“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Rush Limbaugh and the Stunning Collapse of Trumptopia

A little background here. I have been an occasional listener of Rush Limbaugh for years. At first I thought he was some kind of guru or swami. Over time I came to realize he is just a really good entertainer with a keen eye for politics. The title of my page, “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of one of his books, something along the lines of undeniable truths for life. I am not a regular listener, much less a devoted ditto-head. He is a brilliant satirist, and for years he was the only voice that challenged what is now referred to as the “main stream media” – and he has been reviled for it.

But the other day I heard him say things I would never, ever, have expected him to say. When President Trump signed the “Omnibus Spending Act of 2018” I thought Limbaugh was going to bust a gasket. He was absolutely apoplectic – angry, upset, disturbed, irked. I don’t think he agreed with Trump at all.

Which is, to put it mildly, hysterical. I have never heard Limbaugh campaign for anyone more devoutly than he campaigned for Trump – even during the primaries. He claims not to take sides during primaries, but even my occasional listening proved to me that his shows were “all Trump, all the time.” I heard him say on more than one occasion that Trump was not a conservative, but he was willing to overlook that reality for the simple reason that Trump stuck his finger in the eye of the Washington “establishment,” and for Limbaugh that was good enough. And, of course, after the primaries it did not matter who the Republican candidate was, the mission of the day was to make sure Clinton #2 was not elected.

So, returning to Trump signing this 1.3 trillion dollar budget – one that Limbaugh swears was created by the “establishment” in order to destroy Trump. I just have one question – why is Limbaugh, and all of his loyal ditto-heads, upset, or even shocked? They knew that Trump was not a fiscal, nor an ethical, conservative. They knew he made decisions based on what he thought was best for himself. They knew he loved to be provocative and to stick his finger in other peoples’ eyes. What they did not expect is that he would do it to them! They expected a non-conservative, free-wheeling and dealing, ethical opportunist would remain faithful to them and their agenda, and when he did not, they did not know how to handle it.

All of which just drives me deeper into the wisdom of David Lipscomb, and more recently, Glen Stassen. Lipscomb lived during the presidency of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American presidents. And he also lived during one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catastrophes to ever befall this nation. Through it all he remained steadfast in his conviction that it was only to God and to God’s kingdom that one should pledge allegiance. For Lipscomb a smaller government, or a more constitutionally conservative government, or a more Christian government, was not the solution to mankind’s problem – government itself was mankind’s problem! A physical government might be necessary, but it was an evil necessity, one that should be steadfastly ignored beyond what it was biblically permitted to demand (and for Lipscomb, that was basically only taxes).

Glen Stassen guided me in an individual study of the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result of that study I was introduced to a new, and for me, profound understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Stassen took an exegetical observation made by W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison and gave it hermeneutical “legs” on which to stand. The observation is that Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you,” far from being just a disjointed and unconnected saying, is actually a central teaching regarding a disciple’s commitment to God and God’s kingdom. If we sell ourselves, and our allegiance, for a mess of political slop, we should not be surprised when the political dogs and pigs turn around and bite us.

Which is, precisely true to Jesus’s words, exactly what has happened to the followers of Trumptopia.

I have been utterly dumbfounded by the way certain Christians have turned a blind eye to Trump and his ethical and moral collapses. I remember the “moral majority” screaming for then President Clinton’s impeachment over his sexual misconduct and his lies. Now we are told sexual misconduct is not a major factor in whether a man should remain president – only that he promote our conservative agenda.

Except that President Trump is not now, has never been, and most likely will never be, either fiscally nor morally conservative.

When we cast what is holy and precious (our physical and spiritual allegiance) into a political pig sty, can we be surprised that the residents of that sty turn and attack us?

With each passing day I am becoming more and more convinced that the Sermon on the Mount speaks directly to the disciple’s relationship to every aspect of his or her culture – and that includes the government. Lipscomb was absolutely correct. Government may be necessary, but it is an evil necessity.

The disciple’s allegiance is to God, and to God’s kingdom. If we forget that, or if we reject that, we have no one to blame but ourselves when the dogs and pigs come growling.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

Esau and the Church

The character of Esau fits much of what we would consider the main figure in a Greek tragedy. He came into the world with every blessing, and through character flaws and chicanery by this brother, managed to lose virtually everything. I think there are some profound lessons to be learned about this minor/major character in the Old Testament story.

Esau comes on the scene along with his brother Jacob in Genesis 25. He is the older of the twins, and by that right should have been granted a double share of his father’s inheritance, as well as his father’s primary blessing. Through his brother’s deception (aided, interestingly, by his mother) he lost the second. Through his own lack of moral fortitude he lost the first. He gave away his birthright for a bowl of food – his appetite for the immediate caused him to lose sight of what was of far greater value in the future.

The author of the book of Hebrews refers to the entire church as the “church of the firstborn (ones).” (Hebrews 12:23). The word “firstborn” is plural – the author is not referring to Jesus as the Firstborn, he is referring to each and every member of the church (the ESV uses the word “assembly” here – a wonderful choice!) as being “firstborn.” We are all, in a metaphorical sense, Esaus. We have the right to receive our Father’s inheritance, and we have the right to receive our Father’s primary blessing. Hebrews 12:23 is a profound passage!

The question is, have we frittered that birthright away? Have we sold our eternal inheritance for a few fleeting days of “relevance” on this earth? Every day I am flooded with suggestions that the church needs to do this or buy that or change some other thing in order to attract the “nones” or the “millennials” or now the “generation Z” (or iGeneration). Esau thought that he absolutely had to eat or he would die. Never mind that he could have cooked his own meal (as he would do for Isaac some time later) or that he could have approached his mother, or that he could have punched his little brother in the nose and taken the bowl of stew. But, as the text clearly states, he “despised” his birthright, and sold it to Jacob for the most paltry of prices (Gen. 25:34)

There is no question but what the church is facing a crisis – has there been a time since Acts 2 when the church was not facing a crisis? The question is not if, but how; not a matter of deciding if we are in the valley of decision, but how we are to ascend out of it. We have two choices – we can sell our birthright and buy into what the world considers “relevant” (more technology, flashier graphics, hipper preachers, dashing programs). Or, we can look past the immediate (what the world considers “eat or die”) and view the situation from the end.

I’ve been studying the book of Revelation a lot lately. Within the book of Revelation there are many exhortations to be faithful, to overcome, to conquer, and even to repent of ungodly behavior. But I cannot find one single exhortation to be successful. In fact, in the book of Revelation, success in God’s eyes is very frequently described in terms of death. That which is success in the eyes of the world is failure in the kingdom of God.

If we as the firstborn ones are to claim our inheritance, if we are to receive our blessing, we are going to have to make a major change in tactics. We are going to have to forgo the bowl of worldly stew and keep our eyes focused on the Messianic banquet to which God has called his children.

The church of Esau may look attractive, but it has no future, or rather, its future is one of being cursed because of its failure to claim that which is its own. Let us strive to be the church, the assembly, of the firstborn ones – the children of promise who persevere and are faithful even to the point of death.