…then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it. Ecclesiastes 8:17 (NIV)
This past weekend, we watched a stand-up comic waxing humorous on this past year of pandemic. He joked that 2020 is the only year in which the U.S. government could admit that there are UFOs and nobody cares. It’s funny, and it’s true.
In case you missed it, the Pentagon is going to release a report this month in which it details findings on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). I’m sure it will create quite a stir. I’m personally prepared for the dramatic conclusion of the report: “We just don’t know.”
We live in a complex universe in which there is a lot that we simply don’t know, and can’t comprehend. Wendy and I just introduced a young friend to the famous double slit experiment in physics this past weekend, as well. It’s really fascinating. Basically, it seems that atoms behave differently when they are not being observed. Really. In one of the videos I watched on the subject, Jim Al-khalili of the Royal Institution humorously explains the experiment then ends with, “If you can explain this using common sense and logic, do let me know, because there’s a Nobel Prize for you.”
In today’s chapter, the ancient Hebrew Sage of Ecclesiastes wraps up a list of life’s conundrums by coming to the conclusion that there are certain things that are beyond comprehension. Even if someone claims to know, he states, they really don’t.
Along my life journey, I’ve observed that creation, life, and relationships are complex things. There are simple truths, but there are few simple answers. Nevertheless, I observe that we as human beings like to try and force issues into simple binary boxes. We do this with all sorts of issues in faith, science, politics, and society. I’m either “this” or “that.” If I’m not “that” then I’m certainly “this.” The further I progress in this journey, the more I’ve found that there’s a humility required of me in this life to admit that I don’t really know everything, while continuing to engage in asking good questions, seeking to know and be known, and knocking on the door of opportunity to grow in love and understanding.
I’ve also come to a place in which I’m always cautious whenever I find myself confronted with the proud, loud certainties of others, no matter the source or subject. Jesus said that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled. His example was that of being “humble, and gentle-hearted.”
I’m quite certain that this world could use more of that. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m also quite certain that Jesus wants me to follow that example.
UFO’s and why atoms behave differently when they’re being watched. I’m not certain.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4 (NIV)
I confess. I am a Tolkien nerd. I have been most of my life. Before the advent of cell phones I would typically read The Lord of the Rings once a year. Now, I have it on audiobook and will often listen to it when I can’t sleep. Once I got a text from my daughter asking me, “Do you know the name of Theoden’s horse?”
I immediately replied. “Of course. Snowmane.”
She then texted. “Thanks. Playing pub trivia and I knew you’d know.”
But I couldn’t let it go at that. I then added:
“Gandalf’s horse is Shadowfax. Sam’s pony is Bill. Glorfindel’s horse is Asfaloth. Aragorn’s horse is Hasufel. Legolas’ horse is Arod.”
Okay. I was showing off and geeking out. Maybe I have a problem.
Geeking out came to mind as I read today’s chapter, Psalm 110, because it contains a geeky reference in the Great Story that I find even life-long followers of Jesus to be largely unaware. It is the mysterious character of Melchizedek.
Melchizedek makes his appearance towards the very beginning of the Great Story when God calls Abraham:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Genesis 14:17-20 (NIV)
That’s it. That’s the only reference to him and that’s all we know about him. And this is where the mystery begins. In the Great Story Abram is the first of the Hebrew “patriarchs.” At this point in the story, there are no Ten Commandments, no system of worship (which came through Moses centuries later), no record of any kind of formal “priesthood.” So, who is Melchizedek? Where did he come from? How did he become “priest of God Most High” and what exactly did that mean?
We. Don’t. Know.
So, why is he important?
In the Hebrew system of worship that God prescribed through Moses, the “priesthood” was relegated to Aaron and his descendants. If you weren’t in the line of Aaron then you couldn’t be a priest. When the law and sacrificial system was established through Moses the Hebrews had no “king.” It would be centuries before they established a monarchy. When they did, the line of King David was established as the royal line through which the Messiah would come. So, if the Messiah was to be both King of Kings (from the royal line of David) and eternal High Priest (and only descendants of Aaron could be priests) how is that possible?
David wrote the coronation song, Psalm 110, that prophetically provided the answer. Some scholars say that Psalm 110 is the most directly prophetic of all the psalms, but that isn’t easily understood by the casual reader. David references the mysterious priesthood before Moses and before Aaron. He connects the Messiah with the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” who “brought out bread and wine“ (sound familiar?). The early followers of Jesus saw it and the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews (also a mystery) fleshed it out. The priesthood and sacrificial system of Aaron was a temporary spiritual band-aid and living metaphor of what was to come. The ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus was sourced in an eternal priesthood that was older, deeper, and (from a human perspective) infinitely mysterious.
