Tag Archives: Isaiah

God in my Suffering

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”

Zechariah 13:7 (NIV)

For anyone who is not a regular, a quick explanation. For the past several months, I’ve been blogging my way through the texts that concern a specific period in Jewish history when the people were forced into exile by their enemies and then returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple there. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the middle of a year-long contemplation of exile as an overarching theme of the Great Story.

As I excavate the meaning of exile, I can’t help but escape the fact that suffering is part of the exilic process. I don’t find this a surprise. Followers of Jesus are told to expect suffering time and time again. Jesus was very direct:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”

Matthew 10:16-17 (NIV)

“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:32-33 (NIV)

As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Matthew 8:19-20 (MSG)

Of course, this line of thinking runs against the current of popular culture which tries to avoid suffering at all costs. As I mentioned in a post last week, God’s kingdom as Jesus presented it is typically opposite the kingdoms of this world.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah is once again envisioning events in the future, when a “fountain” is opened to cleanse the people of sin and impurity. Zech returns to the theme of the Messiah as Shepherd. The Shepherd is struck and His sheep are scattered. This is the very verse that Matthew points to in his biography of Jesus when Jesus is arrested and the disciples all run for their lives into hiding.

The remainder of Zech’s prophetic poem concerns a period of suffering, and it is fodder for scholarly debate. It could relate to any number of great persecutions that God’s people experienced. Many scholars believe that it dovetails with the prophecies of the book of Revelation. I find both to be reasonable conclusions, and I am reminded in the quiet this morning that prophetic text can be layered with meaning, so I’m comfortable with the answer that it is “both, and.”

In the quiet of this morning, I find my heart wrestling with the reality of suffering in this life journey. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” We heard an excellent message about this exilic theme of suffering yesterday. I received a text from a friend who said that the key question for him was this: “Who is God in my suffering?”

Scholars have chronicled a distinct shift in Hebrew prophetic writing during the 70-year Babylonian exile. The theme of their message shifts from God being the righteous judge to God being redeemer, sustainer, and the promised savior amidst their suffering. “Who is God in my suffering?” Some see God as the punisher. Some see God as an ambivalent spectator. Some choose not to see God at all. I can’t help but notice that Zech’s vision is of a suffering Shepherd, just as Isaiah did:

There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

Isaiah 53:2-3 (MSG)

At the end of today’s chapter, the suffering Shepherd and suffering exiles own one another. “This is my people,” God says. “This is the Lord our God,” the people say. Both walk the path of suffering and find one another along the way.

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Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

The Struggle for Spiritual Perception

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

“You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?”

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Matthew 16:3, 8-9, 23 (NIV)

Over the winter months this chapter-a-day trek journeyed through the writings of the ancient prophet Isaiah. One of the many relevant and memorable take aways for me from that trek was this:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

On my ceaseless pursuit to observe and plug-in to the flow of what God is doing around me, I am constantly aware of my finite limitations to see, perceive, and know. Today’s chapter is another good reminder.

The religious leaders came with their hearts and minds closed, testing Jesus by asking for a “sign from heaven,” as if all the miracles Jesus had publicly performed were not evidence enough. Jesus walked away. “You don’t get it.”

The disciples had now been following Jesus for some time. They’d been continuously, listening, following, learning, and working together. Jesus had spoken incessantly in parables and word pictures for months. He’d even interpreted parables for them on a constant basis. The boys still couldn’t make the mental shift to think in metaphor. You can almost hear Jesus’ frustration when he says, “You still don’t understand?”

Peter even makes a huge declarative leap of faith to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Yet in the very next moment Peter proves how little he really knows as he tries to get in the way of Jesus’ real mission. “Peter, you’re only seeing from your own self-centered perspective. You really have no clue.”

Those who didn’t really want to see remained blind.
Those who really wanted to see still didn’t fully perceive.
The one who saw in part still revealed a skewed perspective.

This morning I’m reminded of what little I see, how poorly I perceive, and how skewed that perception can be from my own self-interested perspectives. I’d like to stand in judgment thinking that I’m more open than the religious leaders, sharper than the dull-witted disciples, and more perceptive than Peter. But, I confessed earlier in this post that I’m ceaselessly pursuing, seeking, and struggling to perceive. I certainly have no room to judge.

My prayer today is that I can honestly embrace God’s message through Isaiah. I don’t fully perceive the mind of God, nor do I comprehend all that God does. At least today’s chapter reminds me that I’m in good company.

I take solace in the fact that Jesus did not reject His motley crew of followers or strip Peter of the mantel of leadership that He’d just laid on the ol’ bass master. Jesus urged His followers on, and they changed the world. I think I’ll just keep pressing on and pursuing God’s flow despite my acute lack of perception. Maybe God will use me to accomplish a little something along the journey, as well.

Featured  photo courtesy of Jenny-pics via Flickr

Express Yourself

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess,and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
Isaiah 8:1-4 (NIV)

The world of the ancient Hebrew prophets was a whacky place in which everything in their lives was fair game for being living metaphors of their spiritual messages. Marrying a prostitute, walking around the city naked strapped to an ox yoke, and building a city out of Legos in the middle of the city square in order to lay siege to it are among a few of the rather bizarre word pictures God had them act out.

