A 2022 Prayer Focus?

Preparing for worship this week brought me to Ephesians 3, specifically verses 16-19. As I’m wont to do, I read the scripture in a variety of translations (the beauty of tools like BibleGateway.com), ultimately landing on the Amplified Version (AMP). As you might recall, the editors of the AMP expanded the English to better align with the richness of the original Greek, helping us experience the writer’s intent – the Apostle Paul, in this case.

As I read Ephesians 3:16-19 in the AMP, I experienced a flood of memories. It was the purchase and use of a pre-owned Amplified New Testament 40-years ago that ultimately lead to my personal purpose/mission/vision statement: To know Him and make Him known; to be Good News to those around me. Reading Paul’s prison letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon) in the AMP were core to personal transformation. As I read Ephesians 3:16-19 in the AMP on Sunday (1/2/2022), it occurred to me that this would be an excellent personal prayer focus throughout the coming year.

My 40-year old used AMP Bible (complete with classic red duct tape binding repair!)

So… I’ve posted it below for your pondering. Though Paul was writing a letter to a group of believers, it seems like it might be a worthy personal focus as well. What could be better than being “filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]?” Have a blessed 2022!

16 May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith.

And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, 18 be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love];

19 and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. Ephesians 3:16-19 (AMP)

The Magnificat

I absolutely love poetry – when I hear it read. I remember attending a Cursillo weekend event in the mid-1980s where one of the spiritual directors read poems from his favorite author. The words leapt off the page and drew me in, so much so that I went out and bought the book for myself. To my disappointment, as I read from the book, the poems did nothing for me. I think we engineering-types struggle to read poetic literature. I know I do. To my dismay, the richness of so much poetry just never seems to leave the pages.

I’ve heard many people say they struggle reading Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms, as did I for about the first 45 years of my life. Then something changed. I took a seminary course in Pslams through the Reformed Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s. I remember asking the professor which English translation of the Bible gives us the best sense of the metre and intent of these great Hebrew poems and songs. He suggested reading from the New American Standard Bible. Thus began a new appreciation of Hebrew poetry.

The Magnificat, Linda Donlin

Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is certainly in the genre of Hebrew poetry. It reads like many of the Psalms, laced with thanksgiving and admiration of God along with declarations of his redemptive and loyal characteristics. We should keep in mind that Mary would have been quite familiar with Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms. She might likely have sung some of the Psalms during her week-long journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.

It was at Elizabeth’s home that Mary mouthed the Magnificat. Magnificat is the title attributed to her poem/song of praise which was a response to Elizabeth’s reception and words of blessing of Mary and her unborn baby, Jesus. The term Magnificat comes from the opening line of the poem in the Latin Vulgate BibleMagnificat anima mea Dominum, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Though Mary’s poem appears to have been spontaneous, one could/should assume the contents could have resulted from things she would have been pondering since the visit from the angel, Gabriel, and most likely during her long trip to visit Elizabeth. I think of a couple different times in the Gospels that talk about Mary’s treasuring and pondering of events unfolding in her life: Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19, after the visit from the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth) and his [Jesus’] mother treasured up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51, after the young lad went missing and was found discussing theology with the teachers in the Temple).

And certainly a visit from an angel declaring that she would birth the Messiah would be cause for much pondering!

If you recall, when Mary reached Elizabeth’s home and greeted her, Elizabeth’s baby John leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45). Elizabeth commended Mary for her faith and confirmed the angel Gabriel’s proclamation that she would indeed carry the Messiah in her womb. No wonder Mary broke into song (though scripture doesn’t indicate that she sang) and said…

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy* is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (ESV)

Read the Magnificat again and you will see the gospel, the good news that accompanies the arrival of a king. This King will be different than all other kings of the earth. Most kings, upon arrival, exalt those with wealth, position, and power. Most kings, upon arrival, throw celebrations and feasts for those of wealth, position, and power – celebrations and feasts catered by servants of humble estate. This King arrived through a servant of humble estate. This King would reverse the order, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.

No wonder the late pastor and author, Eugene Peterson, referred to this good news as the great reversal. No wonder Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

* Mercy is that rich Hebrew word, hesed, that I have previously discussed.

Mary Did You Know? (Part 2)

I have spent the last two weeks hovered over the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. I wouldn’t venture to guess as to how many times I’ve read the accounts of the announcements of John the Baptists’ miraculous conception and Jesus’ immaculate conception. This time I find I’m seeing and hearing some things differently than in past readings. Luke tells a much larger story than just the announcement of the two births.

