Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Different Kind of Resolution

If you're like me, you haven't even begun to recover from Christmas, much less realize that tomorrow is New Year's Eve. And yet, ready or not, 2012 is coming quickly to a close.

With each new year, a guilty twinge creeps into my consciousness, whispering that I'm supposed to make a list of resolutions. It's what you're "supposed" to do to better yourself.

When I was an optimistic young girl, I did make lists--exercise five times a week, read my Bible every day, be kinder to my brother.

But it never failed. Less than one month into a new year, and my clean slate started getting red marks on it. I'd break one resolution, then another. And before I knew it, I just gave up, once again feeling worthless that I couldn't be perfect in one thing for even a measly thirty days.

And yet I think the problem was my resolutions were flawed from the start--I was always the one making up resolutions for myself rather than asking God what He would have me to do and then asking Him to help me obey Him in His strength rather than in my own.

All I really needed to do was look in His Word. Look at His commands.

As 2013 rushes near, my heart isn't really looking for a resolution. Rather, over the past year, God has been drawing me to Christ's charge for Christians to share the gospel with a lost and dying world.

But I don't think it's my heart alone that should be firmly resolved to get the Word out there, but should be the heart of every Christian as well.

During Jesus' ministry, He told His disciples, "'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'" (Matt. 28:18-20).

Later, after Christ's resurrection, He told those same disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

In these two verses alone, Christ empowers you and me to act...but not so that we can fulfill our petty, individual desires. Instead, He empowers us for a greater purpose--to share the truth of Jesus, to teach God's word, to make Christian disciples.

It's an awesome charge not to be taken lightly, although many Christians do (myself included). It's a heavy command, yes, a command--Jesus says "go" not "go if you are brave enough" or "go if you have the gift of convincing speech" and He says "you will" twice, not "you might."

Christ made this a command because He knows the outcome--heaven or hell. And He knows how many souls are at stake. Consider the statistics. 1.5 billion people have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ (IMB "Who's Missing").

1.5 billion.

Wikipedia claims Yankee Stadium seats 50,000. So fill Yankee Stadium 30,000 times and that's how many people have never heard about Jesus, not counting the billions more who have heard of Jesus but not accepted Him as their Savior.

If each person who reads this would share Jesus with one each week in 2013. And if that one would share Jesus with another one....

As the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon said, "If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for." 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Being a Sign to Others: When Your Family Doesn't Celebrate Christ in Christmas

A single day remains before we gather round friends and family to celebrate Christmas Day.  Most of us have plans of exchanging gifts as well as shared meals, laughter, and joy.

We will linger long over pie and coffee, say our good bye's more than once before we finally tear ourselves away from each other and part ways, all knowing that these few precious moments may be the only ones throughout the whole year when we will sit in the same room as our loved ones.

Perhaps some of these friends and family do not celebrate Christ's birth, deny his deity, or simply  deny Him as master over their lives.

We know they are lost, that need to claim Him as Savior and Lord.  Yet, we don't want to beat them over the head with the gospel each time we meet together, especially when they have heard the Word of God and have made it clear to us they don't want us "preaching" to them.

What can we do? When we are given this opportunity to meet with them face to face, one that we may not have for another 365 days.  Or maybe never again.

Do we hold our tongue? Hesitate to mention Christ at all because we fear offending others?

I'm not advocating starting a confrontation or family feud at your Christmas gathering.  Yet, a Christian can still use the opportunity to act as a sign to others.

The book of Ezekiel takes place approximately 593 years before Christ's birth.  In its pages, the Lord makes Ezekiel mute unless the prophetic word comes directly from above and out his human mouth.  Ezekiel's very life was to be a sign to others through his actions.

Honestly, Ezekiel's actions seem really odd.  Even to those in his day when allegories and living metaphors were more easily understood, I'd be willing to bet he got some really strange looks and his name mentioned more than once behind closed doors.  Still, he obeyed God and lived his life as a sign.

For example, in Chapter 4, Ezekiel creates a model of Jerusalem, builds a siege wall, and begins using battering rams against it.  As the Lord says, "This is a sign to the house of Israel" (v. 3).

Later, the Lord says, "Load the baggage on your shoulder in their sight and carry it out in the dark.  You shall cover your face so that you cannot see the land, for I have set you as a sign to the house of Israel" (Ez. 12:6).

In both instances, Ezekiel uses his life, his actions as a testimony concerning Jerusalem's pending destruction at the hand of Babylon.

Several chapters later, God takes Ezekiel's wife but commands him not to mourn her death.  The Lord says, "Thus Ezekiel will be a sign to you; according to all that he has done you will do; when it comes, then you will know that I am the Lord God" (Ez. 24:24).

The chapter ends with God telling Ezekiel he will regain his ability to speak when the prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction is fulfilled and captives come from Jerusalem: "On that day, your mouth will be opened to him who escaped, and you will speak and be mute no longer. Thus you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord" (v. 27).

And in those two preceding verses is the key to why Ezekiel's actions are so important--you will know that I am the Lord God.

Ezekiel's actions were to act as a sign for all others to see in the hopes that they would see the truth, turn from their wickedness, repent, and truly know Him as their Lord.

Likewise, our family and friends need to see Christ in us who claim Him as Savior and Lord.

Even if we never open our mouths to speak one word of Scripture to "preach at" them, on Christmas day and throughout the year, our family should be able to see Jesus in our actions, hear our personal love for Jesus always spilling from our very lips.  When asked about our past year, we should be prepared to give God the glory for all He has done, all He has brought us through.

Even if our families won't listen to the plan of salvation, we are still given an opportunity to share Christ with our very lives, our words, our gestures.

It's an opportunity on Christmas Day and every other day of the year.  It is a lifestyle of godliness, holiness, and purity to point a lost World to Him who can save them.

We must decide.  Are  we prepared to be a sign to others?  Are we prepared to live a life that testifies to the entire world that God does require a different standard of living?  Are we willing to make that level of commitment?

