Saturday, November 30, 2013

every word must rhyme

The Word for today:
2 Peter 2
mark this: 2 Peter 2:1-3 --
There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
and this: 2 Peter 1:20 --
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.
Each of us has a spiritual gift, and today's reading bears directly on mine. So permit me, if you will, to pronounce my personal manifesto.
I'm not a big deal in this world. But on the eternal plane I'm somebody to be reckoned with, because principalities and powers are shaken to their core when, at the command of Jesus, any one of us unsheathes the Sword of the Spirit in this desert.
That may sound like swagger to you, but saying it doesn't sound like swagger to me, because I know who I am and what I am capable of,
Which is next to nothing. But I also know that insofar as I am true to my gift and calling, I am a force in the kingdom of God.
And thus far, by the grace of God, I've stayed true to that gift. I can't say, like Paul could, that I have finished the race (1). But I can say that I remain, at this hour, on course towards achieving this one thing:
to make it understood that every word in this one great poem we call the Bible rhymes with its every other word
That's why I don't often teach topical Bible courses, or courses on one book at a time. I teach whole-Bible courses, because the Bible, when taught whole, enforces an inherent discipline, forcing a teacher to make sure that nothing stands in contradiction to things taught before. The Bible, when considered as an indivisible entity, maintains a perfect balance that no single verse, or chapter, or book, or even testament, was ever designed to maintain.
For example, I have been approached to teach courses on Revelation, because everybody, it seems, wants to know about Revelation. But I've declined.
I've declined because the book of Revelation does not hold itself accountable. What that means is that I can (as many do) teach Revelation and, within its own context, make it say anything I want it to say. But if we teach whole-Bible courses (like the three-year Stand in the Rain course which you're now in the middle of) then what I teach in Revelation has to match up with what I taught in Zephaniah, Matthew, Jude and Obadiah;
they have to "rhyme" with each other. Unless and until they do, they invalidate one another.
Some teach almost specifically from the New Testament. That way, they don't have to account for--or field questions concerning--the God of the Old Testament. Thus they can (and do) teach any kind of Jesus they dream up. They teach a truncated Jesus, a skewed Jesus, a top-heavy Jesus, a bottom-heavy Jesus, a shriveled Jesus, an enervated Jesus, an emasculated Jesus. They'll introduce you to a Jesus of many curious colors, but the Jesus you won't meet is the real one, the Jesus who rhymes with every jot and tittle of God's every word, which He said he would:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17)
The principal that informs my particular gift is found right here in 2 Peter:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20)
People often take that to mean that no person can, individually, understand scripture. I don't think it means that at all, because there have been crucial moments in church history where the interpretation of one man, standing in the face of universal opposition, rescued an essential doctrine from oblivion. The classic example is Martin Luther, who almost single-handedly rescued the central tenet of soteriology--that justification is sola fide, by faith alone--which had been lost and buried in the medieval church.
"No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation" means that no verse or book--no utterance of the prophets who spoke for God--can be interpreted without reference to every other verse and book in scripture.
It makes perfect sense that each verse must fit into the whole. It can (and often does) create nonsense when preachers and teachers force the whole to fit into a few pet verses. Such teaching is either ignorant of the rest of the Bible (which is usually the case); or is self-serving; or is, for some ulterior and pernicious motive, intentionally misleading.
Thanks for reading this far. This is of vital importance to me. In fact, 2 Peter 1:20 is my creed. I work long and hard at Bible exposition and as I do, I constantly hold my work up to the standard this verse pronounces.
There are about 40 human authors of scripture, who wrote over a span of about 1500 years. But they are, they must be, of just one voice--the single voice of the Holy Spirit who authored the whole:
For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)
Thus the voice we hear in Nahum must be the voice in Ephesians must be the voice in Judges must be the voice in Psalms must be the voice in 2 Peter. Jesus spoke about this in one of scripture's most wonder-filled figures of speech:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:2; John 10:5)
I leave you with one pithy truth that I try to make sure every student of mine understands. You can never be duped by the false teachers--the ones Peter so urgently warns us about in 2 Peter 2:1-3 (above)--if you cut out this little Q & A and store it in your wallet, or purse, or Bible, or heart, or head:
Q. What does (write any single Bible book or verse here) mean?
A. Anything you want it to mean.
Q. What does the whole Bible--all 66 books / all 31,173 verses--mean?
A. Jesus, and nothing else.
I hope to stay true to my calling. If I do not, I count on you to write me and tell me I've fallen out of rhyme with God's Word.
And if--with your help--I manage to maintain harmony with the one clear voice of scripture, it will not mean a great deal to the world. But the angels will applaud and maybe, just maybe, Jesus will commend.
And there is, whatever our gift, no higher purpose or calling than the pursuit of his commendation.
(1) 2 Timothy 4:7