The author of Hebrews writes:
“Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of the Highest God. He met Abraham, who was returning from “the royal massacre,” and gave him his blessing. Abraham in turn gave him a tenth of the spoils. “Melchizedek” means “King of Righteousness.” “Salem” means “Peace.” So, he is also “King of Peace.” Melchizedek towers out of the past—without record of family ties, no account of beginning or end. In this way he is like the Son of God, one huge priestly presence dominating the landscape always.” Hebrews 7:1-3 (MSG)
In the quiet this morning I feel like I’m geeking out on the Great Story like I geek out on The Lord of the Rings so forgive me if this post leaves you rolling your eyes and/or scratching your head.
A faith journey isn’t about reason or it wouldn’t be faith. In the mystery of Melchizedek, I’m reminded that faith requires of me the humility to accept that there are truths that lie in mystery. They are deeper, older, and unfathomable this side of eternity. Once again, I am grateful to Richard Rohr for introducing me to the concept that mystery isn’t something that we can’t understand but something we endlessly understand. The further I get in my spiritual journey, the more I have come to embrace and enjoy the mystery.
For most of my life journey, I have spent the beginning of my day in quiet. It helps that I have been a morning person my entire life and am typically the first one awake in the house. It has allowed me to create a spiritual rhythm. Each morning it’s just me in my home office. The neighborhood is silent. The household is silent. I am silent.
You may not know it, but silence is endangered in our world. There are a niche of audio artists and recording specialists who endeavor to capture the simple, pure sounds of nature sans the noises of technology and human civilizations encroachment on it. They complain that their jobs and their passion are made increasingly difficult.
Noise is everywhere.
In my podcast series The Beginner’s Guide to the Great StoryI used three words to guide one’s journey through various sections and genres of ancient text that make up the compilation we call the Bible. The three words are:
Metaphor Context Mystery
This morning’s chapter led me into mystery. Bear with me as I lead you through it. I typically read each day’s chapter in The St. John’s Bible, the only handwritten and illuminated copy of the entire Bible produced in the last 500 years or so. I love it. It’s beautiful. It is a transcription of the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE…By the way, I explain why there are all these different versions in The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story Part 2). I will usually then switch and read the chapter a second time in the translation I’ve been most accustomed to for the last thirty years which is the New International Version (NIV). Something was missing:
In the illuminated manuscript of the St. John’s Bible the word “Selah” was written in red ink along the right margin between verses four and five. In the NIV the word was missing altogether. It was left out.
The game’s afoot, Watson!
Selah is, in and of itself, a mysterious word. The Hebrew language is thousands of years old and it was largely lost to the world for a long time. The result is that there are some Hebrew words that the most knowledgable scholars of the Hebrew language can only shrug their shoulders. The meaning is mysteriously lost to antiquity.
The editors of the NRSV translation chose to leave the mystery in the text.
The editors of the NIV chose to eliminate the word for their readers rather than try to explain it or allow me to consider it.
What a shame. Because mystery is part of the on-going journey of the Great Story, and words are literally metaphors. These squiggly lines made by pixels on my screen are just that. They are lines, symbols that my brain instantly turns into phonetic sounds which make words which are layered with meaning. And, as I continually remind myself, mystery is that which I can endlessly understand (Thank you Fr. Rohr).
It is popularly speculated that the word Selah was some kind of musical rest or pause because it always appears in the middle of musical lyrics such as the Psalms or the poetic work of the prophet Habakkuk. While this is pure speculation and educated guess, what modern wayfarers journeying through the Great Story have done is to find a layer of meaning in the letters and sounds of the word Selah.
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in him.
But when I consider that the word Selah might very well mean to actually stop, pause, rest, wait a second, or as The Passion Translation chooses to say: “Pause in God’s Presence” then the verse takes on added meaning:
Selah (Pause in God’s Presence) For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in him.
In a world of endangered silence, with ceaseless noise of humanity encroaching on me 24/7/365, I find this morning that I need the mystery of Selah, even if the metaphor is purely a layer of meaning I have chosen to attach to it in the endless understanding of possibility.
My spirit needs the pause.
