Wednesday, March 20, 2019

About the Land

We continue our journey through the Bible, cover-to-cover, and we enter now into Deuteronomy, which has Israel on the edge of the Promised Land and Moses's final words. Here, Israel both looks back at what God has done for them and what He commands of them and looks ahead to what He has promised and how they are to live. 

And as the people stand ready to begin to take possession of a land flowing with milk and honey, God occasionally stops them for one reason or another. One early reason is to remind them what is - and isn't - their land. 

Specifically, He instructs them that they are not to attack the sons of Esau, Jacob's (and therefore, Israel's) brother. This land, He says, He has given to Esau and his descendants, and it's not for Israel. Hands off. No swords. No stones. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. 

It seems an interesting command, particularly from a God who is also about to walk His people through the slaughter of a lot of other nations (though really not as many as it seems, if you look at how unfaithfully Israel followed through on all of this). It also seems an interesting command from a God who says He is a jealous God, who tolerates no rivals, and who has chosen Israel as His own special people out of all the world. 

If they are His special people, if they are the nation who believes in Him and carries His mercy forward, if they are the ones chosen out of all the world, and if He is the Lord of the world, then shouldn't all the world belong to them? What are these not-God's-people doing with a parcel of the land that God's people can't touch? 

But it's a good reminder for all of us, and one we need to hear over and over and over again. 

Most of us count ourselves as God's people. We are His chosen ones, His best bet. We are Christians, after all, and that makes us gatekeepers of God's mercy in the world. We are His land-possessors, and He's given us the world as our playground...for His glory, of course. We take this world by storm and reclaim holy ground for Him wherever we find it. 

What if that's not true? What if that's not how it works? What if we don't need to be as protective of our Christianity as we think we do, if we don't have to be as staunch about preserving our beliefs, doctrines, ways of life, etc. as we convince ourselves? What if we don't have to come barging into every corner of the world and plant our flag? Er, I mean...His flag, of course.

What if those who don't believe the way that we believe, who don't worship the way that we worship, who don't love the way that we love also have a God-given place in this world? What if we aren't supposed to conquer everyone? 

The truth is, we don't know what was going on in the land of Esau; that's not the story that God has chosen to tell us in the Bible. But something was happening there, something that may or may not have had to do with God. Something we probably wouldn't understand even if we did know it. Something that didn't lead to Jesus the way that Israel did, but it still might have been faithful and holy. We just don't know.

And the same is true about corners of our world that we aren't privy to. We think we know, since we are the faithful and that must mean they are not, but the truth is...maybe they are. Maybe something's happening out there in lands we don't understand, something that may or may not have to do with God. Something we probably wouldn't understand even if we did know it. Something that maybe leads to Jesus and maybe doesn't, and maybe not in the same way that the Christian faith does, but maybe it's faithful and holy all the same. 

So cut "others" some slack. Consider who they are, not just who they aren't. It may be the land they're living in? God gave it to them, the same way He gave us ours. And it may just be...

...that they're still our brothers. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

God and the World

We spend a lot of our Christian lives hearing that it shouldn't matter to us what the world says; we should just live our lives the way God wants us to, no matter what. We don't need this world's approval and we don't need its permission. What we need is a little more faith, a little more courage, a little more blatant disregard for what the world says is necessary. 

What we need is just to be Christians, as God has commanded us. For it's what He's called us to do that is most important.

And all of that is true, but it is not all that easy. Nor is it particularly (necessarily) biblical to think in such ways. 

Here, we're going back to the end of Moses's life. He's led Israel through the wilderness for forty years, after leading them out of Egypt to begin with. He's led a faithful life of intercession for the people and aside from that one egregious sin, he's done a pretty good job of it. But here they stand on the edge of the Promised Land, and Moses will not be permitted to enter. He begins interceding again, praying for another man to rise up and lead the people. 

That man is, of course, Joshua, and here's where things get interesting. Joshua has already been called by the Lord. In fact, he's been serving alongside Moses for some time and is pretty well-known among the people because of it. No one questions his qualifications or his calling; they all know that Joshua is going to step up and lead. The Scriptures even tell us that God had already placed His spirit on Joshua, anointing him for the work to which he is called. 

We would say, then, that all that's left is for Joshua to step up into it and begin to lead, to start to live the way that God has called him to live, to take his rightful place and live his ordained life. But something else happens...something that seems completely unnecessary to us and yet, is clearly not unnecessary to God:

Moses lays his hands on Joshua. 

In the sight of all Israel, on the edge of the Promised Land, as his own death approaches, Moses lays his hands on Joshua and commissions him for the work the Lord has called him to. 

It's completely unnecessary, right? God's already anointed him. God's already blessed him. God's already gifted and called him. The people already accept him. The nation knows he is the one who will lead them. The only one for whom this is necessary at all...

...is Joshua himself. 

And we're much the same. We have a faith that tells us that it doesn't matter what the world says, that it doesn't matter what others say or think, that we just have to step up and go live our lives the way God has called us to. But most of us? Most of us need a little something more. 

Most of us need this commissioning. Most of us need this approval. Most of us need this outside confirmation not that we should, but that we can. We need this confidence that is bestowed upon us by those who have been there, who have traveled this journey. 

And what a tremendous gift it is, not only to receive, but to be able to give. So instead of just telling someone to go out and get their lives, what if we commissioned them for it? What if we confirmed for them the gift that God has put in them? What if we announced it and pronounced it, proclaimed it over them?

What if, instead of just expecting others to gift us with their lives, we gifted them with their lives, giving back to them the affirmations of who they are so that they could begin anew to live them? Most of us need this. 

Knowing that, we should be also a people who give it. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Count Your Healing

After the plague in the wilderness, as Israel finally stands once again on the edge of the Promised Land, the Lord commands His people to take a census. 

They have already taken one census, when they first came out of Egypt, but it's important that every man who was involved in the sin when the spies were first sent out and did not believe in the Lord's promise has died, and so it seems natural to here take a census to ensure that all of the men have indeed died and that a new generation has firm hold on the nation. That way, they can truly enter the land the Lord has promised to give them. 

But there was another good reason to take a census here, one that probably escapes most readers who have already forgotten by now what it means to take a census in Israel. 

See, every time Israel took a census, each person who was counted had to be bought back. There was a set price for every person, based on sex and age, and all the money was given to the Lord. This is why, by the way, it was a sin when David took an unauthorized census - he was basically charging the people a tax for existing in his kingdom, and God had not requested the census, or the offering that came with it. 

In other words, every time there was a census, the people had to redeem themselves in the Lord's eyes by buying themselves back with an offering. 

Which means that as Israel stands again on the edge of the Promised Land, ready finally to enter into what the Lord has given them, now is a perfect time not just to count the generations, but to redeem themselves, to make an offering for their lives to the Lord, to declare their worth in His eyes and to buy themselves back. 

Just think about that for awhile. It's beautiful. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Snakes on a Plain

After yet another disobedience, after even more grumbling, from Israel, God once again decides that He's had enough. He sends poisonous snakes among the camp of the Israelites in the wilderness, and everyone who is bitten by the aggressive snakes dies. 

Now, we could talk about what it means that God chose snakes to send among them. As we know, it was a snake (a serpent, cursed to become a snake) in the Garden who tempted Eve into wanting to know good and evil the way that God did, and so it makes sense that God would send snakes among a people who thought they knew better than He did and were arrogant in their own self-confidence and self-assurance. 

But that's really just a bonus. It's not what I want to talk about today. (Interesting bonus, though, right?) 

What we need to look at is what happens after the snakes, what God does when His people are dying and when the man He's appointed to lead them falls face down once more in intercession for them, as was Moses's pattern. He pleads with God to stop the plague among the people, to stop killing them, to stop the havoc that the snakes are wreaking. And God does, but not in the way that you might have expected.

God walks Moses through making a bronze snake and then raising it on a pole, high enough that the camp can turn and look at it. Anyone who has been bitten by a snake can raise his eyes and look at the bronze snake and be cured of the bite. The poison won't affect him. He will live.

Oh, thank the Lord for His mercy! Thank Him for His grace! Thank Him for providing healing for His people, just as He promised, and for watching over them...

...except, kinda...why didn't He just take away the snakes?

That's what our faith wants to know. That's what we expect Him to do when we pray. It's all well and good that we have a God who can heal us, and who will heal us, but what we really want is for God to take away what's hurting us in the first place. yet, that's not what Numbers tells us happened here. Not once do the Scriptures say that God took away the snakes. Rather, He merely made a way for men to live with them.

It's a tough pill to swallow. We pray and we pray and we pray, but we still have cancer. We still have bitterness. We still have failure. We still have rejection. We still have difficulty. We still have death. It doesn't seem to matter how hard we pray sometimes, we can't seem to shake the snakes that slither among us. And we cry out to God, asking Him what in the world He's doing, since He doesn't seem to be doing anything for us. 

And He says, look! Lift your eyes, and you will see. 

A bronze snake. Fantastic. 

But remember, when the New Testament comes around, it is Jesus Himself who says that He is the one lifted up in our camp. He has become the bronze snake. Those who look to Him, though they be afflicted, will live. He has made a way for us to live in the trials and troubles of this world. 

It's not what we want, but it's mercy nonetheless. It's grace all the same. It is provision and healing and promise, everything we love about our Lord. It's part of living in a messy place with a God who still loves us, despite our grumblings. And He's given us a way to live, and promised life abundant. 

Even where the snakes slither.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Work of Intercession

We've talked a lot about Moses as a good and faithful leader, and we saw even yesterday how quickly and instinctively he falls on his face for his people. In fact, it might even be fair to say that as often as we see Moses standing before his people, we see him face-down before the Lord. At least. 

But here's the thing: he didn't have to. 

Moses didn't have to once intercede for his people. He could have just left them to their own consequences. He could have just let them be and let whatever was going to happen to them happen to them. He could have just left it alone and focused on his own relationship with the Lord. After all, he was not in any personal danger (with perhaps one exception) of becoming a victim himself of God's wrath. His life wasn't in jeopardy. His well-being wasn't threatened. 

He was faithful. He was doing things right. He was hoping and believing and trusting and obeying, just like everyone else ought to have been doing. And he'd told them they ought to be doing it. He'd done what he was supposed to do. If they didn't want to listen and so wanted to cut themselves off from God, it could have easily been no skin off of his back. 

But these were his people. And Moses, though he was not implicated in nor responsible for their sin, felt a tremendous burden for them, and so he fell on his face and prayed on their behalf. 

This is one of those humilities of spirit that we've all but lost in today's individualized Christianity. We have stopped interceding for one another. 

And we're not talking here about the prayer list, which is a beast unto its own self (and often creates more problems than it solves). We're not talking about interceding for the needs or concerns of others, praying for cancer treatments and financial problems and addiction recovery and weight loss and whatever. We're talking about interceding for the holiness and the faith of the community God has given us. 

When was the last time you prayed for someone else's faith? Not a faith tied to a circumstance, but a faith nestled in the heart. 

Moses prays for the way the people live. He prays for the way their hearts turn. He prays for their obedience and understanding. He prays for their action and love. He prays for their mercy and forgiveness, and for God's mercy and forgiveness for them. Have you ever prayed for someone else to experience God's mercy?

If you have, you're among the few. Because in our modern Christianity, we're taught that what you do with God is between you and God. Your relationship with Him is yours and yours alone. Your faith is a private matter, and you can't judge the way someone else believes. We're taught to leave matters of faith alone, even among the faithful, and just let them be whatever they are, and so we have abandoned one another to the limits of our own imaginations and we require nothing more from each other than a simple confession that we do, in some way or another, "believe." 

Oh, then, you must be a Christian. I mean, if you "believe" and everything.

And yet, we are a people who simply haven't seen God move the way that He used to. In fact, it's one of the things that troubles us about our modern Christianity, although we have been told to accept it and to simply wait for the end of all things until we see Him again. 

Friends, He's not moving because we're not praying. We're not interceding for one another. We're not falling down on our faces and crying out over the way that we, as a community, believe. We're too busy convincing ourselves that it's not our problem, not our concern, not our care. Because hey, we believe, and we're not in danger of paying the price for their failures of faith. 

But oh, we are. Moses prayed because he knew that the only way to see God work in this people was to pray for them to be a people through whom God could work. The same is still true today. If we want to see God move in our world, we have to be a people who pray for our community to be a people through whom God can move. That means praying for the faith of one another, falling face down in intercession for our collective holiness. 

Can you do that?