Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Deborah - "When the Future is Unclear..."

Deborah & Barak defeat Canaanite forces at Mount Tabor
We’ve entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to cheer us on our journey. A woman now approaches us with a commanding presence and the voice of a wise counselor: “Shalom Aleichem!" she says. "I am Deborah.” "And upon you also be peace" we reply. What a privilege to speak with this prophetess, counselor, and warrior who led Israel during the period of the Judges.  It was a time when the people were to look to God for leadership; but often failed to do so, plunging them into a cycle of oppression and suffering at the hands of their enemies.  When at last they cried to God for help, he would raise up inspired leaders or “judges” to deliver them. Deborah was the fourth of these Spirit-filled leaders during a period of Canaanite oppression.  As this great woman of faith starts to jog alongside us, we hear these words, “Even when the future was unclear, I could see God’s victory… and so can you.”

(i) When the future was unclear, Deborah looked to God and saw his victory.  Deborah stands out as one who could see clearly.  She was blessed by God with insight.  She was a wise counselor with sanctified common sense and biblical wisdom…speaking the truth with compassion.  We’re told that she “used to sit under the palm of Deborah….and the Israelites came to her for judgment.”  Those who had disputes would come to her for help…and they received it. Deborah was also blessed with hindsight.  She saw that Israel was in a cycle of pain brought about by sin and disobedience… she saw that this led to their oppression by King Jabin, just as their sin had led to suffering in the past.  Perhaps she even heard the many cries for help while listening to their stories day after day.  She saw the troubled history of her people…and wanted to make a difference.  Finally, Deborah possessed the gift of foresight.  As a prophetess she was able to see into the future, and what she saw was God’s victory. Summoning Barak, the commander of Israel’s northern army, she says, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, "Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.' " – Judges 4: 4-7 

There were many things Deborah could not see…she could not see how long this cycle of disobedience, cries for help, and deliverance would continue for her people.  She could not see exactly how God would deliver her people again…but one thing she saw clearly: she saw God’s victory. When the future is unclear, we need Deborah’s insight, addressing problems with the sanctified common sense and biblical wisdom God has given us.  We need her hindsight, addressing present and future concerns by learning from the past.  Finally, we need her spiritual foresight, looking to the future with hope and confidence in God’s victory, regardless of present dangers.  

Last Tuesday, I was working out on an elliptical trainer at the gym, when a fellow got on the machine next to mine and began talking on his cell phone.  Now here is the unusual thing.  I could easily overhear him saying again and again that he was really scared and nervous about something. That's just not something you hear men saying at the gym within earshot of complete strangers. After he finished his conversation, I felt compelled to ask him if he was OK, acknowledging that I had overheard him.  Without hesitation, he shared with me some very personal details about his relationship with his girlfriend, and some very real and serious concerns that he had that I won’t spell out here.  When I asked him if I could pray for him, he said (surprisingly!) yes, and added that he was a new Christian. I shared with him one relevant word of encouragement and then added, "I believe God put us next to each other for a reason" - because I do.  He not only agreed, he thanked me and said that he would let me know how things were going the next time we saw each other.  I don't believe it was accidental that I chose to do this particular workout on this particular machine on this particular day, since I usually swim on Tuesdays.  God gave me the opportunity  - as he does all of us - to come alongside someone as Deborah did; to help him see his life in the light of God’s truth, and to look to the future not with fear but with hope in God’s victory! Deborah looked to God and saw his victory in the face of an uncertain future and so can we…but if the truth be told, we often don’t.  Like Barak and Sisera and Jael, we’re tempted to look elsewhere.  Deborah invites us to consider their stories.

(ii) When the future was unclear, Barak looked to a godly person.  After Deborah summons Barak and gives her the Lord’s marching orders, he says this, "If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go."  - Judges 4: 8  Now, on the face of it, there is something humble about this reply… a general from 1300 BC asking a woman to accompany him in battle. Yet, Deborah implies that there was something missing from Barak’s response.  “I will surely go with you, nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” 
What is clear is that Deborah was trusting in God, but Barak was trusting in Deborah. We know this is the case because he says, “if you go with me.”  If you go with me I will go; and if you will not go with me I will not go.  That was not the response of someone who trusted in God’s victory…but in Deborah’s charisma. Let’s be clear: seeking help from others to obey God’s commands is not a bad thing. But the point here is that it is all too easy to become infatuated with charismatic individuals, only to find out that they too are fallible creatures.  Hear me again, when we face an unclear future…getting the counsel of godly people is wise, but we also need the counsel of his Word, and Spirit, and the willingness to follow it...without a lot of if's, and's, and but's.  Deborah looked to God, Barak looked to a godly person, but what about his enemy Sisera, the commander of King Jabin’s army?  What did he look to when the future was unclear?

