God’s Mighty Hand

I have always had a tendency to see the book of Exodus as both a beautiful story of hope and faithfulness and also one full of troubling scenes that I can’t readily, or easily, reconcile with the God of love and grace I know through Jesus. I suspect that, like many people, I have read past some of the more difficult passages and dismissed them with an understanding that God was steadily revealing himself to Israel and so somehow his mercy and love, while present, were not yet as manifest as his justice and holiness.

This has always bothered me, though, because God is both holy and loving, both judging and merciful. It is in this perfect tension that God’s majesty has been manifest in the person of Jesus Christ as our savior and judge.

But if this has always been true, and it must be given that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then how should we go about reading scenes from Exodus where God seems unmerciful? In particular I am referring to the early chapters of Exodus, where God calls Moses and Aaron to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Let’s take at Exodus 1 to get started.

At the beginning of the book we learn that Joseph’s family, which joined him in Egypt after he had become regent, multiplied and were prosperous. They grew into a numerous people. But for some reason God, who had acted mightily through Joseph and whom Pharaoh had come to fear, became an unknown in Egypt.

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. (Exodus 1:8 NIV84)

The implication here is that, if Pharaoh did not know Joseph he did not know the Lord either and no longer feared him. Because the new Pharaoh did not fear The Lord he forced the Israelites into slavery. This went on for many years and Exodus recounts the story of Moses’ birth, exile, and calling in the midst of this slavery. Exodus 5 catches up with Moses and Aaron as they confront Pharaoh for the first time and seek to have him free Israel. This is the message God gave Moses and Pharaoh’s response.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’ ”

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1, 2 NIV84)

It is clear here that Pharaoh still does not know or fear God and is unwilling to waiver in his cruel enslavement of Israel. In fact, he takes this request as a personal affront and increases his harsh treatment of the Hebrew slaves.

It is at this point that God unveils his plan for what is to come next, and this is the part that has always troubled me a bit.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. (Exodus 7:1-4 NIV84)

At first glance this passage reads for me as a judgment on Egypt as a result of their enslaving Israel. But while they may have deserved this judgment, I have be left wondering where in all of this God’s mercy can be found. And then today I re-read verse 5 and God’s love and grace became so evident to me I’m not sure how I ever missed it before.

And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (Exodus 7:5 NIV84)

In the very act of judging Egypt for their transgressions against God and his people, God was also extending them mercy by revealing himself to the Egyptians as he is revealing himself to Israel. He was giving a people who once knew and feared him an opportunity to do so again.

God’s greatest acts of love and grace come to us when he reveals himself as he has done through Jesus Christ. While he is a holy God who seeks justice, he also loves mercy. And while his judgment comes swiftly to those who turn away from him, we know that this judgment is always just, because it is enacted in the midst of his grace.

Are You Too Content?

As a father of two (5 & almost 3), I find myself regularly reminding my children that they should be thankful for and content with what they have, not always looking for the ‘next thing’. In my daughter’s case, this particularly means not looking toward the next sugar fix, when she is already actively eating a piece of candy. Happiness, after all, is not to be found in things or activities, but in God himself, right?

If we are to be good Christians, we should just be content. Isn’t that what we are often told in church?

Yet, while the source of all our hope and joy and love and fulfillment should be God as he has been revealed in Jesus and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, is recognition of God as the ‘source’ off goodness and happiness all that we as Christians should desire? Is it wrong to seek for more than contentedness in our knowledge of God, even our experiences of Him?

Or are we in danger of becoming too content?

Let me explain by way of an illustration from the Hopper Household last night. Our son will turn 3 in just a few days, and for pretty much the whole of this last year he has refused to eat any food that is a) not chicken nuggets, b) not crackers or c) not sugar. After thinking about this for quite some time, I made the executive decision last night that it is time for him to try something new. I took my stand with one of Sarah’s favorite dishes – chicken and dumplings.

Now, this particular dish is not very nutritious. I wold much rather have him eat a green bean or some broccoli, but I’m picking my battles carefully, and I thought 1) it isn’t a weird color, 2) it isn’t a vegetable, 3) Sarah likes it so it must not be too spicy, and 4) Its what I made, and I am tired of making multiple meals each night for dinner.

While all of these reasons made the choice rational in my mind, none of them accounted for the fact that my son would take one look at it and immediately throw a fit. Nonetheless, I was resolved, so Sarah and I calmed him down then offered him a compromise, since this was a foray into new and scary things for him. The compromise was simple, and completely loaded in his favor:

“Take one tiny bite of a dumpling, and if you don’t like it I will make you something else that you want.”

