Monday, March 31, 2014

Day 23 - God, Our Help

The older I’ve gotten, the more I have felt vulnerable.  Nothing that has been there for several decades has gotten easier.  Physically the ability to do almost everything has become more difficult.  Now, does it mean it times for despair?  No, because in the physical changes there is also a greater wisdom of what is necessary versus what is absolute.

The reason I began with this is because with age comes a reality check.  We’re not just getting older, we’re journeying towards a future where we need more help.

That’s the nature of the journey of the pilgrim.  We need help.  The Psalms of Ascent, sung by the pilgrim on his journey “up” to Jerusalem knows it – he needs help and that help comes from one source.

Psalm 124:1-8
1 If it had not been the LORD who was on our side— let Israel now say—
2  if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us,
3  then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;
4  then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
5  then over us would have gone the raging waters.
6  Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
7  We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!
8  Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Did you notice the words:
·         Rose up gainst us
·         Swallowed us up alive
·         Anger kindled against us
·         Flood would have swept us
·         Torrent gone over us

There are lots of things out there every day that have the potential of being against us, 

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side…”  - twice he says it.

And to make the point perfectly clear he ends it with saying it again…

“Our help is in the name of the Lord…”

Think about it a bit.  Life is not a walk in the park where everything is beautiful and safe.  Everyday life isn’t easy.  We never know what will make up the days and week ahead. 
Someone is going to face sickness, an accident, tragedy. 
The world is always precariously close to tragedy.  Headlines and news reports remind us every day of the potential for our ability to destroy our own world.

But the song of the pilgrim is not based on “something bad might happen”, but rather that I am free to walk through life because my help is in the LORD.

I am free to trust
I am free to live with hope
I am free to not be trapped by fears
I am free, not because something might not happen, but because regardless of what does happen, my help is in the Lord.

The Heidelberg Catechism summed it up best: 

What is your only comfort in life and death?

 That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Fourth Sunday in Lent - Worship

On this fourth Sunday in Lent, let’s think a bit about worship.  In most church services I’ve participated in, people think of worship as the singing and music portions.  When a person leads the music they are called the “worship leader”.

Hmmm…interesting, if only for the realization that all of the other stuff, including the teaching, becomes the other-than-worship parts of the service. 

Do we really believe that when we gather together to worship God that the only part of it that really counts is the music?  I know I don’t think it is so.  
We must realize that worship encompasses everything and it’s not oriented to a place or the beauty of music.

Here’s Jesus in a conversation with a woman that eventually gets to the issue of worship.

John 4:4-24
4  And he had to pass through Samaria.
5  So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
6  Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7  A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
8  (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)
9  The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
10  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
11  The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?
12  Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
13  Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,
14  but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
16  Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
17  The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;
18  for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
19  The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
20  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
21  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
22  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
24  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

True worship is not a place, but rather takes place when the Father is worshiped in spirit and in truth.  

That is, our hearts, minds, souls are all in agreement on who God is and what he has done for us, and that is based on the truth that comes from God’s own word.

I love worshipping together with other believers, but some of my greatest worship times have happened in my office, or in the car, or watching a movie.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating a lifestyle of separation from believers in the traditional sense of a worship gathering...I love worshiping with others on Sunday at New Life Fellowship.  I look forward to being with other believers as much as anything during the week; but to be clear, we're not to limit "worship" to a time and place.  It's not time, place oriented, it's relationship oriented, and therefore the Person of God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit with the children of God is the fitting way to "worship".

The Apostle Paul said it like this:

Romans 12:1  I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

It’s Paul way of saying, “take your everyday life, your ordinary daily life of waking, working, playing, alone and with others, in the family and in the marketplace, and give it all to God…make it all an offering to Him and that will count as Worship, and God will count it as Holy and love every minute of your offering.”

I hope you have a great day of worship, and a great week of worship.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Day 22 - Watching and Waiting

The journey of the pilgrim is towards, not away. 
Towards the Destination
Towards the Person to meet
Towards the desired purpose – what do I hope by going on this journey?