In the previous post, Mary Did You Know? (Part 1), we discussed the angel Gabriel’s surprising appearance and greeting of Mary, the insignificant teenage girl from the insignificant little town of Nazareth, far from the religious epicenter, Jerusalem. Let’s continue to look into the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, starting again with Gabriel’s visit announcing the birth of John the Baptist…

The Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci

It was in the Temple in Jerusalem that Gabriel visited John the Baptist’s to-be father, Zechariah, as he was performing his temple duties. Zechariah was a priest. One of approximately 20,000 priests, he was required to be in Jerusalem, serving at the Temple, during each of the four major festivals – Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths. Additionally, he was scheduled to serve two, one-week stints throughout the year.

Priests were set apart to carry out duties associated with worship and sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish faith community. Their duties took place at the Temple where God was presumed to have resided. For the Israelites, the Temple was the intersection of heaven and earth. Priests, following Old Testament tradition, served God on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of God. On the day of Gabriel’s visit, Zechariah had been “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9).

The burning of incense was a twice-a-day ritual. As a crowd of worshipers assembled outside to pray, Zechariah entered the Temple’s Holy Place to burn the incense on an altar designed specifically for that purpose The altar of incense was just in front of the curtain separating the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place. This was indeed a holy experience for the officiating priest. After burning the incense, the priest came out of the Temple and pronounced the Aaronic blessing over the people, the same blessing we use today as a common benediction to our worship services.

The Temple, you see, is where the “with-you-God” resided with his people throughout the ages. The precursor of the Temple dated back to the time of the exodus from Egyptian captivity. God was content to live in a tent (tabernacle), but the people wanted otherwise. So God allowed them to build a temple. And the steps of the Temple were where people gathered to worship – this intersection of heaven and earth.

In the last post, we discussed the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. Let’s look at the rest of his Annunciation. After reassuring Mary that she needn’t fear, and reminding her that she had found favor with God, he began to reveal to her the rest of the story, the reason for his visit. She would conceive and bear a son whom she would name Jesus. Jesus is a form of Joshua meaning “God is Salvation.” Gabriel, then, proclaimed five descriptors of God’s saving intervention that Jesus would embody (Luke 1:32-33):

  1. Jesus will be great. Gabriel did not say his greatness would be “in the sight of the Lord” as he did concerning John. Jesus’ greatness is unqualified. It stands alone.
  2. Jesus will be called Son of the Most High. Note that Luke capitalized Son of the Most High, grammerically reserved for royalty. Most High is derived from the Hebrew name for God, El Eylon, meaning the one true sovereign God.
  3. The Lord God will give Jesus the throne of his father David. Most Jewish people would have understood this to mean Messiah. I wonder what Mary was thinking at this point.
  4. Jesus will reign over Jacob’s descendents (Israel) forever. This was a somewhat contemptuous pronouncement considering King Herod’s attempts to establish his reign over the Jewsih people.
  5. Jesus’ kingdom will never end. Eternity is an attribute of God and in Hebrew understanding, only El Eylon’s kingdom is considered to be eternal.

Gabriel was clearly communicating to Mary that the Eternal, Most High, One true and sovereign God was going to take up residence in her womb. Mary understandably perplexed asked, “How can this be…?” Gabriel’s response:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

A noteworthy word in Gabriel’s response is “overshadow” (Greek, episkiazein). Recall the tent/tabernacle that God was satisfied to live in. After the tabernacle was completed, God overshadowed it and infused (i.e., impregnated) it with his presence and glory (Exodus 40:33-35). Right there in the middle of the camp, God was present with his people. When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek (known as the Septuagint), the word used for overshadowed was episkiazein. Luke did not use an inconsequential word when describing the immaculate conception.

The divine cloud that established God’s presence with his people in time and place now does so in a person. The divine overshadowing of the earthly tabernacle was a foreshadowing of the living tabernacle, the incarnation (Edwards). Thus the Apostle John’s distinctive declaration that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Greek word for dwelling could be translated as tabernacle. Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Bottom line: God left the building and took up residence right there in the middle of Nazareth!

Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapid, MI

The Dash

I was privileged yesterday, December 10, 2021, to be able to watch the funeral service of the late senator Robert Dole, held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was humbling and reminiscent of John McCain’s funeral. Tributes to Dole came from members of both political parties, a statement of his character as a person rather than a politician.

