December 29, 2010

Hey Jude

Hey Jude, don't be afraid,
Take a bad blog and make it better!
Remember your letter, writ from your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.
Na ... na-na ... na-na-na-na!
Na-na-na-na, hey Jude!

OK, so I'm no Paul McCartney; and certainly no John Lennon! But in the coming days I am, like those two guys, going to be writing a little bit about Jude. That is, Jude the author of the second-to-last book of the Bible. In spite of my initial playfulness, Jude's letter is quite a serious and also wonderful piece of work. So I'm going to be writing on it verse-by-verse (and sometimes phrase-by-phrase) for the first umpteen weeks of 2011. I think I'm going to find it rich. Hope you do, too. Stay tuned.

December 27, 2010

An Old New Year's Tradition

No, I’m not planning on writing an article about champagne, Auld Lang Syne, or New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Believe it or not, there are a few New Year’s traditions that are even older than Dick Clark! Specifically, I’m thinking of one that comes from the Bible.

I know, I know … the people of biblical times were working on a different calendar than we are – different months, different dates, and so on. In fact, they celebrated the New Year in the spring, rather than in the dead of winter (which makes far more sense, to me by the way!). But, nevertheless, the ancient Hebrews, like ourselves, had a day on which they recognized the beginning of a brand new year. And God gave them a tradition which, although our dates are different, we would do well to make a New Year’s custom of our own.

Did you ever notice that, when God brought His people out of their slavery in Egypt, He re-worked their calendar? That’s what we’re told in Exodus 12.2: “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.” In other words: ‘What I am about to do for you is so significant that I’m going to completely change the way you think about days and months and years. You are going to begin to date your calendars, not first of all by the heavenly bodies, as by the time when the Heavenly King came down to deliver you from your slavery.’ That is the point in Exodus 12.2. God changed the calendar so that the New Year fell right around the anniversary of the Exodus. And, thus, the New Year became, for the Jewish people, a constant reminder of how God had saved them from their enslavement.

And, fittingly, their most high and holy holiday – Passover – was to be celebrated in that very first month of the year! This was the day on which an unblemished lamb was sacrificed in each Jewish home in order to remind them of how God had rescued them that night in Egypt, by the blood of an unblemished lamb. That night, back in Egypt, when the angel of death was passing through the land of Egypt, taking the life of each firstborn male, the blood of a lamb on a family’s doorpost caused the angel to ‘pass over’ that home and spare the child. The lamb died so that the child might live! And, I say fittingly, God placed the commemoration of that night right in the beginning of the New Year!

So then (and here’s the point) – if the Hebrews were to ring in the New Year by commemorating God’s deliverance by the blood of the lamb, wouldn’t we also do well to ring in our New Year by remembering “precious blood” (1 Peter 1.19), “as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ”?

In effect – by shifting the calendar around to commemorate the Exodus; and by placing the most important religious festival in the Bible (a picture of the gospel!) in the first month of the year … what God seems to have been saying to the Israelites was something like this: ‘Celebrate the New Year by remembering the blood shed for you!’ And the application for us is, perhaps, something similar: Ring in the new year, not so much by asking: “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” but by asking: “Should the blood of the Lamb be forgot and never brought to mind?” Or, as William Rees, the Welsh hymn-writer put it:
Who His love shall not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
throughout heav’n’s eternal days!
There’s a New Year’s song for you! And, O, how important that we remember that God has given us times and seasons and months and dates for a purpose – so that we would have mile-markers along the way to remind us of times gone by, and to cause us to reflect, and resolve, and take stock, and so on. And, in the biblical pattern, the first month of the year was a time of special remembrance of salvation purchased with precious blood. And, if the Hebrews could ring in the year with the blood of lambs, how much more should we remember, in these days, “the blood of Christ”?