The poor sons of Isaiah had the enjoyable distinction of being born to be given names from their father’s prophetic work. And, I have to believe it likely got them ridiculed and beat up on the ancient playgrounds of Jerusalem:

  • She’ar-Ya’shuv meant “a remnant shall return” which foreshadows the people of Judah who were taken into captivity in Babylon, and the remnant who returned to restore the temple (as told by Nehemiah).
  • Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz meant “spoil quickly, rush to the plunder” which foreshadowed the impending attack and plunder of King Ahaz’s enemies by the Assyrians.

While S-Ya and the Baz-man may have names that seem very strange to us today, the act of layering names of our children with meaning is not new. Taylor and Madison both have middle names that reference women in my family, one on my mother’s side and the other on my dad’s. While Madison is not named for the street I grew up on, I love the added layer of meaning it has for me. It is quite common to give children names layered with meaning by naming them after role-models, inspirational figures, Biblical characters, and etc.

We all do things metaphorically. We layer things with meaning. Metaphor is God’s language. It’s God’s modus-operandi in communicating. Made in God’s image, we all inherently do it. We express ourselves (who we are, and what we believe/think) in what we wear, drive, hang on our walls, do with our time, and post on social media. The prophets simply pushed the envelope. Prompted by God, they were more intentional and more creative with their metaphors.

This morning I’m thinking once again about how I wordlessly express myself, both unconsciously and intentionally. I am no ancient prophet, but it seems to me I have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to be mindful and intentional in all the ways I express myself.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 22

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“If anyone eats from a holy offering accidentally, he must give back the holy offering to the priest and add twenty percent to it.” Leviticus 22:14 (MSG)

I was never a “straight A” student. I did well in school, but was never overly concerned about having to have a perfect grade point average. I wanted to be a good student, but perfect grades didn’t matter that much to me. What mattered to me was not that I had memorized every factoid, brown-nosed every teacher, meticulously excelled at every class project. What mattered to me was that I was getting the big picture. I wanted to understand and internalize each subject and how it fit into the grand scheme of life.

Leviticus is a book that will drive a straight A student crazy. You can list out all of the rules and try to adhere to every one of them, but you’ll find yourself in a straight-jacket. Even God was giving the law so that the people would get the big picture: you can’t possibly live good enough lives to overcome the root problem of sin because rule keeping doesn’t change the condition of your heart.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the lesson had been completely lost. The straight-A, hard-core keepers of the law had created a religious class system based on who best kept all of the rules. They even went further to add rules to the rules which would ensure their power, profit and religious standing. Journey through the source accounts of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you’ll find many example of Jesus calling all of the religious do-gooders to a legal point of order:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

   “‘These people honor me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me.
   They worship me in vain;
   their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

The point of Leviticus is not to get mired in the minutiae of the rules, but to see the larger truth(s) to which they point. Jesus made it clear that God’s great concern was not the keeping of the rules but the condition of the heart.

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Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 19

The Angel of the Lord. And it so happened that that very night an angel of God came and massacred 185,000 Assyrians. When the people of Jerusalem got up next morning, there it was—a whole camp of corpses! 2 Kings 19:35 (MSG)

When we left the previous chapter, the city of Jerusalem was beseiged by the dreaded Assyrian army and the envoys of the Assyrian king were trash-talking to King Hezekiah's representatives. I mentioned that the key to breaking a seige was perseverance (in the face of a painful season with little provision), a strong will (to stand against the arrogant taunts the enemy continually spoke to break you psychologically), and a Deliverer. In today's chapter, we read (a' la Paul Harvey), the rest of the story.

King Hezekiah went first to consult with God's prophet, Isaiah who assures the King that God is not going to let the Assyrian King take Jerusalem. If you want to read more specifically regarding God's message through Isaiah concerning Assyria, read Isaiah 10:5-19 and Isaiah 37. King Hezekiah responds by going to the temple, bows down before God, and praying like he'd never prayed before.

The next day the Assyrian camp was littered with 185,000 corpses. The Deliverer, the Angel of the Lord, brought about a miraculous and unforeseen outcome. The event of the Assyrian army's demise was reported by other historians of antiquity. The Greek historian Herodatus wrote of the event and explained that bubonic plague had rapidly spread through the camp. It brings to mind the Angel of the Lord spreading the plagues through Egypt in delivering the Israelites from captivity in Egypt.

I love the story of Jerusalem's dramatic and miraculous deliverance. At the same time, I think about the seasons of life in which I feel beseiged on all sides. It's perplexing why God dramtically delivers in some moments, and remains agonizingly silent in others. I look back, and I understand that seasons of drought and pain have ultimately produced good things in my life like perseverance, reliance, wisdom, faith, endurance, and humility. Experience has taught me that God's purpose is at work in my pain.

Nevertheless, I prefer those moments when God miraculously delivers us from our troubles.

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