During the service, the Honorable Sheila Burke read a well-known contemplative poem, The Dash, written by Linda Ellis twenty-five years ago. It’s a poem worthy of sharing…

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
From the beginning…to the end

He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years

For that dash represents all the time
That they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
Know what that little line is worth

For it matters not, how much we own,
The cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile,
Remembering this special dash
Might only last a little while

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent YOUR dash?

Mary Did You Know? (Part 1)

During worship this past Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, we sang one of my favorite Christmas songs, Mary Did You Know. The entire song is pretty powerful, but I am especially drawn to the last verse…

Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Is Lord all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Was Heaven’s perfect Lamb,
And the sleeping Child you’re holding
Is the great, the Great I AM?

Mary’s story is one worthy of consideration and pondering. It’s easy to read the Annunciation (announcement) account of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:26-38) and miss the significance of the story that Luke wanted Theophilus to understand completely – events foundational to his faith (and I assume, foundational to our faith, twenty centuries later).

The narrative begins with a visit by the angel Gabriel to a young girl in the insignificant town of Nazareth. How insignificant? Luke doesn’t presume that Theophilus has heard of it, so he locates it regionally as “a town in Galilee.” There is no previous mention of Nazareth in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. In fact, Nazareth is not mentioned in any of the rabbinic literature – the Mishnah or the Talmud. Nor does the Jewish historian, Josephus, make reference to this obscure little village. How insignificant? You may recall that Nathaniel, after being told by Philip that Jesus of Nazareth might be the Messiah said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Obscure and insignificant, indeed. As was Mary. She was just a young teenager (likely 13) that had apparently done nothing of significance. Especially when compared to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist – they were important people in the Jewish religious community, living blameless, righteous lives (see Luke 1:5-9). We know nothing of this young woman’s religious life.

What do we know? We know that Mary was legally pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of King David. We know she was a virgin. And we also know that the angel Gabriel showed up in Mary’s life. We don’t know what that encounter looked like. I always pictured him just appearing in her bedroom at night. But he could have just shown up at her house in broad daylight and knocked on the door. No matter, this messenger of God had a message for Mary and he violated Judean social protocol to deliver it. Typically, for a man to greet an unknown woman was taboo, let alone an engaged woman. (Was this a precursor to Jesus’s ministry in which he constantly overstepped social and religious boundaries?)

And greet Mary, he did. Gabriel’s opening line: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” There is so much packed into this opening address from God’s messenger that we may not get beyond it in this post!

The Greek word Luke uses for “highly favored” is kecharitōmenē which is used in only one other place in the New Testament. In Ephesians 1:6 the Apostle Paul speaks of God’s “glorious grace, which he has freely given us,” employing kecharitōmenē to communicate to the Christ-followers in Ephesus they had been favored with grace. Gabriel was communicating to Mary that she was highly favored with grace. As are we, apparently!

Ponder the meaning of kecharitōmenē – that we are highly favored with grace.

Kecharitōmenē is one of those rich Greek words which is difficult, if not impossible, to translate into a single English word, thus favored with grace. The use of kecharitōmenē by Luke and the Apostle Paul is a reminder that grace is reserved exclusively for divine acts. It’s tense (perfect passive particle) drives the point home, with passive as the operative word. What had Mary done to deserve this highly favored status? Nothing! And that’s the point. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived righteous, blameless lives. Yet the same Gabriel did not grant them favored status. It was God-granted to Mary. Unearned. Period.

Gabriel concluded his greeting to Mary with the assurance that “the Lord is with you.” Gabriel didn’t start the announcement with what was about to happen. He began with who was with her – the Lord, Yahweh, the creator of the universe, the one that grants kecharitōmenē. In God’s economy, the importance of who supersedes what or how. I think of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3. God made sure Moses knew that “I will be with you” (vs. 12). God shifted the focus from what Moses was going to do to who was going to be (continually) with him. Mary was visited by the who – the presence of “the ‘with-you-God’ who breaks into the human arena.”* This advent season, may we focus on this who. It’s foundational to our faith.

Something else to ponder: Do we find ourselves focusing on who Jesus is or what he can do for us? The answer might reveal the nature of our followership.

* Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapid, MI, p. 45

Thanksgiving 2021

This is Thanksgiving week in the United States. In the last post (My 26), I referred to gratitude as a quintessential Christian virtue – a good lead-in to this holiday week. As I pondered what I might post this week, I was drawn to review what I posted a year ago. After reading it, I decided it was worthy of re-reading – enough that I would encourage others to do the same.

You can read the post, Thankfulness and Gratitude, here. Have a blessed week!

My 26

We worship at The WHY Church. We recently closed out a lengthy message series focused on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The beginning portion of the last chapter (Romans 16:3-15) is dotted with personal greetings from Paul to specific members of the Roman Christian community. Twenty-six people in total. Twenty-six people for whom Paul shared an affinity. People that had shared in his ministry and/or shaped his own faith journey.

Our pastor, Bjorn, suggested we take a crack at listing 26 people that we might want to greet in a similar fashion. People that played a significant role in our own faith development and journey toward and with Jesus. So I sat down one day and made such a list. Some folks from that list…

Arlyce Dipple Morrell – my 3rd grade Sunday School teacher who helped me learn stuff (i.e., Psalm 23, 100, etc.).

Cal Ryan – my pastor when I was about 10. He preached Jesus.

Dan Bailey – my patient 6th grade Sunday School teacher. He helped me learn more stuff.

Barb Reynolds – for giving me The Robe to read, which drew me to want to know Jesus more.

The religion professor that taught The Life & Teachings of Jesus Christ course at NDSU. I can picture him but haven’t a clue his name.

Dave and Donna Peterson – for introducing me to Young Life which has greatly impacted my faith and theology.

Chuck Thompson – a local Christ-follower with great wisdom.

Cordelia Veit-Carey – for pastoring me in my Young Life beginnings. She was a godsend!

Pastor Murray Jacobson – for biblical mentoring via The Navigators‘ tools.

Larry Ostrom – as I began to understand the difference between Jesus’ Gospel and the gospel of cultural Christianity.

Jack Fortin – for amazing Young Life training times in the 70s. My favorite Fortin quote: “God is as interested (or maybe more interested) in the process than the outcome.”

Chuck Jamison – for pointing me to Colossians 1:15 – Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God.

Dick Knox – for rich, weekly conversations related to my journey to know Him…to progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly… (Philippians 3:10, AMP). I posted some of that story here.

Byron Thompson – In a phone interview, as we talked over my eight years as a volunteer Young Life leader, he asked, “Who’s in ministry because of your ministry?” – not vocationally, but those with an understanding of a missional calling regardless of vocation. It has since shaped my view of ministry leadership and the development of others.

Terry McGonigal – Through a Fuller Seminary, Old Testament Survey course introduced me to God’s covenant loyalty woven throughout scripture: I will be you God and you will be my people.

Perry Hunter – During our many breakfast conversations at the old Pannekoeken Huis, we started to process the concept of Doing right things versus doing things right.

Jack Muhlenpoh – a 3M executive that served as a great pastoral mentor for me.  He helped me see the value of willingness when inviting people into ministry service.

Eli Morris – as a white guy who spent a chunk of his ministry serving urban young people, he played a major role in my ongoing journey of understanding biblical justice.

Bruce and Barb Barber – friends and encouragers in the faith for close to 35 years!

Craig Paulson – he encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in higher education, a quintessential example of Jack Fortin’s statement about the value of process outweighing outcome.

And it goes without saying that my wife, Barb, has been the greatest encourager and catalyst of my faith development over the past 46 years!

This was a great process to undergo – to reminisce about these treasures in my life and the jars of clay that embodied them.* I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. It postures us to be grateful – a quintessential Christian virtue!

* The “jars of clay” metaphor is an addendum thanks to an email response to the original post from my friend Brooke Filipovski, Young Life in North Macedonia & Albania.

Elijah the Tishbite 2.0

I remember going to parades when I was a kid. For a farm kid, it was a great source of entertainment (and candy!). I would sit on the curb on Main Street, taking it all in – the bands, horses, floats, clowns, and, of course, the Shriners on their little go-carts. My dad, standing behind me, could see up the street. He would keep us interested by informing us of what was about to come – what was about to pass by. Oh, the anticipation!

When we left off with Elijah the Tishbite’s story, found in 1 Kings 17-19, he had boldly challenged King Ahab and the 450 prophets of the false god, Baal, to a “duel.” For a prophet, speaking and demonstrating boldly to kings on God’s behalf was part of the job description. And Elijah did it well.

