Tag Archives: israel

What to do when life is hard and filled with tears

19 Dec

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A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting.  It is a monster of a tiller.  You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding.  It is a workout.  Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above.  It is a scene.  But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces.  Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.

Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent.  It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.

We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:

  1. Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
  2. Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament

There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections.  That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”.  In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.

So let’s look at each section.

Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory

The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile.  The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off.  They lived in Babylon for 70 years.  Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.

My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.

But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”

Imagine the wonder of that moment.  For 70 years they were in captivity.  You are taken into captivity.  If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity.  Think about what happens in 70 years?  Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.

We talked about this last week.  The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was.  And now they get to return.

And they are laughing and singing.  They are praising the Lord!

You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song.  Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.

So the psalmist is excited.  But his joy turns to lament.

Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament

He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place.  In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.

Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.

We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year.  When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds.  And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.

But tilling is only the beginning.  Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs.  Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding.  Day after day after day.  Week after week.

To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster.  Our soil is astoundingly rich.  And we get regular rain.

In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless.  How do you know if rains will come?  Will this be a waste?

That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles.  They will not only be doing physical, real farming.  They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God.  For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.

That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.

What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?

It could be parenting.  Grand-parenting.  Reaching out to neighbors and friends.  You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.

It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.

What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life?  What is hard?

Think about what you are praying for.

Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?

When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament.  Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow.  You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work!  I need you to intervene.”

Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior.  The land was in bad shape.  They wanted God to come and save them.

That is what Advent is all about.  Advent means “the coming”.  In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus.  And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming.  He came once and he said he is coming again.

In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world.  Do you need God to enter your world?  Perhaps you’ll consider lament.

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

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For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.

When you cry out to God over and over and he doesn’t respond

7 Dec

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Have you ever waited for something a long time?  I feel like I regularly get in the store check-out line that has the longest wait.  It’s uncanny.  But that kind of wait is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about waiting for something for months or years, and often the waiting involves pain.  It might be a physical ailment, and no matter the treatment, surgery or medicine, you are not getting better.  It might be relational pain, where a person who is a loved one now seems like an enemy, and as hard as you try, it is not getting fixed.  It might be a financial difficulty where, despite working multiple jobs to exhaustion, you can’t seem to pay off debt.  It might be national or global pain, as you watch the news about wildfires, floods, racism, poverty, refugee crisis, terrorism, or sexual predators.  As we discussed in the last post, there is much darkness in our world. And deep down you cry out to God, and you ask him to intervene. In fact, you ask him over and over and over, and it seems like you’re not getting anywhere.  You are just waiting and waiting, sitting in the pain.

If you’ve ever felt that, your in good company with Asaph, the writer of the first Psalm of Lament that we are studying at Faith Church this Advent.  Asaph looked at the situation the nation of Israel had gotten itself into, and he was deeply concerned.  Let’s take a look at how expressed his pain in this first lament, Psalm 80, and perhaps we might learn to lament as well.

Structurally the psalm has three sections, each with a repeated “Restore Us” refrain that concludes the section.  Here is a summary:

  • Section 1 – verses 1-2, concluding with the refrain in 3 – total of three verses
  • Section 2 – verses 4-6, concludes with 7 – total of four verses
  • Section 3 – verses 8-18, concludes with 19 – total of 12 verses

You see what the author, Asaph, is doing?  He is increasing the length of his plea. Even the repeated refrain is slightly expanded each time, a fact we’ll look more at in the next post.  Why is Asaph adding material each time?  He wants us to sense a growing urgency to his lament.

Let’s take a deeper look at each section to hear and learn from his lament.

Section 1 – verses 1-3

The image he uses here is that of God as Shepherd, residing in the temple.  Asaph sees God as the shepherd, and thus the people of Israel are his sheep.  The idea of God as Israel’s Shepherd is very common throughout the Old Testament.  They were led by God, cared for by God, as a good shepherd does for his sheep. Asaph looks around him and sees that the sheep are in danger, and he cries out for the Shepherd to do his job!

