Thursday, September 30, 2010

Give us clean hands


Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 39

Read: Psalm 1:1-24:10

Verse that Stood out: The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it - Psalm 24:1

Psalm 24 reminds us that the whole world belongs to the LORD. Being a part of that world, we should worship him in his glory. And yet, the Psalm pauses to ask, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” The answer is downright daunting, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.” Not just anyone can approach the king and live. Only those who are worthy may approach the throne, those who have lived rightly and practiced justice. We may read this and think, no one can ascend the hill of the Lord. Who, after all, has clean hands? Who hasn’t in some way wronged a neighbor? Who is pure in heart? Who consistently remains single minded in their commitment to the Lord? That all have fallen short of the glory of God, there is no doubt.

The ancient worshiper knew this full well. They weren’t saying that no one could come to worship. Remember, this is liturgy not law. Read during temple worship, this wasn’t a checklist required for admittance so much as an invitation, or maybe even a warning, concerning what worship was all about. The priest or whoever it was manning the temple gates was making it clear – you want to come and see the Owner? Come and seek His righteousness, his blessing, his redemption? Be sure, then, and understand what it is you are doing. If you ascend this hill, He’ll give you nothing less than his best, which means the doing in of all that’s the worst in you: a kind of death for sure, but also a resurrection to new life.

As Christians, we see in that invitation, the call of Christ, who has become for us our righteousness. We are not worthy to come into the Owner’s presence, but Christ has made a way. But beware, the way is costly. It will cost us our disobedience, it will cost us our selfishness, it will cost us all that is less than God’s best. If we enter his presence we must be prepared to say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” We shall indeed receive God’s blessing, but a blessing wrought through the refining fire of God’s Spirit at work in us. Such is the generation of those who seek God’s face.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No easy answers

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 38

Read: Job 25:1-42:17

Verse that stood out: My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in (of/concerning) dust and ashes - Job 42:5-6

True to form, Job ends in a bit of ambiguity. Job admits that in the past he has spoken as one who only knew about God, but now he has seen God face to face. As such he repents. He wants to take something he said or did back. The problem is, we aren't told from what he repents. Does he repent of challenging God's fairness? Does he repent of seeing his misery as a reason for despair? Does he repent of viewing life and obedience as meaningless? How you translate the verse makes a big difference, and yet even then, ambiguity remains. The NIV is listed above, here are a few more translations/paraphrases off 42:5-6
  • I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes - NASB
  • I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I take back and repent in dust and ashes - HCSB
  • I had heard of youf by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes - NRSV
  • I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!I'm sorry—forgive me. I'll never do that again, I promise! I'll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor - The Message

The epilogue doesn't clear things up either. The LORD critiques Job's friends for speaking falsely about him and says that Job has spoken rightly of God. But what part of Job's speech is God praising. Is he praising the protest itself? This makes some sense for it is Job's protest that stands in contrast with the friends' speeches. Or is God praising Job's repentance? Again, the Bible doesn't say. I've read a few commentaries on the subject, and let me just say, every and any answer is given at some point in church history.

Which leaves me with a very Job-like question: Why is the Bible so ambiguous? Why doesn't God spell it out a little more clearly? I don't know that I have a good answer to that question, except to think such questions encourage us to be humble as we explore questions of justice and rightness. The answers to what is just or what is right is not always as simple as we might like or think them to be.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When being right is really wrong

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 37

Read: Job 8:1-24:25

Verse that stood out:
Have you never questioned those who travel? Have you paid no regard to their accounts - that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity, that he is delivered from the day of wrath? - Job 21:29

Job is such a fascinating book. The vast majority of the book is an extended conversation between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Job, at this point, has lost everything (except his nagging wife) and is covered with sores. He looks so bad that his friends didn't initially recognize him. They sit with him for seven full days and don't say a thing. When they finally open their mouths, Job wishes they hadn't.

It's not that their words are mean spirited or even false in a general sense. In fact, their speeches resonate well with the rest of scripture. Many of the Proverbs and Psalms and all of what's called the Deuteronomistic History teach that obedience leads to blessings, disobedience to disaster. "Job," they say, "If you do what God wants you to do, he'll bless you. He'll take care of you. God, after all, punishes evildoers and blesses the righteous. Isn't that what has been taught through the generations?"

Job tells them that their problem is not that they don't know the Bible (they know parts of it well), but that they don't know real life. They certainly don't know his life, his heart, his soul. What they say may be true in a general sense, but it is not true in many specific instances. Have they not travelled outside their religious ghettos, he asks. Have they've not paid attention to how the world works? If they had, they'd realize that in real life, sometimes good people suffer and bad people succeed. In real life, simplistic answers don't always satisfy (they certainly don't comfort!). In real life, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is yell out to the heavens that things don't make sense.

Job, understandably, makes his friends nervous. He's messing with their neatly constructed theologies, but he makes an excellent point. Often, life has more questions than answers. Our choices, at that point, become to pretend like life makes sense like the three friends. Or, we could despair that life has any meaning at all and just give up, as Job is tempted to do on occasion. Or we can shout at the heavens, for at least in the shouting, we've still committed ourselves to the fact that there is a God to/at whom we shout. Doesn't seem like much, I know, but sometimes arguing with, shouting at, or questioning God (or just letting someone else argue with God) is the best our faith can do.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Now, wait just a minute . . .

