He Walks With a Limp (Jacob)

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Genesis 32:24-31:

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [the Face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

These may seem like extraordinary circumstances, but ask yourself how much you have (or have had) in common with Jacob at that moment.

Jacob was afraid. He was facing all that he had been, and all that he would be. He was running from one man he hated straight toward another who hated him. Going back was not an option, making it ahead was far from certain. He was alone, in the dark, in a desert place. And there in the darkness he’s taken unaware. But he fights back. Jacob didn’t know how close he was to drowning in the Jabbok river, or how close he was to seeing the face of God.

The thing about darkness is, you don’t know how close you are to anything.

Years ago, in a blog post about prayer, I wrote the phrase, “Better crippled by God than — well, just about anything.” I didn’t know then that I was heading into one of the darkest seasons of my life, catalysed by the very thing that had inspired that blog post. I didn’t know how I would struggle through that darkness, drown in it, even, how before it was over I would have to choose between “a good life” and a God life.

But recently it all came back to me.

It was after dark and my friend and I were winding our way through the narrow alleyways of our neighborhood. I don’t remember how he said it, I just remember the effect it had on me, because the guy he said he could “see me with” had said he could see us together himself, just the week before that.

“Why do you think so?” I tried to keep my voice level. My friend couldn’t have known, and he’s not the type who would say something like that without putting thought into it.

“He walks with a limp,” he answered.

“He . . . he what?”

“He walks with a limp. Like Jacob. You can tell He doesn’t just know God, he’s wrestled with Him . . . you know?”

I knew very well. I knew what joint in the world’s way of doing things God had pulled out of socket to make him walk through this life differently. I knew the moment in his life when that tendon was touched. I knew how that made us similar.

“The Christian life is a maimed life,” Oswald Chambers once wrote.

There are many things that are perfectly legitimate, but if you are going to concentrate on God you cannot do them. Your right hand is one of the best things you have, but Jesus says that if it hinders you in following His precepts, then “cut it off.” The principle taught here is the strictest discipline or lesson that ever hit humankind. When God changes you through regeneration, giving you new life through spiritual rebirth, your life initially has the characteristic of being maimed . . . There has never yet been a saint who has not lived a maimed life initially. Yet it is better to enter into life maimed but lovely in God’s sight than to appear lovely to man’s eyes but lame to God’s.

Better crippled by God than just about anything.

Barry Moser, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

I think about Jacob when counting my blessings feels a lot like counting my losses. I think about Jacob because all I want is to be Jesus’ best friend, even though I know that all of Jesus’ best friends lived horrible lives in the eyes of men, and died brutal deaths at their hands. I think about Jacob in the darkness when God is far off. The thing about darkness is, you don’t know how close you are to anything.

Drowning — or seeing the face of God.

Unless you go into that place, into the night, into the desert, you cannot come out as one touched by God. Until you walk with a limp, you cannot bear the name of a nation.

Frederick Buechner wrote a fictional autobiography as Jacob, called “Son of Laughter.” In it, Jacob says of that night,

I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.

For that — that glimpse. Don’t let Him go. Wrestle the night long. Fight until day breaks.

But know, you will come out marred. You may even lose your life. But only those who lose their lives can ever possibly find them.

“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”

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Knowing What You Want (Bartimaeus)

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Mark 10:46-52:

As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus, was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

A beggar on the side of the road. That would have been his sole identity. Cursed by God to all who saw him, completely reliant on the pity of strangers. Nothing to anyone. He had never met Jesus, only heard rumors of an itinerant preacher who was healing and performing other miracles in the cities nearby. But Bartimaeus, blind though he was, he recognized something about Jesus few of those thronging around him had grasped, and addresses him by the Messianic title, “Son of David.”

I wonder if he felt that this was the most critical moment in his life. He hears that Jesus is nearby, and he calls to him, despite the great crowd, ignoring the rebukes of men stronger than him who he cannot see. He calls louder. “Have mercy on me!” Jesus hears and he calls to him.