Or will we simply compromise when our friends ask us to, stay completely silent for the sake of political correctness?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Significance of Twenty Children

Massacre of Innocents painting, 1824
There I am, surrounded by a table full of young boys, all under the age of six.  Two of them keep sneaking open their markers when they think I'm not watching, the temptation to color a shepherd standing alone against the void of night much too great to withstand, or so it seems.   

My Bible lies open in front of me revealing the words of the familiar Christmas story.  It's not like I even have to look, read the verses. 

I know the beginning, middle, and end by heart.  

Even without reviewing my teacher's book, I know last week was the story of the shepherds and Christ's birth.  The week before spoke of the immaculate conception as well as two angels visiting both Mary and Joseph. 

This week is the Magi.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Camels, elephants, tents, and a star lighting the way to the young Christ child's home in Bethlehem.

We count the wise men on the coloring sheet, discuss how it may have been more than three men even though they only brought three gifts.

The boys squint their foreheads hard when I ask them to remember back to Daniel and the lion's den.  I tell them this same Daniel may have been the one who taught some wise men in Babylon the prophecy of Jesus' coming birth so that the wise men generations later would continue to watch for the star.

My oldest son pops open a black marker.  Even to him, this is old news, not really interesting when there is arts and crafts lying in wait.

Then, I mention "mean ole King Herod" and the wise men's dream warning them to return home a different route because of the King's desire to kill the Christ child.  The squirming dies down a bit.  Even at four and five years old, little boys are just wired to hone in on the danger/adventure part of the story.

I have their attention, so I reread the passage where Herod lies to the Magi about his true motives.  When I ask if Herod really wanted to come worship Jesus, one boy's eyes get big.  "Noooooo." he solemnly whispers.  "He wanted to kill him."

And then my eyes fall on the next passage. 

For a moment, I had forgotten this part of the story--King Herod's response when  he realized the Magi had duped him:

"Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
'A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more'" (Matt. 2:16-18).

As a teenager, I imagined the horror of thousands of children dead.  Years later when I read scholars believe Herod's henchmen may have slaughtered around twenty* children under the age of two, I was less appalled, almost even blew off the event in light of the other horrors of the New Testament. 

Twenty is such a small number in comparison to the other heinous murders Herod is guilty of (including killing his own sons).  Even the historian Josephus doesn't bother to even mention this small event--twenty insignificant Hebrew children in a tiny, insignificant town weren't a blip on his radar.

Twenty children.  Insignificant.  

Today, though, as I sit in too-small chairs with my class of little boys, when I think back to this past Friday's tragedy in Connecticut, twenty doesn't seem so insignificant any more.

My co-teacher and I pause for a moment, both of our hearts sinking in remembrance, filled with words we can't express in the presence of innocence.

I can't not make the connection between one senseless slaughter of innocents with another, even if two thousand years separate them, even if one will tie up all the newspapers and airways for months while another was virtually ignored in a world where only Roman citizens were considered important.

I want to ask God why.  Why did he warn Mary and Joseph but not the other mothers and fathers of small children living in Bethlehem? Why allow such senseless brutality--then. now.?

But with small eyes on me, I say none of this.  I don't know the answer.  I can't wrap my mind around this historical loss of this many children, much less the twenty children who have faces, names, personalities.

So, I swallow the lump in my throat and say what I do know.  

"God protects us every day.  Every second we live without harm is a gift from God.  He does not promise to always keep us from harm.  But His Word does promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us."

In this upcoming week as this sadness burdens our minds and hearts, we must cling to promises from the Word such as these.

He may not always shield us from heartache, pain, and death.  But He does weep with us and will never abandon us, even in the midst of such horrors that this life holds. 

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).

*Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary.  Wheaton: Scripture P, 1985.

Image: Fran├žois-Joseph Navez (1787–1869) "The Massacre of the Innocents." 


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Direction for the Hopelessly Lost

“Hopelessly lost” is a good adjective to describe me, not just in a spiritual sense but in a physical one as well. 

When God was assembling my double helix, He left out the genetic code that would give me a sense of direction. North, south, east, west—don’t ask me. Instead, I attempt to drive by landmarks—the house with the “Quilts for Sale” sign out front, the farm where sheep used to graze twenty years ago, the intersection where golden squash and plump unshucked ears of corn were heaped overflowing in baskets one summer. 

Even then, driving familiar roads is incredibly difficult, especially when a route I’ve driven dozens of time should be familiar but still isn’t. A few weeks back, I got lost driving to my friend’s house and had to call frantic for help.

As you can probably guess, I have a serious fear of being lost. Going prayer walking each week through the maze-like twists and turns of subdivisions has a couple times left me frantic, almost lost with thoughts of leaving breadcrumbs along my path to ensure I find my way back to the van.

Several years ago, my husband bought me a Garmin as a Valentines’ Day gift, but it died a well-mourned death two summers ago. Ever since, each time I get behind the wheel, I feel like a trapeze artist flying through the air with no net. If I let myself think about it, it’s terrifying and I'll just stay home, instead.

All too many times, I don’t know the way when others find it childishly simple.

Tonight marks the second week of advent, two purple candles now flickering in the darkness. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” This week, the focus is on Jesus being “the Way.”

In the upper room when Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come, He said, "'In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.' Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?' Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (Jn. 14:2-6).

Jesus clearly tells us that He is The Way to everlasting life, to the place He is preparing for us. What’s more, He is the only way. But trusting in Christ alone for one’s salvation is a plan so simple that it’s easy to miss.

Even for the directionally challenged, it sometimes seems more logical, even easier to forge our own paths and trust in the good works of our hands, in what “feels” right in our gut versus trust in Him and what His many times head-scratching Word says about The Way He has laid out for us to follow.

But leaning on our own sense of direction will only result in us being hopelessly lost. Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of Christ’s followers finding the Way by trusting in Him by faith: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

Trust, faith in Christ is the only Way. Relying on a map made by human understanding will only take us down a different path than the one leading straight to salvation.

As difficult as Scripture is to understand at times, to know the Way is to know the Word. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

In this Advent season, the Word is about to make His appearance in flesh. The Way is coming to make Himself known to a lost world.

While we may not know the exact paths, hills, and curves God wants us to take on our journey to Him, we do know He has given His Word as a roadmap to help guide us in the Way.

