Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Alternate Ending--Why Choose Death?

I grew up in in a time when "Choose Your Own Adventure" books were all the rage. These classic books allowed the reader to make key decisions at various points throughout the plot, all of which ultimately determined the outcome of the book.

Enter the submarine? Turn to page 21. Go back to the train station? Turn to page 40.

What kept children interested were the dozens of destinies that lay within one book's pages. The reader never knew when a seemingly "good" decision would lead to the story quickly ending in death and destruction only a few pages later.

As one who hates a miserable ending, I wasn't really a fan of the books. Instead, I was the one who would flip and skim until I found the last page of the happy, successful version of the story before backtracking through the choices to see what would lead me to that end.

Alternate endings may sound like the substance of fiction, but they're not really. One's choices do determine the end of the story. Granted, sometimes, it may seem like we're shooting in the dark at a target a mile away, but other times, God clearly reveals what choices will lead to a bad ending.

Those are the times we whisper in sadness, "It didn't have to be this way."

I'm still stuck in the last days of Israel, as Jerusalem lays under siege from Babylon and Judah's last King Zedekiah refuses to make one simple decision that could have saved not only the physical nation, itself, but also the lives of his people, his wives, his children.

Jerusalem was going to fall. God's holy people were headed for captivity in Babylon--that much of the story was certain. God's prophets has foretold as much. The "what" was definite. It was just the "when" and the "how" that were up for grabs.

The "when" was postponed more than once when a king submitted himself to God. For Zedekiah, the most recent example he should have remembered (from a little over a decade before) was King Josiah who had cleaned house in Israel, choosing to submit to God and follow His Word rather than submit to an immediate destiny of captivity.

It didn't have to end in captivity for Zedekiah, either. After King Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, he set up Zedekiah as king. But, Zedekiah chose evil over holiness. The chronicler sums up his life in a few swift sentences, none more telling than this one: "But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel" (2 Chron. 36:13).

With the "when" of total annihilation drawing nearer because of Zedekiah's and the remaining people's refusal to turn back to God, Jeremiah warned Zedekiah: "Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him and his people, and live! Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, famine and pestilence, as the LORD has spoken to that nation which will not serve the king of Babylon?" (Jer. 27:12-13).

Here, Jeremiah pleaded with him to submit to the "what" and "when," to serve their captors. Zedekiah did neither, choosing instead to rebel against the yoke of Babylon, and in doing so, he altered the "how" Jerusalem would fall.

Zedekiah knew it was coming, and at the very end when he demanded an audience with the prophet Jeremiah, he asked for an honest blow-by-blow of what awaited, the "how" of Jerusalem's destruction.

Jeremiah didn't mince words: "Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, 'If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not...then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand...They will also bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans" (Jer. 38:17-18,23).

Zedekiah listened, but then said "I dread the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans" (Jer. 38:19). Pleading, Jeremiah reassured him, "They will not give you over. Please obey the LORD in what I am saying to you, that it may go well with you and you may live" (Jer. 38:20).

Consider the different "how" ending God was mercifully offering through the words "that you may live." As He would offer many years later through His son on the cross, here first, He offered Life instead of Death.

In the end, though, Zedekiah doesn't choose this alternate ending because of one thing--he feared man more than he feared God.

He chose to die when he could have chosen to live. And as a result, the Babylonians "slew their young men with the sword...and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm" (2 Chron. 36:17). They "burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire" (2 Chron. 36:19). And finally, "They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him with bronze fetters and brought him to Babylon" (2 Kin. 25:7).

Death. Destruction. Emotional and physical pain.

It didn't have to end this way. There really was an alternative Zedekiah could have chosen, one that was spelled out for him in black and white more than once...but one he refused to believe because his trust was not in God.

We are all like Zedekiah more than we may think. Although our single soul's decision to place our faith in God alone won't alter the course of a nation's total destruction, in a way, it will...because one + one + one can change individual lives, can change the world for good or for evil.

And just like Zedekiah, for every man or woman in this world who confesses Jesus as Lord and devotes his life in submission to his heavenly King, there is an alternate ending available from the eternal destruction that has already been written in the heavenly history books.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Asking for Prayer...but Not Really

We hadn't really talked in a long time, but his first words spoke of needed prayer--for him, his wife, his children.

