“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of…” “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:34b, 37 (NIV)
Every morning, Wendy and I sit at the kitchen island with our coffee and our blueberry-spinach smoothies. We share a quick devotional thought and a prayer for the day ahead. We then catch up on what is happening in the world. On occasion, I’ll finish reading an article and then glance at the comments that have been made by other readers below it. I don’t know why I even do this. I always regret doing so because the comments have such little worthwhile content and so much worthless vitriol. It doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle the article comes from.
I find the same to be true even among groups of supposedly like-minded individuals. Years ago I joined fan groups of my favorite teams on social media. I rarely visit them anymore. Even among people who cheer for the same team, I find the conflict and negative discourse over really trivial matters is often off-the-charts. I don’t find it worthwhile to spend my time and energy falling down that rabbit hole.
In today’s chapter, Jesus states a very simple spiritual truth that packs a punch:
Whatever is inside my heart and soul will come out of my mouth (and onto my social media posts) as words.
In the quiet this morning, I didn’t have to search for, or think hard about, what God had for me and my day from today’s chapter. I found myself thinking long and hard about Jesus’ observation: the words I speak, type, write, and use are a leading indicator of my soul’s health and content. I immediately thought of careless words I regret speaking to a friend last week. I then had two other passages that Holy Spirit brought to mind:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1:19 (NIV)
My soul operates on the basic computer principle I learned when I was in high school: garbage in, garbage out.
I head into my day with two questions I’m pondering:
What am I feeding my heart and mind?
What do my words, tweets, posts, and comments reveal about the health and condition of my soul?
The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. John 10:24-26 (NIV)
Wendy and I have been regular readers of the Wall Street Journal forever. The New York based newspaper is one of a few newspapers to have had subscribers across the entire nation, even before the dawn of the digital age.
One of the things that we have noticed across the years is that you can take the Wall Street Journal out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the Wall Street Journal. The content, from news to opinion to lifestyle are clearly New York City centric and cater to wealthy business professionals in Manhattan who have always been the key constituency in their subscriber base. What this means, however, is that Wendy and I often shake our heads over morning coffee here in small town Iowa. The Wall Street Journal clearly doesn’t get life in fly-over country (even when they visit every four years for the Iowa caucuses) where life and business are still largely centered around agriculture and people see life differently based on a very different daily life experience.
In the same way, it’s often challenging for a 21st century reader to understand the context of a first century story-teller, but it’s not impossible. Learning the context reveals often profound understanding.
God’s base language is metaphor, and in today’s chapter Jesus uses one metaphor in two different messages He presents in the Temple in Jerusalem: the Shepherd. Shepherds and sheep were understood by all of Jesus’ listeners back in the day. Sheep were a staple in their lives for both food, clothing, and the religious system. In fact, the metaphor of the Shepherd was not new to Jesus. It’s all over the place in the ancient Psalms and the messages of the prophets in which God revealed Himself as the “Shepherd of Israel,” the religious leaders were, likewise, to “shepherd” God’s people, and the coming Messiah was prophesied to be a true Shepherd to care for God’s people. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Shepherd is an important metaphor in the Great Story.
In Jesus’ word picture, He is both a gate by which sheep go out to pasture and return to the safety of their home, and the Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep because they are His sheep. He is not a thief, robber, or rustler who seeks to steal sheep for their own selfish aims.
John then moves the narrative to another time Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem during another national religious festival in which he again uses the metaphor of Shepherd and sheep. There is still tremendous debate and division over Jesus true identity. He is asked plainly: “Are you the Messiah, or not?”
Jesus responds with an interesting statement: “I told you already, not with words, but by my actions, my works, and my signs. You didn’t get it because you’re not my sheep.”
Actions reveal identity.
Jesus says basically the same thing as He did in the previous chapter, but with a different metaphor:
I Am the Light of the World: – There are blind who I make see – There are those who see who I cause to go blind
I Am the Good Shepherd: – My sheep know my voice and follow – Those who don’t know my voice don’t follow; Not my sheep
What really stuck out to me, however, was that His true identity was revealed by words or claims but by works and deeds. It is the same thing Jesus told The Twelve later: They’ll know you’re mine, not by your claims, but by your love for one another. Jesus’ brother, James, would pick up on this in his letter to the exiled followers of Jesus scattered across the Roman empire: “Faith by itself, with no action, is dead. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that even when Jesus was walking the earth performing signs and wonders, there were many who remained blind and deaf to His message. Why should I think that it would be any different today? I’m also reminded that my claim to be a follower of the Good Shepherd is basically worthless. Jesus said so Himself. It is those acts of love, grace, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that mark me as one of His sheep.
