The Value of a Vine

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Photo compliments of Brittany Cunningham.

 

“’Son of man, what is the vine-tree more than any tree, the vine branch which grew up among the trees of the forest?’” (Ezekiel 15:2)

What’s the value of a vine? Actually, what’s the value of a vine in Your eyes, God? Hearing this makes me think of Jesus’ words, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser…I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” So maybe this whole vine idea wasn’t a new thing. Maybe it was God’s idea that we should find our life in Him from the start and that our purpose on earth is to bear His fruit and not ours.

Thinking of bearing fruit as a vine takes me to Genesis 49:2. Here are the words that Jacob uses to bless his son Joseph, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall.” Why was he such a strong vine? Look at his life. Joseph didn’t act like an oak tree instead of a vine. He didn’t rely on his own strength. He realized that his strength, the strength of his “vine” came from God. He looked to God for help and blessing. He let God fill him with the fruit he should bear. His brothers chose to bear fruit foreign to God, but Joseph clung to that which was of God.

Israel is referred to as a vine in Psalm 80:8,9. “You have brought a vine out of Egypt: you have cast out the heathen and planted it. You prepared room before it, and did cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land.” Imagine that the Kudzu vine was a good thing here. It’s a creeping vine that is native to Asia but introduced to the U.S. in the 1800’s as an ornamental and for erosion control. Only it crowds out native species. So here in the U.S. it’s not a good thing. But God chose Israel from among the nations. They were chosen to be a good vine to go into the world and bear God’s fruit to the nations around them. The thing is, they started bearing their own fruit instead of His. They weren’t submitted to the One who gave them life and planted them and gave them what they needed to bear, fruit for the good of others and not just themselves. Israel isn’t the only one that can become like Kudzu. So can we, if we can’t submit and let God have His way in us.

Israel wasn’t always an empty vine, but that was God’s pronouncement in Hosea 10:1. “Israel is an empty vine, he brings forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he has increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images.” Read the next verse and we see the problem, “Their heart is divided.” It’s not just focused on God. There is something else that is to be desired. God wasn’t their King of kings. Israel was producing “foreign” fruit, not fruit of God. Israel was producing fruit based on the world around them and not the God who created them and gave them life and sustained them. And the truth is, an empty vine doesn’t have much life in it. It’s fading, no matter how strong it believes itself to be. Take the Life Source away and there goes your life.

In Isaiah 5, God talks about a vineyard that He planted and dressed. The vines were planted on a fruitful hill. It was fenced in from predators. There were no stones. The vines were the best. There was a tower in the middle and a winepress. The vines should have brought forth the choicest grapes but instead brought forth wild grapes. What can be done? The vines must be destroyed and new vines planted. The time for pruning and digging has already been tried, over and over. The problem is that the vines wouldn’t acknowledge God. “[T]hey regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands. Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge” and the ones who ought to know are famished and dried up. They call evil good and good evil and put darkness for light and light for darkness. They’re wise in their own eyes. The wicked are justified and the righteous are treated as wicked. This is not what the vine was created for. Unfortunately, this is what the vine chose.

Isn’t it so sad to have been planted of the true vine but to have chosen “other vineness”? “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter…” (Deuteronomy 32:32) Maybe some introspection is due on the part of every believer. Maybe it’s a good thing to examine our own “vineness.” Whose vine do I resemble? What kind of fruits am I producing? Am I guilty of “other vineness” or am I producing the real and succulent grapes that I was created to produce for the glory of the One who established me in His vineyard?  After all, God asks, “Yet I had planted you a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then are you turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?” (Jeremiah 2:21) Maybe that question needs to be asked today? Maybe that’s a question I ought not avoid asking myself to make sure that I am who I was created to be and not someone masking as a vine I’m not.

It’s a sad thing to have started out as a vine full of life and fruit and to end up cast down, dried up, fruitless, and in the burn pile. The truth is that none of us have to end up like that. Israel didn’t and doesn’t and neither do any of us. We can choose to submit and stay in the One who gives us life and fruitfulness. I have to remember and submit to being a branch in the Vine I come from. I must bear Your fruit and Your life must course through me. Abiding in You isn’t just about a mental ascension or acknowledgment. It’s about utter dependence. I actually must know that without You I can actually do nothing. Without You I cannot live a real life. Without You I wither and am good for nothing and no one. But abiding in You isn’t just some passive thing. It’s a wholehearted submission and dependence. It’s listening to You and agreeing with You and then doing and acting upon the things of Your heart. It’s not just hearing Your words but it’s soaking up Your words and letting them flow forth in actuality from our life like fruit on a vine. When You say love Your enemies, it’s not just words I speak, but the grapes of love come out and are sweet nourishment to my enemies. When You say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” you aren’t just talking philosophy here. You want us to love as much as Christ loved and honored You and gave His life for us. Is my number one fruit to glorify You in everything? Do I care what grapes I offer my neighbor? Do I give him anything at all?

Being a healthy vine has everything to do with learning submission. God cares that I learn to render “tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom is due, fear to whom fear is due, and honor to whom honor is due.” (Watchman Nee) The life of the vine is in it’s submission. Choosing my own life, my own law, is classified as lawlessness by God, after all, He is the Creator of law, what do we know about it? Do I choose to restrain Your law and hold back Your grapes or do I help Your law and bring forth sweet fruit. We all have something lacking in us, only You fill it up. It’s useless to try to fill it on our own; we can’t do it.

