Posts filed under ‘Devotional Thoughts’

Stinky Sacrifices and Sweet Offerings

When God is giving Moses instructions for the tabernacle, one of the things He instructs him to build is an incense altar:

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:1, 7-8)

This incense altar served a couple of different purposes. On the one hand, it was used in worship. When the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, famously receives word from the angel Gabriel that he will soon be a father, even though he is well past his child-rearing years, he is stationed at the altar of incense while “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside” (Luke 1:10). On the other hand, this altar served a much cruder purpose. With all the sacrifices that were made at the tabernacle and later at the temple, the fetor from the dead animals would have been overwhelming. The incense helped cover the stench of death.

The stench of death, as offensive as it may have been, was a reminder to the Israelites that sin came with a cost. As the apostle Paul explains: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The question was: is there anything that can stem the stench of sin and death?

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes about a unique sacrifice:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Sacrifices were stinky! But when Christ gave Himself up as a sacrifice, it was “fragrant.” Why? Because Christ was both an “offering and sacrifice.” He was the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) as well as “an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). He was slaughtered as a sacrifice and sweet-smelling like incense, all at the same time.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that life stinks right now. Nationally, culturally, and personally, we have our share of struggles thanks to sin. And yet, the fragrance of Christ can still overwhelm and overcome the sin of this world. This is the hope we have. And this is the message we are called to share:

Thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

May we spread Christ’s aroma and make someone’s life sweeter with Him.

January 11, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Practicing Contentment in 2021

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 498. Moses finishes building the tabernacle. Exodus cap 40 v 33. Mortier.jpg
Moses finishes building the tabernacle
Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

As the Israelites wind their way through the wilderness on a trek to the Promised Land, they construct a tent of meeting. This is the place where Moses goes to meet directly with God. The tent is quite elaborate, containing yarns, fine linen, gold, silver, and bronze. Because a project of this magnitude is costly, Moses begins the project with a capital campaign of sorts where:

Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the tent of meeting. (Exodus 35:21)

By all accounts, the capital campaign proves to be wildly successful – so much so that they wind up raising far more than they need for the completion of the tent of meeting. As the workers are assembling the tent from what has been brought, they say to Moses:

“The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the LORD commanded to be done.” Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. (Exodus 36:5-7)

The workers receive a windfall of gifts for their work on the tent of meeting. But what is really important is this: they recognize the windfall. They know they have more than enough.

It’s hard to recognize a windfall. We are too easily tempted, no matter how much we have, to always want more – and to believe we don’t yet have quite enough.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches about the impending judgment of God. In response, the listening crowd asks:

“What should we do then?”John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:11-14)

To avoid God’s judgment, John calls the people to be content with what they have and not hoard more than they need.

As we head into 2021, a good resolution to make might be this:

I will practice contentment.

After all, as we reflect on 2020, it can be tempting to focus on all the things we didn’t get:

I didn’t get a raise because my company is struggling financially.

I didn’t get to keep my job because I got caught in a round of layoffs.

I didn’t get to spend time with my family over the holidays because of social distancing.

I didn’t get to go out to eat or go much of anywhere at all because so many places were closed.

I didn’t get more time with my loved one because COVID-19 took them.

All these things may be true – and some of them are downright devastating – but they’re still incomplete. Because at the same time there is much we are lacking, there is much we still have:

I still have a job even if I didn’t get the raise.

I still have the wherewithal to look for a job even if I lost my old one.

I still can see my family on Facetime even if I can’t be with them in person.

I still can order food in even if I can’t go out.

I still have loved ones who are with me and God now has a loved one who is with Him.

Statements of loss, with some practice, can turn into reflections of contentment.

No matter what this year may bring, of this much we can be sure: God will provide. And, more than likely, He will provide more than enough. Perhaps we should take some time to recognize that we might just be sitting on a windfall.

