The Good Old Ways

Take a moment to read Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

old-age-sticks-and-modernism-2-1-728

Image from: https://www.slideshare.net/Louendi/old-age-sticks-and-modernism-2

Classic One-Liners About Age

* Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving. Author Unknown

* I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes. Andy Rooney

* When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of algebra. Will Rogers

* I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.

* Whatever you may look like, marry a man your own age — as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight. Phyllis Diller
* Bottom of Form

He’s so old that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

* When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick. George Burns

* You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

* It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-blumenthal/aging-comedy_b_1128087.html

This morning I want to draw particular attention to our summary statement:

God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.

          The paradoxical thing about that statement is that while it true that joy is a gift, it is also a pursuit.  This is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wants us to understand.  It’s not enough to wait around for joy to fall on you, each of us is to pursue the things that are God-given sources of joy.  Effort and intention are necessary for experiences of joy.

We need to also acknowledge the other half of that sentence.  Trials are also gifts from God.  They hurt in varying degrees, but are also rich resources, deep wells of experience that train us much better than joyous experiences do.  Trials help us mature graciously.  We’re not to simply grow old, but our aim is to grow in our spiritual maturity as we age.  Age and maturity aren’t necessarily the same thing.

To help in that line, I want us to take a look at a passage from the OT book of Ecclesiastes.  The author of this book identifies himself only as “the Preacher,” so that is how we will refer to him.  Let’s look together at the Preacher’s comments on aging and see if our thesis holds true.

  1. Let all ages enjoy life (11:7-8).

Given the cloudy, wet weather we’ve endured lately, we can appreciate the statement in v. 7; LIGHT IS SWEET.  It is true of all people – to one degree or another – we need sunlight.  Extensive deprivation causes low energy, depression, etc.  The phrase IT PLEASES THE EYES TO SEE THE SUN is a description of human nature, as is the majority of this passage.

LIGHT is a metaphor of youth and the joys the young can enjoy more fully than the aged; it is SWEET.  LIGHT also stands in contrast with the DAYS OF DARKNESS in verse eight.

The LIGHT-DARKNESS contrast is also a symbol of how human life can progress.  The Preacher looks at youth (the LIGHT years) from a wistful perspective and here catalogs all that age has taken from him in the “dark” years.

The point/counterpoint of LIGHT and DARKNESS reminds us to be temperate; to not be too attached to either the joyous or sorrowful moments.  We need to avoid being defined by our best days or our worst ones.

Verse eight brings a mix of good and bad news, mostly bad.  That’s how Ecclesiastes often seems to us; a surplus of bad news.

The good news is that all ages are called to joy.  However long life lasts, make your days a pursuit of joy even as you overcome trials.

The bad news is that we experience DAYS OF DARKNESS.  To REMEMBER this fact is to keep our perspective in balance.  The pursuit of joy is not to consume every conscious thought, nor is it supposed to take us in the paths of evil.  The Preacher warns us there will be MANY DAYS OF DARKNESS.  This is realism, not pessimism, though the Preacher goes back and forth across that line throughout this book.

  1. Let the young be happy but mindful that life ends with JUDGMENT (11:9-10; 12:1).

The Preacher gave five reasons to go ahead and enjoy our youth.  These are not a license to do sinful or stupid things, but a recognition that it is wise to store up a trove of joy in your heart and memory, especially while you are young.  These memories will help you get through DARK days.

The first four reasons are quite obvious and need no commentary:

BE HAPPY.

LET YOUR HEART GIVE YOU JOY.

FOLLOW THE WAYS OF YOUR HEART.

BANISH ANXIETY FROM YOUR HEART.

The fifth, however, requires a little explanation.  CAST OFF THE TROUBLES OF YOUR BODY means to not allow any weakness of body to inhibit the flight of your spirit and mind.  Be ambitious in ways that go around your physical limitations.

The Preacher listed three things to keep in mind during good times.  The first is to remember GOD WILL BRING YOU TO JUDGMENT (3:17; 9:1; 11:9; 12:14). Choices always have consequences.

On one hand, consequences are one of the primary means for parents to train children and our heavenly Father to train all of us.  The person who remembers this will avoid sinful behavior.  On the other hand, it is a virtue to seek joy.  A 3rd century rabbi named Rab commented, “Man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy.”  It is a sin to ignore God’s blessings.  What’s called for here is a balanced perspective, one that tempers both joy and sorrow.

The second is to realize YOUTH & VIGOR ARE MEANINGLESS. Young people can feel “10’ tall & bulletproof,” but life has a habit of disabusing us of such illusions.  The optimism and vitality of youth do not, by themselves, create anything of eternal value.

The third is to REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR.  Be appropriately grateful for your life and don’t abuse it or give it up.

In this passage there are three times (11:8+10; 12:8) the Preacher reminds us the things of the world are MEANINGLESS.  We know how that word feels, we also need to know what it meant.  In Ecclesiastes, MEANINGLESS means “a fleeting breath.”  It is also translated as “vanity” because it is temporary, not eternal.  It is subject to frustration because it is worldly, not heavenly.

The Preacher used the word repeatedly.  It was his verdict on the things of this life; the sum of his experiences and the conclusion of his thinking.  In chapter twelve, the Preacher examines how the physical and mental limitations sometimes imposed by age can frustrate us.  Better to make all the progress in spirituality we can before the limitations of advanced age make it harder.

  1. Let the aged be remembered (12:1-8).

Old age is a serious subject, referred to here as THE DAYS OF TROUBLE.  Even so, the Preacher approaches it with a sense of humor that is expressed in eleven clever metaphors of troubles that are typical to the aged.  The preface to the word pictures is a statement that sums up our feelings about the DAYS OF DARKNESS: “I FIND NO PLEASURE IN THEM.”  There are a number of different ways to interpret these word pictures; what I offer are examples; they’re not being offered as exclusive definitions.  One other caveat: not all aged persons experience all these symptoms and modern medicine has invented several ways to relieve these typical limitations brought on by aging.

One = SUN, LIGHT, MOON, STARS GO DARK, CLOUDS RETURN AFTER THE RAIN (2) and LOOKING THROUGH THE WINDOWS GROWS DIM (3) refer to a gradual loss of vision.  Or they may refer to the passing of the seasons and how the weather becomes progressively more difficult to live with: spring is easy, winter hard.

Two = THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (legs) TREMBLE and STRONG MEN (arms) STOOP (3) remind us of how weak limbs and stooping are stereotypes of aging.

Three = GRINDERS CEASE BECAUSE THEY ARE FEW (3) references loss of teeth.  Oy, am I there!  My dentist wants me to put all my money where my mouth is!

Four = DOORS TO THE STREET ARE CLOSED (4) notes how some old folks come to prefer solitude to socializing; the repeated loss of family and friends can have that effect on a person.  Also, diminished senses of sight and hearing can leave a person feeling left out of conversations and understandably less interested in being among people, especially large groups of them.

Five = THE SOUND OF GRINDING FADES AND SONGS GROW FAINT (4) describe a gradual loss of hearing.

Six = MEN RISE AT THE SOUND OF BIRDS (4) is akin to our phrase “up with t chickens,” which is a vestigial habit of rising early, being trained to rise at a certain hour all our working years.  This may also imply a problem with insomnia, more common among the aged than the young.

Seven = AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND DANGERS IN THE STREETS (5) looks to the added intensity of fear among the aged.  Of course, people of all ages feel anxiety but it more often comes with advancing age because repeated experiences of trials can make us feel wary.  Worse, a symptom of dementia and other mental illness is unfounded fears.

Eight = THE ALMOND TREE BLOSSOMS (5) are white, like an aged person’s hair.  “Snow on the roof” is a modern expression observing the same phenomena in a polite expression.

Nine = THE GRASSHOPPER DRAGS HIMSELF ALONG (5).  We’ve all seen how bugs get sluggish when the weather turns cold.  We’ve also seen how arthritis and other illnesses typical to the aged can slow folks down.

Ten = DESIRE IS NO LONGER STIRRED (5) at varying ages, libido is trumped by the need/desire for a good night’s sleep.  More broadly, the passions of youth typically give way to a more deliberate and temperate emotional nature as we mature.

Eleven = MAN GOES TO HIS ETERNAL HOME AND MOURNERS GO ABOUT THE STREETS (5) refers to the end of life.  The culture of the day required wailing and expressions of grief most of us would consider extreme.  In fact, by Jesus’ time, people would earn a living as professional mourners, performing these dramatic acts of mourning so the busy family members could get on with their daily routines!

In light of the DAYS OF DARKNESS, the young are to REMEMBER the aged.  “Remembering” means to attend to the aged and honor them in their troubles.  The young are to REMEMBER HIM (the aged) BEFORE death occurs, for death is inevitable and irreversible. We are given six word pictures of death here.

