Idol Smashers – Part Six

dreamer

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

Day  One – Heshonib

(Previously, in Idol Smashers: As these heroes of Israel have begun their mission, they were lead to the remote village Heshonib where they found a miraculous message from God demanding all the villagers be killed for their idolatry.)

The countenance of the men all took on a grim aspect as the significance of the message hit them.

“The LORD has spoken,” Maaz said firmly.

“Now wait a moment,” Ammihud cautioned.  “Wait a moment.  You’re sure these words were not carved by the hand of man… ?”

Barek and Jezreel exchanged looks.  “Definitely.  No instrument wielded by a man burns brick,” Jezreel responded.

Mattan’s face was ashen.  He busied himself with the teraphim, and then spoke suddenly.  “These are burst from within!  What craft could accomplish this destruction of wooden, clay, stone and metal idols?  All destroyed from within, but all of them are made of different materials.  My masters, this was a supernatural act!”

Taking the idol from Mattan, Micah turned it over and looked at the bottom.  His mouth set in a line, he showed it to Maaz.

“That’s the same mark!” Maaz exclaimed.

“What?  What mark?” Caleb queried.

Micah handed the idol to Caleb and pointed out the figure carved on the base.  “This mark.  It was carved on the base of the Asherah pole at the top of the hill.”  As Caleb examined the mark for himself, Micah turned all the idols over.  “Underneath all these idols – on the base – a marking is inscribed.  It looked to me like a man dancing.”

“That is a trader’s mark,” Caleb said.  “It is meant to identify the craftsman so that others will buy his wares.  Should we find out who this mark identifies, we will find the supplier of these idols.”

“To what end?” Maaz demanded curtly.  “It matters not how they came to be here.  The message is unequivocal.  We must obey the LORD and end the lives of these foul idolaters!”  He smashed his iron-shod goad on the ground to punctuate his point.

Ammihud stepped forward, not intimidated.  “A moment, brother.  As you cannot replace a life once it is taken.  We must be certain.”  He held out his hand to Caleb and, receiving the idol, looked carefully at the base.  He set it down thoughtfully and took time to look at  the entire circle of words around them.

Finally, he spoke.  “I believe we must deal with the Heshonibites as instructed.”

“Yes,” Maaz seconded.

“BUT,” Ammihud continued.  “I do not believe our mission ends there.  There are villages like this all over Israel.  We must admit it.  Why would the LORD single out this one?”

“As a warning to all idolaters,” Maaz quickly explained.

“Yes, that,” Ammihud agreed, but began pacing and thinking aloud.  “But more than that.  There was something else going on here.  What if the LORD exposed this village in this way to give us a warning?  We must follow all trails until we understand WHY this happened.”

Joseph moved to stand next to Ammihud.  “What he lacks in stature, our brother makes up for with insight.”  Joseph smiled down at Ammihud.  “I agree.  My dreams have been troubled of late.  Just two nights ago I saw a pile of broken idols.  The LORD told me to sweep them away, for beneath them I would find something more evil at work.”

“What happened?” Mattan asked.  “What did you find?”

“I awoke before I could sweep them away.”

Maaz snorted.  “Prophets and their dreams.  Well, what of it?  We can destroy this place, then the pagans who lived here, THEN go chasing idol-makers.  First things need doing first, my father always said.”

“All right, all right,” Ammihud said.  He walked over and swept the idols off the side of the well and dropped the one he was holding beside them.  “I agree.  But we all must be agreement on this, for blood will be on our hands.  If it is the LORD’s will, then I shall take up vengeful arms beside you.”  He held up his two short-fingered hands.  “But I want no innocent blood on these hands.”

“Nor do I,” Joseph said, one prophet agreeing with the other.  “But I am fully convinced.  They must die.  All of them.”

Barek picked up a handful of dirt and then dropped it on the ruined idols at their feet.  “Let’s bury them, then uncover the whole truth.”

“You can count on me,” Caleb said, stepping forward.

“It’s awful work, but the Lord’s will must be done,” Jezreel said, nodding.

Micah simply said, “I agree,” and put his hand on his sword.

“Very well then,” Maaz said soberly.  “Let’s destroy this village and then the villagers.”

“But we’re freeing the animals,” Joseph said.  “They are innocent beasts.  Let the Lord do with them as He wills.  Set them free.”

“All of them?” Mattan said, suddenly joining the conversation.’  “There’s a great deal of…  a tithe could be…”  Seeing the determined looks on the faces around him, he simply sat down on the well and muttered, “My masters know best.”

“Seems we ought to get started,” Micah said, an eye on the sky.  “It’ll be dark soon enough.”

Ammihud turned to Mattan.  “How far away is the secret cave in which you’re holding the Heshonibites?”

“Oh, master, it is on the other side of the city.  We should not expect to have all this done before sundown,” Mattan replied, his eyes darting to each face.  “I would not advise going there in the evening.  The people of Aphek will become suspicious if we go out again after dark.  Our secrecy will be lost, I fear.”

“We should not delay in obeying the will of the LORD,” Maaz protested.

“Really,” Ammihud said, crossing his arms.  “You are a tiresome fellow.  I agree with Mattan.  You remember how Deborah herself pledged us to secrecy, only this morning?  Would you risk violating that pledge?”

Maaz was about to answer when Micah put a hand on his arm.  “Besides, we can’t risk any of them escaping into the night.  Remember the message – ‘all must be killed’.”

When Micah did not wither under the glare of his brother-in-law, Maaz conceded, “Very well.  How I wish Deborah had left me in charge!”

“One more thing, if I may – without sounding impudent?” Mattan asked quietly.

“Yes – what?” Ammihud asked.

“You may wish to question the villagers before putting them to the sword.  Something may be gained from their words that helps your subsequent investigations.”

“You can’t trust the word of idolaters,” Caleb objected.

“Of course not, my master.  But… as there is some truth in every lie, we can perhaps gain some morsels of truth from them.”

There seemed to be general agreement that Mattan spoke wisely.

“Let’s burn this place and cleanse the earth on which it stands,” Maaz said slowly.

 

They rode out of Heshonib just after sunset, seven figures silhouetted against the burning village.

Upon their return to the home of Mattan, the men washed in silence.  The savory smells of food cooking did nothing to lift their spirits.  They encircled the room and standing, lifted their faces, and offered prayers of thanksgiving to God.

After they were all seated on mats on the floor, Mattan’s servant set forth the supper he had prepared.  The new day had begun at sunset, but it was not welcomed during the meal as was customary.  There was no conversation that included all of them.  Instead, scattered snatches of talk in low voices was the only sound accompanying their eating.

Mattan was mostly silent and subdued.  This was quite out of character, but he was taking his cue from the men Deborah had sent him.

For their part, the seven were both introspective and weary.  The day had begun with the promise of worship and feasting.  It had taken many unexpected turns since then, and to a man, they felt as if it had been a long journey.

One by one, they thanked and blessed their host, then took their belongings to the roof and lay down to sleep.

 

Joseph’s sleep was troubled.  Deborah was before him, angrily remonstrating him.  “Why did the LORD destroy those idols?” she demanded, her voice stretched thin to keep from shouting outright.  “That was a miraculous sign to point to something, but what?!”  Joseph was not given time to answer.  He felt panicked, his throat constricted.  Why was she angry with him?  How had he failed her?  How could he have done better?  “Answer me!” Deborah cried.  “Tell me the answer!”

Awaking with a start, Joseph sat up.  Barek alone was still awake.  He nodded at Joseph, a sympathetic look on his face.

Without a sound, Joseph padded downstairs and through Mattan’s home into the courtyard.  The dream had disturbed him – deeply.  He needed to pray and think before attempting to sleep again.

 

For his part, Barek found sleep elusive.  He was weary, but his mind was troubled by what the upcoming day would bring.  The notion of destroying an entire village was… well, it was something his ancestors had done when they took possession of the Promised Land, but those were tales of people long gone.  The deed seemed difficult to contemplate when it would be his sword, his hand.  Surely there would be women.  Children.  Perhaps babies.  Part of him understood the reason for the LORD’s command, but another part was repulsed by it.

“There must be another way,” Barek mused.  It was half thought and half prayer.  Barek lifted his eyes to the starlit horizon, searching for an answer.

His thoughts were interrupted by a noise behind him.  Joseph had awakened.  His sleep had apparently been uneasy.

Not wanting to awaken the others, Barek merely nodded at Joseph, thinking, I share your disturbance, brother.