(iii) When the future was unclear, Sisera looked to his superior technology. We read in vv. 1-3 that “…the commander of [King Jabin’s] army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron….” Archaeological evidence confirms that Canaan, as part of the Ancient Near East (1300 BC), was one of the first regions in the world to move from Bronze Age technology to the more advanced Iron Age technology.  The “Iron chariot” would have been one of the most advanced forms of weaponry of that period, and because of that superior technology Sisera probably had a sense of near invulnerability.

Try to picture the scene of this battle.  According to v. 12, Sisera is told that “Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor” and that in response “Sisera called out all his chariots nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him” to confront him at Wadi Kishon. The Wadi Kishon is a river that runs alongside Mount Tabor in the Jezreel Valley …one of the most famous battlegrounds in the world.  Over the past 4000 years we can date at least 24 major military conflicts on this land. According to the text, Barak ascends 1800 foot Mount Tabor with his army where he awaits Sisera and his chariots.  Then the moment arrives where Deborah cries, “Up!  For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand” (14).  How was Deborah so confident that this was to be the God-ordained day of victory? Turning to the ancient Song of Deborah in Judges 5, we learn that there was a great thunderstorm that day which saturated the ground; causing Sisera’s nine hundred chariots to become mired in the mud (see Judges 5: 4-5; 21-22). That was the moment Barak led his army down the mountain on foot, and defeated his enemy.  Some years later David will write, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). 

The lesson here is that Sisera trusted first and foremost in his chariots, his superior technology.  Our nation has tremendous technological resources, we all know this.  Yet it doesn't take much imagination or knowledge of history to see how a nation, loosed from its moral and spiritual foundations, might begin to use its technological and material resources for evil. Which is precisely why John Adams (2nd US President) said this: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other (1798).”  Over Los Angeles' city hall you will find these words engraved: “Righteousness exalteth a people” –  a citation attributed to Solomon from the book of Proverbs 14: 34. May these be more than words!  Barak trusted in a godly person, Sisera in his superior weaponry and Jael…

(iv) When the future was unclear, Jael looked to her own cunning resources. Heber and his wife Jael (v. 11) were members of the Kenite clan, allies of Israel since Moses’ day. Yet it appears Heber separated from his clan to move north and ally with the Canaanites.  He may even be the one who told Sisera that the Israelite army was heading to Mount Tabor (12).  After Sisera’s spectacular defeat, he deserts his men on foot and looks for shelter in the tent of Heber and Jael.  We read that Jael comes out to meet Sisera, and says to him, "Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear." So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug….But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. – Judges 4: 18-21 

That’s one R-rated Bible story!  It’s hard to know whether we should be applauding Jael’s loyalty to Israel, or condemning her violation of several of God’s commandments, beginning with lying, and murder. Complicating things is the fact that the Song of Deborah blesses her for her deed (5: 24).  Still, we must ask ourselves, “Did God bless her for her deed?  Did the end justify the means?”  Jael knew that her first allegiance should be to the Israelites, an allegiance which her husband had betrayed; but was a ruthless murder the way to show that allegiance? When faced with an uncertain future, we may be tempted in a similar way to break God’s commands and do whatever it takes to get a job done.  Yet God calls us to be a people of integrity with the highest moral principles.  

I was at a Fuller Seminary Leadership Forum this past week where Executive Producer Ralph Winter was speaking. His action/adventure films have grossed more than 2 billion dollars. I had the pleasure of working with Ralph at a previous church and have always been impressed not just with his professional success but with his spiritual depth.  He shared with us about a pivotal time in his life when he was working on a picture in New York. Away from home, he and his wife Judy learned that her father had taken his own life.  Ralph sent Judy and the kids back immediately, but he didn't come back.  He was with a company going to London for a film shoot, and he had a responsibility to finish the project. Not long after that, United Artists called and said, "Why don’t you leave this picture? We need you to go take over the James Bond movie." At the time, "Golden Eye" would have looked very good on his resume, but after talking with Judy they decided that he would finish out that movie and accept no more projects that would take him out of the Los Angeles area.  “I’m choosing my family over my job,” he told UA. For 8 months after that movie, he had no work.  They wondered what God was up to as they watched their accounts drop to zero.  Then, out of the blue, Ralph got an offer to work on a TV show shooting in the Valley.  As it turned out, the executive producer on that show was Steven Spielberg.   That set his career.  What Ralph Winter said to us in conclusion was this: “God is not just interested in the end result, he is also interested in the process.  As we look to the future, how we get there is as important as where we’re going.  

