Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Glory of God

I have been spending chunks of time this summer studying through the Book of Ezekiel, preparing for a special class that I hope to teach on this book sometime in 2009. I admit that this is the very first time that I have spent quality moments with this ancient, and often, bizarre prophet from the 6th century BC. But God is opening the book to me in unique ways.

One of the themes of this book concerns the glory of God. Now, as you might remember from your own studies in ancient Israeli history, God's glory filled the temple that Solomon had built. We read these words of the eyewitness in 1 Kings 8:10-11, When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple. The glory of God represented the presence of God among His people. I was reminded of the words of Moses, centuries before this grand event, when he pled with God for the people after their sin with the golden calf. Remember what Moses said to God? If your Presence does not go with us, do not send up up from here (Exodus 33:15). As long as the glory of God was there, the nation of Israel knew that God had not abandoned them.

Now, that brings us to the prophet Ezekiel. In the early chapters of his book, Ezekiel describes the glory of God leaving the temple, in fact, it left the city of Jerusalem. Ezekiel describes it this way, Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim (located above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies) and moved to the threshold of the temple (Ezekiel 10:4). In other words, the glory moved from its resting place for nearly five centuries, and began to move toward the door. Ezekiel then continues his description of God's glory being removed. Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple...They stopped at the entrance to the east gate of the LORD's house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Finally we read, The glory of the LORD went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it (Ezekiel 11:23). Many scholars believe that this is a reference to the Mount of Olives. Any way, God's glory was now removed from Jerusalem. It was a sign that God's judgment could now begin.

Now it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Bible do we read that God's glory came to rest upon the temple, first built by Zerubbabel, then expanded by King Herod. The closest we come to any consideration of God's glory within that structure is recorded for us in Haggai 2:9, The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, says the LORD Almighty. I believe this is a reference to the person of Jesus Christ who graced the temple precincts often with His presence. Could the glory of God have lingered over the Mount of Olives? I do not believe it is a coincidence that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives - the place of God's glory. Nor do I believe it is a coincidence that Christ will enter the city of Jerusalem and the new Temple from the eastern gate, having come from the Mount of Olives. Ezekiel describes that moment with these words, And I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. ... The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east. ... and the glory of the LORD filled the temple (Ezekiel 43:2, 4, 5).

How wonderful will that be! The presence of Jesus Christ as King...that would be amazing enough in and of itself! But the presence of the glory of God as it has not been seen upon this earth since the closing days of the Kingdom of Judah. Wow! And just to think that we will be there to observe it all.

When I stand upon the slopes of the Mount of Olives next March, I will have a new reason to be excited. For it will be from here that the glory of God will be restored to the temple and to the city of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mountains: Communicating God

I just returned after spending nine days with my family vacationing in Estes Park, Colorado. Time away from the office and the day-to-day affairs of the ministry was important. In the Bible God ordained certain times when the children of Israel were to holiday, if you will, from the ordinary events of life. Some of those designated times lasted for only 24 hours - the Sabbath is an example; while others occupied several days - the Passover, in the Spring, and the Feast of Tabernacles, in the Fall, both lasted for 8 days. The God who made us knew that it was important for us to have a change of pace, to escape - even momentarily - from the pressures of our normal work-a-day world.

The Colorado Rockies certainly point to the awesome nature of our Creator-God. Their towering peaks, decorated with white snowfields and rock formations that glisten in the sunlight, truly point a person upward to the heavens. I was moved by their majestic greatness. Yet, it was the little things that stirred my heart while hiking the pathways up those majestic slopes. There was the miracle of life arising from the rocks themselves as tiny pine trees appeared in many of the crevices. I noticed a myriad of wild flowers representing almost every hue in the rainbow gracing the slopes along the hiking paths. Some stood tall almost shouting to a passer-by, "Look at me," while others seemed to hide their beauty in the shade of the towering pines and aspens. And a few were so small that one could easily have by-passed their beauty.

Both large and small creatures roamed the mountain slopes. Elk, many with velvet-covered antlers, were abundant grazing among the grasses and munching on the young shoots of the pines, seemingly oblivious to the snapping of the cameras of the curious hikers. Mountain sheep marched around as if proclaiming their status as "kings of the hills." And then there were the small squirrels and chipmunks. What fun it was to watch them. At one location, I sat almost mesmerized by a chipmunk who was intrigued with my backpack that I had lying on the ground. I think he was interested in a handout - but I heeded the warnings not to feed the animals. I told him that it was for his own good - but I don't think he truly understood as he kept returning.

