Sunday, July 28, 2013

Worshipping With A Different Tribe

How do they dress?” I had asked my sister in law. Even though we coming to her and my brother’s home for vacation, a weekend stay-over meant we would be worshipping with them at their church. My concern wasn’t making three toddlers be quiet in church service; it was not sticking out like a roadside daisy in a well-manicured bed of hybrid tea roses.

I needn’t have worried.

Two pews in front of us sat a man with stiffly gelled hair slicked to one side, a few days’ stubble on his face. He was dressed in a faded red polo that stretched taught around his ample belly and well-worn khakis, the creases and seams fuzzy with frayed threads. By him sat an African American man dressed much the same, both of them obviously together, obviously not financially well off.

Several rows up sat a woman in red and black wool hat, another in designer leopard print heels. Intermixed throughout the congregation were splashes of color, people of Asian and Indian heritage. Behind us sat a woman who whipped out her cell phone to proudly show a picture of her newly adopted son from Korea.

This was a coming together of people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, yet all raising their voice in song to Christ who bound them together. I didn’t feel out of place. Instead, I felt like I was just one of God’s children assembled together as one to worship Him.

Although there are exceptions, in a Southern culture where most churches are divided mostly along racial lines, I sometimes feel I get such an inaccurate picture of what worship was intended to be…what worship one day will be.

I can’t help wondering about that first worship experience when the first group of exiles returned from captivity in Babylon.

The very first thing they did upon arrival was worship: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem…[and] buil[t] the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it" (Ezra 3:1-2).

Seventy years had passed. Many of those returning were born in captivity, had never worshipped in God’s holy city as one assembly with all God’s chosen people. Likely, they had never worshipped together as a group, period.

Many were surely quite poor; yet, we know some were wealthy since Ezra speaks of their building houses with panels of cedar like King Solomon did. So, at a minimum, the congregation of worshippers included those of disparate social classes.

Yet, were the worshippers even more varied? Perhaps word of Cyrus’ decree that the Jews could return home had spread rapidly to the surrounding countries, to Egypt, where many of the Israelites fled once conquered. Had these exiles also returned along with the ones from Babylon to help rebuild the temple foundation? Were they part of “the people” who assembled to worship?

And the ones who had been left behind, those considered so poor, so worthless that they were no threat to an enemy king—did they, too, join as one in worship with their returned brothers and sisters? Or had they all intermarried with foreigners, been drawn away by false gods at this point so that their worship was an abomination to God?

There’s a lot I don’t know about who joined together to worship Jehovah once this first wave of exiles returned home. It’s all conjecture.

But Revelation tells how it will be one day. John says, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’”(Rev. 7:9-10).

Rich, poor; healthy, sick; black, white, red, and all in between—we who serve Him will all gather together in true unity to worship Christ, our Redeemer and Lord.   

(Posting from the archives today, as we worshipped here in North Carolina with yet another tribe during a visit with my brother and sister in love.)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Odd Provisions: Ravens' Mouths & Foreign Widows

Imagine you're Elijah.  One moment, you're on the mountain top, receiving and delivering a message from the Lord to evil King Ahab, saying, "there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word" (1 Kin. 17:1).  

As time passes, though, you become the victim of your own prophecy.

When Elijah spoke those words declaring a moratorium on rain, he might as well have painted a bright red target on his back.  His words did not bring the desired repentance in the King.  Instead, they so angered King Ahab that Elijah became the most wanted man in all Israel.

God, though, would provide for Elijah and protect him.  Yet, it wouldn't be easy for Elijah.

First, the Lord sent Elijah to the Kerith Ravine and told him, "You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there" (1 Kin. 17:4).  Each morning and evening, the ravens brought bread and meat, and the brook provided sufficient water to drink.

While this may not sound too terrible to us, as an Israelite, Elijah must have wondered why God chose to provide for him in this manner, especially considering Scripture referred to such birds as unclean and detestable: "These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven (Lev. 11:13-14). 

As time passed, even this provision from unclean birds seemed insufficient, especially when Elijah's prophesy began to come true.  The rains stopped.  The land began to suffer.  Elijah's brook even dried up.

I wonder if Elijah thought his one corner of the country would be spared the drought and subsequent famine?  Or maybe that God would continually supply living water to this brook even when the water had dried up at its source.  Whether or not Elijah had anticipated going to sleep with a severely parched mouth and waking from dreams of water, we don't know.  What we do know is what Elijah did next--he waited on God to provide.  