As I think about Jael and Deborah, and what it means to be a person of integrity as a husband, a father, and a pastor with goals and dreams of my own...I am reminded that how I get there is as important or more important than if I get there.  As a community of Christ's followers, the journey we take together, how we treat one another, how we honor God together, is as important as the destination.

Before Deborah leaves us, she asks us a question: “Can you clearly see God’s victory in your future"?  There are many things that can obscure our view…the willingness to compromise our moral principles like Jael, the godlike power of technology that has not ceased to tempt us since the days of Sisera and his nine hundred chariots, even Barak's tendency to idolize other fallible human beings.  Just as God sent Deborah and Barak to Mount Tabor before the battle to give them a clear view of their adversary, so we came to worship today to get a clearer view of God’s victory regardless of our present situation.  According to tradition, it was on this same mountain that Christ was transfigured before his disciples, and spoke with Moses and Elijah about his soon departure.  It was here that his disciples, fearful about the future, were given a clear view of the Messiah's majesty and assured that he would be victorious even in the cross!  

Our time with Deborah is almost over as she asks to pray for us before returning to her seat: “Dear God, give us the eyes of faith to see your victory in every situation, to be assured that though we know not what the future holds, we know you hold the future. Forgive us for trusting in lesser things, whether it be the power of a person we idolize, the power of human technology to save and set us free, or the power of our own cunning and resourcefulness. Take us again in prayer to that holy mountain where we see that our victory over sin, evil, and death is in you because Y’shua our Redeemer lives today.  Amen.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Joshua - "When There's No Looking Back..."

We’ve entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to encourage us on our journey. Last week we ran a lap with Moses, but as he returns to the stands with staff in hand, he is passed by a strong and courageous-looking man who suddenly falls to his knees and embraces Moses like a child would his father. Rising to his feet again, he smiles warmly at Moses before continuing down to the field toward us. Could this be Joshua? Joshua who was sent into Canaan by Moses to spy out the land with eleven others (Numbers 13-14)?  Joshua who along with Caleb, were the only men to bring back a hopeful report, saying, “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us….” (Num. 14.8)?  Joshua who was chosen by God to succeed Moses, because he trusted that God would indeed bring the Israelites into the Promised Land?  "That's me," he replies, and begins to jog alongside us.  A thought that we've encountered before on this track resurfaces: “My life feels so ordinary when compared to someone like Joshua or Moses, or even one of the Lord's disciples.”  “I know how you feel,” Joshua says, as though able to hear our thoughts, “but believe me when I say that the greatest thing is to be part of the next thing God is doing.”  And that's why I say...

“To be part of the next thing God is doing, give thanks to God for the past & embrace the unique moment in which you are now called to serve Him.”  Joshua explains that he was Moses’ “assistant,” his personal aid from his youth (Numbers 11: 28).  To be sure, it would be an honor to be Moses’ helper, but to follow him as a leader would be one of the greatest challenges of his life. In the final verses of Deut., Moses is remembered in this way: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.  He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt….and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34: 10-12).

No doubt Joshua, who spent his entire life at Moses’ side, grieved more than anyone when he died; but listen now to Joshua 1: 1-2 again: After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead.  Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people….”  (vv.1-2).  Did you hear that?  “My servant Moses is dead.  Now you proceed to cross the Jordan….”  These words are striking for their abruptness.  Moses is dead.  No more words of praise.  No more mourning.  No more fanfares for the great Servant of the Lord.  Joshua was now being called to be part of the next thing God was doing. 

It’s not that Joshua or even the LORD was callous to the fact that Moses was dead.  To the contrary, we’re told that Joshua and all of Israel mourned for him for 30 days…celebrating all that he accomplished in the strength of God (see Deut. 34).  The people loved Moses…God loved Moses, and would never stop loving him… but it was now time to enter the Promised Land, with Joshua leading the way. As I think about Joshua, who was called to follow Israel’s greatest leader it occurs to me that while many of us long to be part of the greatest thing that God is doing… what God wants is for us to be part of the next thing he is doing, right here, right now! Joshua was not called to be Moses…he was called to be Joshua, to give thanks for the past, and embrace the unique moment in which he was called to serve the Lord.   Joshua continues as we continue our lap together…

