A Cursing Jesus? (Life Journal – 3/4/2015)

Scripture

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25 NIV)

Observation

Jesus uses the example of the fig tree to teach about faith and prayer. Included is this short teaching on forgiving others and our need to be forgiven to be heard (?)

In between these passages Jesus cleanses the temple of the money-changers. Commentaries on this unit see the fig tree story as related to the temple and its ultimate destruction – the fig tree is judged and found wanting, so will be the temple and its administration.

The fig tree should not have had figs since it was out of season – why does Jesus curse it??

 Application

This story has always bothered me – in particular, the phrase “because it was not the season for figs (v. 13). If we just read the parts quoted here, Jesus comes across as petty at best. Others have used the word “petulant.”

One lesson here is that we always have to read the entire story to understand it – the story of Jesus cleansing the temple lies between the beginning and ending so it is part of the same story. Mark wants us to see the cursing of the fig tree in light of judgment on the temple.

The application is, for me, that God is not arbitrary or petty or vindictive. God acts with reason and care, with grace and love – and also to call to account. We turn God into a devil if we are not careful to understand that the Scriptures say and why. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see that the story in the middle connects to the story around it.

For faith – one of the things Jesus raises here – it means that our faith is greater than what happens to our icons and idols. The temple will be destroyed in 70 AD. Faith will not!

This scene also reminds me to remember my own sin (remembering that in the temple scene Jesus accuses and drives out the money-changers). My sin is as real as theirs, my judgment from God is tempered by divine love, grace, and truth.

Prayer

O Lord, bless me today with the kind of insight needed to read your word aright. Show me my blinders and my blindness when I see only what I can instead of what you want to reveal. Extend that sight to my own sin, to my own lack of faith, to my own pettiness. In the name of  Jesus I pray. Amen.

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Not Fate But Choice (Life Journal – 3/3/2015)

Scripture

The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh,Sebam, Nebo and Beon— the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel—are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes,” they said, “let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” (Numbers 32:1-5 NIV)

Observation

The Reubenites and Gadites choose based on their large herds of livestock.

The request is conditioned on their having found favor – the ensuing response of Moses suggests not! But they come to an agreement.

This is a further story about promises and vows – they vow to do their part to subdue Canaan even though they choose to live on the east side of Jordan.

Application

We would like to think the future is pre-ordained: that what will be, will be. That God has chosen eternally and finally and we are living script in which we play assigned parts.

Human experience – and I think the Bible, too – suggest otherwise. These tribes choose a different place than the original plan for the conquest and settlement of Canaan intended. The future of Israel is not a fixed thing toward which they move. It unfolds as groups and individuals choose.

Part of the lesson here to me is that there are choices, options that are within God’s will. A menu if you will. Some things are not on the menu – outside what God wants. But on the menu are options and possibilities.

Our future with God is most decided not by fate (a distinctly unbiblical and unchristian concept) but by choice. What we choose shapes the future. God has a will for us and a plan and God’s purposes – God’s sovereignty – is such that those purposes are bigger than our ability to derail them completely.

Prayer

O God, we are not prisoners of fate but creatures free to choose or reject. Today may I remember that I have a hand in my future and a choice of what comes next. Not completely to be sure. But at least how I react to what comes my way. And some choices make what comes my way inevitable or unavoidable. May my choices and my promises bring me to where you desire and where you await me. Amen.

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Promises, Promises (Life Journal – 3/2/2015)

Scripture

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. (Numbers 30:1-2 NIV)

Observation

What follows this pronouncement are the exceptions – when a young woman or wife may be released from such a vow or pledge. The principle seems to be that if someone has authority over the woman, that man can release her from the vow or object to its provision.

This vow is voluntary, made by the man of his own free will. The vow is binding – he must not break it.

This does not forbid the making of vows or pledges.

Application

Words have power! We know this… but we forget it. Words can give hope or despair. Words can heal or harm. Words have power beyond our understanding. What we say matters…

Promises even more so. I struggle here sometimes. A promise binds me to a course of action that later I may not want to take. A promise shapes the future by making now a choice that has not yet presented itself.  Author Tim Keller says (quoting Lewis Smedes – to get the attribution right) –

Smedes answers that we are largely who we become through making wide promises and keeping them.

Vows and pledges, promises made – they matter. And when we ask the Lord to witness them even more so. Lest someone say “Jesus said take no oaths” (which he did), remember that in the church we ask people to take vows all of the time – vows of baptism and church membership, vows of marriage, vows of ordination for some of us.