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 36

Read: Nehemiah 13:15-Job 7:21

Verse that stood out:
If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become I burden to you? - Job 7:20

Early in this journey of reading the Bible through in 90 days, I admitted that I was a little nervous about the whole thing. I knew people couldn't read the Bible without having some serious questions. It's not that the Bible doesn't meet our expectations so much as the Bible turns our expectations on their heads. It's just not the book we would write if we were put in charge of writing a holy book. For starters, God works in and through people who appear to be total scoundrels to the point that God himself starts to look guilty by association. On top of this scandalous narrative rests some rather simplistic commands. Trust God, do good and good things will happen to you. While this is generally true, it sure seems to leave a lot of life unexplained.

Which is why I like the book of Job so much. As the story of the Bible clips along, Job steps into the picture and says, "Now, wait a minute. You've been saying that if we do what we're supposed to, if we obey God, if we choose life, we'll be blessed. We'll dwell in the land. We'll be in fellowship with God. Well, that's all and good except, it doesn't always work that way." Amen. Preach it brother Job. The book of Job doesn't end up were we might expect it would. Answers don't come in the way we might like, but the questions do get asked. In the end the questions themselves are validated as an important part of faithful living.

Want to be faithful today? Trust God, do good, and ask away.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Dung Gate

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 35

Read: Nehemiah 1:1-13:14

Verse that stood out: The Dung Gate was repaired by Malkijah son of Recab, ruler of the district of Beth Hakerem. He rebuilt it and put its doors and bolts and bars in place.

There's a good chance that Malkijah was late for the meeting where everyone signed up for their spot on the wall. Guess what was left? You got it, the Dung Gate. I don't know much about the Dung Gate, and it's too late on Sunday night to look it up, but let's assume for a minute that it is what it says it is. Nobody wants to rebuild the Dung Gate. That doesn't mean it doesn't need to be repaired. Let's give Malkijah credit, he did his job just like everyone else.

Malkijah doesn't get much credit for this in the pages of scripture. Like most acts of faithfulness, it goes unnoticed by the masses. But his work is important, nonetheless. Got a thankless job to do this week? Be encouraged, even building a Dung Gate can be holy work if we set our hearts to it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reading between the lines

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 34

Read: 2 Chronicles 35:16-Ezra 10:44

Verse that stood out: [Nebuchadnezzar] carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power - 2 Chronicles 36:20

After spending weeks reading about the kings of Israel, this portion of Israel's history comes to an abrupt close with the fall of Jerusalem and the Israelites being carried off into exile by the Babylonians. You might expect for the next story to be about their time in Babylon, but it's not. Seventy years are passed over in two verses. In fact, Chronicles ends in the same place Ezra begins, with Cyrus' decree permitting the return of the Jews to Israel. It's not that there are no stories from the exile in the Bible. Remember, the Bible isn't put together chronologically. The book of Esther reports from those seventy years as well as portions of the prophets. But here in this section of the Bible, what we sometimes call the history books, it's notable that the exile is skipped over completely.

It might be tempting to think this time unimportant, but that would be misguided. In fact, while little from this time is recorded in the pages of scripture, it's during this time that much of the Hebrew Scriptures take their current shape. Being away from home, without a Temple, the people of Israel began to formulate their faith in some important ways. One of those was to shape the story of the Bible in such away that it remained open ended. In most Hebrew versions of the Bible, Chronicles is the last book in the story, coming after everything else. In this way, the story ends with Cyrus' decree given to all the Jews in the world, "May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up." Up where? To Israel, the land of the promise. When read as the last words of the Bible, Chronicles 36 isn't so much a historical omission as it is a theological invitation. The story of the Hebrew Bible ends in the hope that no matter the exile the people of God are currently encountering, the hope of the promise remains, a hope rooted in the truth that God will one day bring them home.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Keeping it in context of the larger story

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 33

Read: 2 Chronicles 23:16-35:15

Verse that stood out:
[Uzziah] sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God. As long as he sought the LORD, God gave him success - 2 Chron 26:5

When we read the Bible, it's helpful to remember that we need to keep the whole story in mind. Case in point, we've been in the period of the kings for quite awhile now. 1-2 Chronicles is basically a retelling of the stories that have come before in 1-2 Kings. This retelling is from a specific point of view and serves a specific purpose. Primarily, this is a book written to people returning to Israel from the Babylonian exile. While it's history, it's a specific kind of history, theological history. The writer of Chronicles is attempting to convey theological truth with historical illustrations. That truth is simple: obey God and things will go well. Disobey God, and well, you can see how that turns out from the history you're reading.

This idea of sowing faithfulness and reaping blessing is a theme throughout the Bible (see Psalm 1 for a great example). This is what we call a general truth. That is, most of the time, when we do what we are supposed to do, good things follow. I teach this to my own children. I tell them, if they work hard on their homework, they'll usually get good grades. They'll certainly get better grades than if they don't work hard on their homework. But notice I said usually. General truths hold for most of life, but they do not preclude exceptions. Sometimes we work hard at our homework and still don't comprehend our homework. Sometimes we work hard in the fields, but the harvest still fails (because of weather or disease). Sometimes we act faithfully towards God, but blessings are slow to come. Sometimes all we get for our good behavior is persecution and pain.

Do 1-2 Chronicles ignore this truth? Maybe. More likely, it's just outside of their purpose. They're trying to instill the general truth in the minds and hearts of the people returning to Israel after the exile. You've got to learn the basic rule before you learn the exceptions. But the Bible has plenty of room for the exceptions. We'll get to them eventually - Job, Ecclesiastes, some of the prophets, even the teachings of Christ highlight the exceptions to this general rule. Which is why we're reading the whole thing. So, pay attention to the general rule as you read Chronicles, but keep in mind the exceptions.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Presumption

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 32

Read: 2 Chronicles 7:11 - 23:15

Verse that stood out:
Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one's regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings - 2 Chronicles 21:20

One of the things I've noticed the most about the period of the kings is the sin of presumption. While it's something all the people of Judah and Israel fall into at one time or another, the kings carry this sin to its extreme. They seem to think that because they are the king of God's people they can do as they please. But God cannot be mocked, as Paul will later say, a man reaps what he sows. Just because you start off as king, doesn't mean you can get away with taking advantage of others. Jehoram experienced that. He presumed upon the covenant of God, presumed upon the affections of his people. As a result he died a horrific death, after which, the Bible tells us, no one was sad. What a pathetic commentary upon a life.