“To be part of the next thing God is doing, claim the land where God has placed you for His kingdom.”  Before I say anything about what it means to claim the land where God has placed us today, I want to answer a question that is sometimes asked of me: Why did God tell Israel to take the Promised Land by force?  First, we know from Canaanite religious texts that ritual child sacrifice was a key element in their culture.  A people that was willing to sacrifice its own children to appease the gods would not surrender to one that gave us the Torah.  Furthermore, violence was not unusual in the Ancient Near East, it was typical. Though it’s worth mentioning that in the violent culture of that day, Israel’s rules of warfare were civilized by current standards. For example: The Israelites were commanded by God to make peace with their enemies before attacking (Deut. 20:10).  Finally, it’s clear that warfare was not God’s preferred method of advancing the kingdom.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that a day will come when “swords are beaten into plowshares…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2: 1-4).

I want you to meet a pastor that I’ve gotten to know over the past two years, Ameal Haddad.  His mission with Ambassadors for Peace is to encourage religious leaders, whether they be Muslim, Jew or Christian to sign a Resolution on Religious Freedom. The centerpiece is the conviction that each of us has a right to share our religious convictions with others or to change them without fear.  Today, that ability to freely exchange our most deeply held beliefs with each other is a foundation for expanding God’s kingdom, and sharing the message of Christ.

You and I are called to show a resolve that is not unlike the resolve of Joshua, or the hope of the prophet Isaiah …to prayerfully and passionately claim every place where the sole of our foot treads…our neighborhoods and workplaces and classrooms for the Kingdom of God. Hear Joshua’s commissioning again from the LORD: Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses…” (vv. 3-4).  Imagine if you actually prayed for every place where your feet touched the ground…allowing your steps to guide your prayers, compassion, and actions? 

Joshua seems very focused and confident as he recalls something else he wants to share with us: "To be part of the next thing God is doing, honor His word above worldly prosperity or success." Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:8-9, NIV).

One of the reasons many wish they could be part of the greatness of some bygone era, or just somewhere else where something is happening…is that they don’t feel successful or prosperous, strong or courageous, where they are right now. If you’re a medical intern at UCLA you might dream about being the chief cardiac surgeon.  If you’re living in 90064, you might dream about living in 90210. If you’re a super mom you might still wish you could be like that tiger mom. If you go to Valley High, you might be jealous of those families that go to Hill High, not realizing that the Hill High families wish they could go to Sky High.  I hate to tell you, pastors do the same thing…dreaming about bigger or better. It’s really a conspiracy to distract us from focusing on what He wants to do through us right where we are whether we’re an intern or chief of surgery, at Valley high or Sky high, and that takes alertness and awareness - or we’ll miss it.   

The only way we are going to stay awake and aware is by allowing his word to saturate and re-direct our thoughts and priorities.  God tells Joshua how…First, mouth it. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart out of your mouth, but meditate on it….” The Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah. The word properly means to “emit a sound,” to “murmur,” to “mutter,” to "speak in an undertone." In other words, speak it, rehearse it, shout it and sing it!  Next, do this, morning and night.”  Let its message be the first thing you consider in the morning and the last thing you think about when you go to bed.  Third, mind it.  For God says, “do everything written in it.” It’s not enough to read God’s word… we’ve got to obey it, try it on, let it inform our actions.  Lastly, be motivated by it.  For Joshua is told that in obeying his inspired word he will be “prosperous and successful” in God’s eyes. This ancient book is where “strength and courage” come from to be his people right where we are!

Before Joshua leaves us,  he has one more things to share: “To be part of the next thing God is doing, do it together.” To the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you….They answered: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go” (Joshua 1: 12-18)s.

Joshua reminds us that the first test of his leadership came when he had to ask Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (the tribes that settled east of the Jordan river) to help the other tribes begin to take possession of Canaan (the land west of the Jordan). What we need to understand is that Canaan, the land west of the Jordan, was the actual Promised Land – not the land east of the Jordan.  And yet, and this is important, Joshua had to convince these three tribes that they were still part of Israel and that he needed them to help the others.  It would mean danger, sacrifice, and facing adversaries but God would be glorified through their unity!  I have to agree with Joshua.  I think that one of the biggest obstacles to moving ahead in ministry and mission is the idea that my contribution will not be missed; that it doesn't matter whether I take part.  They won’t miss my tribe. The fact is, every age, every generation, every neighborhood, every nationality and political group, every tribe, every family, every individual is desperately needed….whether you’re sitting in the back seats or the front seats, we need you.   

Before Joshua leaves he prays for us, “Lord God, please help my friends give thanks to you for the past while embracing the next thing You want to do through them in this city; to prayerfully claim the land where you have placed them, wherever they’re feet tread this week, to meditate daily on your commands and promises and so find strength and courage to live for You; and to meet together at the Jordan knowing that every tribe is valuable and indispensable in your eyes.”