Bartimaeus, throwing away his cloak (which we can assume was all he had), comes.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Which is the same thing he asked James and John when they wanted to sit on either side of him in glory. Jesus said they didn’t know what they were asking for, but Bartimaeus knows, and with all his heart he responds, “I want to see!”

I believe the day will come for each of us when we’ll stand face to face with Jesus and he’ll ask us what we want. Will we know? Will we shrink back? Will we falter?

Michael Buesking’s oil-on-canvas, “Healing of the Blind Man.”
Michael Buesking’s oil-on-canvas, “Healing of the Blind Man.”

C.S. Lewis’s narrator in Till We Have Faces has this quandary when she is given, at long last, a chance to bring her petition before the gods.

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Maybe Bartimaeus, in the emptiness of his life, had let the crumbling coal at the center of his soul harden into diamond. He knew who he was. And when asked, he speaks the fundamental need of his life.

And then he opens his eyes, and blinks against the bright afternoon sunshine, and sees the Light of the World standing before him. After all, that is what it means to see. That is what our eyes were made for.

But maybe you do know. Maybe that word has already been dug out of you. I’m sure many men called out to Jesus in his lifetime. We don’t hear the stories about the ones who stopped calling before they got their answer.

Do you ask? Do you call out to him till he hears you?

Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.

God is the Fat Lady (Paul)

Running Dudes

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from 1 Corinthians 4:3-5:

I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

If you’re very attentive to detail (or read my first intro), you might have noticed that I do these posts Sunday and Wednesday, and that today is neither, no matter what time zone you’re in.

On Friday morning, with several assignments for last week still undone, and 30 emails in my inbox requiring action, I took off for a 4-hour drive to see a friend who’s only briefly in California. After a 2am turn-in, I got up for a 7am Skype, went running, responded to five personal emails and no work emails, patched together a page on my website with freelancing rates so I could respond to a work email, drove several more hours with friends to an incredible waterfall, walked a couple of miles into the forest before we decided we probably weren’t on the 1.2 mile loop, and drove another hour to search in the darkness for hot springs and discovered only cows.

We got back into town by 9pm, in time for me to leave for the 4-hour drive back home, where I needed to be for the arrival of my parents the next morning. Thanks to their handy GPS, they arrived in the late afternoon (just in time for me to miss a meeting), giving me time to clean the house, do some laundry, further ignore work and think of run-on sentences for blog posts. By the time they left this morning I had missed/cancelled two more meetings (of the four I had today, and which I was up at 6 to cancel), the actionable emails in my inbox had amounted to 57+, and my ability to recognize much less create run-on (or any) sentences had diminished greatly.

I was overwhelmed, not by a rallying GIT-ER-DUN cry, but by curiosity . . . how long I would have to sleep to just make it all go away?

The difficulty with that plan of action was that it’s reasonably hard to get fired from a job you’re not getting paid for, and all of mine fall into that category right now (no matter how decent the rates I put on my website are). One of the non-actionable emails I’d received, which were of course the ones I gave first attention to, contained two parallel lists that made me laugh aloud.

This first was a recount of my friends’ last several weeks, “we’ve had sickness, injury, vehicles breaking down, appliances not working, insomnia . . . ” And the second was a list of Paul’s own experiences recounted in 2 Corinthians: “ . . . as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger . . .

My friends acknowledged the same thing I felt, that reading the two lists together they felt that, though worn-down, they still had a lot to be grateful for.

The next email, now getting down to business, was a first-look at a blog post from one of my bosses on taking every thought captive, most particularly the thoughts we have about ourselves. This idea also comes from 2 Corinthians, in the same chapter which Paul condemns as unwise those who “measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves.”

It struck me that “measuring yourself by yourself” is exactly the motto for our modern, busy, driven world: Beat your own high score. Try harder. Run faster. Work smarter. Fail. Fail hard. Fail better.

Paul writes, almost with a shrug, “I don’t even judge myself.”

