The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 16

sandals

Sandals, Faith and Holiness.

Tell es-Sultan tells us a story. The jumble of bricks exposed by the archaeological dig reveals a fallen wall. It indicates an upper balustrade atop the surrounding city enclosure had fallen against its lower rocky ramparts. The remains of brick houses lie in tumbled and torched ruins—signs of an ancient earthquake followed by a great fire. Evidence of substantial stores of grain add to the story of a city suffering a quick and effective siege. Its inhabitants had not been starved into surrender but rather had found their defenses nullified when a freak earthquake coincided with the arrival of their enemies. Only one or two structures remain standing—simple apartments built into one section of the outer wall that remains standing.

The author of Hebrews 11 summarizes Joshua’s story in one line: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.”

God had selected Joshua to lead the ancient Israelites into their Promised Land. He had spoken to Joshua earlier, commissioning him for the daunting task, three times encouraging Joshua to “be strong and courageous”. He had promised to be with Joshua, to never leave him or forsake him. It was no small thing to lead God’s twelve-tribed unruly band of Chosen People. God was preparing Joshua. Encouraging the fearful is something God takes seriously. But God knew there was something more Joshua needed in order to face the ordeal.

One day, as Joshua neared the iconic border city of Jericho, God revealed Himself to him. He appeared as a fear-inspiring, weapon-wielding commander and there was nothing Joshua could do but fall prostrate to the ground in reverence.

“Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy,” thundered the voice of the commanding God.

The message was clear: it is not enough for a follower of the LORD God to be strong and courageous. Neither is it enough to know He is near, ever-present and supportive. God’s followers must also be holy. They must be tenaciously persistent, adamant and committed to being nothing less than holy. And God knows our natural bent is to be anything but that. So God often speaks to us of specifics. He calls us to look at our normal daily activities, relationships and attitudes and apply holiness to them.

To Joshua God spoke about sandals. Joshua’s sandals had helped him in untold ways: they had protected his feet through forty years of desert wanderings; they had insulated him from the scorching daytime paths and the risks of nighttime scorpion stings. The sandals had provided him with a measure of self-respect and deportment—going barefoot was for the poor and marginalized. And sandals had given Joshua a Plan B of escape, a hope of fight or flight if any of God’s Plan A plans put Joshua in danger.

But God explained to Joshua that he was standing on holy ground, sacred and set apart for God’s glory. He was illustrating for Joshua that every place God’s servants stand is set apart by God as holy, and so they must become holy too. God Himself is holy—He is completely other than any one or thing in all creation. This otherness describes His unmixed and perfect goodness, justice and loving-kindness. To tread on holy ground is a calling to access God’s holy character. It is a command to set aside the destructive self-interest, self-protection, and self-satisfaction that we humans insist is our right. Selfishness has no place in holiness. Only as we remove self-centredness like kicking off shoes unfit for the task will holiness have a chance to grace our feet.

“How beautiful are the feet,” Scripture tells us, “of those who bring good news!”

Joshua was changed that day. God’s holiness dusted and baptized the feet and the person of Joshua. Joshua went back to the Israelites and in turn inspired them to be holy. He spoke to them of God’s goodness and of God’s call. He inspired them to grow in their faith. The landscape began to change for them that week. Their feet, too, began to stir up holy dust as they walked. Prison-like walls fell. People were rescued. God’s followers were enabled to enter their Promised Land.

What is God speaking to us about through this story? What are our ‘sandal issues’? Which of our activities, relationships or attitudes need to be doffed in favour of simple holiness? God’s plan for our journey always leads us to a process of becoming people characterized by the goodness of His character. He wants us to be other than our natural bent toward selfishness. He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus and to step out to exercise that faith as He commands. He wants us to break down walls of injustice and bondage, freeing others to become holy too. He’s calling us. That’s holiness.

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 5

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‘Gimel.’

Two forlorn characters shambled down the road leading away from the city. They were still disheveled from the events of the weekend. It had started as a party, but had ended in a lynching—and they were lucky, they figured, to have escaped. As they walked, they talked through the problem. And as they talked, a stranger came up and began to walk with them.

“What’s this you are discussing?” the stranger asked.

And they told him. They told how their hope had died with the man they thought was the long-promised ruler who would free them from their nation’s political bondage. That man had been lynched by a mob and now these two were confused. Their culture’s holy writ had disappointed them.

With that, the stranger began to explain to them what the Scriptures were really saying concerning the Man in whom they had hoped. The message flowing through every verse—he explained— was about Him. As the stranger opened their minds to this realization, their hearts began to burn within them with the truth they were hearing—the surprising story-within-a-story contained within their Law.

Suddenly they recognized the stranger. It was Him—Jesus—the one they had seen cut down, strung up, and tortured to death! He—more alive than ever— was speaking about Himself, the fulfillment of every hope, the message behind every word of Scripture, the life of that hope, not the death of it! (Luke 24:13-32, paraphrased)

But we’re here to look at ‘Gimel’ the third stanza of Psalm 119 aren’t we? Our first impression as we see numerous references to the personal pronoun I, me, and my, is that the message is personally relevant to someone. Then we notice each verse makes reference to the Word (also called law, commands, statutes and decrees) as if it is a key to something incredibly important for life. And a third layer shows us it is not merely a what but actually a who impacting human life—the creator and owner of the Word, unnamed here.

“Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word. / Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. / I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me. / My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. / You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed and who stray from your commands. / Remove from me scorn and contempt, for I keep your statutes. / Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees. / Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:17-24).

