January 28, 2014

A Nugget (or two) from Exodus

So I’ve been reading through Exodus and … whew, is there some challenging reading! The first chapters, of course, are action packed. But lately I have been working my way through the instructions for the tabernacle and its priests – the “poles of acacia wood” overlaid with gold, the “blue, purple and scarlet material,” the “sockets of silver,” the “porpoise skins,” the “linen breeches,” the rams, the blood on Aaron’s earlobe, and so on.

All these things, of course, had their vital purpose; and the descriptions of them are still “inspired by God and profitable” (2 Timothy 3.16). But from this side of the coming of Jesus, the instructions in Exodus (and Leviticus!) can seem quite remote, and difficult to follow. We may even be tempted to bypass them altogether – since the “great high priest” has come, fulfilling (and thus rendering obsolete) all the ceremonies and sacrifices of old.

But that is actually one of the very reasons we should press on in our reading of such portions of scripture – because they were given as signs and symbols of “the Expected One”! And we must try and remind ourselves to read them in just that way.

I don’t always get this right, I confess. Many times I find myself just blankly reading through the descriptions of the tabernacle, and priests, and sacrifices … wondering if I should just stop and turn to something a little more obviously helpful. But now and again I have my head on straight, and I see the foretastes of Jesus that God has laid out like bread crumbs for us throughout the Old Testament. And this week I had one of those moments. I noticed something that I can’t ever remembering noticing before. Let me explain …

Exodus 28 basically consists of instructions for how the Old Testament priests – and particularly the high priests – were to dress. There were outer garments, undergarments, hats, multiple colors, precious stones, and so on. And one of the items that the high priest was to wear was called an ephod – which appears to have been a beautiful piece of wearable artwork that hung over the high priest’s shoulders. The artists’ renderings I turned up on Google Images seem mostly to depict it as a kind of ornately woven apron. It must have been beautiful! And on each shoulder of the ephod was an onyx stone, with “the names of the sons of Israel” engraved on them – “six of their names on the one stone and the names of the remaining six on the other stone.” And the high priest carried those stones and those names “before the LORD on his two shoulders for a memorial” (see Exodus 28.9-12).

Do you see the picture? All the sons of Israel – who represented all the tribes of Israel – were being symbolically carried on the shoulders of their priest. And I think perhaps the idea was that the high priest was constantly upholding God’s people by means of the sacrifices; bearing them up before the Lord’s remembrance through his priestly duties on their behalf. Their well-being, in some ways, rested on his shoulders! And it seems that perhaps these onyx stones were a reminder of that; a reminder that, as their high priest, he bore up the whole nation of God’s people up, spiritually, before the Lord.

And here is the thought that had never before occurred to me as I read through the book of Exodus: That is what Jesus, the “great high priest,” does for us! He carries us, as it were, like the priests of old. Our spiritual well-being rests squarely on His shoulders, does it not? And by his high priestly prayers; by His sacrifice on our behalf, He is constantly bringing us before the Lord’s remembrance; constantly carrying us, spiritually! And that was refreshing to remember on a Monday morning!

And so those two little nuggets of onyx, set into the priestly garments in Exodus 28, provided me a nugget of my own – another reminder of who Jesus is for me, and for all who believe. And there is much, much more where that came from. So keep reading!

January 21, 2014

The Lessons of Recuperation

Last week I spent some time reflecting on three lessons I learned (and, I hope, will continue to learn) from my recent illness. Today I thought it would be good to bring to your attention three further lessons – this set pondered in light of my recovery from that illness. The first set of lessons may have been a little more plain to see – since sickness slows us down and allows us (sometimes forces us!) to think. This second set may be a little less obvious. Because, once we are well again, we tend to rush back into the frenzy, and to pay less attention to what God may be saying to us in it all (which is perhaps a lesson in itself). But I have a little time to think as I sit down before this little weekly column … and so let me see if I can draw some insights from the fact that I am now well again, after a difficult illness.

1. Thankfulness is easily overlooked. On the Saturday and Sunday, I was terribly miserable … and wasn’t sure when I would see any light at the end of the tunnel. On Monday, I was not yet well … but woke up feeling considerably better than I had before. And so I got up and moved around a bit; did a few things; etc. But at the end of the day, one of the things I realized I hadn’t done was to stop and give thanks to God. I had prayed during my sickness. And others had prayed for me. And I believe (in my head at least) that it is the Lord “who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103.3). But as He began to do so, I just took it all for granted – as though the sole reason for my recovery were the fact that the virus was finally running its course. Now, certainly the virus was running its course. But surely it was the Lord who was superintending that, and making it not as bad or lingering as it could have been. And I ought to have been not only relieved about the virus, but intentionally thankful to the Lord of the virus!

