Tag Archives: Prophets.

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.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Doom and Gloom from Zeph to CBS

“That day will be a day of wrath,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness….”
Zephaniah 1:15 (NRSV)

Wendy and I start most mornings with coffee, breakfast and the newspaper. We read through the news and discuss world events. We  talk about the elections and the latest prognostications from modern-day prophets on the editorial pages. More often than not we  chuckle at the horror, the doom, and the gloom that we find there.

There is something innately human about the way we flock to bad news. News outlets know that we, like lemmings, will be drawn and to blood (10 Dead in Latest Rampage) and fear (Study Shows Water Will Kill You). Publications on the left know that their readers are motivated by fear of the right (Ted Cruz Wants to Arm Babies!) and publications on the right know that readers are motivated by fear of the left (Hillary’s Secret E-mails Gave ISIS Our Nuclear Protocols!). What’s more, fear sells papers and draws viewers which generate advertising dollars. And fear creates lucrative financial opportunities (Do Cell Phones Breed Brain Worms? Congress Earmarks Funds for Research).

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

The ancient prophets were also doom and gloom-ers. Read today’s chapter and it’s enough to motivate a call to your physician for a prescription of Zoloft. The scenes of devastation that Zephaniah pictures are horrific, much like the scenes of devastation described by CBS Sunday Morning this past Sunday in their predictions of the earthquake,  “The Big One,” that will someday hit the Pacific northwest.

The thing is, there is truth in the doom and gloom. Read the historic accounts of Judah’s siege and devastating defeat to the Babylonians and all of a sudden Zephaniah seems fairly prescient. When you think about 15,000 dead in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami five years ago, the predictive doom and gloom for Seattle and Portland become more than mere yellow journalism.

History is full of tragedy, destruction, war, famine, suffering, and death. It has always been part of the human experience and it always  will. The question is not whether bad things will happen but how I will respond when they do. I can obsess in fear about what might happen in the future, or I can be wise in how I walk life’s journey on this day. I can choose to focus on anxiety-producing “what ifs” regarding tomorrow, or I can choose to focus on being a person of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness today.

This morning, on this day, I am focused on Jesus’ words:

“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.” Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

Contrasting Messages; Contrasting Paths

"Relatively easy path to the summit" photo by Brian Taylor via Flickr
“Relatively easy path to the summit” photo by Brian Taylor via Flickr

You will be sought, but you will never again be found, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
Ezekiel 26:21b

There’s no getting around the fact that the messages of the prophets were and are, by and large, depressing. Doom, gloom and judgement are a tough assignment to continuously deliver. I’ll admit that we’ve only made a little more than half way through Zeke’s anthology of prophetic messages and I’m already looking at the calendar with an eye to when we’ll be through it. I have been finding some fascinating stuff in it, but it’s hard to read day after day and not want for a little positive reinforcement.

Which, as I ruminate on it this morning, I believe is part of the point. The doomsday messages of the prophets is set on the timeline of history 400-800 years before the birth of Jesus. When the prophet Malachi ended his prophetic messages c. 430 B.C. there was a long silence until the angel Gabriel broke the news to Mary that she was pregnant. And, with that message doom began to give way to hope and salvation.

That Message of hope and salvation embodied in Jesus stands in stark contrast to the messages of doom and judgement of the prophets. I find it interesting that Ezekiel’s message in today’s chapter is of being lost and never found, while Jesus’ messages were consistently about finding that which was lost. Jesus preached of finding lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children.

On this life journey we experience different times and seasons. We may journey through difficult stretches in which our own foolishness, rebellion, and hard hearted choices consequentially result in having to plod along difficult paths. Feeling lost and hopeless are not unique to the human experience, and there are times when we can identify with the prophets doom and gloom. Jesus was sent, however, to show us The Way that leads to Life for any who has faith to ask, seek, knock, and follow.

The Prophet and the Sower

the sower full

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!'”
Ezekiel 13:1-2 (NIV)

I do not believe that we who live in a post-enlightenment age can possibly fathom the religious climate of Ezekiel’s day. A person living in Jerusalem in that day would be familiar with various temples and religious centers catering to a giant web of Canaanite deities. A person living in the time of Ezekiel would be very familiar with mediums, prophets, fortune tellers, and soothsayers. It was a central part of daily life and the economy in the ancient world.

