Part 3: Fish

 

 

John the Baptist was born to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah.

 

It’s striking to think that their mothers had greeted each other before either John or Jesus were born and that when Mary greeted Elizabeth, John as a foetus had leaped in his mother’s womb.

 

John had been raised essentially as a Nazirite, like Samson, not cutting his hair and avoiding fermented drink and dead bodies. Scripture relates that his diet was locusts and wild honey. If we put this in today’s context and with a bit of literary license, John may have looked like a Rastafarian, smelled like day-old braai on your shirt (plus man-sweat), ate bugs, and honey (which was made by other bugs).

 

You would be hard pressed to find somebody of that description now. For all his curiousness, John was no loon out in the wilderness. He had a very specific message – repentance. Moreover, he was very specifically a forerunner for the Messiah.

 

Picture it, people of almost every type taking a moderate journey out into the wilderness to be baptised in a river. According to the account of Scripture, these are common people, including tax collectors and soldiers.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+3%3A10+-+15&version=NIV

 

These were ordinary people on the periphery of political power. Luke placed the timing of this chapter by listing the political powers-that-be: the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysnias tetrarch of Abilene. The high priests were either Annas or Caiaphas (depending on who you asked). During this specific time…

 

None of the people in political power were about to go out to John to be baptised.

 

Crowds of people going to listen to John suggests two things for me: there was a significant desire for spiritual things, and there may have been a lack of preaching about repentance that the people had to make their way to John. Repentance comes after you’ve heard something that convicts you. You know you’ve been doing wrong and you want to do right. The Greek word in the text is metanoia (dealing with compunction of guilt and implying reversal of decision).

 

When the people asked what specifically they should do, John told them what repentance should look like for their occupation: for the soldier to stop extortion, for the tax collector not to take some cream off the top when charging a levy, and for people generally, to share with those in need. Repentance is an action (for those Type A personalities, you could grade it on a spreadsheet and call them ‘deliverables’) and is inherently practical.

 

The powerful do not take criticism well, and since John rebuked Herod as well, the tetrarch of Galilee had him imprisoned. Herod stole the wife of his brother and by implication had a long list of other abuses of power. John never got out of prison.

 

I’m delighted with the description of John baptising Jesus because it shows the Trinity on display…The voice of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+3%3A21+-+22&version=NIV

 

For the Children of Israel, fishing had only recently taken off – in historical terms. This is inferred from linguistics as before Jesus’ time there was only one Hebrew word for fish (dag or dagah – pronounced dawg or daw-gaw – 1709 and 1710 in Strongs Concordance).

 

https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/they-left-their-nets-behind

 

By Jesus’ time however it seems that fishing had become more commonplace. Magdala, a town known in Scripture for Mary Magdalene was recognised as a place where sardines were dried and pickled.

 

It’s little wonder with fishermen making up at least a third of the apostles, that the motif of a fish came to symbolise Christianity:

 

 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/what-is-origin-of-christian-fish-symbol.html

 

Fisherman typically fished at night, and in Luke’s account we find Jesus interacting with Simon Peter after a long night of fishing. Simon Peter and his brother followed Jesus’ direction and caught a large number of fish, which they hen immediately left behind along with their nets and boats to follow Jesus. From that point on they would be catching men, men’s souls.

 

I wonder who ultimately ended up with the commercial value of this large catch of fish? Who sold it? I don’t have an answer, but it is an interesting question.

 

The world of Jesus’ time had different social constructs which we would find curious and ‘back-to-front’. For example at a wedding the guests wait for the bride to show up and when she’s late the guys might remark that its typical for the fairer sex; back in the day, it was the bridegroom who showed up out of the blue to claim his betrothed and marry her. I imagine weddings back then had a more spontaneous feel. Also, ever since I’ve been attending church the pastor stands at a lectern to deliver the preaching of the message and the congregation sits; back in the day, when teaching a rabbi would sit and his disciples would stand.

 

People didn’t simply used to study Scripture as a subject, they learned from a rabbi and were discipled. The student would then become like his master. Its actually more comprehensive if you think about it:  not only do you study Scripture, over time you see how the rabbi applies Biblical teachings and learn what that looks like in a practical sense.

 

For the better part of three years,  the disciples were taught by Jesus, and saw how it looked in his life.

 

Jesus spent the night praying before selecting and naming his 12 apostles. In Scripture, Peter is always named first and Judas Iscariot last.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+6%3A12+-+16&version=NIV

 

We can count Paul as an apostle because even though he was not one of the twelve, he did experience a meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

 

Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome circa 66 A.D. Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified. Apparently, Peter was crucified, but upside down at his own request because he felt unworthy to be put to death in the same way as Christ. This was under a persecution by the Emperor Nero.