Waiting. Silent. I hear the still, small voice of Holy Spirit.
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. Psalm 22:30-31 (NRSVCE)
I’ve been doing a series of podcasts called the Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story. There are ten episodes in the series and I’m doing the series for those who know little or nothing about how what we call the Bible. Why do I call it the Great Story? Well, I’m not the first to do so, and I find that just saying the word “Bible” can conjure up so many prejudicial thoughts and notions. Besides, I’m more interested in the Story that is being told through the narrative from the beginning in Genesis to the end of Revelation which, again (spoiler alert!), a new beginning.
The next episode in the Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story series is part seven in which I’m going to talk about the section of texts from Isaiah to those written by the Italian prophet Malachi (Sorry, that’s like a dad joke, it never gets old for me). The prophets were some of the strangest characters in the Great Story, and the prophetic texts are mysterious, sometimes poetic and inspiring, sometimes gruesome and violent, sometimes so graphic it would make church ladies blush (therefore those texts are almost universally ignored by everyone).
Think about how the prophetic is almost universally present in all of our great epic stories. One of my favorite prophetic characters is Sybill Trelawney in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epic (and NOT because my sister, Jody, could could easily pull off being the doppleganger of Emma Thompson’s iconic take on the character). I just love how Professor Trelawney does virtually nothing by way of being prophetic or accurate in her daily predictions. She’s a miserable failure at her subject. But on just a couple of occasions she actually is prophetic, though in each case she doesn’t know it and has no memory of what she actually said. That is classic prophetic mystery. I love it.
Today’s psalm, written by David, is a classic because the warrior-king songwriter has his Sybill Trelawney moment. Written in the neighborhood of 1000 years before Jesus, the 22nd psalm is dripping with prophetic imagery of Jesus.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Psalm 22:1
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 20:46
But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. Psalm 22:6
Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has [Jesus] done?” But [the crowd] shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” Mark 15:14
All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads Psalm 22:7
The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. Luke 23:10-11
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. Psalm 22:9
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Magi] left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Matthew 2:12-13
On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Psalm 22:10
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Luke 1:30-35
Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. Psalm 22:12-13
Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” Luke 22:63-64
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. Psalm 22:14-15
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him… John 19:16-18
For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. Psalm 22:16-18
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. John 19:23-25
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. Psalm 22:26
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. John 6:26-27
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. Psalm 22: 30-31
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:6-9
In the quiet this morning I find myself asking, “Did David have any idea what he was writing when he penned the lyrics to the song we now call Psalm 22?”
I don’t think he did. I think it was his Sybill Trelawney moment. Along my life journey, I’ve observed that this is the way the prophetic works. It’s mysterious, and strange, and comes from the most unexpected of people in the most random moments of time. Maybe even me. Maybe even you. You can’t will it to happen like Professor Trelawney so aptly proved in every one of her utterly useless classes. Those who try to do so end up charlatans like Gilderoy Lockhard or end up drowning their sorrows in a bottle of Sherry like Professor Trelawney herself. The prophetic happens when it’s supposed to happen via the medium God chooses (and God often chooses the strangest of mediums). Yet, when it happens, like David having his Trelawney moment in Psalm 22, it’s pretty amazing.
Today I’m pressing on, not willing things to happen, but open and expectant of whatever is supposed to happen in this Great Story in which I’m simply trying to play my bit part to the best of my ability.
(Exit Tom, stage left) See you tomorrow!
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Spiritual Hearing and Sight Impairment (CaD Ex 6) –
Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery. Exodus 6:9 (NRSVCE)
When Jesus was teaching, He would repetitiously tag his message by saying, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” This phrase has always resonated with me. Maybe more so because in the experience of delivering a message I have always experienced that some people really “hear” the message and others do not. Jesus was constantly acknowledging this truth. In explaining to His followers the reason He taught with parables He went so far as to embrace that this is part of a larger spiritual mystery revealed by the prophet, Isaiah:
That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again: “Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing. Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing. The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; They screw their eyes shut so they won’t have to look, so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face and let me heal them. “But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear!” Matthew 13 :13-16 (MSG)
Not everyone wants to see it or hear it in this moment.
Not everyone is ready to see it or hear it in this moment.
