Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some Reflections on Memorial Day

Monday is Memorial Day. As a child growing up the day meant two things: a picnic at my grandparents' farm and a visit to the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of people whom I had never met. I remember the brightly colored flags that draped the small driveways and the cheery peony bushes that dotted the landscape. I came to associate the peony as the cemetery flower. We especially took time before the graves of those who had fought either in World War I or II. To be brutally honest, as a child the picnic was much more exciting than the cemetery visit.

As a parent I can hardly remember taking my own children to the cemetery on Memorial Day. I am not sure exactly why I didn't. Perhaps it was because I had grown apathetic about those freedoms that I had come to take for granted. Perhaps it was because my generation had not been touched by a war that brought unity rather than riot. Perhaps it was because I had simply lost touch with my past.

I am nearing the completion of preaching a series through the book of Joshua. What God has shown me through my study is the value of remembering, the value of memorial stones. Throughout the book, Joshua and the people of Israel erect several memorial stones; some are to commemorate great victories, while others are reminders of the consequences of sin. These memorial stones literally dotted the landscape of the newly conquered Promised Land. Each stone had a story that needed to be retold to the next generation. It was as if God wanted His people to be connected to the past and its lessons.

One of the great failures of the Church today is to connect its people with the past. There are no memorial stones in today's Church. There are no cemeteries, if you will, where a person can wander and discover roots and stories and truths. We have failed to help believers to connect with men and women who gave their lives contending for the faith. We have very few heroes and heroines. We have become so absorbed with the present that we have lost touch with the past, resulting in a cloudy future.

So, this Memorial Day weekend I want to enjoy a picnic with family and friends. Perhaps I will spend some time enjoying the peony bushes in my yard and be reminded of days gone by. And, although I will probably not get to the cemetery where my Dad is buried or where my grandparents are buried, I want to pause for a few moments to remember their influence upon my life. I want to reconnect to the past so that I can have a better understanding of who I am.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thoughts on the Feast of Shavuot

Today, May 19, 2010, is Pentecost, or as it is observed in Israel - the Feast of Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. It marks the fiftieth day since Passover. Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage feasts as outlined by God in the Law of Moses. We read in Leviticus 23:15-16: "From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering (this is a reference to the Feast of Firstfruits, celebrated immediately following Passover), count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD." The passage in Leviticus then proceeds to describe the various offerings that were to be presented to God at Shavuot.

What I found very interesting were two commands in conjunction with this festival commemorating the harvest. The first is found in Deuteronomy 16:10: "Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you." Notice, there was no stipulation as to the precise amount to be given to God. At other times, a certain amount was prescribed, but not now. This was truly a freewill offering. As God had blessed the harvest I was cutting, so I was to be inclined to give proportionally to Him, not out of obligation, but out of joy.

In this light I am reminded of the advice the Apostle Paul gave to the Corinthians: "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7). The size of the gift is left to the discretion of the giver; and whatever the size of gift, it should be presented with great joy. I have always said that the most joyful part of any worship service should be the presentation of tithes and offerings. Yet, unfortunately, it is often the most somber, almost funeral-like. Are we that attached to what God has loaned to us?

But I discovered a second truth about the celebration of Pentecost. It is found in Leviticus 23:22 - "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." What a statement! Not only were the children of Israel to bring a freewill offering to the Lord, but they were not to completely harvest everything in their fields. They were to leave some of it standing so the poor and others who were disenfranchised could gather provisions for sustaining life. It is like God was saying to them: "Give Me a gift first, then leave a gift for the poor, and you will still have sufficient for yourselves." Pretty amazing principle, don't you think?

One final thought concerning the Feast of Shavuot: it was on this day that the Church was given birth. You will find that story in Acts 2. It was as if the receiving of the Holy Spirit came as God gave to us His freewill offering. And then He urged us to share that gift with others.

So, my friends, I wish you a joyous Pentecost.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Jerusalem Day!

What day is today? Strange question you might ask. It is Wednesday, May 12, 2010. And that is correct. But it is also something else. This is Jerusalem Day. It was 43 years ago that the Israeli armed forced captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. Previous to that time, the Jordanians ruled over that part of Jerusalem. Of course, the greatest prize was the Western Wall which Israeli Jews had not seen since the War of Independence in 1948.