 

Peter’s brother Andrew took the gospel to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor and was also apparently crucified under Roman persecution. Reportedly he elected to be crucified on a cross that was actually in the shape of an ‘X’, also not feeling he was worthy to be crucified like Christ.

 

It didn’t get any easier being a Christian for Thomas (formerly the doubter). He took the gospel east of Syria and as far as India before being killed by soldiers with spears.

 

The Roman persecution continued with Philip, who preached in North Africa and Asia Minor. For the inconvenience of converting a local Proconsul’s wife, he was arrested and either beheaded or crucified.

 

Matthew preached in Persia and Ethiopia and the circumstances of his end are not clear but he may have been stabbed to death in Ethiopia.

 

Bartholomew travelled extensively to take the gospel to unreached peoples: to India, Armenia, Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. Also reportedly martyred.

 

James, son of Alpheus, ministered in Syria, stoned and clubbed to death.

 

Simon the Zealot apparently ministered in Persia where Zoroarstrianism was pretty big. After refusing to sacrifice to the sun god, he was killed, by some accounts sawn in half, like a magic trick gone wrong.

 

Judas Iscariot…we all know what happened to him.

 

Matthias, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot. According to tradition he preached in Syria with Andrew and met his end by being burned. The gospel often elicited strong reactions from those who hated it.

 

John was apparently the only apostle who lived to be an old man.

 

Most of these guys go unremembered by the world. Historians don’t tend to think of them as being worthy of study in the same way as empires and political movements in Rome or Constantinople. And yet Christians are here today because of their witness.

 

https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/whatever-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles-11629558.html

Part 2: In those days

In those days…

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A1+-+3&version=NIV

 

Those days that Luke is referring to was a time of Pax Romana, a Roman Empire at peace.

 

The historical context of this Christmas story was the Second Triumvirate:

 

https://www.ancient.eu/Second_Triumvirate/

 

To cut a long story short, Julius Caesar had been assassinated in Rome and this threw the Roman Empire into a tailspin. Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian formed an alliance with Mark Antony and Lepidus to form a ruling council of three: to avenge Caesar and rule the empire.

 

As you can imagine, the alliance didn’t last as nobody wants to play second and third fiddle. The feel at the time was probably much like the depiction in Ridley Scott’s movie ‘Gladiator’ with the murder of Marcus Aurelius and the commission of Maximus to see that power is wrested from Commodus and restored to the Senate.

Bread and circuses; a Roman Colosseum

Lepidus was sidelined, the assassins of Julius Caesar met bloody ends. Mark Antony and Octavian marshalled their forces and met in battle.

 

William Shakespeare later wrote a play about Antony (the same Mark Antony of the Second Triumvirate) and Cleopatra.

 

For all his political deviousness, apparently Mark Antony had a weakness for Cleopatra.

 

When the dust had settled, Octavian was left standing. No more internal opposition. The Empire was at peace (Pax Romana). Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar.

 

In those days, this Augustus Caesar decreed that everyone had to register in their home town. This wasn’t to test the Empire’s system of transport. If you know who is where, you can tax them. Caesar needed to fill the Empire’s coffers after the financial downturn during the previous war.

 

Each citizen of the Roman world had to go to their home town, one of the effects of which would be family reunions. Think the Griswold’s in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

 

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097958/?ref_=nv_sr_1

 

Perhaps not as extreme as that; nobody does Christmas family chaos like our American cousins.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A4+-+7&version=NIV

 

Everyone knows the story. While they were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth and wrapped the baby in torn shreds of cloth and placed him in a manger, a trough that domestic animals normally ate out of.

 

There were likely many children born in Bethlehem who were wrapped in bits off cloth but only one who was laid in a manger. This unique fact helped the shepherds to know when they found the right place and the right baby. The angels had specified:

 

12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 

 

He was born like this because there was no room at the inn. There was however room on the cross for Him, some years later.

 

On presenting him in the Temple, Simeon, a devout man dedicated the child, confirming that He would reveal God to Israel as well as the Gentiles.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A25+-+35&version=NIV

 

Around 12 years later, Jesus as a young man just prior to his Bar Mitzvah journeys with his family to Jerusalem:

 

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”  (Luke 2, NIV)

 

Jesus’ parents followed the law and followed the custom. Later in Scripture, Jesus often goes to the Synagogue, a custom he doubtless picked up from his parents.

 

His parents inadvertently leave Jesus behind at the Temple and I would imagine search frantically when they return to Jerusalem.

