Bokim: Weepers

Blocked by God?
No.

Blocked from God?
Yes.

By our hands?
No.

By our hearts?
Yes.

Can we solve?
No.

Can he solve?
Yes.

Should we speak?
No.

Should we hear?
Yes.

God loves you.
Yes.

God saved you.
Yes.

God holds you.
Yes.

God keeps you.
Yes.

God has solved.
Yes.

God has said,
Yes.”

God saves hearts.
Yes.

How about yours?
___.

When the angel of the Lord had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called the place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the Lord. Judges 2:4,5

What the Israelites had just heard was that they would have thorns, thorns in the form of opposition. They, like us, had earned those thorns. God is loving, yes, and he is also just. Time and time again in the Israelites Old Testament history, God corrects his people for their disobedience. God very often spoke into the lives of the Israelites with “if – then” statements: “If you do this, then I will do this.” God is a covenant God – he keeps his word. How are we doing?

The text note on this passage indicates that Bokim means “weepers.” This place name is not a name that remained, appearing only here in the book of Judges. It marked a moment, not a lasting condition. Our tears do the same – they mark a moment. When we, like the Israelites, hear just how short we fall in reaching the mark, we may weep. But then what?

If you would like a lesson of what not to do, keep reading the book of Judges. It will make you wonder why the Israelites wept in the first place, because their history showed little change in behavior. In fact, after the death of Joshua is recorded, we read this:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. (v. 10)
Again I ask, are we so different? Do we look back at the faults of our ancestors and learn, or do we forget them and the Lord entirely? It’s not about whether or not you have wept over your own shortcomings – everyone will at some point – but what do you do next? Where does your heart turn?

As I have spent more time in Proverbs, I have started to notice just how often God operates in “if – then.” Although not always spelled out in that exact language, the book of Proverbs teaches lesson upon lesson in obedience, often making the contrast very clear. Over the last few months the concept of obedience has been at the forefront for me, and it is a daily struggle. There are days when I can clearly see the fruit of obedience and there are days when I fall remarkably short. Last night at Bible study, we were wisely reminded that “dying to self is a lifelong process.” Or, as I quipped, it is a “slow, painful death.”

Our desires, our hunger and thirst, are not for God. But, by the matchless grace of God we are kept. We can live in Christ and he in us. But let us not fool ourselves into believing it should be easy. Far from it. If the generation before us wept for their disobedience, we may find ourselves prone to forget their tears altogether. And God will raise up thorns – opposition – to point us back to Him. If you press your face against a thorn, how hard do you want to push before you get the point?

I find the language of Judges chapter 2 fascinating, for God makes plain his intention for the opposition – the purpose to Israel’s pain:
I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their forefathers did. (v. 22)
God knows you are capable of better. He would not test if you if you weren’t. But you are, and maybe that thorn pressed against you is what you need to remember. Pain is a powerful teacher – if you let it.

Should you turn around, if your tears point you in the right direction, don’t be surprised to find that you still fall short. You will be just as feeble and imperfect as you were before. The difference will be your direction; what you see in obedience is a different view than in disobedience. In obedience, God always makes a way out. He did for the Israelites.
Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. (v. 16)
God has raised up the ultimate salvation for you also. He provided one person to take all of the thorns to the face that were meant for you. God gave his son to press into the thorns of disobedience – our disobedience – so that we don’t have to. Jesus. His place of Bokim, of weeping, was temporary. He endured our punishment for a painful moment so that we don’t have to feel it.

Now the weight of decision falls back to you. This passage in Judges spells out two very distinct responses to God’s correction. Which one describes you best?

1) Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the Lord’s commands. (v. 17)

2) (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): Judges 3:2

Verse 17 above follows immediately after the recording that God had provided a way out. He gave them judges to lead them, but the Israelites gave themselves over to false, temporary lovers. They pressed their face against thorns. And then there is the parenthetical insight of Judges 3:2, the voice of hindsight which is offered as a clue for us today. God is teaching you, teaching you how to fight. You will still experience pain, but you will also experience victory. God always wins. Even in the death of his own son, God wins. If God can reclaim his son, who took all of our thorns of disobedience, what makes you think he cannot reclaim your suffering?

He can, and he does.

Yes, you have fallen short. You may be at a place of weeping, your Bokim. I assure you that it is temporary. But my question for you is, “Now what?” God offers a way out. You could find the temporary satisfaction of false lovers, but all they will do is numb your pain while you press harder against the thorn. Or, you may learn from the hindsight of those before us and recognize that God is training you. If you are in the middle of a war, aren’t you glad that God offers to teach us how to win?

Choose wisely. Your direction; your decision of obedience makes all the difference.

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Zion: Very Dry Place

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David. 2 Samuel 5:6,7

I want you to learn to love that word “nevertheless.” You see, God gave us a preview when David claimed Zion. Zion belonged to another people, the Jebusites. They felt invincible, and for good reason. This particular area later became synonymous with Jerusalem, a city on a hill. A fortified city on a hill should withstand most attacks. Nevertheless, David captured that fortress and renamed it. And just in case you missed it the first time, the word is used in the account recorded in 1 Chronicles 11:
David and all the Israelites marched to Jerusalem (that is, Jebus). The Jebusites who lived there said to David, “You will not get in here.” Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David. (v. 4,5)
Nevertheless. In other words, it shouldn’t happen..but it does anyway.

