Scorning shame for joy

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” — Hebrews 12:2

“Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed nor be disgraced, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth and will remember the reproach of your widowhood no more.” — Isaiah 54:4

It may seem we’ve landed in a world without shame. Couples are no longer ashamed to live together without being married; women are no longer ashamed to bear children out of wedlock, and so on. I have heard people say we could use a little more shame in our society today.

Be that as it may, many people suffer private shame over little things. Some may be ashamed of not having money to buy the latest status symbol. Others might be ashamed at not going to college, or going to college and not being able to find work. Still others may be ashamed by reminders of past failures or dumb things they did or said some time in the past.

Shame can be a good thing if it leads to repentance and causes someone to return to God. Often, it just leads to another circuit on an emotional roller coaster. At worst, it can keep people from seeking God for fear of suffering even greater shame at his hands.

Isaiah assures such a person not to fear. God will not put anyone to shame who comes to him. What’s more, he will cause people to forget past mistakes and youthful indiscretions, as well as any shame over circumstances they can’t control.

Jesus shows us even more. He never sinned. He had nothing in his life to be ashamed of, yet he willingly experienced execution as a common criminal, including being beaten, mocked, and even stripped of this clothing. He knew shame for the first time in his life, but scorned it because his eyes were on the joy promised upon his resurrection.

Isaiah says not to be afraid. The writer of Hebrews explains how: keep an eye on Jesus. We, too, have a promise of joy. We, too, can look forward to better things than whatever causes us shame. The more we know him, the more we keep him in mind, the better we can shake off fear, scorn shame, and exercise faith in the joy to be revealed.

House of Eli: the outcome of a failed priesthood

Before Israel had a king, it was ruled by judges. The last two, Eli and Samuel, dominate the opening of the book of 1 Samuel. From all appearances, Eli, a senior priest, enjoyed high esteem during his lifetime, but no one admired his sons.

There does not seem to be anyone designated as high priest yet, but his seniority and the esteem he had as judge guaranteed him a great deal of authority and influence. It seems judgmental of him to accuse Hannah of drunkenness, but considering the times, he may have seen plenty of people treating the sacrifice as a party and getting drunk. He was quick to offer a priestly blessing and to add his prayers to hers. He seems very pious, very dedicated, and very conscientious.

But being judge and priest was not the highest calling on Eli’s life. He utterly failed at fatherhood. God had provided that priests would help the people offer up sacrifices. In return, they were allowed to eat a portion of the sacrifice. It appears that the ritual called for the fat to be burned on the altar and then the meat was cooked. The priest would come along later, stick a fork in whatever cooking utensil was being used, and eat whatever came up on the fork.

That was not good enough for Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. First, they did not come themselves; they sent servants. Second they did not even wait for the food to be cooked; they demanded it raw. Third, and most shocking, they did not even wait for the fat to be burned on the altar, and it was in the burning of the fat that people experienced their communication with God. That was the central act of worship. The priests’ bullying made it impossible for people to have a good worship experience. They compounded the sin by demanding sexual favors from the women who served at the temple.

Eli never took action when his sons were young enough to be subject to his influence. When he was very old, he still scolded them, but by that time they had tuned him out completely. I notice that every time we meet Eli, he was either sitting or lying down. He never actually got up and did anything. He was all talk and no action.

All of the previous judges heard directly from God and acted on what he told them. Eli was quite capable of discerning spiritual things, but if he ever heard the inner witness of the Spirit speaking to him about his sons, he ignored it. This is the first time I know of that God had to speak to a judge through a prophet.

He charged Eli personally with scorning the sacrifices and offerings by honoring his sons more than he honored God. Not only were Hophni and Phinehas getting fat by abusing the sacrifices, Eli, too, was fat. Considering the difficult conditions under which people lived at the time, there must not have been very many fat people. At the time, no one could get fat without oppressing someone else.

The sign of judgment for Eli was that both of his sons would die the same day, but as always with God, there was still time to repent and avoid judgment. The prophet told Eli exactly what to do, and I suspect that Eli had heard the same thing before in the inner witness of the Spirit. He could have–should have–withheld priestly office from them until they agreed to behave.

Eli ignored the inner witness, ignored the prophet, ignored the law, and so God spoke to him again through Samuel. We see that Eli could discern spiritual things, because he recognized that God was speaking to Samuel and told Samuel how to answer. God told Samuel that no sacrifice would ever atone for the guilt of Eli’s house. Not even the sacrifice of Jesus? Samuel delivered a very serious message Eli’s response shows resignation, but not confession or repentance.