Time for this sheep to do my best to reveal my faith in action, and not just these words, on this another day of the journey.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3 (NIV)
A prestigious and knowledgable religious leader named Nicodemus makes a clandestine visit to Jesus in the dark of night. He wants to question this young rabbi from fly-over country who everyone is talking about.
Jesus begins his conversation with the well-educated religious man with a very simple metaphor: you need to experience a re-birth. You need to be born one more time.
Nick didn’t understand.
Jesus then simply explained that, just as there is a birth of our physical bodies, there is also a birth of Spirit.
One of the things that I’ve observed along my life journey is that words or phrases themselves are metaphors. The the printed squiggly lines I read in a book or the little pixelated lines I are read on a laptop screen are just that: squiggly lines. Consider this series of lines: c-a-t. Those lines are not literally a furry, purring pet. Yet we understand the lines to represent letters, which represent sounds which, when put together represent words, to which we have attached a certain meaning. And, the meaning of words and phrases can be layered. One word can have a myriad of numbered definitions in the dictionary.
My friend, Dave, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the “dictionary wars” in European history when different institutional power brokers were seeking to ensure that their dictionary became the authoritative one. They sought to control the meaning of words. It was understood by these power brokers of the world that those who control the language (and, by extension, the message) will ultimately control the masses.
I observe this in our current culture, as well. Words and terms are being used in political discourse, but they mean different things to the individuals using them and listening to them on opposite sides of the political divide. We’re having arguments with the same words to which we’ve attached different meanings. I’m also witnessing that words and terms that have always meant one thing to me have been redefined by groups within the culture. New words and terms are also being created and used within one sub-culture that are completely unknown by other sub-cultures. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble communicating with one another.
Words and terms also matter in this theme of identity that I see threaded throughout John’s biography of Jesus. I use words and terms to both identify myself to others, and to identify other individuals and groups. Those words and terms are layered with the meaning I’ve attached to the term, as well as my opinions, my experiences, and my emotions. The term “Born again Christian” is layered with different meanings to different people.
Which is why I almost chose to ignore it when I read today’s chapter. Writing about the metaphor “born again” feels a bit like walking into a mine field blind-folded. Yet, I found the simple metaphor Jesus shared with Nicodemus to resonate deeply within me. Jesus wasn’t talking about politics, religion, or a particular demographic therein.
I believe that Jesus was using the transformational experience of physical birth to describe an equally transformational spiritual experience to which He was leading people. I’ve experienced it. I’ve known many others who have experienced it. It’s at once simple and yet hard to explain. I imagine it’s not unlike Jeff Bezos or Sir Richard Branson trying to describe the experience of weightlessness to my earthbound mind that has never experienced it.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself trying to strip away all of the layers of meaning and emotion that our culture attaches to the term “born again.” Like U2 trying to steal Helter Skelter back from what Charles Manson made of it, I want to get back to a simple word picture Jesus gave to a spiritually blind religious man.
“You were born physically, Nick. But there’s also a Spirit birth that you have yet to experience. Don’t you see? You’re spiritually trapped in the womb of your earthbound humanity. Once you’ve experience your Spirit birth, you’ll be an infant with an entirely new Life open to you to experience. A new identity. Old things will pass away. Entirely new things will come to you.”
Positively "Horny" with Light (CaD Ex 34) –
When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. Exodus 34:30 (NRSVCE)
“Let there be light.”