I knew that I wanted to write about Zion, but I had not been sure of how, nor why. There are some interpretations of the name Zion that assign meaning based on what it has become, such as “fortress.” We now think of Zion as Jerusalem, Mt. Zion as the temple hill. And Revelation has given us the name Zion as being the name of our eternal home, the city which will be in the new heaven and new earth. But that is how we see it in hindsight. Originally Zion did not belong to the Israelites, as these two accounts clearly indicate. Zion belonged to the Jebusites. However, the Hebrew word sayon, with the same spelling as our word Zion, means dryness. So, in order to understand what we see now, we must understand the roots.

Dryness is often associated with negative connotations. You’ve run dry of ideas, or you are spiritually dry. Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years wandering a dry desert. Elijah, by his fervent prayers to the Lord, caused the land to be dry for three and a half years so that Baal’s followers would turn and repent. We do not like to be in a place of dryness. Many of the psalms were written at times of festivals and celebrations. The most fruitful occasion for psalm-writing appears to be the fall festival, when the heavens opened up and gave rain for the harvest following months of heat and drought.

But what if we look at dryness just a little differently? What if dryness is our place of dependence? When the Israelites wandered, they had neither the food of their oppressors nor the fruit of the Promised Land. But God provided. When The Lord withheld rain, Elijah was directed to a brook where he received bread from ravens. A little farther into the drought and Elijah received food and water from an angel. That food and water sustained Elijah for forty days and nights while he traveled to Horeb, the place where he encountered God through a gentle whisper. Dryness demanded dependence.

An entire nation should not be able to live in a desert for forty years. Nevertheless.
A prophet should not depend on ravens to bring bread. Nevertheless.
Food and water should not sustain you for forty days of travel. Nevertheless.
David should not have been able to capture Zion. Nevertheless.

Now why would David want a place that is called “Very Dry”? And then why would he name it, City of David? And why would that be a place for God’s temple? Wouldn’t it have been better to claim a place, say, closer to a river or sea? Good questions, I’m glad you asked.

The answer to your questions can be found in another “nevertheless.” Allow me to explain with a story like David’s:
King Jesus marched up to a Very Dry Place to attack Satan, who lived there. Satan said to Jesus, “You will not get in here; even the blind and lame can ward you off.” Satan thought, “Jesus cannot get in here.” Nevertheless, Jesus captured the fortress of the Very Dry Place, the Home of Jesus.

Do you know where that is? It is your heart. Jesus should have no desire to live in your heart. It’s a mess for one. For two, there are strongholds and a taunting enemy already there. Nevertheless.

Remember that I said God gave us a preview when David captured Zion. He absolutely did. David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” He captured Zion, renamed it, and made it a place of worship. Fast forward. Jesus, after being baptized – declared and dedicated to God – went to a very dry place. He spent forty days and nights in the desert, eating nothing, engaged in spiritual battle with Satan. Why? Because Jesus was a man after your own heart, and when he approaches your heart a spiritual battle ensues. And then what?

Remember that I said Mt. Zion was the name of the place where God’s temple, the center of worship, was placed. Towards the end of Jesus’ time in the desert, Satan led him to the highest point of that very temple in Jerusalem, in Zion. Satan tested the dependence of Jesus. Why would the Son of God have to endure this? He endured it to be a preview and a model for us to follow. Satan likes to bring us to the highest point in our heart and ask us who we really trust:
“It’s a really dry time in your life, you know. It’s been a really long time since you have had anything good. If God is really God, shouldn’t he take care of you?”
Here’s your answer: “It is. It has. He will.”
Or, better yet, “It says: ‘Do not put The Lord your God to the test.'” (Luke 4:12) That is how Jesus answered.

We know that Jesus quoted Scripture to defeat Satan. Do you know which one he quoted here? Deuteronomy 6:16, which reads, “Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah.” Why is that important to know? Well, what happened at Massah? Glad you asked. Flip back to Exodus:
The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:5-7)

Jesus, in a very dry place, called back to a time when the Israelites were completely dependent on God. God stood with the Israelites and made things very clear. No one should be able to strike a rock and receive water. Nevertheless. No one should be able to strike a sea and have it part, revealing dry land. Nevertheless. Jesus, hungry, thirsty, and in a place where God was being questioned, depended on God and God alone.

And Jesus came your for Very Dry Place. He came for your Zion, to make it a place of worship. When David captured the city, it did not suddenly start to rain. But the dependence changed. When Jesus stood with Satan at the top of the temple, his dependence was tested. When Satan questions you, “Is the Lord with you or not?” how do you answer?

I mentioned that I had not been sure of how to write about this. But then, this morning, my spiritual brother preached about the freedom we are meant to experience. And as I was looking at Zion references, I heard him say this, “When we really understand the freedom that we have, we start to pray some pretty outlandish prayers. We can ask for things we should have no business asking for.”