One, THE SLIVER CORD IS SEVERED.  This CORD held up an oil lamp.  Once severed, the lamp would crash to the floor and break.

Two, THE GOLDEN BOWL IS SHATTERED; a broken lamp will no longer give light to the room.

Three, THE PITCHER IS SHATTERED.  A broken pitcher is of no use in carrying water.

Four, THE WHEEL IS BROKEN.  If the pulley used to draw water from the well breaks, getting water has become much more difficult.

Five, THE DUST RETURNS TO THE GROUND refers to the creation of Adam from dust and to the decomposition of a body when buried (3:18-21).

Six, THE SPIRIT RETURNS TO GOD reminds us that life itself is a gift from God.  God alone determines birth and death; all life is His to command.  This is more reason to keep our focus on Him.

As serious as they are, the trials of the aged are also MEANINGLESS.  That is, they are temporary.  The only parts of life that endure are the maturity created in the person and the good works we do.

When reading Ecclesiastes, we need to keep in mind that it belongs to a kind of revelation called “wisdom literature.”  The writer did not claim to be a prophet, but used reasoning to persuade his reader to a godly perspective.  He did not wield the authority of “thus says the LORD,” but instead asks, “What do you think about this?”

We should also remember that all parts of Scripture interpret one another.  No single verse or section stands alone to support doctrine.  Instead, our most central beliefs are woven together from the strands of many scriptures.

All that to say this: don’t neglect reading Ecclesiastes because it seems negative.  The Preacher’s observations are included in the Bible to help us form a rational basis for our faith and to weave together personal experience and divine revelation.

When you come down to it, this passage is a matter of time.  In the life span of a human being, we reach the height of our power when ability is at its peak, matched by the breadth of opportunity.

In this case, the Preacher’s observations lend support to our belief that God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.  If we believe God is in charge, then we must accept this essential truth.  The alternatives are to blame the devil for all trials (not true), or to blame randomness (not true).

With God in charge, every experience has some meaning that transcends the moment and offers us at least one lesson to be learned for the deepening of our maturity.  When we believe God is in charge, we understand that everything He does is motivated by love and that it will all work out for good.  If we believe anything else, then the situation is really more hopeless than anything the Preacher described in Ecclesiastes.  Faith in God is the only choice that offers hope for the future and gives meaning to our past and present.

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As If in a Dream

Please read Psalm 126 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I prefer the NIV (1984) and used it to prepare these remarks.

Joy comes with God’s renewal of His people.

 Joy

       I hear concerns raised about how the Church in America is losing its influence on popular culture.  There are lots of reasons offered but I think it’s our impaired sense of humor that is a reason I don’t hear being discussed much.  We excel at “mourning with those who mourn,” but are morose about “laughing with those who laugh.”

          Realize two things: One, among all the beliefs on the face of the Earth, the Christian faith gives the greatest reasons for joy.  Two, the Bible is a book that is full of life and a great deal of what it has to say is couched in humor.

I could go on and on with examples and explanations, but it’s such a chore and time is limited, so let me offer just one example.  The humor of the Bible is situated in a time and culture that is very distant from our own.  Humor is something that is very dependent on the moment.  Have you ever related something funny that happened to you and got a deadpan reaction?  What do we say in response but, “I guess you had to be there?”

William Shakespeare wrote a number of comedies.  But to modern audiences, it’s hard to get the joke, especially when reading it.  Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre and one of Britain’s most celebrated Shakespearean directors, said topical comedy dates “very quickly”, leaving the meaning lost to history.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11694297/William-Shakespeares-jokes-are-just-not-funny-Sir-Richard-Eyre-admits.html

More recently, here are some 19th century American jokes, tell me what you think:
“If conceit were consumption, he’d be dead a long time ago!”
“They say that too many minors have enlisted in the army, however I think that some of the minors are doing better than some of the Majors.”

“What’s the difference between a drunkard and a condemned man? One takes a drop to live and the other takes a drop to die.”

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-old-jokes-that-were-considered-hilarious-in-their-time-but-would-fall-flat-before-most-modern-early-21st-century-audiences

Not exactly side splitting stuff, right?  So we need Bible scholars to tell us why Bible humor was humorous, how Jesus’ reference to a plank in your eye was probably LOL to His peeps.  After all, we don’t have a “laugh track” to tell us which are the funny parts.

But let there be no mistake that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of JOY and its perfectly obvious.  Let’s start with today’s text.

  1. Praise God for a dream fulfilled. (126:1-3)

The text offers four very descriptive signs of joy.

Joy Sign #1: WE WERE LIKE MEN WHO DREAMED.  We think of “dreams” as visions we receive while sleeping and as visions we realize while awake.

Normally, dreams are simply ways our subconscious ways our minds try to work out waking problems while we sleep.  God created dreams as a psychological “safety valve.”  Biblically, God has used dreams to reveal His will.  There is no indication in the Bible that God has ceased to do this.

On the other hand, we express our aspirations in order to give inspiration to others.  We need to be cautious here to not mix up our will with God’s.  Self-deception comes so easily we must submit these aspirations to the scrutiny of the church for affirmation.  Especially when we envision ways to do God’s will, the fulfillment of our DREAMS brings a special and abiding kind of JOY.  What we have here is a JOY so intense it feels dream-like, “too good to be true.”

Joy Sign #2: OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER.  This phrase describes people who were giddy with joy, a happiness that demanded expression, one that could not be denied.  Laughter is not a sign of immaturity nor is it unspiritual if it flows out of godly joy.  The morality depends on what inspires a person to laugh: what’s in their heart at that moment.

Joy Sign #3: OUR TONGUES WITH SONGS OF JOY.  Like laughter, singing is a way we spontaneously express our JOY.  Wouldn’t it be great if life were more like a musical comedy?  We could express our JOY with singing and dancing, backed by a full orchestra!

Joy Sign #4: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY.  They were FILLED, even to the point of overflowing, with JOY!  Anyone who doesn’t desire this level of JOY in their life is missing a vital part of a living, maturing faith.   To me there is a parallel between being FILLED WITH JOY and being Filled with the Spirit.

As verse two testifies even the pagan NATIONS noticed what God had done.  They offer the testimony of a “hostile witness” which carries extra weight because they have nothing to gain by misstatement or exaggeration.

We also need to understand the times.  People of this age were superstitious and tied their gods to their national identity.  For example, when your nation won a war, it was thought to be proof that your god was more powerful than your enemy’s.  In this instance, when the Babylonians conquered the people of Judah, the NATIONS concluded that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Jew’s God, Yahweh.

This means God allowed His name to be slandered among the nations in order to discipline His people.  On the other hand, later, when the people of Judah were allowed to come home, that was seen as their God’s triumph over the gods of Babylon.

Here’s what the NATIONS concluded: “THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM.” (2)

Here’s the people of God agreeing with the pagan NATIONS; THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US. (2)

Here’s the result: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. (2)

This joy was not from the pampered and comfortable, but from those who were CAPTIVES in Babylon.  There is a spontaneous kind of JOY that comes like a clap of thunder.  It is often undeserved or at least unexpected, and it departs as suddenly as it disappears.  There is also the kind of JOY that abides with you.  It comes as a sense of satisfaction after a good work well done.  It settles on your heart and warms it.  It stays with you, to some degree, and recurs when you recall the circumstances.  The first kind is exciting, the second kind, encouraging.

Those persons who, after 70 years of captivity, endured and then returned to their homeland experienced the first kind of joy when the news was announced and the second kind when the returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who remained faithful in spite of what it cost them.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who stood against the seemingly impossible odds, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to a set of ruins.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who persevered against the elements and their enemies to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

This is how life works for all of us, folks.  The worldly culture around us offers flashes of happiness in return to submitting to the captivity of their “groupthink” and the slavery to sinful appetites that is called “consumerism.” Not content to only offer distractions, the world also actively opposes faith; it belittles and battles genuine devotion to God.

We will know divine JOY when we ignore the distractions and remain faithful when we face persecutions.  This is a depth of JOY as described in this passage that the world will NEVER be able to give.

  1. A prayer for dreamers. (126:4-6)

When dreams come true, there is still work to be done.  When the initial joy of hearing that they COULD return to Jerusalem, then the realization of what that would take set in.  That’s why the passage makes the sudden jump from JOY to pleading with God.

RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD, sounds to me like a plea, a heartbroken prayer spoken when the ruins of Jerusalem were finally in sight.  Imagine how those returning from exile must have felt when they saw all the work and struggle that lay before them.  As people of faith, they cried out to God to help them do what, to worldly eyes, must’ve looked impossible.  Don’t let the word FORTUNES throw you; this is not a plea for prosperity as much as it is a desperate prayer for survival!

