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Monday, September 18, 2017

Confessing in the Rain

Ezra 9-10 contains a profound prayer and confession of sin by Ezra for the people of Israel who have returned to Jerusalem from exile. The problem was this, the Israelites were intermarrying with the peoples around them. This was not a racial matter but a religious one. Verses 4-5 record Ezra's response to learning of the people's sin:

Ezra 9:4–5 (ESV)
Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, 

Verse 6 and following record Ezra's profound prayer of confession. I recommend this prayer (really all of chapters 9-10) to you for prompting your own practice of confession. I have used these passages for this purpose many times. They help to reveal the sort of humility we need. Such humility cannot be worked up by mere human effort, but we can pray that God would create this sort of brokenness in us which can lead to a greater appreciation of the grace of God with thanksgiving. 

Chapter 10 explores further the interaction between Ezra and the people over this matter. Eventually a huge gathering is announced to take place in Jerusalem within three days. 

I've read and prayed through these chapters many times, but today I've noticed something new. Ezra was a tough rascal. 10:9 describes the setting once all the people had gathered. "The people were trembling before God because of the matter and the heavy rain!" So they are all standing outside, Ezra included, in the rain but he thunders on as if oblivious to the storm. "You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives!" it's like he is saying, "what rain!" He is so grieved and passionate about the sin of the people that he is unfazed by the brutal weather. 

This is a very serious passage of scripture but for some reason, I'm seeing some humor in this today. I’m imaging the people saying here next, (I’m paraphrasing here) “Yes, yes, you crazy old man, you are right, it is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and and it is raining buckets; we cannot keep on standing out here in the open. Nor can we fix this all at one time. It’s taken a long time to get ourselves into this mess, it's not going to get fixed in a day." But looking at verse 15, it seems that Ezra had some folks just as “ crazy" as he was. That verse speaks of three men who opposed this proposal by the majority of the people to get out of the rain and deal with this in an orderly manner over a period of time (see verse 14.)  I don’t think that we can say this with certainty, but it seems possible that what these three were saying in opposing the proposal was this, "I don't care that its raining, we are going to stand here in the rain and confess our sins for as long as it takes to make this right!"

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What Provokes Positive Change?

My reading today had me in the 7th chapter of Ezra which is where Ezra actually entered the story. Ezra was a priest exiled in Babylon. He is introduced in the text and his genealogy is listed all the way back to chief priest Aaron. Ezra was a scribe “skilled in the Law of Moses” It’s worth noting that his study of scripture is what provoked him to act. I say this because immediately after mentioning his skill in he law of Moses, it speaks of his petition to king Artaxerxes for permission to make the 500 mile or so journey to Jerusalem. Also verse 10 further hints at this cause and effect. The journey took five months. This is described in verses 8-9. Then there is this verse, that if I’m really paying attention when I read always stirs me. It’s very simple but here is verse 10. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” This captures what God has called me to do specifically but all believers generally. Let me explain: 
  1. He set his heart to study the Law of the Lord. This was not simply an academic exercise. I greatly value education, but academics can become an end in themselves without the final two points. 
  2. He set his heart to do the Law of the Lord. Ezra’s study provoked him to leave what had become the status quo for him. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal, but he had lived in Babylon for some time. He could have just decided he wanted to stay there and live out his days. Instead, his study of scripture stirred up his heart so that it provoked him to undertake an enormous project not just for him but to organize many other people to go with him. My study of the scripture is about the only thing that will prod me to have the desire to do anything more than serve myself. Mere reading of scripture doesn’t seem to have this affect on me. I don’t know if this is just me. But it’s when I study, when I stick with the text long enough to ask questions and to write observations that stirs me up to act. 
  3. He set his heart to teach his statues and rules in Israel. There is a special sense in which Ezra was called to do this and in which I am called to do this and I am grateful for it. When I study, I do find myself compelled to share it in some way and when I am writing up something like this to share, I always have he sense the I am doing what God has called me to do. But there is a sense that every believer has this responsibility. Ezra was a priest, but in Christ we are all priests. More explicit however, that every believer is to do this work, even if it is never more than a one on one experience is in Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
This instruction to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonish one another in all wisdom . . .  Is clearly to all believers. I pray this stirs you as it stirs me to study, obey, and teach. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Those Stories are Many Centuries Late

