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.

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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 .

Going to Bethel

Morning in the Word

In Amos 4:4-5 I read “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings— boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,” declares the Sovereign LORD.

You can hear in His tone that God is obviously displeased with this worship, this way of approaching him.

Deuteronomy 12:4    You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. 5    But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; 6    there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. 7    There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. 8    You are not to do as we do here today, everyone doing as they see fit.

There is only one way to do it right, He is saying, and that is His way.

We use a lot of words in our worship and prayer, words to prove our acceptability to God, words of which it is a question if we actually believe. Do we stop to ask if all this is pleasing to Him? Are our words and worship methods really arm-twisting to get a leg up? God obviously does not expect every believer on the earth to go to Jerusalem. His Spirit departed from the temple there centuries ago, but is still active today in the lives of millions. So what exactly is the right way, the God-ordained way to worship?

Thinking about the power of our words, and where I could find Scriptural basis for my thesis of their importance, I was then led to search for “the word is nigh thee” and came to Matthew 12:34    You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35    A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36    But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37    For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Jesus undoubtedly knew the Scriptures in Deuteronomy 30:11    Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12    It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13    Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14    No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

This led me to Paul’s statement in Romans 10.
Romans 10:3    Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4    Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. 5    Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” 6    But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7    “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8    But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9    If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10    For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Ok, so I had read this passage hundreds of times without ever truly understanding what Paul’s illustration in vs 6 and 7 had to do with his point of confession of faith being connected with being righteous.

So what does one do then? Ask Holy Spirit for the clarification.

When we ask for someone to ascend to heaven to bring us righteousness, we are establishing our own way of approaching God, just like those who went to Bethel with their strange fire. We “bring him down” by declaring our goodness, our works, our sacrifices, our right behavior. We want someone like a priest to offer us holy food, holy ritual, holy anointed service to confirm our (self-made) righteousness.

We are in “the deeps” knowing our unworthiness, sin and defilement which has to be covered; our self flagellation, our self punishment, our hours of good works and suffering toil serve in our mind to atone for us. We look for someone who will be a priestly go-between, a buffer between our unholy selves and a holy God. Every time we beat ourselves up and shrink back from God because of what we have done, we are crying out “Who will descend into the deep?”

And Scripture declares the Jesus provides all the righteousness we will ever need. Ever.

Our attempt at works to prove to God our worthiness to be accepted is just the same to Him as the worship offered by the Israelites at Gilgal and Bethel. There is no worth in it. The only way is Jesus’ work and righteousness. We don’t have to tramp to Jerusalem to offer our sacrifices; we need only to believe in Him and speak it out.

This should bring a huge sigh of relief. I don’t have to be good, or hide my badness. I can just BE and move on from there. There is a life to be fully lived, not spent in endless self-justification. What a concept!

This of course means we have come into agreement with God with our words (thoughts, heart). And coming into agreement is another whole topic.

The Restoring Gift

While I have been watching the rapid decline and fall of much that I hold dear, it has been difficult to stay focused on the things which truly matter. I was one of the millions of Americans who poured out of their homes into the streets on V-J Day – a day of wild joy and abandon. Horns honking, people weeping with relief, hugging and kissing, yes of strangers even. We were overcome by unrestrained emotion. Pent up tension erupted all over the country as if a compressed spring had just been let loose somewhere. We had no place to go, but we had to go somewhere just to let the emotions of happiness and worry flow out. It was over, and we were safe. There had been a challenge, a huge one, and America had risen to meet it. We had made it through. Part of the emotional release rose from the very real uncertainly of victory. There had been some dark, scary times which we as a nation absorbed without wanting to acknowledge. But now we were safe.

Fast forward to today – and indeed it has been fast, trust me – and the nation that was celebrating then is not recognizable. The state of our country is in such disarray that if some Rip Van Winkle from that day came back he would think he had gone mad. Today I read that a school in Ohio had to take down a picture of Jesus because “it could cause someone irreparable harm.” On top of that they were assessed a fine around $90,000. Then I read of a busload of tourists, both American seniors and foreign travelers were turned out of a hotel in Yellowstone at gunpoint! I could go on and on, but the point is, we as a nation have gone mad. The division, rancor and restiveness increases daily. The war has been declared and many of us are just now realizing it.The question is, is it too late to muster the troops necessary to turn it around, to reclaim that which has been lost? Do we have the resolve and character to do it? The uproar over shutting the World War II vets out of their memorial says that at least there are some who honor who they were, and are, and what they represent in our history.

So as I watched, and grieved tonight, I started playing some of my music. Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor filled the room and suddenly my spirit soared, lifted on the wings of sound, the work of a creative genius. Surrounded by weavings of chords, heavenly sounds indeed, restoration came to my troubled heart, reminding me there is a higher reality, an unchanging truth. There is where I need to keep my mind and heart. All else is chaos.