How Much Consensus does Unity Need?

Is there anything as unstoppable as unity? Is there anything as divisive as language? These are issues tackled in Genesis 11. In response to the towering rebellion, God confounded the language of the builders. The reason? When people are united, they’re unstoppable (Genesis 11:6). Though unity makes humanity unstoppable, it is incredibly fragile as it stands on shaky ground: shared understanding; the holy grail of all communication. Thus, by pulling out that single strand, God demolished their daring enterprise and off they went… divided.

In Acts 2, God’s people need unity to be unstoppable in the spread of the gospel thus, God returns the indispensable shared understanding to his people. People from all over are stunned as they hear the message in their own languages, its clarity turning their hearts to Jesus. The message will spread just as Jesus predicted at the beginning of Acts – first in Jerusalem, then in Samaria just before it goes to the whole world. Finally, it seems God will have a growing community of people who love him for who he is and not what he can give. Continue reading

Heaven Inc’s Organogram

Throughout the gospels, Jesus went to great pains to tell the people about the “kingdom of/from Heaven. Sometimes it was a mustard seed, sometimes a woman mixing yeast and even a pearl merchant. This must have excited the crowds who were looking forward to a Messiah who would eject the Romans. The disciples themselves were not immune from this excitement and each secretly hoped that he would be second in command as they eagerly spread the message that Jesus sent them with… The Kingdom of Heaven is here! Continue reading

The Kingdom is all about Attitude

What sort of person will enter the Kingdom of God? This is the question that Jesus answered in Matthew 5-7. Expecting a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and set up an eternal kingdom on earth, the Jews were filled with anticipation as they listened to Jesus. Christ chose not to directly attack their misconceptions but to hint at His kingdom’s nature by describing the type of people who would qualify for it. Continue reading

Desert Scuffle Part 3: The hard way

Jesus will not prove Himself by performing miracles to skip hardship nor by forcing God’s hand by stepping into hardship. That leaves Jesus with no option but the bitter cup of scorn from enemies mingled with doubting friends and family and finally, a horrible and agonizing death. The devil realizing this offers Jesus a shortcut… if Jesus will simply worship the devil, he will give Him the world that He seeks to redeem.

How irresistible shortcuts always seem to be. Who wants the long hard way when things can be done in an instant? Yet Jesus rejects it. He sends Satan packing with a quote pointing to why these very nations have failed: they pointed their worship away from God. Their apostasy is precisely why they need to be redeemed. They need to be pointed back to God. There is no other way to achieve this but to reveal God’s character to a hostile world. Having been accused of having things easy because He can fall back on the divinity that He denies everyone else, God must come in the flesh and shine in the midst of pain and hardship. There can be no shortcut.

It is interesting to note that at no time does Jesus refer Satan to the Voice that spoke at His baptism. As spectacular as that event was, Jesus chooses not to invoke it as evidence of His relationship to God; He chooses to point to the Bible. Of course, merely regurgitating scripture is not nearly enough (even Satan does the same). Jesus understands the Bible and perceives it as a whole. He doesn’t see it as a mere formula book with dogmatic concise statements. Jesus sees the Bible as a book meant to guide his perception of the world around Him.

It is popular in Christian circles to curtly quote a verse to put a stop to discussion but we forget that it was only in medieval times that the Bible was divided into chapters and verses. Thus, when Jesus (or anyone in the Bible for that matter) quotes what appears to be a verse, He is directing his audience to an entire passage; He is pointing to an entire story or discourse. The Bible as presented in the battle in the wilderness is not a book of dogma to be memorized but a narrative meant to guide our perception of reality. It is in reading the Bible in this light that we too can conquer temptation.

There’s nothing wrong with dividing the Bible into chapters and verses as long as we do it for reference purposes. It is when we turn the verse into a cage in which we train God’s word to say whatever we want it to that we get into trouble. The Bible is ultimately a story of God’s love and patience with humanity. A love and patience that is still at work today. By learning to trace it in the Bible story, we may learn to trace it in the world today and act accordingly.

Desert Scuffle Part 2: Cordless Bungee Jumping

Fine then, if Jesus is as dependent on His Father as He says He is, He should willing to participate in that trusty activity of all leadership camps… the trust fall. Satan even goes so far as to give a “plain literal reading” of scripture, quoting Psalm 91:11-12. The challenge is simple: if God is on your side, He will perform a miraculous wonder to protect your life.

Jesus then quotes another comment of Moses, a comment that reminded Israel not to tempt God as they had done when thirst parched their throats and refreshed their doubts. Wondering out loud if God was among them or not, the Hebrews challenged Him to provide them with water. God rose to the occasion yet the fact that those people died in the desert reveals something important about miracles: they don’t convert sinners. Perfidy is not driven by the absence of evidence but the refusal to acknowledge its demands on one’s life.