Exactly.

A sea should not part. Nevertheless.
Water should not come from a rock. Nevertheless.
Elijah should not be fed by ravens. Nevertheless.
David should not be able to capture Zion. Nevertheless.
Jesus should not want our filthy, messed-up, evil-dwelling heart. But he does, nevertheless. He wants to rename it. He wants to make it a place of worship. He wants to change the dependence.

You may be in a very dry place in life right now. If so, praise God because He is about to give you water from a rock. Or maybe you have everything that you think you need; your heart is like a city by the sea. Then you may need to leave that place like Elijah did, become completely dependent on God just so you can hear Him whisper.

Who rules your Zion?

And why does it matter? Well, God gave us a preview for that too:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1

When that day comes, when the old has passed away, who will be found ruling in your heart? I pray that the temple of your heart has been found to be dependent on God. There will be no more sea. Only Zion. It should not be our eternal home, but thanks to the King who came for us, it can be, nevertheless.

Caleb: Dog

I recently made the comment to my oldest son, “I haven’t written about your name yet” (having already written about Joshua and Jonathan). I am pretty sure that, at some point in the process of naming him, I saw this meaning. Whether I knew it at one point or not, I had since forgotten. If we had been selecting a name based on the meaning, Caleb would not seem to be a top choice. The Hebrew word keleb means dog, and comes from the root klb which may be the equivalent of “woof.” Maybe we should have named him Bark.

No, in naming my oldest son Caleb the meaning held held no value. The attributes of the biblical Caleb, however, held tremendous weight. (We also thought we were choosing a less popular name, only to find out within five years how wrong that was.) Caleb, along with Joshua, is known for giving a good report to the Israelites concerning the Promised Land. It is not so much that he gave a good report as much as he reported a good expectation. He trusted.

Here were the Israelites, freed from the tyranny of Egypt. The story of their exodus is well-known. No longer were they slaves; their identity as God’s chosen people had been restored. Passing through the Red Sea, following God’s pillar of fire, and receiving daily manna, the Israelites had every reason to trust God. That is, until, they saw the descendants of Anak. Upon hearing of Anak, a potent mixture of truth and legend clouded the eyesight of the Israelites. In other words, fear became a four-letter word.

You have probably heard that fear and faith both look ahead to the future. Both confront an unknown. And both create certain responses. Fear can generate a fight-or-flight response, one of our earliest and most primitive responses. Faith, however, creates a fight-for-right response. Here’s what the Israelites heard when the twelve spies, one from each tribe, returned:
They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”
So far, so good. They continue.
But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw the descendants of Anak there.
The teeter-totter is swinging back down to earth, and those two little words “but” and “even” carry most of the weight. And then the crash landing.
The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:27-29)

Now who is this Anak, and why is this such a big deal? Why does he receive special mention? If we look ahead to verse 33, we see that Anak’s descendants “come from the Nephilim.” So who are the Nephilim? Well, they are certainly a strong and numerous group of people. They made some of the spies feel like “grasshoppers” (v. 33). They were also mentioned before The Flood, in Genesis 6:4.
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Some scholars believe that this means angels or spiritual beings (Nephilim means “fallen ones”) had children with humans. Wow. For some reason it makes me think of the ridiculously ripped army in the movie “300,” but let’s try a different analogy.

Suppose my dog, a lab/shepherd mix of decent size wants to go for a walk around the neighborhood. And I, his master, have promised him that we will go. But, before going for the walk, he (the dog) sends out the cats to spy out the route. One cat (the one I don’t especially care for) comes back saying, “It looks great out there – everything that you could want – but, there are two Great Danes around the corner. You should stay here!” That’s not a completely illogical conclusion, right? Great Danes can be huge! (And there really are two around the corner, but the part about my cat talking is made up.) So, should my dog never go for a walk?

What do you do? You have seen God work in your life. You know He can deliver you from very difficult circumstances. You have seen Him remove enemies from your path. You have likely even heard His promise. But there are still some really big obstacles out there. Does that mean it is time to sit tight, or does that mean it is time to fight-for-right?

Many of the writings on the meaning of the name Caleb work really hard to clean it up. They try, almost desperately, to put a positive spin on the meaning. I get it. People probably have reservations about having a name that means “dog,” especially since that almost always has a negative connotation in the Bible. But that is alright. I see a connection between my Caleb, my dog, and the Caleb of Numbers 13, and it is absolutely beautiful. They all trust like nobody’s business.

My son Caleb has placed an almost unnerving amount of stock into my guidance. We are engaging in discussions about making choices as he grows older, but wow, does he trust my opinion. For example, we often have pizza on Friday nights. I will call my sons to the kitchen to grab some pizza. And, more often than not, I hear this question from Caleb, “Dad, can we get some pizza now?” It’s not that he did not hear me. It’s not that he doubts. He is simply making sure that his steps match my plans. Hmm.
My dog loves walks, but he used to be a big fan of leading them. He pulled, sniffed, stalled, wherever he chose. It was no fun for me, and not great for him. Then we started using a gentle leader on our walks. It gives him some freedom, but it also makes him more dependent on my guidance. Some day he will be such an expert about knowing my plans, his steps will match mine. Hmm.
Caleb, son of Jephunneh, of the tribe of Judah, watched God in action. He knew God could deliver. He knew God’s promise. So, when the Anak report came in, this happened:
Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Numbers 13:30)
Caleb simply wanted his next steps to match his Master’s plans.