In yesterday’s chapter, Moses’ first attempt at getting Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go was a dismal failure. Not only did Pharaoh reject the appeal, but he made life even worse for the Hebrews whom Moses is trying to lead. In today’s chapter, Moses is prompted by God to have another go at it but his people would not listen “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on those whom I observe to be suffering from spiritual hearing and sight impairment. In my experience, the institutional church and its regulatory minions have been too quick to diagnose such a person with a terminal spiritual condition. Judgment and condemnation quickly follow before shaking the dust off and returning to the cloister. I confess that, in my own spiritual journey, I have been guilty of this very attitude.
As I began to walk life’s journey along-side those who are struggling to spiritually see and hear, I found them to be a lot like the Hebrews in today’s chapter. There is something broken spiritually. Often it is something old and painful that is deep-seated. Typically it is of no fault of their own. It is the scars of circumstance. I have also observed that there is almost always a true desire to spiritually hear and see, but there is a process. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, the first time Jesus rubbed the man’s eyes everything was blurry. It took another repetition before the man gained his full sight.
It’s going to take repetition for Moses’ people, too. They are broken. They’re struggling under the weight of their chains and the scars of their overseers. It’s going to take time, repetition, and perseverance before they can hear what God is saying and see what God is doing through Moses.
Along the way, I’ve learned that if someone is spiritually deaf and blind, it simply means I need to keep speaking in love, listening patiently, acting kindly, responding gently, serving faithfully, and controlling my reactions. I’m reminded that on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus was still complaining that His closest followers weren’t hearing Him or seeing what He was doing.
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square… Proverbs 1:20 (NIV)
The further I get in my journey the more I both appreciate wisdom and realize how little I have understood wisdom through the years. In my youth, I thought of wisdom as simply making good choices. I have come to realize and appreciate that that wisdom is deeper and more mysterious than I ever knew.
Today begins our chapter-a-day journey through the ancient book of Proverbs. It is a collection of thoughts and short sayings about wisdom. Even in today’s introductory chapter, I find the wisdom is presented in multi-faceted fashion:
It comes from instruction. (vs. 3)
No matter how much you have, there’s more. (vs. 5)
There is a spiritual component at its root. (vs. 7)
There is a generational component, as those who are further in their life journeys have wisdom to offer me of which I am ignorant at my current stage of life. (vs. 8)
There is a communal component to wisdom that finds its source in the people with whom I surround myself and the influence I allow them to have on my thoughts and behavior. (vs. 10-19)
The most fascinating thing I find about wisdom comes from the second half of the chapter. Wisdom is personified and embodied. Wisdom begins to speak. Wisdom is a woman.
In ancient literature and mythology, the personified Wisdom is often named “Sophia,” from the Greek word defined as “wisdom.” That Wisdom should be personified as female makes complete sense to me. I have written on multiple occasions regarding the lessons I’ve learned from being surrounded by women most of my life. As with wisdom, women are multi-faceted. They can at once be simple and complex, strong and gentle, resilient and fragile. Just when I think I have a handle on understanding them, I am reminded that there is a mystery to be endlessly understood.
In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating Sophia. It’s been a while since the last journey through Proverbs (April/May of 2013), and so much has changed for me in those seven years. I’m at a completely different waypoint on life’s journey. I’m looking forward to what God has to teach me through Sophia and the book of Proverbs in the next few weeks. When I was a young man I considered myself wise, but from where I currently stand on Life’s road I’ve come to realize that there is always more wisdom a little further up and further in.
About This Post
These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.
Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. Luke 8:37 (NIV)
Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him. Luke 8:40 (NIV)
Life is filled with mysterious paradoxes. As a follower of Jesus for almost 40 years, I have witnessed many debates and intense conversation spring up over the years among theologians, zealous followers, and various boxes of institutional Christianity who argue perpetual questions of faith and life. There are those questions that produce endless debates which are endlessly renewed and rehashed with every subsequent generation.
At the top of the list of these perpetual debates is a simple question. Does God choose us, or do we choose God? In theological terms it is worded: Are our lives predestined, or do we have free will to make our own choices?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to jump into the deep end of theology on you here to renew and rehash the question in this post. You’ll have to buy me a pint if you want me to discuss my thoughts on the matter. I simply raise the matter because of an observation in today’s chapter.
As Dr. Luke continues his biography of Jesus, he continues in today’s chapter to relate stories from Jesus’ miraculous ministry tour. He’s in one region along the shores of Galilee. There’s a local in the area who has been a lunatic his whole life and everyone in the town knew it. The man’s insanity was rooted in things spiritual. He was possessed by numerous demons. Jesus casts out the demons. The people of the town, rather than being impressed, are freaked out completely. They beg Jesus to leave them.