Friday, November 29, 2013

the transformer

The Word for today:
2 Peter 1:12-21
We learned yesterday that Peter knew this would be his last letter:
I know I must soon leave this body, as our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me. (2 Peter 1:14)
Knowing he would die a martyr's death, he wants us to know that he isn't going to die for a fable. He reminds us that with his own eyes, he had seen Jesus transfigured:
For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. We have seen his majestic splendor with our own eyes. And he received honor and glory from God the Father when God's glorious, majestic voice called down from heaven, "This is my beloved Son; I am fully pleased with him." (2 Peter 1:16-17; see Matthew 16:28-17:8)
But the Word of God, Peter says, is even more tangible than the Transfiguration:
We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:18-19)
The writers of the Bible were not giving us their own observations--God told them to speak:
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)
At the same time, God used the personalities and abilities of men -- moved by the Holy Spirit -- and got out His Word. The authors weren’t merely fountain pens. The Word of God is both a God-book and a man-book -- like Jesus, who is both human and divine.
Peter himself is evidence of the power of God's Word.
A great change is seen in the life of Peter from these epistles. He was given the name Simon at birth, but Jesus named him Peter, meaning “rock.”
In the Gospels, Peter was anything but a rock. He had been impulsive and unstable, but in Acts he was a pillar of the early church. Jesus named him not for what he was but for what he would become.  The transforming power of the gospel had wrought this change in his life.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

keep the light on

The Word for today:
2 Peter 1:1-11
mark this: 2 Peter 1:19 --
We have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. Pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a light shining in a dark place –- until the day Christ appears and his brilliant light shines in your hearts.
Imagine, if you will, that you are writing what is certain to be your last letter.
What would you write? What would you emphasize? What would be the last thought you would want to impart to those you care about the most?
Two towering New Testament writers -- the Apostles Paul and Peter -- were in that situation. We can read their last letters. We know them as the "books" of 2 Timothy and 2 Peter.
These infinitely influential men wrote essentially the same last letter. They both stressed the primacy of the Word of God -- that there is nothing as precious, as essential, as the Bible.
Why? What's so essential about the Bible? I could go on and on (and if you regularly read these articles, you know I do...) about the crucial part the Bible plays in history, in the world today, and in individual lives. But instead of telling with words, I'll show it with a picture.
Way back in the beginning of your Bible is a remarkable scene. Located in the last verse of Genesis 3, we see Churubim (think "angels") surrounding the Tree of Life.
We don't know how many Cherubim were there. The word is plural, so we know that there were more than one. Paintings of this scene often show two Cherubim, but the Bible doesn't give any specific number.
So, maybe there were two cherubim. And maybe there were three, or three thousand, or a gazillion.
However many were there, we know this: all of them, put together, wielded but one weapon--a single sword:
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.  (Genesis 3:24/KJV)
They were commissioned by God for a single mission -- to keep (or guard) the way to eternal life. That "Way," of course, is none other than Jesus:
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6)
And their weapon, the "sword" God gave them to guard the Way to life, was none other than the Bible:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. (Hebrews 4:12; see also Revelation 1:16, 2:12; 2:16.)

Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
 (Ephesians 6:16-17)
The Bible is the flaming Sword that lights and guards the Way, through this sin-darkened world, back to God.  We do not know if Adam and Eve ever, through faith, took the Way back to eternal life with God.  But we do know that God "kept the light on," so that lost men will be able to find the Way back home.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

do or die

(Note: Oops. Stand in the Rain's schedule went slightly askew. Today's article should have been published a week ago. We'll be back on the beam tomorrow.)
(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for Today:
Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14
The end of Ecclesiastes provides us with some of the richest metaphors we have regarding the aging process. As much as I love the more standard Bible versions (KJV, NIV, ESV), I feel that the New Living Translation best captures the essence of what Solomon was communicating:
Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do.
So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless.
Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky.
Remember him before your legs—the guards of your house—start to tremble; and before your shoulders—the strong men—stoop. Remember him before your teeth—your few remaining servants—stop grinding; and before your eyes—the women looking through the windows—see dimly.
Remember him before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades. Now you rise at the first chirping of the birds, but then all their sounds will grow faint. Remember him before you become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets; before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper…
Remember him before you near the grave, your everlasting home, when the mourners will weep at your funeral. Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well (1).

The basic idea of this passage is this: "It's now or never! It's do or die!"
In my work with students, this is a passage that I use to remind them of the importance of their choices now. Its a warning to them that life only gets harder, and more complicated as you get older, so make the right choices and habits now, before it's too late.
But this is a message that both young and old need to hear. From a spiritual point of view, there is no tomorrow. We either seek, follow, receive, accept the Lord today, or we don't at all. "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation (2)."
Our society is one that teaches that it is okay to put God and spiritual matters on the back burner, that you don't really need Him until you reach some undefined point down the road. Our world operates under the spend now, pay later philosophy. We are under the illusion that there are no consequences to our actions, no real day of reckoning. We are expecting a "get out of consequences for free card" a government bailout, or some miracle pill to undo whatever damage we may have inflicted.
But if you think of it, it is utterly ridiculous for any of us to say that we will put off any significant or difficult till later. The old "I'll start (exercising, dieting, studying, devotions,etc.) tomorrow is just as preposterous as the old "I'll stop (drinking, smoking, swearing, overeating, procrastinating, etc.) tomorrow" excuse. Tomorrow never comes! Each day you wake up, it is still today and you must chose that day to make whatever decision you make. All your plans for tomorrow only work if you follow through today.
All we have is today. So what are you doing today? Please don't talk to me about your future. Don't use your past as an excuse. Stick with the eternal now of the Scriptures-Jesus Christ. "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts (3) ." He stands outside of time. He alone "is the same yesterday and today and forever (4) ."
(1) Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:7 (NLT)
(2) 2 Corinthians 6:2
(3) Hebrews 4:7
(4) Hebrews 13:8

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

untamed or lame

(by Pastor Joe)

The Word for today: Song of Solomon 8:5-14
mark this: 8:6-7 --
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.
Wow. Now those are some lyrics. When we are reading Song of Songs, we are looking at some of the most powerful, yet exquisite poetry ever written. (I suppose that only the Word of God has the ability to smash us like a wrecking ball, while delicately slicing us like a scalpel, both at the same time.) I know that I certainly cannot do it justice- it's akin to trying to describe the Grand Canyon over a text message.
Most of our world's attempts to comprehend or express real love end up sounding like this:
"Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows,
Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together, 