Prayer

Faithful God, you fulfill your promises to me without fail or compromise. Help me today to do the same – to be faithful to what I promise you, to be faithful to what I promise others. Let me take seriously what I say, especially what I say I will do. And may I lean on you for the power to be faithful, the resources to be steadfast. In the name of Jesus, the one who was faithful above all others. Amen.

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Transitions and Change (Life Journal – 3/1/2015)

Today I am revisiting my post from yesterday that got lost in the ether somehow.
One of those thoughts that I cannot quite get out of my head.

Scripture

18 So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. 19 Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. 20 Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. 21 He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.”

22 Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. 23 Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses. (Numbers 27:18-23 NIV)

Observation

This story has echoes in the New Testament accounts and our modern practice of ordination, commissioning, etc.

Joshua has “the spirit of leadership” – translated otherwise as “a man who has the spirit” and  “can do the job.”

This is a community act as much as an individual one: done in their presence (v. 19 and 22), done so they will obey Joshua (v. 20), the entire community will do as he directs (v. 21).

Moses is passing on something – his authority – to the new leader. And God has chosen him first.

In an earlier stage of the journey, the Israelites moved when the pillar of fire or smoked moved. These new instructions with a new leader are more in the realm of divination by use of the Urim and the high priest.

Application

I find myself in a season of internal transition, of trying to figure out where to move in the years ahead. The particulars aren’t important here but rather that I find myself in a moment that feels like transition from one thing, one stage, to another. And on multiple levels.

Israel is about to begin a new phase of their journey. They move from the wilderness wanderings to the conquest and settlement of Canaan. They are about to transition from a nomadic people (their heritage as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to a settled or at least setttling one. It is time for a new leader and a new way of doing.

Joshua is a different man from Moses with different gifts and skills. He has demonstrated earlier his skill at military leadership and an important part of the life they are about to enter. And their wanderings from this moment are directed differently – rather than by a visible cloud or pillar, they are directed by the high priest and the Urim that he kept in his breastplate.

But Joshua also needed Moses – he is his successor and not just his replacement. Moses’ authority must be his as well as his place. Moses’ blessings must also be upon him as the new leader.

Prayer

God of Moses and Joshua, may I also transition in this time from where I have been to where you want me to go; from whom I was to whom you call me to be. May I seek the new ways and new approaches and the changes you would have me make. May I also carry with me, like Moses’ authority, what you would have me continue from my past. In the name of the one who called for new wineskins for new wine I pray… Amen.

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Technical Difficulties — (Life Journal – 2/28/2015)

I have no idea how, but I lost about 30 minutes of editing in one fell swoop in WordPress.  I had an error in proofing and when I hit save draft it went back to my draft from this morning. No way I can recreate this one so just letting it go.
Be blessed… see you tomorrow!

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God is Not in My Box (Life Journal – 2/27/15)

Scripture

“Spend the night here,” Balaam said to them, “and I will report back to you with the answer the Lord gives me.” So the Moabite officials stayed with him.

God came to Balaam and asked, “Who are these men with you?”

10 Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: 11 ‘A people that has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away.’”

12 But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” (Numbers  22:8-12 NIV)

Observation

God talks to Balaam — as he did to Moses? Balaam has some special gift or access to the Lord that others lack.

It is interesting that God asks who is with Balaam. Wouldn’t God know who they were and why they were present?

Contrasted here are cursing and blessing – one precludes the other. The Israelites cannot be cursed because God has already blessed them.

Vs. 10 may harken back to God’s promise to Abram – the people of Israel as a mighty nation that covers the face of the land.

Application

I am so certain of how God works – God does this and not that, God is in these things and not those. We tend to be sure we know how and where God works. Almost to the point that God is a domesticated divinity – a God who does what we want in the ways we want. So much of what passes for faith , even in me, is along these lines.

Yet here is a prophet, a man, who is not an Israelite and yet to him God speaks. God came to him and not the other way around. God initiates this conversation. Not a sign or a dream but speaks (it seems) as we speak to one another.

This story suggests a humility to me, to us. God may act as he chooses, God may use whom he will. We cannot put God into the narrow channels of our imagination. God is, alone, free to choose and act. We constrain and limit him by being sure of what God wants to use to speak and act. Perhaps we do well to be more open and more humble in our evaluation!

