Karma or Grace? Genesis 32:5 3/25/18

3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”

Genesis 32:3-5 NIV

When I look at the world, I see three distinct explanations for why things happen to people—justice, evil, and grace. Karma, a Hindu word for “what goes around, comes around” is the idea of justice. The universe is ironic, and the bad vibes you push into the world will push back to you. Our sin has also unloaded random evil in the world. I believe natural disasters and freak accidents are evil. They are not punishments to those involved but rather a symptom of the random evil in our world. If bad things only happened to bad people it would be justice, but since they are random, it is evil. Then there is grace, when we get better than we deserve.

(The idea of random evil has nothing to do with our passage here, but I mention it because too many people want to blame themselves for every random bad thing that happens. The book of Job is a testament to how this isn’t true. Jesus drives the point home in Luke 13:1-5. So as I talk about karma and grace, I want make sure we aren’t heaping needless amounts of destructive guilt on ourselves in the process.)

Genesis 32 is about Jacob preparing to encounter his brother Esau. The lead-up and experience of this story are a textbook study in karma and grace. To see this, you have to know Jacob and Esau’s story (Genesis 25:19-33:20, or you can take my word for it):

-Jacob and Esau are twins. Esau is slightly older. When they came out of the womb, Jacob was grasping at Esau’s heel (that’s what his name means). This signified from the beginning one of the most legendary tales of sibling rivalry.

-As they got older their mother Rebekah showed obvious favoritism to Jacob, while Isaac showed obvious favoritism to the older brother, Esau.

-One day, Esau returns from hunting really hungry, and in exchange for Jacob’s stew, he gives up his birthright.

-Another day, Jacob and Rebekah dress Jacob like Esau and have him bring his blind father some more stew he requested in order to steal Esau’s blessing.

Karma

When Esau finds out about this last bit, he’s furious. Jacob runs away from home for around 20 years. The passage we’re talking about today is them meeting for the first time since then. Before this meeting, Jacob experiences some serious karma. Let’s look at that.

When Jacob runs away from home after deceiving his brother, he goes and lives with his uncle Laban. Jacob falls in love Laban’s daughter, Rachel (kissing cousins, I guess). Laban agrees to let Jacob marry Rachel if he works for Laban for 7 years. But when the seven years are up, he gives Jacob his other daughter Leah instead (The bible says that Rachel is pretty, and Leah has weak eyes….savage). Laban insists that Jacob work another 7 years for Rachel. When all this labor of love is over, he marries Rachel.

Then, Jacob and Laban begin one-upping each other in shady business deals. Laban says Jacob can have speckled and spotted livestock that Laban promptly gives to his own sons. Jacob on the other hand, has the rest of the livestock mate in front of striped branches so that the offspring would be speckled and spotted (because science?). Things sour between Jacob and Laban (surprise!) and God tells Jacob it’s time to leave and go back home.

Look at all the karma. Jacob spends his youth deceiving and spends adulthood getting deceived by his uncle/father-in-law. In the meantime, (story I didn’t tell you) the sibling rivalry he began with his brother comes back around, when his wives and then his sons have their own sibling rivalries. He causes drama by sleeping with extra wives and showing favoritism to his youngest sons (just like his father and grandfather). People left to their own devices reap what they sow. Is there any hope? (assuming you didn’t get bored during that long summary)

Grace

God tells Jacob in a dream to return to his home country, from which he has been an exile for 20 years. So for the first time in Jacob’s life, instead of fighting and clawing for his piece of the pie, he just listens and obeys and heads back home. After another exhausting encounter with Laban over some stolen idols that Rachel hides while pretending she’s on her period (seriously, Genesis 31), Jacob runs into some more angels on his way back home. So it’s clear that God has planned and blessed this journey—a journey back to his home, to the Promised Land that God gave to Jacob’s grandfather, father, and him.

But then, Jacob begins to prepare to meet his brother. In this story we see Jacob go back and forth between planning for the worst and trusting God (a battle we often find ourselves). Jacob sends a message that he’s coming with significant wealth and asks for kindness. He may have done this to say “I’m powerful” or to say “I don’t need my birthright (that I stole) anymore,” since Esau’s wealth comes from his inheriting Isaac’s stuff, and Jacob doesn’t want him to think Jacob is returning to claim it. Jacob subsequently finds out that Esau is coming with 400 men (soldiers?). Then Jacob prepares to be attacked, splitting his entourage into two camps, so that if one is attacked the other can escape.

