The Unmeasurable One

Psalm 71:15 is a verse worthy of memorizing. “My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure.” Here in a nutshell is a truth we all need to grasp fully. We will never, ever plumb the depths and heights of who God is. We can measure, and study, and ponder all our lives long and be far short of seeing all of who He is. Beyond that, what is His righteousness, and how do we define it? The ultimate standard? The last Word? Or is it His holiness? Or His lack of darkness? We can exhaust ourselves trying to understand the inexhaustible God of all.

His salvation is another thing that is greater than our measure. Much of the church has reduced it to a simple formula “Come to Jesus and be saved!” In that reduction mush has been lost to us, for salvation incorporates His gift(s) to us which are without number, as He is. It is restoration, wholeness, purpose, dignity, delight – to name a few. When we begin to see just a bit of what that truly means then we cannot stop talking about it, just as the Psalmist said. “I will tell…all day long.” Far better to do that than trying to measure the immeasurable God.

Bent Backs

I am not the first person to note that some things are added to the Scriptures by Holy Spirit from time to time.  We KNOW that that phrase or verse was never there when we read it the 29 times before. Somehow, it was sneaked in and now jumps off the page clamoring for our attention, much like the little child who jumps up and down saying “Notice me! Notice me!”
My attention was drawn to Psalm 146, one of the great Hallel psalms of praise. I was reading it in the New English Bible, which is not my “regular” Bible.  Verse 7b to 9:

“The Lord feeds the hungry and sets the prisoner free. The Lord restores sight to the blind and straightens backs which are bent; The Lord loves the righteous and watches over the stranger; The Lord gives heart to the orphan and widow but turns the course of the wicked to their ruin.”
I had never seen this closely enough to have it register. What a promise!  Recently I was talking with someone who is concerned about a daughter with scoliosis. This promise has risen within me as a sure word, and an effective word to bring healing to those who suffer. Where the medical profession has few answers, God has the solution.

Praise The Lord, indeed.  Hallel, hallel.
It is also found in Psalm 145:14. The NIV has it as “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the NEB says “straightens back that are bent.” 
A sure word from Scripture is one to meditate, pray and declare, to see those with bent backs, whether from physical or emotional oppression, stand erect once more.

Let the River Flow

The first half of Ezekiel’s 47th chapter is about one topic: a vision he had concerning a flow of water. This is a favorite passage for preachers as it contains much symbolism which can be developed in diverse ways. He notices a flow of water coming out of the temple. Just a trickle at first. The farther it goes, the deeper it gets. First ankle deep, then up to the knee. Farther out, it was up to the waist. Farther still, it became deep and wide enough to swim in, but was too big for anyone to cross. What started as a trickle had become an ocean.

Now this is contrary to what one would normally expect to see. If you have a swimming pool in your yard which needs to be emptied, you start with water, lots of water, multiplied gallons of water. Letting it flow out, you would expect that the farther away you get from the source, the smaller the size of the stream as it finds its way down the street, until finally there is no more.

With God there is always the unexpected, and there is always His desire for increase. This river pictures the New Testament revelation of the Kingdom of God. “What is it like?” Jesus asks. It is like that little bit of yeast in the dough, or like the tiny mustard seed which grows to become large enough for birds to roost in. It starts small and grows exponentially. Life from God will bring multiplied numbers across multiplied miles. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.

As the revelation continues, Ezekiel sees “a great number of trees” on both banks of the river. Planted trees are symbolic of people, His people. (Isaiah 61:3; Psalm 1:3) The Life-Giving Flowing River now supports life in large number.

It continues on through the Arabah and on to the Dead Sea. The word Arabah denotes “the generally sterile valley of the Jordan.” Sterile, dead. Nothing grows, nothing lives on land or sea. Yet, when the River of Life flows in something happens. When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live where ever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows, everything will live. vs.9

Please note “swarms” and “large numbers.” There is nothing stinting about God. It is all about greatness, increase, life. There are creatures on the once sterile land and fish of many kinds in the sea. Variety has always been a hallmark of the Creator.

Then he describes the trees. Not only is there a great number, but now he says they are fruit trees of all kinds, growing on the banks of the river. Because of the life-giving river, the trees are fruitful every month. There is no dormant period. They bear every month, producing food for all. The fruit never fails where the river flows!

