The Self-disclosure of God (Part 1)

untitledSelf-disclosure is one of God’s favorite things in the Old Testament.

Moses is shown “the Glory of the Lord” on Mt. Sinai. (Exodus 33.12ff.)  He is watching the power of God, the goodness of God, the glow of God.  He walked away radiated, with a glowing face. (Exodus 34.29)  What is most striking, is how God narrates the event.  God describes Himself like this:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…(Exodus 34.6)

This proclamation of identity would stick with God throughout the Old Testament.  I had an identity once.  At a birthday party in 4th grade (I don’t even remember who it was for), I was reaching for something in the pool at a hotel.  The party was at ice cream and cake phase so I had already changed out of my swimming suit.  I fell into the pool with all my clothes on.  I never lived it down.  It came up in 2 different graduation speechs, favorite memories from school portions of yearbooks and school news papers, and one reunion.  I will always be the guy who fell in the pool with his clothes on.  God will carry this identity through all his dealings with man.

It’s fascinating, however, how this phrase is used.

It’s worshipful.  Psalm 145 uses this phrase like a link in a chain.  Each link is a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Verse 1 begins with aleph.  Verse 2, with a bet and so on until verse 8 when chet is the letter that is the letter of focus.  The verse begins with the word “gracious” (chanoon).  It’s just another link in the chain of attributes describing God in this Psalm.  Count the “God is…” statements:

  • “Great is the Lord…” (3)
  • “The Lord is good to all…”(9)
  • “The Lord is trustworthy…” (13)
  • “The Lord is righteous…and faithful…”(17)
  • “The Lord is near…” (18)

David will extol and praise the Lord for all that He is. (145.2)  But it’s a bigger chain than that.  Psalm 145 is also a part of a chain that ends the book of Psalms. The last 5 Psalms all begin with the word “Praise” (hb. hallel).  In the Hebrew text, the Psalm titles are considered the first verse of the Psalm.  So Psalm 145 begins like this: hallelujah.  which translates to: “Praise the Lord”.

David loves this word.  Back in Psalm 103, he writes:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Psalm 103.8)

Here he attributes it to Moses, but until he makes his own purposes for the verse known.  Six times in Psalm 103 he begins a sentence with hallelujah.  I guess if you get stuck on repeat, that’s a great word to get stuck on.  Both are Psalms of Praise.

There is another type of Psalm that David wrote.  It’s called a Psalm of Lament.  These are Psalms that are written from deep despair and anguish.  They deal with the dirty issues of life.  He writes in Psalm 86:

But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
    slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86.15)

It’s honest.  David is piecing together a prayer of quotations from other places: Exodus 34, Psalms 25, 26, 27, and others.  He is lamenting his current predicament.  Which predicament that is exactly is undetermined.  Is it the pursuit of Saul?  Is it the isolation?  Is it the Philistines?  Time and location aside, David prays and worships.  This is the prayer of a desperate man.  The Psalm begins:

Hear me, Lord, and answer me,

   for I am poor and needy.

Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;

   save your servant who trusts in you.

You are my God; have mercy on me, Lord,

   for I call to you all day long. (Psalm 86.1-3)

and ends with this:

Turn to me and have mercy on me;

   show your strength in behalf of your servant;

save me, because I serve

   you just as my mother did.

Give me a sign of your goodness,

   that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,

   for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me. (Psalm 86.16-17)

David is struggling to put together a few concepts and ideas.  The beginning and end of the Psalm is works-oriented: “save me because I served” (17), “guard me for I trust in you” (1).  In the middle, the Lord is a “gracious” and “compassionate” God.  It’s a question of justice.  Why are bad things happening to a good person?  He’s served and trusted, why are things going badly.  It is the exact opposite question posed in Jonah’s prayer.

Jonah 4 begins with Jonah in a bad place.  Verse 5 let’s the reader know that he went east of the city.  That’s code for “bad times”.  Anyone going east in the Bible is not having a good day.  So he is east.  And when he is east, he prays.

Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?  That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.   I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4.2-3)

God did not destroy Nineveh for their sins and Jonah is upset.  It’s not that he has been tremendously faithful to God either; but it’s always easier to see the sin in others than in yourself.  Jonah laments about God’s justice.  Why do good things happen to bad people?  Jonah wants the Lord to know that he knew all along that this was going to happen.  So, in what I imagine would be a mocking tone, Jonah quotes Exodus 34.6 and part of verse 7.  Why is it mocking you may wonder?  Notice what Jonah leaves out at the junction of 6 and 7?  The “faithfulness” (’emet) of God.  In Jonah’s thinking: if God is for the Ninevites, He can be for Jonah/Israel.  Jonah is putting God perjury alert.  He is questioning God’s honesty…to be continued…

The Next Step

The next step is always the scariest.  The next step could be the one where the earth falls from beneath you.

Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abram and God.  Abram is getting up there in years.  He is somewhere between 75 and 86 years old (Gen. 12.4; 16.16) and he has been on a journey.  He has been given the promise that his descendants would be “a great nation”, but that was many years back.  Is there an expiration date on the promises of God?  That would have been in the back of my mind.  But Abram now gets told that he will have a son, from his own lineage. (Gen. 15.4-5)

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15.6)

Abram “believed” is in the Hebrew Hiphil tense meaning “caused to believe”.  Abram was convinced.  He seems like a man who can think differently about situations.  Later his name would be changed to Abraham (this is how he will be referred to from now on). This is how I reconcile the strange verse in Hebrews 11.17-19:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  Abraham reasoned [gk. logizomai] that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

The idea of bodily resurrection, let alone individual resurrection, would have been a revolutionary concept.  Abraham is an outside the box thinker.  He has convinced himself of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Abraham takes the first step out of Ur on faith.  The next step is into the nursery with his son Isaac.  The next one is the first step to ascend the Mountain to kill the one walking behind him.

So what’s the next step on the journey?

Is it salvation?  It’s graduation Sunday.  All across Kansas, students will be turning their focus to college by 3 p.m. Sunday.  Thirty-two thousand students will walk across a stage towards a diploma this weekend.  A year from now, 60%, or 19,000 of them will walk away from their faith.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4.2)

Paul writes in Romans that it was salvation that Abraham stepped into in faith.  It was right-standing with God that Abraham walked into by trusting God.  The question had been posed: “was Abraham justified by works?” (2)  Could he have saved himself?  To that Paul points to the faith of Abraham as he argues in the previous paragraph:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3.28)

Abraham is Paul’s case study for justification by faith.  In a world where love and trust are performance based, the idea of salvation in exchange for faith is a tough sell.  Maybe that is where it should start?

Is it Spirit-led?  Maybe salvation has happened, but “life” isn’t happening.  The Galatian Church was struggling with the same issue that plagued the Roman Church: “What saves a man?”  Was it “faith” or “works”?  Must the faith be followed by action?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal. 3.6)

There is a difference between surviving and living.  That is what living with the Spirit brings.  Paul used Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans; in Galatians, Abraham is an example of a Spirit-led/fed life.  He precedes the quote of Genesis with this question: 

So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3.5)

His answer: Abraham believed.  Great things happened because Abraham had faith.  He pairs this with another Genesis quote a sentence later:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you!” (Gal. 3.8 quoting Genesis 12.3)

Being in-step/taking the first step with the Spirit changes lives.  It empowers middle schoolers to raise money to buy freedom for modern day slaves.  It challenges women to serve by making blankets for sex trafficked victims.  It encourages men to step up, step out and lead other men in study.  Is the next step, the same step Abraham took in Galatians; one of believing in a leading Spirit.

Is it disciple-making?  When writing to people scattered all over the Roman world about living as a Christian, one man wrote this in response:

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (James 2.23)

It was in the same context as other uses. It was a debate about faith vs. works.  James chimes in from left field.  He brings up Abraham but honors him for his action.  Check out the question he poses in verse 21:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did…?(James 2.21)

And you gasp!  Isn’t this the exact opposite of Pauline theology.  In Romans and Galatians, Abraham was righteous because he believed; however, James understood him as righteous because of what he did.

James is a book of activity.  Your faith must be animated, according to James.

  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (1.22)
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1.27)
  • “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? (2.14)
  • “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (2.17-18)
  • “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (3.13)
  • “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4.17)

James has an agenda.  While Jesus was on this Earth, he doubted.  Now that Jesus has ascended, he is leading a church and a following of people trying to live like Jesus.  His advice:  live like Abraham.

First things, first:  salvation.  Second things, second:  letting the Spirit sanctify and animate.  Finally, we must discipline (notice the “disciple” in that word) our lives to that of Jesus.  Verse 22 brings the argument together:

You see that his [Abraham] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete [gk. teleioo] by what he did. (James 2.22)

The greek word translated “made complete” and its cognates aren’t rare in the New Testament.  James, however, only uses the idea 8 times in his book (teleios-1.4 [2x]; 1.17; 1.25; 3.2; teleioo-2.22; teleoo-2.8; telos-5.11).  The idea is that “the goal has been reached.”  It is the ending, not the beginning.  James understands that “what he did” (21) was the goal in mind (22) when the “belief” began (23).  Faith comes first, but isn’t finished until follow through.  Belief is where it all starts but it isn’t done until action takes place.  Do I have to be in church every Sunday?  Do I need to pray every day?  Do I need to study my Bible?  Can I drink alcohol?  Do I have to tithe?  All these questions are questions of works.  They are actions that are to done.  We are saved by faith and faith alone; but, a part of faith is “the doing” of something.