My experience with the O.T. book of Esther is unique and so I don’t have a good sense of how other people do or do not pay attention to it. My guess is that it is rather obscure to many and not well known. If true that is unfortunate. In high school our pastor’s wife wrote a musical drama based on the book and as a youth ministry we performed it in our church and even took it on the road to three states. This was common in the 70’s, if unusual for a church from the mountains of Kentucky. 

The plot of the story of Esther is riveting. If you were reading it from the beginning and you had no previous knowledge of the book, there is no way that you could predict the turns in the plot. If you don’t know the story, (or if you do) I urge you at your earliest convenience to set aside 30 or 45 minutes and read it in one sitting. 

The major characters are Esther, her uncle Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and Haman the enemy of the Jewish people. We live in a time when stories of strong female characters are rightly valued in movies like Moana and Rogue One, to mention a couple of recent offerings. Those stories and others like them are obviously many centuries behind this story of a courageous woman who serves sacrificially for the good of others. The story reveals how God works in the midst of questionable circumstances (chapter 1). It exposes issues of shame and honor throughout. I’m copying in a few verses below to show the immediate relevance of the story in how it reveals the pettiness that arrogance can create in a person. Look at Haman’s bragging in (v. 11) and his complete inability to handle the least slight (v. 13) and the extreme measures he takes to address the supposed “indignity that’s been done to him. 

Esther 5:9–14 (ESV)
9 And Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai. 10 Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh. 11 And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king. 12 Then Haman said, “Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared. And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king. 13 Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” 14 Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it. Then go joyfully with the king to the feast.” This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made.

Finally, this book is the only book of the Bible where the name of God is not mentioned. Yet, God’s hand is clear throughout. I’d love to hear your reaction, especially if you don’t know the story and you read it for the first time. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Praying in the Spirit of the Lord's Prayer

It’s not easy to know how to immediately apply some of the reading in Zechariah. I’ve loved studying this book in years past and read it with profit now, but handling all the images and ideas that seem so obscure to us are beyond the scope of these emails. 

September 12th
EZRA 5:3-6:14
ZECHARIAH 7:1-8:23

However, I did use this section to prompt my prayer this morning:

Zechariah 7:4–10 (ESV)
Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous, with her cities around her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited?’ ” 
And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

I spent some time thinking about what it would mean to fast or to eat and drink “for the Lord.” I prayed that I might do everything that I do as unto the Lord in the sense that I am most aware of him more than anyone else. I don’t want to see this as some sort of burden, but that I actually see the living such a God centered life would ultimately be liberating, to be less concerned with how what I do plays to the world, but most concerned about living for an audience of one. 

I also prayed in the spirit of the Lord’s prayer to pray corporately through verse 9. In other words instead of praying, “Lord may “I” render true judgments . . . I prayed Lord may “we” render true judgments and continued on from there in like manner. That simple tweak draws me out of an individualistic mindset and praying only for myself into real intercession. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Signs of Grace

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)
 1  The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” . . . 
The story of Belshazzar son of Nebuchadnezzar recorded in Daniel 5 could be the prime story to illustrate this reality.

Daniel 5:1–2 (ESV) 
King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.

The complete absence of any fear of God will cost the king his life. This absence is exactly the problem. He has no respect for the things of God and for some reason he elected to choose the elements from Jerusalem to actually flaunt his lack of the fear of the Lord. 

Daniel 5:3–4 (ESV)
Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Father, please develop in us a holy reverence for you that provokes us to long to honor you with every part of our lives. The desire of the king is to flaunt his belief that there is no God. The fool says in his heart, there is no God. That is what the king is doing. He exalted his own kingship. He loudly proclaimed, “I am King, there is nothing to fear from this so called god of the Israelites. Look I will prove it to you. We will use the items of their worship from their temple which we carried off for our drunken orgy.”