Several years ago I took a journey with my wife – an anniversary trip.  We went back to the place where we first lived 35 years before.  Even though 35 years had passed since we left, many things looked familiar.  But there was enough changes that at some point I couldn’t figure out where I was.  I stopped and asked the person at the station, “Where am I?”  He said to me, “Where do you want to go?”

The journey of a pilgrim has those two parameters – where you are right now and where you want to go.

The pilgrims walk towards Jerusalem in the Psalms of Ascent gives us something to think about in relation to this:

Psalm 123:1-4
1  To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2  Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us.
3  Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4  Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.

Two significant things to remember in our pilgrim’s journey:
  •       Our focus must remain on the outcome – we are going to God.
  •          Our steps must be ordered around the principle of serving God.

The Psalm is a song, not a commandment, not a set of rules.  The focus on God is to remind us that we are seeking a Person, not a set of ideas, or rules to obey.

Because it is the person of God that we seek, we must come with a view of knowing Him and not just our view of Him…or even worse, our expectations of Him.

This then brings us back to serving.

Mark 10:42-45 42  And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
43  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
44  and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
45  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We’re tempted to think… “Ah, now I get it, Jesus came to serve…” and he’s our model for what he desires of us.  That is only partially correct.

Jesus didn’t serve as an act of duty in order to fulfill a purpose assigned by God the Father.  Jesus’ character is to serve.  It is His Deity and Godhead that give him authority, but it is servanthood that describes his character.  

Jesus became a servant so that our serving would become a part of His redemption.

We come to God with a laundry list of desires.  Some of them may even be good and noble, but they nevertheless represent our wants.  But, it’s here that we learn the nature of God.  He knows about us, he knows our needs, he knows our problems, he knows our desires, and he also knows exactly what will comprehensively be for our best purposes.

 “To you I lift up my eyes, you who sits enthroned in the heavens.”

While we worry about car repairs and paying our credit cards or mortgages, and cry out for trivial and even noble things, we come to God who sits enthroned.
He’s the God who said, “Let there be….” and there was creation. 
He’s the God who told Moses, “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go…” and he made it happen.  
He’s the God who sent His one and only Son into the world to die for the sins of the world…and death could not hold him. 

We come to the enthroned one…and that’s why we lift our eyes.

Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us”, the Psalmist prays.  It is not a plea for “please don’t hurt me”, it’s a plea for the ability to watch and wait upon God as he serves, and we learn how to serve alongside of Him.  
Watch…wait upon the Lord.  


Friday, March 28, 2014

Day 21 - Let Us Go To the House of the Lord

I confess, I don’t like the phrase, “go to church”.  There are reasons, and in short they are biblical and theological.  “Church” is not a place, but a people.  We don’t go to people, we come together to be with people.  

OK, I know, I won’t get many who say “Amen, brother”, but it’s an important distinction.  We are called to relationships – with God and with His people – and that can happen in many different “places”.

Now that I’ve shown my preferences, let me add that I’m a believer in “place”.  I love meeting together with other believers for worship, instruction, fellowship.  Place has it’s purpose and on Sunday I gather with a group of faithful believers in Church.  I love that people want to gather and don’t feel they are compelled by guilt or duty to “have to go to church”.

Psalm 122 is the journey of the believer up to Jerusalem to meet with other believers to worship, and it’s obvious that he wants to go.

Psalm 122:1-9
1  I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
2  Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3  Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together,
4  to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5  There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.
6  Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! “May they be secure who love you!
7  Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!”
8  For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9  For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Did you notice how he begins:  “I was glad”.  Worship is exciting and never boring.  If it becomes boring it is not worship.  Worship is never forced, it’s something we want to do, not have to do.

If you think about it, all we have to do is open our check books, our calendars (remember Daytimers?), our schedules and look at what we do.  It is here that we discover what we desire and want to do when no one is looking and were free to make our own choices.

“I was glad”…  Why?

Because all of us need to go to the Lord…all of us need grace, mercy, forgiveness, help.

