Thursday, May 21, 2015

Countdown to Pentecost

When my kids were little, they loved to count down the days to a greatly anticipated event. At Christmas time I used to make a paper chain and let them break off one link per day, so they had a tangible reminder of the approaching holiday. Each day, the chain grew shorter; each day, their excitement grew greater. That sense of anticipation is at the heart of the current season of "Counting the Omer.” Counting the omer begins the first Sabbath after Passover and continues for seven weeks, ending with the feast of Shavuot (weeks), also known as Pentecost (Greek for fiftieth). Most of us know Pentecost as a Christian holy day—part of the liturgical calendar. And it is, but it was a Jewish holy day for thousands of years before it was a special day for Christians. So that means that the Jewish people were actually the first Pentecostals!

Sefirat HaOmer (the counting of sheaves) is the bridge between the two spring First Fruits celebrations: the early barley harvest and the latter wheat harvest. These harvest celebrations made sense in an agricultural setting, but can they be relevant to a modern industrialized society? When God is the party planner, of course! Shavuot is for expressing gratitude to God for His provision, but also beautifully demonstrates His desire to be in relationship with us.


At the feast of Passover, we remember God’s great deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt; seven weeks later God made covenant with them. The feast of Shavuot celebrates the initiation of that relationship and the giving of Torah—God’s instruction on how to live in covenant relationship with Him. Now spool forward about fifteen hundred years; God delivered us through the death and resurrection of the Passover lamb, Jesus. Seven weeks later God sent the Holy Spirit, a living Torah written on the hearts of His disciples. So the period between Passover and Pentecost is for reflecting on our freedom from bondage and anticipating deeper intimacy with Him.

Israel was in the midst of counting the omer when Jesus instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received power. Because He was an observant Jew, Jesus knew that in a few weeks, Jerusalem would fill with pilgrims from many countries to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Because He also knew God's plan, He had the disciples wait in the one place they would have a ready-made audience for their very first evangelistic meeting. On a day celebrating the first fruits of the spring wheat harvest, God harvested souls in the city of Jerusalem, growing the infant church from a local curiosity to a regional phenomenon, empowering and thrusting it out into the world at large.

Two loaves of wheat bread were the traditional offering presented at the Temple in Jesus’ day. Messianic rabbis teach that these two loaves now represent the people of God—Jew and Gentile, brought together in Messiah—the one new man of Ephesians 2:15. The book of Ruth, which takes place during a spring harvest, is often read at Shavuot. The story of the Gentile widow who left her own people and religion to serve her mother-in-law Naomi in Israel, is a great example for us. Like Ruth, we come from nothing, gaining everything from our adoption into God’s family. Ruth's devotion to her adopted people and their God placed her smack dab in the middle of the lineage of Jesus. We too have been grafted in, nourished by the Jewish root which God planted and has continued to preserve. We too are part of the salvation story God's been telling since Eden. 
 

Sefirat haOmer is the perfect time to reflect on God’s abundant provision, as well as the wisdom of His Biblical calendar. And I wonder whether God is also ‘counting the omer,’ counting the days until He sends His son again…this time to collect the people He has watched over and waited for since He first placed them in the Garden. It makes me smile to think of Jesus, growing more excited as each day passes, moving us one day closer to the day we can be with Him forever.

With the conclusion of Pentecost, we enter a break in the cycle of feasts. Summer is the season when the fields are worked, leading to the final Fall harvest, which is celebrated with the Feast of Booths. And we are working, as long as it is day. Night is coming, when no one can work. (John 9:4). This is day 47 of the Counting of the Omer. Shavuot begins at sundown this Saturday, May 23rd.



Monday, May 4, 2015

Scandalous

Matthew 24: 10-12 At that time many will fall away [become offended] and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.”


The earthly ministry of Jesus was scandalous. His mother was already pregnant when she married. The Pharisees charged He disregarded Sabbath regulations. He offered cryptic teachings, which often left His disciples scratching their heads. He hung out with the wrong crowd. He riled the political authorities. He also said He was God, which put more than a few people out. Sometime in the near future Jesus will become scandalous in our day. Scandalous in a way that may stumble those who follow Him.

Because Jesus did not do and say what folks thought the Messiah should, many stumbled, missing who He was. The Greek word in Matthew 24 for ‘falling away’ is skandilizo. It is used frequently in the New Testament. I always thought this referred to unbelievers or back-sliders…something like that. But the word actually means, “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey; to cause offense.” So the kind of falling away that Jesus is warning believers about is the stumbling block that comes when life takes a sharp left turn, leaving us wondering where the heck God is. We are warned that our unmet expectations can cause us to mistrust, even desert God. So we too must take care not to stumble when Jesus works in ways we don't expect or desire. 

That is scary to me, because I know about offense. I’ve been offended when money was tight. I’ve been offended when I was disappointed. I’ve been offended when I was not treated fairly. Or when I was criticized. Or when God was silent. Or when I was depressed. Come on! I get frustrated when the line is long at the grocery— what might happen if times get difficult or even dangerous and I begin to face real privation or even persecution? Like I said…scary.

Offense can be a killer, mostly because we feel so justified when we are experiencing it. Anger and judgment somehow seem the right response when the almighty "I" isn't treated with due deference. But offense can build walls that separate us from each other and from God. When events seem to indicate that what we believe about God is not true, or that God has somehow become untrustworthy, offense is waiting with a quick response. Jesus warned His disciples to beware cold love and offense, because it must be possible to become offended to the point of ‘falling away.’ Otherwise He would not have warned us. I do not want to deceive myself into thinking that this verse applies to other people, but not me. That would be foolish…and irrational too, considering my history.

God plans to shake everything that can be shaken (Hebrews 12:27). Some shaking has begun already, and we know more is to come. It's His love that causes Him to do so. We have so many things we depend upon rather than, or in addition to Him. He's got to shake that stuff loose, so we are clinging to Him alone. When He shakes my provision and my security and my expectations and my Americanism, I want humility and love and acceptance to arise, rather than offense. 

In order to better recognize His hand, even when things seem badly out of control, I need to know Him better. I am grateful that He is always willing to answer a desire for more of Him. I want to know Him in His Word. I want to know Him in prayer. I want to know Him in worship. I want to know Him in my friends. I want to know His voice. Only by really knowing Him can I recognize Him in the midst of chaos and confusion. Then when everything is shaking, I will be able to recognize the one thing not shaking—Him. I want my faith and trust to be so complete that even when everything around me is telling me that God has failed, I can rest, choosing to believe that He has not. No matter what the future holds, I do not want to be scandalized by Jesus.

 

Haggai 2:6-7 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'In a little while, I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the Lord Almighty.”

Hebrews 12:27 “the words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”

Lessons from a Possum

In which I panic upon discovering a mother possum has made a den beneath my screen porch. After which I decide it is a good idea to catch ...