Then, Jacob tries something new. He prays. He recognizes that God’s hand is in the journey, but he also recognizes that he deserves Esau’s wrath. He asks for God’s protection on the grounds of the promises that God made him even though he doesn’t deserve those promises.

“I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant.” Gen. 32:10

However, after saying amen, Jacob goes back to his scheming. He sends two groups from his camp that offer Esau presents. One after the other. Perhaps this will appease Esau. Perhaps it will appease his mercenaries. Perhaps it will slow Esau down, exhaust his rage, and make it hard for him to attack while also having to tend hundreds of animals.

This scheming ends with yet another divine encounter (that’s 3 encounters and 1 prayer in this story, if you’re counting). He wrestles with God himself as a man (maybe the Word pre-Jesus, if you’re feeling Trinitarian). He forces the wrestler God to bless him. God changes his name to Israel (he struggles with God).

Just so we’re clear, God told him to go home. Angels showed up on his journey. He prays, and then beats God in a wrestling match, resulting in further blessing. Yet he is still scared that he’s going to get what he deserves.

But then he meets with Esau, tries to act like a servant, but Esau ran and hugged him, and they wept. If you think this sounds like the prodigal son homecoming, that’s because it does. It should also remind you of Jacob’s son Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. All is forgiven. Family is restored.

Our world is full of justice because our God is just. But our world is also full of opportunities for reconciliation because our God loves mercy and reconciliation far more than he loves justice. He is a God of grace. This family is pretty messed up—adultery, cheating, rivalry, selfishness, lying, manipulation, and then Jacob’s sons will sell Joseph into slavery. God kept his promise to them. He’ll keep his promises to you.

So if you have left your old life to follow Jesus, but are still afraid karma is coming for you. Know that our God of mercy and grace wipes away your guilt and prepares a way for you. Will you still struggle? Yes. Will bad things still happen? Yes (back to that random evil idea). Will things from the past try to haunt you? Probably. But we are no longer slaves to fear, we are children loved by God. Forgive yourself (because God does) and walk in that hope.

Also, don’t spend your life cheating your family. Even with God it can still be messy.

Skubala Philippians 3:8-11 3/18/19

But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

Philippians 3:8-11 CEB

You see that phrase in verse 9 where it says sewer trash? In Greek, that’s the word skubala. It’s an offensive word that can mean dung (KJV). NIV says trash. The CEB says sewer trash. The NRSV, ever the proper one, says rubbish. The Message says dog dung for some reason. What they are all afraid to say, but I’m not afraid to say is, is that the word is crap (are you so brave, Alex? I noticed you didn’t use that other word it could be translated as). Why is Paul using such strong language here? Let’s start at the end, and see if you can catch the scent.

Look at verse 11. The goal is the resurrection of the dead. A lot of times when we think of heaven, we think of a paradise that’s separate from this world that we’ll all float off to one day. But that belief doesn’t do justice to God’s plan. Scripture does seem to indicate that there is some sort of ethereal waiting area right after death, but the bulk of the eternal promise is the second resurrection. God wants to resurrect the dead—the dead people and the dead world. What Scripture teaches is that Jesus will destroy the works of the devil, and God will remake this beautiful but broken world into an indestructible paradise (read the last couple chapters of Revelation if you’re interested). He will right every wrong, wipe away every tear, free us from death, sin, tragedy, addiction, sickness, mental illness, and long DMV lines. That’s what Paul is working towards; that’s what he’s excited about.

To be a part of that, we need righteousness; we need to stand in a right relationship with God. How can we do that? Look at verse 10. We do that by 1. knowing Christ, 2. knowing the power of the resurrection, and 3. sharing in his sufferings/being conformed to his death. Let’s unpack that. You want to be a part of the new earth later? In the meantime, do you want to be a part of God putting this world back together?