The judgment befell Eli’s family when the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. More than likely, it was a defensive fight against Philistine aggression. The oppressors won the first battle, so the Israelites got the bright idea to take the ark of the covenant into battle with them, as if it were some kind of magic charm. Hophni and Phinehas carried the ark.

Eli sat by the side of the road, waiting for news. He must have been concerned for the safety of his sons, but the Bible says he feared for the ark of God. When he heard the bad news, he collapsed and died.

Eli’s failure as a father disappointed the nation. Perhaps no one missed Hophni and Phinehas, but the loss of the ark was a national disaster. Shiloh forever ceased to be an important worship center. Eli’s family continued for several more generations, but in accordance with the prophecy, it did not prosper.

It’s easy to see the judgment in this story. Where’s the grace? God entrusted Eli, in his disgraced old age, to raise Samuel to succeed him. Plague broke out wherever the Philistines took the ark until they decided to return it. It ended up in the Israelite town of Kiriath Jearim, where again a priest ministered before it.

God continued to bless his chosen people and his priesthood. Centuries passed before any priest acted as disgracefully as Eli’s sons. And if Eli’s descendants did not prosper, they served honorably.

A special prayer for one of Paul’s friends: Philemon

One thing I’m starting to love about Paul’s letters is that so many of them contain prayers for the church receiving them. He wrote a brief letter to his friend Philemon, which also begins with a prayer.

While in a Roman prison, Paul met a man named Onesimus, grew quite fond of him, and came to rely on him. When Paul wrote letters, he couldn’t just put a stamp on them and expect the post office to get it where it was going. He had to enlist the help of trusted couriers. Who better than Onesimus to carry Ephesians and Colossians back to his home?

There was one problem. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Going back to Colossae meant risking his life. His master could beat him to a pulp or even kill him and no one would even sympathize. Perhaps he had been insulted or mistreated by his master once too often, and that is why he ran away. Fortunately, Paul knew his master and had led him to Christ. Philemon was Onesimus’ master and host of a house church.

So Onesimus carried back three letters, including one to Philemon. The newly saved Onesimus returned home with the intention of being the most obedient and loyal slave in town, as Paul had taught him. Paul’s letter asks Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but love him as a brother in Christ—as his equal.

Studying the letter reveals a fascinating array of ways that Paul seeks to persuade Philemon without issuing a direct order, yet without leaving him any possibility of denying the request. For example, the letter was addressed not only to Philemon, but also to the entire church that met in his house.

Paul writes that he always mentions Philemon in his prayers. That phrase occurs in many of the epistles. With all the churches he founded and all the individuals he led to Christ, he must have had a very large prayer list. In the days before Twitter, he could not possibly have known about very many specific needs.

He also had to pray intently for his own ministry and his own discernment. He had to meet people, preach, get in and out of trouble, and so on. Simply mentioning people in God’s throne room, without saying anything else about them must have enough power that we should certainly do it more than most Christians probably do.

We usually have someone’s needs in mind. Paul gives thanks for Philemon, remembering good things about him. That’s certainly a good way to pray for someone, especially considering that there are both good and bad things about everyone.

When we pray, it’s much more beneficial for us when we give thanks for the good instead of complaining about the bad. God already knows more about both than we can ever imagine.

Our prayers don’t inform God of anything, but as we pray, we remind ourselves. Until we all become more Christlike than I suspect most of us are, it is often easier for us to complain than to be grateful. Why drag that habit into our prayers, too?

I really like the NASB for v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing that is in you for Christ’s sake.”

Paul is not talking about sharing faith by knocking on doors or shouting on street corners. He is talking about sharing faith by living a godly life. Philemon needs to know the good in him, and the people who meet him need to see it in him. As St. Francis of Assisi advised, preach all the time, and when necessary, use words.

After the prayer comes a word of personal testimony. Paul knows that Philemon loves him. He also knows that Philemon’s life and words refresh other Christians. Knowledge of that love gives Paul great joy and comfort. Praying for others is good. Sometimes we also need to let them know how much they mean to us.

Where is joy?

“You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” — Psalm 16:11 (NIV)

As I write this, the New Orleans Saints just won the Super Bowl. That fills their fans with joy. We all know what it means to realize a hoped-for outcome, especially if for any reason success was ever in doubt.

Everyone but team members, though, only observed the Super Bowl win and the season leading up to it. We did not experience it. The rest of us must now return to our own realities, which may seem grim and threatening. Where and how can we find our own joy?