Unfortunately, the Jehorams of this world still exist. People who presume they can do whatever they want because of their position or their relationships to others. I've seen children take this posture with their parents, parents with their children, spouses with one another. The lives of those around these selfish souls become marked with bitterness and sorrow, so that when the person finally dies, he or she departs "to no one's regret."

Don't be a Jehoram. Don't presume upon others love. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be loving. Or as Jesus put it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where do you sense the holy?

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 31

Read: 1 Chronicles 24:1 - 2 Chronicles 7:10

Verse that stood out:
When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord - 2 Chronicles 7:3

Yesterday, I wrote of paying attention to the presence of God. While we trust that God is everywhere and that we are never truly alone, there are obviously some places or occasions that help us become more aware of his presence. For ancient Israel, the Temple, with its sacrifices and corporate worship served as one of those places. A church sanctuary might serve a similar function for us. I've loved sitting in the chapel at Truett Seminary this week. The architecture and the glorious stained glass windows help me as I attempt to lift my eyes to the heavens each morning. I've had similar experiences out in nature as often as I have in a building. I often find God's presence in the faces of those I love.

Certainly, we are called to find God's presence in other places as well. Part of discipleship is learning to find Christ's face in the face of our enemy as well as in the face of our friend. That being said, there's no reason to diminish the importance of those places or faces that most often bring us into an awareness of God's presence. In fact, we should give thanks to God for them.

So, where do you discover God's presence most often?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

1/3 of the way through the Bible, just getting started on seeking God

Through the Bible in 90 Days: 30

Read: 1 Chronicles 10:1-23:32

Verse that stood out:
Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually – 1 Chronicles 16:11

Day 30 on this project of reading the Bible through in 90 days. That's a third of the way through. Whoo-hoo! So far, I've kept up with the blogging and the reading. I'm not saying all of the blogs have been exceptional. I’ve spent the last week and a half in a doctoral seminar at Truett Seminary which has meant the blogging has had to happen during quick breaks or after eight hours of class. My apologies for any lapse in creativity.

I'm not complaining. I've enjoyed class and the blogging. As I’ve noted before, I’m a quite a nerd, so the intellectual dialogue that happens each day in class really brings delight to my soul. We’ve spent time talking about the interplay of church and culture, discussed current trends in theology, and explored different ways of interpreting tough Bible passages. I’ve loved every minute of it (though I'm definitely missing the family).

What has been most refreshing, however, is that alongside and intermingled within all of the intellectual dialogue has been a constant emphasis that it’s not enough to know about God. No, as Christians we’re after more, we want to actually know God. We want to, as David writes, “Seek his presence continually.” This seeking is easier said than done. My job concerns the things of God, and yet I can go all day without being aware of God’s presence. My guess is, that’s not a problem just for preachers.

In portions of the seminar, we’ve been discussing practices that help us discern God’s presence. One that I’ve been trying to practice is the examine. The examine can take a few different forms, but it’s basically a time of reflection over one’s day in which you attempt to discover moments when you were aware of God’s presence. To try this, take ten to fifteen minutes tonight before you go to bed, think through all that you did today and ask yourself, “What part of the day was I most aware of God’s presence? What part of the day was I least aware that God was there?” Or, another way to ask these questions is, “What am I most thankful for today? What am I least thankful for?” The examine is really the practice of paying attention. We trust, after all, that God has indeed been with us. The question becomes, "When did I have my eyes open to that truth?"

Monday, September 20, 2010

All Scripture is inspired . . . not all of it is inspiring

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 29

Read: 1 Chron 1:1-9:44

Verse that stood out:
So All of Israel was enrolled by genealogies; and these are written in the Book of the Kings of Israel And Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness. Now the first to live again in their possessions in their towns were Israelites, priests, Levites, and temple servants - 1 Chron 9:1-2

The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are a little dry to say the least. Genealogy after genealogy carry little meaning for the modern reader. And yet, I can't help but think, at some point, these words were life-giving to a portion of God's family. The first couple of verses of chapter nine give us the context - this was written to those who had been carried off into exile and to those who eventually returned to Israel during the time of Cyrus the Great. For this audience, these genealogies are their connection to home, their connection to Israel's history, their assurance that they have a part in the promises of God given to their ancestors. The exile has not permanently separated them from their past. They still have a place in the story of God's people.

We modern people live with a similar fear, a fear of being disconnected from the past. The transience of our world means many of us no longer live where we spent our childhoods. We've called a series of places home. We wonder where it is that we truly belong. We long for roots in a rootless society. For us, genealogies like those in 1 Chronicles fail to encourage. Most of us, after all, don't come from families that make the list. And yet, the promise of the gospel, is that all of us can participate in the family of God despite our apparent lack of biological credentials. Paul put it succinctly, "Just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham."

That's good news on many fronts. Not the least being that one's geneology can be greatly shortened from long lists of distant relatives, to one brief phrase: Taylor Sandlin, child of God through faith in Christ.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Good news for whom?