In Hebrews 11, what some have called the Hall of Fame of faith, Abraham is admonished for three things.  Each is preceded with these words: “By faith…” (Hebrews 11.8, 9, 17)  He left Ur and followed.  He stayed and made a home in the Promised land.  He was willing to sacrifice Isaac.  He was commended for all these things.  Rounding out the section on Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes:

Abraham reasoned [gk logizomai]  that God could even raise the dead…(19)

Logizomai is the same word translated “credited” in every one of the passages above.  It was “credited to him as righteousness”.  God counts righteousness to Abraham all because Abraham counted all on God.

Easier said than done right?

The Sea

7bfd144ad54db0b909fd94e25812cdd8“For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is for breaking a man, even though he may a very strong one.”― Homer

Odysseus has survived the Trojan war.  Ten years of battles and ten years since he last saw his family.  Just when the reader believes the most dangerous parts of life are behind Odysseus, he begins his journey home.  They sail home becomes more treacherous than battling the Trojans.  He was nearly lured into a ship wreck by the beautiful song of the sirens.  Poseidon sends a storm to punish him for blinding his son the cyclopes.  They safely navigate the whirlpool of Charybdis, but in doing so run into the sea monster Scylla.  it would seem that the sea is trying to kill him more so than the Trojans.

American’s are bombarded with Carnival and Disney cruises.  But on the backside of those commercials, Discovery runs the promotions for Deadliest Catch.  Now there is a show that shows the sea as trying to kill everyone involved.  It’s cold and wet and stormy.  It’s dangerous.  Peter has a similar experience on the sea.

In Matthew 14, the disciples and Jesus (and a lot of other people) have been in the countryside.  They have seen the greatness of Jesus in the 5 loaves and 2 fish; feeding the crowd of five-thousand.  They were surprised by this, but not in awe.  He sends the disciples across the Lake of Gennesaret/Sea of Galilee.  To the crowd; he sends them home.  Jesus head up the mountainside to pray (Matthew 14.22-23).

There are two types of storms this life brings.  The first is physical.  The boat is a “considerable distance from the land” and there wasn’t a whole lot his disciples could do about it because “the wind” was against it.  Storms can arise quickly, especially with the geography of Palestine.  It’s like a bad version of Gilligan’s Island.  A simple trip across the sea, has turned into a battle for survival.  This physical storm is evoking a crisis.  Scripture makes it clear that one battle that we must fight as we traverse this earth, its the physical one.  Bodies break down, thistles grow, pain and suffering abound.  We have to watch loved ones die and struggle.  There is definitely a physical battle.

The second battle is the spiritual one.  In the mean time, Jesus has walked out to them.  After a few words between the disciples and Jesus, Peter speaks up: “Tell me to come to you on the water.” To which Jesus reply’s: “come!”  Peter steps out of the boat.  The water holds him…for a moment.  “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Peter was doing well and then a spiritual storm arises.  He looked around, lost sight of Jesus, saw the power of the storm; and he began to sink.  Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” was Jesus question.  Doubt had crept in and a storm arose.  Spiritual storms can arise just as fast as physical ones.  People deal with spiritual storms in different ways, but they only get resolved at the feet of Jesus, whether or not they’re in the water.

Jesus is the answer to the storm.  When the disciples first had to deal with the store and the confusion of seeing Jesus, it was the sound of his voice that calms them.  They are “terrified” and “gripped” with fear.  But Jesus calmed their fears: “Take courage! It is I.  Don’t be afraid.” (27)  The greek renders the middle clause, “It is I”, as “I am!”  In the midst of this storm, “I am!” is present with them.  The importance cant be overstated.  The One who parted the waters, enacted the plagues, and walked with His people, is present.  “I am!” is with them.  This is the same book, Matthew that begins with “Emmanuel, God with us.”  And ends with: “Behold, I am with you always to the very end of the age.”  Here in the midst of the storm, Jesus is standing next to us.  When Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him. (31)  “Immediately” it says that Jesus saved him from the storm.  “And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down…”(32)  The physical storm is taken care of.   Jesus has calmed another one.  “Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (33)  Now the spiritual storm is resolved.  

Look back on the storm and worship.  The importance of this story lies in the perspective.  In the midst of everything happening, the focus is on the storm or the reactions.  The focus is on the interactions between the guys and what was going on as the boat is rocking against the waves.  But verse 33 shows that the focus the whole time needed to be Jesus.  It was only when Peter began looking at the storm around him that he began to sink.  But in retrospect, the disciples and Peter are able to look back on their experience and worship.  Some of David’s finest Psalms came when looking back on serious trials.  The greatest speeches in the Bible, with the most passionate language of worship, come at the end of lives, as they look back on years of storms.

The storms that come in life are there to reveal where our focus and where our trust is found.  Peter found out a lot about himself on the sea, just like he found out a lot about Jesus.  In Hemmingway’s book, The Old Man and the Sea, the sea provided a place where the old man was once again asked to learn some things.  Peter is learning on the Sea of Galilee.  He’s learning the why? of worship.