I have the choice like Israel to rebel, but look where it leads. It’s a rejecting of grace and riches. It’s choosing poverty of spirit and life. But I also have the choice to surrender my life to You in love and worship and devotion.  It’s my choice if I want to live in the vine and bear Your beautiful fruit or not.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.  I want to learn to abide in You.  I want to be a vine bearing Your fruit.

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On Life and Fulfillment

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Photo credit to Stephen Cunningham.

 

“Then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations.” Ezekiel 6:9

It’s funny how we say this is an awful way for God to feel. But I wonder if we were married and loved the one we were married to with all our hearts and they “went a-whoring” and left us for others, how we would feel? And I’m not saying that anyone should run out and destroy their unfaithful partner. That’s not my point. Isn’t the truth that they have already not only begun destroying themselves, but destroying true intimacy itself? Aren’t they bringing turmoil into their own lives and into the lives around them? Aren’t they being caught up in twisted thinking that will one day lead to their own demise?

Had God’s people ever been warned? Had they witnessed the power of the true God versus the lack of power of the gods of other nations? Had they witnessed and been supplied by the provision of the true God? Did You, God, really cause their demise? Or were You there trying to continually call them back to the safety and provision of You?

The people were playing with what they shouldn’t be playing with, nations who didn’t care about them. They were making themselves vulnerable because they were no longer alert. They were allowing themselves to lose their identity in God, who was their strength, and falling into the lie of the nations that they were great of themselves. They were worshipping at empty altars that bring emptiness and desolation.

Paul talks of desolation, this word shamem in Hebrew, also. “For it is written, ‘Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more are the children of the desolate than the one who has a husband.’” (Galatians 4:27) What is this about? What is today’s reading in Ezekiel about? It describes “the inner barrenness of an unfulfilled life.” (Skip Moen) Shamem is about being desolate and amazed. It can mean one or the other or it can be both at the same time. It’s like looking around at the great desolation and destruction around you and being totally appalled and overwhelmed at the same time.

The reason judgment comes is because we refuse to live fulfilled lives. We were created to be filled fully with God, to bear His image throughout this world. This is true fulfillment, what we were created to be filled with, just like Adam when God breathed into him and he became a living soul. But we choose, yes we choose, to warp that image and defile it and create our own. We choose to live unfulfilled lives in these places of desolation, and we don’t even realize how appalling it is. But God does. He never intended us to walk in the wilderness. He hadn’t intended for Israel to walk there. They chose desolation instead of the kingdom. Aren’t we doing the same? And then we have the nerve to blame our consequences on God? And all You have ever been trying to do is to turn us back to our purpose, true life fulfillment in You.

The truth is that God doesn’t leave us alone in the wilderness. He was there for Hagar. He was there for the Israelites. He is there for us today, waiting to rescue us from emptiness and unfulfillment. We think self-sufficiency is the answer but the answer is in dependency on a God who is fully able. Think about it. Joseph couldn’t rescue himself from that pit his brothers placed him in. The Israelites couldn’t find their way out of the desert. Hagar couldn’t find water to keep her and her son alive. Moses couldn’t even lead a people on his own. The truth is not one of us is sufficient on our own.

Paul understood that. He was once a very self-sufficient man. But not once he met the risen Jesus. He shares, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God…” (2 Corinthians 3:5) God enables us in Him to do and to bear His image in this world, that we may fulfill our purpose in Him.

How could a barren woman have more fulfillment than the one with a husband? How did the desolate woman find more fulfillment? Because our fulfillment doesn’t come in our husband or in our job or in our position or in our ministry. Our satisfaction and fulfillment comes from God. This world is a wilderness and we have to learn to cling to God in the midst of it because clinging to the wilderness will always leave us empty.

Are you in an overwhelming place right now that seems totally desolate? Stop fighting God. Let Him come to You in the desolate empty place and let Him fill You. Run into His arms and let His ways become Your ways. Let Him redefine Your thinking and Your living by His standards, by His love, by His grace, and by His mercy. Let Him be the spouse that He promises to be to you and let yourself be His. Let go of the emptiness. Walk away from it and walk into His arms. You don’t have to stay there. You never did. He’s been waiting with open arms every minute of every day, right there with you, only you wouldn’t acknowledge Him or give Him the time of day. But He never stopped thinking about you or reaching out to you.

We can keep fighting a losing battle and trying to find fulfillment elsewhere. But it will always leave us empty and grasping for more. Or we can stop fighting and let the One who has always loved us, the One who created us, fill us full of Himself and we can live out our purpose in life and eternity. The choice is each of ours. Only, don’t get upset if you choose the consequences of self-fulfillment. It’s not like we’ve not been warned. The blame game is a losing game. Let’s take responsibility for our choices and let’s choose life and fulfillment.

Diminishing God

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“Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord God; surely, because you have defiled My sanctuary with all your detestable things, and with all your abominations, therefore will I also diminish you; neither shall My eye spare, neither will I have any pity.” Ezekiel 5:11

 

How often do we think of desolation of the Temple as coming from within? This is so easy to miss. When thinking about the destruction of the Holy Temple we think about Rome coming in and forcing a pig to be offered to desecrate the Temple. Or maybe we think of the final desecration of the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem before the last days, and an anti-Christ who does the same. But God is telling us in Ezekiel that desecration is closer than we think, that God’s own people desecrate the temple.