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 28

Read: 2 Kings 15:27-25:30

Verse that stood out:
Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, "The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good." For he thought, "Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?"

For the most part, Hezekiah stands out as a good king in a long list of bad kings. We're told that "he did right in the sight of the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done" (18:3). He tore down many of the places Israel used to worship other gods (including one site connected to Moses). He refused to pay tribute to Assyria but trusted God to take care of Judah. On several occasions he prayed passionately to God and God answered him.

And yet, at the end of his life, after showing off all the treasures of Judah to the kings of Babylon (that's a little like the mouse showing the cat all his cheese!), he receives this terrible news from the prophet Isaiah: "Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried into Babylon; nothing shall be left. . . . Some of your own sons show are born to you shall be taken away." How does Hezekiah respond? With another passionate prayer? After all, God had changed his mind before when presented with this kings request. Not this time. Now at the end of his life, Hezekiah offers no prayer. Instead, he thanks the prophet, goes back to his comfortable palace, and thinks to himself, "Well, at least I'll be dead when all that happens. Might as well eat, drink, and be merry."

How difficult it is to contend for righteousness, to seek God's mercy, when to do so involves caring for someone other than ourselves. In all of Hezekiah's other prayers, he was under direct threat. Now that he's assured of peace and security, his petitions fall silent. How pathetic. And yet, how true to real life. It's difficult to be as faithful in praying for others as we are in praying for ourselves. Take time this Sunday evening to offer a prayer for someone other than yourself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Of Large Things and Small

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 27

Read: 2 Kings 4:38 - 15:26

Verse that stood out: But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" - 2 Kings 5:13

Naaman was a man who could get things done. A valiant soldier he had achieved great professional success. A man of solid reputation he knew the ins and outs of the social world. So even though he had admitted a need and taken the advice of a servant, he returned to doing what he did best – controlling his own destiny. He secured a letter of recommendation from his King that would help him navigate the delicate waters of international travel. He loaded up his horses and chariots with five times the silver that the King of Israel had once spent to purchase an entire city (see 1 Kings 16:24). As if that wasn’t enough to grease the wheels of any Israelite bureaucracy he had 150 pounds of gold and ten large rolls of fine fabric to make sure this prophet would be persuaded to help Naaman out.

You can imagine his dismay, then, when upon showing up at Elisha’s door with his entourage surrounding him, he got no more of a response than curt message from the butler, “Go take a bath – you’ll feel better.” This was more than Naaman could stomach as a man of reputation. “'I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?' And so he turned and went off in a rage.” Naaman could take the advice of a servant, but he couldn’t take the insult of unmet expectations. He was ready and willing to obey some great task – he was after all a valiant soldier - but he was not ready to be treated like a common passerby.

Humility involves more than simply admitting a need, it involves laying aside all of our expectations and preconceived notions at the feet of the one who can heal us. Even more daunting, humility requires that we submit to the instructions of another even when those instructions seem foolish, silly, or distasteful to our exalted sensibilities. Like Naaman, many of us come to church with the recognition that we have a need, but once we’re there, we attempt to go about meeting that need once again through our own efforts. Oh, we may involve God, but only as long as God will accept a good trade – my talents, my family, my devotion in return for his love, or healing, or provision. Like Naaman we show up with our caravan of commodities and somehow think that is going to matter a hill of beans to the Creator of all the universe.

Elisha’s curt response stung Naaman because it struck at the heart of his self reliance. A soldier, Naaman probably would have identified with a U.S. Marine Corp ad which pictures a sword and the words “Earned, never given.” In most things in life, greatness comes through effort, hardship, and training. But the gift of God’s healing, both physical and spiritual come through the very opposite means, “Given, never earned.” Naaman would either accept God’s free gift of healing with no strings attached, or he would not be healed at all. The same truth goes for us as well. As the famous Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse once said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Trouble or Truth?

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 26

Read: 1 Kings 16:21- 2 Kings 4:37

Verse that stood out:
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?"

Let's be honest, all of us can think of some person in our lives that we consider a troubler. Someone whose very presence makes us uncomfortable. Now, there is a good chance that the reason this person causes us such great grief is due to some quality in the other person: they're rude, they're crude, they've got a bad attitude. In a word, it's their fault they come across as a troubler.

If we're not careful, though, we can miss the fact that the trouble may not be with them, but with us. The only "trouble" with this other may be that their presence or words expose some trouble with us: our impatience, our selfishness, our own bad attitudes. In this case, it's our fault that this other person causes us so much trouble.

Which is the case may not always be as obvious as it at first seems, largely in part because usually its a mixture of both. So the next time you encounter a troubler, don't miss the chance to take a moment and reflect on the question, "Is the trouble actually with me?"

Thursday, September 16, 2010

God is bigger than our efforts

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 25

Read: 1 Kings 7:38-16:20

Verse that stood out:
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! - 1 Kings 8:27

It is human nature to want to do great things for God. People write books, develop theologies, create great mission societies, form denominations all for the purpose of bringing glory to God. Solomon built a magnificent temple. But the wise king knew that while God in his grace might make himself present in the temple, God could not be contained or reduced to the temple's square footage. God would always be bigger than and beyond the temple building. This would be helpful to remember for multiple reasons.

Remembering that God is more than the temple helps prevent turning the temple into an idol. Remember, the God of Israel forbid the formation of idols because he knew humanity's propensity to mistake symbols for the real thing. To reduce the God of all creation to a piece of wood or a chunk of silver, or even a house of gold is to lose faith in the one true God. Remembering that God is more than the temple helps prevent despair on the day the temple is torn down, as would happen in Israel's history - twice.

