Whoa! You Shall Not Pass

From 1050BC to 587 BC, Israel was an independent nation.  Then, Babylon destroyed it and exiled the people.  They struggled with the question of what it meant to be Jewish without a country.  In 539 BC, Persia conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild.  The Israelites found it was hard to go back to the same when everything was so different.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great basically conquered everything and spread Greek culture throughout the region.  Between 319 BC and 302 BC, Jerusalem changed control seven times and chaos ruled.  In 200 BC, the Seleucid Empire conquered the area and outlawed Jewish worship.  There was this constant battle with Greek influence and religion.  Groups emerged to bring back Jewish traditions and one group specifically focused on the Law as the key and they devoted themselves to this.  These were the Pharisees and they loved their faith and at the time, these were the good guys.

So how come, in Matthew 15:3, Jesus asks: why do you break the Commands of God for the sake of tradition?  The Pharisees had wandered from their original path.  Matthew 23:1-7 says that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, but do not practice what they preach.  They are not willing to bear the load.

There were 613 laws from Moses.  Thinking of a way to keep these laws, the Pharisees created little laws around each of these big ones.  This was the oral law and was later written down as the Talmud.  The Pharisees would pile guilt and shame on you if you didn’t follow all of the rules.  Jesus showed up and said it should be about service and love and not following all of the rules.

Jesus made 7 states about the Pharisees all beginning with “Woe to you….”  Matthew 23:13-14: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”  The Pharisees were using an in versus out mentality and religion was an exclusive thing to them.  However, this determination should only be used by God.  The irony in all of this is that the Pharisees couldn’t get in either.  There were so many laws that it was impossible for anyone to follow all of them.

In Matthew 9, Jesus met Matthew, a tax collector.  Matthew began following Jesus and Jesus ate with him and other sinners.  The Pharisees asked why He did this.  Jesus told them that the healthy do not need doctors, but the sick do.  Jesus desired mercy, not sacrifice.  He came to call not the righteous, but sinners.  Jesus is upset with the Pharisees’ judgement and tells them at the tax collector and prostitutes will enter God’s kingdom ahead of them.

1 John 4:8 states that God’s love is the defining characteristic.  In Ephesians 2:14-16 we are told that Jesus has made two groups into one humanity, making peace.  He came to unite people and there should be no division.  Our faith should be based on Jesus and not the law.


Becoming Me – Generosity

Spiritual disciplines are habits that help us learn to live in sync with how God is working around us and in us.  The more personal something is, the harder it often is to talk about. Money is extremely personal, so that’s why it is so hard to discuss.  How we manage our resources has everything to do with how we are in step with God.

In Luke 10:27, Jesus is asked what is most important and He answers to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.  He said this because whatever fills your heart, leads your life.  If God is what is in your heart, that will guide your life.  He has to be in your heart, not just in your head.

Luke 12:34 states that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  This refers to all earthly goods, including time, energy and money.  Wherever your treasure is, there is your heart, and this will lead your life.  We put our treasure into so many other things besides God, but God so wants to be the priority in our life.  In Exodus 25:8-9, God says: Have them make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them.  This was different because gods lived somewhere else and never among the people.

How were the people supposed to build this sanctuary? In Exodus 35:4-9, God commands that his people take up an offering of gold, silver, bronze, yarn, linen, goat and leather, wood, oil, spices and gems.  This was only if the people are willing.  Exodus 25:1-2 said that God will receive the offering from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.  In Exodus 35: 20-21, everyone who was willing brought an offering.  People gave their time and energy too.  In verse 25, every skilled woman spun.  In Exodus 36:8, skilled workers made the tabernacle.

Giving is more than just about stewardship; it is about your entire life.  You have to choose where to put your time, energy and money.  These are finite resources.  We have to ask the question: what kind of person do I want to be?  Then we can ask where we are putting our treasure and how we need to reorganize.

Becoming Me – Rest

Our culture is about production, not rest.  Even still, our work is designed to have weekends, holidays and vacations.  We know these are important to our well-being.  What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.  This is the key to the identity of the people of God.

The history of the Sabbath dates all the way back to the beginning of the world.  In Genesis 1, God creates the heavens and the earth, and it happens over seven days.  God creates the light and darkness, the sky and water, the land and sea, the sun, moon and stars, the birds and fish, and animals and people.  God also gives man an elevated status and creates work.  In Genesis 1:28-29, He gives humans rules over everything.  In Genesis 2:15, God puts man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  Our job, if done for the service of humanity, is sacred.  Work is a good thing.  Genesis 1:31 states that God saw all He had made and it was good.

In Genesis 2:1-3, God introduces the idea of the Sabbath.  By the seventh day, God had finished with His creation and He rested.  He blessed the seventh day and made it holy.  Holy means set apart and made different.  Nothing in the Bible is ever holy in of itself, except for time.  It is holy because God says it is.

God created an economy of peace in the garden.  Ultimately, people rebelled because we wanted more.  In Genesis 3:17-19, God says cursed is the ground because of you and through painful toil you will eat; by the sweat of your brow you will eat food.  At this point, work becomes a struggle.  Now civilization is man’s conquest over space. There is no harmony so man’s goal is to establish authority over everything and everyone.

