the high cost of not trusting God

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”

God spoke to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshiped it. They’ve sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are the gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

God said to Moses, “I look at this people—oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people! Let me alone now, give my anger free reign to burst into flames and incinerate them. But I’ll make a great nation out of you.”

Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”

And God did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.

Moses turned around and came down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of The Testimony. The tablets were written on both sides, front and back. God made the tablets and God wrote the tablets—engraved them.

When Moses came near to the camp and saw the calf and the people dancing, his anger flared. He threw down the tablets and smashed them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, melted it down with fire, pulverized it to powder, then scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

Moses said to Aaron, “What on Earth did these people ever do to you that you involved them in this huge sin?”

Exodus 32:1, 7-16, 19-21; MSG

This is one of those passages you don’t know what to do with, which I imagine is not in the lexicons for reading in the church, although I’m not sure. Jesus said that anyone who saw him saw the Father. Jesus is the revelation of God. All that proceeded that was somehow preparatory. There does need to be a certain kind of fear, reverence and awe of God. Not only the First/Old Testament makes that clear, but so does the Second/New. But God reveals God’s heart for the world in the Son, in Jesus, in Jesus’s Incarnation, life, ministry in teaching and healing in the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth, in Jesus’s death and resurrection, ascension with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, with the promise of his return. At the cross in Jesus’s death we see God’s love for the world, for everyone. You get glimmers of that same love throughout the First/Old Testament, but only in Jesus, and especially in his death do we see it uncovered, on full display.

We’re also told in the New/Second Testament that whatever was written for us in the past, that is in the First/Old Testament, was written to us, the church, for our instruction and as warnings. We have to take all of it to heart, if we’re going to read Scripture faithfully according to what it tells us. We can see for sure in the above passage (click to read it in its fuller context) that God’s people paid an awful price for not trusting God. We can certainly draw from that, we too are both susceptible, and will suffer the consequences when we fail to trust God.

I tend to think that God was acting this way in significant part to bring Moses to the point Moses needed to be as leader of God’s people. Maybe there was something lacking in Moses, and therefore God in God’s wisdom was working to make him more the person and leader he needed to be.

Back to the main point. It’s easy to think something like, “Well, I’ll take matters in my own hands right now, because I just have to. Just for now, because I just have to. But I’ll do better afterwards. I’ll quit doing this.” But when we do that, and seemingly solve the problem ourselves, the loss of not trusting in God lingers, and does not easily dissipate.

We’re talking both about a relationship and even idolatry. God want us in relationship with him through Christ. And God wants us to trust him completely. How we do that is given to us in the pages of Scripture. To trust in anything other than God, or in place of God amounts to idolatry. Something I’m working on in my own life. And trying to do so not just by myself, but in community with other followers who are committed to the same. In and through Jesus.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

the need for repentance and lament

O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
You’re down but you’re not out.
Prepare your confession
and come back to God.
Pray to him, “Take away our sin,
accept our confession.
Receive as restitution
our repentant prayers.
Assyria won’t save us;
horses won’t get us where we want to go.
We’ll never again say ‘our god’
to something we’ve made or made up.
You’re our last hope. Is it not true
that in you the orphan finds mercy?”

“I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I will make a fresh start with Israel.
He’ll burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring.
He’ll put down deep oak tree roots,
he’ll become a forest of oaks!
He’ll become splendid—like a giant sequoia,
his fragrance like a grove of cedars!
Those who live near him will be blessed by him,
be blessed and prosper like golden grain.
Everyone will be talking about them,
spreading their fame as the vintage children of God.
Ephraim is finished with gods that are no-gods.
From now on I’m the one who answers and satisfies him.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is to be found in me.”

If you want to live well,
make sure you understand all of this.
If you know what’s good for you,
you’ll learn this inside and out.
God’s paths get you where you want to go.
Right-living people walk them easily;
wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling.