Jerusalem with all of its beauty and grandeur represented the place of God’s meeting with his people under the Old Covenant.  But under the New Covenant all of that has changed.

Hebrews 8:1-2 1  Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 
2  a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.

Hebrews 9:15  Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance...

Hebrews 9:28  so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

We journey through Lent with this confidence….it’s not a place, it’s a person we come to.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Day 20 - My Help For the Journey

The Psalms of Ascent were written because faithful Jews returned to Jerusalem for the various festivals every year, and as they journeyed, they had to "walk up" to matter what the direction they came from.  They "ascended" to the city where the Temple stood and made their pilgrimage in stages.

These Psalms marked their progress. Little by little as they walked along they prepared their hearts and souls for the reason they were going to Jerusalem. It was here that they would meet with God...offer their sacrifices...worship and pray...even though they did all of those things in their hometowns anyway. Jerusalem was the treasured city, the holy city, the city of David, the city of God.

Imagine the journey, the pilgrim walk and let’s walk along with them on our Lenten journey.  As they walked through the land, they saw the beauty of God’s creation and it created within them a realization:
One of the early Psalms, 121 says so beautifully:

Psalm 121:1-8
1  I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
2  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
3  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7  The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8  The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

It sounds so beautiful, and yet it creates a question:  What does he mean when he says, “I lift my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?”  Mountains invoke grandeur, beauty, majesty, and awe.  Their immensity of size and loftiness can be a source of worshipful “Wow, God, look what you have done”, or it can be a source of “I worship nature.” 

The mountains in Israel became a stumbling block to many Jews. It was on the mountain tops that altars were set up in hopes of currying favor with one of the many pagan so-called gods - Baal, Ashtoreh, Ishtar, Molech, Rimmon, Ramman, to name a few. Most of these "gods" were worshiped for what they supposedly provided: rain, crops, sunlight, etc...but the temptation was always present for someone to "incorporate", “add to”,  a local god alongside as if to supplement that with their faith in Yahweh. 

This, biblically, is called apostasy because in the end within Israel, the "god" became more real to them than Yahweh himself.
To the Israelites God had spoken so clearly:

Exodus 20:2-4 2  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3  “You shall have no other gods before me.
4  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

But, on mountain tops across all of Israel altars of incense, sacrifice and worship appeared. The Psalmist doesn't hide it, he acknowledges the fact:

Psalm 121:1
 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?

It was a in which the faithful who refused the temptation of idolatry asked out loud.
"Is my help from the mountain...the gods...the gods who claimed to be God?"
Is my help in prosperity?
Is my help in politics?
Is my help in my addictions?
Is my help in what I can control?
The answer is always "NO". The Psalmist answers in vs 2:

Psalm 121:2  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

It is a worshipful, good reminder to us, that God alone is what we need. There is no substitute in life...all other "gods" are not really God.

History is replete with “substitutions” for the real God.  The rise and fall of nations is a good reminder that there is only one true God, and our attempts at substitutes always create future problems. 

The Psalmist’s quiet voice keeps telling us there is a way to go, and all other ways are destined to fail.  Why do they fail? 
Walking along, we slip on the rocks, we tire in the journey, we become faint in the heat.

3  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night

What does it mean?  It means that without warning, “stuff happens”.  The list of dangers to our self, in our society…the tragedies and pain-filled “what just happened” hit us everyday.
In Boston, during a Marathon
In a plane, flying towards China
One day all is well, and the next day, a diagnosis is made that changes everything.
An accident…on a machine, in a car, on a step ladder, or on the sports field, or court.  We never know.  We take precautions, read the instructions, learn the rules, fasten our seatbelts and wear our sun screen…but still “Stuff happens”.

How do we approach life then?  We’re walking along, and part of us is thinking about all that could happen, because of all that has happened…and then faith takes over:

Psalm 121:5  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
Psalm 121:7-8 7  The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8  The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

We lift our eyes up…the hills with all their majesty and awe cannot protect us and keep us safe.  Our help comes from the Lord.  He is our confidence, He is our Hope.