December 24, 2010

Just When you Think All Hope is Gone

Each year, I write a poem, based on one of the people in the Christmas narrative, to be read at our Christmas Eve service. This year, I chose Anna, the prophetess who spent every day in God's temple, fasting, praying and waiting for the Messiah who would redeem Jerusalem (Luke 2.36-38). Particularly, I wondered why Luke thought to include the name of her father (Phanuel) and her family's place of origin (Asher). Why was she waiting so intently? What human means did God use to mold her into the woman she was? Did her dad and her 'home county', if you will, have anything to do with it? Of course, we don't know for sure. But the poem below is a gathering together of my thoughts on how, perhaps, God may have worked His wonders in Anna's life. I hope, while imaginative, it is true to the biblical lessons that her life, and the rest of Scripture, place upon us. Enjoy!

The hills of Asher in the north
Are gold and green and bubble forth
Like olive bunches on a tree,
And tumble down toward Galilee.
From this rich soil grew faith in Christ:
Where five loaves and two fish sufficed
To feed a crowd five thousand strong;
Where God forgave the sinners’ wrongs;
Where wonders were too rife to count
And Jesus taught upon the Mount.

But Galilee and Asher’s land
Were once as fertile as the sand
That has no place for roots to hold,
And bring forth faith like olives gold.
It’s people jumbled truth and not
And stirred it all into one pot –
The Gentile’s faith mixed with the Jew,
And cooked into a poison stew
So that true faith was almost gone,
And few looked for Messiah’s dawn.

But sometimes sand becomes a pearl …
And, thus, there was a little girl
Whose father sat her on his knee
On Asher’s slopes beside the Sea,
And said: “I know this land is bare,
And people live without a care,
And sin is ripe and faith seems gone,
And few look for Messiah’s dawn …
But we live in a privileged place!”

A furrow grew on Anna’s face.

“Remember what the prophets told?”
Her father said. “The green and gold
Of faith will sprout here once again
Just like the olives after rain!
Isaiah put it best, my pearl” –

And then, as she began to twirl
Her fingers in her tangled hair,
He said, now with a distant stare,
The land is now under contempt
Like hair, or gardens, long unkempt.
It’s dark now, like the winter sea
Here in this Gentile Galilee.
But those whose land is grayed with blight
Will see a great and glorious light;
And those benighted in this land
Will dwell no more on shifting sand.
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

Young Anna’s heart began to race.
Into the furrows on her face
Were planted seeds of blessed hope
Which grew in clumps and helped her cope
With famine spread in Asher’s land,
Whose faith was built on shifting sand.
“The Christ will come!” became her cry.
“Perhaps I’ll see Him with my eye,
And bend and kiss His holy feet,
And see Isaiah’s promise, sweet,
Come true and spread o’er Galilee
And Asher’s hills beside the Sea.”

Ten years passed by, Anna was grown.
Her faith was now all of her own …
But shared, now, with another man
Who, like her dad, had more than sand
Beneath his feet. With sandals strapped,
He’d walk with her to where she’d clapped
Her hands that day in pure delight
When daddy spoke about the light,
About the Christ, about the day
When Asher’s tears He’d wipe away.
For seven years they made that trek.
And each year, faith grew by the peck –
Like olives beaten from the trees –
As she would sit upon his knees
And look into the sunrise, gold
And quote the words Isaiah’d told:
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

The eighth year, though, she went alone,
And came back to an empty home –
But sure as she had ever been
That, even with all Gal’lee’s sin,
And even with her own regret,
Messiah’s dawn was coming yet.
“A Child is born to wipe away
The tears that flood my eyes today;
A Father for this daughter’s cry;
A Husband that will never die;
A Savior who’ll our sins erase;
My God I will see face to face!”

The years passed by, her face grew old.
Her skin began to crease and fold
Like olives set aside to dry
For winter. She’d no longer try
To travel back to Asher’s land –
She had arthritis in her hand,
And in her knees, and in her spine.
Her neighbors blamed it on the time
She spent all hunched down on the floor
Behind a little hidden door
Inside the house of God. She’d pray …
And skip at least a meal a day.
“O God our help in ages past*,
Come now, and heed this widow’s fast.
Come, bring the light to Asher’s hills …
And also to this town that kills
The prophets and the men of God –
This city where the peasants plod,
Where harlots play their games of chance,
And priestly phonies march and prance.
Reverse our fortunes, ever grim!
O God, redeem Jerusalem!”