Does experiencing joy require that our problems be solved first? It may seem so, but in fact, we can have joy while dealing with troubles. The very first verse of Psalm 16 says, “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Who else would pray to be kept safe except someone threatened with danger?

Joy depends much more on our inner thoughts than our outward circumstances. David praised God for making him know the paths of life, even though he knew his life up to that time had included long-lasting, life-threatening trouble. He declared his trust that God would fill him with joy in his presence.

There is the secret. David actively sought and gained the presence of God. It was in God’s presence, and only in God’s presence, that he found joy.

When I am afraid. . . I will not be afraid

“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” — Psalm 56:3-4 (NIV)

“Fear not.” That’s the message of lots of angels in the Bible, and some times the Lord himself when he appeared. John’s first epistle reminds us that perfect love casts out fear. And yet we all fear.

Some of us fear many things. All of us fear sometimes. Unemployed? Sick with a catastrophic disease? Seriously injured? Recently widowed? These only scratch the surface of major, long-term uncertainties that can cause the hardiest of us to fear. How can we accept the words “fear not” in such turmoil?

David, fleeing for his life from Saul, first tried to find refuge among the Philistines of Gath, but they recognized him and quoted to their king that “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.” The king he had hoped would shelter him now seemed as great a threat as Saul. David feigned insanity in order to be expelled from Gath instead of executed.

As he often did, David responded to this event by writing a poem, which we know as Psalm 56. In his fear, he did not panic. He turned to God in trust–a lifelong habit. This occasion was not the first time he had faced fear, nor would it be the last. We see in these two verses that his fear sent him to God. As he praised God and God’s word to him, the fear departed.

Are you threatened as David was? I don’t mean fleeing from one person seeking to kill you only to find someone else who wants to kill you. Does anything turn your life into complete turmoil and chaos, and you can’t see an end to it?

Do as David did. Even though it may seem that God has abandoned you and all his earlier promises to you appear empty, trust God and praise him for those very promises. Then you, too, can testify, “When I am afraid, . . . I will not be afraid.” You, too, can find peace and assurance in the midst of your greatest struggles.

Murderous Queen Athaliah: the self-destructive power of hatred

“When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal offspring” (2 Kings 11:1 — NASB).

Ancient Judah had only one ruling queen, Athaliah. Consumed with hatred for the God of her husband’s people, she ordered the murder of her own grandchildren. (How can anyone think the Old Testament is boring? Its stories are as powerful as anything in modern fiction or drama, and more convincingly true!) Athaliah lived out what all too many continue to live out to this day: they hang on to hatred because they think those they hate deserve it. They think that if they let go of hatred, they’re somehow letting the guilty off the hook. People who hate destroy other people’s lives, and in the process they always also destroy their own.

Athaliah was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel. The “iah at the end of her name comes from “Jah,” a diminutive of the name that God revealed to Moses in the burning bush centuries earlier. They acknowledged “Jah” as a god, but not as Lord. They actively persecuted his prophets for criticizing their worship of Baal, a demonic god that demanded human sacrifice.

As the prophets foretold, Ahab died in battle. Jezebel lived throughout the reign of her son Joram, but God raised up a general named Jehu to rebel against the house of Ahab. Jehu killed both Joram and and his brother-in-law, Judah’s King Ahaziah, in battle. Two officers in Jezebel’s household, allied with Jehu, threw her out the palace window to her death–the fulfillment of another prophecy.

On this news, Athaliah had all of Ahaziah’s children–her own grandchildren–slaughtered. Why would she do a thing like that? Because like her parents, she hated the God whose name was part of her own and wanted to get back at him.

Generations earlier, God had raised up David and promised him that one of his descendants would always reign as king in Jerusalem. When the kingdom was divided, the house of David continued to rule the south. A succession of apostate dynasties ruled the north.

The Davidic kings ruled more or less faithfully to the God of David until the one named Jehoram. He married Athaliah, and she led him to turn his back on God and serve Baal instead. Their son Ahaziah followed in his footsteps.

The God of David prophecied against Athaliah’s parents. The God of David caused them to die violent deaths. The God of David decreed the end of their dynasty. The general God appointed to rebel against them also killed her son, the King of Judah.

Now she had a chance to thwart the God of David. He had decreed that one of David’s offspring would always reign in Jerusalem. Well, she’d show him. She’d kill them all. She would avenge the deaths of her father’s family by killing all of David’s family, even her own grandchildren.

And so for seven years, she reigned as queen in place of David’s family. She had defeated the God of David. She had proved Baal the stronger god. He would take care of her, and she could live to a comfortable old age having her own way in everything.