Later in the Old Testament, Egypt creates a pyramid system.  The people on the bottom work for the people at the top.  This creates an economy of production and consumption.  The Hebrew people are living in Egypt as slaves.  Exodus 1:14 says they made their lives bitter with harsh labor; the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.  There are several other examples.  Exodus 5:4 – why are you taking the people away from labor? Get back to work!  Exodus 5:17 – Pharaoh calls the Hebrews lazy.  Exodus 5:10-11 – I will not give you any more straw, but your work will not be reduced.  This is a constant restless cycle. Our present day economy is just like this and it is why we cannot rest.

God breaks into time and frees His people.  God destroys the system so that Pharaoh finally lets the people go.  Soon after, at Mt. Sinai, God gives Moses the law, including the Ten Commandments.  He reminds the people in Exodus 20:2 that I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt and out of slavery.  The first three commandments have to do with the people’s relationship with God.  The last six have to with how to connect with people.  The fourth is the bridge between the two.

Exodus 20:5-8 – Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  There shall be six days of labor, but on the seventh, this is the Sabbath to the Lord.  There is more time discussing this commandment than any of the others.  With this commandment, God brings it back to an economy of peace.  Exodus 34:21 states that on the seventh day, you shall rest, even during plowing and harvest.  God made it clear that there was no excuse for not taking a Sabbath.

The Sabbath is important because it restores our humanity by removing us from the economy of production and consumption.  Creation is a gift and I have been given everything I need.  The Sabbath creates equality among people and allows us to live in genuine community with each other.  We surrender our lives to God and the Sabbath allows us to live in harmony with creation.  In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says take my yoke on you and learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.  The Sabbath should be both unproductive and inefficient, which is incredibly hard for most people.  However, it is through this time that we can replenish our soul and allow us to meet God.

Becoming Me – Scripture

Galatians 5:25 states that since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  This means that we need to live our life in the way which God is leading us.  One of the important spiritual disciplines is reading the Bible.  We need to remember that the Bible was written by real people in real places.

The early parts of the Bible were originally passed down through oral tradition.  The Old Testament was written down between 1500-4 BC.  God would tell His people to write what happened down and these collected writings were kept in the Temple.  In 586 BC, the Temple was destroyed by conquering Babylon and in 539 BC, the Persians began to allow the Jewish people to return to their homeland.  The prophet Ezra began to collect all the writing he could find and they were stored in the rebuilt Temple.  The New Testament was written about the life of Jesus and the early church after Jesus’ death.

Scripture emerges as a process.  There are two aspects of the Bible: human and divine.  It was written by real people about real events.  It is also God’s Word to His people.  This is why it is called God-inspired.  2 Peter 1:20-21 says that no prophecy of Scripture came through the prophets’ own interpretations of things; the source is from God.  2 Timothy 3:16-17 states that all Scripture is God-breathed.  It is useful to teach, rebuke and correct so that God’s servants can be equipped for good works.

It can be useful to think of it like a musical instrument, such as a trumpet.  It is the result of both the player and the instrument working together; however, the ultimate source is from God.  In Genesis 2:7 it states that God formed man from dust and breathed into him the breath of life.  Scripture is God’s means of breathing life into us.

Do you read the Bible to look for principles or for transformation?  Looking at Luke 15, the story of the prodigal son, one could read this story and think, “what are the principles we could learn from this?”  You could glean that it is important to be forgiving and loving, much life the father was to his returned son.  Then you would go about the rest of your day.

However, if you instead read the Bible to transform your life, you need to look at the story as being about you.  The Bible is your story.  You need to enter into the story and see with what characters you identify.  Are you the older brother who is bitter?  Are you the trouble-making younger brother?  This is what will transform you.  Joshua 1:8 says to keep this Book of the Law and meditate on it day and night.  Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says that these commandments are to be in your hearts.  We are to tell our children about them, talk about them at home, on the road, when we lie down and when we get up.  The Bible is your story.

Becoming Me – Prayer

We are created in God’s image and not in the image of someone else.  The Holy Spirit is the presence of God and is a powerful force.  God uses His power to save all of creation and restore it.  The Holy Spirit is alive in me.  Galatians 5:25 says that because we live by the Spirit, we must keep in step with it.  We need to live life in sync with what God is doing.

Spiritual disciplines help cultivate our heart and soul so that we can walk in step with God.  One of these is prayer, essentially just talking to God.  What if there is a right way to pray?  In Luke 11:1, Jesus has just finished praying and one of his disciples asks him to teach them to pray.  There must have been something different in how Jesus prayed.

Jesus does explain ways to not pray.  Matthew 6:6 says when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who want to be seen by others.  They have already received their payment in full (recognition).  We are not supposed to pray in public to impress people.  If this is how you pray, you already have your recognition.  Instead, Jesus says to go into your room and close your door.  Then, the Father who sees you in secret will reward you.  Verses 7 and 8 say to not babble like the pagans.  God already knows what you need before you even ask Him.  You cannot manipulate God.