January 4, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sunshine & Branches

Tree, Aesthetic, Log, Branch, Winter Sun, Winter, Kahl
Credit: Pixabay.com

When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

More Than A List Of Names

Last week on this blog, I took a look at one of the most beloved parts of the Christmas story – the journey of the wise men. This week, I’d like to take a look at one of the most often overlooked sections of the story. The Gospel writer Matthew opens his version of the Christmas story not with an angel, or with a star, or with some startled shepherds, but with a genealogy:

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1:1-17)

You can be honest: did you read the genealogy above just now, or did you skip to the bottom to see what in the world could be said about a list like this? I know the temptation. When I’m reading through the Bible, I’m tempted to skip sections like this, too.

In the ancient world, genealogies were considered critical. They reminded the Jewish people of their history and God’s faithfulness. Genealogies were ways of keeping track of how God had guided and grown His people through the ages. This is especially true in Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew includes a section in his genealogy he titles, “After the exile to Babylon” (Matthew 1:12). When the Babylonians ransacked the city of Jerusalem and carried its residents into captivity, the Israelites wondered if God had turned against them. In the book of Lamentations, they cry:

The Lord is like an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel. (Lamentations 2:5)

Oftentimes, when the Old Testament writers speak of God, they call Him “LORD.” The capitalization of all the letters is meant to cue the reader that the Hebrew behind this translation is “Yahweh,” the personal name for God. The Israelites called God by name because they believed He knew their names – and cared about their lives. But in this line from Lamentations, they do not cry out to God personally, using His personal name Yahweh. Instead, they talk about Him formally – not as “LORD,” but as “Lord,” the Hebrew word here being “Adonai,” which is not a personal name, but a title meaning, “Master.” The God the Israelites once spoke to personally now feels like a harsh Master who is abusing them savagely, as they languish in exile in Babylon.

Matthew’s genealogy reminds us that, even during their darkest moments, God had not given up on His people. The names of those who were driven from Israel were still and recorded in the annals of God’s people and are now remembered as ones who pointed to the One in whom this whole genealogy finds its apogee: “Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).

In a year that has been full of so much pain for so many people, this genealogy can remind us that we are also in the annals of God’s family, even when we feel exiled – from friends, from family members, and from normal routines as a pandemic that just won’t quit drags on. My encouragement to you is to take a moment to reflect on the names in Matthew’s genealogy. After all, because of Christ, this genealogy is not just a list of names, it’s your family history in faith – and we should all take some time to learn about our family.

December 14, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

King Jesus, King Herod, and “Three Kings”

Camels, Desert, Travel, Sand, Silhouette, Night, Stars
Credit: Pixabay

One of the most beloved sections of the Christmas story is when wise men come to visit Jesus and His family:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12)

Part of what makes this particular section of the Christmas story so compelling is the evil king who serves as a foil to the so-called “three kings” who are looking to present gifts to Jesus. King Herod feels threatened by Jesus and wants to slaughter what he perceives to be the competition. This kind of ghastly plot comports with what we know about Herod historically. Herod was the king who had his wife Mariamne and his sons Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater all executed because he suspected they were trying to usurp his throne. Herod’s conduct toward his own family was so gruesome that Caesar Augustus, who was the Roman Emperor at this time, is said to have quipped, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” The first-century historian Josephus once wrote that Herod’s “character had nothing human to recommend to it.” And yet, if you would have asked him, Herod would have self-identified as a religiously observant Jew. After all, Herod was the one who expanded the temple in Jerusalem into a glorious showcase of Jewish religious sensibility and sacrifice.

Herod’s willingness to build a monument to Jewish religious rituals while acting so depravedly in his relationships with his own family is manifestly hypocritical. The fact that wise men who were not Jewish would gladly worship Jesus as the Messiah while a self-identified Jew would fearfully despise Jesus because he thought He might be the Messiah just further confirms how spiritually blind Herod really was. As Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart put it in their book The First Days of Jesus:

Herod powerfully illustrates the fact that it’s not enough to identify outwardly with God’s people. It’s not enough to give sacrificially of your funds and your energy to build God’s house (or temple) and to help others worship. It’s not enough to learn about God and His plan through His Scriptures. Every one of us is confronted with a choice…Who will we serve? For whom will we live?