He watched Joseph step downstairs with a grace that was something a man had to learn and then practice.  Barek thought about Joseph for a moment.  A prophet, certainly but he had not always been a holy man.

Barek returned his gaze and thoughts to the stars.

 

Ammihud turned over.  He noted with some irritation that the cool night air would be more tolerable in his own home.  Then he dismissed the complaint as unworthy of a prophet on a mission from God.  After some moments of silent prayer, sleep finally claimed him.

He was surprised to be back at the Tabernacle.  Or what was left of it.  An old man wailed in grief among the ashes of what had been the Tent of Meeting.

Ammihud was stunned to see it destroyed.  Tears began to stream down his own face as he mourned the loss of Israel’s most sacred site.  “How has it come to this?” he wondered, both aggrieved and enraged.

The old man stood suddenly, and started walking backwards around the Tabernacle.  As he walked, backwards, the ashes turned to flame and the flame raced up the sides of the Tent itself and it’s fabric outer wall, restoring both!  The man paced around the Tabernacle to the rising and setting of five suns!

With a sharp breath, Ammihud was awake.  The LORD spoke to him more often in portents and in the words of the scrolls than in dreams, but there was no doubt in Ammihud’s mind that this startling dream was a revelation from Yahweh!

The stiffness of sleep slowed his motions, but Ammihud turned over.  He was startled to see Micah looking at him!  A few cubits away, the man’s eyes stared at him vacantly.  What was going on here?  “Am I still dreaming?” Ammihud wondered.

Then he looked up and saw that Maaz was sitting up.  Seated on the other side of Micah, Maaz must have noted the look of surprise on Ammihud’s face.

“Sleeps with his eyes open,” Maaz whispered.  “My sister says you get used to it.”

Troubled by the dream, Ammihud was in no mood to converse about Micah’s sleeping habits.  He rolled back on his side, facing away from Maaz and Micah’s sleep-gaze.  As he turned, Ammihud saw Barek was also sitting up, but his head bowed forward.

“What have I got myself into?” he wondered, and not for the last time.

 

Caleb would have preferred to dream about the livestock they’d released before destroying Heshonib.  About all of them herding themselves into his pen at the seller’s market.  Instead, the animal in his dream was some kind of cat, over-sized and ferocious.  It’s giant, black paw lashed out of the darkness.  Caleb ducked, but he was not the intended target.  Surprisingly, the animal was slashing the Tent of Meeting.  The Tabernacle was being torn to shreds!

When he reached out to fend off the blows, putting himself in harm’s way, Caleb awoke.  He was on his back, looking at the stars.  The sounds of the other men sleeping soothed him and he dismissed the dream, going back to sleep.

 

The seven were restless and woke Mattan before dawn.  He was not easily roused, but when he realized who it was that stood around him, Mattan hoisted his ample frame off the mat.

“Yes, my masters,” he said with a yawn.  “Let me see that water is brought, and some food.”

He stumbled out of the room and into the courtyard.

Caleb yawned and stretched.  “Brothers, you should have left Mattan and I to rest at least until sunrise.  This is hardly civil treatment.”

Maaz merely grunted and began pacing.

“I could wait no longer,” Micah commented, but was unable to stifle a yawn of his own.

“My sleep was broken by a dream – a nightmarish portent,” Joseph said, seeking each man’s eye.  “I dreamed that Deborah was rebuking me for not having investigated this matter fully.  There is more to this than what has happened in Heshonib.  The destruction of those idols was meant by the LORD to alert us to something.  An even greater evil, whose path merely crossed at Heshonib.”

“I can tell you where that evil will descend and when,” Ammihud added, hurriedly.

“What is this…” Maaz said derisively, “dueling prophets?”

Joseph waved him off and spoke to Ammihud.  “What did you see, brother?”

Sparing a withering glance at Maaz, Ammihud answered, “I saw the Tabernacle as a smoldering ruin.  An old man – perhaps the High Priest Ulla – wept at its destruction.  Then he stood and walked backward as the Tent was restored.  He walked backward as the sun rose and set five times.”

“The Tabernacle is in danger, and the danger will fall before the next Sabbath,” Joseph said, thinking aloud.  “This is a warning to us.  We must resolve this mystery quickly to see the Tabernacle spared.”

“My interpretation exactly,” Ammihud said, nodding.

“The Tabernacle?” Maaz cried, stepping to the two prophets.  “Who would dare raise a hand against the sanctuary, our beloved Tent of Meeting?!”

Ammihud looked sheepish.  “The hand of the arsonists was not revealed in my dream.”

“Nor in mine,” Joseph seconded.

“Say,” Caleb interjected.  “I had a dream too.  There was a… giant cat.”

“Cat?” Micah interrupted, his eyes narrowing.  “A cat, you say?”

Caleb was taken aback by this kind of attention.  “Um.  Yes.  I guess so.  I don’t remember much, I was, uh, I was sleeping at the time.”

Joseph turned and, stepping to the other side of the smaller man, put his hand on his shoulder.  “And what did this giant cat do?”

Caleb considered Joseph for a moment, then seemed reassured and continued, “It… lashed out with it’s claws and tore the Tabernacle to shreds.”

“Ha!” Ammihud exclaimed and slapped Maaz in the chest with the back of his hand.  “See there?  The Tabernacle, I tell you!

Maaz was about to answer when Barek, who was standing by the door, said, “Brothers, let us discuss this at another time.”

No one spoke as Mattan entered.  He was suddenly conscious of the silence and seven pairs of eyes on him.  He was at a loss to understand why.

“Pardon the delay.  My boy is… unaccustomed to service this time of the morning…” he offered, by way of explanation for the delay.

Six of the men took their seats.

Joseph said, “It is of no consequence, Mattan.  This day holds a difficult task before us and we would have it over with.  We wait at your leisure.”  With that, he turned and sat down, regarding Barek with a curious look.  What had prompted him to keep secrets from Mattan?  Joseph vowed he would find out later.

Idol Smashers – Part Five

terraphim

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

Day  One – Aphek

(Previously on “Idol Smashers:” A party of divinely-selected men of Israel set off from Shiloh on a secret mission for Deborah the Judge over Israel.  They arrive in Aphek where they are met by Deborah’s associate, Mattan.)

After the men of Israel followed Mattan into a courtyard and stable that abutted the city wall, their contact gestured to a rail where their animals could be tethered.  He poured water into the manger that ran beneath the rail.

Watching him closely, Ammihud observed that though he was a big man, Mattan seemed oddly delicate, even effeminate somehow in his mannerisms.  Ammihud had little time to consider this when Mattan turned to them suddenly and said, “My masters, let us retire to my humble home, where we can deal freely.”  Mattan spoke in a voice clearly intended to carry beyond the courtyard.  It seemed that Aphek held many listening ears.  He gestured silently toward a door held open by a young man who had the look of a servant.

In an unusual circumstance, Ammihud made no comment at all, instead quietly tied his donkey’s reins to the rail and went inside the cool brick home.  Food and drink had been set out.  They were obviously expected.  When his duties as doorman were concluded, the servant boy went back to chasing flies off of the food.  Savory and sweet smells greeted Ammihud.  In spite of their earlier snack, he found his appetite quickened by the aromas.

“Bothersome little pests, flies.  I hate them,” Mattan said, swinging at the swirling insects with a horsehair switch.  “One wonders why Noah did not deign to swat them when he had only two of them aboard the ark.”  Mattan chuckled at his little joke, but these men were all so serious-looking, he quickly left the attempt at humor and gestured to the pillows on the floor.

“Please, my masters.  Sit down.  Enjoy the hospitality of my humble home.”

Each of the men, in their turn, greeted Mattan and blessed his household.  After being seated, they were served by the boy.  Micah tasted the wine and even gargled it a bit in his mouth.  When the party looked at him in surprise, he murmured, “Excellent vintage.”

Mattan smiled broadly at this, and bowed his head.  “And now, just so we know that we can deal honestly, please to show me the scroll.”

Ammihud hesitated.  Did he mean to open it?  Deborah had specifically said that he needed only to examine the seal.

Barak, seated next to him, patted Ammihud on the back.  “Give him a look.  He won’t open it.”

Was the giant a mind reader too?  Ammihud hated to be so transparent.  He reached within his sash and withdrew the scroll, handing it to Mattan.

Looking only at the seal and comparing it to an amulet he withdrew from the folds of his robe, Mattan checked the seal carefully.  He nodded and then held up both his amulet and the scroll for all the men to see.  They had both clearly been imprinted by the same seal.