That’s the first act of creation in the poetic description of the beginning of everything in the opening verses of Genesis. This simple beginning, however, is not so simple. In fact, it’s hard to contain its meaning. It is part of the mystery of God and the universe that both theology and science have endlessly been attempting to understand. I can’t explain it any better than the Encyclopedia Brittanica does:
No single answer to the question “What is light?” satisfies the many contexts in which light is experienced, explored, and exploited. The physicist is interested in the physical properties of light, the artist in an aesthetic appreciation of the visual world. Through the sense of sight, light is a primary tool for perceiving the world and communicating within it. Light from the Sun warms the Earth, drives global weather patterns, and initiates the life-sustaining process of photosynthesis. On the grandest scale, light’s interactions with matter have helped shape the structure of the universe. Indeed, light provides a window on the universe, from cosmological to atomic scales. Almost all of the information about the rest of the universe reaches Earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation. By interpreting that radiation, astronomers can glimpse the earliest epochs of the universe, measure the general expansion of the universe, and determine the chemical composition of stars and the interstellar medium. Just as the invention of the telescope dramatically broadened exploration of the universe, so too the invention of the microscope opened the intricate world of the cell. The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics. Atomic and molecular spectroscopies continue to be primary tools for probing the structure of matter, providing ultrasensitive tests of atomic and molecular models and contributing to studies of fundamental photochemical reactions.
In the same way, light is fundamentally a part of the spiritually supernatural:
Light was the first order of creation on the first day of creation in the Genesis creation ( keep in mind the sun, stars, and moon weren’t created until the fourth day).
After healing a boy born blind, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
Jesus took his inner-circle (Peter, James, and John) up on a mountain (just like Moses in today’s chapter) and was “transfigured” before them (e.g. Matthew records the He shone like the sun while Luke describes it as bright as a flash of lightning). And Moses appeared with Him.
Angelic beings are consistently described throughout the Great Story as shining radiantly.
At the very end of the Great Story in Revelation (spoiler alert: the end is a new beginning) “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”
In today’s chapter, Moses returns to the top of the mountain and spends another 40 days with God. When he returns, the text says that his face was so radiant that it freaked out the Hebrews (for the record, Peter, James, and John were equally freaked when Jesus revealed the light of His glory).
Here’s a bit of additional mystery for you. The Hebrew word used here is actually translated “horns.” That’s why many artistic depictions of Moses (the most famous is Michaelangelo) show him having horns on his head:
So, what’s up with that?! I talked in my podcast, A Beginners Guide to the Great Story Part 1 about the fact that when thinking about the ancient stories we have to consider the context of the times in which they were living. The mystery of Moses’ horns is a great example. There is an ancient Babylonian text that uses the Sumer word si which is also the word for “horn” to describe a solar eclipse in which the sun’s light appears like “horns” (think “rays of light”) shooting out from behind the darkened moon. It’s quite possible that the word “horns” was layered with meaning and the ancients understood what we call “rays” of light to be “horns of light.”
In the quiet this morning, I find my brain buzzing with all sorts of thoughts about light and how it is part of the mystery of both the spiritual and the scientific. Humanity has so often made the two into binary, either-or, opposites and enemies. The further I get in my journey, the more I am convinced that, in the end, we will understand that they are two parts of the same mystery. It’s a “both, and.”
As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but go back to Jesus’ call for His followers to be “light” to the world”:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” -Jesus (Matt 5:13-16 [MSG])
What does that mean for me? Am I a light-bearer? Do these posts and podcasts shine? More importantly, do my daily words and interaction with family, friends, neighbors, strangers, community, enemies, acquaintances, and foreigners radiate with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? Am I being generous with my life? Is my house open? Am I opening up to others?
It’s what I’m endeavoring to do increasingly today, each day of this earthly journey. I want the words of my mouth, the meditations of my heart, the work of my hands, and my interactions with everyone to be positively “horny” with Light.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Exodus 23:9 (NIV)
My Vander Well family in America is here because of one ancestor, Walter Vander Well (born Wouter van der Wel) who came to the States from South Holland and settled in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. He was part of multiple waves of Dutch immigrants who settled across Michigan and Iowa, founding rural towns like the one Wendy and I call home today. Five generations later there’s a small army of Walter’s descendants spread across the continent from Michigan to Iowa, Canada, and all the way to the west coast.
Immigration is a fascinating thing. Wendy and I were privileged to see a play at London’s National Theatre back in 2009. It was called England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. The setting of the play is a poor tenement building in London and a neighborhood pub. It humorously chronicles the multiple waves of immigrants to flood into Britain over time from French, to Irish, to Jewish, and Bangladeshi. Each wave lands in the low-rent tenement building and raises the ire of the locals in the pub. The previous wave who was hated by the locals, now find themselves being the locals hating the next wave of immigrants. It continues to stir conversation for Wendy and me in light of the immigration issues of our day.
