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Thursday, June 30, 2011

From the Mouths of Shepherds (Amos)

This post is a little late due to my involvement in All-Star Camp this week. What a hoot to hang out with the kids at Barnes School. I think a good time was had by all!

One aspect of the book of Amos that I appreciate is the detail we are given about this prophet. For most of the minor prophets in the Old Testament, we get very little detail about their life or background. Sometime a city of origin. Sometimes the name of the father, or perhaps the king who reigned during the time of their prophecy. Sometimes only the name of the prophet! But about Amos, we are given this unique little tidbit: he was a shepherd from Tekoa.

While some recent Biblical scholars have tried to claim that Amos was more of an elite "breeder", all of the earliest and best evidence would suggest that Amos is exactly as the book suggests; a simple shepherd. A low-ranking caretaker of four-legged creatures, mostly ignored by the greater world, except perhaps for a group near Bethlehem some 700 years later. But it is this lowly shepherd whom God calls to minister to kings. Unlike most of the prophets, who give messages to only one nation, Amos delivers God's word to no less than 8 nations. Amos is called upon to deliver powerful words of God's coming judgment to the elite of his day.

This falls in line very well with what we heard last week from Joel. (Remember "the book of the 12"- meant to be read/understood together!) Joel 3 says, "Let the weak say I am strong!" When it comes to God assembling his final army, he pays no attention to our worldly definitions of weak and strong- He uses whomever He chooses. The weaklings become warriors.

Ironically, the "elite" prophet in the book of Amos is a man named Amaziah, who evidently works for King Jeroboam in Israel. Rather than speaking God's truth, however, this seer chooses to say what the king wants to hear. Words of comfort, peace, and security. And he was dead wrong. But not Amos. Amos says what needs to be said because God is the one saying it.

I guess what I really want to say is a reminder to all of us that God speaks in the most amazing ways, and rarely does He use the powerful, the rich, or the famous to deliver his Words. He uses shepherds, fishermen, and outcasts. He uses the weak to shame the strong. The lowly and the despised things become the honored ones in God's kingdom.

No matter where you are, no matter what situation you might find yourself in, God wants to speak to you and through you. Don't say no because of your station, your age, or your place. Allow Him to use you, and the world will be a different place.

On this journey, there's a bit of shepherd in us all. The question is, will we trust God to use even us however He chooses? I hope your answer, and mine, will be yes!


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Learning from Locust (Joel)

The book of Joel opens up with less than positive images. Locust of all kinds (swarming, hopping, stripping, cutting!) are moving through the land like a storm. A severe drought is swallowing up any life that remains. It is a bleak, dark season. The people are called together in a "solemn assembly" to weep, fast and pray.

And where is God? Evidently, He is actually behind the locust and the famine, using these plagues as instruments to bring about repentance and brokenness in His people. Sounds like some typical Old Testament prophecy.

What I find, however, is that in the dire circumstance prophets speak about, God is actually doing something quite amazing. In Joel 2:25, God makes an incredible statement to His people. "I will give you back what you lost to the locust." God boldly proclaims that everything they are currently experiencing will one day be a distant memory because life will again be good.

These words of encouragement can be tough to hear if we find ourselves in the midst of a dark place. Even more so if we believe God has brought the dark season on us! But I think this is the nature of our God- to redeem, restore and bless. And though we may not even be able to see how, He plans to give us even more than we had at first. Times of difficulty, conflict, and strife can actually become the gateway to blessing and joy. This is more than the silver lining in the cloud. This is the all-powerful God declaring that he will utilize His power to give you back what has been lost. The locust took it. God will restore it.

Is this some kind of magic formula? This almost sounds like a math problem: simply add up what you had before, subtract what you lost in the crisis, and then wait for God to add back more than you had before. Is it as simple as that? No, I think the key in avoiding this kind of formulaic thinking is the transition that occurs between famine and feast. You see, the people gather together, weeping, fasting and praying, and put their hope entirely in God. They cry out to Him in dependence. In other words, they choose to entrust themselves to the very one who appears to be inflicting the pain. They do what is counter-intuitive and put their hope fully in the One who stands behind the circumstances.

And in the end, the blessing they receive far outweighs the pain of their circumstances.

That's what God is like. One who seeks to give you back even more than you lost. But we must trust and wait for Him to do it!

May you know this kind of God on your journey today,

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Back to the Brothel (Hosea)

This summer, we are inviting folks along on a journey through the minor prophets in a sermon series called, "The Book of the 12". As a way to get people thinking during the week, and as a way to help those who might miss a week here or there, I will be blogging about each of these books on Thursday before it gets preached on Saturday and Sunday. I invite your dialogue each week! I believe that as we process together, we are stretched and challenged to grow.