But the scene that Asaph paints for us is not just a pastoral one.  The mention of the cherubim in verse 2 is that of the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place of the temple.  There the presence of the Lord resided.  Perhaps he is here likening God to a shepherd that is just hanging out in the temple, and not doing his job, which is to care for the sheep.  In fact, he depicts the shepherd as being asleep while the sheep are being afflicted.  So he calls for God to wake up, move out from there and save the people.

Lament often cries out to God to wake up and intervene.  That might sound very inappropriate.  As if the lamenter is accusing God of not doing his job.  The psalmist, no doubt, knows that God is holy and perfect and righteous.  Therefore, Asaph is not being disrespectful or accusing God of being irresponsible.  Instead Asaph knows that Israel is at fault for the predicament they’re in.

And yet that is lament for you: emotional, deep, crying out to God.  When we’re emotional, we don’t always think straight do we?  We don’t always craft our words perfectly.  We sometimes say things we don’t mean or even believe.  The emotion is so strong.  We’re desperate.  And so we say things like “God, you are our Shepherd!  Get up off your seat and take care of us!”  Lament is intense like that. And in the next section the intensity continues.

Section 2 – verses 4-7

Verse 4 starts with Asaph calling out to God again, asking of him “How long will your anger smolder against the prayer of your people?”

The image is quite vivid isn’t it?  The word “smolder” there could also be translated “smoke”.  I think of the hot smoking glowing red ashes in my wood stove.  We put ashes from our stove in our ash bucket, and take them out on our deck.  But if they are hot, if they are smoking, glowing red, we do not keep them on our deck.  All it would take is a gust of wind to blow some of those hot coals on to the deck, and we would be in big trouble.

So anytime we have smoking ash and coals, we dump it in our fire pit, which is way down in our yard, far away from the house.  There it can safely cool down, even if the wind is blowing.  We do this because smoldering ash and coals are powerful, with a great potential for destruction.  That’s the image the psalmist uses of God’s anger.

We could easily see God’s anger here as mean-spirited and unjust.  But God’s anger is best understood as a righteous anger.  The reason for his anger, the reason for the calamity the people have experienced, has everything to do with their unrighteousness. The psalmist would not be unaware of that, or trying to dispute that Israel had messed up.  The psalmist is just expressing deep longing for a change, and he knows God can bring that change.

And so Asaph utters words that are classic signposts of lament: “How long?”.  When you hear the psalmist say “How long O Lord?” you could think he is being impatient or fussy.  He is not.

Instead, one scholar says the words ‘how long?’ describe, “hope deferred, and though sick at heart, still clinging to God and yet protesting against the long-protracted calamities.”

We get the idea of “hope deferred.” How many of you know that very personally?  You have hopes and dreams, but they are deferred, meaning that they are not being realized.  You are waiting and waiting, and you are wondering “How long?”

We also get the idea of being “sick at heart”, that deep emotional longing in the midst of waiting.  Look at how Asaph describes the pain.

In verse 5 he describes the pain by saying to God: “you have fed them with the bread of tears.  You made them drink tears by the bowlful.”  Whew. That is some deep pain.  Rather than the manna in the desert that tasted like honey, and rather than water from the rock that tasted sweet, God is now giving them nothing but tears.

What’s worse, he says in verse 6, is that the neighboring countries around Israel see them in pain, and those neighboring countries mock Israel.

And yet, as the psalmist laments and feels the pain, he is not letting go of God. He is actually reaching out to God.  Clinging to God. That, too, is classic lament.  When we say “thoughts and prayers are with you” we too often put a quick phrase out there, and then we move on to the next thing.  When we face tragedy, the pain and confusion is so difficult to wrap our minds around that we tend not to even try.  But in the psalms of lament, the psalmist is engaging the tragedy and the pain, he is looking it full in the face, he is holding it up to God and saying “God, do you see this?  What are you doing about this?  Why are you taking so long to respond to this?”