“All is well,” Mattan concluded and handed the scroll back to Ammihud.  “Perhaps now this unfortunate incident will be resolved.  We all serve our LORD and His Judge Deborah, so may wisdom guide us.  You do well to be cautious with that scroll, master.  It may bring you ease from Deborah’s allies and ill from her enemies.  It is not a device to be displayed overmuch.”

Mattan swatted the boy with his switch and he started.  “Keep your eyes and your tongue in your head my boy, and leave us.  Go out and tend to our master’s beasts.”

The boy executed a sloppy bow and ran out.

Mattan sighed.  “Good servants are so hard to purchase these days.  So, my masters, where to begin to tell the tale of this business at Heshonib?”

Each man tried to simultaneously speak above the other.  Mattan’s face showed his pleasure at being the center of attention.  “Please, my masters.  One at a time.  I have only one tongue, after all.”  He pointed to Micah.  “You with the excellent taste for wine.  I shall answer your question first.”

“Who are you and how do you have a role in all this?” he asked abruptly.

“I am a trader, the only one in all of Aphek who will do business with Heshonib.  Most of the people in Aphek prefer to ignore Heshonib, hoping it would disappear.  Now it appears their hopes are not in vain.  For myself, I trade with the people of the village though I find their idolatry abominable.”

A look of disgust crossed Maaz’s swarthy face but as it looked as if he would make a comment, Mattan pressed on.  “A few days ago I left Aphek to go to Heshonib.  Business as usual; nothing but business.  On this day, however, I was met on the road by the villagers who were streaming out of Heshonib in a panic. As I am known to them, I asked what was amiss.  They told me a tale nearly unbelievable.”

“It is a tale I have thus far only related to Deborah in a scroll written by my own hand.”  As few can write anything but their own name and a few numbers, this was intended to impress.  Mattan even held up a set of ten pudgy, soft digits, but noted these were men of Israel who were hared to impress.

“Now I tell it to you.  They said that early in the morning, as they were beginning to awaken, there was a loud noise like thunder, and a flash like lightning.  This happened in each of their homes.  They fell to the ground in fear, offering prayers for their lives.  After a few moments, they realized there was only silence, and all seemed as it was before.”

“Looking about their simple homes, their eyes naturally fell on their family altars.  In each home, the altar was in disarray.  The teraphim were all destroyed.  There were only splinters of wood or broken stone or bits of melted metal left where their household gods had been.  And – on the wall behind the destroyed altar – a word had been burned.”

Mattan paused to roll his eyes at the memory.  “These simple-minded villagers.  They know nothing of writing.  Not like Mattan does.  I went to the village while they waited nearby.  I have seen these words.  I recognized them as the language of our fathers.  There is a different Hebrew word burned into each wall in each home.  Is this not the manner in which the hand of God wrote the Ten Commandments?  I had no tablet on which to record them – or time to memorize them – but I have seen them, with my own eyes.”

He let that sink in, then continued to spin the tale.  “And that is not all my masters.  The cursed Asherah pole on the hill overlooking Heshonib had also caught afire.  It was still burning when I left.  Somehow I knew – perhaps the LORD Himself instructed me – that word of this must not pass forth until Deborah herself had a chance to see and judge what had happened here.  The Almighty One made me very persuasive as I convinced the villagers to gather in a secret place and there to pray, awaiting forgiveness.  I told them their village was accursed and all who remained there would be under a curse as well.”  Mattan regarded them seriously.  “These villagers are idolaters and superstitious rabble, after all.”

Suddenly, Mattan patted his chest and smiled broadly.  “It was my finest moment, I swear upon my beard.  I have kept them in a nearby cave for nearly a week, awaiting word from Deborah.  They have grown more restless daily, and I have had a hard time quelling rumors in Aphek.  But now you are here in Deborah’s name and you will bring an end to this trial.  I will take you to the cave or to the village, my masters, for there is daylight enough to reach either and return. You, my masters, will decide what is to be done, at the Lord’s bidding.”

Pointing to Ammihud, Mattan said, “The answer to the question is this: the village is presumably untouched.  As I said, none from Aphek bother with it, save I and the villagers are all rounded up.”

All the men were thinking furiously on this curious tale.  Jezreel’s mind ran in swift channels and he asked, “What is the history of this village?  How does such a blight exist within Israel?”

With a shrug, Mattan said, “I have no idea who founded this village, only that those who lived there are within a generation or two of the founders.  They are reputed to be men of Israel, but they do not worship as we do.”

“Then they are neither men, nor are they of Israel,” Maaz said, grimacing.

“Our friend is quick to make up his mind,” Joseph said.

Caleb quickly spoke up, “I, for one, should like to relieve myself and then, as you say, make a trip to the village.  The rest of our questions can be answered along the way, can they not?”

Maaz’s wrath was not so easily put off, but it appeared to Ammihud that he would say no more for the moment.  He must have been as eager as Caleb to see this place for himself.

Ammihud stood and said, “Yes.  As soon as we are all ready, we can depart.  Mattan, may we leave our cart here?  I see no reason to pack it along.”

Mattan also rose and made a half-bow.  “Yes, your belongings are perfectly safe here.  My man on the roof keeps a steady eye on things whenever I am away.”  Moving to the door, he held it open for them and said, “Shall we away, then?”

Day One – Heshonib

            Riding out of the city aroused less interest among those at the gate than riding in had done.  A word from Mattan to the Guardian of the Gate was sufficient to allay their mild curiosity.  His senses honed by his time in the wilderness Joseph observed among the elders of Aphek some disgust for Mattan.  Joseph wondered about the wisdom of Deborah’s choice of agents.  However, since he was the first to encounter the mystery, he may have been Adonai’s choice, not Deborah’s.

After having ridden out of earshot of the city, Mattan continued to discourse about Heshonib, but there was little in the way of important information.  The man is clearly enamored with the sound of his own voice and the cleverness of his business dealings.

Even Joseph began to be impatient with Mattan when he suddenly rode ahead of the party and veered off the road.  The path he took was scarcely noticeable.  “This way, my masters.  The route is little-used, but familiar to my eyes.”  This fact implied that Heshonib has been a fairly isolated village, just as Mattan has repeatedly said.

Riding up to the village gave Joseph a chill down his back and an unsettled feeling in his heart.  He looked at his companions and noted they were similarly discomfited.  It was quickly apparent that the village had been abandoned hastily – doors were left ajar, articles of clothing and personal belongings littered the ground, left where they had been dropped.  A few sheep wandered among the scene, bawling plaintively.

“What do I smell?” Maaz asks.  He lifted his ample nose and drew in several more draughts of air.  “WHAT DO I SMELL?!” he shouted.  Goading his donkey through the group, Maaz rounded a home a little further up the path.  Stopping there, he pointed to the east.

“PIGS!” he called out.  “Pigs!  These are no men of Israel!”

Micah rode forward for a look.  “Cursed is a swineherd,” he added, shaking his head in disgust.

“In case there were any lingering hope about the faith of these people,” Joseph commented as he rode through the village to look upon the sty, “that pretty well settles it.”

Ammihud tethered his mount at a trough near the well at the further end of the village.  Looking down the shaft, he said, “They’re not cursed by lack of water.  This well is nigh full.”

Jezreel stepped off his donkey and tethered it next to Ammihud’s.

“Then we should draw some off for our beasts and ourselves,” he says, pulling on the rope suspended by a long wooden limb over the simple, crude well.  The skin bucket held the water well enough and he filled the trough with several draws.

“Who among us can read more than his name?” Ammihud asks.

Barek tied his mount’s reins to the tether.  “I can,” he said, after helping himself to a drink.

“As can I,” Jezreel added.

“Very well,” Ammihud said, drawing up his belt.  “The rest of us should take a look around while you two read the words the LORD has carved into the walls of these idolaters.”

Maaz appeared reluctant to even set foot on the village.  “Micah and I will ride up the hill and look at their evil Asherah pole, may that name be cursed.”

The men rode up the nearby hill to the charred remains of the wooden pole that hade once been mistakenly worshiped as a goddess.  Unwilling to suffer the stump to remain in the ground the two men of Israel worked to pull it out of the earth.

For his part, Mattan seemed uncomfortable returning to Heshonib.  He seems to sense that something profound has forever changed if.  “Masters, may I remain here – keep an eye on our mounts?”