2. Work is good. I cannot honestly say that I was eager to get back to work last Tuesday, after four days away from the responsibility. I like time off as much as you do! But I can say that I’d rather be at work than laid up with the flu! And I can also say that productivity is better than inactivity. It is good for us to work; to be useful; to produce something! In our constant craving for the weekend, perhaps we forget that sometimes. But a few days of productivity after a handful on a sickbed is a good reminder that work is a good thing; that God did indeed create us for usefulness. “Six days you shall labor.” And, even if we do not absolutely love our jobs, the privilege of going to them each day is better than the alternative!

3. Sickness is temporary. I’m not the best sickbed patient, I know. As I said last time, it often seems to me like the worst sickness ever! And I find myself feeling like I will never actually recover. Now, even as I am think such a thought, I know that it’s not actually true. But it just almost feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it? ‘How am I ever possibly going to feel right again?’ But every time, I eventually do. The Lord “who heals all your diseases” keeps granting me to recover … every time. And I should remember that. Our “affliction,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.17, is only “momentary” and “light.” And even when we are afflicted with something that will not actually go away in this life – if we are in Christ, it is still only “momentary” in comparison to the eternity that we will spend with Jesus. Just as the flu doesn’t last forever – neither does cancer, or arthritis, or heart disease, or dementia, or heartache, or any other affliction. We will get better soon. And we will thank God profusely when we do. And we will have an eternity to serve Him with healthy bodies and eager hearts.

January 17, 2014

Lessons from a Sickbed

A week ago at this time, I was in the throes of a horrendous bout with some sort of flu-like funk. I honestly think it was the worst I have ever felt in my life. Tobey tells me I say that every time I’m sick ... but this time I mean it! And I’ve heard of two others, who seem to have had the same bug, speaking similarly. It really was a worst-ever kind of virus! And so for the better part of four days, I did very little besides lay under the covers, read a few things here and there, and generally feel wretched. Some of you have been there in the last two weeks, too!

But in the moments of clarity (which were often brief), a few spiritual lessons began to imprint themselves, ever so gently, on my mind and heart. In these few lines, I have a little time and space to try and press them even more indelibly into the memory – both mine and yours. So here are three lessons that occurred to me because of my sickness.

1. Compassion. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that, as awful as I felt … there are people in the world who feel physically shot and in significant pain day after day, and week after week, and year after year of their lives. The symptoms may be different. And, without the fever, maybe some of them can, in some minor way, be ‘gotten used to.’ And yet what must it be to wake up every day and know that you’ll have almost no energy to do anything; or that you’ll be in pain from morning until night. What must it be like to go to bed, night after night, knowing (like I did last week) how long the night was going to be? Being as sick as I was gave me, I hope, just a little more sympathy for those who walk in such uncomfortable shoes every day.

2. Provision. I’m a type-A. Surprise, right? I like to get my stuff done, be responsible, not have to slough things off on other people, check off everything on my list, and generally feel like I’ve done my duty. Not necessarily bad things … except that people like me don’t often know when to stop. But this past week, I simply had to stop. I couldn’t do otherwise, and I knew it. And so I called a handful of people to fill in here and there for me, and God made provision. And one example of that provision was remarkable. When I heard about Justin’s sermon (delivered in my place), I realized that it fit very snugly into the scripture and songs that had already been selected for Sunday’s service – even more so, I think, than the message I was planning! And on top of that, I heard very good feedback about the message! And I rejoiced that our congregation hadn’t missed a beat with me being gone … and had perhaps had a better Sunday meal than if things had gone according to plan! And isn’t that just like our Romans 8.28 God?

3. Glorification. Simply put, suffering helps the believer long for eternity. And in that way, it is a faithful messenger to us. Because we can be so easily intoxicated with the sights and smells and pleasures and agendas of this life … and forget that the very air we breathe is under a curse; that this world is not our home; that “here we do not have a lasting city” (Hebrews 13.14). But sickness and suffering have a way of bringing us back to earth a bit … and (if we know the Lord) of making us long for “a new heaven and a new earth” where “there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (see Revelation 21.1-4). When you’re well, and life is moving apace, that sounds pretty nice. When you’re laid up in bed, absolutely miserable, it might even make your mouth water!

So praise God for sickness. 

Or … well … praise Him, at least, for the lessons that it can teach us!

January 7, 2014

Feet of Clay

As I make my way, daily, through the book of Genesis, I am struck once again by how the Bible’s heroes have feet of clay.

Noah “walked with God” and was “blameless in his time” … but after the great mountaintop experience of the ark and the flood, we find him drunk and naked inside his tent. A most embarrassing predicament for a man of God, don’t you think?