So they drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. 

in what sense did they praise these “gods”? Likely they were mocking the living God, doing all they could to distract themselves from seeing that God is real, even though according to Romans 1, they couldn't not know that God is God. Every one knows at some level that there is a God who created the universe, but more so now than perhaps ever, elaborate mechanisms have been created to seek to block us from seeing these realities. (Evolution, scientism, etc.)

Daniel 5:5 (ESV)
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote.

This is the stuff of a horror film. This sign is going to be too late for the king. He would die that night. This is very much like a horror movie, where a terrifying danger is announced him but from which there is no escape. 

But there were other signs in his life that he missed. For one, the prophet Daniel was available to him. Daniel was right there in the king’s court, clearly living a consistent and godly life that had caught the attention of the king’s father Nebuchadnezzar, but he had missed those lessons. Interestingly, the king’s wife didn’t completely miss it. She  informed the king of Daniel when no one else could be found to interpret the king’s dream. 

But there was also the witness of nature that the king missed. 

Romans 1:18–22 (ESV)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

Belshazzar is an example of what Paul describes here. This reality was as true then as it is now. What can be known about God (through nature, which is not everything, but enough to develop a holy reverence for God) was plain to the king, because God had shown it to him. But the king rejected this. He became futile in his thinking and his foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, he became a fool.

God in his good grace to us has given us the witness of all of the scripture, including the negative example of this king. We also have all the evidence that Romans 1:18-22 describes. May we not miss these signs of grace but cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us to create a holy reverence for God that provokes worship and obedience.

The rest of the story is too long for me to cover in this post but I pray you will go to Daniel 5 to catch all of it. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Radioactive Prayer

I’m learning to pray prompted by God’s word. In one sense I’ve done this for thirty years, but this year I’m praying through new texts that I’d never considered using before. I discovered one of those treasures in yesterday’s reading, Psalm 137. I’ve read it many times. But I had never considered using it to prompt prayer. Here are some of my prayer reflections on that text yesterday morning. I’ve edited it for clarity.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.

Father, I ask that you would teach us to grieve when we feel far from you. That we would have a hunger for you that would lead us to seek you. The Israelites were grieving because they had been forcibly taken away from their own land and they could not return. They could not improve their circumstances. Their grief was part nationalism; they loved their homeland, but it was also part spiritual. Being in Jerusalem was the only way they knew how to pray or worship. Please teach us to grieve when we are not experiencing your presence. Put us in touch with where we have been and where you might want to take us.

2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

The people imprisoning them wanted a show. Our tormentors required of us mirth! “Come on cheer up, sing us one of those famous songs we've heard so much about. Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

Teach us now Father, that we don't have to have just the right circumstances to worship. We don't have to be at the right conference or hearing just exactly the right music. May we learn to pursue you as the God who is God no matter what is happening or no matter where we are.
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

You are home for us Lord. May we learn to find our identity, our center, our home, in you. That way regardless of what swirls about us, whether opposition, or crazy demands at work, or health problems, or discouragement, may we seek our grounding in you, because the connection to you is the one thing we can never lose. Everything else on which we base our stability and our hope and our joy in life can be removed. So may it be that we see knowing you, and connecting with you, as our heart’s highest pursuit. May we have the heart to not be willing to engage in anything else or even to care about much else until we have met with you. May we follow your practice, Lord Jesus, to get up “a great while before day” so that we may remember not a place, not an experience, but you! May we be enabled to set you above our highest joy! May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth until I remember you in the morning. Lord, grant us a craving to be with you, that we would simply have no heart to move in any direction  until we "remember you" until we come seeking your face each day.