 

The River

8348378_web1_endangered-river-apr12-17_031817jk_005“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…”- Mark Twain

There is fewer things on this planet that has the force of rushing water.  A fall overboard on a white-water rafting trip will make this point abundantly clear.  Water carries weight, force, and power.  I remember watching my township redoing flood control on a creek.  They spent all summer, day-after-day, adding in earth-works, bends in the creek bed, and low-level dams.  Then we had 3 inches of rain in 2 hours.  The next day, the creek looked as it had in May.  All their work was for not.  The power of rushing water is incredible.

Ezekiel is a prophet of God.  Things in his life have not been going swimmingly.  He is writing during a period of Israel’s history known as the exile.  In short, it was a period of time after the King of Babylon had taken control of Jerusalem.  He took the nation of Israel, back to Babylon and kept them there.  It was in Babylon that they would live for the next 70 years.  Ezekiel is prophesying to his people from Babylon.  While Jeremiah is in Israel and Daniel is in the city of Babylon, Ezekiel is in the nation of Babylon prophesying.

“I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God…” (Ezekiel 1.1)

He is standing on the banks of the Kebar River when the visions of God come to him.  The picture is easy to formulate.  A morning devotion, a sunset quiet time, or just a random pause to take in the greatness of the river.  The Kebar isn’t the Amazon, the Nile, or even the Mississippi, but with desert on every side, it holds an intrinsic beauty that draws in an audience.  There is a reason the 4 major ancient civilizations all grew up on the banks of a respective river.  Ezekiel is taken to a place of worship.  In a foreign land and with little hope, Ezekiel is refreshed on the banks of the river.

He is refreshed by the word.  God has always been speaking and acting, but present circumstances have called God’s activity into question.  Ezekiel is looking around at his current conditions and has to be wondering how this can be God’s plan.  Forty times in his book this phrase occurs: “The word of the Lord came to me…” and the first time is right here on the river bank.  God meets with his prophet and gives his Words.   Sometimes, all that is needed is a word.  Where presence is desired, where physical contact is needed, it cant always be provided.  This is where a phone call, a note, a text, or a message is all that is needed to right the ship.  Ezekiel needed a word and God provided.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.  When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.  He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.’  As he spoke, the Spirit (hb. ruach) came into me and raised me to my feet…”(Ezekiel 1.28-2.2)

A word from God changed Ezekiel.  It refreshed him and restored him.  Staring across the banks (in my mind he is facing his homeland from the distant country that holds him captive), he meets with God and receives a word.  It has happened multiple times in my life, where a text message from an old friend can change the course of a week.  A verse of Scripture can have the same effect.

He is refreshed by his service.  God has a scroll in hand that had writing on both sides.

“And He [God] said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel…eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.”  So I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. (Ezekiel 3.1-3)

Ezekiel’s mission has begun.  His objective is to speak God’s message to the exiles and their response is irrelevant (Ezekiel 3.11).  That’s not the case with most preachers.  A positive response is usually desired.  That is his primary method of communication to the people.  He proclaims judgement and announces judgement.  He recounts the history of Israel, their sin and unfaithfulness, in graphic and R-rated terms (read Ezekiel 23).  But he didn’t stop there.  Ancient prophets were not only preachers, but case-studies and actors.  They acted/lived out their messages at times.  Ezekiel did just that:

  • 3.25 — Tied with Ropes/unable to speak (Israel’s response to Ezekiel)
  • 4.1 — He drew a picture of Jerusalem on a tablet and then acted out a siege of it.  He lay on one side next to it for 390 days for the sins of Israel and 40 for the sins of Judah…oh and he baked over human waste (Prophecy on Jerusalem)
  • 5.1 — shave head and beard.  Burn it/cut it/scatter it
  • 12.5 — dig through the wall and leave (a picture of the exile)
  • 21.20 — Road signs for Nebuchadnezzar
  • 24.15 — his wife dies
  • 37.16 — writes the names Judah on one stick and Ephriam [Israel] on one stick.  Then he joined them together (reunification of Judah and Israel; God’s people)

So he has an odd ministry, but its refreshing.  He is energized by it.  He exclaims:

“May the Lord be praised in his dwelling place!” (Ezekiel 3.12)

The man that comes to my mind is a friend from a previous ministry.  His walk with Jesus was spotty at times and he had gone through a rough patch.  I saw him mowing at the church one day.  After much prompting, some cajoling, and some strong arming, the Spirit finally forced me to call him and ask him to help out with middle school youth group.  The man came alive serving some of the most obnoxious and trying kids.  They love him.  He came alive and was refreshed from his service in God’s kingdom.