Prayer

O God, as you came to Balaam and spoke, so would you speak to us. May we not limit you in ways that cause us to miss your voice. May we not assume that we know what we, in truth, do not. You are the judge, not we. You alone are sovereign. May I have eyes that can see and ears that can hear, especially when you work outside my presuppositions and prejudices. In the name of Jesus, who overturned many’s assumptions and judgments. Amen. Continue reading

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It Takes Only a Single Moment (Life Journal – 2/26/2015)

Scripture

The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (Numbers 20:7-12 NIV)

Observation

God tells Moses to speak to the rock and to bring water out of the rock for the community. In contrast to God’s instructions, Moses strikes the rock with the staff twice and instead of offering the water for their lives he castigates them.

God calls Moses’ act a lack of faith and one that did not honor God. There is a contrast between the first part – “… just as he commanded him…”( vs. 9) and “Because you did not trust in me…” (vs. 12).

Interestingly… God still brings the water even though Moses and Aaron did not do as God instructed. Does Moses’ use of the staff suggest a belief in magic, in the inherent power of the staff rather than in God?

Application

One of my favorite people used to complain to me about this story. His gripe? That after all that Moses did, after all his faithfulness, God denies him entry to the promised land for this one act. How could God be so unfair to Moses and Aaron? It was just one little thing.

Part of the answer lies in the detailed and often confusing instructions about clean and unclean (and their analogy to holy and unholy). Just as sacrifices had to be without spot or blemish, so did Moses have to be clean and holy in his leadership. How can a God who demands such scrupulous attention to the minutiae of life then ignore such a blatant disregard for clearly given instructions?

I think of colleagues whose ministry has been lost over a single incident, relationships broken over a single moment, opportunities lost by hesitation or foolishness. Life is full of these seemingly unfair consequences yet consequences they are.

The other issue here is honoring God – Moses actions seems to dishonor God, to not display faith or faithfulness. God gave Moses simple instructions for the provision of water. Moses instead chooses to make a drama of it – both in terms of the dramatic striking of the rock and his criticism of the people. Moses seems to take God’s glory and also God’s place as judge.

Leadership is serious, and there are sometimes no do-over’s. Discipleship, too. There is surely grace and that abundant. But there are consequences to actions that we cannot escape and there are moments of decision that cannot be re-visited.

Prayer

Lord, it is hard to hear these words – to think that after all that they had endured, Moses and Aaron would not come to the land of promise. But you are a holy God, a God who will not share your glory with others even your beloved creatures. You are a God who seeks our faith in you – not in tricks or shows or own devices. Help me today to take seriously what you call me to do as a follower of your Son, to listen attentively when you speak, and to do what you desire and not what I think I should. Amen.

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Signs… Not a Complement (Life Journal – 2/25/2015)

Scripture

So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.

The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. Then Moses brought out all the staffs from the Lord’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff. (Numbers 17:6-9 NIV)

Observation

God (once again) intercedes to put an end to the Israelites grumbling about leadership and direction and destination. This time, each tribal head puts a staff along with Aaron before God and the one that buds is God’s chosen leader.

Reminiscent of God’s earlier acts of bringing water out of rock – life from lifeless, something from a thing that should not produce it. It also connects perhaps to the place that Moses’ rod has in the narrative of the Exodus journey – in Egypt, in the wilderness.

This act of discerning God’s will never happens again, at least not in this way. Other stories echo this one (Gideon’s fleece in Judges 6 for example) but are unique.

Apparently the word for “staff” in Hebrew is a pun on the word for “tribe.”

Application

I love these stories where God makes clear what to do, where to travel. We love them too. We crave certainty. We long for clarity about what God wants.

The tone of this story is negative to me. God intervenes miraculously into a situation where, from God’s perspective, things were fairly clear already – who was to lead the people and where they were headed. God intervenes in the same way a parent might intervene in a squabble among siblings or a powerful country or coalition steps into the conflict between two smaller embattled states.

God’s sign to them is not a complement or a sign of God’s favor. Quite the opposite. When God has to do something wondrous to get our attention that means we aren’t listening. When God has to intervene in some unmistakable way then we have, perhaps, lost our way. In Matthew, Jesus says ““A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! ”  Signs might be for those who have lost their way?

God has revealed what we need to know in the Scriptures and especially in Jesus. The church has over many generations – at its best – come to come consensus about many issues and questions. When we need a sign we might ask what we missed along the way. what lesson we didn’t learn. what truth we overlooked to need such an intervention?