Many of us would have prayed and asked God to spare us from the judgment passed on an entire nation when we, ourselves, were not guilty of X, Y, or Z.  But, Elijah didn't do that.  As Dr. R. T. Kendall says, "Elijah could not make himself the exception to the rule.  He would live under God's judgment along with the rest of the people of Israel. So rather than pray for rain, he waited on God to see what would be--yet again--the next step forward" (p. 46).

Again, God provided for Elijah.  And again, it was in a way that surely caused Elijah to scratch his head in wonder.  Scripture records the Lord telling Elijah, "Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food" (1 Kin. 17:9).

Zarephath was not a city in Israel.  Instead, this was in the territory of the Gentiles a hundred miles away from his present location.  What's worse, Zarephath was also suffering from the drought and famine such that the widow at first rejected Elijah's call for help, telling him she and her son were about to eat their last supper and then wait for death.

These details tell us that God's judgment can be far-reaching, that the righteous are sometimes called to suffer along with the unrighteous and that even when God is specifically passing judgment on one country, other countries may suffer as well.

But why Zarephath?  If it, too, were suffering from drought, why not send Elijah elsewhere where there was no drought?  Or, instead, if Elijah were required to be under the same judgment as the rest of his people, why ask him to make the harrowing trek across 100 miles of barren land?  Couldn't Elijah have done just as well with a closer, Jewish widow to help him?

Jesus spoke to these exact questions.  He explained, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon" (Luke 4:24-26).  

Jesus' Jewish audience was furious at His implication that God would offer salvation to the Gentile because the Jew had rejected it.  They even ran Him out of town.

Yet, this passage illuminates why God used the unclean raven and of the Gentile woman to provide for Elijah.  Both uncommon methods of provision were foreshadowings of things to come in God's kingdom, when He would make a way for both Jew and Gentile to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through the sacrifice of His beloved son on the cross.

In Christ, Paul said of unclean food (as was the raven), " I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean....For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:14,17).

Concerning Gentiles and their place in the Kingdom of God, Paul said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile" (Rom 1:16).

To see this far back in history God's plan for me and you to be adopted into the Kingdom just goes to show there is no shadow of turning with our God.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

Kendall, R. T.  These are the Days of Elijah.  Bloomington: Chosen P, 2013.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Fourth Day of Creation

Try as I might to ignore it, the calendar shows summer is fast coming to a close.  Only four more weeks until the rigor of autumn sets in with its 8 pm lights out and blaring wake-up alarms before dawn.  No more late nights reading chapter books with a flashlight beneath the covers.  No more turning off the alarm after a late evening's dip in the pool.

Even in the ninety degree south Louisiana heat, there were still a a few days last week when an almost constant breeze whispered of autumn's approach.  Before my eyes, summer will soon turn to autumn before winter's frozen death prepares the world again for spring's rebirth.

It is hard for me to comprehend that back before the beginning of the world, God had these seasons in His mind, and on the fourth day, He set them in motion when he placed the sun, moon, and stars in space.

Scripture says, "Then God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth'; and it was so" (Gen. 1:14-15).

 This passage describes why God created the sun, moon, and stars--first for light and to separate the day and night, and second "for signs and for seasons."  

The Hebrew word in verse 14 for "seasons" is mow`ed, meaning "appointed time, appointed place, meeting."  Of the 223 times this word is used in the Old Testament, 150 of those usages are translated as congregation and 23 are translated as feasts.

Throughout Leviticus 23 (the chapter which succinctly describes the commanded seven Feasts of the Lord), this word for seasons is often translated as feasts.

For instance, the King James version says, "These [are] the feasts of the LORD , [even] holy  convocations , which ye shall proclaim  in their seasons" (Lev. 23:4).  In this verse, the words translated differently as feasts and seasons are the same--mow`ed.  

NASB translates the same verse as: "These are the appointed times of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them," translating mow`ed as merely "appointed times."

In other words, one of the primary reasons God created the sun, moon, and stars was so they would serve as time markers for the seasons as a sign to show his people when to come together to celebrate His holy feasts, festivals, and Sabbaths.  God's people could watch the movement of the heavens and know which Feast of the Lord was to be celebrated when.

Getting the timing right for these feasts of remembrance and thanksgiving was that important to God.

To this day, the Jewish calendar still follows lunar months to ensure the feasts are kept in their correct seasons, exactly as commanded in Scripture.  The Jewish calendar includes "twelve lunar months of 29 or thirty days, which is about ten days short of a solar year, so seven years in every nineteen have an extra month."1

While this calendar that adds an extra month every seven years may seem odd to those of us who use the Gregorian calendar which follows the earth's progression around the sun, the Jewish calendar more accurately keeps the Feasts of the Lord in their proper seasons, especially considering some weren't commanded to be on a specific date each year, as with our Christmas always falling on December 25, but were, instead, counted so many days from the last feast, as is the case with Pentecost, which is held fifty days after Passover.