As this great man returns to the stands, my mind turns to the One who has called us to advance his kingdom here earth until that day when each of us shall enter the Promised Land that he has prepared for us…and his name is Joshua!  I’m not speaking of Joshua, the one whom God sent to hold Israel together as a people, to go before them into Canaan with courage and faith.  I’m speaking of the One whom the Father has sent to go before us, who was baptized in the Jordan, who holds us together as one people and blesses us with courage and faith.  I’m speaking of Joshua the Son of God...for Joshua or "Y’shua" is the Hebrew name for Jesus which means “God is my Savior”!  Let your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!  Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Moses - "When you want justice..."

When we read in Heb. 12:1 that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”…we may picture a stadium in which men and women of faith who have gone before us, are cheering us on as we run; but instead of being at the end of the race, let’s picture ourselves, as John Maxwell does, entering the stadium somewhere in mid-race, to the cheers of onlookers; drawing inspiration and energy from the crowd.  Great heroes of the faith one by one come down from the stands to encourage us on our journey. As we begin our third lap we see a bearded man with a great staff approach us, a humble man who speaks softly but with authority. His name, he says, is Moses, and as he jogs alongside us he says, “God loves to set captives free!  I know this because the first captive to be set free from among my people was me.  It was my mother who saved me from death at Pharaoh’s hand by placing me in a papyrus basket beside the Nile."

It was Pharaoh, Moses explains, who enslaved the Israelites that had journeyed to Egypt decades before. They had come long ago to escape a worldwide famine when Joseph their kinsman was the wise overseer of the grain storehouses of Egypt…but that’s another story! This new Pharaoh knew nothing of Joseph…only that the population of Hebrews was increasing at an alarming rate.  After Pharaoh orders the death of every male Hebrew child, a Levite mother hides her baby in a papyrus basket on the bank of the river. By God’s providence, Pharaoh’s daughter sees the baby and draws him from the water.  She brings the child into Pharaoh’s house, naming him Mosheh, which means, “to draw” (Ex. 2). And so, Moses explains, he really was the first captive to be set free… not simply because he was rescued as an infant from slavery and death, but because (i) by God’s mercy he was able to remove his own blinders to that injustice…

We read that, One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” – Exodus 2:11.  Imagine!  From Moses’ birth, he had lived in the privilege and comfort of Pharaoh’s palace where he was shielded from the oppression of his people. Then one day he went out…and saw the truth with his own eyes, and it sickened him.  All of us have blinders to oppression and injustice; and we can only remove them by going outside and seeing it with our own eyes.  It is easier to ignore prejudice, poverty, child or spousal abuse etc. than to get involved.  But if we will allow ourselves to see it or hear it, we will be moved!  

I saw a cartoon of two turtles. One says, "Sometimes I'd like to ask why God allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it." The other turtle says, "I'm afraid God might ask me the same question."  

I’m thinking about a man I’ve never met…who lives in India.  His name is Ramen, and for 32 years he carried bricks on his back for 18 hours a day before he was rescued from a life of forced labor with the help of  men from International Justice Mission (IJM). I heard him give his testimony at a Benefit Dinner I attended with Lisa two weeks ago.  He said that during his enslavement, he would wonder to himself, “If there is a God, why doesn't he come down as a man to rescue me?” After he was set free from that soul-crushing existence he said this: “Now I know there is a God, because he did rescue me.” Someone saw him, someone cared about him…and that’s when he knew God could see him too. So Moses removed his blinders to injustice, but then, 

(ii) Moses responded to injustice by taking action.  On one occasion, "[Moses]saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he [killed] the Egyptian and hid him in the sand – Ex. 2: 11-12. Even before Moses was called by God, he had a God-given concern for the weak, and on more than one occasion, he took action.  

Now what we can honestly say about this action is that it was both decisive and debatable.  We’re told that in the act of defending a Hebrew slave from his Egyptian master, Moses “kills” (NRSV) the Egyptian and “hides him in the sand.”  Here is the interesting thing about this verse.  The root of this verb, נָכָה (naw-kaw') actually means “to strike down,” not "kill" in the sense of "murder." It is the same word used to describe what the Egyptian was doing to the Hebrew slave (11a) and what another Hebrew slave was doing as he struck his kinsman (see ahead to Exodus 2: 13). I agree with John Durham that there is nothing in the text to suggest that Moses intended to murder the Egyptian, anymore than that the Egyptian or the Hebrew man was attempting to kill his adversary.  It was a violent encounter to be sure, but I believe Moses was trying to stop the Egyptian, not execute him.  Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Moses' action is debatable... 