Simple, right? I mean, I could eat pretty much anything if I knew I only had to take one tiny nibble. Especially if it means getting anything I want to ea afterward. To the mind of a nearly-three-year-old, however, I might as well have declared war. I had declared my intentions, and he was going to stand and fight to the death.

After a 45 minute battle with increasing threats by me about what would happen to him if he didn’t take a bite (no other food, no desert, no movie before bed, early bedtime) he still refused to take a bite of dumpling, so there was only one thing left to do. Give in. PSYCHE! We followed through. We gave him a bath and put him straight to bed, all the while letting him know that he could change the course of his near future by simply taking a bite of dumpling.  He never gave in. He chose to go straight to bed with no dinner than take a bite of something new.

Fast forward to this morning. When I got out of bed, he wasn’t feeling good. In fact, he was sick to his stomach. Since he hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, and probably didn’t eat lunch at school (he is finicky there too), I said to Sarah that he was probably just really hungry.

When I said this, he turned to look at me, folded his little arms over his chest in a defiant manner, smiled broadly, and said, “I still didn’t eat a dumpling.”

Having lost his chicken nuggets, his desert, his play time, his before-bed cartoon, and gaining a sick tummy, he believed he was still victorious. He was content. He was so satisfied with his position that he couldn’t conceive of the good things I had prepared for him.

Isn’t this how we sometimes react to God when he offers us something more? Now, when I say “more” I’m not talking about more things, or more money, or more time.  I am talking quality, not quantity. How often have you or I rejected the notion that we can be better than what we are now, emphasizing that simply knowing Jesus is enough? How often have you or I stayed home and watched TV instead of getting involved in mission or service or WORSHIP, all the while making a mental note that it doesn’t matter anyway, because we ‘made a decision’ to follow Jesus?

Are you and I content with the bare minimum of calling Jesus Lord and asking him to save us?

In the person of Jesus Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, in order to reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:19-20). God was not content to leave things as they were. Why are we so anxious to do so, when God has promised us so much more?

Christians are called by God to be a holy people. We are called to live lives that reflect the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. We are promised that when we turn over all that we have to God’s authority, he will make us new creatures, capable of such love and holiness.  Only when we allow God to work in us to create new life can we truly love others as he intends.
Do you want to truly live, experiencing genuine hope and freedom from sin? Seek Jesus!
Do you want to have an impact on the world? Surrender your will to Him!
Do you want to see lives transformed by God’s love shed abroad in you? Seek your own transformation!
Do you want to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”? Seek holiness!

Are you content with calling Jesus Lord, or are you ready to bend the knee to his authority? Are you content with the idea that you are safe from hell, or do you desire to see the whole world saved? Are you content with living as a saved sinner, or are you ready to become a loving, obedient child of the Living God?

Are you ready to experience the fullness of a life lived in Christ?

Or are you, even now, folding your arms across your chest, smiling broadly, and saying, “I still won’t eat the dumpling”?

UMC Battle Over the Authority of Scripture

These last few days have seen quite a bit of verbal action from various segments of the United Methodist Church, including the Renewal and Reform Coalition, over the issuing of a statement by 33 (now 36) retired UMC bishops calling for the retraction of the UMC’s official stance on the ordination of homosexual clergy.  This will likely become a major focal point of the next UMC General Conference in 2012.

Good friend, UMC pastor, and fellow blogger Matt O’Reilly has written a good summary of what is at stake with this issue, and rightly points out that this recurring discussion has less to do with sexual orientation than it does Biblical authority.

Check out his post over at Incarnatio:

http://www.mattoreilly.net/2011/02/and-so-it-begins-next-round-in-united.html

Revelation Song

I had a strange dream last night, and while I don’t wish to go into all of the details, this particular dream did feature a song that I can’t seem to get out of my head this morning.  I vaguely remember singing this once at church, though I didn’t know the name of it until last night when the title was scrawled across a scene in my minds eye.  The song is called the “Revelation Song” and if you know it you probably heard the versions by either Hillsong or Philips, Craig and Dean.

I decided to blog on this in part because I want to share the song with you.  It is beautiful and vivid in its imagery.  The other reason for posting this here is that I was shaken to the core this morning by the simplicity and power of the Biblical passage cited in the words of the song.  Hear the word of the Lord, from Revelation 4:8-11.