  1. Know Christ. Get to know him—prayer, Scripture, and other means of grace.

  2. Know the power of the resurrection. We are all sinners saved by the cross, but if we are saved by the cross, we can be transformed by the resurrection. Sin and fear have no hold on us. We can become the people we are called to be.

  3. Share in Christ’s death and suffering. We share in his victory in the resurrection, but we also are called to share in his self-denial and suffering in the cross. We celebrate triumphantly, but we serve sacrificially, and don’t retaliate when the world doesn’t like us.

That’s how we put this world back together, by being agents of change that imitate Jesus. Now look at verse 9. Righteousness comes because of our faith in what Christ did, and a righteous life come from imitating Jesus by his power (verse 10).

So back to skubala. In the verses before this, Paul describes all the ways that he was blameless according to the Pharisee’s way of understanding Scripture, but all of his blamelessness, all of his righteousness, did not cause him to know and follow Christ. Therefore, he sees it as garbage/dung/sewer trash. Now following God’s rules is not a bad thing (as long as you follow the right rules, kosher I’m looking at you), but if doing so puffs you up with pride rather than making you love Jesus more, it’s pointless. When he met Jesus, he had a new reason to live.

Do things in order. Get to know Christ. Experience his power. Live in a way that honors him (because of that power and love, not because you’re proud of yourself). This life is about what Christ has done, about living in response to that, and about pointing others to it.

Captain Planet Matthew 3:11 3/11/19

11 “I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Matthew 3:11 CEB

These words are uttered by John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an interesting character. Son of an elderly Levite and his wife Elizabeth, he is the cousin of Jesus. He has a ministry where he hangs out in the woods wearing weird clothes and eating weird food. When people come to see them, he preaches heartwarming sermons about how they are all snakes and will experience judgment if they don’t repent and get baptized. The gist of his message is this: the messiah, the promised one of God is coming to put this world back together, and you need to get on the right side of his judgment.

John baptized with water. He promises another will baptize with spirit and fire. In Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, Spirit is the same word as wind. Each of us is made up of earth is called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts.

Thus we arrive at Captain Planet. Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Heart. If you are older or younger than me, you may not be aware of Captain Planet. Basically, bad guys who like to pollute the earth are stopped by 5 teenagers with the aforementioned powers. When they use their powers combined, a blue superhero with a green mullet shows up, stops the bad guys, and cleans up the pollution. The idea behind the show created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle was to teach kids to care about the environment. But I didn’t have superpowers. And I didn’t run across genetically mutated villains like Hoggish Greedly and Verminous Skumm, who rather than run a good business, were intent on polluting streams while laughing. Therefore, I felt ill-equipped. Nevertheless, I just learned, while using the wikipedias, that Whoopi Goldberg played Gaia, Lavar Burton played Kwami (Earth), and villains were regularly voiced by Ed Asner, Jeff Goldblum, Meg Ryan, and Sting. That’s almost as much star power as Toy Story.

Great. So back to Jesus and John. Just as the powers in Captain Planet all needed to be present to summon the green mullet, so each of the three elements in this passage (Wind, Fire, Water) should be present in our spiritual lives.

John provides the water of baptism (baptism is the entrance to the community of faith and life of Christ). Water symbolizes our cleansing, our walking into new life. It is the beginning of our relationship with Christ. We repent. God forgives. But John is right. This is not the end. We wait for something else. In Jesus, at conversion, we receive the Holy Spirit and fire.

Now there is a lot we could say about the Holy Spirit and fire. First off, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit is both fire and wind. But I want to do my best (which might be enough) to explain what John meant. The wind is the Holy Spirit pushing us into his will. It reminds us of the word of God as breathed the world into creation. It should remind us of how the prophets and early church got pushed around by the guiding force of the Spirit. In short, the wind is direction that God has for our lives. In Christ we all have PURPOSE.

The fire on the other hand, should remind us of judgment. Jesus tells parables about how the wheat and chaff will be separated—one saved; the other burned. Passages referring to the messiah throughout the Bible talk about how people will be tested like precious metals, purified by fire as the dross is burned up. The fire, as indicated by other descriptions of the Holy Spirit (c.f. John 14), will convict and purify us. In Christ we will all be TRANSFORMED.