He is refreshed by the message.  A simple word from God can change Ezekiel, but a good message changed a nation.  Ezekiel is full of pretty graphic, doom and gloom messages.  He doesn’t mince words when it comes to the sin and judgement on Judah.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He finishes the story.  In chapter 37, he is carried to a valley where a great battle had taken place; white washed bones lay covering the floor of the valley. A question is posed to Ezekiel:

“Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37.3)

Ezekiel claims ignorance.  Then the Lord gives him instruction.  The word comes; then the service, “prophesy…”.  God gives te message to Ezekiel.  The command is for the bones to re-articulate, tendons and muscles to reattach, and flesh, reappear.  At his command, the bones followed.  Yet there was no “breath” in them.  Again God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy and “they came to life and stood on their feet–a vast army.” (Ezekiel 37.10)

The key verse in this section is verse 11, where it reads:

 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37.11-12)

The hopeless and homeless people of Israel will rise again.  They can have hope in the promise of God that they will someday return home.

It is fitting that there is one Hebrew word that stands in the midst of all three of these main passages.   The word is ruah.  It can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit.  In Ezekiel 2.2, “the Spirit” raised him to his feet.  In Ezekiel 3.12, “the Spirit” lifted him.  Finally, in chapter 37.1-14, the word is used 10 times beginning in verse 1, where Ezekiel is brought out to the valley “by the Spirit”.  The Spirit is providing the refreshment.  Ezekiel just has to drink it in.

What the Spirit is doing for Ezekiel, Jesus has done for us as well.  In John 4, a woman comes to draw water from a well and Jesus has a conversation with her.  He asked for a drink and she was taken aback.  Jesus answered her response:

If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. (John 4.10)

Water and the Word.  Jesus, the Source of Life, is speaking with a Samaritan woman.  She is standing by the river needing a word from God.  Jesus goes on:

Everyone who drinks this water (the well water) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4.13-14)

Stagnant water is dead water.  River water is flowing, refreshing, and restoring.  This woman came to get dead well water and left with a “spring of water welling up to eternal life”, Jesus.

Finally, in John 7.37, Jesus is at the festival.  On the last day he is teaching the people.  He says:

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.  By this he meant the Spirit…(John 7.37-39)

Ezekiel was not only refreshed with the word of God, but by his service and his message.  Jesus gives hope because of his message.  He promised victory over death.  He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6)  If this message is believed, there is no greater source of hope in the history of this world.

But this message must go somewhere.  Rivers flow.  “Rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  For those that believe his message, rivers will pour out of them.  It is service, the mission, to take this message to others.  And just like in Ezekiel’s case, this service can be a refresher.

Ezekiel’s book begins in despair, but ends in worship.  Late in his prophecy, in the next-to-last chapter of his book, he writes speaking of the river flowing from the Temple:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river…Swarms of living creatures will live where the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live…Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail.  Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.  Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47.6-7, 9, 12)

Come to the River for healing.

The Cave

Gollum-Smeagol-smeagol-gollum-14076878-960-403“It came to me. My own. My love. My own. My precious.” –Gollum

Deep below the Misty Mountains lay a cave.  In the cave lived Gollum, one of the River people.  Many, many years back, he obtained a Ring.  It was one of the Rings of Power that was dolled out amongst the races of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.  Gollum now held the most powerful ring in his hand.  Immediately, the power consumed him.  Quickly, he began to both love it and hate it.  It warped his mind, body, and spirit.  It drove him to seek shelter in the cave below the Misty Mountains where he lived in the darkness for many years.

Caves are not destination places.  They are not places that people want to end up.  They are dark places.  They are wet places.  They are cold places.  When people ask: “why don’t you duck hunt?”  I simply tell them this: “I can be wet.  I can be cold.  I refuse to be both.”  Life has cave moments.  In 1 Samuel 22.1, David is in a cave.  He escaped (hb. malat) Saul’s pursuit at Gath and fled to the cave of Adullam.  At least in Gath, he was living in a city (albeit a foreign city under guise as an insane person).  I assume it was a non-extradition city.  Saul had a long reach and David ran.  The land of Israel is littered with caves and hide outs.  Like an outlaw, David finds one and is on the lam.  While there, just like he did to pass the long nights out in the field shepherding and just like he did in the Palace of Saul, he journaled.  He composed songs, poems, acrostics, and worshiped.  Scripture contains a few of these moments that reveal some truths about caves.

David enters alone (1 Samuel 22.1).  David went into the cave by himself.  There are very few exceptions in Scripture where people enter caves with others and some of those are questionable.  Obadiah hid 100 prophets in two caves, but with a nation and a king who is trying to exterminate them, there was probably some loneliness.  Just because there are people there, doesn’t mean isolation can’t set in.

“No man is an island, entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent.” — John Donne

Caves are a reminder, that the inhabitant is in it alone.  His journal reads:

“Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;

no one is concerned for me.