Not that Paul was against running fast, running to win. I don’t know if Paul was an athlete, but he sure seemed to understand what it takes to be a competitor. I recently read a great book by an Olympic and World champion on the mindset required to win in extremely intense sports. One of the things he says is winners don’t count their score while they’re still in the game.

Paul had good days and bad days, ups and downs. Like that time he was mistaken for a Greek god and had to stop the people from making sacrifices to him, and then the same people (on the same day) stoned him to death (apparently, but he revived/resurrected). Through all that, and everything he mentions above, he never becomes weary in well-doing. He’s not judging himself.

I’ve become weary in the two times my browser has frozen since I started writing this blog post. I became weary the three times Skype crashed at 6 this morning before I could get a simple message across, and I’ve basically been weary every moment in between. And all the while, I’m making judgements about myself.

Before I’ve begun on days like today, I’ve decided I’ve failed. Before I’ve even seen if I will succeed, I’ve labelled myself unsuccessful.

The problem with this kind of accounting is it doesn’t, well . . . account for everything. It doesn’t matter that I finished the novel ahead of time because the revision’s taking twice as long as planned. I’m not content with the organizing that’s done for the conference, I’m only concerned about what I have left to do. Well sure I posted to the blog, but it was A DAY late . . .

And beyond all those things I’ve failed to see is the leisurely breakfast spent with my parents who I haven’t spent time with in months, and what the roar of a waterfall and the laughter of good friends can do to my soul. And there are other things I know I don’t see, things only God sees. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.”

And Paul doesn’t say, “And He’ll disparage you.” Only we do that. Paul doesn’t say anything at all about God mentioning our faults or failures.

We each will receive our praise from God.

How to Be Chosen by God (Gideon)

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Judges 6:11-15:

Tissot's GideonThe angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

What do we talk about when we talk about being chosen by God? There are plenty of Biblical characters and verses that fit the bill, David, the disciples, Paul of Tarsus. But I think sometimes we get the idea that God is just looking for the most unlikely character, that he will always pick the runt of the pack, and indeed, it does seem like God is often out to nip our bragging rights in the bud (it’s like He knows us or something).

As Paul describes it, “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.”

So, paraphrasing Paul for our own purposes (oh, come on, everyone else does it!), our How-to-Be-Chosen-by-God checklist looks like this:

  • Be thought foolish
  • Be powerless
  • Be despised
  • Be counted as nothing (better yet, count yourself as nothing)

So, you want to be chosen by God? Be like that.

A Heart Like God’s

But before we get carried away with the fairy tale notions of seventh sons, frogs as princes and baker’s wives as heroines, let’s remember that God is not a Grimm brother. Don’t get the idea that Gideon (or David, or Moses) was picked just because he was from a tiny clan, because he was the youngest in his family and because he was scared. There must have been other youngest sons in Israel, and I don’t think Gideon just happened to out-wimp them all. In this interaction with the angel, Gideon shows he’s unique in some other key ways.

When the angel first appears to Gideon and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor!” Gideon doesn’t react the way I expect him to. Mary, when she was similarly greeted by an angel, was “confused and disturbed,” and wondered if this was some new kind of greeting. But if Gideon is surprised or flattered by being called a mighty warrior, he doesn’t show it. He objects to what the angel has said, but something more important to him has his attention.

The first thing Gideon says is, “If the Lord is with us . . . ” See how he misquotes the angel? Maybe the reason Gideon isn’t worried whether he’s really, technically “mighty” and a “warrior” or not is because Gideon isn’t thinking about himself at all. Gideon’s heart is with his people. “Why has all this happened to us?” he asks, showing that the fate of Israel was weighing heavy on his heart. And before the angel can even draw breath, Gideon follows it up with, “And where are all the miracles we were told about?” showing he had been studying the history of Israel. He was studying the words of the Lord! So much so that the first thing out of his mouth when greeted by a stranger is a reference to them.