Over the past few months, we have explored the seven commanded Jewish Feasts of Leviticus 23 and have seen how God intended them all to point to Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus, whose march to the cross was set in motion before creation, itself.  His appointed time to be born in a body of flesh and to die a brutal death was already written in His own blood on a holy calendar.

Revelation 13:8 refers to Jesus as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."  2 Timothy 1:9 says the grace of God "was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began."

Likewise, on the fourth day of creation when God was just beginning to form the world, He was already thinking of His feasts and Sabbaths, which would point to that appointed time when Jesus would come to earth and offer His life as a sacrifice, an atonement to cover all mankind's sin.

Knowing that God was already thinking of the feasts of Leviticus 23 when He was calibrating the heat of the sun and hanging the moon amidst a septillion stars makes the feasts seem that much more important to continue to celebrate today, even for us who are adopted by faith into the family.

1.  "The Jewish Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar." Wildolive.

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
God's Annual Camp-out (Part 2)
A Doorway But No Roof: God's Annual Camp-out
When The Books Are Closed: A Look at Yom Kippur
A One Hundred Trumpet Blast Wake-Up Call
Positioning Passover Pronouns
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

Monday, July 8, 2013

What Does a Faith-Walk Look Like?

That I will die is not something to make me lose sleep at night.  How I will die is another story.

I've seen some loved ones die in more pain than anyone should ever need suffer.  I've watched others shrivel into mere shadows of their former selves before they vanish altogether, an echo in a windstorm. 

Often, those persons simply "exist" for too long in bodies that fail them.  When I look at the expressionless faces or watch the other faces fail to recognize me after all these years we have spent together, I wonder.  Could I tap loudly enough on the glass and beckon them to come to the windows once more? Are they still the same bright spirit as they always were, only trapped inside that crumbling shell of humanity?  And what's more, are they aware of it all?

I can't answer those questions.  Some nights, they haunt me and I pray for God to just take me when it's time.   Yet, I'm not assured He will answer with a 'yes.'

Not knowing the when and the how of our passing from this world into the next makes it all the more important that our daily walk with God be a walk of faithfulness and preparation for whatever God has in store for us.

It's the walk that's important.  In Christianity, the journey is the destination.

Consider the one man whose spiritual walk was so in-step with God that He simply took him.

Before the time of Noah and the flood, Scripture records a horribly boring genealogy from Adam to Noah, at least that is how I viewed it as a teenager.  Yet, in the midst of the begats is a bright note:

"When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away" (Gen. 5:21-24).

Twice in this passage, it says Enoch "walked faithfully."  For 365 years, that is no small feat.

Hebrews' Hall of Faith also mentions Enoch: "By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found,  because God had taken him away.”For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb. 11:5-6).

Again, the Scripture indicates Enoch's "faith" was what saved him from the experience of death. This passage also indicates that Enoch's faith-walk was rooted in a belief in God...and that his belief pleased God.

Belief.  It's a loaded word in today's culture where most people express a belief in God even if their actions don't match up with that mental belief.

With Enoch, however, his walk and his actions proved his belief.  His walk demonstrated his faith.  In other words, for 365 years, he was a living witness for God.

You've heard the old adage, 'Actions speak louder than words,' and in Enoch's case, that is true.  His actions are what are recorded in Scripture as evidence of his faith, not his words.  He was living salt and light to those in his age.  And that living witness pleased God.

Consider how this applies to us, today.  A modern-day faith-walk with God such as Enoch had requires us to demonstrate our belief in the God of The Bible with our daily actions...all the days of our lives.

It sounds fairly simple, but achieving this is the most difficult task of our lives.  If the Word of God says it and we don't do it, then we are not really believing God. To believe is to act accordingly.  Our believing mind must be followed by believing actions for the faith to be true belief. 

In Psalm 15, David asks who is a citizen of Zion, God's heavenly city.  He concludes the person's walk with God must demonstrate certain attributes:

O Lord, who may abide in Your tent?
Who may dwell on Your holy hill?
  He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness,
And speaks truth in his heart.
  He does not slander with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
  In whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
But who honors those who fear the Lord;...
(v. 1-4) 

To walk with God is to walk with (1) integrity, (2) righteousness in action, and (3) truth spoken with the heart and tongue.  