One aspect of the minor prophets that drew me to preaching on them was the idea that these books actually form one book. A great deal of evidence exists that these books, from the very start, were written, designed, and compiled intentionally into one work called the Book of the Twelve. If this is so, as I am prone to believe, then Hosea forms the perfect 'opening chapter' for the book. The introduction here sets up everything else.

So what did God seek to communicate in the opening chapter? At first, it seems quite confusing. God's opening words to Hosea the prophet are, "Go marry a prostitute." I can only imagine the various reactions and choice words Hosea had for this command. But, in obedience, he does just as God says. God wants a very graphic image of how Israel has treated him. I'm not sure He could get much more graphic than this! Hosea marries Gomer the prostitute and together they have three children. (Although if you read the text closely, it is highly likely that these children are NOT fathered by Hosea.)

The children are given names like "not planted", "not loved" and "not my people". And you thought your name was bad! Things do not look good for God and Israel at this point. Yet before the first chapter comes to a close, we see powerful foreshadowing of what God has in mind. He predicts a day when all will be changed, and the kids (metaphors for Israel, remember) will get new names- planted, loved, and my people. This sounds good! This is a story of redemption, hope and possibility!

Or is it? Because what happens next is astounding. Gomer leaves. Gomer betrays Hosea, abandons his love, and returns to living in the brothel. And Hosea, as a representative of God, is left as the jilted lover. Prophecy flows about the anger of God and the coming destruction on Israel for her sin. All is lost! The future is bleak! How could it not be? A redeemed hooker who is given everything throws it all away for her former life of folly. Good riddance, we say!

But not God. God's heart will not yield. Even though He is moved to fury, His passionate love remains unchanged. He sends Hosea to find her and bring her back. Think about that- He sends Hosea AGAIN to reclaim a woman that won't even stay with him. And by chapter 14, the end of this book, God is promising to love and bless his unfaithful bride. How awesome is that?

What turns this book on its head for me, though, is not that we are supposed to be like Hosea, and like God, and love the sinner who keeps on sinning. No, what makes this book amazing is that we are invited over and over to see that we are Gomer. We are ones who have experienced the incredible love and redemption of God, and yet we continue to run to other lovers. We go back to our addictions. We rely on self. We get caught up with the world. We turn from real love and prostitute ourselves with cheap imitations.

And where is God? Coming to find us and bring us home. Again. And again. Because His love will not relent. Even in brothels. Or board rooms. Or bed rooms. He will find you. He will find me. The question for us is will we get up and go home to live with Him, our true love?

I pray we will. Journey on-

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Morning Commute

No, I am not speaking of some grueling drive from home to work. Mine is only three stoplights and seven peaceful minutes. I am speaking of the much more grueling task we face daily to get from bed to desk, from sleep to work, from rest to productivity. What I am amazed by is how frequently this 60 to 90 minute period of my day can be filled with incredibly negative thinking.

Today, I was very aware of this for some reason. I jotted down just a few of the thoughts the invaded my brain while commuting this morning:
- I can't get plants to grow. There must be something wrong with me.
- I gained a few pounds on Men's Retreat. I really lack self-control.
- I am unorganized and can't keep my office cleaned up.
- I am unsuccessful and a nobody compared to... (I could put any number of "successful" pastors in the blank here; about a dozen of them stared up at me on a conference advertisement this morning.)
- Our church is small and will never make a difference.
- I can't play the guitar and I lack any real skill.
- I'm sure giving and attendance will be poor in June.
- I must have disappointed my parents this morning because my kids were watching TV when they left.

Now, your list might look vastly different than mine, but I wonder how many of us do have a list. Some mornings it can be more quiet and subtle, while other morning it shouts rather obscenely at us. What I am noticing today is how many of these negative thoughts are half-truths. Observations that I have made and then turned into a deeper self-critique. For example, I do have some plants that are struggling to grow in my yard. But how do I go from there to "something is wrong with me"?

This, my friends, is the nature of evil. Call it what you want- the old self, Satan, the Monday morning blahs- but something insidious takes our short-comings and turns them into deeper questions of our worth, value, and identity.

So, on my journey today, I am doing my best to remember who I am. I took a few minutes to pray and read Scripture and asked God to give me a new soundtrack. My only regret is that I didn't start the morning commute this way. Maybe I will tomorrow.

Whatever your morning "commute" is like, may it be filled with words that are true and spoken from your loving Heavenly Father.

Praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. (Eph. 1:3,4)

Journey On-