That was the kind of youngest-son-of-a-weakest-tribe God was looking for. Can you think of someone else who cared deeply about the fate of Israel? God did. This was an attribute Gideon shared with God himself. When God explained His choice of David as king, He didn’t say it was because he was the youngest of many sons, or because he was the underdog in a fight against a giant, or because he was ruddy and handsome (ahem), or any of the things fairy-tale heroes usually have going for them, but because he was like Him in heart.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Shape your heart after His.

Good Answer, Gideon

God’s response? “The Lord looked at him and said . . . ” It’s hard for me to picture this action without picturing him smiling. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something important in this look, or the author wouldn’t have mentioned it. The other versions say the angel turned to him. Now Gideon had his attention. That was just what he was hoping Gideon would say.

So, he delivers the punchline, “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I am sending you!

Whoops. It’s important to understand that when you ask God a question, you’re likely to become the answer.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Start asking the right questions.

Certainty

Remember what happens next in Gideon’s story? He puts out a fleece before the Lord, right? At least, that’s what I always remembered happening next, maybe because all too often that’s the way my story goes: God speaks, two heartbeats later, I doubt.

But because I so disparaged Balaam for testing God, and Zechariah for seeking a sign, I want to make clear what actually happens next. That very same night God comes to Gideon and tells him to tear down the altars to the foreign gods that his own father has erected, an act that could (and very nearly does) get Gideon mob-lynched.

Gideon obeys God, at threat of his own death, first. It’s when his ability to hear from God could mean the death of tens-of-thousands that he asks for a little extra certainty. And once God answers, he never again asks for surety from God, though it’s clear he’s shaking in his boots.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Give up your own safety.

Do Not Fear What They Fear

But God is testing Gideon here. In fact, he’s testing him on the two grievances he had against the people of Gideon’s day. Right before Gideon’s story begins, God sends a prophet to the people of Israel to tell them this: “I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed Me.'”

So, will Gideon fear Baal? And will he obey?

This is an aspect of Gideon’s character I’ve never heard mentioned before. He was counter-cultural. God is very clear about what we are to fear. And, for all that Gideon was afraid of, he feared God more. More than the people, more than the gods of his day, more than his own father.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Give up the worries of our day, and fear Him most.

Caveat Emptor

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower,” Jesus said. “Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ . . . In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

So, you want to be chosen by God? Are you willing to give up everything you have and count yourself as nothing? Do you care deeply about the people around you? Are you willing to be the answer? Are you be willing to be tested? Are you willing to be different?

Eyes Wide Open (Balaam)

This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Numbers 22-24.

This is a story I often come back to. I pour over it. I angst about it. I just don’t get it. I find preachers and biblical commentators to be widely dismissive of Balaam, but what I read here is the account of someone who had an actual relationship with God. He speaks with God, he hears from God, he believes God, and he obeys God. That’s a lot more than I can say about a lot of Bible characters, and many believers I know.

But most telling of all, I think, is the fact that God honors what he has to say, as Balak testifies, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” It sounds a little like what Jesus says about the believers in the New Testament. And God doesn’t actually deny this, though I’m sure he’s not intimidated by it. He seems to be operating under the same assumption.

Balaam's Ass

Conversations With Donkeys

Balaam, however, is actually not very interested in God’s honor, though he is intrigued by the prospect of being honored by Balak, which he rightly interprets to be financial honor. So, he says the second time Balak comes for him, maybe God has something else to add. After all, sometimes “You shall not” means, “Sure, go ahead.”‘

The point here is that no, it doesn’t. Ever. But Balaam’s heart is not actually after God’s heart, and he’s interested in finding out what he can get away with. Perhaps he can find a way to cash in without disobeying. God finds this mindset so perverse, he actually tells Balaam he can go and sends an angel to kill him on the way, but his donkey sees the angel and detours.

Yes, you read that right. Balaam, soothsayer, holy-man, prophet for hire, is saved by the spiritual awareness of a donkey. Whether or not donkeys make for good protagonists (Eeyore?), this one seems to be a pretty stand-up character. His anger somewhat abated, God again allows Balaam to go on, and Balaam is good on his word to both God and Balak, he speaks only what he hears from the Lord.