I try only to use the word "prayed" when telling others of my prayers for them, mainly because I'm afraid I will forget to pray if I change the verb tense to "will pray"...and I don't want my prayer life to be a forgotten lie.

This time, though, I said I "would pray", and afterwards, I couldn't get his request off my mind. For a solid week, I prayed. Any time during the day when their names and faces would come to mind, I asked the Lord to love, to protect, to guide. Even at night, I would awaken in darkness, sleep interrupted, to immediately think of their situation--and again, I would pray.

A few days later when we spoke, I gave what I thought were God's suggestions to the dilemma, and my heart sunk at his reply. It was clear that even before I began to pray for hope and a second chance, his heart had already made the decision against it.

The request for prayer was more an attempt to seek affirmation for his decision than for God to heal human hearts of brokenness. In my own heart, I felt hurt, angry, and used.

This past week, I finally ran across someone in Scripture who can relate!


This young man spent the majority of his life prophesying to the commoners, elite, priests, and kings, most of whom didn't want to listen. His life was threatened more than once. He was ostracized, banned from the temple as a troublemaker, thrown in a muddy well, almost starved to death, imprisoned....

After spending a few weeks studying only the end of his life, I'm feeling his exhaustion, his frustration, his sorrow...his loneliness. The end is coming. He knows it. Yet, no one will listen.

When Judah's very last king comes to the throne, it sounds like the same old story for poor Jeremiah: "But neither he [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD which He spoke through Jeremiah the prophet" (Jer. 37:2).

And then Israel's very last king asks for prayer.

"Yet King Zedekiah sent Jeremiah the prophet, saying, 'Please pray to the LORD our God on our behalf'" (Jer. 37:3).

Scripture doesn't say that he prayed for Zedekiah or for Israel. Then again, it doesn't say he didn't pray either, so that's one of those topics for scholars to debate.

What we do know, however, is that the prayer request really wasn't a request for God to change Zedekiah's heart...but for God to change His heart and mind.

A few verses later, Jeremiah is beaten, imprisoned, and left in the dungeon (all based on a not-so-friendly misunderstanding with some officials). "Many" days later when King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah, he "secretly" asks, "'Is there a word from the LORD?'" (Jer. 37:17).

In other words, "Is there anything new that you can tell me besides that doom and gloom nonsense where Jerusalem is destroyed, Babylon wins, and I wind up dead? Come on, Jeremiah. I asked you to pray! God speaks directly to you! Don't you have some pull with Him? Can't you make God change His mind? Can't you tell me what I want to hear?"

I envision a bruised Jeremiah, maybe with broken or fractured bones, surely with the shadowed remains of a black eye or two. He's exhausted. He's emaciated by starvation. And then, the King has him dragged up from his cell and whispers, "'Is there a word from the LORD?'"

Jeremiah's response seems more than a little hysterical, showing how outdone he is with a king who asks for prayers...but who is only willing for God to change His own holy mind, not this fleshly hardened heart: "And Jeremiah said, 'There is!' Then he said, 'You will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon!'" (Jer. 37:17).

Imagine Jeremiah jumping up with a shout. Hear his urgency.

I'm not sure if Jeremiah prayed, but I expect he did.

I'm not sure if Jeremiah hoped against hope that his prayer would result in Zedekiah softening his heart to heed God's warning...but it's possible. Even in the last days, he kept repeating the same words of prophetic warning, showing me that Jeremiah's heart held out hope until the end.

There's a lesson here about praying--and it's not that everything you pray for is going to happen the way you want it to. It's not that people aren't going to take advantage of your willingness to pray for them, hoping that you'll change God's mind and not their own.

No, the lesson is that no matter what, we still must pray for others. When someone asks for prayer, even if we doubt their sincerity, we still must "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17).

Who knows when an insincere prayer request will lead to a sincere change of heart in another. But even if that never happens, the change, then, may be in your own heart and in my own heart as we draw close to the Father and are faithful to pray.