Last night, in a speech on the eve of Jerusalem Day, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu quoted from Isaiah 62:1 - "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch." He went on to say, "The battle for Jerusalem is a battle for truth. ... There can be no justice without truth and if there is a perversion of justice vis-a-vis our city and nation, it means the truth has been perverted, because the truth is that Jerusalem is our city and we never compromised on that, not after the destruction of the First Holy Temple, nor after the destruction of the Second. We were a majority in the city until the 9th century and we returned 2000 years later and witnessed the city's destruction once again. There is no other nation that feels this deeply about a city. ... We will continue to build Jerusalem, a city that is full of life."

But, as you are aware - or, at least I hope you are aware; you need to be aware - there is incredible pressure being placed upon Israel to give up its claim to the Old City, including its spiritual treasure in the Western Wall. In its eagerness to pacify the Arab world, our nation's leaders, along with those of Europe, have demanded that Israel hand over East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Thus the city would once again be divided. The holy sites would be in jeopardy.

My friends, the longer I study the prophetic texts, the more assured I become that Jerusalem occupies a great place in God's heart. It is the city of His choosing; not Washington DC, or Paris, or London, or Tehran. This is the place where He inscribed His name. This is the place where He paid the ultimate sacrifice to redeem a lost mankind. This is the place where a handful of followers of Jesus Christ were sent out to change the world.

Yes, Jerusalem has more suffering to do. The Scriptures indicate that. In fact, one of the great battle scenes of Armageddon will occur just outside its walls. Yet, when the King of kings descends in power and glory, it will be to Jerusalem that He will come. And it will be from Jerusalem that He will reign for those millennial years.

How I wish I could walk with each of you through the crowded streets of Jerusalem! There is a certain electricity that is felt with each step. It is as if you were treading on holy ground; and, it is holy. It is holy because of what happened there in the past; and it is holy because of what will happen there in the future.

So, I wish you a blessed Jerusalem Day. Why not take some time today to read Psalm 122. There you will read: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity." (Psalm 122:6-9).

Long may the banner of Jerusalem fly high!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Listen: Joel Is Trying to Warn Us!

Last evening I began a study that will take me most of the summer. It is a comprehensive study of the Minor Prophets - all twelve books, all 67 chapters. This is in preparation for a class that I will be teaching in January-February 2011. I have wrestled with some of the major teachings in each book as part of the 36-week "Genesis-Revelation" study that I have been teaching these past 11 years. But I have never truly delved into each of the books individually.

I began with Joel - not sure why, but that is where I began. The central truth of that first chapter is of a series of four devastating locust invasions, followed by an intense summer heat that has completely destroyed the crops, even to stripping the bark off trees. The ground is so parched that nothing can grow. Even the cattle and flocks moan because there is nothing for them to eat. Because of the lack of grain and wine, the grain offerings and drink offerings cannot be provided in the temple; thus the incompleteness of the burnt offerings, resulting in the worship of God being compromised (Joel 1:9).

The reason for such devastation is not directly stated in the chapter, but it is certainly implied. The cause - sin. The prophet entreats the religious leaders to "declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly" (Joel 1:14). This is a national crisis. Resolution will not be found in governmental programs or ideas, but in a genuine turning to God in repentance - a national repentance. The prophet further declares: "Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty" (Joel 1:15). In other words, judgment is certain!

But what truly grabbed my heart as I was reading this chapter was this thought: God was powerfully making a statement to Judah through a series of catastrophic natural disasters. It was to be a wake-up call to them. It was to be a time for them to re-evaluate their relationship with Him. It was a time to mourn, to grieve, and to cry out to God. It was a time for change because something worse might happen if the people continued to persist in their sinful practices.

2010 has certainly been a year of unusually powerful natural disasters. From the powerfully destructive earthquakes in Haiti and Chili to volcanic eruptions in Iceland, from historical winter snows in Europe to record flooding in America's southeastern region - it is as if God were trumpeting His strong warnings. But are we listening? Has there been a turning to God? Are people repenting of sin? Yes, in some cases people are responding back to God. But so many more are not. I keep wondering what God will do next to get our attention.

Observing first the locusts and the devastation they caused, then the intense drought, the prophet Joel declares that God's judgment is imminent. Might we say the same today as we observe the cries from the natural world? If these are truly the birth pangs, then friends, we had better begin falling on our knees before a holy God because the Judge will soon walk through His chamber doors and take His throne.