Martin Luther who knew that well reminds us in this amazing Hymn:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
            Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevaling. 
            For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

          Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
          Were not the right man on our side, 
           the man of God's own choosing.
          Dost ask who that may be?  
          Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth, his name,
          From age to age the same, and he must win the battle.

          And though this world, with devils filled,  
          should threaten to undo us,
          We will not fear,  
           for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. 
          The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
          His rage we can endure, for lo, 
           his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Day 19 - A Psalm of Ascent, Ps. 120

It’s crucial to see that life is a Pilgrimage.  We are “sojourners” according to the scriptures.  What does it mean to be pilgrims?, sojourners?  It means we understand the brevity, temporary aspect of life – and the need to be alert, wide awake and aware of all that surrounds us.

It's important to know that - that we are Pilgrims, not Tourists.

Psalm 120 is the beginning of the Pilgrim’s journey towards Jerusalem.  It is the beginning of his walk towards the place of worship and celebration of all God is doing. 
And to begin that journey, the Psalmist instructs this song…it may seem strange, but it is packed with meaning.

Psalm 120:1-7
1  A song of Ascents.  In my distress I cried to the LORD, And He heard me.
2  Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips And from a deceitful tongue.
3  What shall be given to you, Or what shall be done to you, You false tongue?
4  Sharp arrows of the warrior, With coals of the broom tree!
5  Woe is me, that I dwell in Meshech, That I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
6  My soul has dwelt too long With one who hates peace.
7  I am for peace; But when I speak, they are for war

Why make the pilgrimage to begin with? 

It’s as if he is walking out something needed for his soul.  The Psalm begins with that.  “Deliver my soul” and it reminds us why with “lying lips” that leads to “war”.  This is where we begin with the realization that this world we live in, that we are a part of, that we participate in and contribute to, has a pain connected to it that can’t be soothed with newer technology, more gizmos and platitudes of politicians. 

It begins with our soul… it begins deep within with the cry of our soul “O Lord”.  Twice in the psalm he says “Lord”.  He sang the song because he was caught in the tension of the pain and problems all around him and his deep faith in the Lord.  Now he knows, this is going to require a skillful and careful living rooted in faith in God.

I had a father who was a mechanic.  He didn’t work for an auto dealer, but rather worked on BIG diesel engines – the kind used in caterpillars and gravel trucks, etc…  He also worked on his own cars.  Watching him work on cars was valuable.  When there was a problem I’d see him hunched over the engine, with tools in hand, and yet he was not just doing things, he was thinking.  When he acted it was intentional, deliberate, skillful.  His furrowed brows told me “think until you know how to act”.  This is Psalmist.  Thinking, praying, then acting.

We are pilgrims, not tourists.

We walk on our journey of faith deliberately, intentionally, skillful, with one eye on the pain of the world around us and one eye on the God who knows how to act.

I cried to the Lord”…a deep need to pray for help in discernment.
lying lips…false tongues…sharp arrows”…all of them speak as a reality check.  You are for peace, but there is still a war going on.  It’s only the first day, but let’s walk on with eyes wide open and our shields of faith up.

Ephesians 6:14-18
14  Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
15  and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
16  above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.
17  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God;
18  praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—

We are pilgrims, not tourists.

We walk in confidence and in faith.

Hebrews 11:13  These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Day 18 - The Journey of the Psalms of Ascent

The Hebrew scriptures are roughly divided into three sections:

Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament which describes the creation of the nation and the giving of the law.

Prophets – In general this is the historical sections (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Chronicles, etc…) and the corresponding Prophetic writings (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, etc…) that related to Jewish history.

Writings – The Poetry of the Old Testament scriptures from Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs (Solomon), but also includes books like Ruth, Chronicles, and others.

Among the Writings, this Poetry that was often turned into music, are the Psalms of Ascent.  Beginning in Psalm 120 thru Psalm 134, a series of songs became part of the journey of each pilgrim as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the seven major festivals God ordained in the law (see yesterday’s blog if you need to remember the different feasts God ordained).