Historically, we know the returning exiles had to overcome a great deal of adversity to rebuild their land: lack of shelter, opposition from neighboring nations; the insecurity of the lack of suitable defenses; raiders; locusts; bad harvests; an extended drought; mountainous problems inflicted by both man and nature.  They had no idea what they’d got themselves into when they arrived, but they knew enough to prompt this crying out to God.

LIKE THE STREAMS OF THE NEGEV refers to a common experience of the people.   In that climate, streams and rivers can dry up completely.  One might not even recognize a riverbed when walking on it.  However, when the rainy season arrived, flash floods were common and the streams would be restored, full of water.

This would have been a common experience in the NEGEV, a desert area in the southeast part of modern-day Israel.  The people felt like a desert-dry stream bed, so they prayed that God would RESTORE them and fill them with life, just as He did with the dry streams in the desert.

In spite of the intimidating task before them, the returnees had hope.  They trusted in God, and from that trust came this promise expressed twice in vs. 5+6.

THOSE WHO SOW IN TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY.

HE WHO GOES OUT WEEPING, CARRYING SEED TO SOW, WILL RETURN WITH SONGS OF JOY, CARRYING SHEAVES WITH HIM.

The TEARS and WEEPING are the physical signs of great sorrow.  They are the trails of trials that track down our face when we have to face opposition and obstacles.

If we think of them as “seeds” we can be assured these sorrows are designed to ensure a fruitful future.  We’d prefer a gentler, kinder, experience, but that’s not the way the world works.

In ancient cultures, sowing a seed was a symbol of burial and came to be associated with grief over a death.  Both Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (1CT 15:36) used this imagery to teach about life overcoming death.  Trust that the seed will grow; that with the harvest, there will be SONGS OF JOY.

I read a provocative statement in an article entitled “Three Absolute Truths that Determine the Harvest,” by Dr. George Bannister.  He wrote, “It has been said that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we are ‘A harvest oriented denomination in a unseeded generation.’”

His point was that there can be no harvest without sowing.  It is not enough for churches to keep their doors open and expect people to seek us out and step through them.

Ken Ham made a similar point in his new book Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant.  We are living in a culture that is ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture.  The culture has dismissed the Bible as irrelevant and disregarded sin as a relative to the situation.  The Church in America is stuck in a mode where we’re answering questions no one is asking, using language they don’t understand, referencing things that have largely disappeared from our culture, except as objects of ridicule.

We want the joy of salvation.  There is no joy in this life that is sweeter than helping someone find Jesus as their Savior.  If we are to know this joy, we must plant those seeds.  There is an unmistakable connection between joyful reaping and passionate seed-sowing.

God announced this principle in Galatians 6:7, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: a man reaps whatever he sows.”  We can resist this cultural trend in media and politics, but the forces allied against us have the advantage in those areas.  Our advantage is the power of God and the truth.  These advantages are most influential in personal relationships.  Rather than assault the culture directly, it makes more sense for us to put the majority of our effort into establishing relationships and making friends with those outside our faith.

 

RESOURCES:

The Daily Study Bible Series, George A.F. Knight

Bible Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown

The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Lawrence E. Toombs

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce

https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/110191-three-absolute-truths-that-determine-the-harvest

Big Problem, Bigger God

david v goliath

With God, NO PROBLEM is insurmountable.

Please read 1 Samuel 15-17 as set-up to this message.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks, but it’s not required.

          Some of you will remember Art Linkletter’s TV show, “Kids say the Darndest Things.”  (The rest of you will Google it.)  On one of these shows, Linkletter asked what lesson we can learn from the story of David and Goliath.

From one of the kids, Linkletter received a one-word reply: “Duck!”

https://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/kids/what-is-the-lesson-of-david-and-goliath.html

Here’s a set of kid jokes based on David versus Goliath.

Q: Who is the greatest babysitter mentioned in the Bible?
A: David – he rocked Goliath to sleep.
Q: Why was Goliath so surprised when David hit him with a slingshot?
A: The thought had never entered his head before.
Q: If Goliath is resurrected, would you like to tell him that joke?
A: No, he already fell for it once.

http://www.bible-study-online.juliantrubin.com/biblejokes/davidgoliathjokes.html

In my personal devotions earlier this week I discovered that when you read the whole account in one sitting, you get a different perspective on the account of David squaring off against Goliath.  I later discovered that in all my years of ministry I have NEVER preached on this passage.  With all that background, let me start by setting the fighters in their corners & we’ll see what God develops.

  1. In this corner, at nine feet, nine inches, 668 pounds, the Philistine champion, the “Gath Giant,” GOLIATH!

What do we know about Goliath?

The text tells us he was from Gath (4), a city we are unable to precisely locate.  The phrase OUT OF THE PHILISTINE CAMP (4) leaves open the possibility that Goliath was no Philistine, only employed by their army.  The Bible talks about three different races of giants.  Goliath may have been one of these peoples who were among the original settlers of Canaan (see Joshua 11:22).

He was a great deal taller than average (anywhere from 6’1” to 9’9”, depending on a couple variables).  Average height of the time being a mere 5’ to 5’3”, that leaves a lot of room on the upper scale. Goliath’s size and his armaments were meant to be intimidating.  Verses three to seven tell us how big and shiny his battle dress was.

What hope did the Israelites have of defeating him?  No military hope.

The challenge Goliath issued was perfectly in order with the customs of the time.  It may sound crazy to have armies staring across a valley at each other at all, let alone for 40 days (that may’ve been an above-average wait time).  Obviously, with a giant like Goliath as their champion, the offer to avoid all-out war by means of a challenge looked like a safe bet for the Philistines to win.

If intimidation was the Philistines’ tactic (I think it was), it worked: the Israelites were thoroughly intimidated.  Over the course of FORTY DAYS none of the Israelite soldiers took up his challenge (16).  They may have seethed under his insults, but none of them dared to step into the valley.  Worse, the text says the soldiers were all DISMAYED AND TERRIFIED (11).  The Philistines must’ve been grinning from ear to ear when young David was finally set forth as the Israelite champion (37 + 41).

  1. In the other corner, at four feet, eleven and a quarter inches, 92 pounds, the “Slingin’ Shepherd,” DAVID!

What do we know about David?

Most importantly, we know David had already been crowned as king over Israel.  At the end of 1 Samuel 15, God announced to His man Samuel that he was GRIEVED that He’d made Saul king of Israel.  In chapter sixteen, after a lengthy selection process, God revealed to Samuel that David would be the next king of Israel.  Samuel anointed David with oil, but told no one else about it and did nothing more.

The important bit is in 16:13: After Samuel anointed David, FROM THAT DAY ON THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CAME UPON DAVID IN POWER.

Contrast that with 16:14: NOW THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAD DEPARTED FROM SAUL, AND AN EVIL SPIRIT FROM THE LORD TORMENTED HIM.  The last half of 1 Samuel is the painful story of how God replaced Saul with David as king of Israel.  Our passage is one of the steps in that process.

David was the youngest son in Jesse’s family, a good-looking kid (33+42) who tended sheep in the field (16:12-13; 34-37).  God started with a young man of humble beginnings and raised him to the highest place of that time.

In this passage, David demonstrated some of his emerging character.  In verses 17-22, he shows his obedience. Because of his age and/or other reasons, Jesse kept David out of the conflict.  Here Jesse gives the future king a “grunt” job to do: deliver some food to his brothers & bring back a report; David obeyed.

Look at verses 23-26 where David is outraged that this pagan – no matter how big he was – should be allowed to blaspheme the name of God and slander the people of Israel.  This demonstrates righteous anger, a state – if genuine – is difficult to achieve.

In verses 34-37 David showed confidence before King Saul, describing how he’d survived lion and bear attacks.  This also demonstrates humility, as his point was that the LORD had delivered him (37) then and David was confident the LORD would deliver him from this mouthy pagan giant too.  Rebuking Goliath’s taunts (45-47), David again expressed this confidence in God.

How was he the solution to the problem of Goliath’s challenge?

One explanation is to look at Goliath’s disadvantages. Bill Murphy Jr. wrote an article for INC. magazine entitled “Three Things People get Wrong about David vs. Goliath.”

Disadvantage #1 = Goliath can’t see.  Scientists have speculated that Goliath might have had a disorder called acromegaly. This condition causes a person to grow extremely tall, but can lead to double-vision and severe nearsightedness.   This may be implied by the text.  In verse 41, Goliath and his shield bearer KEPT MOVING CLOSER TO DAVID.  It’s true that Goliath’s motive might’ve been to close range and attack with his sword, he didn’t need to: He could’ve thrown his spear to make an attack at range or thrust it at David at medium range.  However, when you consider the possibility of near-sightedness, he may have been edging closer to see David better.  In verse 45, Goliath taunted David, saying, “COME HERE.” Was that because he couldn’t see David?