Certainly some may question whether it was right for Moses to answer violence with violence based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to "turn the other cheek."  I’ve always found Dale Bruner’s insight here to be helpful…namely, that while Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek, he never told us to sit by and watch as someone else is being beaten senseless, abused or raped. There is a poem by German pastor and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer that still challenges my idealistic need for un-debatable certainty before taking action.  It goes like this… 
Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.
Nevertheless, in taking decisive action, we must beware of two things.  First, that victims of injustice can become victimizers.  For, “When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” – Ex. 2:13. Moses had no sentimental regard for his people as mere “victims.” When he confronted the Hebrew slave who was “in the wrong” as he fought a fellow Hebrew, he was not blinded by race…assuming that only Egyptians could be abusive!  He knew that his own people could be in the wrong. One of the biggest temptations that those who want justice must face, is becoming unjust themselves. 

Secondly, in taking decisive action we should know that getting involved will usually cost us something. When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh [and] settled in the land of Midian….” – Ex. 2:15  Moses had to leave a life of comfort, opulence, wealth and power behind as a result of taking action against injustice.  Often it is the cost (whether it be time, money, our comfort, or our reputation) that keeps us from doing the right thing.  

Gary Haugen makes the point that the road to justice is often long and boring.  In fact most of the work IJM does, says Haugen, bluntly put, is boring and tedious.  Hours and hours are spent gathering evidence, doing paperwork, and collecting signatures.  He asks us to imagine standing outside a tow truck company 8 hours a day every day for 6 months, waiting to get your car back…or driving from LA to Las Vegas 40 times to appear in court, and on many days, to return with nothing to show for it.  It’s that kind of long and tedious work that IJM teams endure to end some of the worst kinds of injustice.  It’s truly a work of costly love. But that’s what real love is…not a short-lived incendiary kind of love that feels great but burns out before it gets started, nor a love that only perseveres in the good times when the sun is shining and life is easy…but that tedious, diaper-changing, dish-washing, nose-wiping, messy kind of love, that says I’ll stand by you, whatever it takes, whatever it costs.  Moses was learning about that kind of love. Would any of us be alive today without it?

(iii) So Moses removed his blinders, he responded and, finally, Moses sought justice not only for his people, but for those who were not. When Moses flees to Midian, we clearly see him taking action to stop injustice in a situation unrelated to the oppression of his own people – a situation involving non-Hebrews.  We read that “The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock…” – Genesis 2: 16-21.

These shepherds deliberately waited for the Midianite women to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and filling the water troughs for their sheep (water being the lifeblood and wealth of the desert); and then prepared to drive them away, using the water for themselves and their own sheep.  At that point, Moses “comes to the defense” of these women.  He was learning that injustice which did not directly concern him or his people; was still a concern to God – and therefore, it had to be a concern to him!  Indeed we read later that rooted in God's law is the protection and care of the stranger: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21).

I was eating pizza yesterday with about 30 attorneys in downtown LA…attorneys who were about to spend their Saturday offering their legal services at a Christian Legal Aid clinic free of charge.  CLA LA's mission is "to bring God's love and justice to the poor in Los Angeles."   Many were under 40…and they were glad to be there.  This was not a chore; it was a passion… a passion inspired by their faith in Christ. I talked with several who received help, but the Executive Director Patricia Oliver described one lady who she couldn’t help…all she could do was pray with her; and yet the woman left with these words: “This was one of the best days of my life.”  Why?  Patricia clearly stated that she was not able to help her!  Yet, because someone took off her blinders and saw this woman, because someone responded to her situation with compassion, because someone went beyond her own tribe and tried, even prayed with her to the One for whom all things are possible, she was reminded that she was not alone, that she was justified, validated, loved by God and his people, and it was one of the bests day of her life. Setting captives free is often a hidden and humble kind of work… it begins with a willingness to listen, a readiness to give, a persistent love, a simple prayer.

As we come to the end of our lap with Moses, he cautions us not to put him on too high a pedestal.  It's not hard to imagine him giving these disclaimers:  “Don't forget that before God called me, my commitment to injustice wavered more than once. I could have approached Pharaoh about the oppression of my people when I was living in the palace, but I didn't. I could have stayed in Egypt and faced Pharaoh’s wrath, but I didn't. And when God first spoke to me out of the burning bush, and sent me to confront Pharaoh and lead my people out of Egypt, I could have said, “Yes, Lord!” but instead I said, 'O my Lord, please send someone else' (Exodus 3.13). I think my mother had more courage than I did when she hid me in that basket in defiance of Pharaoh.  The truth is, I had forgotten about my people long ago, but like a loving parent, God had never forgotten them or me!  It was God who chose me because of his steadfast love  – who heard the cry of his people in prayer  and called me to be the answer to that prayer.”    