Elijah won the duel and subsequently won the people over. When all the people saw how God demonstrated his power through Elijah, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” The challenge to Baal’s prophets accomplished its intent – it turned the people back to their God, Yahweh. As a final act on God’s behalf, Elijah enticed the people to seize and slaughter the prophets of Baal. Then it rained as God, through Elijah, had promised. Now, the rest of the story…

As the much-needed rain fell, Ahab told his wife, Jezebel, about Elijah’s demonstration, as well as the slaying of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel, who had great influence in Ahab’s kingdom, sent a message to Elijah…

May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them [Baal’s prophets]. (1 Kings 19:2)

In fear, Elijah ran for his life. Deep into the wilderness, he hid under a bush and suggested that God end his life. But God was not through with Elijah. You see, God never asked Elijah to slaughter the 450 prophets. In his zeal for righteousness, Elijah committed an unrighteous (think unjust) act. God needed to readjust Elijah’s thinking and perspective. The zealous Elijah found himself in a state of crisis and weakness and was ripe for reformation. Carlo Caretto speaks to this in The God Who Comes: “It is so difficult to explain things to someone who is always right, who always wins, who is absolutely sure of himself” (p. 35).

Instead of ending Elijah’s life, God sent him on a three-month (minimum) journey that reformed and transformed his worldview. An angel was sent to provide sustenance for a 40-day journey through the wilderness to Mount Horeb, “the mount of God.” Arriving at Horeb, Elijah found lodging in a cave on the mountain. While in the cave, God came to Elijah…

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:9-11)

This is where the story gets really interesting. Elijah’s powerful God was about to pass by! Oh, the anticipation – the one true God was about to pass by! So Elijah waited. Suddenly there was a strong wind, strong enough to shatter rocks! Surely this was Elijah’s God passing by – the God that brought fire down on the alter in his duel with the Baal prophets. But God was not in the wind.

The wind was followed by an earthquake. Surely the God that provided food for a widow and raised her little boy from the dead was passing by in the earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. The earthquake was followed by a fire. But God was not in the fire, either. Then God passed by in the form of a still small voice.

God appeared in a still small voice.

Elijah, wrapping his face in his coat, stood at the mouth of the cave. As before, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah’s response was the same as previous: “I’ve been zealous for you, God. The people have forsaken your covenant, killing the prophets and I’m the only one left!” God then directed Elijah to go back to work, trekking 40 days across the wilderness, back to where he had come from.

This is what I suggest we consider: Imagine that someone had traveled with Elijah on his 40-day journey across the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Imagine the person asking Elijah to talk about his God and his experiences with God. As someone who was always right, who always won, who was sure of himself, I suspect he might have had a plethora of stories about his God. Maybe 40 days’ worth of stories. His was a God of power and victory!

Now imagine if someone traveled with Elijah on the journey back across the wilderness, asking the same question. I can imagine Elijah putting his finger to his lips and responding with, “Shhh…not right now. I just need to walk in silence. I’m not sure I understand God as I did a few days ago.” Reformation.

Sometimes, when we feel like we have a pretty good understanding of who God is and what he’s like, he allows crisis so he can shake things up a bit. And that’s a good thing. Just ask Elijah.

Elijah the Tishbite

I recently re-read Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17-19) – a familiar story that we should read and ponder periodically. Elijah, the Tishbite, was a prophet called by God. As we read the story, we see that he was successful in all he did. He predicted a famine that came true. During the famine, he (God through him) miraculously provided ingredients for a starving widow and her son – enough to feed them and Elijah as well. When her son fell sick and died, Elijah laid on top of the boy and brought him back to life. The God of Elijah demonstrated his favor in the midst of famine and pestilence.

During this time, King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, reigned over Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. Influenced by Jezebel, Ahab abandoned the Lord, setting up a temple to establish the worship of Baal. The Israelites, the people God had rescued from Egypt, followed his lead, abandoning Yahweh to worship the god, Baal. God was not happy. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. Not something one would want on their résumé.

Elijah’s famine prediction was given to Ahab in person – a bold move since Ahab tended to eliminate (kill) prophets that brought bad news. But it was more than a prediction. At Elijah’s word only would rain break the famine. Ahab was not happy. Elijah went into hiding, as did all of God’s prophets. It was while he was steering clear of Ahab that Elijah encountered the widow and her son.

