Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: A Century's Difference

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

These oft quoted words open Charles Dickens' 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

Yet, in light of my present study, when I consider them, I don't think of London and Paris. Instead, what I find interesting is one city found in Scripture that is truly a tale of two cities.

One city full of contradictions. One city of opposites going in two different directions.

Twice, Old Testament Scripture addresses at length the pagan city of Nineveh. Yet, the city's two prophesies and two responses to those prophesies are vastly different.

First, there was Nineveh's encounter with Jonah, a reluctant prophet if ever there was one.

Although four chapters in length, the entire book of Jonah isn't actually Jonah's prophecy to Nineveh. The bulk of the four chapters is Jonah's avoiding God. In fact, save for one verse where God tells Jonah to go tell Nineveh it will be destroyed for its wickedness, the first two chapters are all about Jonah--a quick trip out to sea in the opposite direction, a storm, three days in the belly of a great fish, and (finally), a grudging acceptance of his commission.

In chapter three when Jonah finally reaches the city, Scripture says, "Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, 'Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown'" (Jon. 3:4).

This must be the shortest sermon in history. One sentence. Eight words.

To complete a three-day's walk in one day is no small feat. I can imagine Jonah running breathless through the city like one of those crazy-sounding street-corner preachers who repeatedly proclaim, "The end is near!!!"

But what's even stranger is that Nineveh responded to this hasty message--not a little, but in a big way: "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, 'In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish'" (Jon. 3:5-9).

Measly little sermon. HUGE response of repentance.

Compare this city of Nineveh with the Nineveh just a century later during the time of the prophet Nahum.

This time, there is no evidence that God's prophet reluctantly wrote down his prophecy concerning Nineveh. This time, the bulk of the prophecy isn't about the prophet's own problems with obeying God's commands. And this time, the message isn't a one-sentence generic doomsday message.

Instead, Nahum's prophecy is hard-hitting and exceedingly detailed concerning the exact nature of Nineveh's destruction. Nahum says, "She is emptied! Yes, she is desolate and waste! Hearts are melting and knees knocking! Also anguish is in the whole body And all their faces are grown pale!" (Nah. 2:10). Additionally, he warns, "Your name will no longer be perpetuated. I will cut off idol and image From the house of your gods. I will prepare your grave, For you are contemptible" (Nah. 1:14).

In the NASB, the prophecy is 1,185 words long. A thousand words compared to Jonah's eight.

Yet, strangely, there is no evidence of Nineveh's repentance. There is no evidence that even one repented.

When Joshua destroyed the city of Jericho, Scripture describes the one woman who supported God's chosen people instead of the wicked in her own city. As a result, "Rahab the harlot and her father’s household and all she had, Joshua spared; and she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho" (Jos. 6:25).

Logically, if God found it important to remember in Scripture one person who chose God's people over wickedness....surely He would have described the one or many who repented upon hearing Nahum's message.

But nothing. Not one story.

One thousand words fell on deaf ears and hardened hearts full of pride and arrogance.

History bears out Nahum's prophecy of Nineveh's utter and complete destruction. In fact, it was the Victorian time period before Nineveh's location was even rediscovered from under its tomb of sand.

One century later and a city went from an entire population kneeling in repentance to none repenting.

What happened? What made the difference?

It wasn't the length or compelling descriptiveness of a message. It wasn't the preacher.

The difference was the people's hearts. The difference was one century. One generation.

The people who repented during Jonah's day, who had heard God's judgment and seen God's relenting--those people were long gone. They had apparently failed to pass along to the next generation their own personal fear of Jehovah God. What they had passed on was their growing military power, their cruelty, their wickedness, and their pride.

And for that lack of telling about Jehovah, the next generation was annihilated.

It is not far-fetched to say that America is one generation away from being a Nineveh.

You and I. Our passing on to the next generation our love, fear, and reverence for a holy God.

If we don't, who will tell them?

(Image: Nineveh. Nebi Yunus. Iraqi archaeologists excavate the monumental entrance to a late Assyrian building. The large head of a bull-man sculpture lies in a passageway. Photo taken in May 1990 by Fredarch.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Do I Say First?

Wyatt snatches the plastic school bus from Amelia's hands, turns, and races down the hall to the other end of the house. Her screams immediately hit the upper octaves. As if on cue, huge crocodile tears follow, splashing onto her shirt.

In a week where my oldest has tried everything in his almost-4-year-old power to annoy, irritate, and frustrate his younger siblings, this is the last straw in a whole fist full of last straws.

It's time for the naughty bench.

When all the tears have stopped, I come and sit on the floor before him, somber and with an intentionally wrinkled brow. I wait patiently for him to describe exactly what he did wrong. Then, we discuss the rules and how there are consequences for breaking them. I repeat for the thousandth time that not sharing makes mommy sad, but more importantly, it makes Jesus sad.

