been taken away that they cannot do battle, but because the weapons of the world have been transformed by their wielders into objects of care and provision.  I wonder what this looks like in the light of the discussion on gun control that we are having in this country right now.  I wonder how something like this would affect the ongoing discussions about Syria, Iran, and North Korea.  Does it make sense to destroy their weapons?  Does it make sense to take them away?

So often we focus on the removal of harmful things from bad people as a way of generating peace.  If we go in and get Chemical Weapons or take away the guns of criminals it’ll bring peace to the world.  Perhaps if we make it harder to get guns then there will be less violence.  While I’m not necessarily against these things in principle, they largely ignore the image of Shalom that is set up for us in the prophets.  Indeed, I am not advocating for more or less gun laws, more or less weapons, or to let crazed dictators use weapons of mass destruction indiscriminately; but laws and military action to not get at the root of the problem that we face in this world when it comes to violence.  The problem is sin; the corruption of God’s design for creation.

Why do people engage in such hostile actions?  Why is it that some people seem to just be prone towards violence?  The easy answer, of course, is sin.  Corruption.  Evil.  We can blame any host of things from government institutions that keeps people in certain social classes to lack of decent parenting.  We can put together programs to educate and train people for skills in the labor force.  We can build cities and countries, even and entire world of people that have more than enough of everything, something we are absolutely capable of doing, but the problem will not be solved.  Sin is still present.  As Micah is getting to in his prophecy, there is simply no substitute for the righteousness that God calls us to… something we cannot obtain for ourselves no matter how hard we try.  Though Micah didn’t put a name on it, He is referencing the coming of Jesus, the forgiveness of sin in His blood, and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit which works to draw people out of a life of darkness and sin and into the light of Christ’s righteousness, justice, mercy and grace.