A thought kept stirring in my heart those days. If the mountains are so beautiful today in a world under the curse, what will the mountains in the new earth be like? What will our relationships be like with the creatures who will inhabit those mountain slopes? Will those streams that flow from those snowfields be more crystalline than those today? Will the colors of the flowers be more exciting? I don't have answers for those questions. But, if a visit to the Colorado Rockies can elicit a "Wow!" from our lips today, I feel confident that a visit to the Rockies of the New Earth will elicit an even greater "Wow!" Oh what we have to look forward to!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On Fallen Heroes

The prophet Isaiah wrote these words in the eighth century BC - Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:22). Centuries later the Apostle John, in relating the events of Jesus driving from the Temple those who had turned the premises into a place for lucrative business, wrote - Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man (John 2:23-25).

I think what both Isaiah and Jesus were warning is the ease with which we are drawn into idolizing others. It is easy to place someone upon a pedestal and even lay garlands at his or her feet. We love to worship our heroes, whether they be in the world of sports, business, entertainment, or even religion. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to play golf like Tiger Woods or basketball like Kobe Bryant. And it is probably not sinful to aspire to become the next Bill Gates. It would appear that even the Apostle Paul challenged people to follow his leadership, for he wrote these words to the Corinthians: Therefore I urge you to imitate me (1 Corinthians 4:16). But there is a marked difference between imitating Tiger Woods' golf swing or Kobe Bryant's jump shot, and putting either of those athletes in a position where they become almost godlike to you.

How we need to remember that men and women have feet of clay. We admire the faith of Abraham, but let us also not forget that he lived a lie for a period of time, pretending to be someone - namely unmarried - that he was not. We admire the leadership of David, but let us also not forget that he committed adultery, murdered one of his best friends, and had a family that was totally out of control. We admire the strength of Peter as he proclaimed the message on the Day of Pentecost, but let us not forget that this same Peter also denied his Lord three times. In all the stories of people shared within the Scriptures, what I find so amazing is how careful God is to expose the warts, the acne, the scars of each one. The only One with no flaws was Jesus Christ Himself.

Isaiah was are just that - men. They are capable of doing some incredibly amazing things. But, those same men are also capable of doing some incredibly stupid things. Therefore his advice was that we not put our confidence in them. Instead he challenged the leaders of Judah to put their confidence in God.

Yes, have your heroes. Have those men and women whom you admire; those whose lives you might even want to imitate. But, don't hold them in such high esteem that they take on the status of a god before you. Remember they are just men and women who are capable of stumbling, sometimes making a royal mess when they do.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Freedom and Independence Day

It was 232 years ago that a group of 56 men, meeting in the city of Philadelphia, signed a document that, not only transformed their nation, but the entire world. Risking fears of reprisals, including imprisonment and possible death, these patriots declared their independence from Great Britain. Surely such a declaration did not come without much prayerful thought and anguish of soul.

For the greater part of the century and a half since that first colony had been established upon the shores of the New World - Jamestown in 1607 - a healthy partnership with England had been the rule. British ships brought products from the Old World that were absent from the colonies in the New World. British soldiers had helped protect the colonists during that period known as the French and Indian War. But, during the past several decades, the English government, under King George III, made more demands upon the subjects living in the thirteen colonies. Most reprehensible of all were those dreaded taxes...taxes upon almost everything. It was those taxes and the determination of Parliament and the King to enforce them without listening to the logical arguments of the colonists themselves that finally roused the ire of the independent spirit found among many living in the New World.

Bloodshed became inevitable. On April 19, 1775, the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in what would become known as the War of Independence. Now, months after that event, and after weeks of deliberation, the moment arrived on July 4, 1776, to declare before a body of peers and before the King of England and, yes, before the world itself, the reasons for a separation from England. And so the Declaration of Independence was signed and America was given birth.

Bells were tolled. Bands struck up martial music. People shouted with enthusiastic joy. Freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had come. Yet, freedom is never truly free. War would rage for the next five years at the cost of nearly 50,000 lives - many of whom died of diseases and infections caused by wounds and camp conditions. During the tragic winter of 1777-78, General George Washington lost over one fourth of his men at Valley Forge due to starvation and disease. Yet, when British General Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown in 1781, the war ended. The Peace Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, guaranteed the freedoms that had come with such a great price.

Freedom is never truly free. Eighty-seven years later, President Abraham Lincoln, addressing a crowd at the dedication of a cemetery for those who died during the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, said, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Freedom still came with a cost as Lincoln and Americans, North and South, would realize.

Today white marble crosses dot the landscape in cemeteries around the globe reminding us that freedom is never truly free. Exploding fireworks this weekend may recall the joys of celebrating the news "We are free!" But the blood-red strips on the flag remind us that freedom came with a price. We must never forget that!