All those fruit bearers are His people, His varied people. With each producing different fruit, every person’s need will be met there somewhere. If not this tree, then that one will do because His intention is that all will be productive, and all will receive nourishment sufficient to their needs from His life. If we abide in him (John 15:4-5) there is much fruit.
In addition to the fruit, these trees’ leaves have a purpose. Nothing is wasted in God’s Kingdom. The leaves, which never wither, are for healing. Healing! Restoration to the original good design. Back in balance, order, alignment, harmony. The cry of our hearts is always for healing – spirit, soul and body, to know and experience life in its fullness without malfunction, sickness and disease. Yet here it is clear that it is the very people of God who will have the answer to that cry. It is those touched by the river of life who have something within them to bring healing where needed. And that something never gets old. There are not a few special trees which have healing leaves; every tree has them.

This entire scene is a picture of inclusion and productivity, purpose and abundance. No one is left out, none is useless. This message is the same as that brought to Israel by Jesus when he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. It is His main message, the reason that He came. (Luke 4:43) God is near you; rejoice!

The vision in Ezekiel is a somewhat similar parallel to a scene at the end of Revelation. To compare and contrast them is enlightening. Rev 22:1,2    Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Here the river is flowing in the very center of God’s perfect heavenly new creation. Flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb, and a bringer and sustainer of life, this river pictures the Spirit arising from Father and Son, and central to the city and His life. Verse 2 says that on each side of the river stood the tree of life! THE tree (singular) stands on both sides of the river. In the earlier vision, there were trees of many kinds; here it is one tree, yet on both sides. In our present world, a tree divided in two would fall and die. Obviously our view and understanding have to change here. The new scene has replaced all the varied trees representing all kinds of people with the tree of life, that very tree which was blocked to man after the Fall.

This tree, the tree, which bears fruit month by month covering all seasons. also has leaves for the healing of the nations. These leaves are designed to cleanse away all that defiles, sickens and separates. There is no people group, no ethnos which cannot be restored to the new creation. The provision is in God, supplied by God, sustained by His very Spirit or life-giving essence. Healing is the result of abiding in Christ, letting the Spirit of the Living God flow through us like a river.

Jesus is the Tree of Life on the banks of God’s river of life. The triune God dwells within us, according to John 14:20,23,16. Therefore, releasing His life to others rises from a true relationship with Him.

As we earth-bound humans become yielded to God, and conformed to the image of Christ, are we not then being transformed into Trees of Life? The fruit of our lives is not our manufacture, but arises from the tap root and DNA of the tree itself. Our continued walk of holiness and righteousness, based on the leafy cleansing of Holy Spirit witnesses truth and reality to all “nations” we contact.

Of course, on this side of the new creation, it is both now, and not yet. We are becoming life-givers, but not yet what we will be. As the River flows on, deepening, sustaining, changing all that it touches, we are becoming. Let that River flow.

Symbols Part 2

Jesus seemed to have a habit of making things be other than what they had been. In His first recorded miracle, at a time of celebration He changes water into wine. Then at the end of His earthly ministry at a dinner celebration He declares this wine is blood. His blood. And we are commanded to take it in within ourselves, sealing within us an identification with that Life which is in the blood. Doing so proclaims the gap is now bridged between repentant sinner and holy God.

Water, without which natural life is impossible, has been transformed into wine that now simultaneously becomes symbol of blood, life and death. Yet, more than symbol, the act itself of drinking the wine calls into reality the Life and Death of Jesus, source of all. The line between symbol and reality becomes blurred.

Water plays a large part of another Biblical truth. The rite of baptism, of being plunged beneath the waters and raised again, was affirmed by Jesus as He demonstrated His own submission to that act. When we are buried into baptism waters it is a symbolic union with the reality of Jesus’ blood and very life poured out. It was and is an act of cleansing, and a symbol of image

death to the old life before resurrecting to the new.

In a recent dream I saw a man of God I know standing beside a large baptismal bowl which has a continual flow of water moving over its top into a recycling system below. Only in the dream the entire pool was wine! As I pondered this, the symbol of wine representing death was merged with water and the death it represents. At the same moment, the wine and water symbolize new life. In a way too mysterious to describe, the wine of Communion, the Eucharist, plunges the partaker into the death of baptism and the death of Christ simultaneously. No longer symbol, the recipient now rises to new life, a life in full.

All of this consistently points to the reality of a God who is joined with us at every level – not a God afar off. He has incorporated us and taken us with Him into His death, His blood shedding, His life poured out for other’s sale. The phenomenal news is that when He arose, the resurrected life was completely new — and when He arose, we were and still are attached as it were with that new life available to us in Him.

