Sunday, November 28, 2010

Patriarch Abraham Caused September 11

In Poor Richard's Almanac, the great American Ben Franklin penned many a phrase that has been passed down through so many generations that people no longer remember him as the author.

You probably know more of Franklin's aphorisms than you think--"Time is money," "Keep the eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards," or "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

The interesting thing is many of Franklin's most famous quotes are often attributed to the book of Proverbs, although God never divinely inspired man to pen the words. One such infamous saying Franklin wrote is "God helps those who help themselves."

Ben Franklin got it wrong.

But that hasn't kept Christians and non-Christians alike from buying into that logic and living their life accordingly.

One such couple is found in Scripture, the great patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah.

God had promised Abraham biological children: "one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir" (Gen. 15:4). More than that, God had promised Abraham so many descendants that they could not be counted: the Lord said, "'Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be'" (Gen. 15:5).

But as the years passed, Sarah and Abraham kept growing older until they were beyond the age when conception was humanly least that's probably what age 75 Sarah and age 85 Abraham thought.

They had waited...and waited...and waited on the Lord to end their infertility problems and grant them the long-promised child. And then somewhere along the way, Sarah came up with an idea just like Ben Franklin did--"God helps them who help themselves."

She decided to stop waiting in faith on God to act...and to act herself, to help fulfill God's promise for Him: "So Sarai said to Abram, 'Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai'" (Gen. 16:2).

As pastor and author Bryant Wright says, "This was legal, but not God's will. This was pragmatic, but not God's plan. It was socially acceptable, but not what God wanted them to do" (p.37-8).

A child was born of the union between the maid, Hagar, and Abraham. But this was not the child of promise. And as Wright details in his book Seeds of Turmoil, this one sin, this one trying to do God's work for Him in man's time, not God's--this birth of a son, Ishmael, would cause the political climate in the Middle East to be in perpetual conflict until the literal end of time.

When Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90, God finally gave the couple the promised child, Isaac. But by then, the product of Abraham and Sarah's lapse in faith, Ishmael, had grown into a teenager who would become patriarch of the Muslims, a group that continues to spend its last breath in violent opposition to Christianity and Judaism.

If only Sarah had just had faith in this moment. If only she had prayed, asking God about her idea first instead of going ahead with it and then having faith that God would bless it. If only Abraham had said, "No, we'll wait in faith."

If only.

But that's not how we like to function, do we? We're taught "critical thinking," problem-solving skills in grade school. We're praised for being able to be a quick Mr. or Mrs. Fix It.

And yet, that's not how our relationship with God should be.

If He gives us a promise, we should wait in faith and not try to "help" God--so simple, but so hard...and so important.

Our plan may be legally and socially acceptable. It may make a heck of a lot of sense. But it still may not be God's plan.

And if it's not God's plan....even though our choice may seem to be so insignificant. Even though it may seem to matter so little that "who's it going to hurt if it doesn't work?"...

In the end, that little, itty bitty decision that was legally, socially, and practically correct can lead to one side of a family being pitted against another, to a growing false religion being pitted against God's truth, to constant bloodshed in the Middle the World Trade Center towers being targeted by Muslim extremists.

When we think the decision is too small to ask God about it, think back to Abraham and Sarah.

We could be planting the seeds of our own destruction.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Your Happily Ever After

Another Disney movie is being released this week--Tangled, a remake of the classic Rapunzel. Although I haven't even seen the previews, I already know the ending. It'll be some happily-ever-after, justice-always-prevailing, evil-always-being-punished conclusion to make its viewers feel all warm and fuzzy as they leave the theater, knowing all is right with the world.

I've always judged a story by its ending. Even though it's not reality, I like the happily ever after. Why should I spend two hours watching a movie that ends in sadness when I can duplicate that same feeling of disappointment in my own life, all without having to shell out six bucks to do so.

The ending is key.

Lately, I've been looking at endings of the Old Testament books of prophecy.

If you've never really spent weeks and months in these books of the Bible, if you've only made the cursory pass through them just so you can say you've read other words, if you're like I was before the past few years...then you may not understand why someone would want to spend time in book after book filled with descriptions of God's anger, wrath, judgment, destruction, violence, calamity, and punishment.

Yes, the prophets are filled with stories of God's people and the people in other nations who seemed to do everything the opposite of what God intended.

The prophetic books show really terrifying visions of a righteous, holy, angry God with all creation at His disposal to exact punishment on those who do not obey Him. But that is not all.

In all the prophets' endings, they give a picture--either one of hopelessness or one of hope.

The difference between those whose outlook is hopeless and those whose future has hope?

It all boils down to whom the people belong to.