It might be difficult for us to imagine that people, families, would actually leave their homes and make these annual journeys.  But, imagine with me the Jewish faithful leaving their farms, businesses, trades and the daily routines that go with their vocation, and heading towards Jerusalem with their family in order to participate in Passover, or Yom Kippur.  Let me remind you of Jesus’ own journey with his parents on one of these journeys. 

Luke 2:41-44
41  Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.
42  And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.
43  And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it,
44  but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances,

Some key words:  “every year”… “according to custom”… “in the group…among relatives and aquaintances”.  This was not a one time occasion, but an annual one that his family, and many other families participated in.

As Jesus and his family made their journeys, they most likely sang these Psalms of Ascent.  Why Ascent?  Because all roads in Israel are lower and all journeys towards Jerusalem mean an ascent up to arrive in Jerusalem. 

Is it relevant to us?  I believe so…and not just because I’ve chosen to blog on them.  All of us have experiences of travel.  I have made journeys of a few hours, to several days in order to arrive at a destination.  Some of those times of journey were arduous and some of those were boring.  A car journey of 70 – 80 miles per hour for several hours is often boring.  The highway passes so rapidly that the images are brief and the thoughts are quick.  Contrast that with a journey that is slow, allowing time for thoughts to emerge and reflections to occur.  I don’t know about you, but the latter journey is what I prefer.

These Psalms for the journey remind the faithful that the journey has begun but is not yet finished.  Take your time, think, process, enjoy, be wiser because you did.

These Psalms challenge us to live “mindfully”, “reflectively” and not merely pass quickly through because we’re in a hurry to get a destination.

Perhaps the most important question is “why go on the pilgrimage to begin with?”  The first of these Psalms, the 120th is where we begin to understand the reason why we begin the journey.

Psalm 120:1-7
1 In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.
2  Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.
3  What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?
4  A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!
5  Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
6  Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
7  I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!

Why travel through the Psalms of Ascent on our journey through Lent?  It’s clear from the first Psalm – our culture is drowning in lies, deceit, hate, war – and here’s the key, “We’re part of it”!

We go on this Lenten journey because we are disgusted; because we know that every time we turn around we are met with a world that is sick and sad. 

I’m coming back to this tomorrow, so read some more of this tomorrow…but let’s read them together and make a spiritual journey that might just lead us away from the dismal towards the hopeful.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Day 17– The Jewish Festivals and Lent

Lent is a seasonal celebration.  It always occurs in the March/April period as the days counted off between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Most of us don't relate to seasonal celebrations.  If were honest events that are outside our family (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings) usually just happen around us.  We all know that Easter is coming up, but most people don't have the slightest idea of when it occurs.  Hence, seasonal celebrations can serve us in incorporating into our lives the various Biblical events that mean much to our faith.

God was the author of seasonal celebrations.  Leviticus 23:2  “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. These are the LORD’s appointed festivals, which you are to proclaim as official days for holy assembly. 

God called Israel’s faithful to come to Jerusalem seven times a year for prescribed week long celebrations – all of them with their own meaning.  Since these festivals are not well known by most people in the church, here’s a listing of the seven major festivals, with a brief description of what they were for.

1.     Passover – a celebration of God’s deliverance from Egypt, and that God had chosen his people to be a nation of Priests to serve him.  The hallmark event of Passover was the blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of the house as a reminder that God "Passed Over" the households of the Israelites and preserved them from the death of the first born.

2.    Unleavned Bread – tied in with Passover, this followed the Passover day and extended their week long celebration with the theme of “cleansing”.  Leaven or Yeast symbolizes sin that permeates the life of the believer and “grows”, unless we purposefully remove it…hence, unleavened bread.

3.    First Fruits – On the day after the Sabbath (Sunday) following the week of Unleavened bread, they worshipped God and asked him for a fruitful harvest.  Easter comes from the word “Ishtar”, who was a goddess of fertility and the general sense of it is portrayed secularly at Easter with eggs and bunnies.  For Christians First Fruits is the reminder of God’s faithfulness as seasons come and seasons go, and planting and harvest remind us of the resurrection of all things, beginning with Jesus our Lord.