End of story? Well, not quite. One of her daughters, who managed to remain faithful to God, rescued one baby from the banquet hall where Athaliah executed her vengeance. Seven years later with the help of God’s priest Jehoiada, this son of David confronted her, ousted her, and fulfilled God’s ancient promise to David by taking his rightful place on the throne.

Athaliah Sentenced to Death by Jehoiada / Antoine Coypel (1661-1722)

Not everyone who hates becomes a mass murderer, but hatred destroys lives and relationships in myriad less spectacular ways. Only two things escape the power of a person’s hatred: that person cannot thwart God’s plan, and that person can never know happiness or contentment or peace. Hatred is a consuming fire, a corrosive acid. It destroys the one who tries to hold it. The only way out is forgiveness.

A prayer Jesus answered, but did not grant

On one of numerous occasions that crowds followed Jesus when he would have preferred to be alone, he had compassion and set aside his own needs in order to heal the multitudes until it was already past. The disciples finally said, “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go the the villages and get some supper” (Matthew 14:15 — Message).

They made their request made known to the Lord. In other words, they prayed. Not only that, they prayed a prayer of compassion. They knew that it would soon be dark and that the people were probably getting hungry. It seemed a good time for Jesus to dismiss them so they could go back home, or at least to a nearby village, and get some food.

As often happens, Jesus had a better idea, and, as often happens, it seemed impossible. He said, essentially, how about if they stay here and you guys feed them. All the disciples had was five loaves of bread and two fish, not even enough to feed all of them. At Jesus’ command, they gave it to him, and he fed 5,000 men, plus whatever women and children were present.

I used to figure that when I asked God for something and it didn’t happen, God hadn’t answered my prayer. Then, I heard that God answers prayers in different ways: yes, no, and later. What this passage tells me is that he has at least one other answer: “I have a better idea.” That answer, in turn, includes a further answer: “Give me what you have.”

Disciples from that day to this, as a whole, have not responded much better than that; we respond to the divine imperatives with excuses.

But notice; when the disciples gave Jesus what little they had, it became more than enough in his hands. That’s a hard lesson to learn. Shortly after Jesus fed the 5,000, he fed the 4,000, and the disciples responded to that challenge as if they had entirely forgotten the earlier miracle. Jesus had to remind them of both feedings a little later on.

When we pray, we need to learn to hear when God says, “I have a better idea,” and especially when he says, “Give me what you have.” Blessing comes from obedience. To miss the divine command is to miss the blessing, both the blessing we could have received and the blessing we could have passed on to someone else.

Trading division in the church for unity, conflict for humility

Jesus made only one petition in the garden for those who would become believers through the disciples’ testimony: for their unity. David wrote Psalm 133 about how beautiful it is to live in unity. Perhaps because God values it so much, it is one of the most fragile things in the church. After all, it requires humility. Conflict and division come more naturally.

A thousand years ago, the church divided into the Eastern and Western church. About five hundred years ago, the Western church divided into Catholic and Protestant. Conflict among Protestants caused division into a number of denominations, and then the denominations fragmented into smaller groups. Even individual congregations have had bitter divisions over such things as what color the carpet in the sanctuary should be.

Paul tells us to watch out for those who cause divisions, for those who put obstacles between church members and each other, or for that matter, between church members and Christ. He is not warning us about enemies of the church. He is warning us about fellow church members.

Or perhaps, he is warning us about ourselves, lest we, for want of humility, put obstacles in someone else’s way. After all, he did not know very many people in the Roman church. When he wrote to congregations he knew, he was very forthright in his criticism of church members who quarreled or otherwise hindered unity and caused division.

When church people band together as a small group, united mostly in their opposition to some other band of people in the same congregation, they do not serve Christ. They serve their own desire to seem right, to seem important, to seem somehow better than those other folks. Of course, when Paul warned to keep away from such people, he meant not only not to participate with them in gossip and criticism, but also not to participate in gossip and criticism against them.

Paul identifies the key to serving Christ and fostering unity as being “wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.” That sounds great, but think about it. It’s humanly impossible without divine intervention.

In Adam, all die. Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would he do a thing like that? He already knew good, because he knew God. Adam disobeyed only so he could know evil.

The desire to know evil is in our spiritual genes. In warning about divisions in the church, Paul calls on us to forsake the ways of Adam in favor of putting on the nature of Christ. Gossips and critics become obstacles between the church and God. They have not chosen the way of God themselves and prevent others from choosing it.

God is not calling us to identify and oppose these less perfect Christians. Nowhere in any list of spiritual gifts or fruits will you find “critic.” He opposes division and conflict in the church. He expects humility and unity. He demands that we choose his Spirit for ourselves and encourage each other along the way.