He speaks the words, "I'm sorry mommy." Usually, I get a hug and kiss, but this time, I send him to give one to the little girl whose feelings he hurt.

This is the structured punishment my household repeats dozens of times each week--mommy's hand of judgment doles out consequences, many times with the explanation of why coming afterwards.

It's the same way, many times, we as Christians approach non-Christians, with this in-your-face discussion of sin, judgment, and consequences before explaining the why sin is so heinous to God.

I've long been a firm believer that for one to understand her position as a sinner, she must first understand her role in breaking God's law, the Ten Commandments. One cannot understand the need for grace, for a Savior, if one doesn't understand that to break even the tiniest part of the law means necessary judgment from a perfect God.

This past week, though, I've been having different thoughts. As part of my ladies' Bible study class, I've been reading and re-reading the book of Nahum, a small 3-chapter book of prophecy concerning Nineveh's complete annihilation and, ultimately, Assyria's fall.

What's interested me is that the prophecy doesn't begin as I expected--with God laying out Nineveh's sin. Instead, it begins with a half a chapter description of who God is:

"The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes
and maintains his wrath against his enemies.

The LORD is slow to anger and great in power;
the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.
His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
and clouds are the dust of his feet

He rebukes the sea and dries it up;
he makes all the rivers run dry.
Bashan and Carmel wither
and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.

5 The mountains quake before him
and the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at his presence,
the world and all who live in it."(Nah. 1:2-5).

Here, Nahum explains God's character--God is jealous, is the perfect avenger of wrongs, is wrathful against His enemies. God is slow to anger, is all-powerful, and is completely just in His punishments. God is in control of all creation and all mankind, both of which tremble before His almighty power.

But that's not all God is. While God is wrathful towards those who are His enemies and the enemies of His chosen people, in the next sentence, Nahum explains, "The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him" (Nah. 1:7).

God is good. God cares for His people.

To understand the first five verses explaining part of God's character helps one understand this verse explaining more of God's character.

All parts of God's character are intertwined.

For instance, it may seem like God is not giving justice to those of His people who have been wronged, but that's only because His character is one that is "slow to anger." He is slow to anger because He is just and merciful.

Likewise, God must be the avenger, must be wrathful because He is completely good, completely caring towards those who love Him, and completely just.

You cannot have one characteristic without the other. They complement each other in perfection.

Only after describing God's character does Nahum then pronounce God's judgment on Nineveh. He describes Nineveh's sin of "endless cruelty" and gives graphic details concerning the judgment to come (Nah. 3:19).

Based on this passage, I'm inclined to believe that trying to explain God's law isn't enough when presenting the gospel to non-believers. Instead, I think Nahum was divinely "on to something" here as he shows that understanding God's character is key to understanding the law and what must happen when one breaks God's law.

Transgressing God's law doesn't mean much to the person who doesn't understand the God who created it in the first place.

Only when a person truly understands who God is can he understand why God would need to send His son Jesus to die a brutal death on an old rugged cross so He could offer each of us grace.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Jell-O Contortionist

Ask any kid about Jell-O, and more than likely, he'll tell you his top two favorites along with some tips about how to best keep those slippery squares from ending up on the floor.

I remember Jell-O as a comfort food my mother made when I was sick. I also recall less-than-patiently making my way down the cafeteria-style line at Piccadilly toward my goal--those crystal goblets piled high with cubes in a rainbow of colors.

My favorite memory, though, is when I found a mail-in offer for plastic "jiggler" molds formed in the shape of eggs. After taping my quarters to a note card and printing my name and address in my best handwriting, I waited. What fun it was to pour liquid Jell-O into those molds and cool them in the refrigerator until they had transformed into eggs that were firm enough to bounce like rubber balls.

More recently, I've experienced the displeasure of Jell-O melting when left at room temperature...and I've watched my husband drink it like Kool-Aid when he was too impatient to wait.

As a liquid or solid, there's no doubt about it--Jell-O is good to eat.

But it's not a good thing to be.

In Jeremiah's day, the Israelites were a fickle people, changing their allegiances from hot to cold in a few minutes' time.

After Jeremiah finished prophesying all that the Lord commanded him to say concerning Israel's certain impending destruction if it did not repent, "the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, 'You must die!'" (Jer. 26:8).

Talk about a tough crowd. Don't like the message--dispose of the messenger. When the officials came on the scene, the priests and prophets agreed with the people and asked for Jeremiah's death.