If God knows what I need, why even ask?  The purpose of prayer is not to get Got to do what I want.  In verse 9, Jesus explains how to start a prayer: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name.  First we need to recognize who God is.  Jesus refers to God essentially as Daddy, which was revolutionary as it evokes, intimacy and respect.  This is a reminder that God is in control and gives peace in our lives.

Verse 10 says to continue the prayer: Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.  We need to surrender everything to God.  The purpose of prayer is to surrender our will, not impose it.  Our reward is the peace and joy that is found in surrender.  Verses 11-13 conclude the prayer: Give us our daily brea, forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.  This is a list of our requests to God.

Often, prayer in Scripture is not formal. If you looks at many Psalms, you can find examples of this.  One of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah, prays like Jesus.  Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah and was chosen before he was born.  See Jeremiah 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and set you apart.  Jeremiah had the unfortunate job of telling the nation that it was over for them.  They had rejected God enough, and there was no hope.  This was not a welcome message and he was put in the stocks.  Here are some examples of Jeremiah’s prayer: Jer. 20:7-8: You deceived me, Lord. I am ridiculed all day.  The Word of the Lord has brought me insult all day.  Verses 14-18: Curses be the day I was born.  Cursed be the man who brought my father news of me.  Why did I ever come out of the womb?  These prayers are incredibly honest about saying what needs to be said.

Despite Jeremiah’s anguish and crying out to God, he still maintains his faith.  Verse 9: But if I saw I will not say the Lord’s Word, it is like a fire in my heart.  I can’t hold it in.  God still has Jeremiah’s heart and he is surrendered to God.  Verses 10-13: I hear whispers about me.  But the Lord is with me and my persecutors will stumble.  Let me see Your vengeance of them.  Praise to God because You are saving me.  The way people are treating him does not change, but prayer changes Jeremiah instead.  Prayer should be a daily reminder of who God is and that I belong to Him.

Be alone, be honest, and surrender.

The Thrill of Hope

In the days leading up to Christmas, it is easy to get weary to the point of just being tired of it all.  Shopping, activities and family obligations can all lead to a lot of stress.  Leading up to Jesus’ birth, the nation of Israel was weary too.  The prophets had previously said that because of their lack of faith, their nation was finished (see Isaiah 1:2 and Amos 9:8), but the prophets also gave Israel a message of hope.  Daniel 2:44 states God will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed and Zechariah 14:9 says there will be one Lord who is King over all the earth.

Israel had been living in exile in Babylon, but when the Persians conquered the area, the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding and to restore their worship.  They believed that if they led faithful lives, God would usher in the new kingdom He had promised.  They waited for 500 years, but nothing happened.  They were now under Roman power and they became weary.

Then, something did happen.  Jesus was born.  Luke 2:1-7: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

This baby was literally the Word of God and God’s action.  John 1:1-5, 14 states that in the beginning there was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

The second chapter of Luke goes on to describe that an angel appeared to nearby shepherds, bringing them the good news that a Savior had been born.  This was good news for all people, not just the strict Jewish observers.

Even though we may be weary, the world is still good because that is how God created it to be.  It is something worth fighting for.  What things have we grown weary of and are we ready to fight for them?  I will blog about my answer later this week.  John 1:11-12 says that He came to His own (the Jews), but they did not receive Him.  To those who believed, He gave them the right to be the children of God.  Jesus knew that it wouldn’t always work, but He came anyway.

Can I Be Forgiven For…

Can all sins be forgiven?  Even the really super bad ones?  Jesus is pretty clear on this.  1 John 1:9 states that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us.  There is no condition on this.  It doesn’t matter how bad the sin is.  He will forgive us.

But what about those tricky tricksters that try to point out that Jesus said there was an unforgivable sin?  In Matthew 12:30-32, Jesus says He who is not with me is against me.  Every sin against me will be forgiven, but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Here, Jesus is talking about those who attribute His good works to Satan, basically denying who Jesus is.  Only someone who is completely closed off from God’s love as to attribute Him as evil could commit this sin.  It’s not something we could do by mistake or by a slip of the tongue.  So tell those tricky tricksters that there is no sin greater than the cross.

This is not to say that there are no consequences for sin.  In the Old Testament, atonement for sin required actual physical sacrifices, often in the form of an animal.  In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the final sacrifice in his death on the cross.  Even in His final moments on earth, Jesus was the ultimate picture of forgiveness, saying: forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.

God knows the sin that you commit.  He is not waiting for you to confess it so that He will know what you did.  He already knows it.  The act of confessing sin acknowledges our need for God.  God is always ready to forgive you.  Psalm 103:11-12 states as high as the heaven, so great is His love; as far as the east is from the west, so far have our transgressions been removed.

So what do we do with our forgiven life?  God doesn’t forgive us so that we can just keep on doing whatever we want.  John 13:35 says that all will know you are a disciple if you love one another.  Romans 6:1-4 says that we are not to live in sin any longer; we have been buried with Jesus and we have also been raised to a new life.  God’s forgiveness of us means that we have to life a different kind of life.  We have been changed and need to act like it.