So this is what we should hope for in our lives. Forgiveness of our past sins, but also wind to live into our new plan in God’s kingdom, and fire to be refined so that we become like Christ. That is the work the Holy Spirit does in us. Each of us is on the continuum between forgiveness (justification) and being perfected in love (sanctification). Wherever you find yourself, know the God’s plan is to take you all the way, completely trusting him and full of love, leaving sin behind. Don’t stop.

Then at the end of times, we can expect Jesus to come back to renew the earth and completely renew all people who had their hearts transformed by wind, fire, and water. He might even have a green mullet, but I’m pretty sure Ted Turner did not intend this metaphor.

Heavy Hair Psalm 3:4 3/4/19

I cry out loud to the Lord,
    and he answers me from his holy mountain.  Psalm 3:4 CEB

Before I say anything about what this passage is about, the application here is simple. Talk to God. He talks back. Stop right now and talk to God. Find enough solitude to wait for answer. It may not be an audible voice (dare I say probably won’t). God’s answers are many and varied. Sometimes God fixes our problems; sometimes God fixes us; sometimes God gives us peace or a new direction, and unfortunately, even for a pastor, sometimes God feels silent. However, at the end of the day our life is about knowing and being known by God, so talk to God… a lot.

Background (Read all of Psalm 3 and 2 Samuel 13-19 if you want to hear the whole story)

This Psalm was written by King David. He had been king of Israel for a long time when his son Absalom decided he shouldn’t be king anymore. Absalom first makes headlines when he kills his half-brother for violating his half-sister, so he’s banished. Then Joab, David’s general, helps he return to Israel, but David won’t see him. Joab won’t return Absalom’s calls either, so Absalom sets his yard on fire. Joab says, “why did you set my yard on fire?” Absalom says, “Because I want to see my dad.” (Absalom may have the least chill in the Bible. He’s also apparently extremely pretty and has heavy hair). So David and Absalom are reunited, relationship restored, kingdom at peace. Until…

Absalom decides that he wants to steal David’s throne. First, he catches people going to seek David for justice and hears their case instead, telling them that David doesn’t care. Then, he goes on tour telling everyone he’s king, makes his way back to David’s original capitol and crowns himself.

Long story short, David and his loyal followers (it helps that his “loyal followers” were almost all of his generals and a bunch of foreign mercenaries who only had allegiance to David) go into hiding. David’s spy gives Absalom bad advice. They fight a battle. David wins. Absalom runs away but gets his beautiful, heavy hair stuck in a tree. While he’s hanging there, Joab, still mad about his azaleas, plays darts with his body.

Sleep Easy

I tell this bizarre story because it ratchets up the stakes in David’s prayer. He’s praying for God’s protection while he’s running for his life from a kingdom that has turned on him. Then he says something we all need to listen to:

I lie down, sleep, and wake up
    because the Lord helps me.
I won’t be afraid of thousands of people
    surrounding me on all sides.

Psalm 3:5-6 Common English Bible (CEB)

We’re in an age of unparalleled amounts of anxiety and fear. David is being chased by an angry army. His son has betrayed him. His kingdom has rejected him, and he’s sleeping easy. So back to the beginning, whatever else you are doing to make it through the day, call on the Lord and let him answer you.

Bears, Bald Men, Battlestar Galactica 2 Kings 2:23-25 2/25/19

Elisha and the Bears

23 Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” 24 Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the Lord’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths. 25 From there Elisha went to Mount Carmel and then back to Samaria.

2 Kings 2:23-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

Background

You still here? Still confused?  Okay, here’s the background.  Israel has split into two different kingdoms.  The nation of Judah in the south, where Jerusalem is (and the temple), is sometimes good at actually following God as intended.  The nation of Israel in the North hardly ever follows God.  Our story takes place in the northern kingdom.

Israel is ruled by King Ahab, and he married a woman named Jezebel who influenced Ahab and Israel to worship a god named Baal.  In fact, she had a habit of killing anyone who didn’t like to worship Baal.

