Monday, October 28, 2013

Even If One Came Back From the Dead

What must it have been like to stand in the presence of God?  To realize you weren't dreaming or hallucinating but that in a twinkling, the veil between the visible and the invisible had parted to give you a glimpse of heavenly things in the form of an angel of the LORD, sent straight from the throne room with a message to you?

Just the thought strikes fear, awe, reverence, and a little bit of jealousy in me, all at the same time.  I would like to believe such an encounter would radically change my life, that it would erase any doubts that flicker through my mind on occasion.

And perhaps that is why I am still quicksand-stuck in Genesis with the story of the slave woman, Hagar, who was not worth much in the eyes of humanity but who suddenly found herself not only blessed to be living with God’s chosen people but also to be the recipient of God’s tangible presence—not once but twice.

The first time Hagar ran from Abraham and Sarah’s presence, “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7).

In these verses describing the encounter, the Hebrew word for “LORD” is transliterated as “YÄ•hovah.”  Jehovah. “Lord and master.”  “The existing one.”  The God of the Abraham and God's holy people in whom He placed His name forever.  This was the God she met with out in the wilderness.

As Blue Letter Bible states, Jehovah is “the promised name of God…While YHWH is first used in Genesis 2, God did not reveal Himself as YHWH until Exodus 3” when God told Moses to tell the Israelite slaves, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you” (Ex. 3:15).

The Jehovah God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to save His people.

This same Jehovah God was the one to visit Hagar, already pregnant with Abraham’s seed, although not with the child of promise.  When Hagar responds to Him, “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Gen. 16:13).

Here, her words seem to express a belief in Jehovah God in that she confesses with her mouth the LORD as God.  At this point, although the Scripture doesn't say it directly,  I have always believed her return to the camp serves as evidence of her submission to Jehovah as her Lord and Master.

Yet, two facts make me wonder if the submission were only lip service to this Jehovah God and not a submission of the heart to Him as her Master and Lord.  First is the fact that Ishmael grows into a young man who cruelly mocks young Isaac, an evil attitude that had to come from somewhere.  Could it be that he had picked up on his mother's ill will toward Sarah and Isaac? Had she even complained to the boy of how Abraham and Sarah had mistreated both her and him?  Second is Hagar’s subsequent stony-faced,unrepentant exit from Abraham’s camp and refusal to call on the name of the Lord even when such hard heartedness would almost certainly lead to the death of her son.

This idea seems even more likely considering the second time she leaves Abraham’s camp by force and meets with God in the wilderness, she does not meet with Jehovah.  Instead, Scripture records, “And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said unto her, ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is’” (Gen. 21: 17).

Here, the God who comforts her is the Hebrew word for “'elohiym.”  This is God in the plural sense, as in God the creator of Genesis 1-2.  This is not Jehovah God.  

It is interesting that God chose to come to her and Ishmael as Elohim, not as Jehovah.  While both words for "God" are used thousands of times each in the Old Testament, I strongly believe this shift in who God presents Himself as is extremely important.

But why did God come to Hagar as Elohim and not as Jehovah?  

I honestly can't say for certain, and no other commentator I've consulted has thought this detail important enough to even mention.  Yet, I wonder if it was because since God is the One who sees into our hearts, He had already seen Hagar's lack of faith in Him.  He already knew that in her heart, she had rejected Him as "Jehovah," as Lord, Master and Savior of her life and, as such, He came to her not as her Lord and Master but merely as the One True God of the universe who is the God of all creation...even those parts that reject Him as Lord.

If this is true, then Hagar's exile from Abraham's camp and entrance into a wilderness was merely a fulfillment of what had already happened in her heart.  This physical exile from God's people simply reflected what had already occurred in Hagar's soul as she had already spiritually rejected and exiled herself from God as her Lord and Master, as her savior.

This view of Hagar's heart seems to hold more validity when one considers how Scripture concludes the passage on Hagar: "Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt" (Gen. 21: 19-20).