But then what to do with this passage? What sense do these last verses make from a N.T. perspective?
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Father, this is brutally violent. They brought this vile emotion before you which is precisely where it needs to be. We have to be able to deal with reality. There's nothing you don't already know about us. It seems that through this expression you invite us to bring the absolute worst of our thoughts and emotions to you. Prayer is the only truly safe place to deal with some of our most radioactive thoughts and feelings. There’s no point in denying that we have them.

But this also is a vivid look at their fury at the people they believe were keeping them from you. May we learn to have such violence, not toward people, but toward those things which cause us to sin, those habits and beliefs, that draw us away from you. May we crush them. May we learn to detest those things that keep us from God.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hope for the Spiritually Dry

Actually this is from Thursday's reading
Hope for the Spiritually Dry
Ezekiel and his vision of the valley of dry bones is one of those texts that you need to be able to find. It’s not just a memorable story. It packs a mighty punch. Unless you never feel spiritually dry or dead, this is a passage worthy of “going to school on” and returning to regularly.
If you first heard the story through the song (that’s how I remember hearing the story) you may miss something important. Instead of imagining an entertaining song, we should imagine the horror of stumbling onto a mass grave. The image is grotesque. The valley was “full of bones and . . . There were very many on the surface of the valley.”
But, what is this really about? The children of Israel were taken by force from their homeland and were now living in exile in Babylon. This image of a mass grave both captured the horror they felt about their circumstances and the complete lack of hope they would have felt of their situation improving. But, there are also clues both in the text and in echoes of this text in the N.T. that demonstrate that we are right to also apply this to the need for spiritual renewal.
Yahweh himself showed Ezekiel this vision and he said to him in Ezekiel in 37:3 “Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, you know.”
Can these bones live? Is it possible for something that is dry and lifeless to be revived? If so, what would that reviving look like? How does it happen? How can a person who is dry and weary and burned out be restored to life once again?
Ezekiel 37:4 (ESV) Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
Only God can do the work of reviving and yet he involves people in the work. Ezekiel was to prophesy over the bones. Often renewal will come through God speaking through a sermon or a conversation or a book. But, ultimately, it’s that last phrase that is critical. Dry bones need to hear the word of the Lord. Jesus said,  “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Spiritual life cannot be started, renewed, or sustained without consistently hearing the word of the Lord.
Ezekiel 37:5-6 (ESV) Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Hearing the word of the Lord is the path to God renewing our souls and our knowing, our experiencing, that God is God. But, what if we have no desire for hearing the word of God? In that case, perhaps the first step would be to acknowledge that fact. If you had no physical appetite to eat and you were getting thinner and weaker by the day, you would go to the doctor and you might say, “Doc, I'm so tired and I have no energy.” Eventually the doctor would get around to saying, “Tell me about your diet.” If you say, “Well, I just don't have any appetite. Every now and then I'll eat a bite of something, but I just don't feel like eating.” This would get recognized as a serious problem and you would seek to do something about it. So the first step is to confess, “Father, I am weak. I feel spiritually dead and lifeless. And I have no appetite for the thing that I know I need. Would you please create a hunger in me for what I really need?” Hear that call again,  “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
Ezekiel 37:5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
The word here for breath is also the word for spirit and it keeps popping up in this text. “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” Unless God does this, we have no hope. Unless this happens in a church, nothing else will matter. For us to be spiritually alive, we must hear the word of the Lord and depend on God to breathe his life into us, both initially at conversion and for renewal on a consistent basis. (See John 20:22 for an intriguing echo of this passage.) Perhaps from this text you could pray for yourself, for someone you care about, or for your church. Pray that God will give spiritual life.
Ezekiel 37:8–10 (ESV)  And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
The renewal happened in stages. It did not take place all at once. There is no magic prayer to pray when we feel dead that makes us instantly better.
There are plenty of times I feel no great desire to pray or get after God in his word. But, God has shown me over the years that the ache in my soul, the angst that I feel is a hunger pain for God. When we feel a longing in our gut, we do what we believe will cure the ache. It's been said that every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God. I've never knocked on the door of a brothel, by the mercy of God. But, I have reached for far more respectable things, things that are not sin in and of themselves. I have tried to address a hunger for God with a bowl of ice cream, or an episode of the West Wing, or a football game. All of those are good gifts of God to be enjoyed in the right time and place. But, if what my soul is actually longing for is God, they won’t satisfy.
Based on this passage, here is a suggested path for cooperating with God when you feel spiritually dry:
  1. Identify emotional pain as, ultimately, a longing for God.
  2. Confess to God that you believe several other things will more effectively address the problem.
  3. Confess that you do not feel or believe in your heart that experiencing God in his word will effectively meet the problem or that if you try, you have doubts you will actually experience God.
  4. Plead with God to grant you a hunger for him.
  5. Ask God to grant you spiritual life through his word.
  6. Read slowly and write down observations.
  7. Be patient.
  8. Claim the promise that God says he will restore.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Prone to Wander