Each day she’d hide behind that door
And plant her knees into the floor
In hopes that answered prayers would grow
Like olive clumps so long ago
In Asher. And she’d make the walk,
In her mind’s eye, and hear him talk
Again – her father Phanuel.
Some days she thought she almost smelled
His cloak, all fragrant from the herds.
At times, she thought she heard his words:
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

And then, one day, she did! She heard,
As, clear as day, her father’s words:
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.

“My dad’s been gone for sixty years”
She thought, her eyes now filled with tears
Of joy. “Who could it be?” she said.
A thousand thoughts ran through her head.
And then she flung the door all wide –
And there, amidst the pomp and pride,
A simple man, holding a child.
“Our light is no longer exiled”
He said. “My eyes have seen the King –
The end to all our suffering
And sin.”

“He’s right” said Anna now,
And curved her back into a bow.
“Isaiah put it best” she said.
Our hopes and dreams, as good as dead
From sin that covered us with night
Have given way to glorious light.

Then Anna took Him on her knees –
The answer to her years of pleas;
The hope for Asher’s barren hills,
And for Jerusalem that kills.
She ran her fingers through His hair
And said, now with a close-up stare:
Now, those whose land is grayed with blight
Will see a great and glorious light;
And those benighted in this land
Will dwell no more on shifting sand.
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

So widows: Hope when hope seems vain,
And when you’re overwhelmed with pain.
Like Anna, wait and watch and pray.
A Husband comes to be your stay.

And children: Hope when parents die.
A Father comes to wipe your eye.
So make you parent’s faith your own,
And be like Anna when you’re grown.

And parents: Take them on your knees
And put their little souls at ease.
Tell them: “I know this land is bare,
And people live without a care,
And sin is ripe and faith seems gone,
But look out for Messiah’s dawn!

*This line, of course, comes from Isaac Watts's great hymn by the same title.

December 20, 2010

Benjamin: Ransomed, Redeemed

Today we come to the last of our thumbnail sketches of Jacob’s twelve sons. So far (and in a variety of ways) we have noted that lives of several of the twelve boys (warts and all), were foreshadowings of our Lord Jesus:
  • Levi, from whose line was drawn the Israelite priesthood, reminds us of Jesus, our great high priest.
  • Judah, who was willing to give his life in place of his brother Benjamin’s, reminds us of how Jesus substituted Himself for us on the cross.
  • Naphtali, the giver of beautiful words (Genesis 49.21), reminds us of Jesus, our great Prophet and Teacher.
  • Zebulun reminds us of Jesus because it was in Zebulun’s territory (i.e. Galilee) that the Savior spent most of His life and ministry.
  • And, of course, Joseph reminds us of Jesus in the way he suffered so unjustly … and eventually, single-handedly, rescued all Israel from death.
But today we come to a different kind of character. Benjamin, Jacob’s twelfth and youngest son, reminds us not so much of Jesus, as of ourselves! Remember Genesis 44 … when Judah stepped in and offered to give his life in place of his younger brother’s? Benjamin was the younger brother! Benjamin had been accused of stealing a silver cup from Egypt. The punishment? Being turned into a slave. And this is where Judah stepped in (v.33): “Please let your servant (i.e. Judah himself) remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.”

What a picture of Christlikeness! Judah, on a much smaller scale, of course – but in a very compassionate and costly sense, nonetheless – was doing for his little brother what Jesus has done for us! His was willing to give himself up for the sake of another. And he is, as we said several weeks ago, another Old Testament picture of Jesus! And, therefore, the brother who was getting out from under the penalty; the brother whose sentence was being taken by another; the brother who was being loved in such an amazing way is a picture of the Christian! We all, if we belong to Christ, are Benjamins! We have had our sentence repealed – not by some clever courtroom maneuvers, but because someone else loved us (and loved His father) so deeply as to be willing to take the penalty for us!

Yes, remember that Judah didn’t just offer himself up in place of Benjamin because he loved Benjamin, but because he loved his father (Genesis 44.34) and did not want to displease him! And so it was with Jesus! He died because He loves us, yes. But He died, even more fundamentally, because He loves His Father. And it was His Father’s will that He die; His Father’s will that we be saved from our sins!