4.    Pentecost – As the name implies, occurs 50 days after First Fruits.  Now the harvest of grain begins and with the first of the harvest, bread is made with yeast.  Pentecost was the beginning of the church, and the purpose of God to include us, Gentiles, along with Jews in making up the fruits of the harvest by His Spirit – making all one in Christ.

These first four all occurred in the Spring – roughly March/April thru May/June.  The summer was a time of fields, working the ground, nurturing the growth of crops and then awaiting the Fall harvest.  In the Fall, three more feasts occurred.

5.    Trumpets, or Rosh Hashannah – It was considered the beginning of the civil year for Israel.  A rams horn was blown and the people were summoned for a ten day period of reflection and repentance.  The ram’s horn was a part of Israel’s history.  Abraham found the ram as God’s provision for the sacrifice that spared his son Isaac.  Jericho was conquered with the army of Israel using ram’s horns.  In Leviticus 25, God specified using the horn to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.  Interestingly, that quote is imprinted on the liberty bell in Philadelphia that celebrates American’s formation in providing “liberty and justice for all.”  The Apostle Paul reminds us that one day God will sound a trumpet and the dead in Christ will arise!

6.    The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur – This is considered to be the highest holy day in Israel.  The full story of what occurs on the Day of Atonement is symbolic for what salvation means to us all.  On that day two goats are selected and one is held as a blood sacrifice – the sins of the nation are confessed over it and the goat is slain – the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holiest of Holies.  The second goat also is spoken over with confession of sins, but instead of slaying it, the goat is taken away – out into the wilderness where it is let go, never to return again.  So on this day, we realize that God has paid for our sins through the shed blood of His son, Our Savior, Jesus; and he has taken our sins away from us, never to be held against us again.

7.    Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth -  The last of the festivals immediately follows Yom Kippur.  It is a party, celebrating God’s provisions to all of his people.  He has provided for their lives with food and shelter, and provided for our spiritual needs with his own blood.  Most Israelites build temporary shelters, Sukkahs, to remind themselves that they once were people who wandered in the desert, but that God brought them out of that to be a nation.  For us, as Christians, it is a reminder that we have been brought from our own wanderings and darkness to a place of security and hope in Jesus Christ.

NOW, what does all of this have to do with Lent? 

All of God’s festivals were commanded upon the people for a couple of generic, but specific reasons. 

Leviticus 23:4  “These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them.”

God called them “feasts” because they were not meant to invoke morbidity, but rather, a sense of Identity…this is who we are. 

We are the people of God, and we’ve been called out by God from the world; and it is our desire to recall all that God is, and all that God has done for us.

Lent is our reminder – these 40 days of reflection and remembrance – that God has called us out of the world and has called us to Himself, to be salt and light to the world around us, through the redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Over the next 10 days I’m going to take the Psalms of Ascent – the ancient Psalms that Israel used in their journeying to Jerusalem for these festivals – and share them one by one as a reminder for us of what God has done for us in redeeming us and calling us to Himself.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

The 3rd Sunday in Lent: The Word of God

On this, the third Sunday of Lent, I wanted to share something about The Word of God.

I love God's word...have ever since discovering it around age 20.  I grew up around it for certain.  Heard it spoken, and even read some of it during various "religious" times.  But I never knew the beauty and the joy of reading the word of God for myself until I gave my life to Christ at age 20.  
Within a year I read the Bible exhaustively and underlined, drew arrows, made notes in the sides, on the top, in the was a thrilling time of discovery.

A few years later in Seminary, preparing for ministry, I had a Professor named Dr. Aubrey Martin.  Dr. Martin was blind, had been that way since around age 10.  Yet he was one of the best teachers I had.  Remarkably he had memorized all of the New Testament and about 95% of the Old Testament also.  That's right...Memorized it.  If we asked him about a verse he would quote it verbatim, and then add four or five more references to make his point.  Dr. Martin demonstrated to me that God's word was meant to LIVE inside of us, not just be something we use as a weapon to make a point.