Isn’t that a terrible thought? The Jews themselves were guilty of defiling the sanctuary and bringing detestable things within its walls. The Jews themselves, yes, the people of God, were bringing abominations in. Really? Were they bringing pigs and things like that in? No. But they were busy bringing diminished ideas of God inside His own temple.

 

That word for diminished is gara in Hebrew. It means “to clip, diminish, restrain, keep back, withdraw.” Now listen to what Eliphaz said to Job, “Do you hear the secret counsel of God, and limit wisdom to yourself? (Job 15:8) That’s a good question. Do I hear God’s word and then think I can interpret it how I want? Do I really understand everything as I ought? Can I really know it on my own or do I need the Holy Spirit, the forefathers and other believers who have really dug in? Is this a process of becoming or do I know all right now? Can I decide for myself or is this something I live out in the community of believers? Would I really think so highly of myself as to “limit God’s wisdom to my understanding?”

Do I forget that though God comes to us individually and leaves the 99 for the 1 that is lost, the goal is to bring the 100 into the fold? Do I forget that the power of God exists in community, in unity with God and with other believers? Do I forget that I need accountability? Do I forget that I need others to help me see in myself what I’m blind to? Do I forget that the Holy Spirit will never teach me or lead me in a way that is against God’s words?

But that’s what happens when I diminish God and His word. Yes, God comes to people personally, but not for us to be our own people. He comes to us personally so that we can choose to become His people, grafted in as one, grafted in not only with each other, but grafted in with Him. Therefore, we live like Him and love like Him and respond like Him and make much of Him because He becomes our everything and all those who are held so dear to Him become dear to us.

When I think I am the gift of God, I make living about me, not about God and not about His people. I make my goals and my desires more important. I diminish God and make myself a type of god. I think I have the right to point out specks in other people’s eyes and not see the log in my own. (Luke 6:41) I bear fruit of my own liking and not of God, bad fruit instead of good, bad fruit that I somehow convince myself tastes and looks good. (Luke 6:43) I call God, “Lord,” but I don’t treat You as Lord because really I’m my own lord. (Luke 6:46) I hear what You say but I don’t do it because I’ve diminished Your agenda and glorified my own.

When I take care of number 1, you know, me, I desecrate Your Holy Temple because that’s not what You desire. Your command is to love God and to love others. Acts 4:32 expressed true “temple” worship, “and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” And that’s the truth that doesn’t defile. Everything I have or am is because God has given it to me or in me. The Temple belongs to God. The instruments are His, the design is His, how it works is His idea. My purpose is to fulfill His idea, not mine. My purpose in life is to be fit in like His divine puzzle piece. I don’t even have the ability to fit myself. To think I do is the greatest farce. This is God’s playwright, He wrote it, it’s His, and we’re His players, and that’s the best place to be, looking to Him as Director so we get it right.

Lord, I don’t want to diminish You by having an attitude that I have it all under control or even know what I’m doing. I want to live under Your direction and I want to be sensitive to the direction of those who have heeded before me and along with me. I want to remember that I’m not a lone player and that I don’t get to write the script, or my script, or any one else’s script, but that You are the Script Writer. I don’t want to look clean on the outside and be a nasty cup on the inside because I’m in control. I want You to be in control, because who in the world am I to even think otherwise? I concede. After all, the temple was just a model of something greater. And Jesus, You told us, “something greater than the temple is here.” And I’m more than willing, I’m desperately in need of surrendering to You because the one who created the temple is greater than the temple. I want You to be God. Don’t let me diminish You in my life or in anyone else’s life. Let me let You be God in my life and all those around me. You know, You’re gonna be God because it’s who You are and I or anyone else can’t stop it. But I can keep myself and others from seeing it. Lord, don’t let that happen. I want to see You as You are. And I want to be an instrument that allows others to see You in Your fullness also.

Oh, To Be Greatly Beloved

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“At the beginning of your supplications a word went forth, and I am come to declare it; for you are greatly beloved; therefore look into the word, and understand the vision.” (Daniel 9:23)

 
Can you imagine God sending Gabriel, an angel who stands before Him waiting for His command, coming to you and telling you that God has heard your prayers and made a declaration according to them and, to top it all off, that you are greatly beloved? Now I’m going to leave arguments over the prophesy to others today. But I want to examine Daniel’s heart. I want to see what it is that causes God to delight in someone like that.

 

Why? Because I want to be that kind of a person. I want God to experience shear delight in me. Isn’t that what we were created for? Isn’t that part and parcel with glorifying God?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts off by asking this question, “What is the chief end of man?” And then it answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Where did they get this from? Well, you can read Psalm 86, Isaiah 60:21, Romans 11:36, and 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 10:31 to see. But don’t forget to look at the clincher in Revelation 4:11, “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for You have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.” Am I bringing God pleasure with my life? Am I fulfilling my God-given purpose on this earth? Or have I given myself some other foreign purpose? And if I have adopted some foreign purpose for my life, is that really even living at all?