Reflections on the reading in the One Year Bible Chronological Plan for Tuesday, August, 29, 2017

Today’s reading records a memorable but troubling story. Jerusalem had been destroyed and most of the people carried off to exile in Babylon. The king of Babylon left a man by the name of Gedaliah in charge to lead those who remained. But the people killed him. Then, in fear that Babylon would come back and finish the job, the people apparently had decided that they should flee to Egypt. But they decided before leaving to consult with the Lord through Jeremiah. They sounded sincere, but as the incident transpires, it appears that they were only hoping for confirmation from God to do what they had already decided to do. 

Here is the show:

Jeremiah 42:2–3 (ESV)
2 and said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the Lord your God for us, for all this remnant—because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us— 3 that the Lord your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do.”

Jeremiah agrees to seek an answer for them from the Lord. They they make even more promises to obey:

Jeremiah 42:5–6 (ESV)
5 Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to all the word with which the Lord your God sends you to us. 6 Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.”

Interestingly they had to wait 10 days for an answer. In God’s answer is a hopeful message of the compassion of God toward the people after all the disaster that had come upon them. 

Jeremiah 42:10–12 (ESV)
10 If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. 11 Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. 12 I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land.

God was prepared to show them compassion, but a clear warning followed of the consequences if they did not follow God’s instruction. If they didn’t listen, everything they feared would follow them to Egypt and there would be no escape. 

After all that show of wanting to hear and obey God’s instructions to them, they accused Jeremiah of lying about what God had said, they promptly left for Egypt, and they forced Jeremiah to go with them. 

They didn't want to know God for who he is, they wanted only his blessing so that they wouldn’t suffer any longer. But when God showed them the path to blessing, they didn’t listen. They already knew what they wanted to do. 

Such stories can seem discouraging, but Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10 that these are written down for our example that we might not follow in their footsteps. Here are some ways we can respond positively to the Lord from this text. 
  1. Listen well to God's word. 
  2. Do pray and seek God's will. 
  3. Determine in advance that you will do what he says. Put your yes on the table before you here God's word. 
  4. Pray for the grace to follow through because as the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Being Salt & Light in the Midst of Political Turmoil

In several of the last days’ readings the circumstances on the ground are these: Nebuchadnezzar's forces from Babylon were laying siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was protected by a wall. The Babylonians surrounded the city and used that wall to imprison the inhabitants and seek to starve them out. From start to finish the siege went on for about 2 1/2 years. The siege is described in some detail in the first few verses of Jeremiah 52. This is the circumstance alluded to in Jeremiah 21:2. King Zedekiah had sent officials to Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 21:2 (ESV)
2 “Inquire of the Lord for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is making war against us. Perhaps the Lord will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and will make him withdraw from us.”

King Zedekiah knew the stories of how God miraculously delivered his people in times past and was hoping that maybe God would do that again. He would not have liked the answer he received recorded in Jeremiah 21:3–7.