Another thing you need to know is that there are people called prophets.  God speaks to them and calls them to drop unvarnished truth bombs on people.  When you are as evil and crazy as Jezebel, your truth bombs are pretty intense. A while back Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, dropped this one on her:

“The dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’  He who belongs to Ahab and dies in the city will be eaten by dogs, and he who dies in the field will be eaten by the birds of the air.'” -1 Kings 21:23-24

Needless to say, prophets are not well liked by those who don’t like their message.  Much of 1 and 2 Kings is about the battle between rulers that don’t follow God and prophets that hold them accountable.  And Jezebel has killed a lot of prophets…I mean a lot of prophets.

Back to the Story

So when Elijah goes up into heaven just before our passage, Elisha is now the prophet in charge.  He’s wearing Elijah’s special prophet jacket and making his way to a town called Bethel (which ironically means house of God).  A large group of “young people” come out and start mocking him.  Some translations have this as “little children.”  That is a weird (though possible, I guess) interpretation of the Hebrew word, na’ar.  The word can mean anything from a little kid to a young man.  Joshua is called a na’ar at 45.  Let’s assume we don’t have a mauling of a bunch of little kids.  Let’s assume that Elisha has run afoul of a gang of angry teenagers and young adults.

Walking alone on a road is always hazardous.  Roving bands of thieves and ne’er-do-wells are a problem for travelers for millennia.  But Elisha is also wearing the special jacket of a prophet of YHWH—someone who likes to tell Baal-worshipers they will be eaten by dogs.  Chances are this band of youths worships Baal.  Chances are this group knows that it is not only permissible, but government policy, to kill prophets of YHWH.   So chances are the insults about Elisha not having any hair (so hurtful) are probably the opening volleys of what is about to be a lynching.

Bad News Bears

So now maybe it makes a little more sense why two bears (most translations say she-bears, an unnecessary but fun addition to the story) came out and mauled 42 of the youths.  Elisha’s life was in danger.

But it still brings up an important idea about our God (YHWH).  Our God is, despite this strange story, a God of love. But God is a God that knows that it’s in our best interest to worship him and him alone.  When we worship other gods, whether it’s Baal or money or sex or safety or nationalism or a political figure…or just ourselves, it breaks the world.  Let me say that again.  Idolatry breaks the world.  It leads to murderous monarchs who rule over murderous gangs who are all just worshiping their new god.

Therefore, God hates idolatry.  If you read the Old Testament, you will read a lot of things, but one thing that comes up over and over again is that God hates idolatry.  It’s destructive, and sometimes a loving God deals with destructive things destructively.

 

Takeaway 1

The first takeaway is for the prophets out there.  Sometimes God calls us to point out brokenness to people who may not want to hear it.  This is especially difficult when the brokenness you are called to point out is a common and popular belief among a society.  There will be opposition, but if God has called you, God will take care of you.

That being said………..you are called to SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE.  If you do it without love, you are not doing it on behalf of God.  Always ask yourself in persecution, “is this because of my faith in God or because I’m being a jerk?”

Takeaway 2

Don’t be an idolater.  There are lots of little gods out there calling you to follow them instead of the true God.  It will mess you up, and it will cause you to mess up other people.  People around you may be following other gods, but you shouldn't, even if you're the only one.   Figure out what it means to “have no other gods before ME” and figure out why that is the very FIRST commandment in the 10 Commandments (and the second is “don’t make idols,” basically the same thing).  This is a big deal to God.  Stop right now, figure out what’s tempting you and calling your name and pray about it.  The tricky part is, you can have idols that aren’t bad things, but they are bad if you worship them (clothes, health, family, safety, school, hobbies, etc.)

Takeaway 3

By far the hardest and most insidious part of looking for idols is when idols are trying to convince us that they are a part of true faith.  Let me explain, it is easy to see the idols in secular society—money, power, sex, selfie culture, smartphones, convenience—even though they still pull at us.

What is harder is noticing and dealing with idolatry IN THE CHURCH—idolatry pretending to be true faith.  I believe this is a much more dangerous idolatry than secular idolatry.  Because if the church is busy worshiping idols, we look like idiots to the outside world when we call them to give up their idols.

Here are some of the idols I’ve noticed in the church (and when I say “the church” I don’t just mean my church, I mean the global church, but especially the American church). 