Unlike with the first encounter when God spoke to Hagar and she followed by confessing Him as LORD Jehovah God, this time, Hagar says nothing at all.  She does not confess Him with her mouth.  She does not give thanks.  She does not demonstrate awe that He is a "God who sees."  Instead, Scripture simply says she fills up her skin with water and gives it to her son.

Elohim hears Ishmael's cry.  Elohim calls to Hagar.  Elohim opens her eyes. Likewise, Elohim is the God who is with Ishmael as he grows up...not Jehovah.  

God's protection to both Ishmael and Hagar, then, is either an example of them being blessed because of Abraham's faith in God OR, equally likely, that this is an example of "common grace" versus "saving grace" where God extends common grace to all humanity, even those who reject Him as master and Lord of their lives.  

Finally, the v. 19 description of Ishmael living in the desert as an archer seems to portray him as a self-made man, not one reliant upon God for his daily bread.  And, that last sentence in v. 20 showing Hagar return to her pagan, idolatrous roots--the land of Egypt--to procure Ishmael a bride seems most compelling.

Perhaps this is why Paul refers to Hagar as being a symbolic figurehead for all those enslaved by the law and sin, saying, "Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children" (Gal. 4:25).

Two visits from the Lord.  And yet, it doesn't seem to have been enough to change Hagar's heart. It's terribly sad and scary at the same time, how hardened our hearts can become,  Yet, Jesus spoke of the same thing in the New Testament story where the rich man in hell begs for Lazarus to be sent to his family and Abraham responds, "‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’”(Lk. 16:31).

It's not a miracle, a dead man walking, the audible voice of the Lord, or even an angel that saves our souls.  It is the Word of God taking root in our hearts that will work the miracle of salvation.  No other inexplicable phenomenon is needed or will even transform us if we merely believe with our heads but fail to submit with our hearts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The American Storage Unit

It wasn't that long ago when "storage" meant people tucking away unused items in their attics and barns. If it didn't fit your body or home, you either threw it out or found someone else who could use it.

Now? I can't drive twenty minutes from my home without seeing huge complexes filled with row upon row of storage units. Some are climate controlled and large enough to live in!

The popularity of these businesses shouldn't be surprising. Accumulating "stuff" is the American way. To have more, better, bigger a sign of prosperity, of achieving the American dream.

When I think of storage and Scripture, my mind immediately goes to the man who tore down the barns he had to build bigger ones to store his earthly treasure...and then he died, leaving it all behind (Lk. 12). I recall God's words about bringing my tithes into the "storehouse" (Mal. 3:10). I remember Matthew 6: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (v. 19-21).

Yet, what stands out to me most is not the physical storage mentioned in Scripture, but two other metaphorical kinds of storage. One is the storage of sin--not something the average person would intentionally do; I mean, who in his right mind would want to store up his sin? But without the saving blood of Christ, that's just what a person does--creates a storehouse of sin. Romans 2:5 states, "But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God."

To create a storehouse of sin is to create a storehouse of God's wrath.

In Hosea's message to Israel, he also speaks of this sin storage in connection with God's judgment: "The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; His sin is stored up" (Hos. 13:12). This verse, though, speaks of more than mere storage of one individual's sin. Instead, it speaks of a storehouse established for the whole country of Israel--here referred to as the tribe of "Ephraim."

Imagine this verse speaking to America, warning her that her sins are not going unnoticed. Instead, they are being stockpiled as God stands by and watches, waiting to enact His judgment just as He did in Hosea's time with Israel. It is a scary picture.

But there is hope.

Scripture speaks of a second kind of storage--of prayers. In John's vision of the throne room of heaven, he sees an angel at the "altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hand" (Rev. 8:3-4, my italics).

My prayers. Your prayers. All the prayers of the saints are gathered in golden storage bowls before God's throne.

While I don't fully understand the part our prayers play in God's final judgment, I do know one thing--God wants us to realize that not one prayer is wasted. Not one prayer is in vain. Every silent and every uttered prayer is stored up on that heavenly altar, just waiting for the God-ordained time when He will pour them out on the earth to accomplish the judgment of sinners and redemption of saints.