Joseph clapped him on the shoulder.  “Be of good courage, Mattan.  The LORD will give us wisdom in sorting all this out.”  Turning to Ammihud and Caleb, he said, “Gentlemen, let’s take care of these animals and release them.”

Caleb hesitated.  “The sheep could be herded back to Aphek.  They could fetch a decent price there…”

Joseph waved off his comrade’s objection.  “No, that would be stealing them from the Heshonibites.  If we give them a bit of food and water, then release them into God’s care, we are guilty of no wrongdoing.”

Ammihud sighed.  “I object to doing a shepherd’s work,” he paused in the hope of receiving some support.  When none was forthcoming, he continued, “But I suppose the better we deal with this, the more help we can expect from the LORD.”

“That’s the spirit!” Joseph said.  “Let’s find their feed and then herd them out here for water.  What they do after that is the LORD’s will.”

“Agreed,” Ammihud said.  He turned and strode toward the pen of pigs.  “Let’s get the worst over with first.”

“Agreed,” Caleb seconded, following Ammihud.  Joseph busied himself scattering feed from a spilled sack of grain abandoned near the well.

Micah made a sign against evil with his right hand.

Maaz noted this and nodded.  “I couldn’t agree more.”

What once had been a pole half again their height, was now more like a stump.  The unburned portion was only a couple hand-breadths from the ground, the whole thing no more than a cubit and a half tall.  None of the carving remained.

“Take a look at this, Maaz,” Micah said from his position at now-exposed bottom of the idolatrous pole.

“What is it?”

After his brother-in-law had come round to look, Micah pointed to a carving on the bottom.

“What does that look like to you?” Maaz queried.

“Like a man dancing, I’d say,” Micah replied.

“I don’t know my letters, but I’d say you’re right.  It’s a picture, not a letter.”  Maaz sighed and shook his head.  For once, words failed him.  There was a sense of evil in this spot, a sens that permeated the village.  It made Maaz’s stomach churn with anger.  He lifted his gaze and looked around the hillside.  “It is strange how the nearby brush and grasses escaped burning.”

Micah looked about them, then nodded. “As if the LORD wanted only this thing to be destroyed.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Maaz stepped around the remains of the Asherah pole one more time.  “I have seen these things before.  They are profane and perverse.  It makes me happy that there’s one less of them in the world,” Maaz declared.  He abruptly remounted his mount and headed it down the path.

“Let’s go” he said over his shoulder, as if that were not obviously his intent.

Micah took a drink from a skin hanging beneath his robe, then mounted and urged his donkey down the path.

Jezreel and Barek made their way quickly through the Heshonibites’ homes.  The smells of rotted food joined the animal odors, but the olfactory assault was nothing compared to the oppressive spirit both men sensed.  The LORD had done something miraculous here, but it did nothing to relieve the evil that resided in the place.  There was something more than idolatry being practiced here.  Both men sensed it and remarked about it.

In this the homes were all very much the same.  It was a tangle of overturned furniture and left-behind belongings.  Halt-eaten meals were still on tables.  Each house was a scene of instant, hurried flight.

These details paled in comparison to the nooks in the walls where the household teraphim had been enshrined.  Whether the idols were made of wood or stone or metal, all had been burned and cast to the dirt floor.  On the blackened wall behind each, a Hebrew word had been carved – burned – into the brick.

Barek collected some of the idols – one of each type of material – lining them up on the wall of the well.  Together, he and Jezreel took a stick and copied the words from wall on the ground outside each home.  The rutted path that wore crookedly through the center of the village now bore several words, writ large in the dirt.

Ammihud walked into the center of town and took in their handiwork.

“Well, while you scribes have been copying your texts, the rest of us have been working.  All these animals – even the unclean ones mind you – have been saved from starvation.”

“When can we let them loose?” Joseph asked as he joined them.

Caleb did some figuring on his fingers.

“That’s a lot of money to just set loose,” he said at the conclusion of his calculations.

“Caleb,” Joseph said.  “I thought we agreed.”

“Unwise is the man who does not count the cost before building the barn,” Caleb quoted.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

Before Joseph could phrase a reply, Maaz and Micah rode up.

“What does it say?” Maaz asked.

“We’re just about to figure that out,” Jezreel replied.

Micah asked, “Is it a message from the LORD?”

“Yes,” Jezreel replied.  “That much seems obvious.  However, the words don’t appear in order, no matter which way you go round the village.  Unless…” he stopped, looking around.  “Unless you pick the right place to start, not assuming the path through town marks the beginning.”

“We can’t help you with that until you tell us what they say,” Ammihud said, a little impatiently.

“Right,” said Jezreel.  Casting a sidelong glance at Barek, he began with the home to their immediate right.  Proceeding along to his left, Jezreel read aloud each word as he came to it, “killed I the Lord Almighty, have…” turning back to Barek, Jezreel said, “Barek, what did we decide this word was?”

“Cursed,” the giant Israelite said tersely.

“Oh yes.  Right.  ‘Cursed’… it is an old version of the word, not widely used today.”

Moving to the next house, Jezreel began to read aloud again, “This place for their idolatry all must be.”

“Must be…?” Caleb asked quizzically.  “That doesn’t sound like the end of a message, but somewhere in the middle.”

Maaz slapped his thigh.  “If this is a message form Adonai, wouldn’t it make sense for “I” to be the first word?  Start over again, from there.”

A little to excited for words, Ammihud merely nodded his agreement and waved to Jezreel to start over.

“Start over here,” Barek urged, getting caught up in the moment.

“Very well,” Jezreel said, hurrying over to a house to the left of the one at which he’d formerly started.  “Let me try this again.  See how it sounds.”

“I – the – Lord – Almighty – have cursed – this – place – for – their – idolatry – all – must – be – killed.”

TruLuv

Please read Hosea 14 in your Bible.  Full disclosure: I used the NIV (1984) for this article.

REPENTANCE

God truly loves those who repent.

          I saw a video recently of a lady who entered a kennel to attempt to win the trust of a pup who had been abused all his life and consequently growled at and cowered before any people who came near.  This lady approached the dog cautiously, with a treat in one hand, reaching out with the other, open-palmed.  Somehow with a combination of her voice and touch, she got the dog to respond to her positively, taking the treat.  Very soon after that, the dog was able to be let out of the kennel.  Its demeanor was completely transformed; it played with other dogs and acted like a pup should.

The video was offered as a metaphor on human behavior; sometimes people, like this pup, have known little other than abuse.  They don’t know how to receive love because they have been shown so little love.  However, once they take a chance and experience true love, a switch is flipped and they are somehow enabled to be loved and can even learn how to love others.  True love is a redemptive force.

(You can see the video for yourself at https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:ugcPost:6450598322699927552.)

  1. TruLuv for God begins w/ repentance (1-3, 9)

In this passage, RETURN is the word for repentance.  In Hebrew, the word is sub.  It has a variety of meanings, all along the lines of turning back, returning, restoring.  We can visualize it as a turning away from sin, turning back to God.  Walking toward sin (giving into temptation) is walking away from God; there is a 180 degree difference.

We read two specific parts to repentance.  The first is that repentance is a change of direction. As verse one states, RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD.

Second, realizing words DO count, repentance is asking God to forgive you. Verses two and three make this truth plain; TAKE WORDS WITH YOU…SAY TO HIM.  What are we to say to God?  Hosea reveals five statements we must sincerely make to God:

One: “I admit I am guilty of sin.  We are to plead, as Hosea did, FORGIVE ALL OUR SINS.  Redemption comes to those who admit to having a problem called sin, one we can’t fix it on our own.  Redemption is an act of God’s grace, not our merit.

Two: “Lord, please forgive me.”  As the prophet did, pray God will RECEIVE US GRACIOUSLY.  Through Jesus Christ, God has fixed the problem of sin; He can save you.

Three: “I reject worldly ways and self-reliance.”  This is what is meant by the phrase ASSYRIA CANNOT SAVE US; WE WILL NOT MOUNT WAR-HORSES.

Four: “I reject false gods.”  Idolatry takes on more subtle forms in our time; self-made religion is the more common form of our modern idolatry.  It is no less deadly, however, than fashioning a false god image and worshiping it.  We see the rejection of idols in verses three and eight; WE WILL NEVER AGAIN SAY ‘OUR GODS’ TO WHAT OUR OWN HANDS HAVE MADE and WHAT MORE HAS EPHRAIM TO DO WITH IDOLS?