Spirit-filled Jeremiah didn't just lay down and accept this fate. Instead, he spoke forth, reminding the people that his prophecy was from the Lord and, as such, their intended actions would bring harsh consequences: "Be assured, however, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it, for in truth the LORD has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing" (v. 15).

I can see the crowd's individual minds reeling--guilt and God's wrath didn't sound too good. True to their Jell-O like character, the very next verse shows the people changed their minds, this time supporting Jeremiah: "Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, 'This man should not be sentenced to death! He has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.'" (v. 16).

The last verse of this episode reads, "Furthermore, Ahikam son of Shaphan supported Jeremiah, and so he was not handed over to the people to be put to death" (v. 24). I find this interesting since the people had already changed their minds a few verses earlier. Perhaps this implies that had the elders and officials (and an important man named Ahikam) not spoken for Jeremiah that the people could have easily changed their minds again. Perhaps they would have gladly put Jeremiah to death had someone in charge told them "Get 'em boys."

We see this same situation later in the New Testament. One day, the masses of people are praising and worshiping Jesus as their king with shouts of "Hosanna" and waving palm branches...only to reject him later that same day. And crucify him. All because He wasn't the military Messiah they were looking for.

This is not how I want to be. In the heat of the moment, I don't want my convictions to liquefy so that I go along with the crowd. But when things cool off and I'm not facing any trials, I also don't want to be molded into another form that looks like something other than my Jesus.

I think this is why Paul said, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom 12:2).

To keep from being like Jell-O and conforming into any shape out there, we must be transformed in Christ and constantly "renewing" our minds through the spiritual disciplines.

Not just conformed--transformed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"All" Really Does Mean "All"

A woman steps forward in an American court of law and stands in the witness box. Before she is allowed to give testimony, though, she must raise her right hand, place her left on the Bible, and swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

While the oath may initially seem redundant, the wording is really an attempt to completely define what "truth" is. For example, to "tell the truth" requires the woman to tell correct information as she knows it. The "whole truth," though, implies that she is required to not only speak words of "truth" but must also not omit or withhold any "truth" as she knows it. Finally, "nothing but the truth" implies that she cannot give opinion, assumptions, or conjecture--merely the truth as she knows it.

In legal cases, the judge and jury want to know every possible fact in order to help them come to a just decision. When it comes to knowing and proclaiming God and the gospel, though, modern day Christians and non-Christians alike seem to be content with knowing part of the truth.

I've listened to many a preacher give a beautiful message of God's love and mercy. The problem is that's the only kind of message I have ever heard escape their lips. Sections of the Bible that deal with sin, God's wrath, anger, and judgment are ignored, passed over...especially if the current political and cultural climate view those "sins" as "choices" instead of actions that directly contradict God's word.

God is loving. God is merciful. God is forgiving. God is compassionate.

So, why bother weighing people down with the "bad stuff"? The Bible tells us not to judge after all. Must we really learn about and share all of God's teachings, from Old Testament's Genesis to the New Testament's Revelation?

The answer lies in the word "all." Merriam-Webster defines the word as "the whole amount, quantity, or extent of." It means exactly what we think it means. All.

When the prophet Jeremiah received a word from the Lord, he heard that word twice.

The prophecy wasn't filled with warm, fuzzy messages for God's people. Instead, it was filled with words Jeremiah knew the other prophets, priests, and officials were not going to enjoy hearing. Probably for that reason, God admonished Jeremiah to "Stand in the court of the LORD'S house, and speak to all the cities of Judah who have come to worship in the LORD'S house all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word!" (Jer. 26:2, my italics).

God warned Jeremiah not to omit any of His words--he had to tell the "whole truth." Interestingly, God also emphasized that Jeremiah should speak to "all the cities" coming to worship the Lord--all of God's children deserved to hear of His pending judgment for their sin.

Scripture says that Jeremiah obeyed both "all" commands: "When Jeremiah finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people..." (v. 8, my italics).

"Why" Jeremiah obeyed is not directly addressed in Scripture. But perhaps, he obeyed because God had already explained the reason for Jeremiah's message, that Israel might repent and God would not judge their actions: "Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds" (v. 3).

Perhaps, also, he remembered an earlier prophet, Micah, who had been "filled with power--With the Spirit of the LORD--And with justice and courage To make known to Jacob his rebellious act, Even to Israel his sin" (Mic. 3:8). Like Jeremiah, Micah gave the same reason concerning why he had to speak God's word, even if it were distasteful to many: "But if they do not speak out concerning these things, Reproaches will not be turned back" (Mic. 2:6).

And perhaps Jeremiah also knew that history bore out the deferred judgment of a people when King Hezekiah both listened to the prophet Micah, "fear[ed] the LORD and entreat[ed] the favor of the LORD, and the LORD changed His mind about the misfortune which He had pronounced against them" (Jer. 26:19).