Brighter than a lucky penny..." (Leslie Gore)
Honestly, I don't know if I could do much better. So I am going to leave all the hollow and watered down efforts of the recording industry and Hollywood behind and instead focus on the similes given in the Scripture.
A few words or ideas come to the forefront in these verses. Furious. Uncontrollable. Unrelenting. There is nothing plastic or prefabricated about them. The love of God cannot fit into our safe and sterile boundaries. We can look back at some of the recent natural disasters to give us a small glimpse of that kind of scale. Think of the California Wildfires of 2009. In one year, in that state alone, 336,020 acres (525 sq. miles) of land was consumed by at least 63 different blazes. Very often, the brave firefighters were at the mercy of the weather to extinguish these wildfires. The familiar images of planes or helicopters dumping water were the equivalent of us trying to spit out a campfire.
That is the kind of scope and power this passage is describing. God's love is more furious than any fire we've ever experienced. We see this relentless and untamed attribute of God clearly in the rest of the Bible. There is fire literally everywhere, especially concentrated in the Old Testament. Smoking swords, flaming firepots, burning bushes, pyrotechnic pillars, melting mountains, scorched sacrifices, melted ministers, grilled grumblers. (1)
Both the Old and New Testaments use the image of fire to convey not only the attributes of God (e.g. His glory, wrath, power, and love), but also to describe each member of the Blessed Trinity (2). God is ablaze and glorious and relentless in all He is and all He does. Deuteronomy 4:24 best sums this up: "the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God," a statement that is later repeated in Hebrews 12:29.
The sad thing is that many of us "Christians" have tried so hard to turn this blazing Biblical love into a cheap, chintzy, saccharine-filled imitation. We want a flashlight-like Jesus that we control. But we end up with a Jesus who is a cross between Richard Simmons and Mr. Rogers. (Father forgive us!)
So my goal for today is not to neatly define, categorize and label God's love. I can't squeeze Him into any man-made container that I can control and manipulate. No, my goal is to step back and submit, to let the unquenchable, unbridled, untamable love of God run wild in this life. It isn't easy, but it beats the heck out of any cutesy sunshine or lollipop bit.
(1) The words may have been altered for alliterative purposes- but each of these events are in the OT.
(2) Isaiah 29:6, Matthew 3:11-12, Acts 2:1-4

Monday, November 25, 2013

song of songs, love of loves

The Word for today:
Song of Songs 6:4-8:4
mark this: Song of Songs 8:3-4 --
His left hand is under my head,
And his right hand embraces me.
I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
Do not stir up nor awaken love
Until it pleases.
In the discussion of the shepherd, the king, and the bride in Song of Songs, we forget there are some others in the story. They are the "daughters of Jerusalem" (see 2:7; 3:5; 5:8). The daughters of Jerusalem appear exactly once more in the Bible--on the way to the cross:
But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. (Luke 23:28)
Three times in Song of Songs, the daughters of Jerusalem are told they would have to be patient, to wait until the time was right for love…
I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the does of the field, do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases. (Song of Songs 2:7)
1000 years after Solomon, when the time was right for love, the Bridegroom/Shepherd/King turns to the daughters of Jerusalem on His way to save the Bride:
But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry? 
(Luke 23:28-31)
The daughters of Jerusalem, the audience in Song of Songs, were witness to the greatest love the world has ever known, but not in Solomon's time. They had to wait until the New Testament, where "Greater love hath no man, than that He should lay down His life for (His bride)."
That, ultimately, is what Song of Songs is about.
It stands to reason. All the best songs are love songs, so the "Song of Songs" would have to be about the love of loves.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