8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.”

9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever,10 the twenty‑four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”

It has become commonplace in the evangelical church to emphasize the love of God in theological discussions.  While this is a good thing in many ways, my fear is that an emphasis on the love of God without an equal emphasis on the holiness of God quickly leads to a diminished view of the Godhead and of Christ.  Though God is truly a God of love, it is not an earthly sort of fleeting love.  God does not love us like brothers, for we are his good creation.  God does not love us as a lover, for we are not his equals.  As infinite, matchless, and perfect, God loves us with a holy-love, and indeed is holy-love.  And so if we are to properly speak of the love of God, we must also speak of his holiness, his majesty.  We must speak of him as God.

When I read the words of the passage above, I find such incredible hope and grace.  It is precisely because God is holy, holy, holy that he loves us so deeply as to send his Son.  And this gift is not some fleeting singularity in the history of humanity.  His atonement and his resurrection are eternal as he is eternal…who was, and is, and is to come.

So, what is our proper response to God’s holiness and grace?  I think we would do well to follow the lead of the 24 elders and fall on our faces proclaiming “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”  Or as a common doxology reminds us, ‘Praise him from whom all blessings flow.  Praise him all creatures here below.  Praise him above, ye heavenly host.  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen!”

If you are unable to see the video below and would like to hear the Revelation song you can do so here.

Who do you see in the mirror?

This weekend, Sarah took the kids to Cincinnati to visit her family. While they were there, they decided to stop and see Sarah’s grandmother, who just recently moved into a nursing home. The kids are young enough (3 1/2 and 15 mo.) that they have not previously been exposed to an environment like that, so Sarah wanted to make sure that they were protected form some of the things they might see. She decided it would be best for them to meet with grandma in the waiting area, rather than in her room.

This particular nursing home is affiliated with the Catholic Church, so there were some nuns working there. Janna’s only prior experience with a nun was when she was 3 months old. We were visiting the Cincinnati zoo when a couple of sisters commented on how cute she was and asked to hold her. We obliged (they were nuns after all), and no sooner did we hand the baby over than she decided to throw up all over the sister’s habit. We have kept our distance from the convents since…

So, as Janna watched a nun as she worked in the nursing home reception area, she was doing so without any background understanding of who these people are. She was observing things entirely on her own, and her reaction was somewhat startling….and profound.

As the nun answered phone calls and went about her business, Janna pointed at her and said, “Mommy, is that God?”

Now our natural reaction is to chuckle at a question like this and explain who nuns are, but I don’t want to pass over the significance of what our 3 year old has just said. In just a few moments, as she watched an older lady in plain clothing going about her daily tasks, Janna witnessed some special, something peculiar. She witnessed the very presence of God.

So often we get caught up in all of the things that we think we have to “do” for God. While those things are important, I wonder how many of us regularly take time to consider all of the things that God wants to do in us, and for us? How many of us are content to let God direct us from a distance, rather than move us from within.

Are you allowing God to so fully rule in your life that his face is the one that shows when you look out on the world? Is it his hand that reaches out to show love to others? Is it his presence that other sense when you walk into a room? Does the love of Jesus fill you up until it overflows and spills out on those around you?

If a child were to witness you going about your dullest daily tasks, would she ask, “Mommy, is that God?”

On Legalism

The term “legalism” is a social stigma in our culture. We use it to brand those who believe, support, or practice “rules” or “moral choices” that differ from what makes us comfortable. The interesting thing to me is that this stigma is not unique to our culture or time. In fact, it has been applied throughout history to those with whom the majority disagrees.

Even now we look back in history at the time of the New Testament, and we apply this title to the Pharisees, who had made it their life mission to follow the letter of the Law. We look at them in light of what NT authors said about them and we scoff. They were self-righteous, they prayed loudly in public, they wore their tassels longer than anyone else, and they looked for sinners to condemn. All of this is true, but this is merely part of the story.

According to www.dictionary.com, legalism can be defined as Strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality. Now, look again at the Pharisees. If you strip away the things mentioned above, which are distortions of the Law, you are left with a true, textbook example of a legalist. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Look at Christ. He too followed the Law to its letter and in fact, as the only perfect man, is the only one who has ever upheld it perfectly. Does this make him a legalist by our definition above?

In fact, one must only look at Christ’s words too see an implicit command to us that every bit of the Law is good, and hence should be obeyed; For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18, NRSV). So then, did Christ command us to become legalistic?