Be encouraged. Even though you see America storing up sin by the bag-full so that some days, our country resembles one giant garbage dump of sin, do not despair. Continue to pray for our nation, "pray and not to lose heart" (Lk. 18:1).

Whether you can see results or not, keep storing up prayers in those golden bowls.

(Posting from the archives this week after an incredibly trying week dealing with sin at my house, applying for new jobs, and reclaiming my office, a frazzled craziness that culminated in a failed attempt to try and verbalize what God has been teaching me through Scripture. Praying next week finds my life, family, and office more "together" than this past one.) 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part II

I can look back in my past and see God's footprints as He carried me through one trial or another, those watershed moments that broke my heart and buckled my knees so I couldn't take another step on my own. In hindsight, I know God has always been for me, even when I couldn't lift my eyes to see Him or couldn't comprehend the why for the pain of the what.

Somewhere along the way, I bought into the assumption that the more I turned to God in these times of trial, the easier it would be to turn to him the next time I entered another trial, for I realize that there is always another struggle somewhere in front of me, just past the vanishing point where the horizon meets the sky.  

I assumed that as I matured in Christ, it would just become second nature to encounter the next difficulty sent my way, accept it as part of His plan, and move forward by His grace.  

But that's not how it works.  

For starters, no two trials are alike, so learning how to live abundantly in one trial doesn't make overcoming the next trial an easy task.  Then, there's the problem of reconciling what we know with what we expect--we may know in our hearts that another trial is coming, but we never expect it to come so soon on the heels of the last trial.  We also don't expect the next trial to be as hard as it always is; in our Christian walk, we assume maturity will make the trials easier to endure, if for no other reason than because we're more experienced in dealing with them.  

Yet, each time, we're blindsided by the sheer magnitude of the thunderstorm bearing down on us when seconds before, nothing was on the radar except clear blue skies.  As such, the latest trial is much like the first trial God sent our way.  It is a new choice to either turn to God or turn away from God.

Last week's message ended with Hagar running from an abusive Sarah, meeting the God of Israel, and returning to Abraham and Sarah where she would give birth to Ishmael.  Out there in the wilderness, the Lord had come down and spoken to her, offering her comfort and a promise that through Ishmael, her descendants would become too many to count.  In that moment of trial and despair, she chose to turn to the Lord, saying, "'You are a God who sees'” (Gen. 16:13).

Years passed fairly uneventfully as she continued her life as Sarah's maidservant.  Then came the birth of Isaac, the true child of promise, who, in her motherly eyes, usurped her son's place in both Abraham's heart and inheritance after all these years.  

After Ishmael incited Sarah's ire by taunting the young Isaac, slave mother and son were sent packing.  evicted from the camp and with nowhere to turn.  Scripture records, "So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba" (Gen. 21:14).

Here Hagar was, sixteen years later, right back in the same wilderness to which she had fled before. The irony of the situation couldn't have escaped her as she made her way into that place where she had once met with God.

Yes, it was the same place, but it was still a different trial.  And while Hagar chose to believe God those many years ago, things weren't so certain this time around.

For starters, the absence of any dialogue on her part when Abraham sends the pair away shows a woman as hard as flint.  If I had been Hagar being sent away with only a skin of water and bread, you'd better believe the annals of history would record me repenting, begging, pleading, and promising nothing shy of my firstborn child just to not be turned out on the road with thieves and jackals.  Yet, Scripture records nothing of the sort here.

Hagar's tight lipped retreat into the wilderness shows a proud woman...and a very angry woman, too.  I imagine she was so furious with Abraham for following Sarah's orders to send them packing that her pride wouldn't allow her to ask Abraham's forgiveness for Ishmael's actions. 

I imagine her turning on one heel and wordlessly marching away into the dust and sand, her head held stiff and high....never turning back for a second glimpse of the life she was leaving behind. No, her body would have stayed erect and unyielding until she was out of sight, as if she feared her resolve would crumble if she turned her head for just an instant.

But adrenaline fueled by anger can only last so long, and when the heat of the day along with the seriousness of her situation set in, Hagar had two choices--return to Abraham and beg for mercy or continue on this path to nowhere.  Drowning in her own pride, she chose the latter.