How often do we tend to turn our church or our denomination or even our particular experiences into an idol. We must remember that God cannot be reduced to such things. He may, in his grace, indwell such human constructions, but he dare not be reduced to them. We don't want to turn our offerings to God into idols themselves. Nor do we want to despair when those buildings made by human hands fall to the ground.

Let our hope be in the one that not even heaven itself can contain.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Be careful what you wish for

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 24

Read: 2 Samuel 22:19-1Kings 16:20

Verse that stood out: God said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you." Solomon answered . . . "Give your servant a discerning heart" (1 Kings 3:5,6,9)

If God were to grant you one wish, what would you wish for (assuming you can't wish for more wishes)? I'm not looking for a Sunday School answer here or a Beauty Pageant answer - you know the kind, "World Peace; For everyone to love each other; For all the lost puppies of the world to have a home." What do you already wish for? A change of circumstances? An increase of funds? A world without pain? A world without heartache?

Solomon wished for a discerning heart. Sometimes called wisdom, he longed to be able to govern his people well, to be able to know right from wrong, to know what was best as opposed to what was simply good. A discerning heart.

I'm not sure that's all it's cracked up to be. After all, isn't ignorance bliss? To know right from wrong means I might have to change the way I live. I might have to take up the cause of the oppressed or defend the rights of the poor or act in a way that goes against my own vested interest. Like when I learn that one of my favorite clothing stores gets its clothes from places with inhumane employment practices. My choice is either to stop shopping there (or perhaps petition them to change their actions) or simply ignore an evil myself (and thereby participate in it). It's easier not to know, isn't it?

One wish. What would it be? The warning is fair, be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Humility, Shrewdness, or both?

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 23

Read: 2 Samuel 12:11-22:18

Verse that stood out:
Then the king said to Zadok, "Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the LORD's eyes he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again" - 2 Samuel 15:25

In 2 Samuel 15, David is fleeing Jerusalem because his son Absalom has usurped the throne. As he heads out of town the priests join him with the Ark of the Covenant. As soon as they get a safe distance out of town they stop and offer sacrifices to God. This is a fairly significant move. One that reminds the people that David, not Absalom is God's anointed. One that asserts that God's presence, is with the one who is fleeing and not the usurper.

Which makes David's next move all that more surprising. He sends the ark back to Jerusalem! On the one hand, this is a very shrewd move on David's part. He trusts the priests to be loyal to him, not Absalom. If they're back in Jerusalem they can keep an eye on what's going on and send reports back to David. On the other hand, David's stated reason for sending the ark back to Jerusalem is that of humility. He claims that he's sending the ark back because he does not want to use God's presence as a bargaining chip in this family skirmish. If God is for him (or against him), that will be proved in time.

It's difficult to discern David's true motivation. But his words ring true, nonetheless. God won't be manipulated, not even by those who possess the most sacred of objects. If God is for David, sending the ark back won't cause him any harm. If God is against David, carrying the ark with him won't offer David any added protection. God is God, after all, not a good-luck charm.

Most of us, like David, think that God is on our side. That's fine, as long as we maintain a certain amount of humility about it. We might after all, be wrong - as David had been before. I've heard many a preacher or influential church member manipulate a congregation into an action by emphatically asserting that God told them some action was God's will. I'm always a little suspicious of such language. It sounds a little like parading the ark around saying if you want to be on God's side you have to follow me. I wonder if we shouldn't just argue our case the best we can (we can even say we think something is God's will as long as we leave ourselves open to correction) and leave discussions of God's ultimate will in God's hands alone.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Who am I?

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 22

Read: 1 Samuel 28:20-2 Samuel 12:10

Verse that stood out: Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me thus far?And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign LORD, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign LORD?

Who am I? It's a good question to ask every now and then. Our answer depends a lot upon our perspective. Often we answer that question by listing all the things we do or have done. Who am I? I'm a pastor. I'm a student. I'm a father. I'm a husband. We think of our accomplishments, our resume, our possessions. Other times, like David, we're confronted with those things that have been done for us. We been created, saved, redeemed, rescued, blessed, etc.

Both are ok ways of describing ourselves, I guess, but one description will certainly outlast the other. What I've made of myself, while important, won't last beyond my last breath. What God's made of me? That, that's something that can never be undone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I'm pretty sure this is cheating, but . . .

Through the Bible in 90 days: day 21

Read: 1 Samuel 16:1-28:19

Verse that stood out:
The LORD does on look at the things man looks at. man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart - 1 Samuel 16:7

Ok, ok, ok. I know, I said 90 days reading through the Bible, 90 days blogging about reading through the Bible. I have done my reading today, but I'm short on time to blog for a variety of reasons and will be without computer access for the remainder of the day. So, I'm cheating, a little. Here are some previous blog entries focused upon today's reading that I did last summer (2009). Hope you enjoy.

Of Beginnings and Endings - on Samuel

Read it to me again - on David and Goliath

Singing from the cave - on David running from Saul

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A delightful/dreadful thought

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 20

Read: 1 Samuel 2:30-15:35

Verse that stood out:
Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place - 1 Samuel 3:8-9

I've liked the story of Samuel's call since I was a child. It's a story children latch onto. There's a little bit of comedy in it. Three times a voice calls out in the darkness to Samuel. Three times the boy goes and wakes the old priest up. Three times Eli says, "It wasn't me." Kids like that sort of thing.