Then God instructed Elijah to go present himself to Ahab with updated information about the famine. God’s instruction to Elijah: Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth. Elijah’s God directed him to go see Ahab, the king that killed prophets, the king that referred to Elijah as “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah quickly pointed out that Ahab was the real troubler. He then proceeded to show Ahab which god was really in charge – Yahweh or Baal. This is where the story got really good.

Elijah instructed Ahab to assemble the people at Mount Carmel and to bring along the 450 prophets of Baal as well as 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah. Interestingly, Ahab obeyed Elijah and gathered up all the people and prophets. Elijah then spoke to the people: How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. The people had no response. Elijah suggested a demonstration, a lab test of sorts, to help the people in their decision-making process…

I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left*, but Baal has 450 prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.

The people’s response? “Well said.” So the demonstration began. The 450 prophets of Baal prepared their bull on an altar and called on their god. And they called and called. No response. From morning until noon they called. Nothing. At noon, Elijah couldn’t contain himself and started to taunt the prophets of Baal…

You’ll have to shout louder than that to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone or is out sitting on the toilet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!

So shout they did – for a few more hours. Nothing! Then Elijah summoned the people. He rebuilt the altar that Ahab had destroyed years earlier. He had the bull prepared, dug a trench around the altar, and had the people soak the bull and the wood. They soaked it so completely that the runoff filled the trench. Then it was Elijah’s turn…

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.

Immediately the fire of the Lord consumed the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. Success! When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”

Elijah then wrapped up the day by instructing the frenzied crowd to seize and slaughter the prophets of Baal. A complete victory! It’s the stuff movies are made of, starring the likes of Charlton Heston or Matt Damon or Liam Neeson. Good versus evil kind of stuff. It’s the kind of stories we love.

But this is only part of the story. It gets better. Next time, the rest of the story!

* This was hyperbole on Elijah’s part. Elijah knew that Obediah, the “Jarvis” of Ahab’s palace, secretly hid 100 prophets in caves before Ahab could have them killed.

Make a Joyful Noise

In my journey through the Psalms, I am presently spending time in Psalm 95. The English Standard translation (ESV) entitles Psalm 95 as Let Us Sing Songs of Praise. A.A. Anderson suggests No Worship without Obedience. The first two verses beseech the Jewish community to make joyful noises in worship of Yahweh, their God…

1 Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Making a joyful noise to the Lord is a common thread throughout the Psalms (c.f. Psalms 66, 98, and 100). As I was reading this, I begin to wonder how noise can be joyful, especially to the hearer. By definition, noise is loud, obnoxious, and unpleasant. The etymology of noise is Latin nausea (“seasickness”) – interesting. For me, not only can noise be obnoxious, it actually hurts my ears (might be an age thing)!

So how can noise be joyful to the hearer? It might have everything to do with the source. Our youngest grandson, Elend, spent the last several days with us awaiting a flight to Arizona to join up with his family who drove to Scottsdale for a lengthy stay at their condo. (They literally didn’t have room for him in their vehicle, so Elend’s aunt flew with him to join up with his family. 🙂)

During his stay with us, Elend got a fair amount of time with his cousin, Grant. Grant and Elend enjoy life and know how to have fun – a lot of fun. And they make noise – a lot of noise. Loud, obnoxious, and unpleasant (ear hurting) noise…

One afternoon, as I was trying to work at my desk, the two boys took their enjoyment of each other to a new level – in both glee and decibels. It was deafening. And I loved it. To a grandpa it was truly a joyful noise! I wonder what it sounded like to God?

What made their noise so joyful? Much of it was the way the enjoyed each other. And I enjoyed watching them enjoy each other. It did my heart good. Since we were created in God’s image, I have to believe that He enjoys watching us enjoy each other. I have to believe it does his heart good as well. (I wonder what it does to his heart when we don’t enjoy each other?) I also suspect that God enjoys it when we enjoy the rest of his creation.

Joyful noise is about glee and decibels

I am beginning to understand that the operative word in the phrase joyful noise is indeed joyful. As much as we love harmony, I suspect the Psalmist wasn’t necessarily suggesting joyful harmony.* Instead, I’m beginning to realize the focus is on the joyfulness of the noise-maker. I wonder if the making of joyful noise is about doing right things. Harmony might be focused on doing things right (see Doing Right Things). Joyful noise is about glee and decibels. With that it mind…

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! (Psalm 100)

* By the way, this is very good news to those of us that struggle to carry a tune.