I have no refuge;

no one cares for my life.” (Psalm 142.4)

David is isolated.  Loneliness is an epidemic in America.  As of 1 January 2018, Facebook had 214 million US users.  Those that are 18-24 years old numbered 39.4 million.  Those that were over the age of 65 numbered 21.1 million.  Yet a 2016 article on independent.com stated: “a study in 2014 found 18-24-year-olds were four times as likely to feel lonely all the time as those aged 70 and above.”  Double the number are connected to the world and yet they are 4 times as likely to feel alone.  In the same article, Heather Saul observed, “humans were built for companionship, not to be alone, at least according to the growing body of research on the effect of social isolation has on health.”  I think I’ve read something like that before…Genesis 2 perhaps?  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  The “research” is affirming what God had said all along.  David’s family would eventually arrive, but for a time, he was isolated.

David is on the run.  Saul has been after David for some time now.  Twice he’s thrown spears.  He’s chased him into foreign territory.  Saul will not rest until David is dead.  Saul has tried to trap him: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way.  In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.” (Psalm 142.3)  This is directly from David’s prayer journal.  But he escaped the traps, the nets and the pits (Psalm 57.6).  Then there was the chase.  David prays later on: “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.” (Psalm 142.6)  I’ve harvested coyotes two ways: 1) trapping; 2) shooting from the back of an ATV at 45 mph.  It couldn’t have been a more different experience.  David was the coyote.  He’s seen it all.  He says in his song, in Psalm 57, that it has been a “hot pursuit” (57.3) and that he is now amongst men like “lions” and “ravenous beasts” (57.4).

The main word in both of these passages is refuge (hb. machseh/chaseh).  Four times in the two Psalms (57 and 142) refuge is mentioned.  They are related words with the same base.  Machseh is used in Psalm 142.5: “I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge…”  Of the 20 times its used in Scripture, 12 of them are in Psalms.  The reason is the desperation that comes through the pens of the song writers.  These are desperate men in desperate situations.  Refuge is not requested, it is required.

Along the same lines, chasah, another Hebrew word for refuge, is used 37 times, with 25 of them in Psalms.  Again, desperation begs refuge.  Psalm 57 uses this word twice.  “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.  I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psalm 57.1)  David employs the image of a mother bird hovering over her nest.  Its not the first time.  He quoted his great-grandfather, Boaz, in speaking to Ruth: “May the Lord repay you for what you have done.  May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2.12)

The refuge of God takes many forms.  It was wings, as was mentioned before (also in Psalm 61.4; 91.4).  It was a “shield and horn”, a symbol of God’s power (1 Samuel 22.3; Psalm 18.30; Proverbs 30.5).  It was a rock that a man could tether to (Psalm 18.2;62.7; 94.22).  Refuge is the strong tower and fortress that fortifies the soul (Psalm 61.3; 91.2; 94.22).  A place of refuge is a reoccurring theme in David’s journal.  He is distressed and exhausted; on the run and growing weary.  He needs refuge.  It is fitting that “Adullam”, the cave where he is hiding (1 Samuel 22.1), means “refuge” in Hebrew. (Brown, Driver, Briggs 726)

David is worn out.  No one enters the cave at a high point in life.  The cave lies at the end of a long and arduous journey.  David’s been on the run.  He’s acted insane.  He’s been among enemies.  He has dodged spears.  He is physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted.  “When my spirit grows faint within me…I have no refuge.” (Psalm 142.3-4)  The Hebrew verb “faint” (‘atap) is in an unusual conjugation.  It is in the hitpael stem, meaning it is to be understood reflexively.  David is “growing faint” because of himself.  Elsewhere this verb is translated “ebb away” (Jonah 2.7).  The picture is made clear.  David is wasting away because of the chase, the stress, and the isolation.  He is left in the cave to think and “grow faint”.

But there is another side to this prayer and this song.  For all the things going wrong, David trusts in this: God does his best work from caves.

“Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;

let your glory be over all the earth…

My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast;

I will sing and make music…

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;

I will sing of you among the peoples.

For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” (Psalm 57.5, 7, 9-10)

empty-tomb-yellowFast forward 1000 years or so.  Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to a tomb.  They were caves back then.  Where they sealed the entrance with a stone and they left him alone.  His chase was over.  The people, the Romans, the mob, had been after him for a year.  Finally, the situation proved fruitful and they crucified him.  He had been chased down.  Jesus was exhausted from all night trials and physically spent.  He had endured the cross and the suffering.  He was worn-out.  And he finds himself in the cave.  But his road to the cave was understood in the same way that David understood his: God does his best work from caves.  Three days later, Jesus would emerge from the cave, overcoming all that it stood for.  Like David writes in Psalm 57.8:

“Awake, my soul!

Awake, harp and lyre!

I will awaken the dawn!”

That dawn, Sunday morning, was welcomed with an empty cave!

 

The Mountain Top

mountain top“Not all those who wander are lost.” — Gandalf

Gandalf wrote these words in a poem to Frodo.  The poem is called “The Riddle of Strider”.  The poem is vital to the narrative of the Fellowship of the Ring as it gives Frodo confidence to trust the Ranger Strider (who is yet to be known as Aragon).

