Sunday, April 25, 2010

Naked Street Preaching & Other Crazy Requests

"Don't read the first few chapters as merely an allegory. Read them as a story of actual events happening between God and two very real people."

Those instructions may sound simple enough, but they weren't. It was easy to understand the text as symbolic. But to imagine that the events literally happened? Well, it was hard for me to wrap my head around God asking someone, anyone to do what was written on the page in front of me.

As I settled in to read the first three chapters, I already knew the storyline, but still, the second verse made me shake my head: "the LORD said to Hosea, 'Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD'" (Hos. 1:2).

I held out some hope that maybe the text didn't really mean what it said. But when I looked up what "wife of harlotry" meant, I found (sigh) scholars divided--and neither option provided the easy-out answer I had hoped for. Either God was asking Hosea to marry a woman who was already a harlot or who he knew would become a harlot after their marriage.

Either way? It's a lose/lose situation for Hosea. But did he quote from Exodus about the "thou shalt not commit adultery" commandment? Did he say, "I don't know if my heart can take that." No. He simply obeyed.

I have a hard time relating to characters like Hosea. I'm just not wired to be a "simply" do anything person. Even minor decisions like what faucet to buy: I want to research it, pray about it, talk about it, comparison shop--I want time to decide on my answer. It's genetic; I see in my children that same desire to defer any immediate action that this mama requests.

But not Hosea. The next verse reads, "So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son" (Hos. 1:3, my italics). And after that? She bore two other children, but this time, Scripture uses a different pronoun: "she conceived again and gave birth to a daughter...she conceived and gave birth to a son" (Hos. 1:6, 8, my italics). Not "his" but rather "a" child.

Already, it seems this wife whom God commanded Hosea to marry has played the harlot and conceived two children in adultery. And before you know it, she has abandoned Hosea and the children.

But God doesn't leave it at that--hurting husband, hurting children. No, He asks for more, telling Hosea "Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress" (Hos. 3:1). God knew that despite it all, Hosea did love Gomer. I'm not sure how, but he did. And again, Hosea obeys God, goes out, pays the price of a slave to buy her and brings her back home.

This isn't logical, to take back a woman who has hurt you before. I'm sure modern psychologists would have some "enabling" comments to make about Hosea. But man's logic wasn't what drove Hosea to obey God fully--instead, it was that he obviously feared God more than he feared man. Hosea knew she would play him for a fool in front of his entire village (and maybe more than one village). He knew she would be unfaithful. He knew she would abandon their children who would be permanently tainted by their mother's actions. And the only possible rational explanation for his actions is that he feared God.

Looking back through the prophets, this isn't the first time God has asked someone to do something completely mind-boggling in order to give the people of Israel a visual lesson about pending judgment.

Consider the prophet Isaiah: "the LORD him [Isaiah], 'Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.' And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot. Then the LORD said, 'Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt's shame'" (Is. 20:2-4).

This is the equivalent of God speaking to you today and saying, "Get naked Jennifer!! Hope you're in good shape because for the next three years, there are no shoes or shirt required for this prophecy."

You can rest assured, my response wouldn't be simple. "Uh, God, good lesson here about the nakedness symbolizing the shame coming at the hands of the Assyrians, but do we really need to use a live model? And three years!? How about one. If we use the Internet, we can reach the same number people in a third of the time?"

But again, Isaiah is just like Hosea--they don't ask questions. They just sacrifice their standing in the community, their personal lives, their everything in obedience to God.

These two events don't even begin to list the wild and crazy sacrifices God has asked people to make all throughout the Bible. But what I find interesting is that these sacrifices aren't required for everyone, but were specific to one man in one time. Yet, there are other requirements in Scripture that apply to all, like "Love the lord your God with all your heart" or "love your neighbor as yourself."

To me, this seems to be a lesson worth learning, that just like with Hosea and Isaiah, sometimes God asks us as individuals to sacrifice or do/not do something ______ (fill in the blank) even if Scripture doesn't require that sacrifice.

Perhaps He asks us to sacrifice something that is a stumbling block to others or even something that could become a stumbling block to ourselves.

The next time I think God is asking me to sacrifice something for him, my first thought might be "how crazy is that!" or "that's too embarrassing!" But I hope my next thought is "Yes, Lord. I'm willing."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Drink of Cistern Water

Once the thermometer inches above 80 degrees, our household begins consuming more water to replace what the body loses through profuse sweating in the south Louisiana sun.

Over the past two weeks, even my eighteen-month-old twins have learned the word “waa.” Although they scream whenever the straw sucks air at the bottom of the cup, lack of water isn’t something I have to worry about.

I take for granted being able to walk in the kitchen and turn on the tap for a high pressured stream of crystal clear, filtered water. But in other parts of the world, water is much more difficult to come by.

In the deserts of ancient Israel, fresh, pure living water was scarce, which led people to dig individual or community cisterns for storing large quantities of rainwater. A typical cistern was 2-3 feet wide at the top, 15-20 feet deep and was carved out of solid limestone to hold several thousands of gallons of rainwater underground .* Still, during the severe drought of summer, many would dry up.

Although most cisterns were covered with a large chunk of rock to keep out critters in search of a drink, you can imagine how much debris accumulated over time in these giant water vats. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Cisterns, belonging to the common natives, are rarely cleansed, and the inevitable scum which collects is dispersed by plunging the pitcher several times before drawing water. When the water is considered to be bad, a somewhat primitive cure is applied by dropping earth into the cistern, so as to sink all impurities with it, to the bottom.”

In other words, having access to cistern water was better than having no water at all, but the water was stagnant and stale, at best. And at worst, it was contaminated with animal excrement that washed in the cistern along with the rainwater and perhaps even small dead animals who fell in and drowned.