Murphy concludes, “Big competitors’ perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages.”

Disadvantage #2 = Goliath is powerless.  Psychologically, Goliath was designed to intimidate.  Every detail in his description is the epitome of someone you don’t want to mess with.  I think the Philistines were pulling a fast one – they wanted to intimidate them into giving up without a fight.  Look at verse one – who started this fight?  the Philistines.  It was a put-on from the first moment.

Tactically, David has the advantage of mobility.  The text makes a big deal of Goliath’s armor and David’s lack of armor.  We think this is meant to emphasize David’s disadvantage, but it actually explains how he won: he moved more swiftly and attacked first.

A second explanation is to look at David’s tactical assets.  This is Murphy’s third point: David was deadly.  The Bible never says David went into battle with “only a sling.” We might think of a sling as a child’s toy, but it was actually an effective weapon.  In skilled hands, it was on a par with a bow.  Armies of the time had division of slingers.

I’ve read a rock from a sling has the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun.  David pressed his advantages of mobility and deadliness: he used his deadly ranged weapon and attacked Goliath before he could get close enough to swing his sword.

  1. The outcome of the fight: a TKO (Totally Killed Off).

One outcome was peace for Israel.  Verse 51 tells us WHEN THE PHILISTINES SAW THAT THEIR HERO WAD DEAD, THEY TURNED AND RAN.  The Israelites pursued their retreating foes all the way to their home cities, leaving behind a trail of death and plunder.

The plunder here is important.  I read that there were no blacksmiths in Israel.  The Philistines kept the Israelites in a vassal-like state by withholding metalworking technology from them.  Therefore, the Israelites increased their stock of technologically superior weapons as the picked up what the Philistines dropped.

Another outcome is David taking another step toward kingship. As we’ve seen, David had already been anointed as the next king, so God empowered Him to win the fight and take a step toward establishing his kingship by making him popular and well-known.  For example, in 18:7, the people exalt David over King Saul as a greater soldier.

The Philistines offered a rigged fight, but it was not rigged in the way they expected.  Instead, God determined the outcome of the fight to advance His plan.

Bill Murphy Jr. concluded his article with the following observation: “The lesson isn’t simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might nevertheless win. Instead, great leaders understand that the real keys to battle are sometimes obscured by our misconceptions. Perceiving them correctly can amount to a Goliath-sized advantage.”

You may not care about finding lessons for leadership in this passage, but here’s something we can all take to heart: With God, NO PROBLEM is insurmountable.

Rather than be intimidated by what appears to be a mountain, we need to rethink the situation. First, trust in God as David did.  He had faith and joined the battle.  Second, take another look at the obstacles in front of you.  There are bound to be things that seem like disadvantages that can, with a little forethought, be turned into advantages.

David did not win his battle with Goliath.  God won the battle.  In fact, it was won before it was fought, and that was reflected in David’s confidence.  We must trust God will do the same for us.

 

Resources:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1982.

https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/3-things-people-get-wrong-about-david-vs-goliath.html

Ephesus in an Uproar

Expect resistance when you tell the truth but don’t stop telling the truth.

Please read Acts 19:23-41 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) for these remarks.

Riot at Ephesus

Think for a moment about the biggest crowd you can remember being part of at a sporting facility.  For those of us in Sioux Falls, SD, that would likely be at Howard Wood Field.  Can you recall the noise, the jostling, the energy of 10,000 people crammed into those stands? The amphitheater in the ancient city of Ephesus held more than twice that many people.  That’s a crowd!

The most seating that has ever been available at Howard Wood was 16,500, when bleachers were borrowed from local colleges and moved there.  On August 5, 1960, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings played the very first game in the history of the Vikings at Howard Wood Field.  A ticket to the game cost $5.50 unless you sat in the borrowed bleachers and paid $3.50.  The extra seating would prove to be entirely unnecessary as the attendance that day was under 5,000.  The promoters lost their shirts and the Vikings lost their game, but Sioux Falls will always be the weird beginning to a storied sports team.

This morning we will take a look at a page from the history of the ancient city of Ephesus.  It was a similar comedy of errors to the only attempt to bring NFL football to Sioux Falls.  The tale has a dark side, however, being a clear threat to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the people who held if forth as truth.

  1. Change is hard; greed is harder (vs. 23-27).

“THE WAY” (verse 23) is how Christians of that time referred to themselves.  It is not to be confused with a modern day cult “the Way International.”  Then as in our own time, the word WAY referred to a person’s daily choices that reflected the direction they were headed.  It might also be described as a life goal, mission, or number one priority.

The instigator of the riot was Demetrius, who made his living crafting and selling souvenirs!  You heard me right.  He made little replicas of the massive Temple to Artemis, goddess of wild plants and animals, hunting, chastity and childbirth.  The temple was the major tourist attraction in the city.  She was beloved so Demetrius and his fellows made A “GOOD INCOME” (verse 25) on his souvenirs.

So what’s the problem?  Look back at verse 20 where it is written, THE WORD OF THE LORD SPREAD WIDELY AND GREW IN POWER.  Demetrius apparently felt that Paul’s teaching was a threat.  One, Paul’s teaching had converted “LARGE NUMBERS OF PEOPLE.”  When you are growing, people are more likely to consider you a threat and more likely to oppose you.  In v. 26 he said “PRACTICALLY THE WHOLE PROVINCE OF ASIA” was listening to Paul’s teaching.  By his own words, Demetrius, a “hostile witness” gauged the influence of the Church in Asia.        In verse 27 he said that Artemis was “WORSHIPED THROUGHOUT THE PROVINCE OF ASIA,” corresponding to Paul’s area of influence.

He was concerned that not only would business suffer, but also that the temple and the goddess would be “DISCREDITED.” (27)  After all, if people are leaving the goddess to follow Paul’s God, then that implies Artemis is the lesser divinity.  His reference to the WORLD is no exaggeration; archaeologists have uncovered temples to Artemis all over the ancient Roman world.

Demetrius may be sincere in his concern for the temple and for the city, but it seems more likely he was concerned about his wallet.  I say this because if he was concerned about the city, he’d have followed legal procedures as the CITY CLERK suggested (38-39).  Starting a riot is the kind of thing done by a greedy person without a legal leg to stand on.

That’s why Demetrius sought to inflame passion against Paul by accusing him of some awful misdeeds.  He accused Paul of leading people astray (26), telling them scandalous things like “MAN-MADE GODS ARE NO GODS AT ALL.”  He vilified Paul for “discrediting” Artemis and robbing her of her divine majesty (27).

  1. The riot resulted in confusion (vs. 28-32).

Luke described it as A GREAT COMMOTION (23), an example of the understated way things are typically described in the Bible.  The Bible writers didn’t exaggerate; they didn’t need to.

We start with the reaction of the members of the guild of silversmiths to the charges Demetrius made.  They were FURIOUS and BEGAN SHOUTING about how great Artemis was until they wound the whole city into an UPROAR.

Another measure of the commotion is the actions of the mob in verses 29-30: they SIEZED GAIUS AND ARISTARCHUS, who must have been widely known as Paul’s associates.  Don’t suppose they were treated gently.

They RUSHED AS ONE MAN INTO THE THEATER, probably intent on making “examples” of these two men.  I remind you the theater in Ephesus seated 24,000 people.  It was undoubtedly the biggest venue in the city.  It was not used for dramas only, but also for civic events of all kinds.

This concerted rush in a single direction implies that the events were unfolding as planned.  What happened was a riot but it wasn’t spontaneous, at least at the beginning.  Ending up in the theater was strategic.  This is what we’d call a “publicity stunt.”

To his credit, Paul wanted to APPEAR BEFORE THE CROWD, either to talk them out of rash actions or offer himself in exchange for his companions (30-31).  This was not empty posturing; Paul had to be restrained by other followers of Jesus.  OFFICIALS OF THE PROVINCE also weighed in to convince Paul not to go.  This tells us not only that Paul had FRIENDS in high places, but also that the riot must have gone on for some time for all these people to get involved.

The result was CONFUSION and is almost comical.  People were shouting different things, just to make noise.  Some came to the riot late and didn’t know what it was all about, but they were ready to join a protest.  Who doesn’t like a good tar and feathering?

Pity poor Alexander, suddenly chosen to be “front man” for the local Jewish community (33-34).  Some of the people at the riot were Jews and they thought Alexander might get the mob to calm down.   (They were among the confused!)  Alexander was game, but his attempts to MAKE A DEFENSE of Paul, who was born a Jew, were merely shouted down by the crowd.  These Greeks weren’t going to let a Jew tell them how to run t city.