For one so confused by earthly directions, the idea that there is only one Way is actually quite comforting. If I keep my eyes firmly focused on Him, if I ask in faith for His guidance and keep my mind and heart rooted in studying and applying His word, I can’t get lost.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

One Flame of Hope

This evening marks the first Sunday of advent, the season when we Christians pause in concert to remember the sacrifice a King made when He chose to enshroud himself in the flesh of a newborn babe.

After sundown, Husband, the children, and I gathered still unsure stomachs around small cups of soup and cornbread to light the first of the long purple tapers.

As husband searched for the matches, I stepped to the living room and reached for the most well-worn Bible in the house, a New American Standard version that husband and I clung to through the worst season of our lives.

The faded cover has long since ceased to be attractive; its binding has been glued more than once; and some of its pages are stained from always being set down in the midst of life, itself. Its words, however, are still just as piercing and perfect as when the book was glossy and stiff bound with that audible crackle upon opening.

Little eyes watched as red-tipped match struck, sulfur sputtering, leaping to golden flame.

"This candle represents hope," I proclaimed.

Hope.

Even though at times we may despair, feel there is no hope, none of us really knows what it is like to live in a world without hope.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of hope. In his letters to the exiled Israelites, to those people who felt as if their God had abandoned them to their wretchedness...to this group, he spoke words of hope.

"'For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’" (Jer. 29:10-14).

Even in exile, in judgment, in slavery, in the midst of God's wrath--even then, there was hope for them.

A Savior was coming, one who would save them from their sin, who would reunite humanity with a holy Father.

The same holds true for us today. As Peter rejoiced, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade"(1 Peter 1:3-4).

Hope has come.

Hope is here.

Hope is coming.



**Posting from the archives tonight, as a stomach flu has attacked our house again, a little over a year since our family succumbed last year to a nastier breed of the virus. We pray for healing and are thankful He is Lord of all. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Your Family Tree is Sick: Part II



These are the people I am most thankful for.  My husband. My parents. My children.

Given the chance, I would willingly exchange my own life for theirs, and in many small ways, I do that already each time I devote minutes, hours, days, and years to express my love to them. A true love is sacrifice.  Yet, that love can only go so far, do so much.

Last week, we began a two-part glimpse into a Christian's role in others' salvation.

In Part I, we looked at those in our family tree who are hopelessly lost and how we are unable to save them with either our own righteous, loving obedience to God or our prayers on their behalf. Although we who are Christians want to save the entire world and especially our loved ones, each person is ultimately accountable for his or her own soul.

As God said through the prophet Ezekiel, "'if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch our My hand against it...even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,' declares the Lord GOD" (Ez. 14:13-14)*.

Part II of the question asks what the Christian's response should be if he can't pray someone into heaven.  Does he just give up and stop praying for them entirely?

In the previous verse and in verse twenty of the same chapter from Ezekiel, God mentions three pillars of faith who give insight into this part of the question.  Noah, Daniel, and Job interceded for those around them.

Noah is recorded as "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God" (Gen. 6:9).  Later, Peter refers to him as "a preacher of righteousness" (Gen. 6:9, 2 Pet. 2:5). While I don't find a specific example of Noah praying for the people before the flood, the word "preacher" in the previous verse means "God's ambassador, and the herald or proclaimer of the divine word"**  

Throughout The Old Testament, a pattern appears of God's ambassadors interceding for the unrighteous after they receive a divine warning of impending wrath.  Moses repeatedly interceded for Israel while Abraham interceded for the cities of Sodom and GomorrahSurely after God's warning and throughout the 90+ years it took him to build the ark, Noah not only shared with everyone what was going to happen but also prayed to God for their deliverance.

Sadly, as history records, not one repented; not one was delivered.

Unlike Noah, in the cases of Daniel and Job, it is more obvious that they interceded for their people.

In the story of Job, Scripture specifically records him praying for family and friends.  

For his children, he continually prayed: "Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, 'Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did continually" (Job. 1:5).

Job also "prayed for his friends" (Job 42:10).  But neither his children's deliverance nor his friends' deliverance came through his intercession.  

Instead, his friends' deliverance came from their own actions of offering a burnt offering in repentance before the Lord. As the Lord said to them, "My servant Job will pray for you. For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly" (Job. 42: 8).  They obeyed and were spared by their own actions.

Daniel, as well, prayed for his people.  

In a quite lengthy prayer, Daniel "prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, 'Alas, O Lord we. . .have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances.  Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land" (Dan. 9:4-6).  

He requested God to relent in His wrath on Israel: "let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become a reproach to all those around us" 

Yet, even Daniel could not save the city of Jerusalem because of the people's sin.

 What, then, should a Christian's response be?  

The answer is clear--the Word of God demonstrates that the righteous must still stand in the gap, must still intercede for those who do not know Christ. 

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul encouraged us to do likewise: "First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men" (1 Tim 2:1).

May we be able to say with conviction that "my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation" (Rom 10:1).



*I wanted to note that some commentators believe that the Daniel mentioned here is not the same man who wrote the book of Daniel.  Although I humbly disagree, the idea that the righteous intercede for others is a sound tenet found throughout scripture.  I can't help but believe if this text does refer to another Daniel, he, too, would have interceded for his people.

**Blue Letter Bible Online.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

When Your Family Tree is Sick: Part I

What do you do when your family tree is filled more with people who want nothing to do with God than with people who want to serve Him?  Can you save them by your own prayers and righteousness?  And if not, do you just give up?

These are honest questions I have asked God more than once.

My immediate family is devoted to the Lord.  From my Grandfather's devotion to the Lord came four daughters who loved Him, three of whom are married to Godly husbands who helped those daughters raise seven grandchildren to serve Him as well.  Slowly, these seven grandchildren are marrying, seeking to choose Godly spouses and create another Christan home to nurture their children. 

Presently, there are seventeen of us this side of eternity, plus my small children and a few potential mates.  When we are together, it seems like a large group serving the Lord.

But all I have to do is trace back and follow any other branch in the family tree to see faithlessness, blood after blood going another direction, seeking after their own pursuits.