 
I can’t help but think how fully alive Daniel was. He’s lived through at least two kingdoms being overthrown, probably the death of his parents or at least total separation from them and another nation trying to wipe away his identity. But how does he respond? He holds on to his identity, but not with bitterness, and clings to You God and Your ways in a nation where it was anything but easy. But it’s as though he were living for You and living to please You in all he was. He wouldn’t eat what would be unpleasing to You. He wasn’t rude to those around him or why would they find favor in him? Was that a typical Jewish response to Gentiles and overthrowers? That was a God response in a young man or boy who cherished You.

 
He didn’t stop there. As a man, he not only wanted to save his life and that of his Jewish brothers, but cared for the lives of the other “wise” men and trusted You for the interpretation of the king’s dream. But he was not self-confident. He asked his brothers to pray and fast and did likewise because His confidence was in You, the One he delighted in. Even fear of the king’s anger at the outcome of a dream did not hold him back from sharing Your truth.

 
How boldly he stood before Belshazzar when summoned, probably in his 70’s and yet he had not forgotten all that You had done before. He held Belshazzar accountable before You and the people for not remembering and being moved to action by what he knew about You. He was so delighted in You that he cared nothing for the rewards offered by the king.

 
On the other hand, You were so delighted in Daniel that when the kingdom was overthrown, You gave those rewards and more to Daniel anyway. Because of You and his love and honor of You in everything, Daniel’s character stood out in every reign and he was continually chosen as a leader and advisor even to the kings. Which brings me back to this saying, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.” (Proverbs 25:2)

 
I can’t help bringing up this verse again and again. What does it mean, especially in context today? I mean, God, You are continually concealing things and giving us, like Daniel and the kings, things we need to search out but that You know the answer to. And maybe that’s the point. It is the glory of God to conceal a thing. You carry the weight of knowing everything and when is the right time to reveal it and who are the right people to reveal it to lest it be like pearls trampled by the swine. But is it really only for kings to search it out? Or do we receive the honor of a king, are we acting like a king ought to act, when we, whoever we are, like Daniel search out every matter according to You and in You? Daniel was not a king and yet he received the glory of a king by kings and from You. Why?

 
Could it be because Daniel delighted in the King of kings? It’s so hard for us to grasp this since we live in a democracy because Your kingdom God is not a democracy. You are King. If Your thumb is up we live, if down, we die. What You say goes, despite what we say. Skip Moen shares, “It is the King’s right and prerogative to involve himself in any aspect of any life under His authority. Furthermore, since God is the King of all the earth, everything belongs to Him. He doesn’t have to prove ownership in a court of law. He cannot be stripped of His property. What He decides to do with His possessions (including you and me) is entirely up to Him. And He holds everyone under His domain accountable for their treatment and stewardship of His resources. There are consequences for refusing to live according to the will of the King. In the days when we are awash in political rhetoric and the promises of leadership, it is well to remember who the King really is. No matter who we choose to lead us, they must answer to Him. So must we for our choosing. If we choose leadership that does not honor Him, we will pay the price. There is only one King, and He is not on the ballot.” And Daniel shows us how to live according to the True King who is not on the world’s ballot.

 
Kings would be wise to search out matters God’s way who conceals and reveals. But it’s not just for kings. We can reap the honor of kings, and especially our King, to live as the kings aren’t living, to love the One the kings aren’t loving, to honor the One the kings ought to honor. Earthly kings and kingdoms are temporary. Come on, look at history. But the True King and His Kingdom are forever. Like Daniel, I better learn how to live under and for Him now. Like Daniel, I want to love and enjoy service under my King all the days of my life.

 
Daniel’s heart was so sensitive to You Lord. He not only thought of himself but of those around him. He lifted up the whole nation and advocated for them, identifying in their sin against You. He set his face unto You. You alone were His source of help and sustenance and answer to the things he didn’t understand. He was serious about hearing from You, so serious he fasted and prayed. He knew You and knew Your word. He sought You out everywhere, looking for Your evidences all around him. There was confusion and shame where You were not, but righteousness with You, and that, or rather You were what he sought. From You and in You were the mercy and forgiveness he sought. He understood that they belonged to You and weren’t just things You gave out. To find them, one must be in relationship with the One who emits mercy and forgiveness because they are part of His essence.

 

Daniel had been doing the job the kings should have done, seeking answers from God. But they weren’t. But since he was, God delighted in his delighting and gave him the answer of kings from Himself, the King of all.  And You send Gabriel to bring the answer to this man who has been spending his life delighting in You, to this man who You hold as beloved. You send this angel named Gabriel from Your presence into his, to share a prophecy. Now, whether that was concerning “Messiah the Prince,” search it out like a true king, I won’t tell you. But the next two times that Gabriel shows up, he’s telling Zacharias that his son will be a forerunner before the Lord, and he tells Mary that her son will be called “the Son of the Most High.”

 
There are a lot of things in our lives that aren’t clear to us, a lot that is concealed before us. If I want to know the truth about it, I need to seek it out from one Source, God alone. I need to stop living like the world and start living like You and loving like You and delighting in You above everything else around me. I need to be willing to sacrifice my comfort in this world, to be comforted by and in You. If You aren’t my most beloved then how can I expect to be Your beloved? We reap what we sow, right? How much of myself am I truly sowing in You? When I think of all that You have sown into people who continually fail You and disregard You, I am amazed and shocked. Because I have been one of those. And yet You love me, and gave Your Christ to return me into Your glory that I might love and serve You again and be loved by You. I guess we’ve always been loved. But it’s maybe greater to be beloved because it’s a reciprocal relationship experienced and treasured by both parties. That’s the kind of relationship Daniel had. And that’s the kind of relationship I want, no matter the cost.

