Presents or Presence?

The fickle children of Israel quickly traded in the true and living God who delivered them from slavery for a golden calf formed from their own hands.  Before we are too critical, let us remember the multitude of times that we substitute gods of our own making for the God who truly delivers.  We all seem to prefer gods we can control over the God before whom we must bow.

Moses and God had the type of relationship where “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11).  May we all have this type of relationship with Him!  God confided in His friend, expressing His deserved anger: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.  Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex. 32:9-10).

Rather than enjoying God’s new, Moses-centered plan, Moses spoke to his Friend, reminding Him of the covenant promises that He made to the nation He called to be His own, and asked Him what the Egyptians would think of a God who delivered His people from slavery to let them perish in the desert.  “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”

The relationship between God and His rebellious people was still fractured.  The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’  I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Ex. 33:1-3).

God was promising the people the benefits of their deliverance from slavery with one stipulation – God, the Deliverer, would not be with them.  He was offering the Hebrew people His presents, but not His presence.  God would be true to His promises and give the Jewish people what He promised them, but because of their rebellious hearts, a righteous, holy God could not dwell with them.

I think many people today would love this deal.  Get the blessings of God without having to be accountable to God?  Enjoy the stuff without having to listen to His commands?  Many would jump at the chance.

But Moses understood that this life having the stuff of God without the presence of God is really no life at all, because God does not just give us life, He IS our life.  Here is Moses’ response:  “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I, and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).

Moses knew that what makes the people of God the people of God is not the blessing God gives to His people, it is having God, Himself.  Do we understand this?

For Me?

Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6 ESV)

Every time I read this Scripture I am reminded to ask the Holy Spirit to show me what my motives are as I work, worship, and just plain live.  Why do I do what I do?  This question is especially applicable to my religious life, as it was to the Jewish people addressed here.  Why do I sing songs of praise, to honor God, or to make myself feel a certain way?  Why do I do “up front” ministry, to get everyone gathered to focus on Jesus, or to see me?  I can do these things – good things – with selfish motives.  When I do, I rob God of His glory.

In the original Hebrew, the “for me” is repeated.  “Was it for me that you fasted – for me?”  What a haunting echo.  Why do I do what I do?  One question helps when asking this question.  What would I do if no one said anything to me about my up-front ministry?  About my singing?  (Actually, I really hope no one ever listens to me sing.)  About my religious activity?  If I was never noticed, never thanked, never complimented, would I still do what I do?  People who are doing things for themselves rather than Jesus tend to give up if their actions don’t gain the personal attention they seek.

I am not saying that we should not thank others for what they are doing.  Thank them!  Encourage them!  It is sinful if you don’t.  What I am not saying is that it is your job to keep others humble by your silence about what they do.  What I am saying is, “What is your response when people are silent to you?”

Envy

Rob Reimer, in his wonderful book, Soul Care, writes, “Envy starts with the question, ‘What about me?’ and ends with the accusation, ‘God isn’t fair.'”

Do you struggle with this self-centered question that then leads to the ultimate false accusation?  Note how envy is completely selfish.  It is all about what you think you deserve and how unfair God is to you because you feel He should give you more (or at least “different”).  You look at how God is blessing others and you think you deserve better than they are receiving.

Of course, the key to being set free from envy is to understand God’s amazing grace.  Grace is God’s “unmerited favor.”  It is when He doesn’t give you what you deserve (separation from Himself because of your sin), but instead lavishes upon you blessings you would never deserve (life forever with Him).  This is the Christian gospel – the God of this universe who should punish all of us because of our rebellion and sin, instead becomes a man like us to live the perfect life we could never live and die the death we deserved to die.  “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

When we truly understand what we deserve, and what God offers instead (based on what Jesus has done for us), envy disappears.  We no longer demand justice from God.  Instead, we thank Him that He doesn’t give us what we deserve.

The Scriptures tell us a lot about envy:

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.  Proverbs 14:30 ESV.  How many of you have experienced this?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant…  1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV.  Note how this passage about God’s self-giving love implies that envy is anything but self-giving.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Galatians 5:19-23 ESV.  Again, the life of selfish men is contrasted with the life of God, which is completely self-giving.  Which category is “envy” in?

Here are a few tips to help you deal with envy:

  1. Be thankful! Always be thankful to God.  Express your thanksgiving aloud.  Thank Him for all He does for you.
  2. Be thankful – for the things you see in other’s lives that make you envious. Thank God, again aloud, for how He is blessing them.
  3. Pray for more of God’s blessings to be given to those you are envious of. If we are to pray for enemies, and bless those who persecute us, certainly we can bless those we are envious of.  In our own selfishness we struggle with this, but as we are filled by the Spirit, His fruit and His life will enable us to be and do what we could never be and do on our own.

Figs

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”   Mark 11:12‭-‬14‭, ‬20‭-‬22 ESV

Earlier, we explored the story of Jesus cleansing the temple during the “passion week.”  An interesting story story takes place before and after that account.  It takes place on the mountain ridge road overseeing the Kidron Valley, which Jesus  walked many times that last week as He entered Jerusalem during the day but stayed on mountain at night.  In addition to the Mount of Olives, this ridge was also home to two villages.  Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Bethphage was very close to Bethany.  Interestingly, both of these villages mean “house of figs.”  Bethany refers to figs that are ready to eat.  Bethphage refers to figs that are not yet ripe.