Jesus and his entourage get in their boat and sail back across the Sea of Galilee, returning to a town that had become a sort of base of operations for Jesus’ tour. When they arrive, a crowd is there at the dock waiting expectantly for Jesus to arrive.
Here is my simple observation from within the quiet this morning:t my spirit’s attitude towards God matters. The people in the region of the Gerasenes were afraid and freaked out. They asked Jesus to leave, and He did. The people on the dock, in contrast, were eager, expectant, seeking, desiring, and waiting for Jesus’ return. Immediately a woman is healed and a girl is raised from the dead.
Followers of Jesus around the world are in the middle of a five week ancient tradition called the season of Advent. In simple terms, it is about the attitude of one’s heart toward Jesus. It is a time of heart preparation, expectation, seeking, and longing for Jesus’ arrival like the people at the dock. We celebrate His first arrival at Christmas, and we look expectantly towards His second arrival which He promised on a day and hour that is, itself, one of this earthly life’s perpetual mysteries.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that under the weight of endless theological debate I often find a very simple spiritual truth.
I can ask Jesus to leave and stay away.
I can seek, desire, and expectantly welcome Jesus in.
Since we are approaching the end of all things, be intentional, purposeful, and self-controlled so that you can be given to prayer. 1 Peter 4:7 (TPT)
Wendy and I had the joy of hosting a houseful of her family this past weekend. It was fun to have Wendy’s grandmother over and to surround her with loved ones she doesn’t get to see very often. Grandma is in her nineties and still living independently here in town.
I remember my own grandfather who lived well into his nineties. I have observed that there’s a particular reality that people go through at that age. There’s a loneliness that sets in when most everyone they knew as contemporaries are gone. With it, there is a questioning of why they are still on this Earth.
As I was among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers yesterday morning I happened to note those who have gone through the agony of having children die.
Those who wonder why they are still here, and those who wonder why that had to bury a child before their young lives even got started. Welcome to the mystery.
In today’s chapter, Peter tells the followers of Jesus scattered and living in exile that the end of all things was near. This was something that the early believers wholeheartedly believed. Despite the fact that Jesus Himself said that no one knew when He would return, the early believers assumed it could be any minute, and urged Jesus’ followers to live as if it could be any minute.
Along my life journey, I have observed that believers of almost every generation I’ve lived with have been convinced that Jesus’ return and the end of all things were near. As an amateur historian, I’ve learned that believers throughout history have been convinced of the same.
Theologians call it “the imminent return of Christ.” In other words, it could happen at any moment, and I do believe that. I also believe that Jesus was right when He told His followers that the exact time of the end times would remain a mystery. That means that it is also very possible that those of my generation will be like Peter and those of every subsequent generation who was convinced they would live and die believing they’d see the events of John’s Revelation take place in person.
In the same way, I have also observed that this earthly journey is both fragile and mysterious. While the average person expects to live to the average age, every day the journey ends for individuals far sooner than anyone expected. This is also part of the mystery.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself coming to one spiritual conclusion from these mysteries of the unknown future: Let the uncertainty of tomorrow inform the way I approach today.
As Jesus put it:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
And so, I enter another day. Have a good one, my friend.
Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two. Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)
One of my geeky interests in this life is art history. In college, I had an art professor who taught Art History from a Western Civilization textbook. His reasoning was that you can’t separate the art from everything that was going on in the culture around it. Politics, religion, commerce, and other popular art forms of the day were both influencing what the artist was expressing and being influenced by it at the same time. Ever since that class, my love of history and my love of art have overlapped.
One of the things I find fascinating in art history is that modern scholars can have vastly different interpretations of what an artist was trying to communicate. And, they might both be partially right, or completely wrong. That’s the way it is with no historical record from that artist explaining the piece.
When it comes to the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, I encounter much of the same kind of struggle. Very intelligent and educated scholars can interpret certain visions and metaphors differently. There are ancient words the prophets used for which we have no clear definition. Like a mysterious old painting, we are sometimes left trying to piece together contextual clues to figure it out.
In today’s chapter, Zechariah describes his eighth and final vision about the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Four Spirits in chariots with different colored horses are dispatched across the world. The exact meaning of the bronze mountains and the colors of the horses is speculative. The angel tells Zech that the Spirit that went north gave God’s Spirit “rest in the land of the north.” We do know that the north was considered the land of Babylon and the direction from which Jerusalem’s enemies came. This gist of this final vision indicates a time of peace.