I have observed this same pattern in the experience of my Dutch ancestors who initially struggled to acclimate to life in America. The Dutch huddled together in small communities and clung to their Dutch neighbors, language, and way of life. This often fueled local resentment towards them. My grandparents were both the first generation born in the States and they both spoke Dutch fluently. They refused to teach my father and his brother because of prejudice against the Germanic sounding language during World War II. Our little town, both steeped in its Dutch heritage and proud of its successful American experience, is now sometimes criticized (a la England People Very Nice) of being closed to aliens moving in.
In today’s chapter, God continues to provide the ancient Hebrews with specific rules for life. God repeats the rule mentioned in yesterday’s chapter about treating foreigners living among them with deference. Fascinating that it’s mentioned twice in such proximity to one another in the text. It leads me to wonder if the repetition speaks to the importance God places on it, or the knowledge that it will a tough one to obey given human nature. I personally conclude that it’s a case of “both, and.”
As I mulled this over in the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think, once again, beyond the letter of the law in the text, to the Spirit of the law to which Jesus pointed time and time again. Far from being obedient to the command, Jesus’ people separated themselves from the aliens living among them. They treated foreigners and those of mixed-race, like the Samaritan people, as inferior. They created systemic social and religious barriers much like the ones we are addressing in our own culture today.
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and when He commanded His followers to take His message to Samaria, He was addressing systemic racial prejudice. Jesus was pointing His own people back to the heart of God that motivated the law repeated twice in yesterday’s chapter and today’s. He was, essentially, pointing to His own law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t that what God says in the text? “You’ve been an alien in a foreign land. You know what it’s like. You’ve been the victim of prejudice and hate. So treat the aliens living among you with loving-kindness the way you wished you’d been treated in Egypt.”
Jesus’ followers did just that and “turned the world upside-down.“
I’m reminded this morning that Jesus was not about adherence to textual rules. Jesus was about following God’s Spirit to speak, act, and relate to others in accordance with God’s heart. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to do just that in my own world and my own culture. That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, increasingly, this day and each day of this earthly journey.
Of course, that requires me to act differently than human nature has led people to behave in ancient Judea, in London tenement houses, and in Dutch-settlements in America, along with almost every other people group on the earth. May I speak and behave in such a way, with anyone with whom I interact, regardless of what they look like or where they are from, that it would be said of me: “Jesus’ people very nice.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
I once knew a person who was educated, bright, and quite capable. For a short period of time, we were companions on a stretch of the journey. On occasion, we experienced the normal stresses of life, and I observed that this person could get inordinately out-of-sorts. I could watch anxiety and insecurity take over their entire person. In acute moments, they would blurt: “I’M NOT STUPID!”
The thing was, not once when this blurt made its exclamatory appearance did anyone ever hint that our friend was stupid. In fact, no one I knew in our circle would have even thought such a thing. Whenever it happened it was an awkward, inappropriate moment.
I quickly suspected that somewhere in this person’s impressionable childhood years there was a parent, and older sibling, or an adult of significant influence who had repeatedly, in a derogatory fashion, told them they were stupid. Now, the words played in their head like a tape recording on a ceaseless loop.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of leading various groups of people through creativity workshops and classes. One of the key parts of the class is to identify the negative messages in our heads that create resistance to our creative urges. Almost always, these “blurts” are messages planted in our brains when we were young.
“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“Why do you waste your time with that shit?”
“I wish you were dead.”
I’ve heard so many stories along the way. In some cases, the words were truly evil, and were said with evil intent from a twisted soul. More often, I believe the harmful words were uttered in a moment of parental stress and the adult had no earthly idea that their momentary anger just planted a seed in the soul of a child that would bear rotten fruit in years of self-deprecation and insecurity.
“The tongue has the power of life and death,” says the Sage in today’s chapter.
Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had instant access to so many words and voices. Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had the ability to broadcast our words from the palm of our hand to the entire world. Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had such power, with our words, to be an agent of life or death.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my words. I’m thinking about the words I speak to others. I’m thinking about the words I write and broadcast. I’m thinking about the words and voices I allow, by choice or apathy, to enter my head and heart.