Still, Hagar did have another choice.  She could have called on God, the One who sees.  Yet, she refused.   

Scripture records, "When the water in the skin was used up, she left the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away, for she said, 'Do not let me see the boy die.' And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept" (Gen. 21:15-16). 

Death was imminent.  And still, Hagar did not call out to God for help.  She may have believed God had simply sided with Abraham and against her. Perhaps she had even convinced herself the previous encounter with God in the wilderness was just a fluke, that she had misheard Him, or that He had gone back on His word, abandoning her like everyone else in her life.  In truth, though, I believe she was angry with God, that she would have rather died in her anger than ask for His help, blaming Him for her present plight.

Although she may have been hardened with anger, Ishmael did cry out: "God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.' Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink" (Gen. 21:17-19).

The phrase "What is the matter with you, Hagar?" could just as easily say, "What's your problem, Hagar!?  Why haven't you called to me for help?  Don't you know I'm just a call away? Are your pride and anger really worth your death and the death of your son?"  It reminds me of when Jesus said to Philip, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me?" (Jn. 14:9).

God then reached out and provided that life-giving water to Hagar and Ishmael, but this mercy wasn't extended because of anything Hagar had done.  No.  It was extended because Ishmael cried out for help, and the Lord answered him.

This wounds me, the thought that like Hagar, my child may be the one who calls out to the Lord for me when I am too hurt, proud, or angry to seek His face.

Hagar knew the God of Abraham.  She had met Him in a most intimate way sixteen years earlier. Yet, this time, Hagar chose to embrace her anger, pride, and despair, and turn away from the Lord.  As much as I'd like to shake my head at her unbelief, I honestly can't.  If I've learned anything in my thirty six years, it's that my proper response to God in the next trial is not assured.  

A Christian can never grow complacent, believing him or herself "mature enough" to always respond as the Lord would have him do.  Turning to God in the midst of a trial will always be a conscious choice we will need to make again and again.  But we can be encouraged, knowing that although we change like the shifting sands, our Father never changes.  He will always be there for us, waiting for us to petition Him and rest in His arms of mercy as the storms of this life rage around us.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part I

A little over three years ago, popular author Anne Rice made front page news by posting to her Facebook page that she was leaving Christianity.  The news was surprising, especially since she had so publicly abandoned atheism for Christianity just years earlier in her novel Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, a compelling memoir tracing the winding path that took her from atheism to faith in Jesus.

Yet, here she was, writing, "Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." 

Sadly, Rice isn't the only person I know who has turned her back on religion...and maybe on her faith.  While there are a multitude of reasons many turn their back on both religion and God (two separate things in my book), two seem to top the list--the actions of Christians and the trials of this life.

I know too many people who have been hurt by professing Christians or who have witnessed too much hypocrisy in the church to the point where they incorrectly equate these people's actions to be representative of true Christianity.  Then, there are the others whose life circumstances have been incredibly difficult to the point where they've chosen to believe no God of goodness would allow such heartache.  

Both groups have said "enough" and turned their backs as they make their own path across a barren desert of their own choosing.

Abraham and Sarah's servant, Hagar, would fall into both these groups--those disenchanted with the actions of those who claim to be God's people and those whose life is cruel is unfair.

A day was coming when she would turn her back on God for these very reasons.  

But before then, Hagar met the Lord.

It is easy to look at the servant Hagar's life and conclude that if anyone had a grievance against God for the hand she'd been dealt, it was her.  Once a slave in Egypt, she had been casually given to Abraham, forcing her to leave behind likely the only country she'd ever known, friends, and perhaps even family to join these foreigners whose customs, God, and language were strange to her.

Then her new mistress, Sarah, decided to offer Hagar to her husband Abraham so the two of them could conceive an heir.  As was the life of a slave, Hagar had no choice in the matter.  She couldn't refuse.  And she had nowhere to run even if she did.  

Yet, perhaps she realized that with this forced coupling came her chance to become more than what she was--a somebody in the eyes of her master and perhaps even escape slavery for a better life.  The wheels started turning in her head, how to work this to her advantage.    