What God is Not

The next bit is a kind of tedious kingly rigmarole. It’s like a case study in “determining” the will of God when you already know the will of God. Balaam and Balak prance around, building altar after alter, sacrificing bull after ram, testing the theory that God will let them curse just a portion of Israel, or perhaps if they get just the right angle . . . In short, testing God. And there is nowhere in the Bible that’s a safe thing to do.

Balaam hits the nail on the head when he says, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”

Balaam isn’t dumb, nor is he inexperienced in holy matters. He understands that God has already made himself clear on this one. He spoke with Him, he spoke with a donkey, he spoke with an angel, and unlike Zechariah, he doesn’t need anymore signs. So, different from his first two prophecies, which start with a psalm about God’s constancy and incontrovertibility, he starts the last two with an ode to his own spiritual prowess:

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor, the message of the man whose eyes see clearly, the message of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who bows down with eyes wide open.”

No, Balaam is no dupe. He makes it clear he’s not a fool for God, but he knows it’s unprofitable to go against Him. So he worships, but never lets his vision be clouded by love. Or so he thinks. The God he loves, Peter tells us, is money. He’s nearly tripping over himself in his mad pursuit of it.

Seeing Clearly

If your vision is bad, Jesus said, it doesn’t matter if your eyes are open. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Balaam knew what was good for him and he never went against God (though he does “let it slip” to Balak that the Israelites have a few areas of weakness, resulting in the death of 24,000 of them). Balaam never speaks anything but what the Lord tells him, yet he’s held up as a standard of a false prophet by Peter, Jude and even Jesus himself. The truth of his prophecies didn’t seem to matter compared to the falseness of his heart, proving the maxim, “If wrong our hearts, our heads are right in vain.”

Faith vs. Encounter

So what’s the rub with Balaam? Why does his story haunt me? What keeps me coming back to this wayward prophet who spoke rightly and loved wrongly?

My heart breaks for Balaam. His relationship with God is, like I said, more than I can say about a lot of believers, but it’s exactly what I can say about a few. They spoke with God, they heard Him, they believed in Him, and it wasn’t enough . . . 

Knowledge failed. Encounter failed. Why?

This is something I’m writing about not because I understand it, but because I don’t. Far from having the answers, I’m still struggling to ascertain exactly what the question is. How could you know God . . . and not know Him? How could you speak with Him . . . and not love Him? Once you’ve seen . . . what else is there?

Last week I talked about the allure of certainty, and how it can never satisfy. Zechariah sought for certainty, but it wasn’t given to him. Balaam had certainty, but it didn’t help him. But there is a kind of certainty that pleases God. It’s called faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure. Faith is certainty without sight.

Where Do You Keep Your Hope Chest?

blue and white chinaI held the little pieces of glass in my hands, cupped in my palms, like I could will them back together. But it was all I could do to hold myself together at that moment.

I cry when things break, this is the way it works. It doesn’t matter if it’s something precious or a 200 rupee jar of jam that dropped out of the shopping bag on the way up the stairs. I don’t know what it is, maybe it reminds me of how easily larger things like hearts and relationships can shatter.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told myself, sitting there on the floor of my parents house staring at the box that had once contained my set of china, but now mostly just contained shards of it. I was alone. I could cry over it, however foolish I felt. It didn’t matter. But that was just the point — it didn’t matter. I was planning to give the china away anyhow.

Read the rest of my post at IndiAanya.

Seeing Signs of God (Zechariah)

Today is Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite “holy-days” because it ushers in the season of Lent. The six-week fast to Easter Sunday can signify the antiquated strictures of old-world church tradition to some, or the barrenness and deprivation of the wilderness (like the 40 days Jesus spent there) to others. But for me it has always and only been a time of knowing the tenderness of God, a time of coming face-to-face with the humanity of Jesus, and a time of meditation and reflection. This year, because I always come to a deeper understanding of these things through conversation, I thought I would share some of those reflections with you. I hope you’ll join me, every Wednesday and Sunday, for the season of Lent.