So, if you’re ever looking for yourself in the Bible; if you’re ever wondering if there is a character with whom you might really identify – not the best way to read the Bible, by the way … but if you are looking for such a person nonetheless … check out Benjamin. He was as good as done in Genesis 44 … until his older brother stepped in on his behalf. And that pretty much sums up your position, too, does it not? So thank God for our older brother, Jesus!

December 13, 2010

Joseph: The Suffering Servant

Well, unlike so many of his brothers (about whom the Bible says very little, and over whom this author has often had to really stretch his mind to fill up an articles’ worth of space) … Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, has more written about him than almost any other person in the Old Testament (filling up Genesis chapters 37-50). In fact, in more recent times whole books have been written about him! So what could I possibly say in this small allotment of space?

Well, we could talk about Joseph’s arrogance, as a young man (boasting about his special place in God’s plan). We could think on his integrity later in life (refusing to give in to the seductions of his master’s wife). We could notice all his sufferings (enslavement, false accusation, imprisonment, famine, estrangement from his family, and so on). And we could surely talk about how, though others meant all those things for evil, meant them for good (Genesis 50.20). Each of those would be worthy subjects!

But what is most intriguing, to me, is how much Joseph’s life and career (and especially God’s good design in his sufferings) resemble the life and sufferings and ministry of Jesus! Think it out …

  • Joseph, like Jesus, was “despised and forsaken” by His brethren. That’s what Isaiah 53.3 says about Jesus. And the New Testament shows it playing out on horrific detail. And Joseph’s being sold by his brothers (also for silver!) is an amazing foreshadowing of what would happen to the Christ!
  • Joseph, like Jesus, spent a period of his life as an exile in Egypt.
  • Joseph, like Jesus, was “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” before his accusers. Again, notice Isaiah 53 … this time, verse 7. And notice how the New Testament fulfills that messianic prophecy. Jesus could have called ten legions of angels to His defense at His mockery of a trial. But He didn’t. And when Joseph was falsely accused, he didn’t argue and murmur and threaten either. Like his greater descendant, he entrusted himself to a higher judge.
  • Joseph, like Jesus, pointed away from himself and to his heavenly Father. When it was said he could interpret dreams, Joseph’s reply (worthy of our imitation) was simply: “It is not in me, God” will give the interpretation. That sounds startlingly like the way Jesus’ spoke about His submission to His Father, doesn’t it?
  • In Genesis 42-45 Joseph, like Jesus, single-handedly rescued his people from death!
  • And, in the wise plan of God, the betrayal of Joseph, like the betrayal of Jesus, led to the salvation of the very people who betrayed him.
Now what’s the point in noticing all these similarities? To extol Joseph? To convince you that he was almost as good as Jesus was? No! My point, rather, is simply to remind you that, all throughout the Old Testament, God was dropping breadcrumbs that would lead hungry and attentive readers to the Messiah. The Passover Lamb, the ministry of Moses, the Tabernacle, Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale, and the life of Joseph … all these people and events were placed into the Old Testament so that, when Jesus came along, we would recognize the divine stamp upon His life; so that we would see that He so clearly fits the pattern … because the pattern was cut after His silhouette!

And there may be no Old Testament character whose life was more closely cut after the pattern of the coming Messiah than the eleventh son of Jacob. In fact, in times of old, there were two strands of thought about what the coming Messiah would be like. Some noticed the Old Testament’s promises of the Messiah’s triumph and kingship, and called the Messiah the Son of David. Others noticed prophecies like Isaiah 53 (which depicts the Messiah as a suffering servant), and saw in Joseph a portrait of what the Christ would be like … calling the long-awaited one: the Son of Joseph. Both were correct, weren’t they? Jesus came (and is coming again) as a king, the Son of David. But so much of His mission, the first time around, was to suffer like Joseph (and, of course, to suffer in far more significant ways and for far more significant reasons than Joseph)!