As I read of the prophetic performances God asked Ezekiel and his contemporaries to produce, it is easy to think that they stood out like sore thumbs. However, when I stop to consider the loud cacophony of prophets who catered to popular gods like Baal, Asherah, Dagon, Molech, Lotan, and Chemosh on the streets of Jerusalem, I wonder if Ezekiel’s prophetic performance art caused any more of a stir than a man dressed like Barney the dinosaur would cause in Times Square today.

In today’s chapter God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against false prophets and those sons and daughters of Israel who were profiting from telling people what they wanted to hear and who appear to have mixed themselves and their faith with the practice of other religions. The question I ask myself is whether Ezekiel’s voice could even be heard above the din of the idolatrous crowd.

Today, I find myself mulling over how our culture (even in out post-enlightenment age) both parallels and contrasts the religious atmosphere of Ezekiel’s day. The internet has raised, to unprecedented levels, the cacophony of voices saying anything and everything to anyone and everyone. I am very aware that the voice of my squeaky little posts are lost in the din of information, advertisement, entertainment, opinion, and conjecture. Did Ezekiel feel the same way?

This morning I’m reminded of Van Gogh’s many drawings and paintings of the sower. The sower does not always know where his seed may fall, nor how they might take root, grow, or bear fruit. The sowers job is to cast his seed into the field. The prophets job is to sow his message into the din of contemporary voices.

Interpreting the Language of God

Artwork by Michael Buesking at prophetasartist.com
Artwork by Michael Buesking at http://www.prophetasartist.com

Now, son of man, take a sharp sword and use it as a barber’s razor to shave your head and your beard. Then take a set of scales and divide up the hair. When the days of your siege come to an end, burn a third of the hair inside the city. Take a third and strike it with the sword all around the city. And scatter a third to the wind. For I will pursue them with drawn sword. But take a few hairs and tuck them away in the folds of your garment. Again, take a few of these and throw them into the fire and burn them up. A fire will spread from there to all Israel.
Ezekiel 5:1-4 (NIV)

Ezekiel’s performance art piece continues in today’s chapter. After a year and three months to act out the siege of Jerusalem, God tells Ezekiel to cut off his hair and weigh it on the scales. Burn a third, strike a third, scatter a third, but tuck a few into your cloak.

The word picture God has Ezekiel act out is actually very direct.

Think of how Jesus described our importance to God. He said, “even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” Ezekiel cutting off his hair is a picture of the cutting off of all those numbered, important ones – God’s people.

We all know that scales represent justice. Almost every courthouse in the country has a statue of the woman, Justice, blindfolded and holding out the scales. Think of what we just read in the stories of Daniel when Daniel interprets the dream of Belshazzar:

You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

God is going to allow His people to be cut off from Jerusalem in judgement.

  • Burn a third: Jerusalem will burn in the siege, a third of the people will die in the fire
  • Strike a third with with the sword: One third will be killed in the battle/siege
  • Scatter a third: One third will be scattered to the four winds, a diaspora
  • Tuck a few: God will tuck away a small remnant into His keeping and protection (exactly what happened with Ezekiel, Daniel and his three Amigos, and the remnant in Persia)

To understand the prophets, we must learn to think in word pictures and allegory. We hear God’s command to Ezekiel and picture his acting all of this out on the street, and we think that we would probably have dismissed him as a crazy fool. Yet even Shakespeare knew that it is usually the fool who knows and speak the truth, and he used that as a device over and over again. Through Ezekiel and his contemporaries, God attempted to communicate what he was about to do through the acting out of metaphors that even an uneducated person could understand.

Today, I’m struck once more by the language of metaphor that God wove into the fabric of creation. It is the basic means by which God expresses Himself in profound ways that touch and move both mind, soul, and spirit. To become effective communicators, we must learn to both hear and to speak in that same language.

A Time and Place for Particular Discussions

source: Phil Renaud via Flickr
source: Phil Renaud via Flickr

He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Daniel 12:9 (NIV)

When our daughters were small, they had all sorts of questions. They had questions about life and death, about bodies and babies. As a parent, there was wisdom required in answering appropriately for that particular time and place in their own cognitive and emotional development. Some questions received answers in simple word pictures. Other questions were deferred for a more appropriate time and place in their maturing life journeys. It is with great joy that we now get to have adult conversation with them over a great meal and a bottle of wine. And still, some questions have yet to be fully asked or answered.