 

48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”[f] 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2, NIV)

 

It seems like at quite a young age, Jesus was already beginning to grasp larger things, that his Father was calling him, and yet was obedient to his parents.

 

As has been written before, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

Part 1: God breaks his prophetic silence

There are 24 hours in a day, 24 days in December until Christmas morning and 24 chapters of Luke in the New Testament book.

 

Franklin Graham on Twitter suggested reading a chapter a day before Christmas rolls around, and accordingly I found my nose in the Gospel of Luke. It has occurred to me recently that a large part of writing involves research and reading about either historical or contemporary context, especially if opinion is proffered.

 

I’ve been reading Luke slowly and methodically and have yet to catch up with the goal of a chapter a day. Luke is apparently the only Gentile (human) writer of a gospel. Trained as a physician, Luke seems to have spent a lot of time interviewing eyewitnesses – in particular Mary, Jesus’ mother – and collated the information in a very logical presentation. As a physician, he would have been trained in observation and methodology.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1%3A1+-+4&version=NIV

 

Nowadays, federal and local police dismiss eyewitnesses to public acts of criminality and the phrase ‘eyewitness’ takes on a taint of unreliability. This is true, but it also depends on the context when you consider a brief public event catches people unawares and if they are untrained they battle to recall what happened with any accuracy. If somebody wants an eyewitness to a period of my life and they ask my family for information, they will get a pretty good picture. Luke seems to have spoken with a lot of eyewitnesses and interviewed Mary extensively. It’s more than once that the Gospel of Luke refers to Mary pondering things in her heart. If I may extrapolate, it seems Mary kept a lot of deep things to herself, and Luke managed to draw some of that out.

 

Luke begins with the account of Christmas and the birth of John the Baptist:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1%3A8+-+25&version=NIV

 

Evidently at this time of history there were around 20 thousand priests and the priest to burn incense was decided by lot, essentially like a dice. It was very rare and a privilege to be the priest that burned incense in the temple. This would have been a once-in-a-lifetime for Zechariah. And it so happened that God used this occasion to reveal that Zechariah would have a son. To not have a child was seen is those days as to be missing a blessing that was common. Doubtless it weighed heavily on Zechariah and Elizabeth. From the account we learn that Zechariah had been praying for a child and up until this point it had remained a prayer without an answer.  This is an interesting co-incidence as the incense in the temple was seen as a symbol of prayers rising up to heaven.

 

As a priest, Zechariah would have been praying corporately for Israel and in accordance with the traditions of his caste. It is doubtful that Zechariah would have engaged in personal prayer for his needs at this time. Perhaps he and Elizabeth had once prayed for a son but had given up over time.

 

The angel announced that they would have a son named John. This buttresses the core idea of one of my favourite psalms: Psalm 139 which details God’s knowledge of the psalmist before he was even born. John the Baptist was already know to God before he was born, or even conceived. Zechariah expressed doubt we are told and as a consequence, he was rendered mute until the time came for John to be circumcised and named.

 

As priest, and after burning the incense, Zechariah needed to exit the holy place and pronounce the blessing over the congregation. But he was mute. The larger context of this is the fact that God had not spoken to his people through prophets or angels in around 400 years with the last minor prophet being Malachi.

 

Here an angel announces a new messenger, John, and Zechariah is mute. Mr Irony called and he wants his metaphor back.

 

He would also have to later tell his wife about the news that she would get pregnant and give birth. He couldn’t speak. Zechariah went home and ‘after this’ we are told, his wife became pregnant.

 

Can you imagine knowing that the next time you lie with your wife she will get pregnant? Knowing that it will be a son? Zechariah’s head must have been spinning. Becoming pregnant after years of hopelessness, Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months.

 

It would be in those five months where it would not be glaringly obvious that Elizabeth was pregnant. In other words, she would not be showing her pregnancy so obviously. So why the seclusion? Various commentaries suggest that she was almost counting her blessing and seeking God’s face in this time.

 

The angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah also visited Mary. In a deviation from how Zechariah received the news of his son in his older age, Mary was very receptive.

 

In a sign of how far down the slippery slope of the ridiculous that our society has fallen, a psychology professor from Minnesota suggested that God behaved in a predatory fashion towards Mary and that she could not have consented to the incarnation:

 

https://masscentral.com/minnesota-professor-says-the-virgin-mary-got-metoo-ed/

 

To me it’s not the blasphemy that’s surprising, but that someone with views this ridiculous is employed.

 

Forget the professor and contrast the reaction of Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was a priest, older and wiser in some ways, but more busted up by life and unfulfilled hopes. Mary was young and surprisingly Biblically and theologically literate. She asks a legitimate question of Gabriel but immediately agrees:

Angel

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

(Luke 1, NIV).