Even in the midst of God disciplining His people by allowing them to be taken captive first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then ruled by the Greeks and finally the Romans--even then,


God remembers that the children of Israel are His people. He remembers His covenant with Abraham. And as such, He ends each prophecy to His people with a word of hope that He will not abandon them when they return to Him in repentance. He will glorify Himself by keeping His covenant and saving a remnant, which will rise up in the last days. For example:

The book of Isaiah ends with hope for God's people: "Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her...For thus says the Lord, 'Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream" (Is. 66:10, 12).

In Jeremiah, before turning his attention to the other nations, he promises Israel hope as well: "I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and will rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against Me..." (Jer. 33:2).

Hosea says of God's children, "they will blossom like the vine" (Hos. 14:7).

Joel prophesies that "The mountains [of Israel] will drip with sweet wine, And the hills will flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water" (Joel 3:18).

Amos speaks, "In that day, I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old" (Amos 9:11).

Obadiah reminds of the remnant: "But on mount Zion there will be those who escape, And it will be holy. And the house of Jacob will possess their possessions" (v. 17).

Micah's last verse says, "You will give truth to Jacob And unchanging love to Abraham, Which You swore to our forefathers From the days of old" (Mic. 7:20).

Ezekiel, Daniel, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi--their endings all look to Israel's restoration, to the Messiah from the line of David who will reign from Jerusalem, to a land restored to resemble a new Eden.

There is hope...because the people belong to God.

Yet in those same prophets, for people who do not belong to God, there is no hope.

Of Babylon, Jeremiah ends his message by saying, "You, O Lord, have promised concerning this place to cut it off, so that there will be nothing dwelling in it, whether man or beast, but it will be a perpetual shall Babylon sink down and not rise again" (Jer. 51: 62-64).

In Nahum, he says of Nineveh, "'Your name will no longer be perpetuated...Behold, I am against you,' says the Lord of hosts...There is no relief for your breakdown, Your wound is incurable" (Nah. 1:14, 2:13, 3:19).

The same concept is true today. No matter how much you have sinned along life's journey, no matter how much God has chastened you for your sin, if you have truly repented of your sin, turned completely from it, and are seeking with all your heart, mind, and soul to obey and follow God's entire Word with your everything--if that is true, then you are adopted children in God's family...and there is hope for your future, for my future.

Yet, if you allow sin to control your actions, if you do not obey God's entire Word with your everything as an act of love for God's perfect holiness and righteousness, then you are not one of God's children and like the peoples of Babylon and Nineveh, there is truly no hope. If anyone has rejected God as those cities of old did, then she will hear the most terrifying words a person can hear from God: "I am against you."

Unlike a Disney movie, your happily ever after, my happily ever after doesn't depend on whom I marry or how much money I have. In the end, it only matters whom I belong to.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When I'm Not So Thankful

People are SO pushy this time of year. Seriously. Thanksgiving isn't quite here yet, but I've been "encouraged" all week by my pastor, the local radio station, a few salesladies, and the news media to count my blessings, to be thankful.

"Badgered" might be a better word than "encouraged." It's like in the months of November and December, Christian and non-Christian America alike is saying, "It doesn't matter if you're having problems with the mortgage or if your job is in peril or if all three of your children are crying because two of them peed down their only clean set of clothes and the third one dropped his banana in the dirt--if you're not feeling particularly thankful, it's your fault for not seeing the bigger picture in this season of thanks, so get with the program and be thankful already!

But what do you do if your smile is fake? If, sure, you're thankful for a roof over your head, clothes in your closet, and food on the table...but truthfully? Your heart still focuses on the "don't have's," on the corrupt, evil people around you whose prosperity and happiness seem to flourish while you struggle daily in silence just to make ends meet?

What then?

I've been stuck on Psalm 73 for three weeks. Yes--three weeks. I've tried to get away from it, but David's words have stuck in my mind like play dough on the bottom of my children's shoes:

"Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Ps. 73: 1-3).

These words grip me. This testimony could easily be mine when everything seems to be going wrong for me (and, as I'm convinced in those moments, only me).

Like David, I know that I know that God is good to those who are "pure in heart," but sometimes, my foot dangles over the cliff as I look into the darkness of sin flaunted openly by people I know...and without knowing it, my heart sparks green envy as I watch them live lives of ease while I seek righteousness yet struggle.

David continues, describing the "wonderful" life the sinful masses seem to lead:

"They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, 'How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?' This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth" (v. 4-12).

In those moments, this is what I envy--the ungodly who have no struggles weighing on their minds, who are chiseled visions of health and strength, whose overwhelming greed reaps enormous wealth, whose actions reap no consequences.