The plot of the book is a journey, a quest, to a mountain.  The mountain is Mount Doom.  The travellers were an unlikely group: four hobbits; two men; a Wizard; an elf; and a dwarf.  An odd traveling party and a weird collection of travelers.  In their care was the most powerful ring on earth, “the One Ring”.  They must avoid the evil that seeks it out and the evil within the power of the ring.  Only the fires of Mordor at Mount Doom can destroy it.

Mountains and power.  Mountains as a destination.  Mountains at the center (Middle) of Earth.  Elijah made his trek alone, without a ring, but a mountain still stood out at the center of his story (or should I say the apex of his story).  But there is more to this story than lets on and this is not a series of mountain top moments.

Great things happen above the clouds.  Edmund Hillary in 1953, reached the summit of Mt. Everest and in doing so conquered the tallest mountain in world.  He didn’t find gods living there.  In ancient times, gods were thought to dwell on the mountain tops.  Massive ziggurats, ancient temples, rose from the plains of Babylon.  Mt. Olympus towered over Greece, housing Zeus and his compatriots.  The Mayans had their pyramids that poked through the jungles of Mexico.  Bipin Shah, in his article published on academia.com, observed on page 15:

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Some spelling aside, his point is accurate.  Ancient minds associated God/gods with the mountain tops.

First Kings 19 tells of one account where Elijah met God on the mountain top.  The mountain top is where a closeness to God is felt.  It is where His power is on display.  The mountain top is where His voice is so clear that it is nearly audible.  It is a place where His direction is as clear as lines on a map. A couple things stand out about Elijah’s Mountain top.

First off, no one begins on the mountain top.  This story actually begins in the desert. With all that was happening around him, Elijah fled to the wilderness.  It began as a day. Burnout set in that night.  He asked God to take his life! (19.4) He’s not the first man in Scripture to ask this.  He is tired and worn out.  An angel woke him and made him food.  Then he was sent on a 40 day and night journey to Mt. Horeb (19.8).  This journey was straight through the desert.  Moses traveled across the wilderness with his flocks prior to meeting a burning bush that called himself Yahweh.  Moses, before reaching Sinai, traveled through the desert.  Before the blessings and cursings at the end of Deuteronomy, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years. An intimate relationship with God doesn’t materialize automatically.  It doesn’t arrive in the present.  It has a past that has roots in the desert.  A mountain is on described in height by its relationship to sea level.  So it is true with Spiritual mountain tops.  Our closeness to God is often understood by how far away we felt in the wilderness.

Second.  No one leaves the Mountain top unchanged.  When the power of God is on display, be it in a changed life (yours or another’s) is seen, addiction overcome, healing taken place, or worship felt, lives are changed forever.  Once a mountain has been summitted, that can never be taken away.  The accomplishment that I feel having climbed three fourteeners is something that can never be taken from me.  Elijah arrived on the mountain in need of change.  He had wished for death on his journey and he arrives complaining.  Twice he tells God about his resume and his complaints.  God decides to show Elijah His power, His glory, and His identity.  On the same Mountain that He showed Himself to Moses many years prior, He is on display for Elijah.   In the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, He wasn’t seen.  But in the gentle whisper, from behind Elijah’s cloak, was God.  A beautiful picture of the Almighty juxtaposed by the All-compassionate.  The softening of Elijah is on display.  When a prayer life is dynamic, Bible study transformative and discipleship is authentic, life changes.  Mountain tops change us.

Finnally; no one gets to stay on the mountain top forever.  Normally the phrase “it’s all down hill from here” is a positive one implying that it only gets easier from now on.  Not the case with mountain top moments.  Everyone has to come down from the summit.  There will be days ahead where prayer seems unheard, study seems empty, worship is uninspired, and discipleship is undirected.  Even Jesus came down from his transfiguration on the mount to a seizing boy and failing disciples.  No one gets to stay on top forever.  Elijah’s story actually takes place between two mountains.  First Kings 18 takes place on Mt. Carmel.  It’s a showdown between Elijah in the blue corner and the 450 prophets of Baal.  The question: “whose God will answer?”  The stakes: life.  Elijah of course wins.  Then he out-runs a King on a chariot for miles.  He is jazzed up.  Any athlete will tell you that adrenalin will mess with you.  But now he has caught the attention of the King and queen.  Elijah was afraid?  I have written elsewhere that I feel this verse is mis-translated.  I don’t feel like rehashing the argument here, but I do feel that Elijah looked around to see everything he had worked for go for naught.  But God redirects him.  Command 1: “Go back to the desert!”  Really?  No one leaves the mountain top to go to the desert.  Command 2: Annoint Hazael, King of Aram.  A pagan ruler?  Command 3: Annoint Jehu, King of Israel.  Adulterous Israel? Command 4: Annoint Elisha, your successor.  “You mean it’s over?”  This seems the opposite direction we need to head.  But it is God showing Elijah that no one stays on the Mountain top.  The mountain tops challenge and sustain us, but most ministry happens when things aren’t going great.  Elijah has work to do and it isn’t done in the rarified air of the summit.