Now back to my spying, talking cats. We heard the report of one. But the second one (the one I like better) says this to my dog, “Yes, there are Great Danes out there, but remember, you will be walking with your master and it will go as planned.” At that point, besides finding the cat to be impressive, wouldn’t you say that my dog should go? If my son has heard from me that it will work out, shouldn’t he go forward? If God had revealed the Promised Land, shouldn’t the Israelites go take it?

You likely know that the Israelites did not go up to take it. Not right away. And not one of the doubters was allowed in when the Israelites eventually claimed the land. But Caleb and Joshua did; they saw the land God had promised. And the best part about when they did? Caleb was given the city of Hebron. Hebron was the city of the great and powerful Anak, and Caleb drove them out. God is a powerful Master, much more powerful than those obstacles in your way.

It is not always easy to compare ourselves to something like a dog, but my dog teaches me so many lessons about God. One of the biggest reminders that he gives me is in how he always follows me, and always trusts me. In that way I would like to be more and more like him and my son Caleb, trusting and following the One who leads.

What can we learn?
*Our next steps are very often determined by fear or faith. Have you evaluated which one is guiding you?
*If you trust God as your Master, you need only to walk along with Him to receive His promise.

Bethel: House of God

There is a lot to like about the name, meaning, and history of Bethel. Believe it or not, kids sometime feel the need to point out the obvious, such as my baldness. Sometimes I like to believe that I have heard it all, but it is at that point that someone comes up with a new twist. At that point I often give them credit, “That’s a new one..nice!” Anything from cue ball to light bulb, MegaMind to alien..I’ve heard them. A vast majority of the time it is out of affection or endearment. On the rare occasion that it is mentioned in anger – “You baldheaded…” – I find some satisfaction that they can think of nothing else terrible to say. And, on my good days, I tell them about the story of Elisha.

After being mocked by youth as a “baldhead,” Elisha called down curses upon them for not respecting him as a prophet for the Lord. God heard Elisha, and two bears came out of the woods to maul 42 youth. That’s pretty impressive. Think about it. The bears didn’t just claim two youth – one each – but 42! That’s a rampage. (Makes me wonder if God is bald and took particular offense. Maybe? Maybe not.) Most kids don’t believe me that the story is in the Bible (2 Kings 2:23ff), so I just tell them, “You’re lucky I like you..”

That story took place at Bethel. But it is not my favorite association with that name. No, my favorite connection with Bethel is the story of its name change. It had been called Luz, a Hebrew verb that means to turn aside. The way we would describe that verb today, and the way it is mostly used in the Bible, has a negative connotation. If you “turn aside,” you are not doing what you should be doing. For example, maybe you have deceived your old and nearly-blind father into giving you your brother’s inheritance and blessing. Maybe you have stolen from your brother by plotting with your mother. What do you have to say about that, Jacob?

But we all have our Jacob moments. We all have had times (and likely still will) when we exert our own will and try to make things happen our way. We have our Jacob moments of trying to fast-forward God’s plans..”Here, God, let me help you.” And sometimes we pull it off. We execute our plan. We hustle. We trick. We deceive. We get what we want. Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on us that we didn’t think about the “Now what?” part. Jacob, in deceiving his father, received the blessing he wanted. I’m not so sure he thought about the part where his angry brother finds out. Remember, Jacob’s brother Esau was a hunter. A skillful hunter. Smooth-skinned Jacob was quiet and stayed “among the tents.” (Genesis 25:27)

Deceivers do not always see the big picture. Their goal is gratification and to figure out the rest later. “Figuring out the rest” is how we come to know this place called Bethel. Jacob was advised by his parents to take off. To get outta Dodge before his skillful hunter of a brother could lay hands (or weapons) on him. Jacob did. He ran. After a long day of travel, Jacob pulled up a stone for a pillow. And what a dream he had! A stairway from heaven to earth, God at the top, angels going up and down, and promises from God for land and for Jacob’s descendants.

But my favorite promise was this: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15b) Isn’t that a wonderful promise? And wouldn’t our lives be much better if we remembered that? So often we take off running, we turn aside, from the plan that is laid out. We luz. “Hey, God, I found a shortcut! We don’t have to go that way!” I don’t know, maybe it’s just me that does that. I held back a laugh today when I received an email about discussing my “career path.” Career path? What’s that? I am as familiar with that as I am with the term “family planning.” Career path..sounds fascinating.