Tonight I am reading about various schools of thought in the field of Ethics. I ran across the following quote in The Pastor as Moral Guide, by Rebekah L. Miles.

“[R]ules themselves become moral guides, serving as guideposts in moral crises…the downside of a rule ethic is that it can fall into legalism and rigidity.” (22)

My beef with this is perhaps a simple one, perhaps not. What we see here is the common temptation to equate legalism (literal adherence to the Law) to all the potential negative ends that can occur when one forgets what the purpose of the Law is. I myself have too often criticized others, throwing the firebrand of legalism at them with careless ease. But I am beginning to see things a bit differently now. What if, instead of viewing Scriptural condemnation of man’s attempt to add to the Law as the definition of legalism, and instead begin to view legalistic faithfulness to God’s Law as a joyful expression of our gratitude to Him for His grace. Not as a means to salvation, but out of love born from a salvation by faith alone.

After all, isn’t that what Christ calls us to? If so, I hope that one day I will be seen as legalistic.

In Pursuit of Purity

My brother Aaron sent this to me today, and I wanted to share it with my 2 readers 🙂 Many seem unaware, or choose to ignore, the raging struggle for the hearts and minds of men in the Church. This is not to say that women don’t have equally tough struggles, but the issue of lust and improper desires is much more of a problem with men. The following , written by John Piper show a strong pro-active set of steps for combating the sins of desire. Just remember the acronym ANTHEM:

A – AVOID as much as is possible and reasonable the sights and situations that arouse unfitting desire. I say “possible and reasonable” because some exposure to temptation is inevitable. And I say “unfitting desire” because not all desires for sex, food, and family are bad. We know when they are unfitting and unhelpful and on their way to becoming enslaving. We know our weaknesses and what triggers them. “Avoiding” is a Biblical strategy. “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness” (2 Timothy 2:22). “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).

N – Say NO to every lustful thought within five seconds. And say it with the authority of Jesus Christ. “In the name of Jesus, NO!” You don’t have much more than five seconds. Give it more unopposed time than that, and it will lodge itself with such force as to be almost immovable. Say it out loud if you dare. Be tough and warlike. As John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Strike fast and strike hard. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” ( James 4:7).

T – TURN the mind forcefully toward Christ as a superior satisfaction. Saying “no” will not suffice. You must move from defense to offense. Fight fire with fire. Attack the promises of sin with the promises of Christ. The Bible calls lusts “deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). They lie. They promise more than they can deliver. The Bible calls them “passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). Only fools yield. “All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter” (Proverbs 7:22). Deceit is defeated by truth. Ignorance is defeated by knowledge. It must be glorious truth and beautiful knowledge. This is why I wrote Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. We must stock our minds with the superior promises and pleasures of Jesus. Then we must turn to them immediately after saying, “NO!”

H – HOLD the promise and the pleasure of Christ firmly in your mind until it pushes the other images out. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1). Here is where many fail. They give in too soon. They say, “I tried to push it out, and it didn’t work.” I ask, “How long did you try?” How hard did you exert your mind? The mind is a muscle. You can flex it with vehemence. Take the kingdom violently (Matthew 11:12). Be brutal. Hold the promise of Christ before your eyes. Hold it. Hold it! Don’t let it go! Keep holding it! How long? As long as it takes. Fight! For Christ’s sake, fight till you win! If an electric garage door were about to crush your child you would hold it up with all our might and holler for help, and hold it and hold it and hold it and hold it.

E – ENJOY a superior satisfaction. Cultivate the capacities for pleasure in Christ. One reason lust reigns in so many is that Christ has so little appeal. We default to deceit because we have little delight in Christ. Don’t say, “That’s just not me.” What steps have you taken to waken affection for Jesus? Have you fought for joy? Don’t be fatalistic. You were created to treasure Christ with all your heart – more than you treasure sex or sugar. If you have little taste for Jesus, competing pleasures will triumph. Plead with God for the satisfaction you don’t have: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Then look, look, look at the most magnificent Person in the universe until you see him the way he is.

M – MOVE into a useful activity away from idleness and other vulnerable behaviors. Lust grows fast in the garden of leisure. Find a good work to do, and do it with all your might. “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Abound in work. Get up and do something. Sweep a room. Hammer a nail. Write a letter. Fix a faucet. And do it for Jesus’ sake. You were made to manage and create. Christ died to make you “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Displace deceitful lusts with a passion for good deeds.