Five: “God, I accept your forgiveness and offer praise to You.”  Verse two uses language of sacrifice, though in the NIV it reads, WE…OFFER THE FRUIT OF OUR LIPS.  This literally says, “we offer our lips (bulls) as sacrifice.”  The author of Hebrews would use similar language in 13:15; OFFER A SACRIFICE OF PRAISE.

Why should we repent?  To be forgiven, of course, but also because it is the right thing to do.  As verse nine says, THE WAYS OF THE LORD ARE RIGHT.

Verse nine also tells us about the repentant person.  These qualities are similar to what is written in Psalm 107:43; Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the LORD.

He is wise.  WHO IS WISE? HE WILL REALIZE THESE THINGS.

He has discernment (the ability to distinguish between good and evil).  WHO IS DISCERNING? HE WILL UNDERSTAND THEM.

He is headed in the right direction THE RIGHTEOUS WALK IN THE WAYS OF THE LORD.

Verse nine also tells us something about the unrepentant person: THE REBELLIOUS STUMBLE.  A refusal to obey God causes a person to STUMBLE; they reject the truth and refuse to repent.

  1. TruLuv from God restores His beloved (3-8).

God loves you too much to leave you an orphan.  As verse three declares; IN YOU THE FATHERLESS FIND COMPASSION. This is a recurring promise in the Bible (for example, see Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:18).  God puts us in families and in church families so we can serve Him, serve each other, and serve our communities.

God’s love is expressed in three promises made in v. 4.

First, I WILL HEAL THEIR WAYWARDNESS.  Ironically, the word WAYWARDNESS has the same root as the word RETURN, but describes turning away from God, not to Him.

Second, I WILL…LOVE THEM FREELY.  This is the unconditional love of God.

Third, MY ANGER HAS TURNED AWAY FROM THEM.  Forgiveness turns away wrath.

God’s love will cause you to thrive, not just survive: I WILL BE LIKE DEW TO ISRAEL (5). This blessed state is expressed in ten promises made in verses five to eight.

HE WILL BLOSSOM LIKE A LILY (5).

HE WILL SEND DOWN HIS ROOTS (5).

HIS YOUNG SHOOTS WILL GROW (6).

HIS SPLENDOR WILL BE LIKE AN OLIVE TREE (6).

HIS FRAGRANCE LIKE A CEDAR OF LEBANON (6).

MEN WILL DWELL AGAIN IN HIS SHADE (7).

HE WILL FLOURISH LIKE THE GRAIN (7).

HE WILL BLOSSOM LIKE A VINE (7).

HIS FAME WILL BE LIKE THE WINE FROM LEBANON (7).

I WILL ANSWER HIM AND CARE FOR HIM (8).

Verse eight shows all good things come from God: I AM LIKE A GREEN PINE TREE; YOUR FRUITFULNESS COMES FROM ME.

God truly loves those who repent.

          Pastor Bledar Valca told this story: “Some years ago a murderer was sentenced to death. The murderer’s brother, to whom the State was deeply indebted for former services, besought the governor of the State for his brother’s pardon. The pardon was granted, and the man visited his brother with the pardon in his pocket. “What would you do,” he said to him, “if you received a pardon?” “The first thing I would do,” he answered, “is to track down the judge who sentenced me, and murder him; and the next thing I would do is to track down the chief witness, and murder him.” The brother rose, and left the prison with the pardon in his pocket.

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/repentance-bledar-valca-sermon-on-repentance-104293?ref=SermonSerps

This tale is intended to teach us that if there is no repentance, there can be no pardon.  Sin cannot be forgiven without the offender asking for repentance.

The good news is God loves every sinner who repents.  His forgiveness is total, cleansing the worst sinner from every last bit of guilt and shame.  He fully restores those who He forgives, recreating their moral perfection with a perfectly clean slate.

God acted to save us from our sins, just as He acted in history to restore His people after their exile.  Much of the news the prophet Hosea delivered was bad news, condemning sin and warning them of God’s coming wrath.  However, the book ends with this stirring call to repentance in order to have God’s forgiveness, the blessing of His grace.

Make this your personal experience.  Admit your sin; confess it to God.  Ask His forgiveness and receive His love.

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance (2nd Edition)

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce, Ed.

Seven Modern Maladies and Their Solutions (1 of 7)

Those of you over 50 years old…

 

professor

need no introduction to this guy.  Chances are you can recount the episode from which this picture was taken.

For the rest of you, this is a picture of “the Professor” character from the TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” which premiered on CBS on September 26, 1964.  Actor Russell Johnson portrayed Professor Roy Hinkley all three seasons the show aired and in subsequent sequels.  He originally did not want the part (in what may have been a prideful moment, he was hoping for a show of his own) and admitted to having difficulty memorizing the lines with a lot of scientific words in them.

Several years ago I received an email that identified the characters on Gilligan’s Island with the seven deadly sins, just for fun.  The Professor was chosen to represent the sin of PRIDE because he was a “know-it-all.”

Pride is a sin because it makes an idol of self.

  1. The vicious vice of pride. (1 Cor. 8:1-3)

How can I identify a sinful degree of pride in myself?  It is a matter of trust: do I trust God or self?  Pride is putting trust in myself or any other worldly thing.         It is a matter of love: do I love God first?  Love of self is appropriate if we love God and others first.  It is a matter of grace: do I try to earn favor?  This can be subtle, but I believe that I can be worthy to enter heaven by being a good person, that is a form of pride.

Why is pride deadly?  It is deadly because it can blind us to our need for God.  If we don’t acknowledge our personal problem with sin and our need for Jesus Christ as Savior, we are dead in our sins and unsaved.  Self-reliance can be a good thing except in spirituality.  In spiritual matters we must rely on God.

The context of this verse is a “hot button” issue in the early church; whether or not it was appropriate to eat the meat of animals that had been slain as a sacrifice to an idol.  Paul’s teaching on this issue reveals how pride can replace true spirituality.  In his answer, Paul was inspired to make three points.

First, WE ALL HAVE KNOWLEDGE.  That was Paul’s way of saying, “Everyone in the church has an opinion on this subject.”   The question was, whose opinion was right?

Paul’s answer might be summarized as, “The person who relies on God’s wisdom than human knowledge.”  The spiritually mature view is to not be legalistic because legalism is a religious form of pride.  It puts human knowledge above spiritual revelation, and law above grace.

Second, love is better than knowledge.  Paul wrote that KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP – that is – it creates a pride.  “Know-it-all” people and legalists have a toxic effect on relationships.  LOVE is better because it BUILDS UP other people.  People who have the love of the Lord have a positive effect on relationships.

KNOWLEDGE asks questions like…

What are my rights?

There are no exceptions – no need to pay attention to context – so, what does the law say?

How can I be vigilant to correct wrong-doing in others?

How do I need to exert my will?

LOVE asks questions like…

What is my responsibility?

What has God revealed to me?

What can I do to show God’s grace and promote spiritual maturity?

How can I help others to do God’s will?

Third, humility is best defined as accurate self-knowledge.  This may sound shocking: self-reliance is the greatest enemy of faith because it encourages inaccurate self-knowledge.

People who are intellectually self-reliant are proud of their big brains.  They tend to reject faith, tradition and Scripture because they’ve “figured it all out” and “know better.”

People who are materially self-reliant seek security from money in the bank or are materialistic in more subtle ways.

People who are physically self-reliant tend to emphasize experience and value excitement.  They refute absolute truth and morality as it might limit on their freedom.

People who are spiritually self-reliant have made up their own faith; they see no problem with placing their hope in something that has no more authority than wishful thinking.

Humility is needed and none of these self-reliant people are humble because they fundamentally misperceive themselves.   Accurate self-knowledge comes only in relationship with God.  For example, every day we rely on a mirror to accurately view our appearance.  In a similar but more important way, we need someone to reflect our true self back to us.

Apart from God, all we have are other people to be mirrors for us.  There are at least two problems with depending on people to serve as our “character mirrors.”

No one else really knows us.  They can’t know read minds and they have not lived all our life with us.  God knows us better than we know ourselves and He has been with us all our lives.

The perspective of others is always heavily influenced by their own thoughts and experiences; they are incapable of being a truly accurate reflection.  God IS the truth.  He alone can truly reflect us.

So how do we access God’s perspective?  Primarily, we gain God’s perspective through prayer, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit.   Secondarily, we can gain God’s perspective through other believers who are spiritually maturing and speak through the Holy Spirit.