Elijah runs to mountain top because that is where he needs to meet God.  In the desert, dependence and trust is learned.  On the mountain top, intimacy and power is revealed.  Our mountain top moments happen at times when we most need to see the power, feel the presence, and drink in the intimacy we can have with our God.

 

The Desert

 

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In 1803, at 3 cents/acre, President Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson spoke of its “immense and trackless deserts”.  Major Stephen Long (no relation) in mapping the purchase in 1823, labeled the region of western Kansas/eastern Colorado as “the Great American Desert”.  It was a lack of timber and surface water that earned the country its name.  It’s was and still is a hard place.

Earlier this year the Kansas Governor declared a drought emergency across all 105 counties of Kansas.  It’s been years since the Southwest part of the state has felt rain.  It truly is the Great American Desert.

When we think of desert, the image of camels, sand dunes, and sidewinders.  But the Hebrew term is more of a scrub brush wilderness.  Much more like the brush of Arizona than the dunes of the Sahara.  This is where the men of the Bible were made.

What them there was irrelevant.  Jesus was “led” there by the Spirit (Luke 4.1).  David fled there from rebellion (2 Sam. 15.23).  Elijah fled in depression (1 Kings 19.3-4).  Moses arrived first because of shame.  He killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew (Exodus 2.11).  Then when he broke up two Hebrews fighting, they questioned whether he would kill them as well. (Exodus 2.14)  Moses had become “known”. (Exodus 2.14)  When shame becomes known, men flee.  So Moses fled to Midian.  He became a shepherd, where he tended flocks throughout the desert.  Moses has always been a man of the Mountain.  He met Yahweh there (Ex. 3-4).  He got the 10 Commandments on the Mountain (Ex. 20).  There was the Blessings and Cursing’s on the two Mountains (Deuteronomy 28-29).  Finally, he died atop Mt. Nebo. (Deut. 34)  He was the Man of the Mountain, but he was a man made in the Desert.

His first stay in the desert was all about training.  Before he led a million Hebrews out of Egypt, he led a bunch of sheep in the wilderness.  The primary image of God and his people is that of shepherd.  Jesus used the metaphor extensively.  God trained his men as shepherds.  There were Abraham’s flocks and David the shepherd.  Jesus made it clear that his ministry was patterned after the vocation of a shepherd.  Before he could lead men, he led sheep.  It was a training ground.  Finding water, finding food, leading a flock, directing a massive and stubborn group…these were all skills that Moses obtained in the desert.

calvin-hobbes-test-anxiety-290x300In his second stay, the desert was a place of testing.  A little needs explaining before tackling the testing that Moses and the Hebrews went through.  I have written much more about this elsewhere, so I wont dwell too much on it here.  Test’s conjure up images of entrapment and anxiety like Calvin.  As if the Instructor or Teacher has stayed up well into the morning trying to come up with a single question that will trip up their students.  The Hebrew understanding was less about entrapment and more about revelation.  The test was to reveal what was in the hearts of God’s people.  The test didn’t go well.

  • Before they get out of Egypt: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that brought us to the desert to die?” (Ex. 14.11)
  • Three days into the Desert of Shur: “What are we to drink?” (Ex. 15.24)
  • Forty-five or so days in, in the Desert of Sin: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!…but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex. 16.1-3)
  • At Rephidim, between the Desert of Sin and Desert of Sinai: “Give us water to drink!” (Ex. 17.3)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “Our hardships are too many!” (Num. 10.11-13; 11.1)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had meat!” (Num. 11.4)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had died in Egypt!” (Num. 14.2)
  • In the Desert of Zin: “We have no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates.  And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.5)
  • In the Desert of Zin: “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21.5)

The revelation of their hearts was abominable.  Sin rose to the surface when all luxuries are removed.  Their rebellious nature was on display when desert testing ensued.  I bet the same pattern takes place in your life?  When things are drying up around and stress comes, the ugliness of my heart is brought forth.

In both cases, it was a place of trust.  It was the place that inspired the Sons of Korah to pen the famous lyrics:

“As the deer pants for streams of water,

    so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

    When can I go and meet with God? (Ps. 42.1-2)

Training and Testing does not take place in cozy places and affluence.  We grow and discover in places where and when things aren’t going right.  We learn dependence when we have too.  Deuteronomy 8 says:

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands…Your clothes did not wear out and you feet did not swell during these forty years…He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.  He brought you water out of hard rock.  He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.” (8.2, 4, 15)

All these things God did in good favor in order to show His provision and His sustenance.  He did this to show that He can be trusted.  God promised long ago to take care of us.  It’s an agreement called a covenant.  Only in the desert, where life is a struggle, do we learn what it really means to trust.  

I am trying to further embrace my trust in Him here in the desert.