He is clinging to God, but he is protesting God at the same time.  “How long, O Lord?”  Lament cries out to God from a heart that is sick with pain, but still clinging tightly to God in faith, knowing God is our hope, and yet also upset with God because it is taking so long.

Rather than turning away from the tragedy, or avoiding dealing with the tragedy, lament sits down in the tragedy, examines the tragedy, and shows it to God saying, “How Long O Lord?”

That might sound light an act of unbelief, or disrespect, or sinful rebellion. Instead, lament is an act of deep faith.  Lament knows that the situation is dire, the pain is awful, and there is only one solution.  God.  And lament persistently, boldy, enters into that pain and asks God to deal with it.

There is something incredibly meaningful, therefore, to the practice of lament.  There is something powerful about it.  I think the power of lament flows from the inner passionate experience of pain found in a person who is facing that pain, combined with that person’s choice to cling tightly to the Lord in the midst of that pain.

Here’s the thing about Psalm 80, though. Though the psalmist says “How long, O Lord,” he’s not done yet!  In our next post we’ll look at section 3, the remainder of the psalm, to see how Asaph continues his lament.

Who are you really? (And how to find out)

4 Dec

In my last post, I mentioned that in Deuteronomy 9 Moses gives the people of Israel an exam, and he has shocking news for them.  Remember the principle?  They are not righteous in and of themselves.  They were in danger of thinking that God brought them to the Promised Land because they were so good.  So to help them see the truth about themselves, Moses reminds them of their nation’s major mess-up, that time they made an idol and worshiped it.  You can go back to Exodus 32 and read the original account.  Here in Deuteronomy 9 Moses just summarizes it.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell:

The people of Israel had just witnessed the amazing miracle of walking through the Red Sea, as the waters are parted.  That is one of the miracles most people would long to see.  Israel saw it.  If I saw that, I think I would be committed to Jesus for the rest of my life.  I would never doubt him.  My faith would never waver.

Guess what?  A month and a half later Israel is worshiping a golden calf, an idol they made.  How is that possible?  It is tempting to think that something is wrong with Israel. As if they are an especially disobedient and fickle people.  You’d think they’d make it longer than a month and a half trusting in God, after having seen him part the waters of the Red Sea.

But you have to remember that they are still getting to know this God.  And when Moses, their primary connection to this God, leaves them to go up the mountain to meet with God, which is exactly what happened right before they made the idol, what is Israel to think?  They have no word from Moses as to how long he will be gone.  How long do they wait for him to come back?  How long would you wait?  Think about how you would feel after a week?  And then two weeks go by?  Then another week!  I am totally thinking in terms of our impatient American culture where we want everything done fast.  But waiting even a couple weeks for Moses to return seems like an interminably long time.

It does not take long for any people in any era to get impatient.  And the people of Israel at this point are at an especially precarious spot in their walk with God.  They don’t have the benefit of centuries of watching God remain faithful.  They have one and a half months.  It is really hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes, how they must have felt.

And yet, Moses is hard on them here in Deuteronomy 9 isn’t he?  He totally faults them for what they did. As I thought about it, part of me wants Moses to tone it down, to give Israel some grace.  “Come on Moses, they didn’t have the vantage point that you had on the mountain.  They thought you had left them, or maybe that you had died up there.  It’s not like you took food and water enough for 40 days!  Geez.”

I think, though, it is possible that I want grace and mercy for Israel because I know I am like Israel.  I know I need mercy and grace too. We all do.

And yet, Israel did do something incredibly wrong.  They were impatient.  They demanded that Moses’ brother Aaron, who was the high priest, take their gold and make an idol for them to worship. And Aaron did just that.  He made an gold idol in the shape of calf.  The people were impatient, desperate for a god they could see and touch.  They weren’t so sure about this YHWH who was invisible, who had taken their leader Moses away.

So Israel made an idol and worshiped it.  That’s the story of the Golden Calf.