You see, I am a quiet, smooth-skinned boy from a rural area. I was always good with numbers so I pursued Engineering – for half of one semester in college. Then I found my next major by looking at the classes I was interested in taking. Criminal Justice. Then I worked at a summer camp for inner-city youth. Then I worked with juvenile delinquents in a residential treatment program. Then in a program for youth who commit sexual offenses. After-school programs. I was a “book guy” (ask me, I’ll tell you), a lawn care technician, a cell phone salesman, I worked in an all-girls treatment program, a case manager, a chaplain, at a charter school…so sure, I would LOVE to hear my career path!

The truth is, I’m a lot like Jacob. Thankfully, however, there is a redeeming quality to his story. Jacob may have turned aside, may have tried the shortcut, but eventually he had to stop. He had to rest. And when he did, God showed up. More accurately, Jacob saw God. God reminded him, “We still have some work to do.” Jacob finally got it. And then comes my favorite part, the part that I am starting to understand in my own life:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16)
Amen. That is what God does. He never asks us to live in regret, never asks us to live in the rearview. He can, and does, use it all. I had a passing thought in high school of going into ministry. What I now see is that the Holy Spirit was prompting me. And God was preparing me. But God was not done with me yet. There was work to do. So He went with me as I turned this way, that way, this way, that way, all the while watching my path take the form of Billy in The Family Circus strip. All the while knowing that eventually I would rest. All the while knowing His promise to me – to not leave until He was finished.

And He waits patiently for us to reach this point, the point that Jacob reached:
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
The word “Beth” in Hebrew can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to a physical house. It can refer to an extended family (“house of Jacob”). It can even refer to a temple or tomb. It refers not so much to a specific type as it does to the function – what it does. It holds or contains.

Is that your life? Does it hold or contain the functions of God (Beth-el)? Or are you still in a place of Luz? Have you fast-forwarded the plan only to find yourself asking, “Now what?” Do not worry. God is not nearly as interested in your career path as He is your heart path. He wants to talk less about your past, and more about your present. God hopes you wake up to say, “This is amazing, God has been here all along!”

Indeed, He has. Will you let your life be a Bethel today? Will you remember God’s promise that He will be with you until He is finished?

Surely God is in this place that you are in. Rest. Listen. Look. And you will see your Luz become a Bethel.

Malachi: Messenger

I just love when God confirms. More on that later.

The final book of the Old Testament bears the name of Malachi, but there is some scholarly debate concerning the author. Because the Hebrew word mal’akh means “messenger,” there are some who propose that the title is not the name of a person directly. Other scholars contend that yes, it was the name of the author and his role: Malachi was a messenger.

Reading upon this Hebrew word revealed that the noun is sometimes considered to mean “messenger of God.” Because of this, the meaning is sometimes morphed into the word “angel” in certain texts and translations of the Bible. But there is no suggestion by any scholar that the final Old Testament book was written by an angel. Whether the scholars attribute the book to a person named Malachi or not, they all do agree that the book follows the formula: God delivering his message through a human vessel.

In this case, Malachi was given the task of correcting the Israelite people who had too quickly forgotten their recent struggles. They became comfortable again. Sound familiar? As in, all of us? The Israelites had also decided that they did not need to follow everything exactly, and began reducing their sacrifice. Instead of unblemished animals, they were accused of offering blind and lame animals. None of us would do that – give God our leftovers – right? The beauty of the Bible is its constant relevance to our lives. We just choose not to see that sometimes. The Israelites at the time of Malachi had also taken to doubting the love of God. They had begun to adhere less to the standards because God had not yet given them everything they had been promised. Again I ask, sound familiar? Perhaps too much so.

You may be in a place where you are honoring God with your firstfruits, unlike the Israelites. You may hold firmly to the truth of God’s love. Or perhaps you are in a place where you are still seeking, still learning about God. But my question for you today is not about that. We know we are like the Israelites – broken people. But do you know you are a messenger? Have you ever thought of yourself as a Malachi? Do you know you are a human vessel meant to deliver the message of God?

Let’s see if you are qualified. Ready?
I have loved you,” says the Lord. (Malachi 1:2a)
Q1. Can you tell someone that God loves them, as Malachi did?
A. Yes.

Great! You pass!

You see there are times when we get so worried about the rest – the part that we don’t know -that we never tell people what we do know. But you are qualified, and God will equip you. You can tell someone that God loves them (truth) and you have a pulse. Good to go.

Growing up I struggled with hearing calls to “evangelize.” Maybe part of the problem was not understanding my target audience. In a family with generations of Christ-followers and living in a small community where almost everyone went to church, who was I supposed to tell? Then I moved on to a Christian college. Again I saw myself as a learner, not as a messenger. Then I went to work at a summer camp. Finally! Kids who needed to hear about Jesus! But, as I look back, I learned so much more from them than I imagine they learned from me. Their child-like trust, their desire to learn, their freedom to be vulnerable..all those things were lessons for me!

In fact, I am still learning what it means to be a messenger. Because of my limited view of being a Malachi, I missed countless opportunities to share in the journey with others. I could have encouraged. I could have been encouraged. All I had to do was share. Sometimes those of us who have been given years of “head knowledge” fumble opportunities to be a Malachi. Unlike someone who is just coming to know of Jesus, we have made Jesus a rather comfortable part of our lives. And when we have become comfortable with Christ, we do not want to open up those uncomfortable parts of our lives. I think I know why. It makes us feel unworthy.