Immediately, God’s ancient words come to mind:
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…”
For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 1 Thessalonians 2:3 (NIV)
Some time ago I was invited into a meeting with the executive leader of an organization which I served. What quickly became clear in the meeting was that my motives had been called into question by certain individuals. My colleague simply desired to clarify my desires and wants as it related to my service and position within the organization. I quickly answered the questions posed to me and clearly stated my motives for serving and leading. The meeting quickly ended.
In yesterday’s post I discussed my need to continually and personally define my own motivations for the things I do and say. Along my life journey I’ve found this to be a critical step in understanding myself and making healthy decisions about my time, task list, resources, and relationships. But there’s a corollary importance to understanding my motivations, and that’s the reality that others are watching my actions, listening to my words, observing my relationships, and weighing my decisions. Others will question and make their own conclusions about my motives.
Paul spent the introduction of his letter to the believers in Thessalonica complimenting the pure motives of their accomplishments, toil, and perseverance in the faith. In today’s chapter Paul shifts focus to shine the spotlight on his own motivations in relationship to the believers with whom he’d had little time to spend.
One of the constant threats to the small communities of early believers was outside voices who could distract and even destroy their faith. There were angry Jewish zealots branding Paul as a crazy heretic, and demanding that followers of Jesus must obey all Jewish customs. There were traveling charlatans claiming to be preachers of the faith, but who quickly demanded that the local believers pay them for their service and provide for all their personal needs. Then there were local tradesman and trade unions whose livelihoods were centered in casting likenesses of all the pagan idols and deities. They saw Paul and his anti-pagan message as a threat to their pocketbooks and attempted to protect their livelihoods by accusing Paul and his companions of being a threat to Rome itself.
I thought that today’s chapter read like a resume as Paul attempts to make his personal motivations perfectly clear to his friends. He’s preemptively providing the believers with reminders they will need as others will most certainly try to cast doubts into their minds regarding Paul and his motives:
We proclaimed the Message despite persecutions and threats to our own lives. (vs. 2)
We weren’t trying to trick you, our motives were pure. (vs. 3)
We weren’t flattering you like salesmen or covering up some secret motivation of greed to get money or resources from you. (vs. 5). In fact, I used my tent making skills to provide for myself so that you wouldn’t have to provide for me. (vs. 9)
We treated you like a loving father (vs. 11) caring for you, and as a nursing mother cares for her baby. (vs. 7)
We didn’t abandon you and move on for any other reason than we were forced to do so. We desperately want to come back and see you but have been prevented from doing so. (vss. 17-18)
This morning I’m reminded that I can’t control what other people think or say. I do, however, control what I do and say. Sometimes it’s important to be mindful of how my motives might be misinterpreted. It’s wise, at times, to anticipate how misconceptions regarding my own motives might thwart the good I am trying to do. Paul’s example has me thinking about the fact that it is sometimes judicious to make motives clear and head off the misconceptions that experience teaches me may arise.
Have a great day and a wonderful weekend, my friend. The first snowflakes of winter fell on us yesterday. Stay warm.
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)
In the art of acting there’s a lot of talk about motivation. It’s sometimes called “the want.” Let me give you an example.
An unlearned actor named John goes up on stage. He walks from point A to point B and says the line highlighted in his script. You ask John why he just did that and he tells you: “The Director told me to. It was at our last rehearsal. I have it written right here in pencil in my script. It says walk right then say the line.” As an audience member you’ll probably see John mechanically waiting for his cue, dutifully walking to a prescribed position on stage, and then saying his line out to the audience.
Now an accomplished actor named Tony takes over the role. Tony has internalized that he’s embodying a character named Ricky who is head-over-heels in love with a girl named Jill. In the previous scene Jill has sent a message to Ricky revealing that she mistakenly believes he’s cheated on her. Now, Ricky sees her for the first time since receiving the note. Actor Tony internalizes what Ricky is thinking and feeling at that moment. He is Ricky, seeing the woman he loves. He makes a b-line to her, looks her right in the eye and says his line with a sense of emotional desperation. You ask Tony why he just did that, and he tells you without hesitation: “I want to convince Jill that it’s not true I cheated on her! I want her to know I love her! I want to spend the rest of my life with her!”
As an audience member I can tell you, without a doubt, that you’ll have a much different experience, and a much better one, watching Tony play the role than you will with John.