  1. The vital virtue of humility. (Romans 12:3)

The context of this passage: in Romans 12, Paul reminded the church members that they were not separate bodies, but one.  The individual believers, like organs in a body, must all function and function together for the health of the whole.

How am I to practice humility?  Paul listed three specific requirements.

First, I must stand in God’s grace, not in my works.  In the phrase, FOR BY THE GRACE GIVEN ME Paul identified the authority behind his words (God) and the source of his words (also God).

GRACE is God’s favor on undeserving people.  Pride is a sin because it attempts to do away with GRACE, to make it unnecessary by redefining sin out of existence or at least making it unimportant.

Humility is a virtue because it admits to our complete dependence on God.  You can’t have humility without GRACE.

Second, I must not think too highly of myself; no more than I OUGHT to.  Humility is NOT making yourself a doormat.  It has very little to do with passivity.  Humility is knowing who you really are, as God has given you perspective to know yourself accurately.

Accurate self-knowledge will never lead to pride.  It is never self-centered.  Accurate self-knowledge is awareness of your strengths and weaknesses and a desire to live within them.  Accurate self-knowledge does not deny ambition, but it tempers it.  It is based on truth and is the most realistic view of self.

I must think of myself as God does.  Because of GRACE, I see myself as a child of God.  Thereby I can…

Third, exercise SOBER JUDGMENT.  I can see good and evil in the world and react accordingly.  I understand life IN THE MEASURE OF FAITH.

Notice FAITH too is God’s gift.  FAITH is not something we make up to suit ourselves or to fit in with the crowd.  FAITH is received.  It must be sought and discovered.  It is passed on and received.

Humility is vital because pride can blind us to our need for God. Pride replaces God with self.  Pride leaves us dead in sin because if we don’t acknowledge our sin & our need for the Savior then we will never have faith.

Those of you under 50 years old…

selfie

know what this woman is doing.

For the rest of you, this gal is taking a “selfie” and she’s using a “selfie stick” and her smart phone to do it.  She will post the self-portrait on a website called Instagram, where people typically draw attention to themselves.

A friend gave me a copy of this cartoon that identifies the seven deadly sins with websites, updating this list for modern times.   Instagram is a photo and video-sharing website and app that began way back in 2010 and is owned by Facebook.  As of September, 2017, Instagram had 800 million registered users and over 40 billion photos and videos have been uploaded to it.  Instagram is criticized both for its censorship and its lack of censorship, proving again you can’t make everyone happy.

My point is not that users of Instagram are raging egomaniacs.  Instead, I merely offer Instagram is a symbol of pride because it is a place where people show themselves to the world.  However, the self they’re showing is possibly more flattering than accurate.

Pride is a sin because it makes an idol of self.

Our message is simple: avoid the vice of pride while practicing the virtue of humility.  We prize independence and in politics and finances, that is a good thing.  But in every other respect, dependence on God and interdependence among believers is the ideal.  It is an ideal achieved by humility, not pride.

We Must Get Along… And More!

(Please read Romans 14:1-15:13 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

True faith requires us to get along with each other.

From the beginning of my ministry, even in seminary, I have numbered my messages as I wrote them.  I can’t tell you from where the idea came. When I realized last month that my 1600th message would be coming up, I resolved to do something a little different.  Not that there’s anything at all special about this particular number other than its roundness.

So I asked you to submit ideas for a message and then I randomly selected one of the responses and that’s how we ended up here at Romans 14+15.  This is obviously too much material to cover in one 20 minute message, so we’ll split it up over two Sundays, Lord willing.

Now that we know how we got here, let’s read a portion of our passage:

This is actually old news, but as I only heard about it last week, I’ve been interested and eager to share it with you.  Have you heard about the “9/11 Bible?”  When I read the headline I assumed it referred to some new kind of specialty Bible that had been recently published.

Not so!  This is the story of the discovery of an artifact at Ground Zero, the place where the World Trade Center buildings collapsed.  It is a Bible that was fused, by heat and pressure, to a portion of a steel beam that had framed one of the Twin Towers.

A firefighter discovered the artifact in March of 2002, months after the terrorist attack that brought the Towers down.  He recognized immediately what the find represented, he called to a nearby photographer to come and record the discovery.  Eventually the artifact became one of several discoveries that memorialize the events and people of 9/11.

What’s more interesting about the “9/11 Bible” is that the exposed pages of the Bible are open to Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount section.  Part of Jesus’ teaching on view on these pages – plainly legible – is “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Jesus is teaching us about the futility of revenge.  Hundreds of years after these words were spoken, in a spot hundreds of miles removed from the mountain on which they were spoken, the words delivered a timely rebuke of calls to avenge the deaths of the lives lost that way.

It is an amazing story and a great illustration of one of the important truths of the Bible; God calls His people to peace.  We are to be peace-makers and nothing else.  Division, conflict, and violence are often the result of sin and selfishness, a product of spiritual immaturity and biblical illiteracy.

  1. The WEAK churched person is a legalist (14:2, 23).

Food serves as an example of legalism (2).  A faith that is WEAK imposes limits and makes laws that everyone must follow.  It is a sign of weakness because that person can’t have convictions of their own; they must have partners or follow the crowd.  (“Misery loves company?”)  It is a sign of weakness because that person’s convictions can’t stand scrutiny; they don’t hold up under opposition.

Eating ONLY VEGETABLES is not a condemnation of vegetarianism (no matter h0w much you may want it to be).  Paul is writing about people who chose to eat vegetables only because of their religious convictions, not because of perceived dietary benefits.  Some people of faith in Paul’s time were so concerned about avoiding meat offered to idols that they ate only vegetables.  Also, Jews couldn’t be sure meat sold in the market was kosher; rather than take the chance it wasn’t, they ate ONLY VEGETABLES.  We might call this a “faith-based lifestyle choice.”

The WEAK person rejects their liberty in Christ, the freedom of grace.  They settle for avoiding evil but don’t attend to doing good. Both of these moral priorities are necessary for a full-featured faith.

God’s standard for moral behavior is simple: EVERYTHING THAT DOES NOT COME FROM FAITH IS SIN (23).  For example, legalism is rooted in self-centeredness, not God-centeredness.  Therefore it is sin.

To put it another way, “If you’re not sure, assume it’s not God.”  Observing this guideline will steer us clear of a lot of trouble.

How do we know whether or not something comes from faith?

Test #1 – It arises from and is confirmed by the plain teaching of the Bible.

Test #2 – It opposes the traditional teaching of the Church only rarely; when the tradition is in conflict with #1.

Test #3 – It is in harmony with the Holy Spirit.

Test #4 – It promotes unity in the Church and enacts love toward maturity.

  1. The STRONG churched person is a realist (14:2, 14 + 15:1).

Food is a place where realism can be exercised (2).  One of the issues in the Corinthian church was eating meat offered to idols.  The WEAK person saw it as spiritually contaminated and made eating it a moral issue.  The STRONG person did not approve of idolatry but saw meat simply as meat.  “Realism” does not deny the supernatural, but affirms it in ways that are consistent with FAITH.

Paul’s reference to UNCLEAN things (14) refutes legalists’ claims to be more biblical.  Paul’s personal conviction was that NOTHING IS UNCLEAN IN ITSELF.  To conclude otherwise is to attempt to return to the Old Testament Law and use parts of it to support one’s personal biases (legalism).  Folks, God sorted all this out with Peter in Acts 10+11; what I call Peter’s vision of “meat on a sheet.”  Look it up for yourself!

However, Paul’s conviction was tempered by consideration for the people around him.  Out of respect for them, he would heed what they believed was unclean.  He did not force his view on anyone and expected others to do the same.

The kinds of things on which we typically disagree are DISPUTABLE MATTERS.  Paul may be thinking about moral and theological points that are of lesser importance and/or are more difficult to resolve to everyone’s agreement.  I heard recently there are currently 40,000 different groups calling themselves “Christians.”  Another person predicted more divisions; by 2025 there will be 55,000 Christian sects.  Why do we divide?  Because we’ve not learned to agree to disagree on DISPUTABLE MATTERS.  We are prone to “major on the minors.”

We can think of this phrase in terms of human nature: it is human nature to get mad about trivial things and be more forgiving on more important matters.  We can avoid a lot of division if we would overlook small matters.

Another quality of DISPUTABLE MATTERS is that agreement is not required.  We can agree to disagree without either one of us being untrue to Christ.