Then Zech switches gears and receives a word from God to make a crown and put it on the head of Joshua the priest. What’s fascinating about this is that since the days of Moses when the religious system of the Hebrews was established (see the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the priesthood and the crown were two distinct offices. The king ruled politically, and the priest was the intercessor between God and the people. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests and only direct descendants of David could be king. Zechariah’s prophetic word describes a “Branch” who will unite the two.
Fast forward to Jesus. The family histories given by both Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. John the Baptist’s parents were both descendants of Aaron. In the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John there is a symbolic joining of the two. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the word pictures and descriptions of Christ and the metaphors are of both king and priest. In Revelation 5, for example, Jesus is “the lamb” (the priestly sacrifice) who sits on the throne (the king of kings). The book of Hebrews was written to establish how Jesus is both King and High Priest (see Hebrews chapters 1 and 7).
In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering on all the mysterious artwork of visions and dreams that come down to us from the ancient prophets. Some prophetic visions and word pictures, like what the two bronze mountains in Zech’s vision are supposed to mean, are as mysterious to me as they are to wisest of scholars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the artwork of the word pictures and find meaning in them for myself. They make great fodder for speculative conversations over a pint. Others, like the joining of the priesthood and the crown weave together the Great Story that God is authoring across time. They thread together the tapestry of history and provide me a greater depth of meaning and understanding of my faith.
As I head out into my day I’m reminded that my life journey is like that. Some things are clear to me, while other things are mysteries to be endlessly understood. Another reason why this life is a faith journey and not a commuter ride.
Many years ago I was asked to lead a study with a large group of young people about prophecy and the book of Revelation. The room was packed each week, not that this had anything to do with me or my teaching. My lessons rarely commanded such interest. Only one of my classes garnered such popularity and that was the one on the topic of sex (go figure). There’s something about the prophetic and the idea of knowing what’s going to happen in the future that intrigues people.
I thought of that class from 30 years ago as I read today’s final chapter of Daniel. There are a couple of specific and unique references in the chapter. In one, the angelic figure in Daniel’s vision tells him that the events he describes will be for “a time, times, and half a time.” In another, the angelic figure makes a specific reference to 1,290 days and then 1,335 days. In the school of thought in which I was raised and educated (and then taught 30 years ago), the phrase and days are referenced as part of a future time referenced in the book of Revelation as “The Great Tribulation,” which is said will last 3.5 years:
As I’ve progressed in my journey, experienced more life, and read other learned commentators on the subject, I’m less certain of the iron-clad interpretation with which some of my teachers pompously prognosticated and which I emphatically parrotted 30 years ago. It’s possible that the interpretation is correct, of course, and I have no problem suggesting it as such. There are just so many variables.
Daniel was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew is an ancient language and the definition of many words remain mysteries to the most scholarly of linguists. Aramaic is a dead language no longer even used today. Interpretations of the strange phrase the angel used vary, and the two numbers don’t seem to coincide with any particular events in the past or in prophecy. The Babylonian culture and the educational system in which Daniel was schooled was steeped in very sophisticated arithmetic that they connected to both astronomy and their native religion. So, to emphatically state that the word translated “times” absolutely means “two” and this certainly relates to 3.5 years of the seven-year Tribulation referenced in the seventh chapter of Revelation which was written almost half a millennium later, well…you catch my drift.
I also remind myself that the most learned and emphatic prophetic prognosticators of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah was going to arrive as a warlord, wipe out the Romans, and set up a global kingdom. Even Jesus’ own followers believed that right up to the time He was hanging on a cross. Oops. The lesson I’ve tried to learn from this is simply to be humble about that which can be known and that which requires faith, defined in God’s Message as “the assurance of what we hope for and the evidence of that which we cannot see.”
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that the further I travel this earthly existence the less need I feel to be emphatically certain about some things, and the more en-joy-ment I derive from living in the mystery. I love the way the angelic being leaves Daniel scratching his head and reeling with confusion about all the mysterious prophetic numbers and phrases. I love that the angel ends the book by telling Danny Boy: “As for you, go your way until the end.”
Keep going. Press on. Just keep going doing the things I’m doing. When it comes to the prophetic, I can have faith that things will take care of themselves.