A year and a half ago I interviewed for a position titled “Spiritual Care Specialist.” Sounds impressive, right? All I knew was that it would get me out of direct care shifts and sure..I’m qualified. After weeping in the first interview and doing okay in the second interview, for some reason, they offered me the job. In my first meeting with my new supervisor, she said something like this,
“I want to challenge you on your response to being called ‘pastor.’ You will be seen as one by the kids and by the staff. You will be the spiritual authority when you walk in those homes..so think about that.”

I don’t know how that sounds to you, but my response was to think, “(Gulp)..What did I do?” The reason she began with that was because of how I answered a question in the second interview.
“How will you respond if someone calls you ‘Pastor Doug’?”
“(Nervous laughter)..Oh no, that’s not me. I will tell them I can (fumble, fumble) but I would not see myself as a pastor.”
Judging by my answer in the interview, she must have thought she had just told a nearly 100-year old man that he would be a father of many. But instead, all she had done was remind me that I am a Malachi.

You see my problem was, and is, that I did not see myself as worthy of that title.
But when would I be? When I get my “act together”? When I know enough Scripture? When I have the right education? Ha! If that is the case, I should quit now. And so should everyone else. I will never know enough, be good enough, or have enough degrees to qualify for a standard which I am completely unable to attain. As Max Lucado put it, it would be as if God told us we could be saved if we can jump to the moon. I have been working on the wrong vertical.

We are all a Malachi. God has the message. We are the vessel. And I know that if God can use this broken, sinful-but-saved saint, He can use you too. The truth is, whether our vertical is two feet or two inches, we are coming up short either way. But that is not to stop us from telling others who made the moon. And the stars. And the skies. And you.

If there is a message of love – deep, abundant love – the package does not matter. If a man proposes to a woman in the rain and drops the ring in the process, will she not still accept it? If Jesus held no earthly beauty, was willing to endure beatings and torture just to give us a message of salvation, would we refuse him?

No.

We often talk about “our story,” but I like how my spiritual brother puts it: “It’s all God’s story; we’re just wrapped up in it.” We were never asked to become worthy vessels before we should speak. If we cannot receive the grace God extends to cover our sins, how can we offer it to anyone else? I must first be a grace-receiver before I can be a grace-giver. Whether I feel worthy or not does not change the message of God. He still says, “I love you.”

Back to my confirmation. A few months ago I was in the chapel when someone from a church group asked me, “Are you one of the pastors here?” A year into the role and I still stubbornly hold back, “Uhh, yeah..I work with them.” Still denying that I am a Malachi. Then tonight, right before I was set to write, I received a text from someone who had never texted me before. The first three words were “Hey pastor Doug”. I’m learning. I smiled to myself and responded.

Now my question for you: If someone calls you a Malachi, what would you say? Do you know that, even though you are broken, you have a message to give? Don’t worry, it is not about you. It is always about God.

Jonathan: Yahweh Has Given

My son Jonathan has heard the story of his name before. In fact, of the three boys, he seems to be the most interested in the naming story. It was not so much the meaning of Jonathan that we selected as it was a quality of Jonathan that we desired. Jonathan, son of King Saul, was a loyal friend to David. Loyal to the point of losing what was rightfully his – as heir to the throne – so that God’s will could be accomplished through his friend David. My son Jonathan was the third son in three years and it was our hope as parents that he would bond well with his brothers. Thankfully he has.

Last night Jonathan brought up the fact that his name is not spelled with an “h” before the “n” even though my middle name is John. You see, he knows that we as parents also liked the fact that his name tied in loosely with other family names. My middle name comes from my mother’s father. Jonathan’s mother also has a grandfather named John – the father of her mother. So even though it loosely ties together, I found myself trying to explain that “John” and “Jonathan” are entirely different names. Today I began to dig into the name of Jonathan and found consensus with the meaning, “Yahweh has given.

The first part of the name is the abbreviated form of Yahweh, and the verb “natan” means to give. Of course that made me wonder, what has Yahweh given? Because of the shuffling of my schedule, I found my answer: Mephibosheth.

Mephibosheth is the son of Jonathan (back to the Bible now, not my 9 year old) whose story is found in parentheses. Seriously. One of those names in the Bible that my father used to quiz us on – how old was he, etc. When Jonathan and Saul died in battle, Mephibosheth was a living heir to the throne. The only problem? He was five years old and David was already anointed as the next king. It would be common for David, as expectant king, to wipe out any remaining threats to the throne, i.e., family members of Saul. That helps to explain this account:
(Jonathan son of Saul had a son who was lame in both feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became crippled. His name was Mephibosheth.) 2 Samuel 4:4

There he is – an heir to the throne reduced to parentheses. A son of a prince now unable to even run on his own. Not only had he lost his place, he had become crippled in the process. And Mephibosheth was not even his given name. In 1 Chronicles 8:34, his name appears as Merib-Baal. The footnote indicates this explanation: “The name was originally Merib-Baal (apparently meaning ‘opponent of Baal’, see 1 Chron. 8:34), perhaps to be spelled ‘Meri-Baal’ (meaning ‘loved by Baal’), but was changed by the author of Samuel to Mephibosheth (meaning ‘from the mouth of the shameful thing’). See note on 2:8.”