  1.  The need to be right over our call to love- We often want to put our opponents in their place by mocking them or bullying them.  We might post articles with titles like “girl destroys argument in one sentence” or a meme that makes an insulting comment.  Any time we want to point out sin without demonstrating love we are guilty of this.  This is sin.  Satan wins if we do this.

  2. Politics and Nationalism- No secular political party speaks for God.  No country is favored by God.  Churches on both sides of the American political spectrum and churches across the world sometimes have unspoken rules that you have to agree with the church politically and support their nation (to the detriment of others) in order to be a “real Christian.”  We want to be good voters and good citizens, but ultimately we belong to a community that transcends our politics and our nation.  Scripture, especially the teachings of Jesus, should shape our ideas about the world more than the world shapes our ideas about God.  Let me be clear, both sides of the liberal/conservative spectrum are currently doing this to the church, but often we only notice what the other side is doing wrong.   We shouldn’t bother pointing out the other side until we deal with our side first.

Conclusion

Let’s use these takeaways in the opposite order that I presented in them.  First, we must find our own idolatries, both the temptations in the church and the temptation in secular society (and our temptations within ourselves).  We must constantly deal with those, look for those, and repent of those.  Then, we can speak with love and understanding to those that struggle around us, never holding ourselves on a higher plane.  And no matter how frustrated or beat up you get, let God worry about the bears (if for some reason it comes to that). 

Second, never underestimate the power of someone with a call from God.

Third, don’t mess with baldy....or she-bears.

Locusts Joel 2:18 2/18/19

“THEN THE LORD BECAME PASSIONATE ABOUT THE LAND, AND HAD PITY ON HIS PEOPLE.”

Joel 2:18 CEB

Background of Joel

Joel is an interesting book. It is one of what we call the minor prophets. They are “minor” because the book is short (3 chapters), not because they aren’t important. You can find the minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament, after the major (long) prophets and Daniel. Usually, these books deal with Israel or Judah either about to be exiled by Assyria or Babylon or already in exile. They typically explain why they are facing hardship and what promises to expect in the future.

Joel is different. It appears to be a story about an actual locust plague eating up crops. It’s possible the locusts are metaphors for an invading army like Babylon, or Assyria, or even Persia or Greece, but Joel is unique in not mentioning those empires by name. Joel is also unique in that he says nothing about blaming Judah/Israel for their situation (though he does recommend fasting and repenting in passages leading up to today’s passage). Like other prophetic books, their present situation leads to some bold promises about the future of the kingdom of God, some of which Peter will use in Acts 2 to describe Pentecost.

Today’s passage

Joel chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 describe the locust plague situation. Then, Joel recommends crying out to God. Our passage today is God’s response. He will care about the land and take pity on his people.

Thoughts

Our God is a God who takes pity on us. God sees our pain, hears our groaning, feels our circumstances more deeply than we do. God also responds to our prayers. We have the hope that whatever we are going through, we can turn to God to find comfort.

Unbelievable Promise

If you’ve ever been through a trial like Joel is describing, you probably know that the wait is painful. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God fix things immediately? In fact, why doesn’t God stop them from happening in the first place? I learned a large and probably unhelpful word in seminary to describe these questions, Theodicy—the question of why a good and all-powerful God lets evil exist and bad things happen. I can’t say I have all the answers here, and a lot of the answers I do have are beyond the scope of this entry.

But what I do see in this passage is an unbelievable promise: in 2:25, God not only promises to fix Israel’s problem, God promises to restore the years that the locusts ate. That’s right. Our God can heal old wounds. He can give us back what we lost. I see this play out time and time again in people’s lives. Rather than being grateful that God fixed a problem but wishing God hadn’t waited so long, I’ve seen God fix a problem and then use the pain to make something beautiful. An adult with a troubled childhood can offer hope to others with the same testimony and feel more intensely the joy of their freedom from it. A family that lost someone can comfort others while drawing closer together and experiencing community in a way they could never have dreamed of. Our God may be mysterious. God may wait longer than we want. But no matter how long we suffer under a blanket of locusts, God can bring a healing that not only stops the problem but brings flowers from the mud and the rain.