Compare this to the Great Commission in the New Testament where Jesus commanded His disciples to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20a, my italics).

Here, God the Son also uses the repetition of the word "all." Jesus' disciples are commanded to teach "all" of God's word. However, this time, they aren't just commanded to speak the message to merely "all" of God's children. With the coming of Jesus, "all the nations" is the new audience Christians are required to reach.

There is no way to turn back God's judgment on a man or woman unless the Word of the Lord is spoken--all the Word to all the nations. As Christians, you and I are just like modern-day Jeremiahs and Micahs, filled with the power and courage of the Holy Spirit. But unlike the prophets of old, we already have all God's word to study and proclaim in and out of season.

When given a platform to speak God's Word, to not proclaim it in its entirety because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings, because society is becoming more accepting of the sin, or because we don't want to incur the wrath of mankind, to not say anything is simply disobedience.

HOWEVER, that proclaiming must be done in brokenness over sin--not boastfulness over our knowledge of right and wrong.

Instead, our attitude must be like the prophet Micah who, when asked to tell Israel of its sin said, "Because of this, I must lament and wail...I must make a lament like the jackals And a mourning like the ostriches" (Mic. 1:8).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Try Being More Jealous

A man. An estranged woman. A slug loaded into a 22 rifle.

Ironically, he exhibits the virtue of patience as he lies in wait. Suddenly, eyes flicker as brain synapses fire in recognition. Finger on the trigger, he aims, blasting a hole straight through the metal door of her truck before hitting his target made of easily permeable flesh.

It sounds like something from the movies or a third-world country instead of civilized suburbia in America. Yet, this is real, occurring on the same road I drove down with my children mere hours before the shooting, the same road that crosses mine a few curves away from our seemingly safe home.

But what makes me take a step back is knowing that although we've never met, his blood is mingled with mine across the branches of our genealogy, his last name the same as my grandmother's.

The newspapers quote family members who can't believe it, who say this is nothing like the man they know. How many times have I heard similar stories. Yet, this time, it's closer to home.

If his blood carries this ability to let jealousy control him, does mine as well? The answer is yes. Although I may not want to consider it, this could easily be me or anyone else for that matter.

Jealousy is a powerful emotion. And as the typeface in my newspaper shows, this sinful emotion is just one step away from sinful action. Deservedly, it gets quite a bad rap.

Scripture, though, mentions a good kind of jealousy, one that I've somehow managed to pass over since my brain sees the word and automatically thinks "bad."

But in Paul's writings to the Corinthians, he tells them, "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy" (2 Cor. 11:2, my italics). Here, he presents jealousy as a good thing. At first glance, this seems contradictory to the "Thou shalt not covet" commandment, which pretty much forbids being jealous of what others have/are.

There is a key difference, however, in sinful jealousy and godly jealousy. Interestingly enough, the difference comes down to (1) motive of the jealous party and (2) a preposition. Yes, I said a preposition--remember those from grade school? Words like "of", "from", "to", and "around"?

To be jealous OF someone is sinful. This kind of jealousy often leads to more sin because its motives are self-serving and based mainly in pride.

To be jealous FOR someone, though, shows one's motives are focused on wanting the best for the other person, no matter if that person is a friend or an enemy. Jealousy, in this sense, shows concern and care for others, a real-life application of what Jesus referred to as the second most important commandment--"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19).

Paul lived out this kind of jealousy for those he witnessed to. He was jealous for them to know Christ, to love Christ, and to serve Christ with their entire being. As such, he went hungry and homeless, suffered numerous beatings, spent years in prison, and ultimately gave his life because of his sincere concern and care for the believer and non-believer alike.

Knowing Scripture as he surely did, Paul must have learned this type of jealousy from God, Himself, a God who repeatedly exhibited jealousy for His chosen people. In Zechariah, "the LORD Almighty says: 'I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion...Therefore, this is what the LORD says: 'I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,' declares the LORD Almighty....'My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem" (1:14, 16-17).

God is without sin; yet, here, He is rightfully jealous for the well-being of His people. This jealousy means that He grows angry when other nations (and individuals) mistreat His people and, much like a loving Father, that He does what is needed to ensure they are taken care of.

Later in the same prophecy, God repeats His jealousy for the people of Israel, again describing exactly what His jealousy for them means He will do:

"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.... 'I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain....Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there....I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God'" (Zech. 8:2-5, 7-8).

God is jealous for all His children--even those adopted into the family like me. He is so jealous for you and me that He sent His only son Jesus to die on the cross for your sin, for my sin.

In this "It's all about me" era, it seems we could all use to exercise a little more jealousy for the physical and spiritual well-being of our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and yes, even our enemies.