And then there is Abraham, who “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”; Abraham, whom the New Testament rightly hails as a great “man of faith” (Galatians 3.9, ESV). But this same Abraham heeded his wife Sarah’s running-ahead-of-God plan for using her servant-woman to bring a child into their family. And then he was ambivalent about Sarah’s cruel treatment of that child’s baby-mama. And he twice (in order to save his own neck) passed Sarah off as merely his sister, so that she ended up being taken in by other men’s homes as a kind of concubine. A man of faith, no doubt … but with clay feet.

And what about Abraham’s nephew, Lot? The apostle Peter called him “righteous Lot” – because he was genuinely disturbed by the ungodliness of his neighbors in Sodom. And yet he continued to live among them … and had to be pulled, by force, out from their midst when God came to destroy the city.

And on the story goes … not only in the book of Genesis, but throughout the Bible. Even the men and women who walked most closely with God still had feet of clay; they still sometimes fell – sometimes grievously. And the same is true today, isn’t it? “We all stumble in many ways,” says James. And that goes for Christian leaders, too. We all – even if we walk with God like such a one as Enoch himself – find that we are not nearly what we ought to be. Indeed, we are ashamed of ourselves many times, like Noah lying on the floor smashed and naked.

So yes, the Bible does teach us to look up to those men and women who walk with God … and to “imitate their faith.” But we are also reminded, by their foibles and falls (and by our own), not to put our ultimate hope in mere men … but in the one Man “who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” – Jesus, the God-man. His is an example that will never fail. And His is a faithfulness that will never miscarry. And He, wholly without the flaws common to even the best mere men, was able not only to live as our exemplar, but to die as our substitute!

And there is where we find our ultimate hope – not by following in the footsteps of even the noblest feet of clay, but by clinging in faith to the blood-stained feet of Jesus.

January 2, 2014

"All things new" - A New Year's Meditation

I know I’m publishing this a little bit late … but it’s still early enough in January, I think, for me to say that I love New Year’s! Maybe not quite as much as Christmas; but the first of January is one of my favorite holidays of the year (and having come from north Mississippi, it’s not because of all the bowl games, I assure you!). Nor is it the egg nog, or the songs, or even the day’s vacation. No, I love New Year’s Day because of what it symbolizes – a fresh start; a new beginning; an opportunity to take up new habits, and to start writing in a new journal, and often to begin a new preaching series, and to open a new check register, and so on.

Did you pick up on a theme there? I really like starting over! I like having a fresh start. Now some of that, I realize, is the perfectionist in me (like all the times I hit the re-set button on my Nintendo as a kid, when Super Mario didn’t make it through the first level of the video game as cleanly as I wanted him to). But I think there is something more than that going on as well; something more that makes me – and many of you, perhaps – relish the opportunity that the new year affords to start with a clean slate.

I believe this desire to start fresh is perhaps built into us by God’s creative design. Maybe it is a part of the “eternity” which God has set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3.11). Maybe we look forward to fresh starts and resets because God has designed us for that great day when Jesus will come and hit the reset button of the entire world; that day when He will make “all things new” (Revelation 21.5).

There is a great and final New Year’s Day awaiting us, is there not? I don’t know if it will fall in January or June, of course. But what I do know is that the fresh start we will get on that day will finally satisfy all the clean slate desires we have ever felt … and then some. That day will make even the best New Year’s days and resolutions seem like a child playing dress-up, but having no idea what it will really be like to finally be all grown up!

Do you want to walk closer with God in this new year? On that day, there will be nothing to hinder you! “He will dwell among” us (Revelation 21.3). Are you glad to have left behind the difficulties of the year gone by? In that day, fully and finally, Jesus “will wipe away every tear” and “there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21.4). Do you look forward to simply living healthier in the new year? It doesn’t get any healthier than a new body, and the opportunity to eat from the tree of life in the heavenly city (Revelation 22.1-2)!

And among the best parts of it all is that we won’t have to do it all again in another 365 days! That’s the rub with the current New Year’s excitement isn’t it? The reason I always look forward to the first of January is because of the fresh starts. But the reason I look forward to the fresh starts is because the previous year never turns out the way I had hoped. I always fall short. I do not make all the progress in holiness that I ought. And I still also live in a world that, even when I am doing right, is under a curse. Thus the appeal of the fresh start, the clean slate, and the reset that is January 1! But in that day, I will never need another reset button again! In that day I will never have to make another resolution. Because in that day Christ will reign forever, and He will make “all things new” (myself included!) – finally, and completely, and never to spoil again.

And that’s what I’m really looking for, each New Year’s Day. I’m longing for eternity! And, while my clean new year’s slate cannot ultimately slake that thirst … it can remind me that eternity is what I am actually thirsting for! New Year’s Day, in other words, was not meant to ultimately satisfy me – but only to whet my appetite for something much, much greater! And that gives me an even better reason to look forward to this annual tradition of starting anew!