Expecting God to perform miracles to countermand irresponsibility is nothing more than arrogant presumption because it reduces God to the level of sinful humanity. At times, God will bail us out but He will not always do so. It would be irresponsible for God to shield us from every consequence of sin because we would never leave it alone. God doesn’t subsidize stupidity. Enough trouble will come looking for you, you don’t have to seek trouble. Psalm 91 tells us not to test God but to trust Him to do what’s best for us.

What do miracles prove anyway? God is powerful, that’s not what the devil disputed in the beginning. The devil actually accused God of holding onto too much power (remember his fateful discussion with Eve in Genesis 3). If God were to run around raining non-stop miracles, He would be helping Satan’s case. He would also have another problem on His hands… spoilt brats.

God invites us to rest in Him. Children usually trust their parents to do what’s good for them. Trusting in God is a better sign that we are His children instead of expecting Him to subsidize our foolishness. Bungee jumping is much more fun when you don’t cut the cord.

Desert Scuffle Part 1: Rocky Bread

Just over a month after God’s declaration of Jesus as His Son, we find Jesus famished in the wilderness. This fills the mind with questions: How can the Son of God be so hungry, weary and worn? If God is “well-pleased” with Him, why then is Jesus not living it up? Was there, perhaps, a mistake? Maybe Jesus isn’t the Son of God or God is no longer “well-pleased” with Him. Could it be that Christ said something, did something, that didn’t go down well with God?

What is in Jesus’ mind though? Is He plagued by insecurity? Does He know who He is? It is very easy to say you’re the Son of God when your notable prophet cousin baptizes you and a voice from Heaven declares it for all to hear. It is a different story however when you haven’t eaten in weeks and hunger gnaws at you in the heat of the day. It isn’t too much to wonder if hardship hasn’t loosened Jesus’ grip on God.

So the devil approaches with doubt in His words, challenging Jesus to prove Himself. The Son of God wouldn’t sit starving when all around Him, stones waited to be turned into bread. Had not God’s firstborn son, the nation of Israel (Exodus 4:22-23), feasted on miracle bread in the barren wilderness? Surely, Jesus could repeat that and prove that He was the Son of God.

Jesus quotes Moses’ commentary on the miraculous manna in the desert – God provided the manna to show the people that they were ultimately dependent on Him. Just as the Israelites had been expected to depend on God totally before they could emerge from the desert to conquer the Promised Land, Jesus is to do the same, except that He will triumph gloriously where they failed so dismally. Life is found in creation but originates and is sustained by God Himself. No amount of hardship ever warrants forgetting that God is the giver and sustainer of life.

What about you? Do you feast on rocky bread? Do you doubt that God is your Father when times get tough? Are you tempted to go it alone when it seems God has abandoned you? Don’t give up! Work hard but don’t ever think that it all depends on you. God is you Father and He is busy working for your good, even when you feel He’s away on holiday.

Does God’s Whisper Make You Jump?

A man who has been accused of stealing a goat, so the proverb goes, does not serve goat meat to his guests. Elijah had to learn this the hard way. Zealous for God’s honour, Elijah thought God withholding the rain and dew would show that Baal was no King of Rain and Dew. Surely the Israelites, realizing that Baal was impotent in the face of Yahweh, would return to the God they had forsaken so shamelessly. How disappointed he was to find that after 3 dry years interjected by a day of nonstop miracles, the nation’s leadership was increasingly eager to snuff out the flickering light of truth.

Mount Horeb was the place where Moses had encountered God in the ‘Burning Bush’. A short while later, it was the site on which God had descended and forged the Israelite nation with peals of thunder and smoking flame. This was the place Elijah had fled to wait for God’s voice. Dejected and lonely he waited. Like the Israelites, he had been fed miraculously by God on his way there. After earthquake, wind and fire (all of which had occurred when God had appeared to Israel) Elijah heard the voice of God in a still small voice.

God had brought Elijah to the scene of a most spectacular theophany to teach him that God would not win the war against Satan by displays of power. Having been accused of having too much power, God could certainly not try to win by showing off His power. Had not the Israelites danced before a golden calf six weeks before they’d piously promised to follow Jehovah? God’s laser light shows can only grab attention; they do not effect lasting change. Something more is needed if God is to change sinners… a still small voice.

Salvation is to be found in a conversation with God. It is not to be sought in the extraordinary interventions that God makes in our lives (wonderful though they may be), rather, salvation is to be sought in a calm conversation with God. It is here in which God’s immense wisdom is shown, for without gimmicks he simply talks a wayward sinner into a humble child.

What was it that God whispered into the Elijah’s ear? Strategy. God’s capability is seen in His unassuming calm control over the whole world. Elijah could only see Israel through his binoculars yet God was looking at countries around Israel (even their enemies). Yet God didn’t hog the vision; he invited Elijah to take part. So it is, even in our day, that we seek to fold God into the boxes we’ve prepared for Him when he would rather invite us to participate in his expansive work.