 

Later when she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, she offers praise which is reflective of themes in Hanna’s prayer as recorded in 1 Samuel 2:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A1+-+11&version=NIV

 

Mary’s song echoes Hannah’s prayer after Hannah discovers that she is about to have her first child by God’s will. Mary clearly knew Scripture and the account of Hannah and the significance of child birth in God’s plan and she identified with another woman whose story was chronicled in Scripture.

Gabriel’s Oboe

There was a very unusual news report doing the rounds last week about a young man trying to approach some remote islanders with a view to converting them to Christianity and getting killed by arrows or spears for his trouble.

https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/american-tourist-killed-by-bow-and-arrow-after-he-landed-on-a-remote-island-in-the-indian-ocean/news-story/7157ade6b6b9a1f69f140f74f9ab8b24

https://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/incidents/slain-us-missionarys-crazy-plan-to-convert-worlds-most-reclusive-tribe/news-story/c534292131d08a6e0e393837e0711c04

Reaction on social media from mainly liberal opinion was that this young man – John Allen Chau – was reckless and stupid for attempting contact with the North Sentinelese who a) could have been exposed to Western diseases, b) were in danger of colonization and having their unadulterated state corrupted (i.e they were better off being left alone) and c) and I quote “if you support what John Allen Chau attempted to do AND support the building of the wall, you’re a … hypocrite” and “White privilege at its finest. I have NO doubts he knew it was ILLEGAL to be on that island.” (Source: Twitter).

It seems clear from a cursory reading of social media that many, particularly in America, viewed Chau’s visit to the island through the lens of derision for Trump and domestic U.S. politics. However, that does not capture the larger picture.

My initial assessment on seeing the headlines was that Chau was reckless, however a reading of the underlying facts show that he had a good reason to be there and that he was careful and deliberate in how he tried to approach the North Sentinelese.

Chau’s attempt to reach this tribe evokes very strongly for me the opening scene of ‘The Mission’ (1986; distributed by Warner Bros.) where a Jesuit missionary is tied to a crude cross and tossed into the river which spills out into a fatal waterfall.

This murder of a Jesuit missionary leads to the next Jesuit missionary – Gabriel – to approach the tribe, announcing his presence in their jungle by playing an oboe.

Chau had made fleeting contact with the tribe before. Some of the tribe were seemingly okay with his gradual presence whereas others clearly were not. He had been recruited by an organisation named All Nations out of Kansas City, MO. They briefed him and explained the risks and sent him out.

https://allnations.us/about-us/vision-mission/

The Indian government in whose territorial waters this island is found forbade contact with the tribe, so he did commit an illegal act. Of course, the Indian government and people in its territorial waters falls under the jurisdiction of God and Chau therefore was on solid ground – Biblically – in adhering to a larger legal framework to reach out to these people.

From a Biblical standpoint, the Great Commission was given to Believers to make disciples of all nations. John Allen Chau knew the risks but he evaluated that the result may be worth it. The basis for All Nations to do what they do is the Lausanne covenant, an agreement to do everything possible to reach the world.

https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant

This in turn is based on the Great Commission: to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19) because ‘all authority under heaven and earth’ are given to Christ (verse 18), and in this He will be with the Believer (verse 20).

The island is reportedly the size of Manhattan, and the North Sentinelese have apparently dropped in number from 117 at their peak number to around 39 today according to estimates. The risk of a Western disease being introduced by a missionary is real but as the dwindling numbers of the tribe reflect, so is the inevitability of death and introduction to eternity.

My initial assessment was wrong. Chau was no cowboy, storming into town on his horse, raising a ruckus. He was doing the right thing in the way he knew how. Contact with the tribe had been established slowly over three years.

His murder evokes for me another narrative: that of Cain killing Abel, the first murder. Perhaps it’s the first murder on the island that we know about but it may not be the first murder on the island. Murder is a sign of a fallen human state. Advocacy groups suggest that the tribe is better off without contact with the outside world. At the risk of guessing I imagine groups like that believe civilization is a corrupting influence and the so-called ‘noble savage’ does exist in a pure state. The North Sentinelese are also descendants of Adam and Cain.

They are also in need of the message of salvation. 

Of China and cisterns

Let’s call the guy Stuart (not his real name).

 

This past week at Bible study, the congregation’s missionary at large, Stuart, was invited to speak about his time in China on short trips: what it was like, the people in China, the Christians and their struggles, what they’re getting right and wrong.