Confused yet? I was. Now just imagine the confusion of Mephibosheth, or Meri-Baal. You enter life with a grandfather who is the king. Your father is a prince. Life is good. You run and play and enjoy the privileges of royalty. Then, in a 24-hour stretch, you lose your father, grandfather, mobility, royalty, and pride. Now at the ripe age of five you are an orphan, you are crippled, and you hide. The next time you want to complain about your day, first measure it against that one.

Poor kid. His father and grandfather died on the same day. His life is potentially in danger, and historians cannot seem to agree on his name and meaning. Even among present-day scholars there is disagreement on the meaning of his name. It seems to depend on the weight and meaning of the original name. One commonly noted meaning is “exterminator of shame, i.e., idols.” That definition hinges on the interpretation of “Baal” in his name. It is very likely that the use of Baal at that time still carried the meaning of “lord” or “Lord”, which would fit more appropriately with the life of the God-fearing Jonathan.

It would also seem likely that Jonathan would give his only son a name that means “loved by (the Lord)” – Meri-Baal.

Jonathan: Yahweh has given
Meri-Baal: Loved by the Lord
Mephibosheth: Exterminator of shame

That is us. All of us. Loved by the Lord, Yahweh has given an extermination of our shame. Let us go back to how I found my answer to “What has Yahweh given?” Today I was asked, unexpectantly, to pick up my sons from school. Since one had homework club, I brought Max Lucado’s book In the Grip of Grace, knowing I would have time to read. And who do I read about? Jonathan, Mephibosheth, and David. Consider the parallel to our own lives as drawn out by Lucado:

Just as David kept his promise to Jonathan, so God keeps his promise to us. The name Mephibosheth means “he who scatters shame.” And that is exactly what David intended to do for the young prince.
In swift succession David returned to Mephibosheth all his land, crops, and servants and then insisted that the cripple eat at the king’s table…
And I ask you, do you see your story in his?
Children of royalty, crippled by the fall, permanently marred by sin. Living parenthetical lives in the chronicles of earth only to be remembered by the king. Driven not by our beauty but by his promise, he calls us to himself and invites us to take a permanent place at his table. Though we often limp more than we walk, we take our place next to the other sinners-made-saints and we share in God’s glory.
(p. 103, 104)

That’s a lot to take in. God’s grace always is. If you have not read Lucado’s book before, I highly recommend it. It is good to drink deeply from the fountain of grace. But drink slowly so you get it.

Before our shame ever was, Yahweh Has Given (Jonathan). When we entered the scene we were loved by (the Lord), Meri-Baal. But there was a price on our head. A price we could not ever pay. And our feeble attempt to escape leaves us crippled and ashamed. What do we do? What can we do? We accept the invitation of the King. The invitation not to simply come to the table, but to have everything restored to us. The invitation that he will exterminate, or scatter, our shame (Mephibosheth).

If you consider once again the parallel that Lucado suggests, you can see a deeper meaning for Jonathan. Jonathan willingly gave up his rightful, royal position so that God’s will could be accomplished. Jonathan knew who the king truly was. And, when he gave up his life, the king honored the promise to bring Jonathan’s family back to the palace. The king restored the family line and scattered the family’s shame. Do you see it?

Jesus willingly gave up his position of royalty. He gave up his life, knowing that the King would keep his promise. And he was right. The King of kings has sent out a decree, an invitation, for all those in the family of Jesus to come home. To reside as royalty with shame exterminated.

Have you accepted that invitation? Not with just a know-it-in-your-head acceptance, but a feel-it-in-your-soul “YES”? Yahweh has given. Grace. The King has promised. Mercy.

Do you accept, or will you continue to hide in shame?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Lamp

If we study the man who was honored today, we are students. If we honor the man who was honored, we are respectful. If we carry the same Light as him, we are lamps.

Reverend King Jr. was many things in his lifetime. Son, student, husband, father, activist, minister, and ultimately a martyr for his passion. But what he learned to be is what we are all called to be: a lamp. Especially today we look back upon his lifetime of achievements and find the assembled list to be extraordinary. But what he did is a very pale reflection of how he did it. In other words, it was his devotion and obedience that set him apart, not what he actually had to do. For we are called to do the same, to seek justice and love mercy, but we must be willing to bear the light.

God has never asked anyone to do anything that they cannot do, because He has promised to supply all that we need. Reverend King Jr. was an obedient truth-teller. Certainly he is classified under many other labels, but as far as I can tell, he was always an obedient truth-teller. We like to immortalize our heroes and disregard their flaws. However, when we choose to immortalize a mortal, what we are really saying is, “I could never do what they did.” But we must.