Though it may sound strange that people in a 24,000 seat amphitheater would take up a common shout and do so for TWO HOURS, it was actually fairly common in that culture.  They called these rhythmic chants, shouts, and noises acclamatio, from which we get our English word “acclaim.”

  1. A wise man quieted the riot (vs. 35-41).

Where Alexander failed, the unnamed CITY CLERK succeeded; he QUIETED THE CROWD and got them to listen for a time (35).  While the title CITY CLERK may sound a little nerdy, this man was the chief link between the Roman Empire and the city administrators.  He wielded great power.  This is why the people were willing to listen to him and why they heeded his words.

His wise arguments convinced the CROWD.  We can see four parts of his rhetoric.

First he appealed to their pride in a positive way (35-36).  He cited as UNDENIABLE FACTS that the temple in Ephesus was the greatest in the ancient world because the goddess herself flung the massive silver image in the middle of the temple to earth and the temple was built around it. This was, of course, a myth, not a fact, but the CITY CLERK used both savvy and mythology to remind the people that the city had nothing to prove.

He effectively said, “Demetrius and his guild are wrong; there is no danger to this temple.  It is divinely protected and too big to fail.”

Since the temple was in no danger, there was no need for all this noise (“BE QUIET”) or to do anything RASH.

Second, he asserted that Gaius and Aristarchus were not criminals (37).  These statements were true.  He said, “THEY HAVE NEITHER ROBBED TEMPLES NOR BLASPHEMED THE GODDESS.”  At that time, robbing temples and committing blasphemy were serious crimes, punishable by death or exile.  This was the truth: Paul’s associates had committed no crime against the temple or the city.  Instead, they were being used as scapegoats by the mob.

Third, the clerk insisted that the rule of law be followed, not rule by the mob (38-39).  Notice that he knew exactly who was responsible for all this trouble and called him out: “DEMETRIUS AND HIS FELLOW CRAFTSMEN.”  This was a subtle warning: should the ax of punishment fall, it would fall on Demetrius and his cronies.

His point was that there were legal and reasonable ways to settle a grievance fairly, ways that would produce good results.  I imagine he had sympathy with Demetrius’ concerns, especially the economic ones.  However, to his credit, this man stood up for justice.

Fourth, he warned there would be negative consequences if the rioters continued to make this COMMOTION (40).  In the Roman Empire, where riots occurred, imperial legions would not be far behind.

No one in local government wanted Rome to step in and put the city under military rule.  This very thing happened at least once in Roman history.  In 20 BC the city of Cyzicus allowed some Roman citizens to be put to death in a riot.  They lost their city government because of it.  This is no idle threat.  If the empire heard about the COMMOTION and called him to account for it, the clerk would have to say, “THERE IS NO REASON FOR IT.”

His wise arguments apparently persuaded the people; HE DISMISSED THE ASSEMBLY (41) and that’s all we hear about it.

Though this passage has some goofy elements to it, the dark truth behind it is this: Expect opposition to the truth.  We’d like to think being a follower of Jesus should be the end to our troubles.  We’d like to think being truthful will eventually be recognized, maybe applauded.

These thoughts do not come from the Bible.  Jesus Himself said, “IN THIS WORLD YOU WILL HAVE TROUBLE.  BUT TAKE HEART!  I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD.” (John 16:33)

Naturally we’d rather stand in the arena to enjoy the cheers of the crowd.  We’d rather not be Gaius or Aristarchus, who were stood before the jeering thousands of Ephesus.  We wouldn’t like to be Alexander and have to face the crowd that shouts us down.  Success will not spare us the opposition of sinful people; it will likely invite more.

So what is our hope?  Our hope is Jesus.  “I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD” is His promise and our hope.  Nothing in this world – neither its acclaim nor its opposition – should move our hope anywhere else.

 

RESOURCE:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, Eckhard J. Schnabel

One OR Done

Please take a moment apart from your busy-ness to read Ephesians 2:11-22 in your Bible. I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

ichabod

One of the best meetings I ever attended was at an elementary school.  The principal had called a meeting to discuss how our community might to meet the needs of a family whose poverty was causing the children to fail in school.  I had been invited to attend because the mother had identified me as her pastor.  I was to bring to the table whatever means our church could offer to support them.

What pleased me so much was the positivity of the meeting.  Without any pretense, compliments and praise and gratitude flowed like a river.  It was contagious; I found myself looking for praise-worthy things so I could join in the fun of being positive.

The other thing that set this meeting above all others was the focus of the group.  We all wanted to help.  School faculty and staff, counselors, social workers, and I were compiling all the forms of assistance we could offer in order to keep t kids in school.

Afterward, I was hit with a pang of jealousy.  It occurred to me that in all the meetings I had attended for church functions, I had never attended as pleasing a meeting.  It was a secular meeting in a secular place, joining people who may have had little or no agreement about God but it shone above all the meetings that supposedly had those advantages.

It may help us to know that God expects us to be in unity and gives us all we need to experience it.  Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus and set forth God’s standard.

  1. Without Christ we are separate from God and from one another.

The Ephesians were Gentiles when Paul wrote these words; GENTILES AND UNCIRCUMCISED, EXCLUDED FROM CITIZENSHIP IN ISRAEL (11-12) but because of Jesus, that distinction no longer mattered.  Where birth, ethnicity, and nationality once divided the saved from the unsaved, Jesus came to save everyone.  Contrast these strong words describing division with Paul’s promise in v. 19 that all who believe in Jesus are FELLOW CITIZENS.

Before Christ, being Gentile meant you were WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD (12).  Without Jesus, people have to live in the present without HOPE for the future or God’s grace to forgive their past sins.  To be hopeless and godless is horrible; it ought to frighten us into having faith instead.

  1. Jesus acted to make us one. (He did five things.)

ONE = Jesus sacrificed Himself.  God did it THROUGH THE BLOOD OF CHRIST (13) and THROUGH THE CROSS (16).  Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for every person’s sins.  Since it has been bought at so great a price, we show our gratitude when cherish our unity and protect it, rather than toss it.

TWO = He became OUR PEACE (14+15) and HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE (17).  Unity brings peace and is threatened when the peace is disturbed.  Jesus’ presence gives us peace.

These verses agree with Matthew 5:9; “BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS, FOR THEY WILL BE CALLED SONS OF GOD.”  God’s children are characterized as being peacemakers.  They will make sacrifices and have courage in bringing people together.

THREE = He DESTROYED THE BARRIER, THE DIVIDING WALL OF HOSTILITY (14) and HE PUT TO DEATH THEIR HOSTILITY (16).  On a historical level, this is another way of describing the Jew vs. Gentile dynamic.

On a personal level, we know that unity cannot be found when people have divided into opposing camps.  Unity brings people together, destroying barriers/walls, not putting them up.

FOUR = He abolished IN HIS FLESH THE LAW WITH ITS COMMANDS AND REGULATIONS. (15)  This verse parallels Paul’s earlier teaching about the BLOOD of Jesus and the CROSS: Jesus’ physical death abolished the Law by meeting all its demands.  He was the perfect sacrifice for sin and thereby brought an end to the need for any sacrifice for sin.

As the Law is part of what kept Gentiles and Jews separated (the Jews had it, the Gentiles didn’t), this verse parallels vs. 11+12.  Jesus’ sacrifice made this division inappropriate, bringing us all together in one family and citizens of one kingdom (v. 19).

FIFTH = He IS THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE …IN HIM THE WHOLE BUILDING IS JOINED TOGETHER. (21)  (We will talk about this later.)

  1. Descriptions of our unity.

The first benefit of unity is obvious: unity brings us together!  Paul wrote, YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY HAVE BEEN BROUGHT NEAR. (13+17)  No matter what measure you use to describe the distance, it no longer exists.  The worldly things that ensure separation lose their significance in Jesus and are no longer a reason for keeping us apart.

God’s unity effectively makes us ONE. (14+15)  This verse reminds me of the statements made in the Bible about marriage (see Genesis 2:24 & Mark 10:7); the two persons becoming one.  Ideally in married life, the partners are to think and act as one.  So it should also be in a church. This is Jesus’ PURPOSE: He has worked to make us unified.  We are to receive it, then avoid breaking the unity God gives.

Jesus brought us together so that IN THIS ONE BODY (His) He aimed TO RECONCILE BOTH OF THEM TO GOD. (16)  Unity is both the product of and the means to reconciliation.  Jesus’ greatest purpose is our union with God.  That must happen first. Then, the degree to which to which we have union with God, we will experience unity in our church.