As Moses stands before them here in Deuteronomy 9, that golden calf episode was 40 years prior.  The generation that committed that act of idolatry has passed away.

That makes me question why Moses says to the new generation in verse 7: “Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert.”  Does that strike you as odd too?  He lumps that generation right in with their forefathers.  It could seem unfair.  If I was there listening to Moses, maybe I would be thinking, “Wait a minute, Moses, I didn’t do that. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born yet.”  And yet Moses goes into detail retelling the story as if they did it, as if they were there.  Why? Moses needs them to face the fact that the Golden Calf episode, though a part of their history that they themselves were not responsible for, still serves as a reminder of how weak their faith can be.

So let’s bring this all back around to what Moses is attempting to do in chapter 9. In Part 1, which is verses 1-6, Moses is teaching a principle which he clearly states in verses 4-6: Israel should not think they are righteous and that their righteousness is why God is giving them the Promised Land.

Then comes Part 2, verses 7-29, where Moses illustrates for them how unrighteous they have been.

What is Moses doing?  He is giving them the truth.  He knows they could easily have a false impression about themselves.  He knows they could become prideful and arrogant, and they have no business being prideful and arrogant considering how unrighteous they have been.  Moses is giving them a dose of reality.

Just as Moses is giving Israel a needed dose of reality, how can we have a healthy, appropriate honest self-assessment, without pridefully or arrogantly thinking that we don’t need it?

We need the correct view of ourselves.  We should not assume that we already have a healthy self-assessment.  We might have the correct view of ourselves, but we should always be cautious about that.

This can go both ways.  Some of us, like Israel, already have or are in danger of having a too-high view of ourselves.  Others among us have a too-low view of ourselves.  Neither are healthy.  We might think we’re righteous when we’re not.  And we might think we’re evil or worthless when we’re not.  I’ve heard a lot of both. People who think they are wonderful, and people who think they are failures.

Instead we need the truth.  We need to be people who actively seek God’s view of us.  What is God’s view of us?  We get a picture of God’s view of us when we look at how Moses finishes Deuteronomy 9.  Moses was so upset at the people during that golden calf incident. But he still prayed for them in verses 25-29. He intervened for Israel. God wanted to destroy Israel and start over with Moses. But Moses pleads with God to show mercy.  God listens to Moses!

What does that show us about how God views us?  God forgives and showers his mercy on us. That is the kind of loving God he is.  God hears and cares.  He listens.  He sees all the rebellion and disobedience we can do, yet he is so willing to forgive.

There is hope for us who have worshipped golden calves.  There is hope for us who have failed.  Because God is merciful and forgiving.  No matter if our opinion of ourselves is too high or too low, we have a God who loves us.

When you look intently into the mirror of God’s word, what will you learn about yourself?  What will you see in the mirror?  You will see a person who God created, a person who bears the divine image, a person who God loves.  That is you.

Therefore, knowing that we are loved more than we can imagine, let us fight hard to have a healthy self-perspective.  Do not trust yourself to give yourself a true perspective of who you are.

Invite others into the process of self-evaluation.

Spend time in the Bible.  The mirror of God’s word, as James calls it (see James 1:19-27). Ask God to speak to you through his word.

Think about how you have annual evaluations at work.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had annual evaluations as to how we are doing as disciples of Jesus?

Evals are intimidating and scary.  I feel that too. Every year our Faith Church Pastoral Relations Committee gives me my annual evaluation.  I’m always nervous going in to that meeting.  But every year it is so, so good to learn about myself.

I encourage you to ask for the eval, invite it, beg for it.  Fight for it.  Become desperate for the truth about yourself.  Strive hard to answer the questions, “How is my attitude?  How am I thinking about myself?  Am I believing any lies about myself?”

As you learn the truth about yourself, there might be things you don’t like.  Things that need to change.  Work on changing them.  Do not only receive the information about yourself, begin to make strides to change.  Remember that God loves you, and that he is a forgiving God.  And he wants to empower us to make those changes.