Knowing how cistern water would taste, why would anyone choose it if she had access to living water?

In Jeremiah 2:13, God criticizes Israel for just that…for choosing to dig its own cisterns rather than rely on Him for the refreshing, living water: “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).

The problem isn't the physical act of digging an underground rain barrel. Instead, it's the attitude of self-sufficiency. When the rain failed to fall, Israel would rely on its cisterns to provide rather than on God to sustain them through the hard times.

Jesus tried to explain this concept to the Samaritan woman, a woman who would have understood the benefits of living water over cistern water: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water…. Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:10, 13-14).

Christ identifies Himself as the living water that purifies, as the only sustainable source of water…quite the opposite of what a cistern provides.

Each day, we can choose to carve out our own cistern. To do so means we are choosing to trust in ourselves to meet our needs and wants instead of relying on God to satisfy our thirst. And since by nature, we are all broken, human vessels, we should realize that trying to provide for ourselves in our own strength, with our own talents, through our own successes—it’s useless. The water collected by our own hands will seep out slowly until we are dry and unable to provide for ourselves any longer.

My prayer is to leave the cistern of self-sufficiency and rely in faith on the fountains of living water like David did: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2).

* “Ancient Cisterns” Bible Background Study.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reading the Rule Book

Growing up, I lived for Saturday morning cartoons—the one day a week I could watch TV for hours (as long as I got up early enough). One of the more memorable images was the introductory segment to SchoolHouse Rock. In the clip, four cartoon kids stretch taller as the theme song plays, “As your body grows bigger…”

Then, the lanky-looking boy shouts, “It's great to learn 'Cause knowledge is power!” Suddenly, lightning flashes cover the screen. When the boy appears again, his head now rests atop an uber-muscular body dressed in a superhero costume.

The message is clear and simple—gaining knowledge is extremely important.

In one of Jesus’ parables, He states, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48). One interpretation of this verse is that God's ultimate judgment will take into consideration the amount of knowledge the person has concerning God's will. In other words, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.”

But whereas I’ve always looked at this verse as God judging based on how much knowledge a person does have, what if it actually means how much knowledge a person should have?

Consider the nation of Israel during the time of the prophet Hosea. God basically says, “Enough. I’ve had all I’m going to take from you people. Prepare for my judgment.”

In case the Israelites were unsure what the charges against them were, God presents them with a wealthy list of their sin, starting with “swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery” (Hos. 4:2). It’s almost like God was going down the “Breaking the 10 Commandments Checklist” and ticking off each one in turn.

Then, God explains why the sin is so rampant in the land: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos. 4:6, my italics).

How is this possible? How could God’s chosen people not know the law He gave them? In the time of Moses, God had instructed the priests to, every seven years, “Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the LORD your God” (Deut. 31:12-13).

One thought is the priests were so corrupt that they weren’t reading the law to the people so that they really didn’t know. Another thought is the people knew in their heads but rejected the law with their hearts because sin was more attractive.

Either way, what is important to note is the people were still responsible for knowing and obeying God’s law.

With this in mind, consider the Bible that sits on the shelf in your house, in my house.

The knowledge, the word of God, the truth of God—it is ours. Whether or not we do have the knowledge, we should.

In other words, when the time comes, saying, “I didn’t know…” or “My preacher didn’t tell me…” won’t cut it when the word of God rests in our possession.

Whether or not we choose to read it, we will still be held accountable for the knowledge stored within its pages.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Craving the Forbidden

She tells herself this week is the one. No more chocolate. No more white bread. No more anything with processed sugar or refined flour. And then it starts.

The cravings.

Where she used to go all day without thinking of sweets, now that they're taboo, visions of sugarplums dance before her eyes. She can almost smell the aroma of freshly made dough on the breeze. Everywhere she turns, some delectable treat appears on a TV commercial, a roadside billboard, or in a conveniently placed end-of-the-row display at Wal-mart.

And those gummy bears she doesn't even like? Well, now they look pretty good sitting in her children's reward jar.

It's been my experience that intentionally denying yourself something will make it all the more desirable, which made me think back to the children of Israel and their forced diet once leaving Egypt to find the Promised Land.

Free of a life of slavery, one of the first things the Israelites did was start grumbling about being hungry. And God responded by sending manna, a white wafer with the sweetness of honey, a daily lesson "to teach [them] that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut 8:3).

David called it the "bread of angels" (Ps. 78:25). But true to human nature, once their bellies were full, they remembered the rich foods of Egypt, and they craved them all the more, saying "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (Num. 11:4-6).

So God sent them quail to eat with their manna until they were sick of both foods...and He killed some of the grumblers.

Imagine forty years of nothing but quail and manna. By the time the Israelites reached Canaan, most of the now-adults, and surely all of the children, probably couldn't remember any other food.

Then it just ended. Scripture records, "The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan" (Josh. 5:12).

No. More. Manna.

Did they miss it once it was gone? Did they taste it in their dreams? Did they continue to run out each day hoping a few flakes would be on the ground with the morning dew?

Did they crave it now that it was denied?

The New Testament picks up the theme of "bread from heaven" with Jesus who says, "'it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.'...Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst'" (John 6: 32-33, 35).

Jesus is the true manna from heaven.

But when I read reports of God moving in hearts around the world, I don't see a hunger in America for this bread of life, for the word of God made flesh. Instead, I see the most hunger for Jesus in those countries that deny their people religious freedom, those countries that persecute and kill men, women, and children for simply whispering the name of Jesus or for owning one page of the holy Scriptures.

There in the denial comes the craving.

It makes me wonder...would we Americans crave Jesus more if our worship of Him were forbidden? Or would we even miss Him at all?