These are questions that still come to us. The Christmas season is not merely about favorite carols, idyllic nativity scenes, and warm religious observances, as wonderful as all these things may be. This season is about a newborn King. And trusting in and living for this King cannot be captured in just one holiday. It is God’s call to us every day. May this Christmas be a time to renew our commitment to this call.

December 7, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Losing to Win

Credit: Pixabay

A couple of weekends ago, we sat down as a family to play games. At this stage in my kids’ lives, the games are simple – Go Fish, Old Maid, and Crazy Eights were the chosen fare for our fun. But in the middle of some family frivolity, an unexpected display of the dark side of human nature broke out. As my kids were playing Old Maid, they both became determined to make sure they would not be the one holding that final, dreaded card. So, they engaged in peaking and grabbing and even a bit of fighting in an attempt to emerge victorious. There’s just something in human nature that loves to conquer someone else. There’s just something in human nature that loves to win.

In the final book of the Bible, John has a vision of Christ who sends seven letters to seven churches all over ancient Asia Minor. In these letters, Jesus makes promises to those who conquer and win against the forces of evil:

To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11)

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna. (Revelation 2:17)

The one who conquers and who keeps My works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. (Revelation 2:26)

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God. (Revelation 3:12)

The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Revelation 3:21)

Jesus celebrates those who win. The obvious question, then, is: how do you win? Later in his vision, John hears a voice from heaven declaring victory over the devil. And this is how God’s people have conquered him:

They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11)

It turns out that winning, in this instance, involves losing. John hears of a lamb who loses His blood – who sacrifices His life – to vanquish Satan. And, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be willing to lose in order to win, too – loving not our lives even unto death.

Are we willing to fight our battles and gain our victories against darkness by losing? In the world – and to the world – winning by losing may be derided as naïve and ineffective. But in a world where usual victories prove fleeting and the usual way of winning always seems to give way to losing, perhaps it’s time to see if it works the other way around – if a loss can actually give way to a win. That’s the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a loss of life gave way to victory over death. Let’s make that story our stories, too.

November 30, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why This Thanksgiving Should Be A Happy One

In what has become a tradition on this blog, this is the week I like to look back on a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation and take a moment to reflect on its significance. Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday, but it is a universally needed and spiritually beneficial practice. This year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1941 stood out to me:

I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate and set aside Thursday, the twentieth day of November, 1941, as a day to be observed in giving thanks to the Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings.

Our beloved country is free and strong. Our moral and physical defenses against the forces of threatened aggression are mounting daily in magnitude and effectiveness.

In the interest of our own future, we are sending succor at increasing pace to those peoples abroad who are bravely defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation.

We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts.

We are grateful to the Father of us all for the innumerable daily manifestations of His beneficent mercy in affairs both public and private, for the bounties of the harvest, for opportunities to labor and to serve, and for the continuance of those homely joys and satisfactions which enrich our lives.

Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.

On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.

There are lots of good thoughts in President Roosevelt’s proclamation. His recognition that there is a “Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings” reminds us that everything we have ultimately comes from God. His thankfulness for “opportunities to labor and to serve” reminds us that we can be thankful not only for what we have, but for what we can do. And his invitation to “reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God” is certainly well taken. Thanksgiving, at its heart, is an act of worship.