People who are STRONG in their faith will be more accepting, even of people who disagree with them.  Even when the WEAK refuse tolerate disagreement, the STRONG are to BEAR with them.  BEAR does NOT mean to growl at one another from our separate caves; it means to forgive and forget; to show patience and acceptance.

The STRONG can BEAR with the weak because they see things from God’s perspective and trust Him to work them out.  The STRONG are not out to please themselves but their neighbors (15:2), just as Jesus commanded.

The key word in this passage is “accept.”  In the NIV it is the first word in the passage: 14:1 = ACCEPT THE ONE WHOSE FAITH IS WEAK.  It comes up again in 15:7; ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER, THEN, JUST AS CHRIST ACCEPTED YOU, IN ORDER TO BRING PRAISE TO GOD.  The idea of mutual acceptance is developed in the rest of the passage.

ACCEPT is the Greek word proslamban, which means “to receive kindly or hospitably” and “to treat with kindness.”  In a general sense, it is to “welcome” each other, receiving each other wholeheartedly.  Specifically, when we “proslamban” one another, we grant each other admission into our heart, looking beyond the merely superficial, striving to build relationships.”

The important phrase for understanding and practicing this command is JUST AS CHRIST ACCEPTED YOU.   How did Christ accept us?   According to Romans 5:8 the Bible says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We don’t follow Jesus’ example in the principle of self-sacrifice.  We must be so in love with God and each other that we are willing to make sacrifices in order for love to flourish.

  • I sacrifice my prejudice and stereotypes to welcome someone different from me.
  • I sacrifice petty things like my comfort, convenience, and choices so I can help someone in need. More than that, I want them to feel included in my family of faith.
  • I sacrifice some of the possessions, my time, my money, to support ministries that open doors to people who genuinely seek God.
  • I sacrifice my ego, pride, or self-centeredness to make my circle of friends a bit larger every day because I have served them, not myself.
  • I sacrifice the need to be right, to be the center of attention, to get my way all the time, in order to really hear the heart cries of people around me.
  • I sacrifice my private ambitions in order to grow our church, one person at a time.

Talking About the Table

(Please read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 & 11:17-34 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh wrote about a personal experience of his in an internet study:

“A few years ago, my parents spent a year in Taiwan, where my dad taught in an American school, and my mother assisted. They came to know a young Chinese man whose name was Johnny. He did not know English very well, and my dad agreed to teach him—from the Gospel of Matthew. Johnny was saved at chapter 16. Over time, they got to know Johnny quite well. He began to speak of having them over for dinner, and that he had something very special to serve.

“One evening, my dad and Johnny were walking home and were passing through an alley when a dog began to bark incessantly. Johnny finally yelled something at the dog in Chinese, and suddenly it was quiet. As they continued on, my dad pressed Johnny to tell him just what he had yelled at the dog. Johnny told him that he told the dog to shut up or he would eat him. Johnny was serious. As Johnny began to speak more often about the meal he planned to serve my folks, it came out that the special dish was a dog. As politely as they could, my folks explained that in America we looked at dogs as our friends, and so we would not think of eating one. That seemed to put the matter to rest.

“What we eat really does matter a lot to us, doesn’t it? When one of our children was asked to spend the night at the home of a friend, our daughter had one important question to ask: “What are we having for dinner?” The answer to this question was usually the determining factor in her decision. The Corinthians seemed to have divided over what certain people ate for dinner. Some Corinthians felt they were free to eat any meat whatsoever, even meats offered to idols. They were so liberated in their thinking and behavior that they had no scruples about eating idol-meats at a meal that was part of a pagan religious idol worship ritual. Other Corinthians were much more particular. In fact, some were so sensitive on this matter that they would not eat anything without first knowing its origin. Every meal must have been like an inquisition, with the host being grilled (pardon the pun) concerning the origin of the meat being served.”

<Retrieved from https://bible.org/seriespage/19-table-talk-1-cor-1014-33 on 5/4/17.>

  1. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 = How to get the rite wrong: practicing it in a worldly way.

CONTEXT = One problem Paul dealt with i/t Corinthian church was how they messed up the faith by combining it w/ their old idol-worship.

COMMENTS = Paul makes his point abundantly clear: FLEE FROM IDOLATRY (14).

Historically, there has always been a temptation to combine Christian faith with other faiths or worldly things.  If you want to impress someone with your vocabulary, this problem is called SYNCRETISM.  (Think of “synchronizing your watches.”)  The problem is, our faith is not modular: you can’t keep the true faith by taking out the bits you don’t like or adding bits from other sources.  We received an entire word of God and a whole faith; it’s a package.  Syncretism was the general issue. In this case, the specific problem was Christians eating meat from the market that had previously been a sacrifice offered to an idol.  Enquiring minds wanted to know: Was the meat tainted spiritually?  Were people sinning in this practice?

A more contemporary example: a church I formerly served was offered money for assistance for paying heating bills by a local service club.  We all knew the money had been raised by selling liquor and gambling tickets.  Was the money tainted spiritually?  Would we be sinning by accepting it?

To begin to answer the question, Paul compared eating the Lord’s Supper with eating meat offered to idols.  By the way he handled this controversy, Paul teaches us something about the Lord’s Supper.  Paul made his point by…

Characterizing his opposition as wrong = I SPEAK TO SENSIBLE PEOPLE (15).

Characterizing the nature of the rite: PARTICIPATION IN THE BLOOD & BODY OF CHRIST (16).  In the Old Testament system, the people who offered the animal sacrifice on the altar shared in the meat from the slaughter of the animal (18).  Then he offers a negative example: those who offer sacrifices to idols are not participating with Christ, but with DEMONS instead (19-21). Verses 19-20 clarify that there is no reality to an IDOL; it is not ANYTHING.  So eating meat offered to any idol has no intrinsic spirituality.  Verse 21 = However, Satan is the “Father of all lies” according to Jesus, so DEMONS are the unseen reality behind the falsehood of all idol-worship, even the kind we do.  The bottom line is we are not to corrupt our faith – including our practice of the Lord’s Supper – by combining it with anything evil or worldly.

Characterizing the effect of the rite on the BODY as unifying: ONE LOAF…ONE BODY (17).

Characterizing violation of the Lord’s Supper as arousing the LORD’S JEALOUSY (22).  This is Paul’s way of returning to the idea of being SENSIBLE PEOPLE.  He’s urging his readers to use their brains and think about what they’re doing, and consider the effects.  God does not want to share you with an idol; discipline will result if we persist in idolatry.

  1. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 = How to get the rite right.

CONTEXT = The way the Lord’s Supper was handled in Corinth was a rite gone wrong.

COMMENTS = The specific problem was that their rite (ritual) was abused as an occasion for PREJUDICE instead of fellowship.  The wealthy members abused their poor brothers and sisters in the way they practiced the Lord’s Supper.  They brought “gourmet” food and refused to share it with the poor; they probably said it was too good for them.  They began the meal before sundown, excluding working folk still on the job.  (A large percentage of the Church at that time were in slavery.)  They were also guilty of drunkenness and gluttony, treating the Supper as a pagan rite.

A result was that the rite drove them apart instead of building UNITY.  Paul used two words:

DIVISIONS (18) = When our focus is on bias, competition and/or dispute, DIVISIONS result.

DIFFERENCES (19) is actually an emotionally stronger word having the same root as our word “heresy.”

This was a serious problem.  Verse 22 is a strongly-worded rebuke.  V. 27 = it was a SIN against the Lord Jesus Himself.  Vs. 29+34 = they brought the Lord’s JUDGMENT on themselves.  V. 30 = His judgment was manifest in sickness and death among them.

They needed to make their rite RIGHT.  Step #1 = They needed to keep the Supper as they’d RECEIVED it (23).  Get back to basics.

Step #2 = they needed to keep it in a way that valued EVERYONE equally as members of the BODY OF CHRIST.  Paul had some practical suggestions on how to achieve this:

WAIT FOR EACH OTHER (33) = wait until after sundown so the working folk could come.

IF ANYONE IS HUNGRY, HE SHOULD EAT AT HOME (34) = the fellowship around the meal is more important than the meal.  If your tummy rules you, quiet it by snacking first.

Understand your motive; examine yourself to know why you’re at the table at all (vs. 28+29).

Appreciate the fact it is always better to obey God than be condemned with the world (30-32).

Why is this important?

The answer is simple.  This is a matter of life and death, just as 1 Corinthians 11:30 made clear.  That is the truth because there is more to this table than bread and grape juice, more even than symbolism.  This table is our participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is what Jesus taught before His death:

“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”  Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

“For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me.” (See John 6:51-57.)