Moses prays for us before he returns to his seat in the stands: “God of steadfast love, I ask that you would help my friends know that you do care, that you do listen to the cry of those in need, and that you invite us to join your Servant Son, who suffered the greatest injustice that he might proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and set the captives free. Amen."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jacob - "When you feel defeated..."

Life is like a marathon...or is it more like a wrestling match? When we read in Heb. 12:1 that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”…we may picture a stadium in which men and women of faith who have gone before us, are cheering us on as we run.  Yet instead of being at the end of the race, let’s picture ourselves, as John Maxwell does, entering the stadium somewhere in mid-race, drawing inspiration and energy from the crowd.  Making our way around the track, one by one, great heroes of the faith come down from the stands to encourage us on our journey.

It's now our second lap as a man comes jogging toward us with a limp. We rack our brains trying to remember his name from Sunday School...and how he got that limp.  “I’m Jacob,” the man says, seeing our mental strain.  Jacob... the grandson of Abraham and the father of the 12 tribes of Israel?  He nods and then speaks six surprising words: “There is blessing in every defeat!”   Jacob says it again, and then explains why as he shares these lessons from his own life. 

There is blessing in defeat because, in defeat, we learn to pray and give God the glory.”  Jacob tells about a night long ago when he prayed to God, alone and afraid for his life, “O God of Abraham…and my father Isaac… I am not worthy of…all the steadfast love and…faithfulness that you have shown your servant… Deliver me from the hand of my brother…Esau for I am afraid of him (9-11).  How did Jacob come to this point of utter helplessness and fear, we wonder? 

Jacob’s story begins with his grandfather Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of a great nation; and that in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen.12). Eventually Abraham and Sarah are blessed with Isaac, a miracle son in their old age. In time Isaac marries Rebekah and they have twin sons (Gen. 25).  Esau, whose name means “hairy," is born first, followed by his brother, seen grabbing at his heel. His parents name him Jacob, or “heel-grabber!”  Now the Bible tells us that Isaac loved Esau, while Rebekah loved Jacob – not exactly a model family system!

True to his name, one day Jacob talks his famished brother into “selling” his birthright for some soup and bread. Then on one fateful day, he deceives his blind and aging father: Jacob impersonates Esau and tricks Isaac into giving him the coveted blessing that he had intended for his firstborn, Esau (Gen. 27). As a result, Jacob flees from his parent’s home and the fury of Esau, who vows to kill him after their father dies. He travels back to Northern Mesopotamia where he falls in love with a girl named Rachel. Eventually, Jacob has two wives, two concubines, twelve sons and one daughter (Gen. 30).  How this happened is another story...

Fast forward twenty years when Jacob realizes that he must return to Canaan and face his brother’s wrath (Gen. 32).  As he nears home, messengers inform him that Esau is approaching with four hundred men. Jacob, who up until now has relied on his own wits, begins to pray, fearing for his life:“O God…Deliver me from the hand of my brother…Esau for I am afraid of him. That same night Jacob sends his servants ahead of him with gifts for his brother.  He then sends his family and all his possessions across to the other side of the river bordering Canaan, while he himself is left alone.  He was alone and yet… an “unknown man” came to him and “…wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him…But Jacob  said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” - Gen. 32:9-12; 24-26. 

I’ve learned that when God wants to get my attention he often gets me alone, stripped of all visible means of support, where I can only fall on my knees in prayer and give him the glory he deserves.  I used to think of Jacob as a kind of biblical luchador who wrestled God to the ground, or was he an angel, until he agreed to bless him.  But I think Dr. Joyce Baldwin is correct to infer that it was this unknown man who was in charge all along! It was he who orchestrated this divine meeting.  It was he who took the initiative, meeting Jacob when he was stripped of all earthly means of support.  It was his superhuman power that brought Jacob to his knees; that dislocated his hip with a mere touch.  Sure, Jacob wrestled with him through the night, but he knew painfully well that his defeat was inevitable. All he could do was hold on for dear life and plead for a blessing, which is a clue to the Wrestler’s identity, because you don’t ask an inferior to bless you…you ask a Superior for a share in his strength.  All his life, Jacob had been “grabbing at the heels” of his brother and others; but now the Divine Wrestler had grabbed hold of him.  He had “out-Jacobed” Jacob!  There is something about Jacob that seems very familiar.  I like to assume that I'm in charge most of the time… when suddenly I'm reminded, often through some defeat or set-back or crisis, that God has been in charge all along, and so in defeat we humbly fall to our knees in prayer, and finally give him the glory!   