His one over-arching command: Love one another. Because of the water, wine and blood, that impossibility is now possible. Symbol and reality are One.

 

Symbols, Part 1

I greatly admire and appreciate artistic ability, a gift which is not mine. It takes me three pages of thinking out loud in my notebook to convey an idea expressed movingly by art in any form. Akiane depicts past, future, shock, and sacrifice in her unforgettable painting of Eve and the Forbidden Fruit, (http://www.akiane.com) in a way that touches the heart more deeply than any theologian with impressive credentials. Ideas, symbols and reality all come together on one canvas. It is magic, really.

I know a man who has been looking for truth all his life. He sent me a photo of his artwork; every canvas was a jumble of lines and and paths going off in all directions. It doesn’t take artistic expertise to see that he hasn’t yet found what he is seeking.

Symbols – we use them all the time to convey concepts that are at times too deep, wide and high for expression. Some things we experience or wonder about are simply beyond words. In our humanity we can find common ground in symbols rather than words which can quickly divide, as we each shape and interpret them with individual nuance of meaning.

When do symbols become the reality? Is there a difference between them? Sometimes it is difficult to separate a symbol from the reality it represents. A Marine saluting the flag or his officer is extending honor to the person or thing being saluted. Honor, an abstract, invisible concept, is displayed by the salute to the point that the salute then becomes the concept revealed. Is that action not also the honor itself?

Symbols, types and shadows are found throughout the Bible. The Old Testament is primarily an historical record of a Middle-Eastern people group. It records conquests, defeats, settlement – and their God experiences. It is history. The New Testament then declares that what was written is representative of a greater reality – a spiritual truth of a higher order. What the ancient Israelites experienced in their reality was meant for later generations to see higher truths about God and His self revelation in Jesus Christ. The details, the stories serve as types and shadows of things to come. They were one thing, a reality, at the same time holding within themselves a greater meaning symbolizing something else.

This then leads me to expressions of faith. A small gold cross, centered with a smaller diamond, hangs around my neck. A delicate piece of jewelry, only a trinket to animist or Buddhist, it speaks volumes to me as I grow in my understanding of my value to God and the centrality of Jesus in all of life. Whole libraries try to explain the reality of the cross, while my cross is declaring that meaning wordlessly to those who believe.

Since earliest times and cultures, blood has represented the life within it. Leviticus declared “The life is in the blood” as it called for the sacrifice of a living thing, with application of its blood, to atone for or bridge the gap between a repentant sinner and a holy God. Blood became symbolic of life and forgiveness and reconciliation. Earlier in Jewish history, blood used as a sign on the door provided protection from a plague of death. Blood from the death of one being then became equated as life giving to another.

The sacrificial system set up in the Old Testament was designed for atonement, bringing the repentant person to a holy God, and as a part of worship. Worship was and is 1. offering the best we have, and 2. offering a life laid down. All was a preparation for the time of Jesus. His blood represents both those aspects of worship.

When Jesus at his last Seder held up the cup, the one which was traditionally set aside for the coming hoped-for Messiah, he declared that the wine in that cup was his blood. Shed blood. Poured out blood. They all knew it was wine. But it was blood. Jesus said so. He was conveying to the group that he was to be the ultimate sacrificial animal, the being whose blood would bridge that uncrossable gap between God and man. The death of this living being of the highest order would be life-giving to all others, once and for all. There is no thing anywhere in the cosmos that can trump that act, that blood. The symbol of the Old Testament was now becoming revealed as prototype, by a declaration of the true and real before their very eyes. His blood is at the same time both symbol and reality.

 

The Open Door

open-door-field

Jan 1, 2014  The year of Ayin Daleth, or the Open Door.

Reading this morning the Sermon on the Mount. I began by thinking that Jesus did three things in his ministry: teach on the Kingdom of God, drive out demons and heal people’s physical bodies. Nowhere could I think of a place where he was concerned about who they were to marry, or where they would get a job, or any of the other issues we often put on prayer lists.

The Kingdom of God is not only about the great news that God the Father wants to be reconciled to his people, and is not mad at us. Rather, He is providing a way to escape his wrath.
But I also knew it incorporated more than healing the body and bringing freedom from outside pressure.

So I began in Matthew chapter 6. At the end of chapter 5 there is a brief account of his first ministry after the time of his temptation. People flocked to him because of the physical healings; his emphasis was on the good news from heaven about the Kingdom of God.