There is, I believe, a parallel with how God reveals things prophetically throughout the Great Story. In today’s chapter, the phrase “everlasting life” is revealed for the first time:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

It is the only time this particular phrase, “everlasting life,” is used in the stories and writings of God’s Message before Jesus appears on the scene. God has waited to reveal it at this moment in the story. How fascinating that it makes its appearance at the end of Daniel. The time of the prophets is coming to an end. There will be a 400 year silence before the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

When Daniel, like a curious child, asks for more information he is put off. “Go your way,” he is told. “Go play,” I told my daughters when I had revealed all I had for them in the moment and it was time for them not to worry about the subject anymore. Daniel is told that the words are “rolled up (like a scroll) and sealed.” In other words, “this isn’t the time or place for the answer to be revealed.”

When Jesus’ follower, John, is given his vision on the Isle of Patmos some 500 years and several chapters of the Great Story later, the subject comes up again:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Revelation 5:1-5 (NIV)

There are appointed times for certain things to be revealed. This is true in life as we discuss things with our children. This is true in any good story, play, or movie. This is true in the Great Story as well. Faith is believing that things will be revealed to us at the right time. Until then, it’s okay if we go play.

Truth Amidst the Noise

Sarah Ross Photography via Flickr
Sarah Ross Photography via Flickr

Your prophets have said
    so many foolish things, false to the core.
They did not save you from exile
    by pointing out your sins.
Instead, they painted false pictures,
    filling you with false hope.
Lamentations 2:14 (NLT)

When I read about the ancient prophets telling people what they wanted to hear, I can’t help but think of the talking heads I find on every news channel and Sunday morning political talk show. I have gone on record saying that I find myself watching less and less of the news channels and news programs these days. The spinning and distortion of facts to defend untenable political positions happens on every side of the political isle. Whether a socialist regime, a tyrant, a dictatorship, a monarchy, a commonwealth or a representative republic, politics is filled with people who are vying for and clinging to power and all the personal gain it creates.

It was no different in Jeremiah’s day. The story of Jeremiah is a story of Shakespearean proportions. Jeremiah went to great lengths to warn the people of Jerusalem, including the king, that Babylon was coming. He urged the king and people to wake up from their spiritual slumber and repent. Yet Jeremiah stood alone against a host of prophets who spun and distorted the facts to solidify their personal standing and to tell the king and the public what they wanted to hear: everything is okay. Jeremiah was hated, publicly humiliated, persecuted, tortured and imprisoned for speaking the truth. The book of Lamentations is one of the most tragic “I told you so”s in history.

As I progress in my journey I find myself caring more about and concerning myself more with what is really true, and less about political opinions and social rhetoric. Finding what is true amidst the noise of media blasting at us 24/7/365 can be a daunting task. I often feel like a spinning compass seeking true north. To find it, I try to identify nuggets of truth to guide my thoughts.

If you keep going deeper in debt spending money you don’t have, at some point you face financial ruin. That’s true.

Since the beginning of time evil people have done evil things, and when they gain power they do evil things on a grand scale. Evil is not going away. That’s true.

Jesus said there are just two commandments. Love God. Love people. That’s true.

 

I can make a difference, even a small one, in the lives of people with whom I interact today through simple acts of kindness, love, grace and forgiveness. That’s true.

 

Chapter-a-Day Micah 3

Here is God's Message to the prophets, the preachers who lie to my people:"For as long as they're well paid and well fed, the prophets preach, 'Isn't life wonderful! Peace to all!' But if you don't pay up and jump on their bandwagon, their 'God bless you' turns into 'God damn you.' Micah 3:5 (MSG)

Life is a mixture of good times and bad, of hope and despair. The journey takes us through peaks and valleys. Sometimes we need an encouraging pat on the back. Sometimes we need a swift kick in the pants. When life is out of balance, my perceptions quickly become clouded.

The prophets of Micah's day were out of balance. Their motivation was selfish ("I only care about my own personal needs") and their message was a bubble off plumb ("I'll say whatever you want to hear as long as the money keeps rolling in"). I can think of many of today's "prophets" and see parallels. There is nothing new under the sun.

I can't control others, but I can control myself. Today, I think about the messages I send to family, friends, clients and co-workers. I want to make sure that the words and messages out of my own mouth reflect a healthy balance. I don't want to reflect my own selfish motives, but as much as possible I want to objectively reflect what is true.