Hosea 14; MSG

Hosea, like all of the Old Testament prophets (called a “Minor Prophet”, the first of twelve of them only because of the relative shortness of the writing) is not a light lift. You see at the outset that God calls Israel, the northern kingdom to whom Hosea was writing, “a whorehouse” (1:2; MSG). To read or listen to it, one ends up in quite an interplay between God’s exposure of Israel’s sin and its ugliness, what that means to God, along with the pronouncement of God’s judgment on them. Back and forth with different imagery, but by and large in terms of Israel having been married to God, but departing from him for other lovers. It is not pretty or comfortable, and we do well to not rush to the end of the book, until we’ve at least taken in all that was said before.

The prophets really don’t mince words, and some of what they say is indeed frightening, and abhorrent at least to our ears. The prophets like Hosea call us back to God, away from our sin, and the idols we so easily embrace in our lives. John ends his first letter warning his dear children to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

What the prophets call God’s people to, each and everyone of us, is repentance and lament. God wants us to listen, to catch something of God’s longing for us, and to respond in openness to God’s call. We can’t break our own hearts, they are often so hard to begin with. We want broken hearts, but the only way toward that is an openness to repentance and lament. Repentance has the idea of stopping what we’re doing, where we’re going, turning around and facing God, and coming back just as we are, in all our failure and guilt. Lament is the idea of brokenness before God. It was accompanied in the Old Testament and beyond by one ripping their garment, and dressing up in sackcloth and ashes, with loud cries. That could all be show, just as Hosea says in this letter, but God wants us to come to take his words seriously. Not for someone else, but for ourselves. A word for us together, but one in which each of us shares in the sin.

This is a necessary call to us from Scripture, from the prophets. They are not condemning at all. You can see that when you note the end of Hosea’s prophecy quoted above. God is always longing and determined after judgment to fully restore. God in love wants humans for himself, and wants them also to live in that love with each other. Something for us today, just as in Hosea’s time. In and through Jesus.

nationalism as a part of our faith is idolatry

They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods…

2 Kings 17:33a

For some, probably too many here in the United States, if you don’t vote a certain way you’re not godly, or maybe they’ll say, even a Christian. And Christian metaphors, even Christ himself are routinely replaced by American images. What often happens on a subtle level which may raise some eyebrows then be forgotten, can become blatant, indeed a part of our religion. Anytime you mix anything with Christ and God’s work and kingdom in him, you have syncretism, and that is exactly what we see here. We never place anything on a par with Christ and the reality present in him. To do so amounts to plain old fashioned idolatry.

United States nationalism I believe is part of the religion of many white evangelical Christians, their version of the United States. You start wondering when you see a flag in a church “sanctuary.” That is a part of tradition, and doesn’t at all necessarily mean the pastor or church is caught up in this idolatry. But it’s far better to remove any such symbol to help prevent any of that from creeping in.

Idols don’t come down easily. Just so much as tread on this territory, and you’ll get vehement, long protests, defenses and even attacks. That maybe you are not really grounded in the faith like you ought to be. Well for sure, one is not grounded in their faith, which sadly includes nationalism, yes even patriotism.

We can and I think even should love our country, but never with the attitude of total allegiance. Our one allegiance belongs to our one Lord, Jesus, and to no other. And we should love all other nations, too. We should see our nation as just hopefully a humble contributor to the whole, and at least trying to do good, and avoid what is evil. Unfortunately good and evil will be in the fabric of every nation state. We are mistaken to act as if that’s not the case.

God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is our one God. No other gods beside him. None. Something we’ll have to keep our eyes open for, because nothing can be alongside much less replace God. Only God is God. Everything else is phony in comparison, good in its place, but nothing more, and easily out of place.

May God help us, have mercy on us, that he may purge us, and that we might purge ourselves of all idolatry, and continue to do that. In and through Jesus.

Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ, marching to the beat of a different drum

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

John 18:33-38a

Jesus was in trouble not because he was advocating some new religion about an inward kingdom. Yes, he exposed the Pharisees for their focus and emphasis on externals and not the heart. One could find Jesus’s thought in the Prophets, which is why Jesus challenged Nicodemus, asking him why as teacher of Israel, he didn’t understand such things. This was a challenge to their authority over Israel. Jesus, if he was the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, would challenge, undermine and ultimately overthrow that.

And Jesus as Lord and Son of God was a direct challenge to Rome, which used the exact same terms for the Emperor. Here was this group coming along and using the same terms for one they considered the Messiah. Rome looked at what he did, and considered it relatively harmless. But ultimately when Christians would not give any of the allegiance that belonged to Jesus to the Emperor, to the Roman state, then Christians would not be meeting the requirements of the state, the occupying rule. And therefore would be persecuted. Pilate did want to let Jesus go, but the claims of Jesus and his followers, and how that might get Pilate in trouble with the Roman authorities over him probably did have plenty to do with Pilate handing Jesus over for crucifixion. Along with the pressure from Jewish leaders. Ultimately any nation state will be weary of Christians whose full allegiance is only to one kingdom and Lord.

Something I hope to be more and more in step with along with others. In and through Jesus.

 

 

a new political imagination

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

In Jesus’s time there was a profound, eager, if somewhat hushed among many expectation that the Messiah would at long last come and God’s kingdom with him, specifically to overthrow the Romans, whose grip on the people of God held them in a kind of exile in their very home. That’s where we have to begin if we’re to bring forward what Jesus’s words above mean in the present day.

We need to go on and read the rest of Mark’s gospel account, and along with that, the other synoptic gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke, with the final gospel account, John. Only then will we begin to understand the kingdom that God brings in Jesus, invading the world now, and ultimately destined to take over the world.

From this can come a new political imagination as we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world in Jesus, in King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. If we think it’s just about personal salvation and getting others saved to go to heaven someday, then we’ve missed the point. Yes, it’s in terms God reconciling the world to himself through the death of Christ, forgiveness of our sins and new life in Christ. But that includes the reconciliation of all things to himself and new creation. A kingdom no less is now present.

At the heart of that, or we could say inside of this reality in Jesus is a new way of life, a new way for humans to live not just individually, but with each other. Yes, a whole new way of life. One that we see in the New Testament fulfills God’s passion seen in the Old Testament for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, those in chains and suffering, somehow as we find in Jesus’s teaching and what follows including even God’s enemies.

We know that God is at work even in what we call the state, nations and governments, kingdoms of this world. But we also know that God’s own kingdom work in Jesus is elsewhere and different. And that the kingdoms of earth will be ultimately judged and destroyed, exposed as the beasts they really are.

What can help us see and understand this new political imagination better is to understand the idolatrous hold nationalism can have on us. We American Christians ordinarily see politics in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal (and moderate), and whatever else might be floating out there. But surely God wants us to see through those paradigms for whatever usefulness and good they have in this world through the lens of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We as Christians are called to be about that, and nothing more nor less.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in one way or another in the world’s political system. It does mean that we do so essentially as outsiders, those of another political realm. Taking seriously the politics of this world, but only in terms of the politics of Jesus which has invaded the world, indeed the politics of the world to come. In and through Jesus.

Thanks to Stephen Backhouse whose work is renewing in a fresh way my own thought on this.

God’s provision, or our worry?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[c]?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:19-34

In this passage in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ties our devotion to our trust. Whatever our god truly is ends up being what we trust in or depend on. And Jesus makes it either God or money. To be his follower we must let go of our dependence on anything less than God. As we devote ourselves to God, we learn to depend on him. Then we can learn to let go of our worry that we won’t have what we need, that one way or another we’ll lose out, trusting instead that God will take care of us.