Stepping Out of the Muck

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Photo credit to Alexander Routhier.

 

“They have deeply corrupted themselves, as in the days of Gibeah…” Hosea 9:9

 

How about a pleasant word to start off with? Well, maybe we need to skip the pleasantries until we handle what really needs to be handled. My daughter has horses and those horses have stalls but if those stalls are left without being handled, there won’t be much pleasantry. The more muck collects in the stalls, the deeper and more unpleasant it gets. Get the muck out and the whole atmosphere changes. Maybe that’s what Hosea is telling Israel and warning us. Maybe we need to focus on getting the muck out of our lives.
Hosea tells Israel, don’t be rejoicing now. You’ve got a problem you need to deal with. You have gone astray from your God. You’ve filled your life with muck instead. You don’t even know who you are.

 

It wasn’t always that way. God had seen Israel in the wilderness so to speak. He had seen Israel in this man named Abraham, a man like every other man, only Abraham was looking for something more than what man was showing him. And God saw that and saw the fruit that Abraham could bear from trusting Him. It was like grapes in the wilderness. Abraham wasn’t a grape but in God’s hands and in God’s will He was like food to the hungry. He would be like food to those in a dry place. And so God set apart a people for Himself from Abraham, and God saw their potential in Him, like the first-ripe fruit in the fig-tree at her first season. They were a fig-tree full of potentially good fruit fit to feed many. A people filled with potential from God. A people that God saw great potential in. But what happened? Where did that potential go?

 

This people that was separated unto God, chose to separate themselves unto shameful things like other gods instead of their true God. They chose to become detestable like the thing they loved. Here was a God who loved them and saw beautiful and good things coming from them in Him, but they chose to follow gods who did not love and who had no vision for them so that they could choose their own vision and their own future and their own present. They followed their hearts and their love and their desire instead of following the God whose heart was for them, whose love was over them, and whose desires were for them.

 

It’s sad. Because somehow we go after these things and become that detestable thing we hated once. Yet we don’t even realize how detestable we have become. If you don’t think that’s true, let’s go back and see what it looks like to go our own way without the God who made us for a greater purpose. Let’s see what it looks like to not hearken to God and to become a wanderer with no roots.

 

Hosea tells us that Israel corrupted themselves, as in the days of Gibeah, so let’s look at the days of Gibeah. Before we get to Gibeah, let’s understand the times. Go back a chapter before Gibeah and we see that there was no king in Israel in these days. What that lead to was people deciding on their own what they felt was right. Like in Judges 18 where a man named Micah had set up a Levite in his house and had made an ephod, a seraphim, a graven image, and a molten image. This Levite was supposed to be a man following God yet here he was leading others in worshiping false images. According to Jewish tradition his role was to be teacher and spiritual example and therefore to “lead and accompany others back to their spiritual purpose.” But things were so corrupt here that the tribe of Dan was deciding to conquer another city and thought it a good idea to have a token priest, so they took Micah’s Levite and the religious items for their own upon threat and went and conquered a people who was quiet and secure. The Levite was delighted to be sought after by a whole tribe, Micah went back in fear, and the tribe of Dan slaughtered for their own advancement. So that’s the introduction.

 

But in looking at Gibeah, the introduction continues. Again, we’re reminded that there was no king in Israel, and here we have a story of another Levite. Remember, these Levites are supposed to be leading people in God’s ways, but are they? Here is this Levite who takes a concubine out of Beth-Lehem. Levites and concubines? Does that go together? It was an accepted practice by man, but what did God think about it? It’s like having a second-rate wife, lower in status than the first. Maybe she felt that way and that’s why she played the harlot. Maybe she just liked playing the harlot. Maybe she just felt like one. I don’t know. But this Levite goes back to her dad’s house to take her back. So the woman’s father and the Levite stay and eat, drink, and be merry at the house. But finally the Levite decides to leave late in the day.

 

Leaving late in the day really wasn’t a safe idea in those days. And the servant suggested they turn in at a city of the Jebusites. But the Levite wouldn’t because they were not his people. So they travelled to Gibeah, to people of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin. And there they went but no one would offer them lodging as was custom. So I suppose, sitting in the town center all alone was this Levite and his entourage and an old man coming home from working his field sees them and invites them in to his home.

 

Now, what we hear sounds like a rehashing of Sodom and Gomorrah without all the fire raining from heaven. Men gather around the house, beating the door and asking for the man that came in so they “may know him.” Now that’s a sexual kind of knowing. But the man of the house knew that was not right and resisted them, yet he offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. But the men didn’t want that either. So the Levite takes hold of his concubine and puts her out the door where she was sexually abused all night long until they let her go in the morning. She fell down at the door of the house she was taken from. And that’s where he found her.

 

Do you know what he says? “Up, and let us be going.” But there was no answer. That’s it, “Get up, let’s go.” That’s it! I don’t know if she was dead at that point. Fell down could mean that. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But where was sorrow? Where was caring? In these stories, where was compassion? Where was concern for one’s fellow human being? And everyone takes it as though she definitely was dead, totally dead. But I don’t even know that.