Prayer

God of Mosese and Aaron – you gave your people a sign that they were to lead your people. A sign that should not have been necessary. A sign of their disobedience as much as of your will. May we live out what we know so well and yet live so poorly. May we look not to signs but to Jesus, not to miracles but to the manna you have left in your word and in the best traditions and teachings of your Son’s church. When we need  a sign. may we humbly accept it for what it is – a sign but also a censure. And may we not seek such things but rather you. In Jesus’ name… Amen.

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Would It Be Better? (Life Journal – 2/24/2015)

Scripture

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4 NIV)

Observation

Moses had sent spies in the land of promise who returned with a mixed report – the land was full of good things but it was also filled with people who were frightening to them.

The word “grumble” or “grumbled” appears 18 times in the Bible – six in the book of Numbers!  The theme of returning to Egypt also appears a number of times in the story of the Exodus.

The people would prefer t0 (1) have died in Egypt or the wilderness or (2) return to Egypt and their slavery there rather than face the challenges ahead.

They want to take their destiny in hand – choose a leader (rather than follow the leader God chose) and choose a destination (Egypt rather than the promised destination in Canaan).  It also suggests choosing another God?

Application

Most of us are not immune to the “Let’s return to Egypt!” syndrome. I like to think that I am but not really. It happens when things get tough… when life seems overwhelming… when circumstances and culture are bewildering. Let’s go back to an easier time. Let’s return to a place where everything was good. The truth is that mostly these places and times exist only in our memory. Time and distance soften the hard edges of past times. Memory crafts a world that didn’t quite exist except through the lens of thought.

The way ahead – the way God calls us to tread – is often difficult and even dangerous. There are , as the spies said in an earlier passage. giants in the land.

We speak of the Promised Land and we mean a place of abundance and ease. The biblical Promised Land was certainly a place of abundance – not only of good things but also of challenge. Israel faced as many problems in the new land as they had in the old!

God’s future is not marked by easy living, smooth roads, or carefree idleness.   What that future does promise is that God is with me and that God will bless even in the midst of challenge.

What should else should I expect from a God whose Son’s life pointed toward a cross????

Prayer

Lord, the future is not always clear and when it is… it is not always easy. As I journey through Lent this year and make my way, as Jesus did, to the cross, remind me that your people have always struggled to move into the future you had for them. My resistance to the hard road – to the cross – is no different from the cries to return to Egypt. Help me, today, to move toward the promised land with its dangers and blessings both, toward the cross with its death but also with its resurrection to come. In the name of the one who walked this road and awaits me in every future… Amen.

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Of Cloaks and Wineskins (Life Journal – 2/23/2015)

Scripture

21 “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22 NRSV)

Observation

Jesus uses common wisdom to make a spiritual point – but what about? In the immediate context he is being criticized because his disciples do not fast as others do. An incident where they eat grain on the Sabbath follows these words.

Cloth – old cloth would have shrunk already from washing.

Wineskins – wine fermenting in a new skin would stretch the skin but wine in an old wineskin would stretch and burst the already stretched skin.

Jesus does not advocate throwing away the old skin or the old cloak but rather matching new with new and old with old as the context requires. In a sense he puts before them a contrast between new and old as much as a call for new alone.

Application

I have sometimes missed the point here – Jesus did not so “Do not fast” or “A wise person throws away old wine skins.” In some ways it makes things more difficult doesn’t it? It would be simpler if Jesus had said “Only use new wineskins” or “The old wineskins are perfectly adequate.”  But he didn’t.

When God is doing a new thing in me, in a church, in a culture or context, new wineskins are needed. We’ve seen “contemporary” worship music emerge as a new wineskin in our time and become its own old wineskin for instance.

Where does God want to put new wine out – and therefore I need new skins as much as I may like the old? Where, on the other hand, is the cloak in need of repair with an appropriate piece of cloth?

God is often doing a new thing but not always. Sometimes we are called to go over (again) familiar ground, revisit old and treasured places – or old places that are torn like the cloak.

Lent as a time of discernment is time to ponder such things. Where is the old cloak serviceable or where is new wine being poured? Let the Lord show us…

Prayer

O Lord, sometimes you want me to patch with the old cloak that fits and works so well. Sometimes you pour new wine and ask me to provide a fitting container for it. I thank you for both – and pray for the wisdom of your Spirit to know the difference so the wine is not spilled and the cloak is not ruined. Amen.

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