As Jesus was walking from Bethany into Jerusalem on the Monday after “Palm Sunday,” He became hungry and noticed a fig tree.  He saw that it had leaves, but found no fruit.  Even though Mark explains, “it was not the season for figs,” Jesus curses the tree by saying, “May no one ever eat from you again.”  

On the next day, Jesus and His disciples again passed by that tree.  The disciples noticed that the tree was “withered away to its roots.”  Did Jesus unfairly judge the tree?  Did  He in anger kill the tree because He was hungry?

This story makes sense when we understand that fig trees in this part of the world begin to have early, somewhat smaller figs that would grow from the previous year’s sprouts each spring.  These early figs and leaves would fall off, giving way to another set of leaves and figs, which would come in abundance (usually after August) and would then be harvested.  The smaller figs were not much good for harvest, but were sometimes used to give the poor some sustenance as they traveled.  This tree had its spring leaves suggesting it had these early figs, but was fruitless.  Jesus cursed the tree for its hypocrisy.  It looked like it was fruitful, but was not. 

The fig tree in the Scriptures was often a symbol for Israel.  During Jesus’ day the Jewish people claimed to be living for God, but in fact were living lives of hypocrisy.  Their lives bore no spiritual fruit, even though they “looked good” on the outside.  Luke tells us that at this same time, Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, mourning their lack of spiritual life and prophesying about​ their upcoming destruction. 

I pray that my own life is not all leaves but no fruit!  May we not be hypocrites, but bear fruit for God’s glory. 

House of Prayer

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19 ESV)

Every year during the Passover feast, thousands of Jews traveled to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of a Passover Lamb, along with other sacrifices, at the Jewish temple.  They were joined by God-fearers – Gentiles who while not Jewish, worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Rather than bring the animals for sacrifice the many miles they had to journey, these pilgrims often found it more convenient to purchase animals in Jerusalem.  It just so happened that the high priestly family had a bazaar set up in the Court of the Gentiles at the temple, where they would sell you preapproved animals.  They also had “booths of approval” set up where they would see if the animals the worshippers brought with them on their journey were “good enough” for sacrifice, and just in case they weren’t, they could point you to their booth of preapproved sacrifices.  The high priestly family also was aware of the many coming from far-off lands who had images of graven images like the bust of Caesar on their coins.  Knowing that these were blasphemous and could never be used in the temple courts, they conveniently set up tables for currency exchange.  Of course, these “services” were provided with substantial fees attached.

Imagine a Jewish family entering the temple courts after a long, exhausting journey, intent on celebrating the deliverance God gives His people, and they were greeted by this.  What would they think the worship of God looked like?  Picture the Gentile family who travelled mile-after-mile at great expense, knowing they would only get as close to God’s throne as the outer Court of the Gentiles, but did so anyway because their hearts were intent on communing with the true God.  How could they meet with God surrounded by those intent on making money off God’s holy Name?

No wonder the gospel writers share the story of Jesus rightly and angrily shaking things up!  The temple was supposed to be a place where people could meet with God (a “house of prayer for all the nations”).  The priests, those who were supposed to help people draw near to God, set up a system that filled their pockets but actually kept people from meeting God!  My prayer has always been, “Lord, may what I do in your Name (and may what my church sets up as our system of worship) NEVER keep people from you, but always help people find you.”

Remember, John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Jesus is the Lamb, preapproved by the Father as being perfect and suitable as a sacrifice that frees us from death.  Him we proclaim this Easter season!  May we never do things or set up religious systems that benefit us in some way, but keep others from God.  May our homes and churches truly be “houses of prayer” where people of all nations can come to meet with Him.

Come

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.  6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.   – Isaiah 55:1-7

Four times in the first verse of Isaiah 55 alone, the Creator of the Univese invites His fallen creation to “come” to Him so they can enjoy a relationship with Him, free of charge.  God, Himself has paid the price necessary for the relationship to be restored (see Isaiah 53).  Even though no better offer could ever be extended or received, man in his foolishness still spends all of his resources trying to purchase things that he thinks will fill his empty heart, which God alone can fill.  Oh, that we would listen to the invitation to come!  It is in God that we find that which delights and satisfies.  Only in Him can we find an eternal covenant of blessing and steadfast love.  Why don’t we come?  Why don’t we run to HIm to accept such an offer?  Could it be that we do not want to forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts?  Could it be that we love our fallen selves and our sin more than the One who offers comassion and pardon?  How foolish can we be!

Gospel

Who has believed what he has heard from us?  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?  For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:1-6 ESV)

This beautiful fourth “Servant Song” in Isaiah is sometimes called the “fifth gospel.”  We once again see the Servant who suffers on behalf of others.  This prophetic picture of Jesus Christ portrays Him as a Man with no physical beauty that would draw us to Him, yet we know Him as the Creator and Giver of all things beautiful.  He was despised, rejected, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and makes a way for us to experience none of those things.  He was pierced and crushed for our transgressions and iniquities, even though He committed none Himself.  He took our chastisement so we could experience His peace.  He was wounded so we could be healed.  We were the wandering sheep, He was the obedient Son, yet He took all our waywardness, rebellion, and iniquity (and all the consequences) upon Himself.  What love!