As a child, there's also the genuine shock as you hear Eli tell the boy, surely no older than yourself, "Go lay back down. It's God talking to you. The next time you hear his voice, tell him you're listening." There's wonder and fear. God, the God of all creation, the God who hung the stars in the heavens and knows them each by name, that God sometimes calls the smallest of children to do his work. If he could call Samuel then, could he not call me or you today? Like I said, it's a delightful thought; it's also a dreadful thought that god might actually show up at any given moment. No wonder we so often refuse to listen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Finding God in Unexpected Places

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 19

Read: Judges 15:13-1 Samuel 2:29

Verse that stood out: But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me" - Ruth 1:16-17

The book of Ruth begins, "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land." You could say that again. Not only was there a shortage of food, but there was likewise a shortage of justice, kindness, righteousness - you name it. The book of Judges, which describes this time period, is a book of violence, lawlessness, and misguided zeal in the name of the LORD, summed up well by the oft repeated phrase, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 20:25). The atrocities leave one wondering in dismay, "This is the story of God's people?! Where in the world do we find God in it?"

Remarkably, we find him present in the life of a Moabite widow. The contrast is startling. Those who are a part of God's family act no differently than their pagan neighbors, but here, a foreigner, reflects the faithfulness, the forgiveness, the kindness of Israel's God. Ruth's commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi serves as a model of God's hesed, that is the Hebrew concept of God's love. It's a love that's tied to the covenant. A love that never gives up, never grows tired. Ruth is the best human example we've had of that kind of love, yet. She's not even an Israelite!

The Old Testament often appears as if God is ungracious towards outsiders. And yet, throughout the pages of the Hebrew scriptures, there are outsiders who prove more faithful than the insiders. Ruth, and others like her, remind us that the from the very beginning, God intended the children of Abraham to be marked by their faith and love more than their genealogy. A point driven home by the fact that God not only makes Ruth a part of his family through her marriage to Boaz, he also gives her the privilege of being the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king, King David, and an ancestor of the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

God's presence isn't always obvious in the pages of the Old Testament, but he's there, even in the famine, working where we least expect him. I'm pretty sure he does the same today.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

For God but not with God

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 18

Read: Judges 3:28-15:12

Verse that stood out: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the God's of the Philistines - Judges 10:6

The book of Judges is one big mess. Take the story of Jephthah, the Gileadite. An outsider, the son of a prostitute, Jephthah is initially ostracized by his half-brothers (the current leaders of Israel) until they are in need of his brawn. He strikes a deal with them. He'll help them if they make him their leader. There are a couple of problems with this, while Jephthah has the brawn to lead, he has neither the temperament nor the spiritual maturity to be a good leader. At one point, in his discussions with a foreign king, he will equate the worship of Israel's God with the worship of the foreign god Chemosh. It is significant that unlike on previous occasions, God's presence is notably absent in the selection of this judge.

Nevertheless, in an act of grace God's Spirit does later descend upon Jephthah as he heads out to battle the Ammonites. The presence of God's spirit guarantees a victory for his people, but it does not override all of Jephthah's inadequacies. In a rash vow, Jephthah promises that in return for a victory he will sacrifice to the Lord the first thing that walks through his door. Who should that be, but his only daughter, a virgin daughter. Her innocence contrasts his ignorance. Jephthah remains committed to sacrificing his daughter even though the Law of the Lord forbids such actions (Deut. 12:31); and even though the Law allows him a way out of his vow through the process of redemption (Lev. 27:1-8). Jephthah may be leading God's people, but he's doing so without a knowledge of God's ways. Even though he wins on the battlefield, his actions at home serve as a defeat. There the ways of Chemosh prevail over the ways of the LORD.

A sense of tragedy fills the story. We wonder why God didn't intervene. The same could be said for a million tragedies just like this one that happen in the world today. How often do we go about our lives attempting to do good things for God in ways that do anything but reflect God's character? How often do our best intentions, nevertheless, end up hurting (sometimes significantly!) the ones who are closest to us? We have to remember that it's not enough to claim to be on God's side. We must also choose to walk in his ways. In the person of Jesus Christ, we discover that that way involves a cross of self-sacrifice. Miraslov Volf, a Croatian theologian who has written much on the way of Christ, especially the way of forgiveness writes, "Only those who struggle against evil by following the example off the Crucified will find him at their side. To claim the comfort of the Crucified while rejecting his way is to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology" (Exclusion and Embrace, 24).

Ask yourself today, are my actions following the pattern of Christ who gave his life for others or the patterns of this world that willingly sacrifice even one's family to get whatever it is that I want?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The jealous, zealous God

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 17

Read: Joshua 15:1-Judges 3:27

Verse that stood out:
Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you" - Joshua 24:19-20

The book of Joshua, with its bloodshed and its conquests, is a tough book to reconcile with other parts of the Bible. It is certainly a book that at times offends modern ears, including my own. A discussion about many of these offensive parts is a necessary discussion for the church but one that's a little beyond what I can accomplish in this brief post.

At least one aspect of Joshua offends us in a way we need to be offended. This part is found in the last couple of chapters, the ones that cover Joshua's final sermon to God's people. In this sermon, Joshua makes it as clear as possible that the Israelites have a choice before them - the God of Abraham or the gods of other nations. It is not a choice they should make lightly. To choose the God of Abraham will bind them to both God's promises and his warnings. The God of Abraham is a jealous God and will not tolerate half-hearted efforts at following him.

Such demands, even if they are divine, tend to chaff modern sensibilities. We want a spirituality that is more open ended than that. We want to pick and choose which parts of God we like and leave the rest. But the God of Abraham is a prickly God. We have to either take all of him or none of him. In Joshua's sermon, the old man sounds as if he's trying to talk the people out of choosing the LORD, "You don't know what your doing. You're not going to be able to do this. You don't realize what you're getting yourself into. Sign up for this and you can never be the same - God will hold you to it." Not what we're used to hearing during an altar call.

And yet, it sounds a little like the one who said, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). In the New Testament, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself in ways that rightly make us question the violence found in the book of Joshua. But God's jealousy and his demand for the total devotion of his people, these remain unchanged.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wet feet across dry land

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 16

Read: Joshua 1-14

Verse that stood out:
Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried thee arek reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing - Joshua 3:15-16

I imagine most of the Hebrews standing with Joshua at the edge of the Jordan River could have told you the story of the crossing of the Red Sea in minute detail. They knew how that crossing had happened. Moses stood up and lifted his staff and the waters parted. I’m pretty sure Joshua knew the story, too. He could have easily said, “I know how this works. Caleb, old man, bring me my staff, we’re about to have a show.” But he didn’t. He joined the people in a day of waiting and worshipping and wondering.

And as God often does, God spoke a new word, “Joshua, today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.” This time, there would be no parting from afar. No, this time God said, “I want you to go down and stand in the river.” Which, as you can imagine, sounds a whole lot riskier. Especially, when you think about what the priests were carrying as they went down. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant.

If we were Joshua, we may have objected, “God, don’t you think that’s a little dangerous? That doesn’t sound like being a good steward of your resources. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I trust you all the way, I’m just not sure I trust them. That priest on the left looks a little clumsy. Plus, the closer you get to the river the muddier it gets. We’d hate to for them to slip. Dropping the Ark would not be a good way to start my term as leader. Plus the river’s at flood stage. That current is moving pretty quickly. Sure we can’t do it the same way we did it last time from up here on the hilltop?”

But Joshua didn’t object. He realized that sometimes, the only way to experience God’s deliverance is to jump right in. David had to walk out all the way out onto the battlefield, before the giant fell to the ground. Daniel had to go all the way into the lion’s den before he discovered God had shut the lions’ mouths. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to go all the way into the fire, before they discovered the flames didn’t burn. Peter had to step all the way out of that boat, before he discovered the water would hold his weight. And Joshua and the people of Israel had to get their feet wet if they were ever to walk across dry land. Likewise, if you and I want to embrace the promises of God, we’ve got to be quiet enough to hear his voice and then brave enough to go wherever it leads, even if it leads us into the middle of the raging waters.

Monday, September 6, 2010

How to measure success

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 15

Read: Deut 23:12-34:12

Verse that stood out:
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face - Deut 34:10.

OK, so blogging on this extended holiday weekend has been a little tough. I have been doing the readings, but haven’t found a lot of time to sit down and blog. Sorry about that. I’ve still got three hours in this day to keep my streak alive. To be truthful, the verse that most stood out today was the first one I read, Deut 23:12, “Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself.” Can’t say I’ve ever seen a devotional done over that verse. I don’t plan to be the first.

That verse, notwithstanding, there was still plenty to take from these chapters. There’s that great passage in chapter thirty, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.” In the words of my preaching professor, that’s a great “call to action” in the conclusion of Moses' sermon.

I was even more deeply moved, however, by Moses’ death. It’s a tragic death in many ways, right on the edge of the Promise Land. Moses’ entire ministry had been spent essentially wondering in the desert. Granted, his entry into the ministry had been spectacular – the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments. And then . . . forty years of eating manna and listening to the people grumble! It’s depressing, really. We like stories where people get what they’ve been striving for. This, this just hurts. It feels unfair. Why would God not let him at least put a foot in the Promise Land? God’s stated reason seems pretty lame – one mistake in forty years of ministry? Come on.

And yet, what we perceive as a failure, the writer of Deuteronomy perceives as a triumph. Moses’ story isn’t to be pitied, but revered. There has never been another like him. Moses, after all, knew the LORD face to face. Hmmm. Makes me wonder if I’m judging my ministry in the correct light. Do I judge it based upon how close to my goals I get? Or by how close to God’s face I draw?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Generosity, the antidote to forgetfulness

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 14

Read: Deut 8:1-23:11

Verse that stood out: When you have eaten and are satisfied . . . be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God - Deut 8:10-11.

Moses, after telling the people that they will prosper if they obey God, then gives them a warning: Once you prosper and enjoy your prosperity, don't forget God. He can see what's coming. The people will build fine houses, settle down, increase their flocks, accumulate lots of wealth. But instead of growing in gratefulness, they'll only grow forgetful. They'll abound in pride instead of praise. It's a basic truth of life. Faith tends to flourish during adversity, flounder during prosperity.

The antidote to such forgetfulness? Generosity. Give to others (especially to the poor) as God has given to you. Practice Jubilee. "Do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs" (Deut 15:8). Do this not just because the poor need your help, but also because you need the poor. They'll keep you from forgetting, we are all poor and in need before the Lord.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Don't forget

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 13

Read: Numbers 32:20 - Deuteronomy 7:26

Verse that stood out:
Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them - Deuteronomy 4:9

Over and over again in the first few chapters of Deuteronomy, the prophet Moses encourages the people to "not forget" the things God has done for them and the commands he has given them. He says it so often that you get the feeling he has genuine concern over the Hebrew children's propensity for forgetfulness. Time will reveal his worries to be legitimate.

The Hebrews' struggle to remember God will lead to all sorts of trouble. But one constant will outlast even their forgetfulness, God's mercy. "The LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers." We should do our best to remember God, but let us be ever grateful, God does not forget us.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What's weirder than a talking donkey?