Their mouths speak God's name, post God's name, tweet God's name...they even quote Scripture when it's convenient. But in the next moment, their tongues lap up the fleshly fruits of the earth and feast off the sinful vices that bring worldly pleasure.

Upon seeing these people, David says, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments" (v. 13-14).

This is not a thought I've ever voiced, but like David, like Habakkuk, like Jeremiah--I've asked God why the righteous suffer while the wicked seem to go unchecked in their sin. And, if I'm honest, in the asking is a hint of envy at their ease.

When David enters God's sanctuary, though, he remembers who God is--a holy, righteous judge whose very nature requires Him to judge all sin. And in that moment, he says, "Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies" (v. 18-20).

You may not feel thankful every second of this Thanksgiving week. I know my fleshly limitations, and I can promise you that I won't.

But when the grumbly feelings of unthankfulness threaten to consume you, when the green-eyed monster rears his head, when sin seems to go unchecked around you--remember, remember, remember

Who. God. Is.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Oracles and Visions: Which One is a Burden?

It's odd, this reading, pursuing, receiving, researching, and writing messages from God's Word. As I grow ever nearer to the two year blogging mark, you'd think I would have it figured out by now. But I'm still as baffled by it all as I was in the beginning, not knowing which messages will touch others in a demonstrable way and which messages will be met with silence.

Just last week, I wrote on a comparison of two Ninevehs that I found so fabulous, it hurt my excited face to tell it. And I got no response. This week's topic I find just as amazing. But I have no idea how it will be received.

God's message: I don't understand how it impacts others' lives. The Holy Spirit is still a mystery in the way He it should be. The Spirit is an equal part of the trinity, and if I cannot understand God in His entirety, why would my understanding of the Spirit be any different?

But two things I do know: (1) the telling of the message is mandatory and (2) the telling is not always easy.

Over the past few months, I've been delving into the minor prophets--Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk--and their messages from God along with more than a few rabbit trails through Isaiah and Jeremiah.

What recently sparked my interest was how Nahum referred to the message he received. He called it "The oracle of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshitee" (Nah. 1:1, my italics).

Oracle. Vision. Redundant much?

When I came to Habakkuk, he started off saying, "The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw" (Hab. 1:1, my italics). One chapter later, though, he flipped to the other word: "Then the LORD answered me and said, 'Record the vision...'" (Hab. 2:2, my italics).

Oracle. Vision. Again?

I always assumed the two words held the same meaning. But a quick look into the Hebrew reveals a different story.

According to The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, the word "vision" means "a revelation by means of a vision, an oracle, a divine communication. The primary essence of this word is not so much the vision or dream itself as the message conveyed. It signifies the direct, specific communication between God and people through the prophetic office" (p.325).

This definition was expected. It's how I use the term "vision." But the term "oracle" was a surprise. The same Dictionary defined the word "oracle" as "a burden or load; by extension, a burden in the form of a prophetic utterance or oracle. It is derived from the verb nasa meaning to lift, to bear, to carry" (674).

For both Nahum and Habakkuk, their message, their divine communication from God, was a burden for them from the beginning. The knowledge was a burden. The telling to a people who didn't want to listen and might kill them for the telling was a burden.

But they were not excused from the telling. The Lord even told Habakkuk, "
Record the vision And inscribe it on tablets, That the one who reads it may run" (Hab. 2:2). The image here is of a messenger who receives the message and runs to the next post to share the news with the next messenger who will then take the message and run.....

Burden or not, the message must be told.

I went back to Isaiah to see if he used both words--he did. Interestingly, he begins in the first few chapters using the word "vision," telling the reader that this is a divine message from God. But by Chapter 13, he swaps almost completely to using the word massa translated "oracles" as he presents specific divine messages of destruction concerning Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Edom, Arabia.....

It appears that when Isaiah began giving specific doomsday messages to specific peoples, the message of the vision became a huge burden--either for him to bear or for him to tell...or maybe both.

Many times in my writing here, I've asked my husband to review my posts pre-publication to ensure I was Scripturally sound. In truth, I wanted to make sure he knew what I was publishing since it was truth but wasn't politically correct. I needed him to know it could bring down the wrath of one public interest group or another.

Writing God's truth, telling God's truth is difficult in a culture that doesn't want to hear a workplace that doesn't want to hear a family that doesn't want to hear it.

Not every telling of God's message of sin and redemption is a burden. But when we're called upon in Christian love to share a specific message to a specific person we know (or even a specific people group we know will be hostile to the message), that's when it gets hard for our souls to voice aloud God's message of truth. Those are the times we need to rely less on ourselves and more on the Spirit to provide us the courage we need to persevere and deliver the message as God intended.