 

One of his most striking recollections was being invited to a large Buddhist temple, walking in and seeing the hopelessness of real-life human beings, bowing to and requesting help from a shiny metal figure.

 

The human beings are real and their needs are imminent but the so-called power or force they are appealing to is effectively, theologically, and practically nothing. That is all the motivation any missionary needs to keep doing what they’ve been doing.

 

And this is not a dig at the Buddhists and saying Christians are better. As Stuart noted, what they pray for is pretty much identical with what Christians in the West pray for: blessing, an absence of troubles, healing and help for their family.

 

I think immediately of Jesus’ teaching about prayer and his observation that pagans babble and try to get heavenly results through being loquacious and full of words. We are to approach a Heavenly father who already knows what we need.

 

China is so far apart from the West culturally and in many other ways, almost another world. Let’s journey over two thousand, six hundred years in the past, to the southern kingdom of Judah, before they are taken away by the Babylonians into captivity…

 

…God sends the prophet Jeremiah with a message to his people: He reminds them of when their relationship was like a honeymoon:

 

““I remember how eager you were to please me

as a young bride long ago,

how you loved me and followed me

even through the barren wilderness.” (Jeremiah 2:1b NLT)

Looking after good plants, uprooting the bad

In my mind’s projector room with reels of old movies, I picture a young couple, poor and unsophisticated but happy. Then the bride turned away, and God through Jeremiah asks Judah what he supposedly did to turn them to idolatry:

 

“This is what the Lord says:

“What did your ancestors find wrong with me

that led them to stray so far from me?

They worshiped worthless idols,

only to become worthless themselves.” (Jeremiah 2:5 NLT)

 

Inspired Jeremiah makes the point that for their faults, the pagan cultures tend to show loyalty to their gods (in reality, idols of wood, or metal that their hands have made).

 

The Canaanites had their Baal and they never got rid of that, never stopped with worship of this thing. The Philistines retained their worship of Dagon. And here Israel is, far more blessed to be in covenant with the real (Only) God and they forsake him for the senselessness of idols.

 

“Has anyone ever heard of anything

as strange as this?

11         Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones,

even though they are not gods at all?

Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God*

for worthless idols!” (Jeremiah 2:10b, 11 NLT)

 

And its at this point that God likens the senselessness to thirsty people eschewing a fresh spring in front of them and turning their backs to try build their own cisterns, basins hewn out of rock to catch and retain water.

 

For a people living in a semi-arid land, its crazy, and a perfect idiom:

 

“ “For my people have done two evil things:

They have abandoned me—

the fountain of living water.

And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns

that can hold no water at all!” (Jeremiah 2:13 NLT)

 

People – whether pagan, Israel, the Church – do illogical things. Imagine not taking advantage of a perfect spring to try building your own religion. I know people build religions because some of them are still here today with hundreds or thousands of years of error behind them. Having been conceived in error they only take their adherents further and further away from Truth.

 

Some are just more subtle than others.

 

It’s good to do what Lt Cmdr Data of Star Trek (Next Generation) often did and perform a self-diagnostic. Lately I’ve become aware that spending time meditating on Scripture is a good thing, like going back to the spring that brings life, pulling out the weeds, sweeping the nooks & crannies and setting things in their proper order.

Resilience

This past week marked 100 years since the ending of WWI. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

 

https://www.voanews.com/a/centenary-of-end-of-wwi-marked-with-paris-ceremony/4653587.html

 

WWI is all but forgotten – there are no known veterans alive from that ‘war to end all wars’. European leaders do well to commemorate the soldiers who fell, but even they inject current virtue signalling into the ceremony, like French President Macron who in complete abandonment of logic said that ‘patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism…nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.’

 

Sometimes, in trying to sound sophisticated, a person can end up making no sense at all. My take on WWI, and remembering what it means for me in 2018, is that often good men are ordered into harm’s way by political leaders with ulterior motives, but they end up accomplishing the right thing in the end.

 

Wars aren’t fought by the craven politicians who cause them but by the ordinary soldiers pressed into cleaning up the mess and I find it highly appropriate that in remembering WWI, people honor the fallen soldier and the veteran, rather than the president or prime minister. I read an article which suggested that Veterans day (also known as Armistice day) was a time to remember that America’s wars (or any war for that matter) is also a history of ‘political rascality’.

 

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-11-12/veterans-day-remember-lies-filled-military-cemeteries

 

Soldiers find themselves in a curious position where to succeed in their mission they have to suffer incalculable losses. Casualty figures do not account for lives and family left behind. In the build-up to Armistice day, the media were writing of heroic deeds a hundred years ago.