of shepherds and kings

"Shepherd, Cross, & Crown" -- Stained Glass Panels, Faith Community Lutheran Academy
"Shepherd, Cross, & Crown" -- Stained Glass Panels, Faith Community Lutheran Academy
The Word for today:
Song of Solomon 5:2-6:3
What's all this about shepherds, and Kings, and the Son of David returning to rescue His Bride--toiling under the sun—then placing her under His banner in the garden…
Song of Solomon can be pretty tricky to follow. The voices drift in and out and it is never easy to know just who is speaking. Many of our Bibles have labeled the shifting speaking parts, but that can cause as many problems as it solves!
The most reliable hint that we can give you concerning the various voices is this:
The bridegroom always refers to his bride as “my love,” and the bride calls him “my beloved.” (cf. Ephesians 1:6; Genesis 2:24)
Besides the shifting voices, the reader must also contend with shifting time. Following the conventions of oriental song, there is little or no attempt at chronological order.
It is best to think of Song of Solomon as an album of photos taken of the Beloved and His Love. The pictures capture their love, but are not necessarily arranged chronologically.
This is impressionistic poetry, written by the Poet who healed with a word and painted with light. How does one arrange snapshots of a love not bound by space or time? How does one arrange remembrances of the future?
But the biggest aid to understanding Song of Solomon is to recognize that every slice of the Bible will correspond to the whole--
So, let's see...we have a bridegroom, who is a shepherd, who comes back as a King.
Known to the Holy Spirit (author of the Bible) but unknown to Solomon, there was to come a good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep (1). But though he were dead, he will return as King to regather his Bride.
And so, as shepherd turns into king, a heart-pounding love poem turns into breath-taking prophecy, as well.
(1) John 10:11-15

Saturday, November 23, 2013

lip service--or kisses sweeter than wine?

The Word for today:
Song of Solomon 3:6-5:1
The Song of Solomon doesn't waste much time with (how do I say this?) hand-holding. It gives us kisses sweeter than wine in its very first line:
May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.
But while the heart holds sway in the Song, we do an injustice if we do not distinguish the concurrent streams of meaning which flow through its verses:
1. The Song of Solomon sets forth the glory of wedded love and the sacredness of the marital relationship as a God-given institution.
2. The Song also sets forth the love of Jehovah for Israel. That is not a new thought, found in this book alone. The prophets spoke of Israel as the wife of Jehovah. Hosea dwells on that theme. Idolatry in Israel is likened to a breach in wedded love and is the greatest sin in all the world, according to Hosea.
3. The Song of Solomon is a picture of Christ and the church. The church will be "the bride of Christ." This is a familiar figure in the New Testament (see Ephesians 5; Revelation 21).
4. Finally, this book portrays the love of Christ for the individual believer and the soul’s communion with Christ. Many great saints of God down through the years have experienced this. Paul could say, “… the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
While some of us will appreciate Song of Solomon on these various levels, we must ultimately return to "the greatest of these" -- the level of love in number 4 (above).
We talk, in the modern church, of a personal relationship with Christ. We say that phrase so much that it takes on the generic mindlessness of cliché.
When I've had enough of limp Christian lingo, I come here to see what a relationship with Christ ought to be. Song of Solomon is the great antidote to churchiness and religiosity. What a striking difference between these kisses sweeter than wine and so much of our lukewarm lip-service.
You've got but one heart to spend. Think of it in terms of one dollar. If you were given just one, where would you spend it?
Don't waste your only heart on some room-temperature relationship. Spend it foolishly and recklessly. Leave nothing in reserve. Take out no insurance. Save nothing for a rainy day.
And if these words seem extravagant to you, then keep on searching for the Jesus who inspires them. Don't stop--don't settle--for any Jesus until you've found the very same Jesus who wrote rhapsody in the heart of a Shulamite girl, and caused Franklyn to take leave of his senses.