In short, a walk of faith requires us to be steeped in the truth of God's Word.  It requires us to be a witness to others by hourly, daily, and annually demonstrating our belief in God through our actions. 

Such a walk does not mean that we will drag God to hurry or slow down to match our stride but, instead, that we will seek to make our steps match His as we study His footprints throughout the Word. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

God's Annual Camp-out (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the Feast of Tabernacles as being focused on God and man dwelling together, about man symbolically leaving the security of his man-made walls and living outdoors in flimsy "booths" where he must rely fully on God for protection.

At this festival, all Israel is called upon to remember a time when all their descendants lived in booths: "so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:43).

In Jesus' day, two specific ceremonies would have been part of the Feast of Tabernacles, both of which served to remind God's children of that time in the desert where His holy presence was physically evident at all times--by day in a pillar of cloud and by night in a pillar of fire.

The first ceremony involved water, a reminder of the water-filled cloud of God's presence during the daytime:1

Imagine a whole parade of worshipers and flutists led by the priest to the pool of Siloam (where Jesus told the blind man to bathe his eyes after He put clay over them). The priest has two golden pitchers. One is for wine. He fills the other with water from the pool. As the flutes continue to play, a choir of Israelites chants Psalm 118. The whole procession heads back to the Temple through the Water Gate. A trumpet sounds as the priest enters the Temple area. He approaches the altar where two silver basins are waiting. He pours wine into one of the basins as a drink offering to the Lord and water from the pool of Siloam into the other. The whole ceremony, with the parade and the flutes and the singing, was such a joyful occasion that one of the ancient rabbis wrote: "Anyone who has not seen this water ceremony has never seen rejoicing in his life." The ceremony was to thank God for His bounty and to ask Him to provide rain for the crops in the coming year."2

The second ceremony involved fire, a great light, reminiscent of the pillar of fire the Israelites would have seen as they broke for camp in their booths each evening.

On the evening of the first day of the Feast, four 75-foot tall menorahs would be lit in the Temple's Court of the Women and would burn for the duration of the feast.  With the Temple resting high upon a hill above the city of Jerusalem, this was truly a brilliant light placed where all to see.  There was no missing it.

Surely, at least some of Jesus' disciples saw the light of these menorahs illuminating the impenetrable darkness only found in a pre-electricity world and remembered His words in Matthew, exhorting His disciples: "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:14-16).

This Feast, like all the others, draws all of Israel to remember God's faithfulness while also looking toward Christ as the fulfillment as all parts of the Feast.  

In John 7, Scripture records Jesus actually attending the Feast of Tabernacles.  Yet, only at the end of the festival does he reveal Himself in both of these ceremonies.  John says, "On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (Jn. 7:37).

Without knowing about the water ceremony, Jesus' statement seems to come out of nowhere.  But knowing of the tradition of giving thanks to God for life-giving water, Jesus' claim to give this sustaining water suddenly makes perfect sense.  Here, He promised the Holy Spirit for believers.  He expressed His divinity to an audience, some of whom understood His true meaning that He was Messiah.

After this revelation, Scripture records Jesus going to the Mount of Olives.  The next morning after the Feast's conclusion, Jesus re-entered the Temple: "At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him" (Jn. 8:2).  

Imagine the scene: after seven days, the immense light from these 75 foot menorahs would suddenly be gone.  How dark it must have seemed to those who had lived in the shadow of its illumination.  Then, in the midst of this darkness, in the same location where those candles would have been shining mere hours before, Jesus speaks to this second ceremony of lights: "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'" (Jn. 8:12).

Here, Jesus reveals Himself to be the light that never is extinguished.   He is the true light set upon a hill, the Messiah they had so long waited for...if only their eyes could have been opened to see that light in the midst of their spiritual darkness.

 Today, we are blessed to live this side of the cross.  Two thousand years later, Jesus is still the living water that will never run dry.  He remains the light of the world.  These gifts of His presence--water and light--the same ones God offered to the Israelites...He offers the same to you and to me through His Son Jesus, if we will only believe with our whole heart, soul, and mind.

1.  Nadler, Sam. Feasts of the Bible. "Feast of Tabernacles."  Video. Torrance: Rose P, 2011.
2.  *"Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles" by Jews for Jesus. 
Image: "Light Upon a Hill" by awesome photographer D. M. Weber

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
A Doorway But No Roof: God's Annual Camp-out
When The Books Are Closed: A Look at Yom Kippur
A One Hundred Trumpet Blast Wake-Up Call
Positioning Passover Pronouns
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover