Thursday, August 11, 2016

You and I are very different!

I was reading some of Old Testament books written by minor prophets, and I was struck by a fundamental truth that has been both very challenging and very freeing for me:

YOU AND I ARE VERY DIFFERENT. And it's okay!

The Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra (two prophets) tell the story of the return of a remnant of Jews to the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the walls around the city and safeguard the Temple. After the wall is successfully rebuilt, the books detail some of the challenges that this remnant of Jews was facing. One of them was intermarriage with the other (non-Hebrew) people living in the land. Such intermarriage was always considered a no-no among the Jews, as it resulted in a dilution of Jewish teaching, faith and culture.

Ezra 9 tells the story of how the prophet discovers the disgraceful practices being employed by the returnee Jews. "When I heard this," verse 3 says, "I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice."

Chapter 10 continues: "While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly." And it goes on to share how the Israelites who were practicing these things repented and changed their ways.

Nehemiah tells much of the same story, but the approach of this prophet is clearly very different than that of Ezra. In chapter 13 it is revealed how the Israelites are comingling with Ammonites and Moabites, which is expressly forbidden by Scripture due to the role these peoples had played earlier in antagonizing Israel. Starting in verse 23, Nehemiah says: "Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair."

These two prophets had very different styles. It strikes me that Ezra pulled out his own hair in grief and repentance over the sins of the Israelites. Nehemiah, on the other hand, beat and pulled the hair of the guilty parties!

Both shared the same godly concerns, but what they did about it was expressed in very different ways.

Another interesting example of this phenomenon exists when you compare the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both are written after the renovation of the Temple stalls, due to external threats and internal dissent among the remnant. Like Nehemiah, Haggai is very brief and to-the-point. His exhortation is fundamentally a kick in the pants. Chapter 1 reports: "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways."

The entire book of Haggai is only 2 chapters, 36 short verses.

But Zechariah (one of my personal favorites) is VERY different. He goes on at great length. He has mystical visions and peers through the telescope of time. His exhortation is very inspirational, a pat on the back rather than a kick on the pants. (Yay for we longwinded, poetic, people-pleaser types!)

But his message to the Jews who had stalled is fundamentally the same: God is coming! Let's prepare the way for Him and get His house in order!

All these men were effective, in their different ways. And this leads me to ask: Why does God create (and use) people who are so different from one another?

I think part of the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul reveals that although we are one body in Christ, that body is made up of many very different members. He likens our situation to a physical body when he says:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor. 12:15-20)
We do have a tendency to think everyone should be just like us, don't we? But when you realize that God created us very different, and the reason he did so, aren't you glad? Would life be a total unmitigated disaster if everyone was just like you, or exactly like me?

God has created each of us with different functions, gifts, talents, skills, passions, personalities, working styles. This is how the Body of Christ was designed to get things done ... God things, the task that He has set out before us to accomplish!

And when you realize this, and how desperately we need each other, you also must realize how God expects us to respect (and work with) one another. Especially if we are different!

Yes, you and I are VERY different. Aren't you glad?


Monday, August 08, 2016

Here comes the worm, and there goes the shade tree

A few weeks ago, Pulse (our young adults group) was studying the book of Jonah. Most people focus on the part of the story where the reluctant prophet gets swallowed by a whale; but I felt particularly drawn to the fourth and final chapter in the story.

And as usual, God gave me a poignant, real-life illustration of the principles in His Word.

The fourth chapter finds Jonah, having (finally) fulfilled God's command by walking back and forth among the streets of the ancient world's largest city, Nineveh, proclaiming:

"Forty more days Nineveh will be overthrown."

It was a very simple message God had given him to deliver. God had said in chapter 1, "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." And in chapter 3, after Jonah got barfed up on the beach facing Nineveh, He added: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” So that's what Jonah did. And of course the amazing thing that happened as a result was nothing short of the greatest revival in history. Tens of thousands of Ninevites repented of their sin, "from the least to the greatest." Even the king got into sackcloth and ashes. And God in His compassion and mercy decided to spare Nineveh from the promised calamity.

And Jonah was not a happy camper. Chapter 4 details his expression of anger against God for being so gracious to Israel's enemies. Remaining convinced that surely God was mistaken and the repentance was false, he sat up on a hillside above Nineveh to watch and see what would happen.

What happens next in chapter 4 is fascinating, and the point of this blog. Verses 6 through 8 report:

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Why would our gracious and loving God both provide great comfort to make Jonah happy ... then take it away to make him miserable? What was the point?

It's easy to conclude from reading this passage that God is more interested in developing our character than He is in our comfort and happiness. Note that "God provided" both the blessing (the shade tree) and the curse (the worm that chewed it). He used Jonah's resulting discomfort and frustration as an object lesson both on how "the Lord gives and the Lord taketh away" and why compassion is such a key part of God's character (and should be a key part of ours as well).

My Shade Tree

Right before leading this Bible study, I was called to a meeting in our human resources department and informed I was being laid off. For nearly 23 years, God had provided me with a marvelous shade tree, my job at World Vision. I loved it, I was good at it, it brought me great joy and satisfaction, not to mention a decent living. I had planned to retire in about three years or so, after I had accomplished a few more milestones. All was good.

But then, bam, God sent a worm to chew on my shade tree!

So, after studying Jonah 4 I've been asking myself, "What is it in my character that God is seeking to work on through this event?" I'm grateful to God for the many years of beautiful shade. I must be grateful as well for the worm. For both come from His hand.

I've blogged before about how the Hebrew word translated "worm" in chapter 4 is "Tolah," the crimson worm which throughout Scripture is used to represent the Messiah. (For instance, see the Messianic Psalm 22.) Jesus was in some manner in Jonah's worm, which reminds us that He gave up the comforts of heaven to be born as a human baby, to struggle with all the things we struggle with, and ultimately to give up His life on the Cross for our sins.

I'm grateful that God is present in both blessing and comfort, as well as in adversity. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to discern His will in this next phase of our lives together.