Why exams are so important for us – Introducing Moses’ exam of Israel in Deut. 9

1 Dec

Image result for eye dilationA few years ago I had one of those eye exams where they put the drops in your eyes to dilate them.  I wear contacts, so first my doctor (I go to the optometrist at Costco) had me remove my contacts. He put the drops in, and then my eyes slowly started dilating. If you’ve experienced this, you know how weird it is.  Light becomes so bright, as your eyes let more and more in.  My doctor said that I had to wait 10 minutes for the drops to take full effect, so I could just walk around the store.  You know what my thought was?  “Cool! Samples!”  Costco usually has a bunch of food sampling stations, so I thought I’d check them out, get a snack.

As I started across the store, I realized I hadn’t planned this out, meaning that I didn’t bring my glasses along.  There I am, stumbling around Costco, barely able to open my eyes because the light is so bright from the dilation, and then when I do try to squint my eyes open, because my contacts are out and I forgot my glasses, everything is blurry.  I would take a few steps, lean on a rack holding computer printers, and then stop.  There was no way I was making it to the samples.  I was thinking, “I hope no one I know is here,” first because I didn’t want to be mistaken for having some kind of problem, and second, because they would recognize me, but there was no way I could recognize them because I couldn’t see!  So I was concerned that would offend someone.  I was a mess.

You know what, though? That exam showed me something about myself.  It showed me how I think, how I feel, and especially how dependent I am on corrective lenses.

Then there was the time years ago, when I went to my family doctor for an annual physical.  After getting my height and weight checked, I was alone in an exam room waiting for the doctor to arrive.  I looked over to the counter and noticed a body-mass index card.  With my new height/weight data fresh on my mind, I thought I would check my BMI.  The results I found couldn’t be right!  I double-checked.  Sure enough, I was in the obese category.  I was shocked.  Like the eye exam, that physical taught me something about myself I needed to know.  I would have told you before looking at the BMI chart that I needed to lose a few pounds, eat less, exercise.  But I never would have said I was obese.  I was obese though.  And I needed to be confronted about that.

How about you?  How have tests told you the truth about yourself?

It might be a test a school.  It might be a driver’s test. Maybe an annual job performance evaluation.  These things all tell us the truth about ourselves.  That truth might hurt, and that truth could be wonderful.

In Deuteronomy 9, Moses is examiner and he is about to give Israel an exam.  The truth Israel will learn in that exam is not pretty.  

Looking at this chapter structurally, there are two parts.

Part 1 – 9:1-6 – The Principle.

Part 2 – 9:7-29 – The Illustration.

Today we’ll focus on verses 1-6, looking for the principle that Moses wants to share.

To find that principle, it will be helpful to remember what we studied in chapter 8, especially because it has some similarities to chapter 9.

In chapter 8 Moses warned Israel to beware of the possibility that they would start believing that their own strength and ability are the reasons they were able to enjoy the abundance of the Promised Land. (You can review the posts we discussed this here, here and here.)

Now in chapter 9 Moses is giving them the results of an exam.  He is warning them to beware of the possibility that they might believe their righteousness enabled them to eject the more powerful Canaanites out of the land.

And so the principle that Moses wants the people to learn is that they do not have righteousness in and of themselves.

Scholars tell us that the language of righteousness is actually legal terminology.  Who has a right to the land?  Moses says that Israel is in danger of believing that the land is rightfully theirs.  Why else would God fight for them?  They were the rightful owners.  They were righteous.

Moses cuts this thinking off at the pass saying “Do not think like that!”

In contrast to the Israel’s proposed righteousness, Moses says that God is giving them the land because of the Canaanites’ wickedness.  The Canaanites, therefore, do not have a right to the land either.  So God is giving the land to Israel, and Moses knows that it could be very tempting for Israel to think they are something special.

We know what this is like.  When we are blessed, it can be easy to think “I must be doing something right!”  What is the right perspective, though?  Think about it.  We can do things right.  And often, when we live simply, live righteously, and work hard, we will experience blessing.

There is a general proverb of life that if you work hard, live honestly, practice kindness, you will most likely see blessing in your relationships, financially.

Same goes for health.  If you exercise and eat right, generally-speaking, you will experience health.

I’m speaking proverbially here.  Proverbs are ideas that are generally true.

That means they are not always true.  God does not guarantee us a perfect, easy, comfortable stress-free life if we obey him.  Life is filled with the unexpected.

But when we live the way God wants us to live, generally we experience blessing.

So we can do things right.  It is important to affirm that.  We’re not total rejects.

But as we affirm that we can do things right, we also need to remember what Moses is warning the Israelites about. When we do things right and experience blessing, we can be tempted to think we deserve the blessing, or that we are entitled to the blessing, or that we are somehow better than other people.

Moses sees this kind of thinking in Israel’s future, and so he takes them to their annual physical exam.  He has some shocking news for them.  More on that tomorrow.

Why we need a wilderness mindset, even when we live in the promised land

30 Nov

Image result for have a wilderness mindset even while in the promised landHow can we remain faithful to God when life is good?  How do we remain faithful in the Promised Land?  When we are in the wilderness, we feel like we are going to die, and we need God to rescue us, we know that there is nothing we can do, and God has to intervene.  At those moments we are desperate and we know that we cannot save ourselves.  And when we make it through the wilderness with God’s help, we are quick to give God the credit, and we thank and praise him because he stepped in and provided.

But in the Promised Land, we are working, and we see the fruits of our labor.  It really seems like it was we ourselves who produced our success.  As a result we can have a hard time seeing how we need God.

In Deuteronomy 8:18, Moses reminds the people that it is God who gives us the ability to produce wealth.  So how can we let that truth sink in to our lives deeply?  God is the source of our wealth.  How can we keep that in the forefront of our minds no matter if we are in the wilderness or if we are in the Promised Land?

I believe at least part of the answer to that question is found in a thread that Moses sews through his teaching in this chapter.  Go back and read Deuteronomy 8, and see if you can notice the thread. After I name the thread, I think you’ll see it over and over in this chapter. Here it is: God wants to show his father heart for his people.

Let’s scan through Deuteronomy 8, and see if we can see the father heart of God.

  • Verse 1 – he wants them to live and increase, he keeps his promise.
  • Verse 2 – he led them, he wants to know their hearts, to have a close relationship.
  • Verse 3 – he fed them, taught them.
  • Verse 4 – he provided for their physical well-being.
  • Verse 5 – he disciplines them (and the intent of this word is loving discipline).
  • Verses 7-10 – he is bringing them to a bountiful land.
  • Verse 14 – he brought them out of slavery.
  • Verse 15-16 – he led them through the dangerous wilderness.
  • Verse 18 – he gives them the ability to produce wealth.

Look at all those ways God is a loving Father to them!

I know that not everyone had a good example of a loving father in your earthly father.  Because of that I believe those who say that it can be hard for them to view God as father.  That is legit.

I encourage you to take a look at a chapter like Deuteronomy 8, and soak up the picture of your heavenly father. It may be something you need to return to many times to learn the true heart of the father.

When we do that, what kind of father’s heart do we see in God in Deuteronomy 8?  We see a Father God who watches out for us, who sees the potential for trouble we can get into.  We do that as parents and grandparents!  We want to warn them, say “beware”, and sometimes our kids and grand-kids respond, “No way, that will never happen. You are wrong.”  And the kids don’t listen.  Sometimes they do get into trouble.  We can be like that with God, too.   Therefore, let us know the father’s heart of love for us, whether we are in the wilderness or in the promised land.

So you who are in the Wilderness:

  1. Look at it as a privilege.
  2. See the beauty of being in the wilderness.
  3. Be careful not to be addicted to the desire for the Promised Land.

So you who are in the Promised Land:

  1. Know that the Promised Land is not better than the wilderness.
  2. Know that God gives you the ability to produce wealth.
  3. Commit acts of sacrifice that show that you are not depending on our own wealth and abilities.
  4. Willingly re-enter the wilderness.