Motivation is at the heart of great acting because motivation is at the heart of who we are as human beings. There’s a reason we do the things we do and say the things we say. There’s always something motivating and driving our behavior, though many people live their entire lives without ever thinking about it. When we begin to examine our motivations, we begin to understand ourselves on a whole new level. And while most Christians I know think that God only cares about the purity of their words and the morality of their actions, Jesus made it quite clear that He was most concerned about our motives. He knew that if the latter in order, the former will naturally fall into place.
Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica by complimenting their accomplishments, their ongoing toil, and their perseverance in the face of adversity. What’s fascinating is that Paul examines and calls out their motivations for each:
Faith has motivated the works they’ve accomplished.
Love has motivated their ongoing, laborious toil.
Hope has motivated their endurance amidst persecution.
Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to learn that motivation is just as crucial to things of the Spirit as it is to the actor on a stage. Religious people often do and say religious things because they are motivated by any number of things:
to keep up appearances in a community that values being religious
to earn admittance to heaven
to have an insurance policy keeping me out of hell
to build my business network with all those potential customers who go to that church
Motivation matters. Jesus called out the crowds following Him one day. He said, “You’re following me because I fed you fish sandwiches. You want to follow me? Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus didn’t care about the number followers He had, He cared about what motivated their following Him. The resurrected Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then followed Peter’s affirmative answer with a command to “Feed my sheep.” What was important to Jesus was not Peter’s accomplishment of the task, but the love that motivated it.
In the quiet this morning I once again find myself examining my own motivations. Why do I do the things I do? What is driving me? What do the things I do and the conversations I have reveal about what it is that I really want in life? Spiritually speaking, if I don’t have the motivation right, all the saying and doing won’t matter.
Note to my regular readers:Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia. Today we’re moving on to his letters to Jesus’ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.
At this writing it has been roughly 20 years since Jesus’ resurrection and 16 years since Paul’s conversion. Paul had spent just a few months in the provincial capital of Thessalonica. He was forced to leave town quickly because his life was threatened. He didn’t get to spend as much time with the believers there as he had wished. It’s now a year or so down the road and he writes to encourage his friends whom he’d quickly left behind. ==============
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee,descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” Acts 23:6 (NIV)
One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is our human penchant for thinking our current events and circumstances are somehow unique in human history. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” As a student of history I can usually find times and events in recorded history which were much worse than whatever it is that’s happening in the headlines today.
There is no doubt that we are living in a time of polarization in political thought and the results have been tumultuous. The time of Jesus and the following decades of Paul’s ministry that we’re reading about in Acts were also tumultuous times in which there was polarization of both political and religious thought. Conflict, terrorism, and riots were a part of their landscape just as they are in ours today.
In today’s chapter, Paul uses this polarization of thought and the rabid, inherent conflict as part of his chess game with the religious Jewish leaders and their local Roman occupiers. Paul is standing before the same religious council that condemned Jesus to death and he knows they’re just as thirsty for his blood to be spilled. Paul, however, holds a trump card with his Roman citizenship (see my previous post). Standing next to him is a Roman military commander, known as a Tribune. Paul needs the Romans to take over his case.
It’s important to remember that Paul was raised and trained in Jerusalem as a lawyer. He would have known some of the men on this council. He knew their polarized religious beliefs as well as their corresponding hot button issues. Once again I find that Paul is not a random victim of circumstance. Paul is on a mission. He is driving the action.
Paul knows that the two rival parties within the council were the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two parties were just as opposed to one another as the far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are in the U.S. today. The watershed issue that divided these two religious, political parties was the concept of resurrection, or life after death. The Pharisees believed that there was a resurrection as well as an unseen spirit realm where Angels and spirits dwelt. The Sadducees believed the exact opposite. There was no resurrection, no life after death, this physical life and reality is all there is. When you die there is nothing else. Paul uses this hot-button, polarizing issue for his own purposes.
Paul loudly proclaims to the entire council his pedigree as a life-long, card-carrying Pharisee, and accuses the Sadducees of the council of putting him on trial because of his belief in the resurrection. Resurrection is the powder-keg issue (think Roe v. Wade today). Paul just lit a match and threw it into the middle of the room.