A second benefit of unity is that it empowers our prayers.  In Matthew 18:19 Jesus promised, “I TELL YOU THAT IF TWO OF YOU ON EARTH AGREE ABOUT ANYTHING YOU ASK FOR, IT WILL BE DONE FOR YOU BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN.”  Here in 2:18, Paul explained how we have that kind of power in prayer: THROUGH HIM WE HAVE ACCESS TO THE FATHER BY ONE SPIRIT. (18)

The word ACCESS refers to prayer.  It is having a means of communicating with a king.  As Romans 8:26-27 teaches, the Holy Spirit facilitates prayer.  Even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit makes prayer happen; effective communication with God occurs.

The third benefit to unity is belonging: We are a holy nation, the Kingdom of God.  As Paul expressed it here: YOU ARE NO LONGER FOREIGNERS and ALIENS, BUT FELLOW CITIZENS.  And YOU ARE…FELLOW CITIZENS WITH GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD. (19)  CITIZENS have a responsibility to respect one another in civility and keeping the law.  More than that, Christians are GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD; having relationships deeper than citizenship.

Put another way, we are God’s temple, the people among whom He dwells.  GOD’S HOUSEHOLD is BUILT ON THE FOUNDATION OF THE  APOSTLES AND PROPHETS. (20)  Paul also referred to A CORNERSTONE in vs. 21, which is the most honored part of a building because it is a symbol of the actual and moral foundations on which the building was built.  In ancient times, it was also the first part of the building erected.

The rest of the building was measured and built around the fixed point of the CORNERSTONE.  In these senses, Jesus is the origin and the most honored part of the church.

In verse 21 Paul wrote that the Church people are A HOLY TEMPLE IN THE LORD.  Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, Peter described the Church as being made up of LIVING STONES.  Just as it takes many bricks to create a structure, every church is made up of several individual persons coming together.  A stack of bricks is not a building.  It is only when the pieces are put together with Jesus they become a place on earth fit for God.

Paul expressed this truth a third way in verse 22: YOU ARE…A DWELLING IN WHICH GOD LIVES BY HIS SPIRIT.  God created the Church for many different reasons.  However, we must remember that necessity is not one of those reasons.  He does not need a place to live but He wants a people in a place that give evidence to the world that He exists and He loves all people. To be a church we have to do more than maintain physical property; we have to BE the people of God in this place.  We have to cherish and protect the unity God gives us.

You’ve heard the expression “one and done” used in sports.  When teams compete in a single-elimination tournament and are eliminated by losing their first game, we say they were “one and done.”

I want to suggest a variation on that slogan that puts the importance of unity in its biblical perspective.  Based on this passage and others, I say “One OR Done.”  This means that we are ONE as a church or we DONE being a church.  A local body of believers that perpetuates disunity has ceased to be a church and has become something else, something less than what God has commanded.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth every sacrifice, every effort, every slice of humble pie or crow we have to eat to maintain it.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth defending against every pretender, peace-breaker, and offender of the cross.

Unity is received, not achieved.  We partner with God when we protect our unity because without it we cannot be a church.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

 

RESOURCE USED:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Evil Spirits, Good Results

Please read Acts 19:13-20 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) for my own research.evil vs Jesus

Evil never creates; it only confuses and perverts the truth.  When it is conquered, the word prospers.

In our house lately we’ve been enjoying TV specials titled “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” originally broadcast in the 90s.  (Yes, we’re behind in watching our TV programs.)  In each show, the “Masked Magician” performed magic tricks and then showed how the illusion was made.

This show was an example of “reality TV,” two words that don’t belong together in a sentence.  Part of the gag is that this magician was masked to protect his identity from vengeful fellow magicians.  In the last of the specials, he removed the mask to reveal himself to be Val Valentino, a man who’d been a stage magician all his adult life.

This is an example of magic being simply deception and illusion.  Whether for fun or profit, to entertain or deceive, there have always been people who used the hand to trick the eye and the person.

In our passage today, we read about some con artists who attempted to incorporate the name of Jesus into their act.  They were as surprised as anyone when a genuine evil spirit exposed them as false.

God used this extraordinary event to reach the people of Ephesus and Asia Minor in a very unique way.  It’s not only a great story, but an event that reveals several things we need to learn and practice.

  1. Sceva’s sons learned the hard way. (13-16)

We learn that they were just name-droppers (13-14).  Before we go there, let’s take a brief look at “Jewish Mysticism.”  As many cultures do, Jewish people have myths and superstitions.  These have varying degrees of relatedness to Scripture.

In Paul’s day, some Jews made a living going from town to town performing magical services based on these superstitions.  (I suspect you’d have to be ITINERANT just to stay ahead of being found out!)  The Ephesians were especially superstitious.  For example, they believed if you knew the name of a spirit you could control it.  To, as the text says, EVOKE THE NAME refers to an incantation or magic formula using “power names” to make spells effective.  Though this may sound strange or our ears, there is some NT mention of this activity:

-Jesus referred to Jewish exorcists sent out by the Pharisees in Luke 11:19 (Matthew 12:27).

– In Luke 10 He sent out 72 of His disciples to cast out demons & do other kinds of ministry.

– In Acts 16:18, Paul cast a demon out of a woman in Philippi while invoking the name of Jesus.

What’s happening in our passage is some of these people heard the name of Jesus had been powerfully used by Paul (the healings in vs. 11+12), so they gave it a try.  They didn’t possess the faith that made the miracles possible, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

The text tells us all we need to know about Sceva and sons.  The name “Sceva” is neither Hebrew nor Greek; it is a misspelled Latin word that meant “left-handed” or “a good omen.”  If their father was a JEWISH CHIEF PRIEST they would be members of one of the families from whom the Romans chose to be the Jews’ chief priests.  (The Romans had politicized the office, making it no longer hereditary.  Their theory was that shuffling the high priest job would keep any one man from becoming too influential.)  The combination of a claimed Jewish nobility and a Latinate name is unlikely to have been genuine; it implies these were con men.  They probably weren’t really related!

The seven sons of Sceva failed spectacularly: ONE DAY, an evil spirit exposed their falsehood (15-16).  Evil beings that exist as spiritual beings are also called demons.  The Bible attests to the existence of these beings.  No one can deny the reality of demons and claim to believe everything else the Bible teaches.

THE EVIL SPIRIT spoke through its human host and verified the identities of Jesus and Paul but didn’t have any idea who these frauds were; “WHO ARE YOU?” it asked.  The power, then, was not in the names of Jesus and Paul.  The power to cast out demons came from Jesus’ identity as God the Son and His delegating authority to Paul as His servant.

It exposed them as frauds.  Adding injury to insult, the seven suffered public humiliation and a whuppin’.  Though outnumbered seven to one, the demon-possessed man OVERPOWERED the sons of Sceva and sent them running out of the house, embarrassed and injured.  This can hardly be accounted for by normal means, so a supernatural force is implied.  The demon gave the possessed man unusual physical strength and/or overwhelming savagery.

  1. As a result, the word grew in influence & power. (17-20)

As you would expect, news of an incident like this got around very quickly = THIS BECAME KNOWN TO THE JEWS AND GREEKS LIVING IN EPHESUS.  THEY WERE ALL SIEZED WITH FEAR = It was taken very seriously.  Our text list four effects.

The first effect is that this cured the “magic-using community” of name-dropping (17).  Instead, THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS WAS HELD IN HIGH HONOR.  People respected the name of Jesus, no longer attempting to use it merely as a “magic word.”  (Too bad that didn’t happen for Mr. Al Akazam!)  People realized that the NAME OF THE LORD JESUS held power, but it was neither the kind of power they could manipulate, nor the kind to be trifled with!  The phrase HELD IN HIGH HONOR means “glorified.”  This implies worship of Jesus by people who converted to the Christian faith; as befits verse eighteen.

The second effect: confession of EVIL DEEDS (18).  The new converts confessed to having committed EVIL DEEDS.  Our text describes conversions in general terms in verse eighteen while verse nineteen offers an example of a specific act of repentance that put a value on the depth of their repentance.

The third effect was their voluntary decision to burn “magic” scrolls  that had great material value but were spiritually worthless (19).  The Lord does not require a set procedure for repentance.  That’s a good thing, as we are saved by GRACE, not by GOOD WORKS.  We are not operating under a legal system that requires specific actions to qualify as “true repentance.”  It is also good because it shows the collection and burning of these SCROLLS was spontaneous and voluntary, which makes the act a more effective demonstration of repentance.

The actions of the converts in verse nineteen set a good example for us to follow when repenting.  Repentance is turning our back on our sin and turning our face to God.  We regret and reject our sins to seek God instead.  Getting rid of the things that tempt us to return to sin and/or things that represent affections for worldly things is a good idea, and it accomplishes three things:

– First, it removes a source of temptation.  Jesus spoke of removing one’s right eye or hand if they cause you to sin (Matthew 5:27-30).  This is a graphic way of describing a grave degree of sacrifice in order to gain separation from temptations.

– Second, when a person makes voluntary sacrifices like this, it says a lot about the depth of their commitment to Jesus.