 

And then the Levite takes her back on the donkey to his house and cuts her into multiple pieces and sends a piece to each tribe. I thought Israel respected the dead?  I thought that was a way of respecting life? Do you wonder why the people of Israel responded “Such a thing has not happened nor been seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt”?   And Israel was rightly angry about that and came to Gibeah and to the Levite and the Benjamites to hear why this atrocity was done. The Levite explained, “the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night; me they thought to have slain, and my concubine they forced, and she is dead. And I took my concubine, and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel; for they have committed lewdness and wantonness in Israel.”

 

Lewdness and wantonness, abomination and outrage, lewdness and folly, shame, something terrible, perverted and godless thing, committed a vile and stupid outrage, these are all descriptions of what took place. But does it only describe the attitude and actions of the men of Gibeah, the Benjaminites? Doesn’t it describe the attitude and actions of both the Levites? Doesn’t it describe the people of Dan? or Micah? What about an attitude of a man who was supposed to protect and provide for his concubine and yet, to save his own hide he thrusts her out to be raped instead? What of a father who offers his daughter?

 

Maybe you ask, “What of God who offered His own Son?” But God was not offering Jesus to save His own hide. Like Isaac, Jesus knew the outcome, and that it was for life and the glory of God and the saving of His people. All these people we just read about, they were so busy saving themselves that they had no thought for anyone else. Maybe the sin of Gibeah is bigger than homosexuality or inhospitality. Maybe the sin around Gibeah is perversion of purpose and perversion of our design. Maybe we can get so twisted that we don’t even realize how disgustingly abhorrent and hateful we’ve become.

 

Have we read these chapters before and passed on without them churning our stomachs? Do we walk on in life and hear of women and children being raped and mistreated violently and we do nothing? Isn’t that like pushing them out the door so we can remain comfortable? Do we go along with what society does just because or even follow the comfort and ease of comfortable Christianity because it’s not dangerous?

 

Here’s the thing, God is a consuming fire. He is dangerous. Deuteronomy 4:24 tells us, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” Deuteronomy 9:3 continues, “Understand therefore this day, that the LORD your God is He which goes over before you; as a consuming fire He shall destroy them, and He shall bring them down before your face: so shall you drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the LORD said unto you.” And Paul reaffirms this in Hebrews 12:29, “For our God is a consuming fire.” He has called us unto Him as priests and a holy nation as teachers and spiritual examples to lead others back to their spiritual purpose. Do we think He takes that lightly and will overlook when we mislead?

 

Here we have a God who is a consuming fire. He has the power to consume us but He chooses to burn away the chaff, to get rid of the muck, and to bring us forth as gold. He chooses to refine and redefine instead of destroy. But He can destroy and He will and must destroy that which refuses to be refined and redefined into it’s original design. So we can be protected and guided and led by this Consuming Fire. Or we can be consume by Him. This is each man’s choice.

 

But if my God is this consuming fire who goes before me and consumes that which stands against Him, then why didn’t the Levite stand up for that woman? Why didn’t that first Levite stand up for God and refuse his position because it was a false position over false idols? Why didn’t Benjamin care any more? Why didn’t Dan get it? They had so corrupted themselves, they were so full of muck, they didn’t even know it anymore. And what about us? Have we so corrupted our lives from Your original purpose for us? Are our minds and attitudes and lives so filled with muck that we miss it all?

 

To this date in the U.S. there have been 1,080 abortions today alone and it’s only 8:41 AM. Worldwide this year there have been 26, 760,972 and rising. And what about human trafficking? Around the world, “800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. That is 2,200 each day- over 91 people each hour!” Why? Why is this happening?

 

Because there was no king in the world. Oh, I’m not talking about one world order here. I’m talking about a King who rules men’s hearts and minds by giving them His mind and His heart. I’m talking about a King who takes away our hearts of stones that would ignore another’s need or deem ourselves as more worthy, and who would give us a heart of flesh instead. I’m talking about a King who would give His only Son for His Son’s good, and His good, and our good. I’m talking about a King who is selfless and not selfish, a King who has every right to us, a King who has created us for a glorious purpose in Him. I’m talking about a King who cares and loves and saves and stands up and fights for what is right and good and pure and true. I’m talking about a King who is no pansy, but is a consuming fire, and who is inviting us to stand with Him against all that is corrupt in this world and to not be afraid.

 

Paul wasn’t afraid to live out what those Levites should have been living. He knew that His God was a consuming fire and that His God was for Him. “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21) What if the Levites had believed that? What about Dan or Benjamin? What if I lived like that? What if my deepest expectation and desire and hope was that I would stand for You in all boldness and allow You to be magnified in me whether it cost my life or not? Maybe then, and only then, I would have the kind of faith that saves. I guess we all have a choice to make. Will I stay in my own muck or will I step into the fire? I want to step into the fire no matter the cost. Your choice is your own. Make it wisely.

Unwrapping the Knowledge

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Photo credit to Minden-Press Herald.

 

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” Hosea 4:5

Not just any people, but God’s people are perishing, are dumb, are silent, are failing, are being cut down and undone utterly. Why? For lack of knowledge. I’m wondering if “lack” here is the best interpretation of the Hebrew beliy. I mean, the truth is that Paul tells us “that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:2) So there was no “lack” of “knowledge” as we think of these terms. It was there. They had it. So what was the problem?