It is interesting to note that when Elijah, understanding the character of God, could jump at the whisper of God and take part in God’s larger work, he was ready for translation to heaven. Could it be that perfection for us is to be found in the willingness to jump at the mere sound of God’s whisper? The ability to move forward without being prompted by the proverbial carrot and stick? I think so.

The longing however, for One who would not turn and flee in the face of danger is still there. Could there be One who would stand fearlessly yet humbly (unlike Elijah) teaching us to listen to the still small voice instead of hoping for consuming fire? Time would tell. The controversy would continue.

When God’s best isn’t good enough

What do you do when your best isn’t good enough? Do you start over? Do you give up? Well in this week’s lesson, God’s best just wasn’t good enough.

Saul was told that God had found a better king but who did He choose? David. A teenager lugging a severed head around the camp. A man who would go on to sleep with his friend’s wife among other dastardly deeds. Yet in spite of all this, God famously called him ‘a man after my own heart’. How could God reject a king whose only crimes were sacrificing (at the point of desperation) when he was meant to wait for Samuel and keeping a few animals alive? How could reject Saul and opt for a perfidious murderer?

David was God’s best but he wasn’t good enough… or so it seems! A closer look at David and Goliath’s face off reveals not a tale of overcoming great odds but a tale of a boy passionate about God and country while a king cowered in fear in his tent. Saul failed when a heathen challenged his God but David stepped up to the plate. His methods were gory to say the least but within what he knew, David could not but stand up for God. That is precisely what God was looking for: someone who could look through sin’s hazy fog and see a God worth standing up for.

As spectacular as his fall before Bathsheba’s bathing form was, David’s confession as recorded in Psalm 51 shines ever brighter. In this confession, David offers no excuse for his failure. No mention of bathing women is ever heard throughout the hymn. Unlike Saul, David did not try to bribe God with sacrifices in place of obedience. He did not reduce God to a transaction but yearned for restoration. Unlike Adam, who blamed his wife and God (by extension), David realized that sin is not an accounting discrepancy to be balanced by blood but an inner loss of communion with God. He felt the chasm between him and God and longed for reconciliation. After reading Psalm 51, it is clear that David loves God for who He is and not for what he can give.

Yet despite David’s breathtaking comebacks, a longing fills my soul. A longing for One who will not fail. One who will never misrepresent God by failing when he is at the pinnacle of his life. This is the same King of Peace promised to David by God. This One will be God’s true best and He will be good enough!

When Morality’s White is Just a Pale Grey

Any human rights activist would be left gasping for air after reading the Book of Judges. All the murder, gang rape, mass abduction and mutilation give the impression that the moral compass is not spinning, it isn’t even there! The wartime practices described therein flagrantly flout the Geneva Convention but they don’t exceed the horror of the peacetime atrocities. Where is God in this book? Is He on leave or is He taking industrial action?

I guess having been fed a steady diet of detective series and action movies in which the good guys are always flawless and the villains unabashedly villainous, we’ve come to expect the same from the Bible. It is, after all, meant to be “the Good Book”. Yet books like Judges force us to confront those expectations by reminding us that humans are human after all. The best among us is isn’t flawless but willing to rise above the flaws.

God isn’t absent. Every now and then, the “Angel of the Lord” appears and speaks to flawed humanity, reminding us never to fear because the Lord is with us (Judges 6:12, 23). God practices situational ethics in that He takes note of our circumstances when He weighs us; nobody is expected to conform to what they don’t know. Gideon, for example, was a young man who’d grown up in an idolatrous family, therefore, it is understandable that he would gradually forsake idolatry because it takes great courage and enormous effort to walk away from what you’ve always known.

When a human being, though frail with sin, turns to Him and reaches out to Him in the limit of their knowledge, He never turns away. He is never stiff with His wayward children but choking back His disgust at sin, reaches them where they are to lift them to where He is. In short, if I were to paint a picture of God in the Book of Judges, I would paint Him gritting His teeth as He strains to pull His children from the abyss.

In this book, I see God unshaken in His resolve to achieve His objective (a community to reach the world for Him) while upholding human freedom. Each of us is deeply flawed and the devil stands to accuse us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10) and the God who stands for us but nobody who is yearning for God ever stands alone. As long as we would have it, God’s presence is always with us because Christianity is not an event but a process; it is not a position but a journey that we walk (though we stumble and fall) with God.

“There are those who have known the pardoning love of Christ and who really desire to be children of God, yet they realize that their character is imperfect, their life faulty, and they are ready to doubt whether their hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. To such I would say, Do not draw back in despair. We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Said the beloved John, “These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” 1 John 2:1. And do not forget the words of Christ, “The Father Himself loveth you.” John 16:27. He desires to restore you to Himself, to see His own purity and holiness reflected in you. And if you will but yield yourself to Him, He that hath begun a good work in you will carry it forward to the day of Jesus Christ. Pray more fervently; believe more fully. As we come to distrust our own power, let us trust the power of our Redeemer, and we shall praise Him who is the health of our countenance.”  {Ellen White, Steps to Christ p64}