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 12

Read: Numbers 21:8-31:19

Verse that stood out:
Balak said to Balaam, "What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but your have done nothing but bless them!" He answered, "Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?" - Numbers 23:11-12

The story of Balaam and his talking donkey has been one of my favorites for a long time (especially in the KJV version - take a look, you'll understand). In fact, it's been my go-to story on the many occasions where I need to fill ten minutes of time with a bunch of rowdy children waiting for their VBS snack. The story is just absurd, which is what makes it entertaining. Plus there are all sorts of fun (i.e. juvenile) statements that you get to make while recounting it: "This is a story about Balaam's talking a--" (Don't worry, I don't use that one with the kids, just the college students).

I have to admit, though, it had been a long time since I had read the story in context. I'm not sure it's my favorite story anymore. God comes off looking fairly capricious. In the first half of Numbers 22, Balaam seems to be doing what God wants, even going so far as to reject the great riches that Balak, the king of Moab is offering him if he'll put a curse on the Israelites. When God tells Balaam to go with the princes of Moab, Balaam obeys (22:20). But in the very next sentence, God is angry with Balaam for going with the the princes. The LORD is so angry, he puts an angel on the path who would have killed Balaam if not for the heroics of his talking donkey. Taken at face value, God's actions don't make any sense at all.

There's plenty of conjecture among scholars about what's going on. While Balaam uses the correct words in v 18-19, he doesn't send Balak's men away. Instead, he invites them in for the evening. God had already told Balak once not to go with these guys (22:12). Balaam shouldn't need anymore instruction from God, but he keeps the door open anyway (ala James 1:14). Maybe, deep down he wants to go with them. Maybe he's still entertaining thoughts of the gold and silver he's already rejected. Maybe God is simply giving this shady prophet enough rope to hang himself. I don't know. The scriptures don't say. I do know that later, when Balak keeps pressing Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam gets to a point where he stops asking God what to do (24:1). God has spoken, and there's no need to keep asking the LORD the same question over and over again. All Balaam needs to do is obey what he already knows.

If that is what's happening, then Balaam's initial actions are similar to an alcoholic continuing to hang around a bar even though he's professing loudly that he isn't going to take a drink. This, then, isn't a story of God's capriciousness but of his grace. Maybe, but I still think the whole episode is one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Weirder than even a talking beast.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Giants in the Land

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 11

Read: Numbers 8:15-21:7

Verse that stood out:
Do not be afraid of the people in the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them - Numbers 14:9

The book of Numbers leaves me with lots of questions. Why do the people of Israel so often rebel against Moses after having witnessed miracles as grand as the crossing of the Red Sea? Why does God's stock response to these rebellions seem to always be one of violent annihilation? How is it that Moses talks God out of such actions? Does God really change his mind so easily? And yet, among the many questions, this story still resonates with my own experiences. Learning to trust and obey God takes time. We get it one day and then fail to get it the next. Just because God answered our prayers in the past doesn't mean we will be any better at believing his promises in the future.

Every Sunday, we gather as a people and take a glimpse into the Promise Land. We talk and sing about that day when God's kingdom shall come in full, a kingdom overflowing not with milk and honey but with grace and peace. Some days we even find ourselves carrying in some of its fruits to put on display here in the wilderness: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. For a brief moment we allow ourselves to ponder what life in that kingdom might actually be like.

The hope is short lived. Like the Hebrew spies, we take our eyes off the promise and focus upon the giants in the land: injustice and poverty, war and enmity between family members, our own deceitful hearts, conflicts in the church. Like the Israelites of old, we retreat in fear and even threaten to stone those prophets who speak too forcefully of hope (Numbers 14:10). We can't imagine a world in which the fruits of the Spirit might overcome the deeds of the flesh. We seek to silence those who would suggest otherwise.

And yet, despite our misgivings, the promise remains, the invitation still stands, God will bring about his kingdom come through us or despite us. The question for us is, "Which shall it be?"

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire." - Hebrews 12:28-29.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A portable tent, a sovereign God


Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 10

Read: Leviticus 26:27-Numbers 8:14

Verse that stood out: "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26)

Ancient biblical texts did not come with title pages. As such, the titles for books of the Bible arose in different ways. Greeks gave books titles based upon their content. Hence, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the forth book of the Torah was given the title, "Numbers." It does, after all, contain a lot of numbers. The Septuagint was the version of the Bible used by the early church so the Greek title has stuck. The rabbis, on the other hand, tended to entitle a book of the Bible based on the first few words of the book. In Hebrew the book of Numbers often goes by the title, "In the Wilderness" from verse one, "The Lord spoke to Moses in the Tent off Meeting in the Desert [wilderness] of Sinai."

This may not seem like a big deal, but titles can affect our perceptions of things. If we just think of the book of Numbers as a collection of census figures, we struggle to find any redemptive use for it in modern life. If we think of the book of Numbers as God's instructions for Israel's time in the wilderness, we at least are invited to think theologically about what it means to worship God even during those wilderness wanderings in our own lives, times in which we are divorced from a place of belonging.

Most ancient cultures worshiped deities that were associated with a specific locality. If you moved from one place to another, you found another god to worship. For instance, Bible scholar Lloyd Bailey points out, if you were on a boat, you might pray to Poseidon, the god of the sea. But if you were in the desert, you'd ask some other god for help. Israel on the other hand, believed that there was a single god who was sovereign over all places and all times. So that no matter where they were, they were to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even if that meant carrying all the various parts of the Tabernacle from place to place as the book of Numbers prescribes

The book of Numbers can be a little tedious. Its instructions for worship in the wilderness are primarily bound to a previous time and place. But its emphasis on a Sovereign God who reigns from Egypt to Canaan to every place in between? That's still right on target. For those of us who still find ourselves in the wilderness, it's good news to know even when we are without a place we are not without our LORD.