This doesn’t mean we forget what Scripture teaches about how to handle God’s gifts to us. No, we do have responsibilities that we must look after. But it does mean that in all of that, our dependence is on God. That we want to trust the Father to take care of us, come what may. Because we want our hearts to be truly devoted to God, and therefore intent on God’s will in all of life, wanting that more than anything else.  In and through Jesus.

 

what makes the difference in the Christian life? (not politics)

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

Acts 20:22-24

A cursory reading of Paul and his ministry makes it evident that the gospel is the heart and soul of what he was about. And it is clearly evident that Christians share in that, Philippians 1 along with the rest of that letter being a clear example.

When we read the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Amos, etc.) along with the rest of the Bible, it becomes clear that justice in terms of the love and righteousness of God’s will in totally loving God, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is front and center. It is not something on the side that we can get to if we are so inclined, or find the time, while simply evangelizing, getting people “saved” takes up the bulk of our time. No. Evangelizing and discipling involve inculcating people in the reality of God’s love and truth, the witness of the gospel, the good news in Jesus being made clear in the church itself in the forgiveness of sins and the new life found in Jesus.

Fastforward to the United States today, and politics. You find good people divided on virtually anything and everything, including Christians. But guess what? Jesus’s heart beat is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Progressive, Conservative, whatever. No. It’s God’s grace and God’s kingdom come in him. It’s essentially his own heart beat given as a gift to us by the Holy Spirit. So that in love we can live past whatever differences we have with each other, as hard as that might be at times.

When we buy into something less than that, then we’re into idolatry, pure and simple. Our passion, our heart beat, and frankly how we evaluate everything comes from God in Christ and the good news in him. We’re to do it in all humility and love. Not simply dissing the significant importance of earthly politics in its place. But knowing that what we have goes beyond that, so that ironically it can impact it in a heavenly way. Being heavenly-minded so that we can be of earthly good. But living through and for Jesus and the gospel. In and through him.

rejecting lies

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

Isaiah 44:20

If there’s one thing that’s harder to get rid of than anything else, maybe it’s any lie that’s accepted for whatever reason. Often we know better, that what we’re accepting is at least questionable, or if you would analyze it, not bringing out all the best in us. And as one would well expect, lies are often subtle. They come with truth, sometimes half truths, or with good along with the fatal flaw.

In Scripture as in the passage above, idolatry is tied to the lie, anything that takes the place of God in our lives. The appeal is to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, as old as the first sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).We are caught up and carried away by something that we as Christians ought to have no part in. Again, on the face of it, it may seem innocent, or at least have justification. The result of idolatry is exactly what is stated above: feeding on what is not good with a deluded heart.

Left to ourselves we’re helpless. We need God’s grace in Christ, otherwise we’re likely to replace one lie with another. Instead we need to repent, when we’re willing and ready to be humbled, rather than remain in our own pride. In and through Jesus.

 

what can God redeem?

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

In this passage is the curious idea that God repays something, as if it is owed. In the context, judgment had come on God’s people through locusts devouring the land. But after the people repented of their sin, God’s promise was to restore what the locusts had eaten, the devastation they had caused. And repay is the word used in a number of translations.

Redemption has the idea of paying a price to claim something or someone. And then in this biblical analogy and indeed, reality, the one bought is set free to fulfill their purpose for existence. To be themselves, yes, but redemption in Scripture involves not only being set free from one master, but belonging to the one who paid that price. Ultimately everything is made for God, and is fulfilled within that purpose. We not only have the propensity, but it’s like an addiction to us to seek fulfillment apart from God. When we do that, we become slaves to our addictions, which includes self-fulfillment. But when we find our fulfillment in God, then we can enjoy and appreciate the goodness of God’s gifts without becoming enslaved to any of them.

The human condition is a difficult one, and all of us know and experience that. We all need redemption which comes from God’s mercy and grace in Christ. When that happens, somehow God graciously restores to us something of what was lost. To all humankind in and through Christ, someday a new heaven and a new earth in the new creation already breaking in. In and through Jesus.