I studied Church History and fell in love with the early church fathers.  Reading some of the earlier blogs you probably already realized this.  One of those "fathers" of the church was the brillant Augustine.  Like me, he had come to Christ as an adult, and like me, he had dove into the faith with all that he had.  Not like me, he was a brillant theologian, pastor and leader.  What is so amazing about him was his ability to live the word "out-loud" make it his own, real, personal...part of everyday life.

Here's an excerpt from Augustine's confession on his love for the Word of God.  Enjoy it, as you would a great meal:

I love you, Lord, not doubtingly, but with absolute certainty. Your Word beat upon my heart until I fell in love with you, and now the universe and everything in it tells me to love you, and tells the same thing to us all, so that we are without excuse. 

And what do I love when I love you? Not physical beauty, or the grandeur of our existence in time, or the radiance of light that pleases the eye, or the sweet melody of old familiar songs, or the fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices, or the taste of manna or honey, or the arms we like to use to clasp each other. None of these do I love when I love my God. Yet there is a kind of light, and a kind of melody, and a kind of fragrance, and a kind of food, and a kind of embracing, when I love my God. They are the kind of light and sound and odor and food and love that affect the senses of the inner man. There is another dimension of life in which my soul reflects a light that space itself cannot contain. It hears melodies that never fade with time. It inhales lovely scents that are not blown away by the wind. It eats without diminishing or consuming the supply. It never gets separated from the embrace of God and never gets tired of it. That is what I love when I love my God. 

And what is my God? I asked the earth and it replied, “I am not he”; and everything in it said the same thing. I asked the sea ... I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon and stars. They said to me, “Neither are we the God you seek.”  I said to all the sensory objects that cluster around my body and cause it to react, “You speak of God and say you are not he. Then tell me something about him.” And they all cried out with a loud voice, “He made us!” I questioned them by fixing my attention on them, and their beauty was their answer. 

Then I turned to myself and said, “Who are you?” And I replied, “A man.” But in me are present both body and soul, one exterior, the other interior. Which should I impress to help me find my God? With my physical apparatus I had already searched for him from earth to sky, as far as the eye could see. But the interior equipment is better. The messengers of my body delivered to it the answer of heaven and earth and everything in them when they told me, “We are not God,” and “He made us.”  The inner man knows these things by means of the ministering of the outer man. The inner “I” knows them; I, the soul, know them through the senses of the body. So I asked the whole frame of the universe about God and it answered back, “I am not he, but he made me.” 

The truth is, there is one mediator whom you in your hidden mercy have revealed to the meek and lowly, and have sent as an example of humility to be followed. That is the mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who has appeared between mortal sinners and the immortal Just One. As men are, he was mortal; as God is, he was just. And because righteousness issues in life and peace, he, through his righteousness with God, nullified the death of justified sinners by sharing their lot with them.... 

How much you loved us, Good Father, who spared not your own Son but gave him up for us sinners! How much you loved us, since it was on our behalf that he, who thought it no robbery to be equal with you, submitted himself to the death of the cross. He alone was free among the dead because he was free to lay down his life to take it again. For us he was both victor and victim, or should I say, victor because victim.... By being born your Son, and then becoming a slave to serve us, he made us to become your sons. 

So I have good reason for my strong hope in him who sits at your right hand and makes intercession for us. If I didn't have that hope I would be desperate. But I believe that in him you heal all my weaknesses, and they are many and great ... but your medicine is even greater. It would be easy to think that your Word is too remote for any communication with man. It would be easy to despair, had not the Word become flesh to dwell in our midst.

[This excerpt from the Confessions of Saint Augustine was translated by Sherwood Eliot Wirth, Love Song, Harper & Row, New York, 1971, p. 124-128]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 16 - A Simple Prayer

Psalm 70:1-5 (NLT)
1 Please, God, rescue me! Come quickly, LORD, and help me.
2 May those who try to kill me be humiliated and put to shame. May those who take delight in my trouble be turned back in disgrace.
3 Let them be horrified by their shame, for they said, “Aha! We’ve got him now!”
4 But may all who search for you be filled with joy and gladness in you. May those who love your salvation repeatedly shout, “God is great!”
5 But as for me, I am poor and needy; please hurry to my aid, O God. You are my helper and my savior; O LORD, do not delay.