You tell us the heart of the problem with your subsequent words, “because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you.” Therefore, I see, that one can have knowledge right there in their grasp and yet still not have knowledge. I can have a “form” of knowledge, yet it be totally worthless to me because I don’t acknowledge the knowledge for what it truly is.

The Psalmist in Psalm 101:3 says, “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not fasten its grip on me.” But this is just the problem. The people of God turned their hearts to focus on worthless things and in so doing, treated their relationship with You as worthless and might I say, worth less. Your pleasure, Your will, Your image became to them good for nothing compared to the other things that lured them. They treated Your ways as garbage or trash and went after other gods who offered them things the way they wanted them. In treating You like garbage they fell into worshiping that which was garbage and that which couldn’t deliver anything but lies and harm.

That word translated as lack here is a strong emphatic word in Hebrew. It’s a pronouncement about the character of a thing and in this case, of a people. It’s usually about moral character. It’s about people choosing to “practice and promote disobedience to God and man” even though they have all the knowledge to know better and do better. But You look at their life and call it worthless, not because You see no value in them, but because they are depriving themselves of their own worth and their own purpose upon this earth. These people were choosing to defy God and practice and promote what was totally against Him. They would choose to defy their very purpose in creation. Now that’s a sticky situation.

So, what kind of knowledge was lacking or made worthless by the people? The knowledge of God. It’s the heart of all true knowledge. Solomon shared, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) That doesn’t just mean that we can know about things because we are afraid of God. It’s not just about a proper perspective on life. It’s about respecting and honoring God for who God is, for all the magnitude of who He is. And then it goes beyond respect and honor into a personal, intimate relation with Him as someone who is alive and cares and shows that care.

Do I know that God cares for me? Do I know the depths of Your caring? Later in Hosea, he will use the term “knowledge of God,” daath Elohim. And the truth is that knowledge in the Hebrew sense always means more than knowing with Your head or having a strong theological background. It’s all about being human, every range of it. Knowing, really knowing involves every aspect of the emotions, the will, and the intellect. The head and the heart work together. Head knowledge effects heart knowledge and, I suppose, vice versa. It’s not just cognitive. It’s not just rationalized thinking.

When examining the Hebrew word most often used for knowledge, yada, Heschel suggests it this way, “an act involving concern, inner engagement, dedication, or attachment to a person. It also means to have sympathy, pity, or affection for someone.” It’s the farthest cry from correct doctrine. It’s greater than obedience. It’s far greater.

“Hear the word of the LORD, you children of Israel: for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.” (Hosea 4:1) God’s broken heart is crying out to his children. We see Your heart in the image of the marriage analogy. How would our hearts feel if that were to happen to us? Wouldn’t we feel it? Well, God feels it too because it’s not just reading about a relationship, it’s an actual real living relationship with real live attachment and commitment and hearts involved. God feels everything, all the hurt, the humiliation, the sorrow, the betrayal, and more. He knows the consequences of His lover’s choice. He knows what she is missing and what she will receive instead. Her problem is she is lacking a heart knowledge. She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t know Him at all or she would never leave His side. She didn’t even know what she had when she was there with Him. How tragic.

Knowledge is not about information. It’s about reciprocal feelings. It’s about reciprocal sympathy. It’s about feeling the way God feels, understanding how God understands, loving as He loves, acting as He acts, enjoying what He enjoys. And it’s not even about us each doing it on our own. It’s about doing all this along with You, God. It’s about a relationship of enjoying You as much as You desire to enjoy us. Knowledge is knowing You intimately and enjoying You intimately and personally as much as You enjoy us. It’s delighting in You as You delight in us.

But Israel and Gomer aren’t the only ones not weeping over the intimacy they are missing. Many nations and many of us in the nations are not weeping over the love we’ve thrown away and wasted and lost. We’ve numbed ourselves to the pain of separation. We no longer agonize over You, who ought to be our dearest One. There is no heart for You. And that’s the saddest part.

And then we read and hear about the divorce rate skyrocketing today. But here we have the contrast of God’s love. Because He holds on to the people of His own choosing. He refuses to let them go and give up even though they don’t even care about how He feels. They make love to everything You hate, and yet You continue to love and call them back. They choose to become animals instead of the Beloved. But You don’t give up hope.

No, it wasn’t because Israel lacked information. And it’s not that we lack information either. It’s that we lack “sensitivity, empathy with God.” (Skip Moen) Are we any different? Do I feel what You feel, Lord? Do I share the same sensitivity? Do I cry with You? Do I agonize over what You agonize over? Do I care enough about You to be willing to die to more than myself? Do I care enough about You to be willing to just die to whatever I had to, even if it meant death itself? Because this Husband gives more than I could ever imagine. His life, through Christ, was spent for mine, not out of duty, but out of immeasurable love. He owed me nothing, yet gave everything. And this is GOD who did that. This is GOD. This is the ONLY GOD who has ever and would ever go to those extremes for the love and redemption of His people, His own creation.

I can run around in the midst of my own lies, living any way I want, but it would just be an utter waste of my life. There is absolutely nothing that compares to You and Your love God. Absolutely nothing. I can choose my own way and disregard You and start perishing today. Or I can regard You in Your fullness and know You better than I know myself. I can delight myself in You, the only God who delights Himself in me. And in that kind of knowing and experiencing and living it out, I can see the desires of Your heart come to life in mine as Your love blossoms in me. It would be a shame to be destroyed for lack of knowledge when you held that knowledge right there all along and never experienced it because you never even opened it up and looked inside.