 

According to historical records (which may be embellished), the US Marines in the battle of Belleau Wood fought with such tenacity that the Germans were particularly impressed and gave them the nickname, ‘Teufelshunde’ – devil dogs.

 

While the nickname is distinctly unholy (referring to hounds from hell), the tenacity of US Marines is pictured as a bulldog, and it does make me wonder what drove those soldiers to be so tough and take such hits in service of the mission?

 

If I may presume to answer, if I know anything at all about veterans from the books of Stephen Ambrose and others, soldiers simply want to get the job done as quickly as possible to get to go home in time for Christmas – of any given year.

 

Don’t we all feel sometimes like soldiers facing a front with implacable enemies in superior number? What keeps the Christian soldier going?

 

The first available answer is commitment to the mission. Purity of purpose. In 2 Corinthians 7, in the context of God’s promises for us, Paul tells the Corinthians: ‘since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.’ (verse 1, NIV).

 

Where does this start? I like David’s perspective after drifting from God:

 

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, NIV)

 

What it reduces down to is a plea for God to do a work, because we cannot ourselves.

 

When asking God to ‘create’ a new heart in him, David uses the same word used in the first chapter of Genesis in verse 3, where God creates the universe out of nothingness (ex nihilo). David recognised that you can’t tighten the bolts and slap on some Polyfilla and paint. The heart cannot be reformed; a new heart is needed. A miracle.

 

A steadfast spirit that David also asked for refers to continual reliance on God. After the miracle comes the maintaining work by God.

 

https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/psalm-51/

 

As Christians, we may get the grudging respect of those who oppose God, but that isn’t relevant. If we have begun to follow Him, it is because of a pure heart, created in place of the old one.

A bunch of first dates

A headline on an article online caught my eye recently.

 

Which means that the author did a good job of enticing the reader (me); I like clever turns of phrase and complex ideas distilled into snappy headlines. What you think about when presented with a headline like this?

 

“Are you in a real relationship with God, or just going on a bunch of first dates?”

 

https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/are-you-in-a-real-relationship-with-god-or-just-going-on-a-bunch-of-first-dates

 

As the author, Christen Limbaugh Bloom, writes: she typically in prayer ‘prayed AT Him, never waiting to hear what He said back.’ In a relationship we’re supposed to listen as well as talk.

 

To be fair, most of us probably don’t take the time to listen. After all, there is so much to do and so little time to do it, especially around November and December.

 

You might think that Christmas is a season when we draw closer to God. I humbly submit that you’d be wrong. In general, we get more frazzled and busy and tend to focus on other things. Although, it’s not merely about Christmas.

In this past week God reminded me that I’m supposed to be serious about him and not compromised with worldliness. And that holds true for all Believers.

 

In looking up supporting studies for the idea that the Christian should not love the world, I came across an oldie from John Piper:

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/do-not-love-the-world

 

In summary, “The commandment is, “Don’t love the world or the things in the world.” The first incentive is that if you love the world, you don’t love God. The second incentive is that if you love the world, you will perish with the world. And the third incentive is that if you love God instead of the world, you will live with God forever.”

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+John+2%3A15+-+17&version=NIV

 

I came across another article which examines characteristics of worldly believers and looks at this through the example of Lot. It saddens me to think of Christians living in a state where they lack intimacy with God, have compromised morals, lack spiritual influence, lack fear of God and are reluctant to give up sin.

 

https://bible.org/seriespage/10-characteristics-worldly-believers-friends-world-genesis-19

 

The state that describes Lot (and worldly Christians) is arrived at incrementally. Small compromises. Listening to a Chris Tomlin song this week, I was reminded that the world corrupts us but can never love us, and will thus always be unfulfilling.

 

We should eschew the world and the things of the world and re-orient ourselves with Him and see the love that He has for us.

 

Sunday’s sermon just past, based on the first chapter of Isaiah also reinforced the message for me that we need to take a step back and look at the things we are doing, the way we are living and ask questions and then correct course to align ourselves more with Him. It’s easy to be led incrementally away from Him towards the world. The world is a magnet, but if we take ourselves briefly out of our milieu we can track towards true North again.

 

From Colin’s sermon on Sunday (DCC, 28/10/2018): In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet receives a vision of Judah and Jerusalem, God’s people and God’s city (verse 1). God’s point is that the people have rebelled and are more clueless than an ox or a donkey, which at least knows it’s Master and its Master’s household (verse 3).

 

The children of God were putting themselves in harm’s way, not dissimilar from the stars of the sophomoric move ‘Jackass’. The picture is one of a people injured, busted heads, wounds, welts, sores (verses 5 and 6). A self-inflicted wound from not doing things His way.

 

In verse 10, God calls them ‘rulers of Sodom’ and ‘people of Gomorrah’, which would likely have shocked Israel.

 

God tells them that he’s had enough of their religious rituals and sacrifices (verses 11 to 15). It’s become institutional and muscle memory. Would it be unfair of me to compare it to us during Christmas, assuming that we miss the point, we miss the Christ and busy ourselves with ritual?

 

God wants action, correction (verses 16 to 18): we need to (a) purify ourselves, (b) stop doing wrong, (c) do right, (d) seek justice and stand up for the oppressed and (e) meet with God to make things right. (Isaiah 1, NIV).

 

The language and sentiments might seem strong, but I realised that God wants us to be better than a clueless people, wallowing in slop and mud. He wants us clean.

 

Just this week I was reading Hebrews 12, which details how as children of His, he disciplines us sometimes, corrects us, puts us back on the narrow road, not because He is a Regimental Sergeant Major, but because we are His children.

 

Chris Tomlin’s song is a glorious unpacking of His motivation for getting our attention and correcting our course:

 

 

We are not to be on a level where it’s ‘a bunch of first dates’ with Him. He’s committed to us and the proper response to grace is genuine acceptance, genuine praise. And he will sort out the rest.

Onverwacht

In a cabin on a windswept mountain top in the sticks outside McGregor, the wind blows incessantly in gusts that evoke a great lung. The only respite is indoors.

I don’t normally do selfies, but the view was so good this time.

The sun stabs the eyes as it peeks over the near horizon and the shadows are stark.

Shadows

A person can easily wonder what it may have been like on top of Mount Horeb when Moses ascended to meet with G-d.

 

It feels like danger is ever present, getting to this remote place on winding roads, the hiking trails that creep close to an edge.

Long way down

Perhaps it is the proximity to sudden death that focuses the mind on staying alive by being careful.

So remote, feels like the rest of the world is far away

One thing Moses did not have to concern himself with is kids on the mountain with him. Not having to worry about kids  on a mountain would make it 70 times easier  to quiet the mind and get in touch with G-d.

 

Connectivity to a network is unreliable,  the cares of Washington D.C.,  New York, the goings on in a Saudi consulate in Turkey don’t flood the device. Its more of a trickle.

View from my ‘office’

Without a television set, you sort of have to look at the mountains all around. Without meaning to, your thoughts do tend to vector upward:

G-d who made the mountains, but for whom the mountains are not at all intimidating.

Beautiful sunset

First thing on this Saturday morning I  have my devotion and the Writer is asking questions:

From a spiritual standpoint,  what are you hungry for? I’m hungry for my existence to have significance within the Kingdom. I’m hungry to find G-d in the situations where I wouldn’t ordinarily be looking for Him, or even receptive to Him.

Do you think G-d is able to fill that hunger daily? The question presumes the answer. Of course He can. Its apparent that I will always be the weak link. I have an intention to connect with G-d as I traverse the parking lot at work, and then before I realise it its 15h00 and the working day is drawing to a close. Where did all the thinking about G-d go?

Why is it important to read G-d’s word daily? Without it,  our souls would be starving.

Morning on the mountain

My eyes keep on running over the contours of the mountains before me, like my tongue runs over my teeth to check the dental geography. The giant lung starts up again after 20 minutes of relative peace before. Looking at the mountains, I feel small, as I should.

Everywhere you go, just rocks

And I realise He is very big.

 

Oktober is die mooiste maand

If we were in Pretoria, October would be described in a poem by C. Louis Leipoldt as the prettiest month of the year, “die mooiste maand”.

 

The second month of spring, flowers would be in bloom and South Africa’s capital city would be full of colour.

 

For those with sensitive noses and hay fever, October in Pretoria would probably not be the most awesome time of the year.

 

October saw the 1917 revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin which was ultimately responsible for untold human misery and suffering. Not all seeds bloom into something good.

 

The idea of a seed germinating and sprouting into a mature plant is in keeping with a phrase in prayer that has emerged lately as I seek Him: that He would send out workers into the harvest field. The harvest field is out there and the fields are ripe for harvest, souls that are ready to believe in Him.

 

In the U.S. this past month, I have closely followed the Senate confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh and it all came to a dramatic conclusion last Saturday with a narrow vote to confirm. In the Twitterverse, everyone was talking about it.

 

At the same time this was happening, Franklin Graham was in Monterey, Mexico holding a rally and sending out an invitation to the unsaved.

 

I would guess very few were paying attention. All eyes were on Washington D.C. And yet, this was where the action was really happening.

 

It is proper for the Believer to pray for all those in authority who rule over him or her, whether in the legislative, executive or judiciary:

 

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1 – 2, NIV)

 

This is a matter of being able to live in peace, on earth. Of more importance however are eternal concerns, and Franklin Graham was right in the thick of it:

 

“Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:38, NIV).

A brewski for the good judge

I was backing Justice Kavanaugh – I thought he was sand-bagged pretty badly by the Democrats, and I just don’t buy that he did what he was accused of. The truth, whatever it may be, always comes out.

 

However in church on Sunday following the Senate vote, I was reminded that the Supreme Court and the constitution – of any country – is a temporary thing in the light of eternity.

 

I watched the protesting mobs wailing like banshees and howling like lunatics, a picture for me of people who seek a judge to rule the way they want. Boy, would they be surprised on meeting the absolute Judge.

 

Our Judge is also the architect of our salvation, something for which we will be eternally grateful.

Ambassadors 2018

This past Sunday the sermon was built around the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians, and Paul’s exploration of the role of the Christian as God’s new creation and ambassador.

 

The idea of being an ambassador is part of a long-standing journey on my part: I was part of a year-of-your-life ministry outreach called ‘Ambassadors’ based on this very passage that Paul wrote.

 

The Ambassador program was simultaneously awkward and awesome and provided a valuable lesson: that my calling was not to the hinterlands of Africa. At least not at that time or since, with the caveat that He may call anyone (including me) anywhere at any time in the future.

 

That was 1997 and a lot of proverbial water has churned its way under the bridge. I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t have to be in darkest Africa, that every Believer is called to be an ambassador wherever they are. Imagine being a Christian trying to minister to the swamp creatures in Washington D.C. now as the Kavanaugh-Ford debacle is unfolding…D.C. seems way darker than Africa right now, and it’s more of a crucible and seems infinitely more difficult to walk the narrow path in the back-stabbing halls and conspiratorial ante-rooms of the Senate.

 

And so to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians:

 

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:” (2 Corinthians 5; NIV)

 

We are new creations and no longer simply citizens of earthly countries: we are citizens of God’s kingdom. He is our King; we are His subjects, His people. Not merely in terms of our citizenship, we are new beings in a way we never were before. Where we were naturally alive, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are also now spiritually alive.

 

The King desires that all men are reconciled and so He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

 

I got to thinking about the word ‘ministry’. It denotes something serious, an undertaking of an organisational body like a government that proposes a way to run an aspect of society. There are ministries of serious things like foreign affairs, health, education, trade and industry, and agriculture.

 

There is a British record label that imitates an official government office: the Ministry of Sound:

 

https://www.ministryofsound.com/

 

There is a Monty Python sketch that lampoons the British impulse to organise society with the most trivial matters: The Ministry of Silly Walks:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV2ViNJFZC8

Ministry of food, one of my favourites

We have been given a ministry, not with strictly earthly parameters, but with a view to eternity, a ministry of reconciliation. A sermon by Stephen Funderburk I found online distills the whole idea as follows:

 

“Paul sees the work of Jesus Christ on the cross as a mandate for all believers to share this good news. He defines it as a ministry of reconciliation. We have the call to share Christ where people who are the enemies of God, can now through Christ be made the friends of God through Jesus.”

 

“…we don’t see ourselves as just church folks, members or weekend warriors. We see ourselves as constantly on the mission field. Everywhere we go we have this treasure in earthen vessels. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world, but across the street, on the jobsite, at school or anywhere you have the opportunity to share the message of salvation. Freely you have received, freely give.”

 

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/ministry-of-reconciliation-stephen-funderburk-sermon-on-growth-in-christ-105434

 

Wherever we are, there is the mission field.

 

Paul continues: “20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5; NIV)

 

Chris Patton proposes a definition of an ambassador that I like and I think is accurate:

 

“An ambassador is a dignitary whose full-time job is to live for a period (usually years) in a foreign land, intentionally building relationships with the people native to that land and purposefully representing to those people the desires of his king.”

 

https://www.christianfaithatwork.com/ambassador-christ-meaning/

 

I think of those who if they saw the Lord walking down the street, would cross the road to walk on the other side, pretending that they didn’t see Him; those living in sexual sin, Islamic ignorance, atheist apathy. It isn’t hatred to make the observation that people need to repent and leave ignorance, sin and apathy behind. It’s an invitation to grace.

 

That is the very serious and very necessary ministry of reconciliation that we are tasked with as Christians.

 

To those who crossed the road to avoid Him: with Paul, I say, ‘be reconciled to God!’

 

To my fellow believers: stand strong in these days, be deliberate as an ambassador.