But it is the historical context that surrounds this proclamation that was especially remarkable to me. President Roosevelt issued this proclamation on November 8, 1941. A month earlier, on October 6, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day. Up to this point, the day of Thanksgiving was not officially set and different presidents chose different dates. Two months later, on December 9, the Senate amended the House resolution to fix the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth – rather than the final – Thursday of November to account for those occasions when November has five Thursdays. President Roosevelt signed the resolution into law on December 26. What makes all this so interesting is what happened in the midst of this legislative history on Monday, December 7, 1941. The United States was plunged into a second world war. And yet, even while our Armed Forces began fighting and our nation was reeling from that “date which will live in infamy,” Congress and the President still found it important to declare a time for our nation to give thanks. They recognized that giving thanks is not only important when times are good, it is also critical when times are terrible.

Though we are blessedly not embroiled in a world war, 2020 has nevertheless been a difficult year for many. This is why it is so important that we pause to give thanks. Giving thanks is not and cannot be based on how well things have gone. It must be a recognition of how gracious God is. As the Psalmist says:

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1)

God’s goodness and love remain steadfast even when this world’s brokenness shakes us to our cores. Indeed, God’s goodness and love are so steadfast that God steps into the brokenness of this world in His Son to suffer with us and for us. This is why we cannot only give thanks to the Lord, we can give thanks for the Lord, for the Lord has come for us.

This Thanksgiving, may that be our thanksgiving.

November 23, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Discerning Right From Wrong

File:Italy, Bologna, 17th century - Jacob and Laban with Rachel and Leah (recto) Sketch of Two Men and Other Va - 1939.666 - Cleveland Museum of Art.jpg
Jacob and Laban with Rachel and Leah / Italy, 17th century / Wikipedia

When Jacob marries both the daughters of his uncle Laban in Genesis 29, it is difficult not to suspect that these marriages will go nowhere good fast. The story goes that Jacob falls in love with Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel, and agrees to work seven years for his uncle as a kind of dowry to gain the girl. But after Jacob’s seven years of service are completed, his uncle gives him his older daughter, Leah, instead, insisting:

It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the other one also, in return for another seven years of work. (Genesis 29:26-27)

Jacob is so smitten by Rachel, he gladly obliges. The problem is that now Jacob has two wives – and one is clearly his favorite. Unsurprisingly, this causes a host of problems in both marriages. At first, only Leah is able to bear children for Jacob, which was critical in the ancient world. The continuation of a family line was a primary source of pride in this culture. When Rachel sees that Leah is bearing her husband children, she becomes jealous and gives Jacob one of her servants named Bilhah to sleep with, so he can have children she can claim through this servant. This arouses Leah’s jealousy, who responds by offering to her husband her servant, Zilpah, through whom he can have even more children.

In the middle of this marital mess, Jacob sleeps with Leah and she becomes pregnant. She is delighted and proclaims, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband” (Genesis 30:18).

Really? Leah really believes that God is pleased with her for offering her servant to her husband so he can sleep with her? Morally, this sounds preposterous to us. But it seems to have sounded sensible to Leah. After all, the proof of God’s pleasure at the arrangement was in the gift God gave her – a son.  Right?

The Psalmist once prayed: “Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). Human beings are so deeply sinful that, sometimes, we sin and don’t even know it. This is true of Leah. She is so desperate for her husband’s affection that she is willing to bring an extra woman into a relationship that is already problematically polygamous and then interpret the fruit of that sin as a sanction from God.

A story like this should instill in us a little humility. If Leah could think that something as deeply morally wrong as offering another woman to your husband is right, is there a possibility that we might get morally confused, too?

The prophet Isaiah once warned:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:20-21)

Morally, we can often try to be too clever by half. We cleverly excuse our lies using a cloak of confidentiality. We cleverly cover our gossip with a patina of prayer. And we, like Leah, can cleverly misinterpret a blessing from God as a divine imprimatur on some kind of bad behavior.

To understand right and wrong, morality and immorality, righteousness and wickedness, we must constantly return to the clear certainty of God’s commands. He is the One who can take our worst moral instincts and replace them with a godly conscience, shaped by His Spirit and truth. So, let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s listen to the Lord.