Photo "Praying Mantis" from Flik'r.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's Gone Missing...Again

Six little people are strewn across the living room rug. In the main hall sits a plastic feast of purple grapes, bumpy corn, and assorted cookies, all to be consumed by the plush birds seated around the plates. Beside the kitchen table lay a dozen or more unstacked books, one left open in mid-story.

I've already de-cluttered these three rooms today. I know I did. But it always seems that as soon as I put a toy in its place, it is almost immediately found and deemed worthy of playing with again. And the books underfoot? While their titles are rarely the same, there is rarely a room without one or more dropped after a quick "read."

With young children in the house, the cleaning is never done. It weighs on me sometimes.

I wonder if that's how King Josiah felt when spending six years cleaning all vestiges of idolatry out of Israel. Did he, too, grow weary at yet another altar to be torn down, another graven image to be burned, another set of false priests to be dealt with?

Last week, we compared six reforms of King Josiah's time to our own, and I promised a seventh this week--the story of Josiah that most grown-ups remember learning about as children.

The story is simple enough--the temple was a mess, so Josiah issued a command for it to be cleaned up and repaired. While cleaning, a priest named Hilkiah "found the book of the law of the LORD given by Moses" (2 Chron. 34:14). He had another man bring the book to Josiah and then read it to him: "When the king heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes" (2 Chron. 34:19).

On its face, the story seems absurd! The people of God losing the Word of God? How could they let such a thing happen? It hadn't even been 50 years since Josiah's God-fearing grandfather Hezekiah had been on the throne. And yet, in that short span of time, the Word of God was LOST...and not lost just anywhere in the nation of Israel but lost in the temple.

I can hear people say, "Well, that couldn't happen today! There are 1400 different translations of the Bible available. Anyone can pick one up in a hotel nightstand, Wal-mart, the dollar store! They're still even distributed in our schools by the Gideons."

No danger of the word being lost in our time.

But I beg to differ. Instead, I would assert that The Word of God is already lost in many of our churches today. It's already lost in our country.

The sheer number of translations has served to make a book so common that it is readily stuck in the night stand drawer to make room for the newest bestseller. Additionally, creating translations for ease of reading or to make Scripture seem more modern hasn't merely drawn more to its pages for daily council but has, at the same time, watered-down the Word.

For the church-goers? Why, the Bible has become a colored fashion accessory with everything from pink princess crowns adorning the covers for our preschool daughters to camouflaged-covers for our military men...many stamped with our name in gold.

And when those lambskin-covered Bibles are opened? Even then, in many churches across America, the word is still lost because too many pastors refuse to preach all of the word...and too few take the time to really read, examine, breathe the Word into their souls while outside the walls of the church.

I'm not the first, nor will I be the last, to send forth the call for the Word of God to be found again. In 1996, theologian David Wells wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church." In it, he says these profound words:

We must recover the lost Word of God. The problem is not, of course, that the Bible itself has disappeared. There are, in fact enough Bibles in America to put one in every home. No, the problem is that we are not hearing the Word of God. It does not rest consequentially upon us. It does not cut. And it is surely one of the great ironies of our time that in the 1970's and 80's so much of our effort was put into defining inspiration and looking at what were the best words to express and protect it. And while all of that work was going on, unnoticed by us, the Church was quietly, unhitching itself from the truth of Scripture in practice. Biblical inspiration was affirmed but its consequences were not worked out for our preaching, our techniques for growing the Church, our techniques for healing our own fractured selves. These all happened largely without the use of Scripture. It is as if we think that while the Bible is inspired, it is nevertheless inadequate to the tasks of sustaining and nourishing the twentieth-century! The result of this divine myopia is that he has left us with something that is inadequate to the great challenges that we face today.

If we do not recover the sufficiency of the Word of God in our time, if we do not relearn what it means to be sustained by it, nourished by it, disciplined by it, and unless our preachers find the courage again to preach its truth, to allow their sermons to be defined by its truth, ...we will lose our capacity to be the people of God....We have to recover a vivid other worldliness by making ourselves once again captives to the truth of God regardless of the cultural consequences.

If the Word of God does not "cut," as Wells says---then it is lost.