When I look at the whole tree, I see how tiny our healthy little branch truly is.  The bulk of my family tree is infected to the marrow, sick with sin.  My heart grieves over my relatives' souls.

Today's article will be part of a two-part post since it's a two-pronged question.  First, can my righteousness save my relatives?  And secondly, if it can't, should I just give up praying for them?

For the first part--can my obedience to God, my prayer for others--can it save their souls?

In Ezekiel 14, God says no.  He tells the prophet, " 'if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch our My hand against it...even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,' declares the Lord GOD" (Ez. 14:13-14)*.

In other words, not even the most righteous pillars of faith could save another person from the pits of hell's judgment.

Throughout the remainder of the chapter, God methodically presents one method of destruction after another--famine, wild beasts, sword, and plague.  With each of these four judgments, He repeats the same phrasing about deliverance, emphasizing that one can only save his/her own soul, not the souls of others...not even the souls of their children. 

God soberly states, "even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its [the country's] midst...they could not deliver either their son or their daughter.  They would deliver only 
themselves by their righteousness" (Ez. 14:20).

These verses together emphasize the principle of personal accountability.  God doesn't let us shift the blame and evade responsibility for our actions.

Four chapters, later, Ezekiel quotes a common proverb of his day: "The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children's teeth are set on edge" (v. 2).  In other words, the Israelites were doing much what our culture does today--blaming their parents.  Here, the proverb means that because their fathers had sinned, they inherited their fathers' bitterness or punishment by having to live in exile in Babylon.

The problem is that in shifting the blame to their parents, they weren't acknowledging their own personal guilt before God, and God wasn't going to have it.

The entirety of Chapter 18 explains what the righteous man with the unrighteous father, the unrighteous man with the righteous father, and so on can expect from God.

He concludes, "The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself" (Ez. 18:20).

Personal accountability.

God ends with a plea to His people: "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,' declares the Lord GOD. 'Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.  Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel?...Therefore, repent and live'" (Ez. 18:30-32).

It hurts my heart, knowing I cannot bring my family to salvation.  The New Testament is clear that that is a work of the Holy Spirit.

No matter how much I pray for them, my prayers, my righteousness cannot save my children.  They cannot save my mother, my father, my husband.

Next week, we will discuss in this space what a Christian's response should be if her righteousness cannot save another.

But for now, Ezekiel 18 says we each must make a choice--life or death.  Yes, it's really that simple.

Life in Christ or death without Him.

God is asking us, "For why will you die, __________? Therefore, repent and live."
 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Praying It Forward


My children know mommy demands immediate obedience. And yet they struggle daily to balance the desire to be independent and do it their way with the desire to make mommy happy by obeying her.

Sadly, all too often, I’ve played out the same scenario with my heavenly Father. On a spiritual high, I will become totally engrossed with in-depth Bible study and prayer, rooting myself so deeply by His life-giving river that I feel I cannot possibly be drawn away from His presence again.

And then step by wayward step, I allow the cares of this world to draw me from the water’s edge. Disobedience, apathy, children, friends, job, household chores, spouse, sheer laziness, exhaustion—they all beckon me away from His presence until His Holy Spirit convicts me, sending me humble, repentant, ashamed, parched as I crawl face-down to Him for a long drink.

In Scripture, King Solomon was on one of the biggest spiritual highs of his life—what God had not allowed his father, David, to accomplish, he had been able to complete. After seven years, the temple, the house of the Lord, was finally finished. The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the holies of holies. The people of God were “sacrificing so many sheep and oxen they could not be counted or numbered” (1 Kings 8:5). The glory of the Lord Almighty had descended upon earth to fill the temple with a cloud so thick that “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” (1 Kings 8:11).

And yet when Solomon prayed to dedicate the temple, he did not merely rejoice over how close he and Israel were to God at that present moment. Instead, his prayer looked ahead to those times when God’s people would not be walking in obedience to Him:

When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin …. And send rain on Your land” (I Kings 8:35-36).

He continued to pray that "When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy…if they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to You…then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You” (I Kings 8: 46, 48-50).

There is a lesson we each must learn from Solomon’s prayer. We must realize our human frailties will eventually draw us from that mountaintop, even if for a short while. Knowing this truth, in those uplifting seasons of indescribable closeness with God, we must pray, asking Him to convict us of our sin during those future times when we will undoubtedly go astray and then forgive us when we truly repent.

This week, start praying in this manner. Pray for God to never give up on you, to never just let you have your own disobedient way, to never let your heart harden to His voice, to never stop hearing your prayers and offering forgiveness, and to never cease prompting you with the Holy Spirit towards a life of complete obedience and a closer walk with Him.

(Photo: Our '05 family trip to Hawaii, looking down from the mountain at the ocean)

Posting here from the archives on this Veterans' Day weekend.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What Happens to a Stubborn Nation?

Thirty million Christians did not vote in the last presidential election in 2008.  That number just astounds me.  But this isn't a post about why you should vote or who you should vote for this coming Tuesday.  There have been enough heavyweights weighing in with the call for Christian men and women to cast their vote.

Instead, I want to look at what Scripture says about the destiny of a land that refuses to be refined by God.

When God tests a nation, gives it a chance to repent, what happens when that land refuses the purification process? When it flagrantly insists on clinging to wickedness and persistently, continuously defiling God's laws?

Throughout Scripture, God speaks of Himself as a silversmith, one who stands before a furnace of intense flames and works to melt the rough silver, bring the impurities to the surface, and then skim this "dross" off.  The divine metal worker repeats the process again and again until that silver is purified to the point where He can see His reflection in the melted metallic pool.

The Psalmist explains that the Father seeks to purify all men in this way: "For You have tried us, O God; You have refined us as silver is refined" (Ps. 66:10). Such a refining process may be accomplished through the refining Word of God (Ps. 12:6) or through trials where "the Lord tests hearts" (Prov. 17:3).

Yet, it is possible for individuals and nations alike to refuse to be cleansed by the refining process.  They may, instead, cling stubbornly to their impurities, refusing to be separated from what is not holy and pleasing to God in their own lives.