Watch what happens next. A bunch of Pharisees, who moments ago were critical of Paul, now jump up to defend him. As I’ve been watching current events it’s easy to notice that in polarized systems anyone on your team is good and must be defended at all costs, while anyone on the other team is all bad and must be destroyed at all costs. There is no middle ground. Paul successfully diverts the council’s attention from himself to the hot-button issue. In the riot that followed, the Roman Tribune responsible for Paul had no choice but to evacuate him from the situation because he was responsible for Paul’s safety as a Roman citizen and he would be held personally liable (and perhaps executed) if he allowed the Jews to kill Paul, a Roman citizen.
By pushing the council’s political buttons Paul ensured that the Roman Tribune would witness for himself what a volatile group the Jewish council was and the threat they posed to both of them. Not only this, but Paul knows these Jewish leaders. He could easily anticipate that their next move will be a conspiracy to assassinate him. It’s what they did with Jesus. It’s what Paul himself did with Stephen, and Paul himself has been on the run from Jewish assassination attempts on all of his journeys. If there is a plot to kill him Paul knows that the Roman Tribune will have no choice but to place Paul in protective custody and get him out of town. And, that is exactly what happens.
In a few minutes I will join Wendy in our dining room for breakfast and we will read the paper together. It will be filled with news and opinions of current events in our polarized, politicized times. This morning I am reminded that nothing is new under the sun and that I can only control my own motives, thoughts, words, and actions. Reading about Paul’s motives, Paul’s words, and Paul’s actions, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ more obscure and oft-forgotten commands to His followers:
And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through. Jeremiah 39:2 (NIV)
It’s an old-time phrase: “day of reckoning.” I learned this morning in a brief etymology search that the root of the word reckoning is Dutch in origin. Reckon in Dutch and German means “to count.” The original meaning phrase is rooted in commerce and the settling of accounts. Which makes sense if you know that in the 1600-1700s the port of Amsterdam was the epicenter of global trade and commerce. Dutch bankers were the Wall Street brokers of their day.
The “day of reckoning” is, therefore, the day the bill comes due and accounts are settled. It later took on a broader metaphorical meaning and became “The Day of Reckoning” meaning spiritual judgement and becoming synonymous with what theologians dubbed The Judgement Day of Christ. Most popular in the early 1800s, use of the phrase “day of reckoning” has been in steady decline since then, though there was a slight resurgence of use around the turn of the century when the world was a bit more obsessed with impending apocalypse and the Y2K virus.
The phrase came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. It tells the story of the day that Jerusalem falls to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army, just as Jeremiah has been steadfastly and prophetically predicting for 38 long chapters.
Specifically, today’s chapter is about the “day of reckoning” for King Zedekiah of Judah. Just yesterday, Jeremiah was still assuring Zed that if he surrendered he would be spared and the city would not be destroyed. Whether it was pride, political expediency, or a little of both that led to Zedekiah’s continuous refusal to believe or trust Jeremiah, we’ll never know. As the Babylonian army breaches the wall ofJerusalem Zedekiah flees with his officials. They are quickly caught. It didn’t turn out well for Zed or his family.
The chapter ends, however, with a ray of hope. Jeremiah is spared by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah sends a prophetic word to Ebed-Melek, the African eunuch of Zedekiah’s court who had Jeremiah rescued from the bottom of the well. Jeremiah prophesies that Ebed-Melek will escape the horrible end he fears at the hand of the Babylonians as a reward of his faithfulness.
This morning I’m thinking back on my life journey up to this point. There have been several events in my life and the lives of my loved ones that I would label days of reckoning. The day an unexpected phone call brought surprising news of death. The day the security of a dad’s job melted into fear of poverty. The day my high school friend uttered the words “she’s pregnant.” The day the divorce decree was final. The day the contract ended. These are just the ones that quickly come to mind as I sip my coffee. There are others. I’m sure you have a few of your own that come to mind.
There is a spiritual lesson, I believe, staring me right in the face this morning. It is rooted in simple wisdom as much as it is in the dramatic telling of Zedekiah and the supernatural messages of the prophet Jeremiah. “You reap what you sow,” is one way we say it. “What goes around, comes around,” is another. Each day my thoughts, words, and actions are a spiritual, relational, physical, and/or social expenditure or deposit. Mindlessly we go about our day either investing or squandering life. Eventually, the bill comes due. There is a day of reckoning.
This morning I’m meditating on the day ahead, and the ways I can make better investment of my thoughts, words, and actions.