This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Luke 1:8-14, 18-20:

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” . . . Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 0But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

Conversing With Angels

The child prophesied here is John the Baptist, and this is not the first prophesy about his birth of John the baptist, both Jesus and John himself identify others. Isn’t that pretty awe-inspiring? To be able to look at a passage of scripture and be able to say, “I’m the one who this is talking about.” But John had good reason. He recognized the signs surrounding his own life. His birth was foretold to Zechariah, a priest of Israel (who also happened to be his father) while he was carrying out his duties in the sanctuary . . .

Zechariah by Alexandr Ivanov


Now, this was not the chosen-by-lot occasion of entering the Holy of Holies where the priests have to tie a rope around their ankle (in case they die in the Holy Presence of God and need to be dragged back out. Yikes). But it was a role that passed by lot between the families appointed by David to serve in the tabernacle–this wasn’t business-as-usual for Zechariah. So you’d think he might be expecting something unusual to happen. Instead, oh, there’s just this angel and he seems to think Elizabeth is going to have a kid. Like that’s believable!

But that’s just it: Zechariah doesn’t seem to believe him. His response baffles me. “How can I be sure?” he asks. “How will I know this for certain?” the NASB has it.I can just imagine Gabriel’s confusion here . . . “Uh, how about, I’m an angel?”

Just for reference, this is the same angel Gabriel who made the prophet Daniel go nearly catatonic (he passes out and Gabriel has to stand him back up, then just lies there for several days after their conversation), so I think we can surmise that he probably struck a pretty imposing figure. He himself kind of scoffs at Zechariah’s apparent blindness.

“I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God.” (Like, “Who do you think I am? Do you think I normally just hang around here chatting with people?”)

Losing the Plot

How many times in the annals of Israel had God opened the womb of the barren to alter the course of history? How many times had He put those who were beyond their prime right into the middle of the action when most directors would have cast a younger actor in the lead?

Believe me, Zechariah was very familiar with all those stories. He was a priest, he lived and breathed this stuff. But he was missing the signs all around him because he was waiting for something . . . something, what? Something new? But God isn’t somehow new on the days He performs miracles. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same God who sent a messenger to Abraham, to Daniel, and yes, to Zechariah, is the God who speaks to us today AND performs miracles among us.

I heard a great message at New Years about the Bible being the testimony of God. “Testimony” in the Hebrew means, literally, “Do it again.” It’s a prayer, but it’s also a prophecy: “As it happened, so it will happen.” That’s why Revelation says “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

Want to prophesy (and Paul says you should–eagerly)? Tell what Jesus has done, because what He has done He will do again. The Bible is the testimony of God. What He did then, He will do now.

Certainty

Maybe you’ve those people who say, “If God is real, why won’t He give us a sign? I just need Him to show me proof, then I’ll believe in Him.” And all the while they are sitting in a body that IS PROOF that God exists, speaking with a voice that he gave them, surrounded by a world of wonders that is took mankind 4000 years to come up with something other than a divine explanation for. (Which, in my opinion, can’t hold water compared to the original.) But aren’t we doing the same thing when we don’t believe that God is as present, as real, as able to perform miracles as ever He was?

Today we all have access to the Holy of Holies, we all stand in the presence of angels and a great cloud of witnesses (those who’ve given testimony). Why don’t we believe?

“An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign” Jesus said. Why adulterous I wonder? Evil, maybe. Blind, surely. But adulterous? What is the other lover here? I contend that it is certainty. Like Zechariah, we crave to be sure. Continuing this series on Sunday, I’m going to talk about the allure of certainty . . . and the bottomless pit of doubt.

A Sign, a Testimony, a Prophet

Zechariah wanted a sign. So God made Zechariah himself a sign, making him mute (and possibly deaf, since the people have to write things down to communicate with him), till the day he gave testimony to the sign God had given him and named his son John. Maybe nine months unable to hear had finally taught him to see. Nine months unable to speak finally taught him to testify.

Today, Zechariah is counted a prophet in both Christian and Islamic traditions.