Finding Joy Despite the Locusts

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Photo credit to http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/madagascar-locust-crisis-in-pictures-9456788.html

“…so that joy has withered and fled away from the sons of men.” Joel 1:12

Here’s a little background. Joel was the son of Pethuel. That’s it as far as Joel’s background goes. Other than knowing about the time period he lived, that’s all we know about him. Oh, and that his name meant “Jehovah is his God” and that his father’s name meant “enlarged of God” or “the sincerity of God, “ or “godly simplicity.” So maybe who one is isn’t as important as who God calls you to be? Maybe our identity ought to be wrapped up in who You have created us to be and not who the world wants us to be or maybe even who we want to be. And maybe that means that anyone has just as good a chance at being used of You, Lord, as the next guy, whether we are big or little, important or insignificant in the eyes of others.

Well, actually there is more background to what was going on in Joel here. Here’s an unprecedented event that Joel is warning is about to occur. Here is coming this invasion so big that no one has seen one like it ever before. It will be something that should be remembered among the generations. And who is the invading army? Locusts.  Really? Locusts? Yep, and not just one type. Four kinds of invading locusts. There’s the multitudinous one. The palmerworm is a gnawer or biter. The canker-worm is the licker, or one who licks off. Then there’s the caterpillar who is the devourer and cuts off. As if one wasn’t enough, what the first doesn’t finish off, each successive locust will destroy. But why?

Because the people of Israel had lost their focus. Why does that keep coming up over and over again? Maybe because it is really easy to lose our focus on God. Maybe good times are easy times to forget Who brought us there. And maybe hard times are easy times to fight against our being there. Either way, we lose our focus. I suppose in the good times it’s a lot easier to just stop feeling like we have to be careful or alert or pay attention, but that’s the danger.

Danger hit those who were enjoying the juice of the grape too much. They were probably enjoying everything too much and getting caught up in that instead of being caught up in You, Lord. They needed a wake up call and nothing else would work. Sometimes I need a wake up call. I pray I don’t need one like that!

But the overdoers and the enjoyers of life weren’t the only ones being warned. The priests and the ministers are being warned too. Maybe Joel is helping us to see that we all stand on even ground whether we are “commoners” or “religious” people. We can all get our focus wrong if it’s not focussed on You. And when that happens, everyone around us suffers. It doesn’t just effect us alone.

When these locusts come in and destroy everything, that means that what used to bring joy will be gone. Hey, no more grapes? Doesn’t that mean no more wine? And no more wine means no more happy hour! And on a more serious side, no fruit of the field means no wave offering. Starving animals also means no burnt offering. There won’t be any meal or cereal offerings or drink offerings. All those things that the priests and ministers in the house of the Lord did toward our atonement, well, it all just went out the door. There went everyone’s hope of being made right. This was serious stuff. And if you know you can’t be made right with God, well there goes joy right out the door!

But God, You don’t let Joel leave us without hope! Even though tragedy is all around and the beasts groan and the cattle are perplexed, Joel tells us we can still call on You. Where is the answer? It’s in true repentance. It’s deeper than sackcloth. It’s accompanied with deep sorrow over sin. It’s when we give up everything to be right again; we would even fast. We would confess the state of our heart and sin before others and cry out together.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the products and fruit that God gives when He is supposed to be our joy. That’s why joy “has ceased or been taken away.” I need to check my heart that the products and fruits are not my joy as they were for the sons of men. I need to make sure that You alone are my joy. Self-examination, if continuous, keeps the locusts away. Self-examination ought to bring forth repentance and lamentation. Both turning from our wrong actions and ideas, and sorrow over them and the way they affect our relationship with You are both “outward signs of inward grace.” The sackcloth was just an outward symbol. In itself, it is not enough.

I could put on sackcloth just as easily as say I’m sorry and keep on acting the same way. But fasting and truly bearing my heart, take that to a new level. Well, I could fast and put on a facade. I could fake anything. But I can’t fool God and I don’t think I ever really fool myself either. But fasting can be a time of entreating the Lord, or changing our heart, of remembering and affirming that You are our Reason for everything. It’s an opportunity to humble ourselves before You, to prostrate ourselves as we should have been all along.
The locusts came and devoured everything off the trees so badly that Thomson wrote “their branches ‘made white’ in melancholy nakedness to the burning sun.” God always has a way of exposing our nakedness in a way that we can see. And in that, He shows us what it is to be naked without Him. And it’s no better now than it was when Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness. Life outside of Divine worship is empty and futile. Life outside of the Divine Presence is not life. Rotten seeds point to a rotten future. But a forgiving and holy and life giving God points to hope and so much more.

Here’s the problem. We sometimes act like the herds. We go around confused and wander up and down. They don’t know where to go for drink or pasture. But God has always told us where to go. He was telling the people through Joel’s mouth where they should go. He’s telling us. And You tell us all that we can find living water and the bread of life in Your Son, Jesus. The question is, will I wake up and run to Him? Will I run to You and be alert and surrendered to You? What will I find my joy in? Actually, Who will I find my joy in? I want to find my joy in the Lord all the days of my life, straight through eternity!