God spoke and moved powerfully through Reverend King Jr. The light he carried shone brightly into the darkness. The light that shone was the Light. And that, my friends, is the calling for all of us. When it comes to issues of social justice in particular, the categories we fall into are parallel with those of church attenders. Like the “holiday Christians” who show up on Christmas and Easter, there are those who clamor loudly for social justice today. You will hear from them again one more time this year. There are “regular attenders” of social justice: informed, attentive, and fairly visible. Then there are “members” of social justice; those who actively participate and can be counted on in critical times. Then there are the “ministers” of social justice, and they are…where?

Ministers of social justice are everywhere, or at least they should be, because anyone who follows Christ must bear the light of truth in the darkness. John the Baptist, as written about in the gospel of John, “was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (John 1:8). Later, in that same gospel, we clearly see who is the light when Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Yet, for you students of the Bible, you also know that Jesus said this: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). How do we do that? How do we bear the light? I believe the answer lies in the way Jesus described John the Baptist: “John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light” (John 5:35). And that, my friends, is something you can do.

If we believe that the light was only here in the life of Jesus, then you must also believe that we are living in total darkness now. If we believe that social justice and civil rights were causes only for people like Reverend King Jr., then we will do nothing but show up on holidays. If you, however, believe that you are meant to be a lamp that bears the light, then it is time for God to clean you up so that His light can shine.

Start by remembering that, as a lamp, we have all been pulled out of the mud. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6) Our desire to remain in darkness (John 3:19) is because we fear being exposed. We do not want to be seen in our muddy, cracked, beat-up condition. But what we must remember is that, once we are cleaned up and our true self exposed, people will not see us, but Christ. Reverend King Jr. was in no way qualified at birth to burn as brightly as he did. Born to black parents in the South at the time of The Depression, what could possibly make anyone think he would do what he did? But where we see mud, God sees a lamp.

My grandmother was born into very different circumstances eight years before Reverend King Jr. Her world was the almost all-white land of the North. Her experiences growing up, just like King’s, forged her views on race relations. And her views, much like King’s, were ultimately changed by the grace of God. Reverend King Jr. could have easily seen his surroundings in the deep South and accepted that there would always be tension – so why bother? But through obedience and devotion, he spoke truth and exposed light into the dark injustices of our nation. My grandmother’s experience was different. In a small, conservative community that remains nearly all white to this day, she raised her family. She and my grandfather did a magnificent job of instilling faith deep into the family line. But the matters of the color of skin sat silent.

My intention to marry the black woman I had been dating drew a fair amount of critique from friends and family alike. Both families involved had reasons to claim that it was not a good idea. I remember receiving a letter from my grandmother who gently offered her view concerning the planned marriage. She did not agree. Yet, in her disagreement, she attended our wedding. She loved my wife and welcomed her. She loved our children and they never noticed anything but the same love and grace I always felt from her. She was a lamp, cleaned in the hands of God.

Four years ago the lamp of Reverend King Jr. and the lamp of my grandmother collided. And it made for a very bright light that I will never forget. My grandmother was gravely ill. Cancer racking her body, she was residing in a nursing home, dependent on the aid of others. I took advantage of some unexpected time to go visit her, making the drive of 100 miles. I found her in her room with my father by her side. She was watching television. She was watching the Inaugural Ball for President Obama. The impact was not lost on me. Even though I like to point out that President Obama’s mother was “as white as mine,” I know that our nation considers him to be our first black President. (For more on this social phenomenon, read this excerpt by F. James Davis – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html). And there was my grandmother – watching. I remember that at one point my father asked if she wanted to watch anything else (she was a big fan of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”), and she said, “No, this is okay.”

What tends to change our view on things very often boils down to this: the influence of the ones we love. When we name and love someone, labels no longer fit. Reverend King Jr. had a deep-rooted love for those around him. Maybe he was driven by love for his parents. Maybe he was driven by love for his own children. Maybe..definitely..he was driven by his love for Jesus. I keep referring to him as Reverend King Jr. to properly honor the fact that he was named after his father who was also a minister. And, like his father, he adopted the name Martin Luther to honor the great Reformer – the one who challenged the church’s views. Both King Jr. and his father were born to the given name of Michael. The name Michael means, “Who is like God?” or, as one interpretation suggests, “Who’s God?”

It is the heart of that question that drove Rev. King Jr. and my grandmother in their lifetimes. It was their sincere desire to know and love God and not to allow him to only be a label. Will you do the same? Will you seek to know and love God in such a way that you can bear the light he gives? Will you, like many before you, learn to drop the labels?

Four years ago I watched President Obama dance with the First Lady. My father and grandmother watched too. Less than two months later we went to say “farewell” to my grandmother, expecting her to go to be with God at any time. Had it not been for the grace of God, who holds us all, the three little boys who whispered good-bye to her would only be seen as “black.” But because she loved Jesus without labels, she received three little boys as “Caleb,” “Joshua,” and “Jonathan.” We can easily label anyone around us, just as labels can be applied to us. But the only label that should stick is “lamp.” Will you, today, let God wipe off a little more dirt so that his light can shine?

Some day my grandmother will dance with those three little boys. Until then, I bet she is having a great time up there with Michael.

Be a lamp, love without labels, and bear the light.