The Lord’s Supper is for all who have truly trusted in Jesus and have received, by faith, the gift of life.  Your years of experience in church, your titles, your awards, your contributions; none of those things matter.  In this moment, what matters is what is real in you.  If you are a participant in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this table is the way He has chosen for you to remember Him.  Honor Him with your actions in these next few moments.

Participate or refrain, but in either case, choose the right thing and in so doing, honor Jesus Christ.  There is nothing else that matters in this sacred moment.

Faithfulness or Unfaithful Mess? Your Choice. (Part Two)

(Please read Joshua 24:14-27 in your Bible.  I have prepared these remarks with the NIV.)

Faithfulness is a Fruit of the Spirit and is the only appropriate response to all God has done for us.

A politician said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”  The politician’s name was Abraham Lincoln and he made these comments in a speech in 1863.

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-jeff-simms-quotes-wear-judgment-privilege-13886.asp on 7/8/16.>

It sounds like the more things change, the more they stay the same.  For too long we’ve been operating under the mistaken notion that the human race is evolving, progressing, and improving our world.  I would say the violence we see reported anew almost daily argues against that notion.

We have changed many things but human nature is not one of them.  We have solved many problems, but sin is not one of them.  We have met some needs, but our need for God is one that we will never meet any way other than by faith.

As individuals, we are the sum total of the choices we have made and the choices others have made for us.  As we age, the effects of our own choices take on greater prominence than the choices of others.  In other words, we become increasingly responsible for the kind of person we’ve become.

What is true on an individual scale is also true on a national one: national identity is the sum total of the choices of its citizens.  It’s true that the choices of those in leadership positions have a greater effect on a nation’s character, but all of us contribute.

I mention all of this because we’re talking today about faithfulness.  Faithfulness is repeatedly making the right choices.  It is consistently choosing to obey God.

The Bible passage that most familiarly sets forth this matter of choice is Joshua 24:15, the centerpiece of the passage we’ve studied these two weeks.  Just as Joshua called the nation of Israel to faithfully obey God, this Scripture challenges us today to choose God.

PART ONE (See previous post.)

  1. The LORD has been faithful to you (1-13).

PART TWO

  1. You must choose to be faithful to the LORD (14-27).

Joshua called them to commitment in vs. 14-15.  Faithfulness features fear and service.

Some people are uncomfortable seeing FEAR of the LORD as a virtue.  They have such a benign view of God that they can’t see anything “negative.”  The Bible is clear that “respect” or “reverence” isn’t enough; a full understanding of God includes fear.  As Donald H. Madvig put it, “If we fear God, we need not fear his judgment,” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 368).

Motivated by fear and love, we are to serve God.  We must make sacrifices as necessary to do His will as soon as it becomes apparent to us.  ALL FAITHFULNESS is the objective. Being faithful requires us to keep our focus on God.

You can safeguard your faithfulness by trashing your idols.  In this situation, Joshua commanded them to dispose of the idols, the household gods that were taken from Egyptian households as plunder.

As previously stated with regard to the word FEAR, some people have trouble accepting that God is JEALOUS, but He makes it clear that He does not want to share us with false gods.  It’s for our own good to get rid of everything in our lives that will distract us from God, everything that threatens to take His place.

After all these people have been through and all the miracles they have seen, we think this ought to be a “no-brainer.”  It’s also strange that slaves would worship the gods of their oppressors, but it has happened throughout history.

Commitment is follow-through.  Human nature has not changed since that day at Shechem: true commitment still requires undivided loyalty.  Joshua called upon them to CHOOSE; did not make up their minds for them or even attempt to persuade them, other than sharing his choice.  Verse 15 is one of the most familiar Scripture and is often quoted because it is the essential commitment of faith: Choose your god.

The people committed themselves to serve God in vs. 16-18.  They realized God saved them from slavery. In gratitude they said some pretty impressive words:

– “FAR BE IT FROM US TO FORSAKE THE LORD TO SERVE OTHER GODS!”

– “IT WAS THE LORD OUR GOD HIMSELF WHO BROUGHT US AND OUR FATHERS OUT OF EGYPT.”

– “WE TOO WILL SERVE THE LORD, BECAUSE HE IS OUR GOD.”

However, these declarations of faith ring hollow in our ears because we’ve read the rest of the story and know that there were periods in their history when Israel served idols and not God.

Let’s be honest.  Are we any different?  Only if we choose to be.  We have to commit ourselves to the LORD & keep choosing Him to maintain our faith.

Joshua challenged their commitment and cautioned them about the wrath of God (vs. 19-20).  Joshua got in their faces!  He challenged them because he knew that a superficial commitment did no one any good and that he needed to move them beyond momentary emotion.

About Joshua’s theology: God is not only HOLY and JEALOUS and full of wrath against sin, but Joshua emphasized even exaggerated these parts of His character so that the people would stop to count the cost.  A spurious commitment that is superficial and ultimately results in backsliding and turning against God is as bad as an initial rejection of Him.

The people recommitted themselves in v. 21.  The people’s response is the more deliberate decision Joshua was working toward: they protested that they were serious and fully committed.

He made a covenant between God and the people (vs. 22-27).  The people served as their own witnesses. As they had agreed with this statement, their words were a vow to the LORD and would condemn them if they ever rejected God.

Joshua repeated himself in v. 23, demanding the casting away of all idols they carried out of Egypt.  This act was to be a demonstration of their sincerity.

I don’t know of any text that confirms that they did this, but they reaffirmed that they would serve the LORD only.

Joshua copied the Law that God gave them through Moses.  He made the rules clear to them.  Though v. 25 at first sounds like this COVENANT was something new with Joshua, we have no reason to think this was anything more than a reminder of what God had already revealed to Moses.

The stipulations of the agreement were recorded in a scroll called THE BOOK OF THE LAW.  That was one reminder of their oath.  Joshua set a LARGE STONE against an OAK TREE that stood near the place that was HOLY because God had met their forefathers there.  This was a second reminder of that oath.

Joshua knew the importance of memorials and visual reminders.  He’d made an altar on the Promised Land side of the Jordan (4:8-9).  He had already written the words of the Law on the stones of an altar erected on Mt. Ebal (8:32).

It is human nature to forget or be tempted to backtrack on the oaths we have made.  The intensity of emotions fade, so we need reminders.  The memorials were also important for future generations.  People who did not stand at that spot, who did not say those words would come along later and wonder how would they know these things were so?  Why should they fulfill oaths that others made?  These visual reminders would help.

Let’s conclude with the end of the story.  Several things happened after this pivotal event in the history of Israel.

First, Joshua sent them home – TO THEIR INHERITANCE.  It is, of course, a fantastic feeling to have these emotional, life-changing, “mountaintop” experiences.  The challenging part is taking it on into daily life.  To change the way we think, react, and interact with the little things of our world.

Second, both Joshua and Eleazar died.  These two leaders, representing the overlapping circles of civil and religious authority, were no longer available to lead Israel.  It was a rough and abrupt transition, no doubt, but new leadership was taking the people of God into a new day.

Third, the bones of the patriarch Joseph, which they had carried all the way from Egypt, were finally laid to rest in the exact spot where this meeting had been held.  This act of respect brought to a ceremonial end one era of the history of God’s people.  The past had literally been buried and the future lay ahead of them.

The last word of the book of Joshua is not the last verse.  Look at v. 31.  This verse summarizes the long term effect of the decisions made and oaths taken on that day.  What we see is that the generation who stood with Joshua at Shechem remained faithful to the LORD.  That is good news.

However, as we turn the page and get into the book of Judges, we see the following generations turning to idol-worship and sinning against the Lord.  Indeed, the history of Israel as preserved in the OT is very cyclical:

The people commit themselves to God.

=>

The people compromise & slowly turn to idols.

=>

Pagan nations take over & make them suffer.

=>

The people cry out to God & He delivers them.

=>

The people repent & commit themselves to God.

Good thing none of us are like that, right?  To me, this passage is about personal choice.  But it is also about helping others – particularly the next generation – make the same choice.  It’s not enough to keep the doors open and set the table, we must invite them to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).  Then, having tasted of the joy that is in Christ, we must help one another to fully commit to Him as Lord.

We must break the cycle of generations lost to the enemy by choosing to serve God and leading others to do the same!  If you will commit yourself to following God, please stand.