November 16, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Very Good Blessing for Esau…and Us

“Esau and Jacob” by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari / Wikipedia

In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob famously steals his brother’s blessing from his father, Isaac. Jacob, who dresses up like his brother to dupe his near-blind dad, receives this blessing from Isaac:

Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:27-29)

In this blessing, Isaac promises Jacob four things. First, he promises Jacob material blessing – he will be blessed with much food and drink. Second, he promises Jacob political power – that nations and people will bow down to him. Third, he promises Jacob familial patronage – he will be the patriarch and guardian for his whole family. Fourth, he promises Jacob a spiritual legacy. Isaac’s words “may those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed” echo God’s words to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:3). Jacob, rather than his older brother Esau, will be the one to carry the spiritual mantle of Abraham forward in the family – and for the world.

This is quite a blessing. And unsurprisingly, when Esau finds out that his brother Jacob has received such a stellar blessing, which his dad intended to be his, he is furious – and desperate. He pleads to his father, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me” (Genesis 27:36)? What his father musters for him sounds quite meager:

Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck. (Genesis 27:39-40)

This seems more like a curse than a blessing! Isolation from others and subordination to a scorned sibling hardly sound enticing. And yet, embedded in this “blessing” is a glimmer of hope: “But when you grow restless, you will throw off his yoke from your neck.” When Esau first hears these words, he immediately interprets them as a license for violence. In the very next verse, we find Esau looking forward to his father’s imminent death and saying to himself: “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27:41). Murder is how Esau believes that he will throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal.

But things don’t turn out the way Esau plots them.

Instead, Jacob, learning of his brother’s secret plot, flees. Over five decades pass before they see each other again. But when they finally do, the scene is moving:

Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

At first, Esau believed that he would be able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by exacting vengeance from him. But, it turns out, he was only able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by forgiving him.

As the holidays approach, many of us have family members – or others – by whom we may feel betrayed. Perhaps this is the time of year to trade a weak hope for vengeance for a better blessing of forgiveness. This is the only way the yoke of the betrayal someone has committed against you can truly be removed from you. This is what Esau learned, and this is the way Jesus shows.

It turns out Esau received a pretty good blessing after all.

November 9, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

“Let us” vs. “I will”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project - edited.jpg
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1563) / Wikipedia

Human arrogance is nothing new. It’s as old as sin itself. Adam and Eve, after all, were tempted into sin by a delusion of grandeur – if they broke a command of God, they could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5).

Another early instance of human arrogance comes in the form of an infamous building project:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)

The arrogance of humanity in this project can be summed up in two words:

“Let us.”

“Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly,” they say. “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” they plan. They believe that there is nothing they can’t do. They don’t need God when they have a “Let us.”

When God discovers the people’s plot, He stops them by confusing their language so they can no longer communicate with each other, which is why we now call this building project “Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). But God does not merely judge these people by confusing their communication. He does something else. He does something more. He tries something better.

In the very next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man named Abraham and says to him:

Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

God is not only promising to bless Abraham here, He is also working to undo the calamity of Babel by responding to humanity’s arrogant “Let us” with two words of His own:

“I will.”

“I will give you a new land,” God explains. “I will make you into a great nation,” God declares.

On the one hand, the words “I will” can trouble us, because what God will do always outdoes and overcomes what we might want to do. On the other hand, these words of God are a great promise for us. They remind us that our accomplishments, our worth, and our lives are not in our hands. We do not live by what we do. We live because of what God has done – and will do – for us.

At a time like this, the temptation to say “Let us” can become overwhelming. “Let us get a raise so we can live more comfortably.” “Let us airbrush our lives on social media so we can present ourselves perfectly.” “Let us win this presidential election so we can beat our opponents into submission politically.” What we need most at a moment like this, however, is not another “Let us.” We need God’s “I will.” “I will provide for you.” “I will grant you My perfect righteousness.” “I will be your perfect king and your loving heavenly Father.” His “I will” always works better than our “Let us.”

The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

October 26, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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