Sunday, December 30, 2012

Remembering (and) Retelling

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18-19

“Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you.” Deuteronomy 32:7
        Forgetting sounds amazing when we think of abuse or sin in our history.  Remembering sounds great when we think of beauty and peace.  So how do we honor both these commands?  How do we "forget what lies behind" while remembering the wisdom of generations and the presence of God in our past? Is there a way God wants us to think about our past?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Unexpected Peace

“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace, and goodwill to those on whom His favor rests.”       
    After being told that peace had arrived in the form of a child in a local manger, the Jewish shepherds who received this message would have likely gone to the Migdal Eder, or 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack.  They were probably overseeing a temple flock destined for sacrifice.
     Shepherds brought ewes there to give birth. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls and carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. This special birthing place has been suggested as teh location where Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was born.  As the prophet Micah had noted years before, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock,(Migdal Eder)… kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8)

       But their watchtower was overshadowed by another tower.

       Herod’s mountain fortress overlooking the town of Bethlehem was more than 200 feet in diameter.  It loomed seven stories high, with an eastern tower that stood more than 40 feet higher.  It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, and countless apartments. The lower palace included an enormous pool, a colonnaded garden, a 600-foot-long terrace, and a building more than 400 feet long.  Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds.  The Herodion’s circular upper palace literally overshadowed the surrounding villages for miles.
       The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for him.  According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers (not slaves, yes he was that rich) for many years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other.  He built his massive and grandiose palace-fortress on top of the remaining hill.
    The shadow case over the land was not just physical; Herod darkened the moral climate of the land as well. Herod made his name when he broke the resistance of the rebels hiding in caves on the side of a cliff near the Sea of Galilee. Herod commanded his troops to make platforms with fires to be let down with ropes to the openings of the caves. The smoked-out refugees were pulled out with long, hooked poles and dropped down the sheer cliff.
     At one  point, Herod laid siege to Jerusalem. The soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children, and the Jewish soldiers were tortured and chopped to pieces.  Herod executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who resisted him.
      Herod also executed his brother-in-law; his old friend Hyrcanus, who had given him his start; his wife; then his mother-in-law.  Hundreds of friends and family members, along with supporters of these last of the Hasmonaeans, were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations.  Countless members of his family and court were tortured, as were his two sons.
     Herod went to Jericho to die in agony, hated even by his family. Truly mad and fearing that no one would mourn his death, he commanded his troops to arrest important people from across the land, lock them in the hippodrome, and execute them after he died; if people would not mourn him, at least they would mourn.
     Into this web of hatred and suspicion, "Magi from the east came... and asked (the Roman appointed King of the Jews), 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:2). 
     According to prophecy, the Messiah must come from Jacob (Israel) and must rule over Esau (Edom, or Idumaea). Herod was a Gentile, an Idumaean (called Edomite in the Old Testament). To the follower of God's Word, Herod could not be Messiah or God's king. No wonder that, when King Herod heard this news, he was “disturbed,” and he had the Israelite babies under two years old slaughtered. 
    The expected Messiah was supposed to free the Israelites from this type of bondage.  Peace?  That meant peace after a revolution, right?  I’m sure they were encouraged when Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  That sounded more promising. And yet….he didn’t bring the kind of sword they were expecting.  Jesus’ spiritual sword of truth didn’t displace the Romans;  he didn’t come to bring that kind of peace. His message actually brought division between those who believed He was the Messiah and those who did not.
     When peace entered the world in the person of Christ, it did not mean that all the sources of strife were suddenly neutralized. Herod was still there; the taxation was still going to happen; the Jewish community was still divided along political lines; even families would be divided as some believed the message of Christ and some did not.  

     The Prince of Peace showed up to change the world, but not in a way people expected.

      When we talk about peace, we usually mean the absence of strife; the absence of the shadows that cover our land. Certainly that is part of peace; one of the greatest promises of Scripture is that one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). There will be no more predators and prey, no more users and used. Meanwhile, Jesus entered a world full of strife to help us through it, not necessarily to take us out of it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

He, Too, Saved Israel

The beginning of Judges notes that “whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them [Israel], he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.”

Sounds good, right?  God chose particular people and empowered them. That's really all they needed on their judgeship resume.  But in spite of this stellar recommendation, the Bible dedicates a disproportionate amount of space to some but not to others:
  • Judges 4-5 – Deborah gets two chapters and a song
  • Judges 6-8 - Gideon gets three chapters
  • Judges 9: Abimelech gets a chapter (in spite of killing his own brothers)
  • Judges 11 and 12 – Jepthah gets two chapters (in spite of sacrificing his daughter)
  • Judges 13-16 – Samson gets four chapters, and he was hardly a role model.
  • And then... Shamgar: "After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an ox goad. He too saved Israel." (Judges 3:31)
Shamgar saved the nation by killing 600 enemy warriors using a big stick with a pointy end, and he basically got an “atta boy!” That’s like giving a history of the NBA and saying, “And Michael Jordan also played basketball.” Or discussing a history of music and saying of Beethoven, “He too wrote music.”

Today, when people are treated like this, they go on TV and give the inevitable whine: “I’m being disrespected!” We are a culture that increasingly seems to think that we all deserve our fifteen minutes of fame, and if it doesn’t happen naturally, well, there are always reality shows or YouTube. Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote, “All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance.” To whatever degree that’s funny, it’s probably because it is an accurate reflection of the natural human condition.

I think Biblical characters like Shamgar point us toward a hard reality in the Christian walk: Sometimes, God will raise us up and use us mightily, and we will never get the credit we think we deserve.

Of course, what we think is not always the best way to gauge life. If you do good things for a reward or praise from other people who notice, you will get your reward. It just won’t be that great. Someone once said, “None are so empty as those who are full of themselves.”