In other words, like I said yesterday, see the Promised Land through the lens of the wilderness.  Have a wilderness mindset, even when you are in the Promised Land.

We can become negative about the wilderness, so hateful of the pain and suffering that we get addicted to the Promised Land, fixated with ease and comfort of the Promised Land.  The Promised Land can become an idolatrous fixation.

The wilderness, Moses says, is God’s classroom. A time of teaching and training.  A time to learn and grow.  God intends, therefore, for us to see the wilderness as a positive thing.

Has God ever allowed a wilderness discipline in your life?  How did it change you?  What is your wilderness?  It seems we all go through a wilderness at some time, that God allows it.

But maybe you are not in the wilderness.  Maybe you are in the land of bounty.  How will you be faithful in the Promised Land?

The surprising danger of the promised land

29 Nov

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The Promised Land is a dangerous place.  Dangerous? Really?

In yesterday’s post, I asked whether you are living in your own personal wilderness, or are you experiencing a promised land?  In Deuteronomy 8 Moses is talking to the people of Israel who have just journeyed for decades through the wilderness and are set to enter the Promised Land.  You’d think Moses would be celebrating, but instead he has a dire warning.

He sets before the people the images of wilderness and promised land.  Here is a quick walk through the chapter:

First, Moses reminds them of the Wilderness in verses 1-5. Moses encourages them to follow the commands of God, and remember how God provided manna in the desert to teach them some important lessons, lessons of humility, of depending on him.

Next, he turns their attention to the Promised Land in verses 6-14.  Again he encourages them to observe the commands of God. God is bringing them into a bountiful land.  Moses says that they should walk in God’s ways and fear him. Why? Because they can become satisfied with that bountiful promised land and forget the Lord and fail to do his commands.

So in verses 15-16 he returns to the Wilderness.  He once again wants the people to remember God’s provision (manna & water) in the desert.

Finally in 17-20 he brings them back to the Promised Land, warning them to not be fooled into thinking that they created their Promised Land wealth of their own ability.  It is God who gives the ability to produce wealth.

In other words, he is saying to Israel, “See the Promised Land through the lens of the Wilderness.”

Wilderness and Promised Land.  Both are very important.  Both are a part of our lives.  What does it mean, therefore, to see our own promised land through the lens of our wilderness?

To attempt to answer that question, let’s go back to how Moses warns Israel.  He is saying to them, “People, when you get settled in the Promised Land, you are going to eat your fill.  No more manna and quail every day.  It is going to be Shady Maple.  But watch out.  Because if you eat at Shady Maple every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you are in danger of forgetting the Lord.  And you will become proud, and you will be tempted to think you don’t need to obey the Lord, even though he brought you out of slavery and cared for you in the wilderness.  And what’s worse, you will start to deceive yourself, and you will think that you did this. You will think ‘Self, I have made it. I am so smart and capable and strong…and I know how to get wealthy’.”

That’s the danger of the Promised Land, isn’t it?  That life will be so good, so abundant, and we will feel so satisfied, that we will start to think that we did this.  And when we start to think that we did it, we have already gone down the road of forgetting that it was actually God who did it.

This is so applicable to us Americans.  We live in the Promised Land.  Literally.  I know it can be very hard for us to see it when the bill collectors are calling, when our credit card debt is rising fast, when our jobs are not paying enough.  This is why I highly, highly recommend that you go on trips outside your own culture.  When you travel to other cultures, it can help you open your eyes to who you really are.  When you are in inner city Philly, for example, you can see hopefully a bit more clearly how Lancaster is the Promised Land.

We Americans, and in particular we Lancastrians, are in danger of deceiving ourselves into becoming so satisfied with our comfortable lives that we can believe we did this.  Let me repeat, that is the danger of the Promised Land, forgetting God, forgetting how he got us through the wilderness, and how we need to depend on him, live for him, even in the Promised Land.