– Third, making it public makes you accountable to everyone who sees what you are doing and will be watching in the future to see you don’t fall into that sin again.

Luke estimated the value of the destroyed texts to be 50,000 drachmas, or the wealth accumulated by a year’s work (no days off) of 137 men.  This was a sacrifice!

The long-term effect was that the word prospered (20).  People travelling out of Ephesus carried along the account of the demoniac beating the tar out of seven con artists and other testimonies to the POWER of the WORD OF THE LORD.  That’s how it SPREAD WIDELY.

As the number of new converts continued to grow and their faith deepened, the WORD also GREW IN POWER.  This also means there were more events of this type.

Evil never creates; it only confuses and perverts the truth.  When it is conquered, the word prospers.

It’s a fact that things aren’t always as they appear.  Consider what happened when two magicians went into a bakery.

One of the magicians palmed 3 donuts with one hand and put them in his pocket without anyone noticing. He whispered to his companion, “Do you see how masterful I am? I make donuts disappear at will!”

“Not bad,” the second magician said.  “I can do you one better.”  He went to the baker and asked if he wanted to see a magic trick.

The curious owner answered, “Of course!” The second magician asked him for a donut then ate it. He asked him for another one, and ate it as well. When asked for a third donut, the owner was reluctant to give it up.  “So what’s the magic trick?” he said with suspicion; “I gave you 2 donuts already!”

“Just one more,” he replied.  After eating the third donut, the magician pointed to his companion and said, “Now check his pockets.”

Our Bible passage this morning gives us a memorable example of how God turned what was intended for deception into a victory for His Church.  When we live as the people of faith we are supposed to be, God works in us and with us to turn all things into good.

While we may not do the miraculous things done in Ephesus, God will use our faith and service to draw people to salvation.  It starts with our decision to be entirely faithful, willing to trust Him in this promise.

 

RESOURCES:

More Hard Sayings of the New Testament, Peter H. Davids.

Illustrated Davis Dictionary of the Bible.

The Communicator’s Commentary, Lloyd J. Ogilive.

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept

BOOK REPORT

on

JESUS WEPT: WHEN FAITH AND DEPRESSION MEET

by

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

(Brett Best, 2018)

The BOTTOM LINE

            Jesus Wept combines personal experiences (the author’s and others’) with thoughtful analysis and extraordinary wordsmithing to create a volume that gives expression to feelings associated with depression.

How did She do It?

Prologue

            The preface begins precisely where it ought to begin; attempting to define the set of experiences typically understood/diagnosed as “depression.”  I appreciated Crafton’s approach; she explored meanings while insisting that the experience is so different from person to person that it must be understood in manifold ways.  To help the reader, I’ve kept a list of symptoms, definitions, or descriptions below.

Chapter 1 – Jesus Wept

            As I am also a pastor who has suffered from depression, this chapter had extra force.  For example, her line, “I never would have killed myself, but I would have seen to it that the church killed me” (p. 12) may not be immediately understandable to a lay reader, but my heart knew it instantly.

Service occupations (pastors, social workers, counselors) can give pretext for burying depression but serving others will not solve the problem.  Crafton explores the seductive lies of depression, telling the sufferer that covering up their true self, attempting to hide the cloying struggle is safer than transparency.  One’s own body, however, is not deceived and ill health will betray an ill spirit.  External manipulations and trivia won’t address spiritual problems and/or chemical imbalances.

How’s this for an opening salvo? “At first, I didn’t know I was depressed.  I thought I was just religious.” (p. 1)

Chapter Two – A Learning Experience

            Finding meaning in suffering is a subject where a person’s theological convictions tend to rise to the surface rather quickly.  To illustrate, let’s consider a couple extremities of focus.  If your focus is extremely God-centered, your first reflections on experiences will be, “What is God doing here?  What’s His message to me?”  If your focus is extremely human-centered, your reflections will tend toward, “What’s going on here?  What caused this?  What can I learn from this?”

Crafton tends to the latter.  She tends to suspect God-centered answers to personal experiences as signs of self-centeredness.  Yet she does not want to discount Providence.  This is what she calls “a more nuanced view of God.” (p. 17)  In my experience, “nuanced” is especially a virtue among those who have theological views on the left – a more human-centered position.  This means that depression is not necessarily an exercise of Providence, it can occur as a result of randomness, an impersonal force that is indifferent to will and has meaning only when it is interpreted in hindsight.

As a theologian, it is a horror to me to say that God’s will and randomness occur side-by-side as causational events.  There’s nothing biblical in that thought, nor is there anything comforting.  If stuff “just happens” then there is no point to a search for meaning; all is merely subjective interpretation.  Admittedly, a problem with pain as a God-given teaching device arises in situations where pain is chronic or cyclical.  Who needs to learn that much or can learn that much?  We can see several different divine purposes in pain and suffering but one needs a more God-centered predisposition (aka “faith”) to see them.

This chapter is a hash of things Crafton has learned or surmised by use of hindsight.  There are some gems here, but her thoughts are not presented systematically or with any other organization other than “stream of consciousness.”  Ironically, in her search to avoid anthropomorphism, she becomes more anthrocentric.

Chapter Three – I Just Don’t Feel Anything

            As a body goes into shock or even into a coma as a response to some kind of physical trauma, it may be that a psychic/spiritual numbness occurs as a response to trauma to the soul.  If there is a correlation, just as shock and coma can be ultimately good for the body, depression may help preserve the soul.

That feels like a stretch, but it may be an insight that helps put depression in a therapeutic light; it is the soul’s response to turn inward and marshal inner resources to come back from trauma.  Would this be a different experience than the kind of depression that has no discernable cause?  Who would be qualified to make such a distinction?  The therapist stands too far away to have adequate knowledge and the client too close to permit objective knowledge.

A personal observation about depression is that I have felt more sensitive and aware while depressed.  It’s easy to think about my happier self as being blissful because of my ignorance.  That’s one aspect of the lack of objectivity a person can have while amidst of a depression.  While depressed, I have no reason to revel in my heightened awareness and intelligence, but I may believe I do.  To this notion, Crafton wrote, “The fear that easing the pain of depression will somehow deprive us of a necessary important spiritual season in our lives is not particularly well-founded.” (p. 34)

I wonder how much of a role personality plays in depression.  Are some personalities so maudlin that it would be difficult to draw a line between normal function and depression?  Is personality ever mistaken for depression?  Is it possible people are treated for depression when their affect is normal for them?  Are certain personality types more likely to suffer depression?

“What if some depression has a healing, consolidating mission in the life of the one to whom it comes?” (p. 32, emphasis hers)

“Maybe the numbness of clinical depression is a splint, sometimes.  Maybe it does keep us still for a time, when stillness is exactly what we need.  But only for a season.  Nobody needs a lifetime of catatonia.” (p. 35, emphasis hers)

Chapter Four – Trouble in Paradise

            This chapter merely introduces a topic that would be a deep well from which much discussion could be made: how religion helps and/or hinders recovery from depression.  (Not coincidentally, one’s answer would also reveal a lot about one’s base theological convictions.)  I don’t care for Crafton’s use of the word “mythology” as a synonym for “theology” or “faith.”  This is a failing common to those on the left (the human-centered theologians) and it may sound rational to those sets of ears, but to mine it’s calling truth “falsehood.”  Also, false guilt is not a part of our faith (read 2 Corinthians 7:10 for the definitive word on guilt).

“Many people resist turning to their communities of faith with the truth about themselves, for fear that understanding and support will not be forthcoming.  Such self-censorship where depression is concerned arises from the fear of rejection by the church, as much as from the fact of it: some people are already so convinced that their condition is shameful that they don’t even apply.” (p. 40)  To be fair, no one can help a person who will either refuse to acknowledge a problem or refused to acknowledge a solution.  Still, Crafton’s critique is generally true.  As usual, the Church struggles to keep pace with the culture’s level of information and nuanced response.

“But healing each case of depression is small and slow, the delicate work of the soul’s healing, partnering with the mystery of brain chemistry and the nourishing experience of being heard and understood.” (p. 45, emphasis hers)

Chapter Five – Charged with The Care of Souls

            As you might guess from the title, this chapter was written for members of the clergy.  Others will be left to appropriate meaning by example.   After all, there are “workaholics” in all professions.  One difference between clergy and laity is that clergypersons don’t have co-workers/peers/accomplices in the workplace. Another difference is that clergypersons are convinced that role-playing is vital to success or at least contributes to job security.

“We know that those charged with the care of souls can do a lot of damage, that if we don’t take care of ourselves in the right way, we’ll take care of ourselves in the wrong way.” (p. 52)

Chapter Six – The Defendant as Prosecutor

            Crafton’s point in this chapter is that pride creates shame and shame keeps us from getting the help we need to emerge from depression.  Pride might be an over-inflated ego, shame an under-inflated one.  In both cases, it can be argued, they are contributing causes to making depression last longer than need be.