Friday, November 22, 2013

the passion of the Christ

The Word for today:
Song of Solomon 2:8-3:5
So what is Song of Solomon all about?
I waxed poetic in yesterday's introductory article. That's because Song of Solomon isn't religion or philosophy or theology. It's poetry.
It has to be poetry because what Song of Solomon is conveying is a kiss. And not just any kiss. Song of Solomon is the kiss of life.
Some of you are beginning to squirm, just like I do when movies come 'round to the kissing scene. I get it, I get it-- they're in love and they're about to kiss. But do they have to show it?
Some people squirm, in the very same way, at the reading of the Song of Solomon. We get it, we get it-- "God so loved" and all of that, but do they have to show it?
Yes, the scene must be seen in order to understand the theme--of both Song of Solomon and the Bible at large:
Salvation is a love affair.
We read about our salvation on the paper pages of scripture, where dry and distant terms are often employed; terms which can make our salvation seem a paper transaction, an accounting function. The Bible speaks of covenants, and accrediting; of purchase, and title, and down payment.
Our Bibles speak of law, adoption, proxy, birthright, and inheritance. It's enough to make us think that we are saved by contractual obligation.
But know this: Jesus was in no way obligated to go to the cross. Should Jesus have opted out, the angelic hosts would at this very moment be singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy" (1) with infinite, undiminished fervor.
Jesus did not go to the cross to prove himself, or to fulfill himself. Jesus went to the cross because he was in love. The cross was an outworking of the love that God already was (2).
It was, in that way, like a kiss.
That's why we never call it "the duty of the Christ;" or "the obligation of the Christ." We call it what it is -- "the passion of the Christ."
(1) Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8; (2) 1 John 4:16

Thursday, November 21, 2013

the oasis in the midst

The Word for today:
Song of Solomon 1:1-2:7
Look! Here it is: The Song of Solomon.
Many people think it's the crown jewel of the Bible.
I think so. It's the heart-shaped diamond at the center of the setting. And--like the shifting, elusive glory of the Lord in the vision of Ezekiel 1--we can't really pin down all the light shining from it.
The Song takes many guises and shapes. I've taught the book this way and that way and then another way. I used to castigate myself, thinking the changing ways I approached its teaching indicated that I had never really gotten a sure grip on its meaning.
But I castigate myself no more. Because I've come to appreciate that this diamond has many facets. Those facets--turned this way and that, examined from one angle then another--reflect a love that is ever original, ever new.
Do you remember love when it was new? The awkward, gushing crush you had when love first found you?
That's the essence of Song of Solomon. It's the eternal crush we hold for the Bridegroom. It's that heart-beating, palpitating, aromatic, sunlit, moonstruck, confused and desperate crush of love that is forever new.
I hope you return often to the pages of Song of Solomon. I hope you hear it ever rearranging. May your love for Jesus be ever growing, its meaning ever gathering and forever young. May eternity be too short to explore all of its facets.
Man was banished from Eden. A long and arid death march ensued--into the wilderness, past the terrifying summit of Sinai, then through a dissolving kingdom that all the king's horses could not carry back from exile…
When, behold, an oasis, evergreen, in the midst of the barren land.
Song of Solomon is the oasis in the midst. And though I fell into sin in the garden, in the oasis I fell in love. And I am here to tell you that love is no mirage.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

a shepherd without a Lamb

The Word for today:
Ecclesiastes 10:8-11:8
mark this: Ecclesiastes 12:11-13 --
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Tomorrow, Pastor Joe will bid adieu to Ecclesiastes. He'll be writing about the great extended metaphor in chapter 12.
So this is my goodbye to the sad and noble and confused man in Ecclesiastes who has meant so much to me for the reasons I have tried to express over the last few installments.
Allow me, then, to leapfrog right over chapter 11 and most of chapter 12 to the very last lines of this dear and desperate little book:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
That line has always struck me as too little, too late. Because there is no indication in the rest of Ecclesiastes that this man has an inkling of what it means to keep God's commandments.
I'm going to say something unsettling to novice Bible students. Here goes:
The purpose of God's commandments is to show us that we cannot keep them.
God's commandments are designed to lead us into a realization that we are sinners in need of salvation:
Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
“And keep his commandments” would mean to meet God’s conditions for salvation—in any age—grounded on faith in God. For Cain it meant bringing a lamb. For Abraham it meant believing the promises of God. For the people of Israel it meant approaching God through sacrifice in the tabernacle and in the temple. For us it is to "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31).
But because there is something crucial that is missing from his writing, I doubt that my friend from Ecclesiastes ever understood this.
What crucial element does Ecclesiastes lack which marks the rest of the Bible? In a word: blood.
There is no scarlet thread of redemption, even between its lines. There’s a shepherd (12:11) but no Lamb.
The Lamb had to die because the people could not keep the commandments. Solomon, in all his wisdom, failed to bring this, the most central axiom of scripture, into his deliberations:
Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22; Leviticus 17:11)
Whether it was Solomon's Bible--the Old Testament--or our Bibles with both Old and New Testaments, Scripture's central teaching is that the only way to avoid judgment is to claim the blood of the Lamb:
The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