Those dreams must have seemed close enough to touch because once Hagar became pregnant with Abraham's son, she grew quite haughty.  Scripture records, "and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight" (Gen. 16:4).  Down South, we'd say she had grown too big for her britches, vaulting herself before her mistress in her own self-importance.  

In Hagar's mind, she had succeeded where Sarah had failed.  She had provided what Abraham wanted most when Sarah could not.  She was the one who should be pampered and held in high regard, what with the child of promise (or so she believed) growing inside her swelling belly.  

I imagine she began to act the role of the queen bee around camp, perhaps speaking disdainfully to her mistress, perhaps refusing to do her mistress' bidding or grumbling as she did, and perhaps even giving orders, herself.  

If she had hoped Abraham would stand up for her, would exalt her out of her lowliness as a servant now that she carried his heir, she was shaken from this delusion in short order.   Her place in Abraham's "kingdom" hadn't changed.  

Surely to her surprise, when Sarah complained about Hagar's attitude, Abraham refused to intervene in what he likely considered women's troubles.  In one simple sentence, he gave Sarah carte blanche to treat Hagar as she wished, saying "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight" (v.6a).

 So, Sarah did what one would expect and knocked her servant down to size: Scripture records that Sarah "treated her harshly, and she [Hagar] fled from her presence" (v. 6b).

Where Hagar expected to go, I'm not sure, but I doubt she had anywhere particular in mind.  Her heightened emotional state brought on by pregnancy combined with the dream-crushing disappointment of her child's father refusing to stand up for her and exalt her above his own wife (that should have been expected)--Hagar had been shoved firmly back into her social place and couldn't deal with what she perceived as a demotion.  So, she just ran into the nowhere of the wilderness.

 Yet, there in her despair is where God found Hagar.  

There, the angel of the Lord met her, saying, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority...I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count....Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction" (v. 9-11).

These words to return to Sarah and submit must have chafed even while the other part of the angel's message left her feeling vindicated. Her descendants would be too many to count.  

Her.  A woman.  A slave.  A foreigner living in exile from her homeland.  Her descendants would be too many to count.

Then, "she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, 'You are a God who sees'” (v. 13).

Hagar's mistress and even Abraham may have seen her as nothing more than a servant for breeding an heir.   But the God of Abraham saw her. He heard her.  She mattered to Him.

In this instant, she met the God of Abraham.  I believe it was then that Yahweh became her God as well, for Hagar obeyed the angel's command and returned to Sarah where she gave birth to Ishmael.  

Whether Hagar returned with a sincerely submissive spirit (I doubt it), whether the Lord's promise was enough to tuck away in her heart to get her through the daily grind of life as a servant, or whether Sarah and Hagar came to some sort of truce, whether voiced or unspoken--I don't know.  But life moved forward without recorded incident. Scripture swiftly leaps over Ismael's entire childhood, not mentioning Hagar again until Isaac's weaning when her son Ishmael was sixteen or seventeen years old.   

Did Hagar have reason to be disillusioned with a God who not only allowed her to remain a slave but who also instructed her to return to a mistress who mistreated her?  Did she have reason to be disillusioned with a God whose professed chosen people were allowed to afflict their slaves and use them as they wished, seemingly without consequences?

Sure.  Abraham and Sarah didn't act like we would expect God's people to act.  And God didn't miraculously change Hagar's circumstances once she met Him.

Yet, here, she accepted God for who He was, not for who she wanted or even imagined Him to be.  She also accepted God based on her encounter with Him and not because of her encounters with others who professed to be His followers.

And therein lies a lesson for us all in how we should relate to God.  As hard as it may be, we cannot allow others' actions to determine whether we do or don't seek a relationship with God.  Also, when God doesn't act according to our expectations, we must ask ourselves if we are serving the God of Scripture or a God of our making and then choose to turn towards Him and not away from Him.

To do the contrary is the equivalent of walking aimlessly through that wilderness where Hagar first ran, a dry, barren place without the living water to quench our thirst that only can be found in Christ Jesus.