This is one of the more personal chapters in the book where the author details injury, depression, and ways her spiritual life attempted to define her experiences.  It references the fact that the client is too close to have objectivity in making decisions about treatment, particularly medications.  Crafton is unflinchingly candid here: “I habitually entertain a scathing attitude toward my own sins and sorrows that I would never hold toward anyone else’s.” (p. 66)

Chapter Seven – This is My Last Hope

            This chapter details the benefits of Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT), how depression finds its azimuth in Holy Week, and her belief that depression can be cyclical.  (In the case of cyclical depression, the strategy is to cease striving for a cure and simply wait the cycle out.)  Obviously, covering this range of subjects in a single chapter requires a singular focus or resorts to jumping around.  Crafton has done the latter.  The thoughts here follow a stream of consciousness, not a path of crafted reasoning.  In a way, this is expressive of post-modernism, where narrative trumps analysis and knowing anything for certain is an illusion caused by a desire to generalize personal preferences.  This chapter is among the least helpful.

Chapter Eight – Sorrowful Mysteries

            We like to think that for the joy set before us, we could endure even the slums of Calcutta.  Jesus endured the cross on that very basis.  This chapter deals with the shocking truth that Mother Theresa endured the slums of Calcutta without joy of any kind as a motive.  This truth – from her own journals – challenges our paradigm of what motivates service.

Crafton suggests Mother Theresa was unaware of depression as a biochemical condition.  As this cause of depression and its treatment was in its infancy in her lifetime, she may have been unaware of its potential to elevate her gloomy affect and the science may have been inadequate to the task.  Apparently no one suggested it to her and she may have rejected it as a way of paying too much heed to herself.

In any event, maybe the joylessness of her psyche helped her to endure ministry to those most brutally oppressed by poverty.  It may have been a coping mechanism.  How often do we see people who accomplish historic things having done so by means of great sacrifice, singular focus, and a commitment that shuts out all other light?  We ordinary folk divide ourselves among manifold lesser things.  Perhaps we lack the focus and the single-mindedness that Mother Theresa displayed.

As I stated earlier, the line between the disease and personality is not clear to me.  How does one’s character figure into the onset of depression?

Reflecting on this chapter theologically, who’s to say Mother Theresa did not live her life exactly as God intended?  Where are we promised happiness in this life?  Don’t the achievements vindicate her attitude?  Are we troubled by Mother Theresa’s depression because we want to make a virtue of happiness and a vice of sorrow?  Scripture confirms God is present in both.

It’s likely that the most disquieting thing about these post-mortem revelations about Mother Theresa is how thoroughly she fooled us.  The smile on her face feels like a lie.  I wonder if she had chosen to be more transparent that well-intended folk might have got in her way.  Might she have avoided talking about it for that reason?

Chapter Nine – The Dark Night

            Here Crafton compares the Christian mystic concept of “the Dark Night of the Soul,” with our modern paradigm of depression and universal experience of sorrow.  She finds inadequate difference to merit a distinction between the terms, except that depression might respond to pharmaceuticals where a spiritual experience might not.

“If sorrow is about loss, and depression is about bitter despair, the Dark Night is about mystery – its obscurity cloaks all meaning, so that none of it is clearly visible.  You can’t find your familiar landmarks.” (p. 102)

“It might not be too much to say that a depressed person of faith almost always experiences a dark night of the soul as well, whatever means of healing he or she eventually finds: that the hopelessness is the illness, and the mystery whose shape gradually emerges as dawn breaks is the dark night, the eventual blessing of meaning’s return.” (p. 104)

Chapter Ten – Words Fail Me

            This chapter is both the most organized and the most off-putting chapter in the book.  Based on a synchretistic/universalistic theology (the downfall of the “New Age”), Crafton offers “centering prayer” as an alternative to traditional prayer.  For the folks who have no words, she offers a way to pray that is not prayer and requires no words.  It does matter which God people believe in; a vaguely-defined “spirituality” is not going to help anyone.  Additionally, spirituality is a means, not an end.  Spirituality is a means to knowing God and maturing.

To call this practice prayer violates the definition of the word.  Her “centering prayer” calls for no communication with God, no reflection on God or self.  It is an emptying exercise designed to achieve – relaxation?

Her tone is more of an instructor, less of the guide that she has been in the previous chapters.  Its almost as if this is the one thing for which she argues dogmatically.  If she wants people to meditate, she should say so and she should call it meditation instead of mislabeling it as prayer.  I believe prayer not anchored in Scripture and good theology is not a spiritual exercise or a maturing experience.  It is not prayer, it is something else, something less.

Chapter Ten – Wanting to Die

            While she expresses herself artfully in this chapter, there is very little in the way of new information.  A book on depression would be incomplete without some mention of suicide, but Crafton’s treatment of the subject is neither novel or particularly helpful.  I don’t recall her expressing suicidal thoughts elsewhere in the book, nor does she use the idiom of depression as a disease much outside of this chapter.  That said, the chapter is adequate to the author’s purpose.  More clinical and more complete information is easily available elsewhere.

“Religious people who consider suicide encounter an immediate obstacle: centuries of church teaching which have held that suicide is a mortal sin.  It combines murder with despair, a perfect storm.” (p. 130)

“It is counterintuitive to those who are not suicidal, but death feels to the sufferer like a measure of freedom in an otherwise imprisoned life, a light at the end of an interminable tunnel.” (p. 133)

Chapter Twelve – The Family Disease

            This final chapter is written to help families deal with their depressed members.  It became a foray into philosophy and social commentary on family life.  I don’t have an opinion on the depth of insight or accuracy of Crafton’s words her, but I admire the way she put them together.  As her discourse became more general, it became less helpful.  As an ending to a chapter, Crafton’s final words fell flat.  As an ending to an entire book, it’s a sad contrast to the craftsmanship that preceded it.  I’d suggest writing an epilogue.

“Living with someone with any mental illness can be hard work, and I can’t think of any reason other than misplaced politeness to pretend that it is not.” (p. 143)

“The family is the crucible of all things human.  We pour every need and longing we have into the leaky vessels with whom we live.  They can’t hold it all of course: people are insufficient as objects of utter dependence, however much they may want to oblige.” (pp. 144-145)

“This is the key: the fact of our being is sufficient cause for God’s celebration.  We need look no further for validation.” (p. 155)

An Exhaustive Definition of Depression

Depression is…

…different from sadness or sorrow, temporary conditions that everyone experiences.  Depression feels similarly but has different quality (depth) and quantity (duration).

…not merely circumstantial, though events can trigger it.

…not something everyone experiences.

…a sapping of spiritual strength and joy.

…living in grayscale, not color.

…an inability to honor one’s successes or claim one’s blessings.

…a profound mistrust of self.

…loneliness.

…out of step with the world’s way of living.

…shame.

…a self-inflicted or at least self-aggravated wound.

…exhausting.

…inadequacy.

…more involved with anxiety and worry than with serenity and delight.

…an individual experience.

…not knowing things can be any different than they are.

…a result of prolonged, unresolved stress.

…unrequited longings.

…a distrust of hope, reduced hope, a lack of hope.

…a desire to be dead (whether suicide is attempted).  Many persons think a lot about the afterlife, regardless of their religiosity.  Others are less heedful, seeking a more immediate fix: an experience of resolution and the silence it brings.

…a loss of the experiences of beauty and wonder.

…reliance on duty to motivate one’s self rather than devotion.

…misery.

…anger.  (Benignly, this can be impatience with typical or trivial inconveniences.  More malignancy seems less common as it takes passion and energy to be angry in that way.)

…occasionally over-performing in public things (like work) while routinely under-performing in private things (especially self-care).

…uncertainty over one’s motives and perceptions with the result of a delay in getting care and/or going public with one’s state of being.

…meaninglessness.

…a lack of vision.

…progressive (as depression episodes recur, they can come back with greater intensity).

…numbness.

…a perverse preference for stasis.

…an inability to feel pleasure or pain to the usual degree.

…a soul quietly starving.

…”hard to hold in your hand, hard to describe, and hard to delineate.” (p. 83)

At the End of it All

            This book is useful as a primer on depression from a Christian point of view.  It handily puts into good words the feelings that have been so hard for so many of us to describe.  It is not technical reading; just the opposite.  It is some preliminary thoughts that have been wrung from difficult experience.

As for a cure to depression, Crafton offers two simple things:

“1. From others, a quiet and respectful presence, a willingness to be beside the one who suffers.

“2. From you, a gentle, abiding tenderness toward your own battered self while it gropes its way toward healing and the restoration of meaning and love.” (p. 106)