The nation of Israel did just this.  As a result, the Lord said, "the house of Israel has become dross to Me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are the dross of silver" (Ez. 22:18).

In this passage, Israel had become not the purified silver but the dross, the part composed of nothing but worthless impurities that were destined to be skimmed off and discarded. In short, Israel had become unrefineable, irredeemable

The nation's problem was that she had refused to be purified by the refining process.  No matter how hot God made the testing and trials, Israel was "a land that is not cleansed or rained on in the day of indignation" (Ez. 22:24).  No amount of heating over intense flames had caused (or would cause) her to relinquish her death grip on idolatry, harlotry, wickedness...her sin.

The Lord gives a similar image of Israel's stubbornness through the prophet Jeremiah:

"The bellows blow fiercely,
The lead is consumed by the fire;
In vain the refining goes on,
But the wicked are not separated.
They call them rejected silver,
Because the Lord has rejected them." (Jer. 6:29-30)

Here, the image is of a workman pumping up and down on the bellows, forcing more and more air into the furnace, thereby increasing its temperature.  The hotter the fire, the more the impurities would be released to rise to the surface as dross to be removed.  

Yet, again, no matter how hot God caused the fire to become for the nation of Israel, it has all been "in vain." Israel refused to let the trials sent by God separate it from its wickedness, and as such, God had no choice but to reject what would not be purified.

This is where I believe our nation stands today, as liquid silver in the crucible of the heavenly refiner.  Every Supreme Court decision, every election of a public official, every citizen's choice to uphold or trample upon God's Word in his / her personal life---no matter how large or small these choices may seem, each one is a choice to submit to the refiner's fire or cling to impurities. 

Tuesday's presidential election is one of those choices. 

No matter the results, though, the prophet Zechariah speaks hope to those of us who have submitted to the refining process and allowed our hearts to be purified:

And I will bring the third part through the fire,
Refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.
They will call on My name,
And I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are My people,’
And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’" (Zech. 13:9)

If we are breathing, we can choose to keep a death grip on our sin or let it go and be purified.  It is not too late.  Praise God, in Christ, there is hope.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Why Not Fifty Shades of Gray

My mother-in-law loves cats.  My father-in-law is a dog person.  

Like oil and water, the two simply don't mix.  They may appear to come together for a brief moment, but wait a few minutes, and they're back on their side of the beaker.

When Opa is working in one of the barns or taking his morning walk down the length of our quarter-mile driveway, his pack of five large dogs follows him away from the house, making room for Oma's seven cats to freely walk in the open without the fear of being chased (or worse).

Yet, as soon as the dogs return, the cats scatter, some high atop the red Dodge farm truck, some to the pump house, and others into the woods.  

Even though they've all lived on the same farm for years, they still can't co-exist together, at least not in such a great number.  It's always one or the other greeting me when I walk down, never both.

This is the image that came to mind when reading Ezekiel 8 this week, the chapter where God explains why His presence is leaving the temple in Jerusalem.

Even though "the glory of the God of Israel was there" still in the temple of Jerusalem, those left behind after the deportation and exile to Babylon hadn't learned their lesson.  Instead, they ignored God like never before, worshipping their own idols and defiling His holy sanctuary (v.4).

Ezekiel states, "Then He said to me, 'Son of man, raise your eyes now toward the north.' So I raised my eyes toward the north, and behold, to the north of the altar gate was this idol of jealousy at the entrance. And He said to me, 'Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary?'" (v. 5-6). 

This idolatry, this sin was causing God to "be far from" His people.   

It wasn't a foreign power, not King Nebuchadnezzar and his mighty armies.  No.  Sin was expelling God from His holy sanctuary just as sure as sin expelled the people from the land of Israel.

Holiness simply cannot continually dwell in the presence of evil. 

In the rest of the chapter, God outlines the abominations of Israel.  There is an idol at the temple court's entrance, idols worshipped in secret, idols carved on the walls, women worshipping a false god, and even men turning their back on God's holy place to worship the sun in the temple's inner court.

This wasn't just one who had turned from God.  All had sinned.  All were worshipping other idols.

Yet, God saw what idols they had carved in their inner closets, those hidden behind secret panels that no one else could find.

God knew.  And God still knows today.

The sin that separated Him from His people back them still separates Him from you and me until we are covered by the blood of Christ.

His presence cannot reside where continual sin flourishes and thrives, unashamed, unchecked, unrepented.
 
Two chapters later, Ezekiel describes God slowly leaving the temple until "The glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood over the mountain which is east of the city" (Ez. 11:23).

That was it.  God's holy presence would no longer reside with sinful man until the time for Christ would be come.

Sin is that serious.  Even what we may rationalize away as "little white sins" are that divisive.

This side of the cross, Christ resides in the hearts and souls of men and women versus a physical temple.  Still, though, Paul repeatedly tells us in Romans that holiness and sin cannot dwell together.   We can either worship in spirit or in flesh, serve one master or another (Rom. 6).

If our lives are characterized by continuous sin and worship of anything that causes us to compromise God's holy standards, we need to really examine our hearts to see if we have ever truly repented and turned to serve Christ.  Yet, even if we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, continuous, unchecked sin in our lives can still divide us from the power of Christ within us.

It's time to look at our souls as oil or water, black or white, not fifty shades of gray.


Image: Cool science experiment found here

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Does a Watchman Really Do?

Thoughts of an old graduate school friend have consumed me of late.  He is the "one that got away," but not in the way you might think.

Of all my friends from that part of my life, he is the only one whom I spent hours with, having  serious, consistent conversations about God.  I stumbled over myself at every turn, and I knew it, but I never gave up hope, never stopped praying that one day, God would move his heart, help him get past the intellectual stonewall of rationalism and accept Christ and the Bible by faith.

It never happened.  

That was thirteen years ago.  And the state of his soul still haunts me like my shadow tall beside me each morning.

The last time my friend and I met for coffee, I was newly married, teaching, and putting my husband through law school.  I learned he had moved back from Chicago after a failed stint in film school and a failed long-term relationship.  His brother had recently died.  Suicide.  His sister was still absorbed in dance.

I cried after we parted that day.  All the old defenses, all the intellectual banter to keep me at a distance were still there.  Visiting with him was just so...sad

Wherever he is, he is in his early forties, closer each day to meeting his maker.  Every now and then, I still awake from a dream of rounding a corner and bumping into him again, of trying once more to share the love of Christ with him.  But it's only just a dream.

What do you do, then, when someone from your past burdens your heart? When you want more than anything to share Christ with them, but time, distance, or the unknown separate you?

And what of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 that tells us to "go and make disciples of all nations" (v. 19)?  Sometimes, the going is made impossible by responsibilities that keep us firmly planted here at our specific latitude and longitude.  What then!?

Are we still called to be God's watchmen who stand upon the wall?

In the book of Ezekiel, God reveals a great deal about being God's watchman, not "to the remotest part of the earth" where I tend to think is most important but "both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria" (Acts 1:8).

I'm speaking of being God's messenger at home

When God appointed Ezekiel as a watchman, He described one part of the prophet's job description: just speak: "Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me" (Ez. 3:17).

This doesn't sound anything out of the ordinary--to speak the Word of God, all the Word of God, leaving nothing out.  The prophet Jeremiah was admonished in the same way.

But then God goes further, explaining, "Moreover, I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be mute and cannot be a man who rebukes them, for they are a rebellious house.  But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you will say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD'" (Ez. 3:26-27).

Some scholars believe Ezekiel literally became a mute, unable to speak unless God placed words within his mouth.  If true, it's a poignant lesson for us about what we should say and not say--God's Word and His Word alone.

A few verses earlier, God gives a second job description: "He spoke with me and said to me, 'Go, shut yourself up in your house'" (Ez. 3:24).  GO HOME.

What?  Weren't watchmen to go out, stand on the highest wall, maybe wait for an audience, and then spill forth God's Word?  How else was Ezekiel to warn others if he was sitting at home!?

Yet, go home, Ezekiel went.  And the people began coming to him.  In chapter 8, Scripture records, "I was sitting in my house with the elders of Judah sitting beside me" (v. 1).  In chapter 14, Scripture says, "Then some elders of Israel came to me..." (v. 1).  And again, in chapter 20, "certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me" (v. 1).

Again and again, God brings to Ezekiel those who need to hear the message.  God gives the Words. God opens Ezekiel's mouth.  All Ezekiel has to do is then speak.

Please understand that I'm not saying God doesn't expect us to share the gospel with the entire world.  Yet, sometimes, I think we get so caught up in the belief that we are only serving as good little watchmen for the Lord if we are spreading salt and light on foreign soil.  I think we get caught up in the belief that if we don't see thousands saved, we're doing a poor job.

Being a watchman means one thing--being God's messenger, sharing all the Word of God, both in and out of season, period.

Yes, it's antithetical to our American mentality of numbers, statistical analyses, and success at all costs, but if others won't listen, it matters not.  We cannot simply change the message to give it mass appeal.  A watchman is a messenger, not a savior. 

And if we are prohibited from going to those who need to hear, that fact does not inhibit God in the least.  God can and will bring them to us.

You and I who are in Christ must believe that.  We must start perceiving ourselves as important watchmen in our own Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria--our city, our state, our country.

Considering the reach of the Internet, radio, and television in our present time, being a watchman at home may be more important than ever before.

There's no telling what God can accomplish through you...all from your own doorstep.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Avoiding Ceaseless Pursuits

In early 2009, my sister by marriage sent me a Newsweek article entitled "Generation Diva: How Our Obsession with Beauty is Changing our Kids".  According to the article, the lie society preaches that you are not “beautiful enough” is ensnaring younger and younger children; the statistics are alarming—14% of Botox injections are for 19 - 34-year-olds; cosmetic surgery numbers have doubled for those 18 and under; and American 8 – 12-year-olds alone spend $40+ million per month on beauty treatments. In fact, the average girl today will have spent “$300,000 on just her hair and face” by the time she is 50.

The article also quoted writer Susie Orbach's new book, Bodies: "good looks and peak fitness are no longer a biological gift, but a ceaseless pursuit. And obsession at an early age, she says, fosters a belief that these are essential components of who we are—not, as she puts it, 'lovely add-ons.' It primes little girls to think they should diet and dream about the cosmetic-surgery options available to them."

I have a young daughter, and this scares me.  

What a horrific lie Satan is dispersing through advertising, TV shows, magazines, radio— like a strong wind blowing seeds across the continent, each seeking to take root in young (and not so young) minds to grow into a monstrous, thorny obsession.

Yet, our gracious God knew many people would have self-esteem problems, so He caused His servant, David, to pen words about how beautiful we are to Him: “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:14-15, my Italics). Did you hear that? God’s “skillful” hands crafted you into something He considers “wonderful.” What plastic surgeon could possibly be more skillful than our God?

Perhaps, though, you are not be caught up in Satan’s lie that you are not “beautiful enough.”  Satan encourages Christians and non-Christians alike to grab hold of other "ceaseless pursuits" because of being led to believe they are “not enough” by society’s standards. In present-day America, several obsessions instantly spring to mind.

One is the lie that you’re not good enough to keep your job in this economy. 

Satan says that there are so many other people smarter than we are who could do our job so much better. The result? One, we make our job an obsession, ignoring all other aspects of our lives and families. Or, two, we obsessively worry all the time about being laid off or downsized.

Either way, we are ignoring God’s command in Matthew 6:25-27: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Does God promise we won’t lose our jobs? No, but He does promise to care for us in those times.

Another is the lie that you're not a good enough mother or father.


Satan whispers that if we don’t sacrifice everything for our child, don’t send him to a certain school, don’t involve her in certain sports, don’t give him this particular educational toy, then we’re ruining her chances for a successful future.

Consequently, we make our children our god, spending all week, including the Sabbath, giving them every advantage we can possibly squeeze in and teaching them that they are #1 in life. Not only does this make them ill-prepared for reality, but worst of all, it means we place them before God. Even in the Old Testament, God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

The list could go on. The point is that ANY time we believe that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not _____ enough (you fill in the blank), we lose the confidence we need to be the best witness for Christ and we cease trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Yes, alone we are never enough, but if it is something Christ calls us to, we are always enough. Instead of holding on to this truth, though, we take our eyes off Jesus and obsess about something temporal, not something everlasting.

In a sense, we become like Peter who believed enough in Jesus to get out of the boat and even, for a time, to successfully defy the laws of physics and walk on the water. But then, “when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:30-31).

Was Peter “enough” on his own? Of course not. He needed Jesus. But, like Peter, we doubt ourselves, and so we needlessly obsess over things that aren’t worthy of our thoughts. But we are enough in Christ! In Christ, we are beautiful enough, smart enough; if we give Him our children and our marriages and seek to live up to His standards and not the world’s standards, we can be good enough parents and spouses.

Whatever lies Satan and the world are whispering in your ears, whatever obsessions you have waiting in the wings or that you are actively pursuing, they will diminish your confidence, power, and energy to live for Jesus.

The next time you have one of those “I’m not _____ enough” days, God has a Word to directly oppose that lie. He wrote it long ago and preserved it especially for you, for that specific moment when He knew you’d be needing to hear some Godly truth. If no Scripture springs to mind, find an Online Bible Concordance where you can look up a keyword. God has an answer to every lie Satan seeks to plant in your mind.

Seek that answer so the lie doesn’t take root.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

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, when I consider them, I don't think of London and Paris. Instead, I think of one city found in the pages of 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.

In only one century, this 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. No, 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. Sadly, they had apparently failed to pass along to the next generation their own personal fear of Jehovah God. Instead, they passed on merely their growing military power, their cruelty, their wickedness, and their pride.

And for that lack of re-telling about Jehovah to their children and their children's children, the next generation was annihilated.

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

It's about you and me, about our passing on to the next generation a love, fear, and reverence for a holy God.

If we don't, who will tell them?

(With thoughts of our nation's election right around the corner, this post from the archives seemed a poignant reminder of how important it is for us to be that one generation who holds up a nation.)

(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, September 30, 2012

The Dangers of Ear Tickling

We've all seen them on television, read about them on the Internet, perhaps even sat on a pew under their tutelage.  Whatever the circumstance, there is never a shortage of eccentric people claiming to be God's mouthpiece.

Some achieve notoriety, warning that the end of the world is coming on such and such a date.  Then, there are those self-appointed prophets who either twist the Word of God beyond recognition or lay it on the chopping block, choosing a positive self-help gospel of love and peace while discarding those hard passages that are perceived as "not pertaining to modern society" or just too judgmental.

Although many find humor in the ridiculousness of some of the prophesies, a false word of God is nothing to laugh about.

In the book of Ezekiel, God condemns Israel's false prophets for leading a nation of exiles astray.  The prophets would "prophesy from their own inspiration," saying "Listen to the word of the Lord!"; yet, it would be their own words, not God's, that would flow forth (Ez. 13:2).

Nobody wanted to hear of a seventy year exile.  Nobody wanted to hear about repentance and having to deny their flesh to change their hearts.  So, these prophesies chose to tickle the people's ears,weaving false words of hope and the quick restoration of Israel to her homeland. 

While it may initially seem almost harmless for these men and women to speak a false prophecy that would not come true, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ezekiel gives two reasons why false prophecies are so destructive.  First, he says, "You [prophets] have not gone up into the breaches, nor did you build the wall around the house of Israel to stand in the battle on the day of the LORD" (Ez. 13:5).

Simply put--God's prophets did not stand in the "breaches," the gaps in the spiritual wall surrounding Israel's people.  They failed to protect Israel, failed to fill in those gaps with the truth of God's Word and, thus, "build a wall," thereby shoring up the spiritual defenses the Israelites needed to face God's judgment to come.

Instead, the false prophets plastered over those gaps in the people's spiritual defenses with pretty whitewashed falsehoods of peace, hope, and a quick end to their sufferings.  The problem was that when the floods of God's wrath would come, the gaps would again be revealed, exposing how unprotected God's people truly were (Ez. 13:10-13).

The only way to prepare God's people for His judgement was by preparing their hearts, strengthening their spiritual defenses.  To accomplish this preparation, the people first needed to repent of their sin and accept the justice of God's judgment.  Yet, the prophets failed to encourage repentance.

As such, Ezekiel condemns them because they "have encouraged the wicked not to turn from his wicked way and preserve his life" (Ez. 13:22).  Without being presented with the truth of God, the wicked saw no need to repent and continued in their sin, which led to their eternal death.

While the prophet's falsehoods were devastating for the wicked, Ezekiel also states they were devastating for the righteous as well, condemning the prophets "Because you disheartened the righteous with falsehood when I did not cause him grief" (Ez. 13:22).

God's truth, then, is needed both for the unrighteous and the righteous.  

While we may want to discard these passages with the thought that prophets are merely those who look into the future, who receive visions or special revelation from the Lord, the various definitions of prophet imply that a modern-day prophet can be anyone who claims to speak for God, anyone who claims to proclaim the truths of God.

In the New Testament, Paul charged Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim. 4:2-5).

From Ezekiel's day through the time of Jesus until now--people would rather hear messages that are encouraging versus ones that ask them to examine their own lives and turn from their sin.  The time period may be different, but human nature remains unchanged.

This is why we Christians must be so very careful in what we attribute to God, in how we use Scripture from God's Holy Bible. Otherwise, we, too, can be guilty of not preparing the people for God's wrath to come so they don't feel a need to repent and of discouraging the righteous.  

He's looking for just one person to stand firm.  For you, for me...to speak the truth of His word in and out of season.  To speak the truth of His word in love even if it's not politically correct, even if it costs us our lives.

May God not say of our world what He said of Israel: "I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one" (22:30).

We must expose the falsehoods that exist in our culture, find the places where the gospel is needed, and stand there in the gap with the truth of God's word.



Image: C. Jeremy Price on Flick'r

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What to Do With a Useless Vine

Autumn's first chill brought out the fall gardener in me.  Black-topped rows already tilled and planted with kale, mustard greens, and broccoli, I turned my attention to the flower beds and the defiant clematis vine that had strayed from the wooden post it had determined not to climb, likely because that is the one thing I wanted it to do.

Armed with long-handled loppers, I marched into the backyard with full-scale massacre in mind.

Throughout a sweltering summer full of bountiful rain, the tendrils had sneaked away from the post and crept across the tops of the bed's other foliage until they formed a verdant tangled heap atop the iris, chrysanthemums, and heirloom rose.

I let it grow, determining to cut it down and throw it into the fire after the intertwined carpet of tiny white flowers had shriveled into seed.  Blossoms spent, the vine would die back anyway at first frost.  It was useless.

Many Christians are familiar with the New Testament passage wherein Jesus presents the analogy of Himself as the vine and His followers are the branches.  Christ warns "'Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned'",  (Jn. 15:4-6).

Old Testament Scripture uses the same analogy of the vine but here, the vine refers to God's chosen people, the nation of Israel.

The prophet Isaiah plainly states, "the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant" (Is. 5:7).  Then, he describes how God did everything to help His vineyard grow and produce fruit: 

         He dug it all around, removed its stones,
         And planted it with the choicest vine.
         And He built a tower in the middle of it
         And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
         Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
         But it produced only worthless ones.
  (v. 2)

Even with all this special treatment, though, the vine did not produce good fruit.  The prophet Jeremiah confirms this, saying, "I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock.  How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?" (Jer. 2:21).


The nation of Israel thought itself better than the other nations because it was God's chosen nation.  In the Israelites' mind, God would bless them above all others no matter whether they followed God's law or played the harlot with idols.  Yet, through the prophet Ezekiel,  the Lord takes them to task over this faulty belief, asking what is a vine good for if it doesn't bear fruit?

The Lord says, "how is the wood of the vine better than any wood of a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Can wood be taken from it to make anything, or can men take a peg from it on which to hang any vessel? If it has been put into the fire for fuel, and the fire has consumed both of its ends and its middle part has been charred, is it then useful for anything?" (Ez. 15:2-4).


God makes it clear that other trees can be used for construction to make something else.  But a vine that is fruitless?  It is worthless, useless.

A vine is created for one, simple, single-minded purpose--to bear fruit.  It cannot deviate from its purpose and decide to have itself carved into a chair or a table.  Instead, if it refuses to do what God created it to do, it is worth nothing and will glow for a mere moment in the fire before being consumed in ash (v. 7).

Both Old and New Testament references to the vine may be different, but they impart the same lesson--God made His children, Christ's followers, to have a single-minded purpose--to abide in Christ so that we glorify God while pointing the world to Him.

John McArthur says, "In every age, the people of God have their value in their fruitfulness" (p. 907).

We must believe that.  The world may say that the heyday of Christianity is over, that we have lost our influence in the areas of morality, government, and the family...that it's too late to turn back the tide of rampant sin and evil.

But God says differently.

He says to you, to me, that we are still useful if we continue bearing good fruit to glorify God for all to see.

It's the one thing we were created to do.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Can America Learn from Israel's Mistakes?

Despite its economic woes over the past few years, America still ranks among the top ten wealthiest countries in the world.
Honestly? It's what Americans expect--to be the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most innovative. Even when the outlook looks dim, t
here always seems to be an underlying belief that things are destined to get better over time..."because this is America, the greatest nation in the world."

It wasn't too many thousands of years ago that another nation felt the same as many Americans--blessed, better than everyone else, undefeatable .


In the days of King Solomon, Israel was at the top of its game in terms of its economy, size, and military might. Scripture records that "
all the kings of the earth were seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart" (2 Chron. 9:23). With each visit, the foreigners added to Israel's wealth so that by the end of his opulent reign, "The king made silver as common as stones in Jerusalem, and he made cedars as plentiful as sycamore trees that are in the lowland" (2 Chron. 9:27).

God had blessed Israel beyond its wildest dreams, transforming the descendants of Egyptian slaves who had wandered aimlessly in the desert for forty years into the most powerful nation on earth.  

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God described all He had done to bless Israel as a nation: "I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you" (Ez. 16:10-14).

Yet, the nation of Israel disregarded God's laws, "played the harlot" by worshiping other gods.  To add insult to injury, Israel used all those blessings God had given it to create idols: "You also took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images that you might play the harlot with them.  Then you took your embroidered cloth and covered them, and offered My oil and My incense before them.  Also My bread which I gave you, fine flour, oil and honey with which I fed you, you would offer before them" (Ez. 16:17-19).

God repeats the word "My" throughout the passage to emphasize the fact that all the nation's wealth had come from Him.  Yet, all the gold, silver, cloth, oil and decadent foods--Israel used it to court not only the favor of false gods but to also court the favor of pagan countries like the Egyptians, Philistines, and Assyrians (v. 26-28).

A powerful, wealthy nation did not give God thanks for the blessings, but rather used those gifts for its own evil, wicked purposes as it turned its face almost entirely away from God--sound familiar?

History records that the Israelites did not repent and turn back to God.  Instead, they continued to think because they were God's chosen people, He would never turn His back on them.  Even when His blessings began to dry up like a raisin in the sun, they still believed they were immune from His judgment--because they were citizens of Israel, God's chosen nation, which made them the greatest--right?

Wrong.  God warned Israel time and time again that He would judge them for their worship of false idols, for their ingratitude, for their breaking of His holy law.  He warned He would "give you [Israel] into the hands of your lovers [the nations], and they will tear down your shrines...strip you of your clothing, take away your jewels, and will leave you naked and bare...they will stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords...They will burn your houses with fire" (Ez. 16:39,41).

Not too many years later, God did just that, giving Israel into the hands of its enemies, which stripped the nation of its wealth, massacred its citizens, and burned the city of Jerusalem with fire

As the old saying goes, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."  

America must not believe itself insulated from God's wrath just because it has received God's blessings all these years.  Instead, it must seek to learn from Israel's mistakes.  If not, it, too, will be doomed to walk this same road, repeating the mistakes of the too many proud nations that have come before us.