All the way through the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is emphasizing the importance of attitude, heart and mind as contrasted to the outward observance of religious law and custom. It is a complete shift in the way of looking at and understanding God’s expectations and requirements. As such, it is revolutionary. One of the most difficult tasks is to get people (including me) to see things in a different light than what we ‘know’ to be true. Belief systems get well locked into place and often require an equivalent of dynamite to change them. What He is saying cuts across the grain of our well-established ‘truth.’ It is not just the religious Jews of 2000 years ago, but the solid, God-acknowledging person of today who has beliefs which need changing. The church of today honors outward righteousness, good little worker bees, high achievers, charitable givers. In so doing, people pick up the unspoken idea that their salvation is secure based on their good works or long service in the church. This may not be the church’s intent, of course, but many pick up that belief anyway.

In the middle of talking about storing treasure and looking for security, are two verses which stand out as off-topic inclusions.
Mat 6:22  “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.
           :23  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how     great is that darkness!
It was here that I turned to the commentaries for better understanding. I can’t say it better than this from the Believer’s Bible Commentary:
“Instead of light, there is darkness.
The application is this: The good eye belongs to the person whose motives are pure, who has a single desire for God’s    interests, and who is willing to accept Christ’s teachings literally. His whole life is flooded with light. He believes Jesus’ words, he forsakes earthly riches, he lays up treasures in heaven, and he knows that this is the only true security. On the other hand, the bad eye belongs to the person who is trying to live for two worlds. He doesn’t want to let go of his earthly treasures, yet he wants treasures in heaven too. The teachings of Jesus seems impractical and impossible to him. He lacks clear guidance since he is full of darkness.
Jesus adds the statement that if therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! In other words, if you know that Christ forbids trusting earthly treasures for security, yet you do it anyway, then the teaching you have failed to obey becomes darkness—a very intense form of spiritual blindness. You cannot see riches in their true perspective.”

This is of particular interest today because Ayin in Hebrew means ‘eye’ or way of seeing, and Daleth represents ‘door.’

Seeing things in a new light then is of utmost importance. The door is open to walk into new insights and away from some dearly held, yet untrue “truths.” Do we have the courage to ask to have our beliefs examined? To discover where we have been deceived? To change our thinking? I submit that is as exciting an adventure as exploring the far reaches of Patagonia. This year of Two Thousand Ayin Daleth the open door awaits .

The Gathering Place

Have you heard about thin places? These are not diet farms where overstuffed people go to trim down. They are not rows of narrow houses built to accommodate more people per acre. I first heard of thin places a few years ago when a visitor said he thought my home was such a place.

As I researched, I discovered the term is known in some circles of the spiritually discerning. The ancient Celts found that there are places on earth where God’s Spirit is more easily accessible… They called these places “Thin places” because the distance between God and man seemed somehow thinner there and it was easier to pray.

Who is there that does not want to have a shorter distance between themselves and God? To have an easier time praying? Spiritually inclined people travel miles to seek out such places. Where there has been a history of “something happening” people will be drawn by their hunger, need or curiosity. They want a touch from outside themselves, a connection with that “otherness” which is known intuitively. As word of the extraordinary is spread, pilgrimages are made and crowds gather. They bring an openness to things spiritual so that often something does happen.  The burdens of life are lifted; healings occur; prayers are heard.

When there has been a continual seeking after, and finding God in a place, it seems that the Spirit of God remains in a fuller measure than in other places. Those who visit sites of earlier revivals or action of the Spirit can still sense His presence there centuries later.This opens up all kinds of theological questions, of course. Isn’t it a given doctrine that God is omnipresent?  Always the same? How is it that He is more notably one place than another? Are some places “more equal than others?”

St. Patrick is renowned as a holy man of God, a life-changer in Ireland centuries ago. To this day, the little stone church where he preached carries a strong sense of the Spirit, which cannot be said for the large cathedral bearing his name, built years later nearby. Those who visit the site of the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky have reported sensing the Spirit strongly there. There are dozens of sites around the world which have become  and remained holy places as earnest seekers gather. Lourdes Shrine in France has a large collection of canes, crutches and wheel chairs from the sick and infirm who made the trek there seeking healing.  Scoffers and doubters raise the point that perhaps they were healed by their expectations, that it is a psychological rather than spiritual phenomenon after all. But the pilgrims to Lourdes declare otherwise. To them it is a “thin place” well worth the effort to reach.