more love than you can fit in your heart

The Word for today:
Ecclesiastes 9:1-10:7
Ecclesiastes shows us a man in pursuit of something--anything--that will lend his life a sense of meaning.
He tries it all, but nothing fills the emptiness he feels inside.
He samples this philosophy and that religion. He tries them on for size, and for a while things seem to fit. But eventually each new thing proves to be just another false start, and his unrequited longing for rhyme and reason returns.
So he adopts yet another philosophy or lifestyle in an attempt to fill the void. He adopts one thing after another, the same ones we resort to today:
Hedonism: The pleasure principle (2:1).
Materialism: "He who has the most toys…" (2:9-10).
Fatalism: One event happens to them all (2:14; 9:2).
Ideology: Systems of thought (2:12a).
Rejection of ‘establishment’ assumptions (2:12a).
Existentialism: Going with the flow, in the moment, the right now:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Religion: Working your way to God (chapter 5).
Stoicism: Indifferent acceptance of “Whatever…” (7:15)
The status quo/the happy medium. (7:16-17)
"The almighty $." (10:19)
Nihilism. (11:8)
Each one of these, in turn, failed the author of Ecclesiastes--just as they fail us now.
In an attempt to impose some shape on your existence, you might have tried the whole list.
So when your current attempt fails you, try this:
Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Psalm 34:8)
You've tried one thing after another, and nothing measured up to your hopes. But when you meet Jesus Christ, you'll find something bigger than your thoughts can contain. You'll find more love than you can fit in your heart.

Monday, November 18, 2013

somewhere, over the rainbow

The Word for today:
Ecclesiastes 7, 8
mark this: Ecclesiastes 3:11
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Ecclesiastes is a record of the dark, empty, shapeless heart of man:
A man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry.  (Ecclesiastes 8:15a)
It is the spiritual equivalent of the natural realm before God's Word arrived to dispel the darkness:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  (Genesis 1:1-2)
But God didn't leave the world in the dark:
And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.  (Genesis 1:3)
And he doesn't leave us in the dark either:
Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."  (John 8:12) 
The heart of the naturally-born man, seeing by the light of the sun, remains unfulfilled and uncomprehending:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
But Jesus said that there is another birth, when faith meets the blood of his cross, that takes us out of uncomprehending darkness:
Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Ecclesiastes is a record in real time of the Holy Spirit hovering over broken lives, bothering and pestering us with our own emptiness, letting the hollowness of our days and the shallowness of our own words bring us to the conclusion that there has to be a better way; that, somewhere over the rainbow, there has to be a brighter day.
Those born again through faith in Jesus Christ don't just get eternal life. They also get new eyes. So while the man in Ecclesiastes cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end, those born of the Spirit can see all the way from Alpha to Omega:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. (Revelation 22:13)
Ecclesiastes tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts--a sense of something beyond ourselves--an unfulfilled longing, an empty place to fill in. But it doesn't have to stay that way:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  (Revelation 21:6 )