Robbing God in tithes and offerings

As Christians, we don’t pay tithes to our church; we pay them to God. The check may be made out to our church, but we pay them to God. Suppose instead of putting your tithe in the offering plate, you decide to keep the money for bills. Chances are no one at the church will notice. You would not be taking from the church, but the prophet Malachi says you are robbing God.

What is the tithe? Ten percent of gross income. Don’t try to tithe on the net, unless you consider the government and whoever else gets your deductions more worthy than God of the first portion of your income.

The tithe essentially amounts to rent for the right to live in the world God created and man desecrated with sin. It is the least we can give to God. Offerings represent gifts beyond the tithe. I do not want to get into the details of tithing or the question of whether Christians must tithe to their local congregation or may send it elsewhere. As I say, we pay it to God.

In all of Scripture, there is only one invitation to test God: Test me by bringing the whole tithe to the storehouse. And what will he do to prove that he passes the test? The tithe opens the windows of heaven, and the offerings determine what blessings he pours forth from the window. Or, to change metaphors, the tithe plants a vine and the offerings determine the extent of the crop.

Tithing on unemployment checks is not easy. At the other end of the scale, the larger a person’s income, the harder he may find it to tack all those zeros on the end of the tithe. Obedience to God is never easy, but he makes such wonderful promises. In this case, he even dares us! I have taken up his dare, and my worst times now are better than my best times before I took the plunge.

One more thing: God is love. If we rob him by neglecting to pay the tithe, we are robbing love!

Judgment and grace even for Nineveh

The prophet Nahum decreed destruction for the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. At that time, Assyria ruled the entire Middle East, including Egypt. Only the kingdom of Judah, ruled by King Josiah, remained independent.

We learn from Jonah’s experience that God loved Nineveh, but his patience has limits. The Assyrians, at his direction, had destroyed the kingdom of Israel and resettled all its people. God chose them as his instrument of judgment on Israel, but did not tolerate their cruel pride and arrogance. So he destroyed them, but only after a prophetic warning.

Here is a prophecy directed not at God’s chosen people, but an enemy state who only knew enough about him to hold him in contempt. Is there any grace in this prophecy? As a matter of fact, yes there is. The opening chapter introduces God as avenging and wrathful, but in the midst of this dark and stormy prologue, we find a ray of light: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him” (Nahum 1:7).

In perhaps the most wantonly cruel empire in all of ancient history, who would take refuge in God? Hypothetically at least, I see five distinct groups.

1) First of all, Judah’s independence resulted directly from Josiah’s faithfulness. He took refuge in God. God knew it and preserved Judah from destruction as long as Josiah lived.

2) Israel had been ruled by a long succession of kings who worshiped the golden calf idol set up by Jeroboam I specifically to keep its citizens from worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem. And yet, there continued to be godly people there throughout its history. Some of them must have been among those exiled from their land and resettled. They must have known the prophecies of Israel’s doom and continued to seek God in captivity. God knew when they took refuge in him.

3) If any apostate Israelites who had scoffed at the prophesies repented in exile and turned to the living God, God knew and rewarded them

4) We know that later, people in the Babylonian and Persian empires turned to the one true God after witnessing the godly example of devout captives from Judah. The Bible does not say that any Assyrians took refuge in God under the influence of either faithful or repentant Israelites, but if any did, God knew them, even if he did not cause them to be mentioned in Scripture.

5) We know from 2 Kings 17 that when the Assyrians exiled all of the Israelites, they sent other captive people to repopulate the land. When God sent lions to devour some of them, they appealed to the King of Assyria, who sent a priest of the Lord to teach them how to worship properly. Thus the race of Samaritans was born. They turned to God initially not out of faith, but carnal fear. But for whatever reason they took refuge in God, he knew it.

To the extent that any of these five groups knew about the others at all, they would not have seen much in common. They would probably have disapproved of some of the others, even though God honored them all. All of them, like all of everyone else, were right in their own eyes.

When I first started meditating on this verse and tried to identify modern equivalents of these groups, I immediately ran into trouble. The first group would seem to be people with genuine Christian faith, and the second somehow representing a watered down, partly false understanding, but who goes in which group?

I can only make judgments, only see who most closely resembles me. I cannot know. Like everyone else, I am right in my own eyes. Nahum 1:7 says that God knows who takes refuge in him. That should be comfort enough for anyone, that God takes time out from pronouncing judgment in order to shine some light for and on people who will obtain his grace.