This is where the event recorded in Luke comes in. How would Jesus have explained this passage, actually “opened the Scriptures”, as Luke puts it, so that His listeners’ hearts were burning? Where is He Himself mentioned? In these eight prayer-like verses we see the fingerprint of life-giving work that characterizes not only Himself, but each person of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Do good …” the psalmist begins, “and I will live.” Goodness, true goodness, is a characteristic of God the Father working on behalf of the world He created. “And it was good,” is the repeated refrain we hear in the Genesis account of creation. Later, the Apostle James explains, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” Goodness epitomizes the Father. The very core of Scripture is the Father’s purpose to bring goodness to people like you and me. The goodness of the Word is God the Father Himself.

This passage is also about the Holy Spirit of God. While the first verse references God the Father through goodness, the last verse references God the Spirit through the word “counselors.” In Jesus’ final hours with His disciples He revealed to them the plan that His physical presence with His followers would henceforward be replaced by His spiritual presence through the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). The counseling aspect of the Word is God the Spirit Himself.

And finally, this passage is about Jesus. “Wonderful things in your law” is a veiled reference to the Messiah whom the prophet Isaiah explained would be called “Wonderful” (Isaiah 9:6). The plan of God to enter into His own creation as a human being to rescue a self-destructing world is nothing less than wonderful. The wonder of the Word is God the Son, Jesus Himself.

And so ‘Gimel’, meaning three or third-letter, gives us the message that God’s Word is really His threefold self, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicating with us so we may live. Really live. Try reading the passage again, replacing the phrases like “your word” with “You, Father”, “You, Jesus”, and “You, Holy Spirit.” Then let Him set your heart on fire.

(Photo Credit: By Dwight Sipler – After the rain, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54734606)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 19

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Mission Impossible.

“Hell on earth…something like Armageddon” is how it is described. Fort McMurray, Alberta is ablaze and the fire is growing by leaps and bounds. A war zone of charred homes, abandoned vehicles, and blackened tree-trunks mark the fire’s passage. More than 2000 square kilometres of tinder-dry land have fallen prey to the fire’s limitless appetite and the destruction is not finished yet. Stopping an inferno of this magnitude seems impossible.

When natural disasters like this wildfire assault us we are shocked. The enormity of the force surprises us because we are more familiar with order and organization than with chaos, with human mastery than with powerlessness.

As Jesus traveled by foot throughout the Jordan River region described in Matthew 19 he observed similar phenomena within people’s lives. He saw not external wildfires observable by flame, smoke or blackened arboreal remains, but internal conflagrations. Wildfires of the human spirit beneath façades of social etiquette—natural disasters of an internal type—are not hidden to the One who sees the heart of man.

“Now a man came up to Jesus,” we’re told, “and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’”

That seems like an honest and innocent enough question. The man had a desire for immortality and he figured it was in connection with doing good. Coming to Jesus for an expert opinion seems like a good choice. But listen to Jesus’ response.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good..”

Why is Jesus challenging this seeker? What misconception, what perspective or worldview does this seeker embrace that Jesus needs to clear up before the man is ready for an answer to his ‘eternal life’ query?

Jesus seems to be trying to shift the man’s focus from self (“…what good thing must I do…”)—to God (“…only One who is good…”). Did you catch that? The man is entirely preoccupied with himself and has forgotten God. He goes on to claim (according to the gospel accounts by Mark and Luke) to have kept, flawlessly, every one of the Ten Commandments—but Jesus observes it to be a focus on what the man himself has accomplished; what is conspicuously absent is his awareness of God—of any relationship with God.

Somehow, Jesus has spotted this distortion in the man’s thinking and wants to help the man see for himself where he has gone wrong. He has diverged from loving God to loving self, driven and obsessed by what he can accumulate for himself.

“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus finally seems to acquiesce, “go sell your possessions…then come, follow me.” This was not what the young man had wanted to hear. No other prospective follower had been presented with this criteria. But Jesus knows individual hearts—yours and mine included. We’re told the man “had great wealth.” The penny has dropped. The heart of the matter has come to the surface. The man not only owns many things, but his identity is wrapped up in what he owns. Even his pursuit of eternal life is revealed as another quest to accumulate something for himself. And so he turns away, because he is not willing to leave his first love—self—for love of God.

We may use labels like hedonist, narcissist, self-absorbed egoist, but those labels distance us from associating ourselves with this one man’s fault. Honest self-evaluation can be painful. If we look carefully enough at our own lives, many of us will see something in ourselves that is not pretty. We thought we were on track with our spiritual lives, but something has slipped in, turning our focus from loving God first—dare we admit it—to loving ourselves first.

“Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ disciples ask him, seeing the rich young man turn away. They are still distracted and sidetracked by the picture of success that had radiated from the wealthy urbanite. They could not see the inner chaos beneath the slick exterior the young man presented.

“With man this is impossible,” Jesus answers with a penetrating look at each of his disciples. Perhaps at that moment each of them saw themselves a little more clearly. They too were self-centred. They too loved themselves more than they loved God. They too housed an internal inferno of chaos carefully hidden from others. Was it hopeless?

But Jesus was not finished. “With man this is impossible,” he had begun, “but with God all things are possible.” This was and is and will always and only be the answer to all our pursuits: God. God is the One who is strong enough and good enough to extend His life to us, transforming us from the inside out, making us fit for immortality. It is all about Him. And what He wants is a loving one-on-one relationship with you and with me that puts everything into perspective. Selfishness, then, will naturally give way to selflessness, hedonism to a God-honouring lifestyle. This is the mission Jesus was employed to perform and continues today in the lives of people like you and me—people who are tired of working with the impossible. Thank God that with Him all things are possible.

(Photo Credit: [[File:By DarrenRD [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.jpg|thumb|Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray (cropped)]])