Sunday, November 17, 2013

insert foot in mouth

(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for today:
Ecclesiastes 4:9-6:12
mark this: Ecclesiastes 5:1-2
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
I know all of us have said things that we've regretted, but some of us do it more often than others. I fall into that camp of chronic foot-in-mouthers. But even the worst of us blabbermouths eventually understand that restraining our words is often a good idea. And while we may have figured out somewhat when to be silent before other people, that skill does not automatically transfer to our relationship with God. Don't be fooled into thinking that foot in mouth disease does not apply there.
We've now come to perhaps the most neglected passage concerning worship in the entire Bible. It's one that not many like to hear. But it is one that we ought to hear, and hear frequently. In one word: silence.
When I first was taking Spanish classes in junior high, our teacher's favorite expression was "sientete y callete," which means sit down and shut up! (A very necessary expression to junior highers of any language!) Today's passage has the same message for us- at least in regards to worship.
We know from the Word of God that our Father in Heaven does not care much for showy, self-centered prayers (1), mindless repetition (2), blind adherence to man-made rules and traditions (3), meaningless offerings (4), or hypocritical acts of worship (5).
But unless we are careful, it is our tendency as humans to fill even our most sincere attempts of adoration with all of the above, with mere noise. And by noise I do NOT mean volume. I mean what this passage describes: worship that is foolish, ignorant, hasty, and heavy on words but light on meaning.
Whenever our attempts to praise God end up being about ourselves and our feelings; whenever we sing a song mindlessly, with not the slightest understanding of what is being sung, whenever we are simply hoping that the song ends so we can sit down soon- that my friends, is the sacrifice of fools. Ouch- too often those descriptions come close to what passes for praise in our gatherings.
But before we blame a certain time period or style or culture, we must understand that the sacrifice of fools has been, and will continue to be, a problem for all who would worship the Living God. It really comes down to a matter of the heart. We either worship the Lord in spirit and in truth or we don't worship at all (6).
I find the best thing to make sure my heart is where it should be is the old "sientete y callete" approach. When I understand the same truth that Habakkuk did: "The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him (7)." When I come before Him acknowledging the vast difference between us. It is then and only then that I have anything worthwhile to say. Otherwise- I'm going mum, 'cause it sure beats the alternative.
(1) Luke 18:11-12
(2) Matthew 6:7
(3) Mark 7:8-9
(4) Isaiah 1:14
(5) Amos 5:21
(6) John 4:24

Saturday, November 16, 2013

chasing after wind

The Word for today:
Ecclesiastes 3:1-4:8
mark this: Ecclesiastes 1:14 & 4:4 --
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Solomon wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.
We should remember that Solomon wrote his three books over the course of a lifetime. As such, they can be seen as a comprehensive spiritual diary--the ultimate journal.
In Proverbs we see the wisdom of Solomon.
In Song of Solomon we see--in the heart which turns to Christ--that the object is too large for the heart.
In Ecclesiastes we see the foolishness of the same man when he got away from God. Life does not satisfy; the heart is too large for the object:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
At first glance, Ecclesiastes seems to raise more questions than it answers. The reader is left to wonder--
What's going on around here? What's this book doing in the Bible?
It depicts the emptiness and disappointment of life, lacks any note of praise or peace, and seems to sanction conduct at variance with the rest of Scripture. The difficulties can be resolved only by consideration of the nature and purpose of the book:
(1) Ecclesiastes must be understood as the book of the natural man--the natural man's reasoning apart from the Spirit of God and divine revelation:
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him: nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
This is the meaning of "under the sun." Used repeatedly (27 times) the phrase reminds us that its conclusions are from a human perspective, exclusive of divine revelation.
(This is also why the covenant name "LORD"--Jehovah--is not used; God is only known as "Elohim," the Creator. Hence the writer is confined to natural revelation (the light which nature gives) and human reason. The clause "I communed with my own heart," occurs seven times.)
(2) The purpose of the book is to demonstrate to the natural man the complete emptiness of things "under the sun" whenever they become disconnected from that which is above the sun--God's revelation and salvation.
The great truth of Ecclesiastes is that life without God in the equation is meaningless and pointless; it's--
a chasing after the wind (NIV);
a striving after wind (ESV);
as senseless as chasing the wind (CEV);
like feeding on wind (CJB);
like grasping for the wind (NKJV);
a vexation of spirit (KJV);
nothing but spitting into the wind (MSG).