In our individual lives and in our corporate worship services, we must again find the word. And once we have found it, we must do as Josiah did: "The king went up to the house of the LORD and all the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the Levites, and all the people, from the greatest to the least; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD" (2 Chron. 34:30).

From the greatest to the least--all must hear "all the words of the book." It must cut us. It must be where we run when facing the great and small challenges of life.

And if the Word doesn't, then it is as useless as if it were literally lost in an ancient temple.

Photo: Between the Lines, by Ariana Boussard-Reifel: A book with every single word cut out.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Don't Just Shake Your Head and Sigh

I have become almost immune to the doom and gloom prophets of our day. One comes on TV, and I unconsciously roll my eyes, grimace, and click the remote to another channel.

I don't think I am the only one either.

Perhaps it's that hearts are being hardened. Or perhaps it's that so many of us have lived past several dates on the calendar when some now has-been said the world would end.

Remember Y2K destruction? So many claimed the end was near, computers were going to revert back to 1900, electrical grids would cease functioning, mass chaos would ensue. Instead, we went to sleep and woke up in a new millennium that looked awfully similar to the one we'd just left behind.

Time marches to its own beat, steadily forward as the years count higher; yet, where people are concerned, as a whole, their hearts and souls are not really progressing or regressing in action.

As I comb through the Old Testament, I see mirrored in Israel's history the history of my own country, one not really worse than the other. The only difference is I've read about Israel's destruction because of sin but haven't yet seen that fate come to pass in America.

Last week, Josiah cleaned house in Israel--six years worth of going throughout the entire land removing idols and desecrating places of idol worship so they could not be reused, all in an attempt to return the people's focus on the one true God.

When Josiah started his six-year job, the country was in pretty bad shape. But that didn't mean he just wrung his hands and shook his head over the awful state of his country.

1. The temple of God wasn't revered as a place of worship. So, he had the priests "bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven" (2 Kin. 23:4).

2. There were non-sanctified priests fulfilling the job of priests. In response, he "did away with the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah and in the surrounding area of Jerusalem" (2 Kin. 23:5).

3. The people were choosing to worship at places other than they the God-ordained temple. One in particular was at Bethel, which had been an alternate place of worship dating back to the time immediately following King Solomon's reign. Scripture says of Josiah, "the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he [Josiah] broke down" (2 Kin. 23:15).

4. The people were mired in consulting mediums and spiritists as well worship of dozens of idols--Baal, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Milcom, Molech, the sun, moon, and constellations. Josiah "demolished" each man-created idol in turn (2 Kin. 23:4-5, 12-13).

5. Some of the people even practiced child sacrifice to the god Molech; yet, Josiah "defiled" those places of false worship so that "no many might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech" (2 Kin. 23:10).

6. Lastly, the people had been neglecting the feasts and Passover established by the Lord. Josiah commanded, "'Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.' Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges..." (2 Kin. 23:21-22).

Next week, I'll discuss a seventh major reform Josiah enacted in his time, but for now, consider these six reforms when compared to the sins America is currently mired in.

1. Do we have an irreverent attitude concerning our church buildings?

2. What about false priests? Those with a hole in their gospel? Or those openly practicing sin, including the sin of homosexuality?

3. How about the attitude that "I can worship God anywhere, so I don't really need to attend a church worship service."

4. Do we revere psychics? Those who can contact the spirit realm? Astrologists? How many believe in horoscopes? Or maybe it's a different idol like our jobs, sports, education, or our children's success.

5. Abortion may not seem like child sacrifice to a god, but...

6. Our capitalistic country definitely hasn't forgotten to celebrate Easter and Christmas, but it has still forsaken those "feasts" through inappropriate celebrations, focusing on bunnies and gifts rather than on remembering Christ.

The state of our nation, the state of our world--yes, it's serious. But, I'll let you in on a little secret. I've read the last page of the story already. I know what's coming, and I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel.

How many of us would be a Josiah in our world? How many would it take to make a difference?

Photo: Adrift 2005 by Sonia King, glass, ceramic, pyrite, fossils, gold, seashell, smalti, marble, turquoise.