So, the next time you’re reading through the latter pages of Genesis; the next time you find yourself drawn in by the amazing drama of Joseph’s life … remind yourself: The Son of God was (and is), in a strange kind of way, the son of two different Josephs!

December 9, 2010

Sermons from Psalms 51-60, Setback Psalms

Setback Psalms. That's what we're calling our recent look at Psalms 51-60. In each of these Psalms, David is wrestling with some problem ... and with God in prayer. Sometimes the problem is himself (sound familiar?). Sometimes the problem is someone else. Sometimes it's his circumstances. But David was a man like us - with problems, and with emotions to go along with them. May these psalms and sermons prove to be a balm to your soul as you listen to David walk through trials, and triumph in faith!

Psalm 51 - The Sinner's Prayer
Psalm 52 - Dealing with Doeg
Psalm 53 - "Not even one"
Psalm 54 - Words from the Wilderness
Psalm 55 - Setback Psalm
Psalm 56 - "When I am afraid"
Psalm 57 - "I will sing"
Psalm 58 - "Shatter their Teeth"
Psalm 59 - When God Laughs
Psalm 60 - "Will You not go forth with our armies?"

December 6, 2010

Can Anything Good Come out of Zebulun?

Jacob’s tenth son, Zebulun, reminds me a little bit of George Washington. That is because he, like our first president, had a whole chunk of land named after him upon which he likely never set foot! But, unlike George’s Pacific northwestern namesake, the territory named after Zebulun (and lived in by his descendants) is surely more famous than the man himself!

And why is the land of Zebulun famous? Mainly because of one sentence, written centuries after Zebulun’s death, by the prophet Isaiah. Predicting the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah wrote (in Isaiah 9.1):
“In earlier times [God] treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles”.
And what was so glorious about Galilee (the territory formerly known as “Zebulun and Naphtali”)? Well, of course, that’s where Jesus grew up; and where He performed so much of His earthly ministry. It was in these territories that He turned water into wine, and fed the five thousand, and raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. It was in “Zebulun and Naphtali” that He spent most of His adult life, making the town of Capernaum His home base for ministry. And it was specifically in the territory of Zebulun, in the town of Nazareth, that Jesus spent the greater part of His boyhood! Not by ancestry, but by location, Jesus grew up as a Zebulunite!

Now that, in retrospect, is surely a great honor for the man Zebulun, tenth of the twelve patriarchs! But it must also have been a great surprise to those who knew what Isaiah meant when he referred to Zebulun as a God-forsaken patch of ground! The people there were, in many ways, backwoods. Their religion there was so often a hodge-podge of false, mixed with true. And, as we always say of Bethlehem at Christmas, so we also say of Jesus’ growing-up town and district: ‘Nazareth in Zebulun surely didn’t seem like the kind of soil from which the Savior of the world would likely grow.’ So much so that one of Jesus’ future disciples (Nathanael), upon learning that this supposed Christ was from up Zebulun way, said famously: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1.46).

Nathanael must not have known His Bible very well. And I don’t just say that because he obviously didn’t know Isaiah 9.1. Surely that verse would have answered his question! But even if he hadn’t known Isaiah 9.1, Nathanael ought to have known (and so ought we) that God delights in using the weak things of the world to shame the strong; that He delights in using people and places that are more like jars of clay than they are like fine china. Doing it this way demonstrates that it’s His power, not our pedigree! And, along those lines, we ought to know, more than anything else, that God loves taking people that don’t deserve anything from His hands (like the rag-tag folks in Galilee) … and sending them salvation in the person of His Son! This way we realize that our relationship with Him is all of His surpassing grace, and none of our supposed goodness!

So of course Jesus grew up and ministered in Nazareth, Zebulun! What a perfect place to show that God is gracious to outcasts and ne’er-do-wells. And, of course, Jesus delights in coming to live in and redeem your mixed up, messed up life, too. Your failure, and weakness, and sin are the perfect landing place for a Savior; the perfect backdrop against which God can demonstrate His grace!

So take courage, all you who live in your own personal Zebuluns and Galilees! If you are in Christ, “He shall make it glorious”!