The psalm of David begins with that simple prayer. "Please God, rescue me! Come quickly, Lord, and help me." In our flesh we resist the urge to say the words.  
Perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to be dependent upon anyone.  

But, we were designed by God to be dependent, not alone, not making it on our own.  This dependence is not a source of weakness, but rather of strength.  Think of all of things that others have supplied to you – from Parents, Relatives, Neighbors, Teachers, Pastors, and Friends.  All of us have a rich “well of relationships” that we can lower our buckets into.  

But, the Psalmist reminds us of where our dependence first comes from.

First our dependence is upon the Lord himself - "love the Lord your God with all of your heart...." - to love him is to be dependent upon him for life day by day.

Secondly, our dependence is upon those around us that God has given us. It is those "gifts" of persons that we often overlook. Jesus did not walk out his 3 years of ministry alone. God gave him 12 disciples "to be with him", Mark 3 says.

Sixteen hundred years ago, a European Christian named John Cassian published an account of his conversations with monks living in a Middle Eastern desert. One older monk, Isaac, had shared this prayer from Psalm 70 with the younger John on his visit to their monastery.  John's book - and Isaac's prayer - had such an influence that even today many Christians around the globe begin times of prayer with the Scripture verse Isaac commended to John Cassian.

It is a simple prayer and one worth repeating throughout the day. It's not hard to say, even to memorize, but if we meant it from the depth of our hearts, it would be a way of casting ourselves in dependence upon God every moment of the day... "Lord, please rescue me. Come quickly Lord and help me."


Friday, March 21, 2014

Day 15: The Miracle of the Ordinary

Every day...
Every day life...
Get up, Clean up, coffee, read, news, car, drive, work, interactions,
Then, Go back Home:
Family, meals, TV,  bed, sleep,
Start it all over again,
Every day is filled with the Ordinary.

Until God becomes part of our Everyday life!

Reading:  Mark 6:1-6 1  He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 
2  And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?
3  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4  And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”
5  And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.
6  And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.

Jesus goes back home and the questions are based on a reasoned but questioning doubt.
Who does guy think he is???  We know him...we saw him grow up here...We know his family.

They were a group of people stuck in the everyday ordinary.  
God can't do anything with us...we're nobody.
So what can God do in that ordinary every day doubt?  This is what follows the beginning verses...

Mark 6:7-13 7  And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
8  He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—
9  but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.
10  And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there.
11  And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
12  So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.
13  And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

The flow of these events keep our minds turning over and over.  Seemingly, everything up until Jesus sends out his disciples are events that are ordinary...
It’s clear, Jesus' presence takes that ordinariness and turns it upside down.

The ministry in his own area where he grew up highlights the lack of faith among those who saw Jesus as nothing more than what he had been up until age 30 when he began his ministry - a carpenter. They could not see beyond the ordinary of what they've always seen...and so they missed who he really was even when miracles were being performed.

"Then Jesus told them, 'A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.'”

What they had was God among them and they couldn't see it. When Jesus then sends out the disciples a short time later, he keeps them simple in their going –
Clearly, God’s work is done in the ordinary.

The chapter ends with the countryside alive with Jesus' presence even though their is constant demands, difficult conditions, and overwhelming the midst of these things, something simple occurs,
Mark 6:34-44 34  When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
35  And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.
36  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37  But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
38  And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”
39  Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.
40  So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties.
41  And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all.
42  And they all ate and were satisfied.
43  And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.
44  And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
Because Jesus is in the midst of the ordinary, miracles abound.

Let's never lose sight of the ordinary around us, nor be tempted to think that somehow God is not breathing life into the midst of us through it.
Our days may seem ordinary, routine, nothing special...but when God is present, anything can happen!