Jacob continues as we jog along, “In defeat, God can also give us a new name and a new identity.” The unknown man said to me, “What is your name?” And I said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” - Gen. 32:26-27   Did Jacob prevail over this unknown man? I think Jacob may have described it differently.  As Baldwin puts it, it was not the night Jacob prevailed, “it was the night he was made a cripple,” for from now on, every step he took would be with a painful limp and weakness! On the other hand, from now on, every step would also be taken with a new sense of confidence, a new identity, a new name.  For the Mighty One said, you shall no longer be called Jacob (‘heel-grabber’) but Israel (‘God-grabber’ the one who wrestles with God’) and has prevailed.   A significant improvement!

Sometimes, being beaten can be the greatest of honors.  Imagine you are on an average high school basketball team, playing in a pre-season game.  How would it feel to win that game in front of your family and friends?  Pretty good, eh?  But what if, after that game, Kobe Bryant walked up and invited you to play another pre-season game…against the Lakers at Staples?  And imagine that on the night of the game, you played your very best, even scored a few points…but eventually got trounced.  And just suppose that after the game, they invited you to dinner and a free basketball clinic?  Wouldn’t you rather lose to the Lakers, than beat anyone else in your league?  It would change your identity as a team! We can imagine Jacob saying, “When I realized I had lost a wrestling match to the One who could bless me and change the course of my life, I felt like I had really won! For the One who had beaten me was also the one who could bless and teach me…and so my name and my life were both changed.  I knew then that God cared for me, that he forgave me for what I had done to Esau in the past, and that he considered me his child.

If you can see God at work in your failures, then every defeat will be an opportunity to grow as apprentices of the King.  In Hebrew culture the name embodied the person…so a change of name meant a change of identity.  Once Jacob was a “heel grabber” but now he was a “God-grabber.”  Once he was “self-reliant” but now he was “God-reliant.”  May the same be said of us. We’ve learned so much from Jacob, but he has one more thing to quickly say…
Finally, Jacob shares with us, "In defeat, God teaches us to walk in grace and humility."  “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face. And yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”  As we’ve been jogging with Jacob around the track, that limp has been a silent reminder that Jacob now knows what it’s like to be disabled; that he understands what it means to feel weak and to be humble before God.  It’s not too hard to imagine Jacob saying something like this, “I was wincing in pain that morning, but I was also smiling, truly grateful for my pain, for it gave me a compassion for my brother that I was incapable of before.  As I took each limping step, I recalled the pain that Esau had felt when he was betrayed by me twenty years before.  That limp was a gift from God… because now I knew what to do; the words that I needed to speak to him.  And so when I looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men…I bowed down before him seven times, humbling myself and sharing with him my sorrow at the hurtful things I had done in the past.  Then came the moment I will never forget….For Esau ran to meet me, embraced me and fell on my neck and kissed me, and there we wept together" - Gen. 32:30-33:4. 

It's true: “There is blessing in every defeat.”  Jacob's wounds helped him to walk in greater humility and compassion.  For who is able to console the defeated but the one who has been defeated?  Who is able to help the wounded but the one who has been wounded?  And who is able to help the hurting one if it is not the one who inflicted the hurt?  Before Jacob returns to his seat in the stands he prays this prayer. “Dear God, help my fellow travelers know the blessing of defeat, that our biggest failures are leading us from self-reliance to God-reliance; teaching us humility, sorrow for our sin, and compassion for those who are hurting.

As Jacob returns to the stands we notice something different about him...it's that limp...it's gone!  He turns to us and smiles as we remember the One who made the lame walk and opened the eyes of the blind.  The One by whose stripes we are made whole (Isaiah 53:5); the One whose defeat resulted in our victory.  It began the night Y'shua, Jesus, prayed with his Father in the Garden. “Not my will but Yours be done." That was the weekend that sin and sickness, death and hell were robbed of their power to destroy us… for on the cross he bore the weight of our sin, and on the third day he rose again in victory. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and no one can snatch them out of my hand,” Jesus said.  No pain, no set back, no failure, can wrestle us from the Mighty One's grip, the grip of the One who has loved us with an unshakeable love through Jesus our Crucified and Risen Lord.  Amen!