But even in the midst of this terrifying pronouncement there was also grace. If they would listen and respond to God's word, they could be spared the the most appalling aspects of the ordeal they were facing. But that required surrendering to the Babylonians. Jer. 21:8 "I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” If they stayed in the city they would die either by the sword, by starving to death, or through some disease. These were desperate circumstances. We should not read over this lightly. They could be spared this, though, if they responded to God's word to them through Jeremiah and surrendered. We should not miss God's mercy in this. God's discipline was going to fall on them. Yet even in the midst of that, God was offering a far less painful route.

In the end they were more committed to their dreams of nationalistic glory as the people of Jerusalem than they were in listening to the voice of God. Stated bluntly they were more committed to their politics than to following God.

In the midst of these warnings were calls to the king to follow God in ethical and moral matters.  They were to execute justice, Jer. 21:12. Evidently, this was not happening or this challenge would not be given. In other words, it was a call to repentance. It’s listed in more detail in a further charge to the king here:

Jeremiah 22:3 (ESV) Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

There's a lot of application to the challenges followers of Jesus face now in the U.S. Our ultimate allegiance cannot be to a particular political vision. Rather our allegiance must be to the Lord Jesus Christ and to respond to his grace with humble obedience. May we always be alert to the word of God and to think Biblically about the tumultuous political storms around us. May we never give unthinking allegiance to any political party or candidate. This is part of what it means to be salt and light.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In This World You Will Have Trouble

There’s a window into the later part of Jeremiah’s ministry in Jeremiah 37-38. Previously I have thought that pastors and spiritual leaders encounter difficulty and persecution when they are young and brash and making a lot of mistakes but that when they are older and more polished they will be loved and appreciated and honored and live largely free of hardship. Sometimes that happens. But that was not the experience of any of the apostles. Likely the least difficult end of ministry scenario for any of them was the apostle John, who was exiled to the island of Patmos. It also was not the experience of Jeremiah. Near the end of his ministry as recorded in Jeremiah 37:11–16 he is falsely accused of defecting to the Babylonians. The Babylonians had been laying siege to Jerusalem but withdrew when the Egyptians came to their aid. Jeremiah was leaving the city to take care of family business but a guard saw him and accused him of defecting. He was then arrested, flogged, and thrown in prison.

What follows in Jeremiah 37:17–38:28 are a series of troubling interactions with King Zedekiah of Judah. Zedekiah quietly asks Jeremiah if he has any message from the Lord. The king couldn’t have liked what he heard as Jeremiah tells him plainly, “you will be defeated by the king of Babylon.” Then Jeremiah appeals to the king as to why he has been thrown in prison and pleads that he may be released. Zedekiah only upgrades him to a little nicer cell, and orders that he be given fresh bread daily as long as there is bread to eat in the city. The situation was dire for everyone. Food was scarce. Jeremiah experienced that difficulty along with everyone else.

Not long after this, another group of people complain to the king that Jeremiah was demoralizing the remaining soldiers left to Judah and the king weakly replies to them. “All right, do as you like. I can’t stop you.”

Then this happens:

Jeremiah 38:6 (NLT) 6 So the officials took Jeremiah from his cell and lowered him by ropes into an empty cistern in the prison yard. It belonged to Malkijah, a member of the royal family. There was no water in the cistern, but there was a thick layer of mud at the bottom, and Jeremiah sank down into it.

He was soon befriended and rescued from the cistern, but remained in prison. Again the king wanted to question Jeremiah as if he was hoping for a better answer from the Lord. But Jeremiah told him:

Jeremiah 38:15 (NLT)  . . . “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway.”

Jeremiah further explains that there is a way for his life and especially the women in his family to be spared a horrendous fate. But in fear Zedekiah does what he believes will protect himself but not protect his family.

Throughout the reading is this picture of how Jeremiah, though faithful to God, was continually exposed to the business end of king Zedekiah’s weak character.

None of this sounds encouraging, but this too is an important part of God’s word and an illustration of the reality of Jesus’ words with which he encouraged his disciples right before his crucifixion:

John 16:33 (NLT)
33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”