29 January 2021

Worship In The Spirit

If asked what a Samaritan was, most people would reply with a statement about charity. Few know the differences in worship or beliefs between First Century Samaritans and Jews. Samaritans accepted only the books of Moses as scripture while the Jews accepted a larger body of text and oral traditions as well. In many ways, the two groups were as similar as say Reformationist Protestants and Catholics are today.

When Jesus met a Samaritan woman near a well in the town of Sychar (possibly Shechem), he addressed one of these differences. In his day, Jews worshiped God at the Temple in Jerusalem and Samaritans at Mount Gerizim. When the woman asked him where it was proper to worship, Jesus rebuked the idea that worship requires a designated place because, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).

A church can split over whether it is proper to light candles, display colored banners, sing new songs or old hymns, whether to include instruments in worship, how many prayers to say before communion, or whether to have communion every week, once a month, or only twice a year. The list of our differences goes on and on. But just as Jesus told the woman at the well, these differences are of a model that no longer carries any meaning. They are things that are meant to bring us together in worship, that is where their value lies.

In order for worship to be worth anything, it must be in the Spirit and in truth. The Spirit is the presence of God. That presence can be felt wherever "two or three" gather in Jesus' name (Matthew 18:20). To worship in truth means to open yourself to experience God, to surrender yourself and all that comes from human ego, the need to be in control, to be right, to be a good provider, and surrender it to God. Let God define what those things mean for you.

If you can do that, it doesn't matter if you go to meet God in a church, or a temple, or a park, or a cafe, or in your living room sheltering in place, God is there with you. That is what it is to be the kind of worshiper God seeks.

22 January 2021

Gaining Wisdom

The first temptation in scripture is the temptation to seize wisdom for ourselves rather than relying on its revelation from God. We all know that wisdom comes from the lessons of life (Job 12:12), that while we can strive for knowledge and memorize books, true understanding is the gift of God (Proverbs 2:6).

In certain early apocryphal books, Wisdom is personified as a woman, conflated with the Holy Spirit, and called God the Mother. This is not far from the role of the Spirit we see in scripture where the Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth. Wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and just as the Spirit is known by its fruits, so is wisdom seen by the good deeds and humility that comes from it (James 3:13).

When we think of wise people, we might think of those who have pursued high degrees and are are experts in their fields. We might think of that one person in the meeting who only has one point to add, but it was the one that cut to the heart of all the others. But as the writer of Proverbs tells us, it is easy to look wise when you say little (17:28).

The wise are not those which dispense wisdom, but those who accept it (Proverbs 13:1, 13:10, 19:20). Silence often looks like wisdom because those who are wise listen. The wise gather knowledge and when they speak it is to ask questions. This is because they know that all wisdom is from God and that to speak it requires humility (Proverbs 1:7, 11:2, James 3:13).

Beware of those who always have an answer and never listen to the opinions of others. Their knowledge comes from pride. A closed mind cannot gain wisdom because wisdom requires humility (Proverbs 11:2).

The beginning of wisdom is the reverence of God, which brings about humility. Humility brings about an open mind which is ready to learn. A hunger for learning produces a discerning heart which is kind toward others, seeks peace, is gentle and sincere (Proverbs 1:7, James 3:17). Wise people never throw away ideas, but weigh them against each other, making the most of every opportunity (Ephesians 5:15-16). Each of these they take to God in prayer, because there is no wisdom that did not first come by the Spirit (James 1:17).

If this is too much all at once, then take this practice; be humble, be kind, keep an open mind, ask questions, accept instruction, and take everything to God in prayer. Do these things and wisdom will come in time (Proverbs 19:20).

May you grow wise in the Spirit and in peace.

15 January 2021

What We Can Learn From Ezra

The book of Ezra is mostly a dry read. It is largely a book of receipts which prove that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel after the Babylonian captivity was done in accordance with both the Law of Moses and with the express permission of the king of Persia who had granted the Israelites their freedom and ordered their former captors to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is because Ezra, who does not even show up in the book until chapter seven, is a well-respected teacher of the Law of Moses (7:1-7).

The book of Ezra takes place during the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (7:21, 5:1). However, Ezra is not a prophet, he is a priest and teacher of the Law. Ezra arrives in Jerusalem 36 years after the city and the Temple had already been rebuilt (7:7). The Temple had been rededicated to God and offerings had been made on behalf of all the people and even for the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes (6:16-18).

Ezra is given authority to rule Israel by King Artaxerxes of Persia (7:25). He is to oversee that the governor of Trans-Euphrates (Between Babylon and Egypt) gives generously to the Temple so that God's wrath may not befall the king of Persia (7:21-24). Ezra is also to appoint judges in Trans-Euphrates to administer the Law of Moses as well as the law of the king of Persia (7:25-26).

When Ezra returns to Jerusalem with the treasures that were stolen by Babylon from the Temple, he "is ashamed" to ask the king for soldiers to protect him and his family on their journey because he assured the king that God would protect them. After this statement he and his family fast and pray to find the courage of their convictions and only do so because God answered their prayer (8:21-23).

When he arrives, after the celebration of his return, the leaders of the people of Israel come to him with a problem. During the captivity, and although the book does not specify this, likely to the day of Ezra's return, the people of Israel, and even the very leaders bringing this to Ezra's attention, had married foreigners and had children with them. They call this an act of unfaithfulness to God (9:1-2).

Ezra is appalled and tears his clothes and the hair from his head; he sits and sulks until the evening sacrifice is ready (9:3-4). At the time of the sacrifice he begins to pray and he prays so loudly that a crowd gathers around him and weep with him (9:5-10:1). One of the men gathered cried out in response to Ezra's prayer, "We have sinned against our God, and have married foreign women. ... Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and children, according to the counsel of my lord [Ezra], and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; for the matter belongs to you, and we are with you. Be courageous, and do it (10:2-4)."

So that is what they do, and that is where the book ends. Ezra gives every man in Israel a choice, they can stay in Israel and send their wives and children back to Babylon, or they can go with them. The people of Israel had lived in captivity for 50 years and it had been at least 36 years since their return when Ezra made this decree. In all that time, no one had objected to the people of Israel marrying foreigners. They had returned to the Promised Land, and for 36 years there had been no objection.

There had been no objection because what they had done was not sinful. God had decreed that the people of Israel were to take the Promised Land from the people of Canaan, not because God hated Canaanites, but because of their wickedness and idolatry. He forbade the people of Israel from marrying foreigners who practiced idolatry, but not from marrying all foreigners. In fact, God commanded them to offer hospitality to foreigners and welcome them in Israel. That is the message of the entire book of Ruth.

Ruth was a foreign woman from Moab who married a man from Israel. When her husband died and left no heir, Ruth promises to take care of her mother-in-law Naomi and even takes on Jewish customs and worships God so as not to make trouble for her mother-in-law. Her faithfulness is rewarded when she married another man from Israel, a close relative of her late husband who honors his relative's widow by taking care of both her and Naomi.

The book of Ezra is a challenging read because it causes us to question the way we approach scripture. Ezra is not the hero of the story. He recognized the dangers of the road but chose to send thousands of women and children to live as refugees in Babylon, a land that was no longer their home and which many of them may have never even visited. He may as well have sent them to starve in the desert. Not every "man of God" in scripture is a hero, not every foreign king is a villain, and the Law is not black and white. One thing Ezra never does is consult God. There were two prophets in Israel, he called on neither one.

To Ezra, God is secondary to the rule of Law, but that isn't what God wants. God wants our hearts, not our obedience (Hosea 6:6). God's Law is meant to guide and inspire us, not constrain us. God wants children, not servants. The stumbling block of Ezra is assuming that the book represents God's will. It is a cautionary tale, showing how serving the Law without question can lead to atrocity. God wants your heart and mind. God wants a relationship with his children, and that means we are free to ask questions and even disagree, such is the grace of God.

May it be for you as Ezra says but cannot bring himself to believe, that the "gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him." May God's peace be with you.

06 January 2021

Antichrist and Terrorism

As I sit down to recall this week's Bible study and write my article, the news unfolds that the Capitol Building has been stormed by armed insurgents. These home-grown terrorists were incited by President Trump in what appears to be an attempted coup.

I rarely write about politics. It isn't my place. I write about the Bible, its history, its related texts, and its impact on theology, liturature, and culture. Even now, I will not address the political aspects of this event, but rather, what disturbed me most were the people carrying signs that "Jesus Saves."

I cannot think of a more anti-Christian message than an armed insurrection carried out in the name of the Messiah. However, this is exactly the kind of messiah people expected Jesus to be. People in the First Century expected the Messiah to come in force, oust the Romans, and establish a nation of Israel for all time. They expected the Lion of Judah to be a military leader. This is why people rejected Jesus, he came like a lamb.

Instead, Jesus preached peace and sacrificed himself for the sake of the world. In Revelation, at the "final battle" at the end of time, God's army gathers to worship God while Satan's army gathers to wage war against God and against the Lamb. God's army carries no weapons and wages no war; they worship God. Satan calls the world to war, and God himself wipes out all the forces of evil with a thought.

God's people do not arm themselves, do not advocate violence or wage war. God's people pray. When men of violence came for God's people, when they came for Stephen, Paul, Peter, and even Jesus himself, they took up no arms and gave no resistance. They were martyred, they held to their beliefs until death.

Over a century after Jesus was crucified another "Christ" rose up named Simon bar Kokhba. He was exactly the kind of christ people expected. He led a revolution against Rome and was defeated. After his defeat, Rome drove the Jewish people from Jerusalem and Kokhba was denounced as a "false messiah."

He was not the first "false messiah" or "anti-christ" and he wasn't the last. When people advocate violence in the name of Jesus, they are anti-christs. The way of Jesus is the way of the martyrs, not soldiers, terrorists, crusaders, rebels, or rioters. Violence is the spirit of anti-christ.

When you see armed insurgents proclaim that "Jesus Saves" they have been sold an idea of Jesus that is the very definition of anti-christ. They are not Christians, they are Antichristians.

Jesus stood for love, community, peace, and unconditional forgiveness. His was a ministry of self-sacrifice. If you found yourself today caught up in the lies of the antichist, know that Jesus forgives and invites you to repent and be baptized in the Spirit of Truth. It is never too late to turn to God and reject evil.