Shuffled thought (off-topic and not that inspiring)

I once heard a pastor say that the locusts in Joel were a metaphor for modern-day helicopters and it was all reference to whatever war we were facing at the time. You know, because locust plagues make a loud buzzing noise, and because this book that has been inspiring hundreds of generations is probably only written to reference our current geopolitical situation. Please hear and heed my sarcasm here.

We often try to take the apocalyptic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation and try to make all the mystical language be metaphors for geopolitical stuff in our world (i.e. whoever is president at the time must be the anti-christ or great prophet). While you might be right, chances are you are not. Every time there has been a major upheaval in world politics or events (every eclipse, Reformation, American Civil War, French Revolution, WWI, WW2, Y2K, even the advent of Walmart’s inventory system) there’s been someone who amassed a following on the idea that we lived in the end times…..and they all turned out to be wrong.

Instead of reading prophetic and apocalyptic literature in an attempt to predict the near future, let’s remember that only God knows when Armageddon is coming (Matthew 24:36, not even Jesus or the angels know). Let’s seek to encounter the Word in the Word and live our lives by the principles of the kingdom of heaven. Then, whatever happens, we’re ready.

Shrubbery Leviticus 2:11 2/11/19

“No grain offering that you give to the LORD can be made with yeast. You must not completely burn any yeast or honey as a food gift for the LORD.”

Leviticus 2:11 CEB

 

If you’ve ever heard me preach, you know I often approach the Bible a certain way.  I typically look at the passage from a bunch of absurd angles before being led by the Spirit (you hope) to focus on what God might actually be saying to us.  Let me show you my rabbit hole with this passage.

 

This passage is bizarre.  Let’s be honest, to our modern ears the whole book of Leviticus is a little bizarre. There are some good memory verses and rules to live by for sure, but they are awash in a sea of seemingly arbitrary laws with even more arbitrary details.  When I read through chapter 1 and 2, I immediately recalled Monty Python’s King Arthur’s encounter with the knights who say “ni!”  In order to pass through the forest, Arthur and his men must obtain a shrubbery (one that looks nice and is not too expensive).  Then, once said shrubbery is obtained, they are told they must supply a second shrubbery, a little taller than the first, and cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring.  

 

I feel a little bit like Arthur when I consider applying these verses to my life.  Why does God want bread?  Why only certain ingredients?  And, aren’t the Israelites wandering around like nomads?  Where would they obtain enough bread to need specific rules to govern how they sacrifice it?  Not too mention, they are, in fact, allowed to offer bread with honey or yeast, as long as it isn’t burned (see verse 12).  Is this so that the Levites can eat the good bread that isn’t burned, or is it because God doesn’t like the way burning yeast or honey smells?  I don’t like the smell of burned pizza crust (yeast), so maybe God’s on to something.

 

Scholars have different opinions on these rules.  Some suggest that honey and yeast were used in pagan rituals, and therefore not appropriate as a gift to the one true God.  Some suggest that yeast was a common metaphor for how sin grows, and yeast is prone to mold faster (get corrupted).  And of course if you know anything about the Exodus story (the Israelites fleeing slavery), you know that unleavened bread without yeast was eaten, so they could leave in a hurry, so maybe the offering should remind them of their freedom from slavery.  Of course, none of this explains why you can offer it unburned (except my theory about feeding the Levites).

 

Even though my understanding is incomplete, the conclusion I can draw for us is this: our worship, our sacrifice should remind us of the God we serve.  We don’t just sacrifice for catharsis, feeling good about giving something away.  We don’t just worship because we like to sing, or yell, or dance, or clap our hands.  We do it as a response to God, a specific God that delivered the Israelites from slavery and delivers us from our sins.  Worship shouldn’t just feel good or let us check a box on our to-do list.  It should draw us closer to the God of the universe that never stops loving his people.  

 

Worship with all your mind, focusing intently on the object of our worship, the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Worship with all your body, energy, and material sacrifices because when we realize who this God is, we realize that to give up everything for him is to gain more than we could ask, think, or imagine.  This is what your life is about.  This is what you were born for.

 

Oh, and please don’t set any bread on fire during church….or say ni at old ladies.