2 Kings 13:21  Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb.  When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

This one verse is tucked in the ongoing account of Israel’s oppression by her enemies. Elisha had received the double anointing he had asked for, had served as a mighty prophet, and eventually sickened and died. In this account, he had been dead long enough to be reduced to bones, but his very bones still retained something of that touch of God, enough to raise a dead man to life. Can you picture the shock of that revived man, and those who were burying him?  I can imagine the whooping and hollering that went on. This could not be interpreted as a feel good, subjective sense of Spirit; this was a presence with power to restore to life. Nothing vague or abstract about it. There was a corpse; now there is a man on his feet, undoubtedly dazed and wondering what happened.

In other places in Scripture, God commands his people to gather at certain prescribed places. He is particular about it. “You shall worship me here, not there.” He called the Hebrews out of Egypt to worship him in the wilderness.  It was necessary to leave Egypt because the large amount of worship given to other gods had defiled the land spiritually, in effect making it a very thick place.  He desired to have them experience him, worshiping him and being aware of his presence on a daily basis. For that reason his commands were clear: This is the way; this is the place.

There are several accounts of the Ark of His Presence in the Old Testament which clearly show how an object (the Ark, in this case) carries a residual power and presence. When the Philistines captured it and placed it in their shrine next to Dagon, old Dagon was knocked off his pedestal where he was found the next morning lying face down before the Ark. The bewildered Philistines set him back up, but the next day Dagon was broken to pieces, with his head and hands lying on the doorstep. It is interesting to note that the first night the idol was prostrate before the Ark, giving clear demonstration of “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10,11. The second night the idol lost both head and hands, declaring the complete powerlessness of any entity that sets itself up against the power and presence of the one true God. The local priests quickly concluded the Ark should be sent somewhere else; it was shipped to a succession of towns and villages where people immediately became ill with tumors. Some even died.That was enough for the Philistines. There was something about that box which was good for the Israelites, and very bad for them.

After they put it on a cart and sent it homeward, the Ark continued to carry a particular presence. While it remained with Obed-Edom for three months, everything in and around his household prospered.  As a God-fearing Israelite, he experienced blessing upon blessing, unlike the idol-worshiping Philistines. The presence of blessing was so attractive that when the Ark was moved to Jerusalem, Obed-Edom went along to become a doorkeeper. He had tasted the Presence; he had to go where it went.

So it is with thin places. Wherever God’s presence is experienced or “felt,” is where people will gather.

No one can prescribe the conditions for creating such a place, but there are a few hindrances or blockages to God’s manifest presence. One, already mentioned, is idolatry.  Any focus on or worship of another deity will bring contamination and defilement of the building and the land on which it stands. Another serious cause of defilement is violence and bloodshed. Where blood has been shed the land cries out. Beginning with Cain’s murder of his brother in Genesis 4:10, God has talked about blood crying from the land.  “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” Numbers 35:33

Other sins such as prostitution, greed and dishonesty can and do pollute the land which prevents it from becoming a “thin place.”  God is holy, which means He is set apart from all sin. There is no sin in heaven; there is no sin in His presence. Therefore, if we desire that thin place where earth and heaven meet, it is necessary to deal with all the unconfessed sin in our lives, striving to follow His command: “Be holy, for the LORD your God is Holy.”

“But,” people say, “isn’t it impossible to be holy?  Isn’t such a life like living in a convent, a boring life totally devoid of interest?”  For those who have never experienced any God encounter, this may be an understandable response. But once you become spiritually awakened to His reality, there is nothing more desirable than to be in His presence. Like Obed-Edom, you will go anywhere, giving up your familiar ways just to be where He is. That includes leaving the sin which we all secretly enjoy. Choosing to keep our old ways, habits and sins in preference to living in a “thin place” is like trading a valuable birthright for a bowl of lentils. Far better to listen and follow “Be holy, for the LORD your God is holy.”

An important caveat here.  Yes, it is true that God’s holiness and sin are far apart. However, He is found in the worst imaginable places when someone cries out to Him. Then He is close as the sinner’s breath. “There is more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents than over the ninety nine who need no repentance.” Luke 15:7 His very reason for the Incarnation and the Cross was to defeat sin and its damage to the people He loves. He came to rescue mankind from the morass we were in, setting our feet on solid ground.

Once rescued, set free from the unholy, man is then able to approach God unencumbered by sin. He can begin to live life righteously, in a new dimension as it were. It is in that new condition of holiness, or set-apartness that we seek out those “thin places” to be wherever He is.