I Didn’t Do It

What is Christian community?  What practical implications are there to being one body?

The book of Ezra is extremely fascinating as it continues the story of God’s steadfast love, his preservation of a remnant, and his faithfulness.  Embedded in this book, however, is a great example of Christian community.  The prophet Ezra returned to Jerusalem shortly after the rebuilding of the temple in order to teach the Law to the exiles.  After some time in Jerusalem, some officials approached Ezra and told him that many of the Israelites, including the priests (the worship leaders if you will), had blatantly disobeyed God by intermarrying with foreign women.  
[If we harken back to Deuteronomy 7:3-4, we will recall that God had commanded the people to not intermarry BECAUSE “they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods.”  It is not that God was against his people marrying people of another skin color or race (see Moses for example); God was against marriages that would lead the people away from worshipping the one, true God to false gods.]
What I am noting in this passage today, however, is Ezra’s response.  Even though he did not sin and it wasn’t him who had committed this crime against the Lord, Ezra tore his clothes, pulled his hair, and fasted.  These are the outward signs of someone seeking repentance (see King David).  Then in his prayer to God, Ezra did not point his finger at them and blame them, instead he said, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (Ez. 9:6)  Ezra continues using 3rd personal pronouns in his prayer, thereby taking responsibility in the sin and in the guilt that he did not commit.  Ezra didn’t say, “Lord, I didn’t do it; they did.”  No, he prayed, “Lord, forgive our sin.”  For Ezra understood something that we do not understand today – when people in the church sin the whole church becomes under guilt.  If one person is in guilt, then the whole community is in guilt.  This of course does not mesh with our individualist context and way of understanding things, but it is the mindset of Scripture.  Remember what Paul says in Romans 12:5 – “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”  The unity of the body of Christ occurs in Paul’s other letters, such as 1 Corinthians.  The whole body is affected whether good or bad by every member.  When Judah went into exile it was not because every, single person had sinned, but because of the sin of the community, of the whole. 
So let me ask you as I have already asked myself.  When was the last time you cried out to God for sin that you did not commit instead of condemning the sinner?  When was the last time you became broken hearted over the sin of a brother or sister out of love for them and because you knew that all sin impacts the community instead of viewing all sin as just personal?  When was the last time you repented on behalf of the community, acknowledging your own guilt before God instead of saying “I didn’t do it”?  Often times what will happen is someone else’s sin will reveal sin in our own lives that we have not seen before.  Remember that a repentant church is a powerful church, for when a church acknowledges their sin before God, they become a humble people who deals with sin quickly, and consequently they see the power of God at work to restore, reform, and rebuild.
What happened when Ezra became utterly devastated over the faithlessness of the exiles?  “The people wept bitterly” and “all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling.” (Ez. 10:1, 9)  It took the repentance and brokenness over sin of one man to lead the whole community to repentance.  
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” 1 Cor. 12:26

A Fair Warning

The people of Israel more often give us what-not-to-do examples rather than this-is-what-you-should-do examples.  One of these examples come from Exodus 32.  We are all familiar, maybe too familiar, with the story about the people of Israel making a golden calf.  But we may not be too familiar with 12:35-36.

Exodus 12:35-36 says, “The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing.  And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked.  Thus they plundered the Egyptians.”
After 430 years in Egypt, most of the time spent in slavery, God delivered Israel from Egypt, and not only did he deliver them but also gave them the Egyptians’ valuables!  Therefore, when we skip to Exodus 32, the golden calf story takes on a new dimension.  You see, they used the gold jewelry that they most likely received from the Egyptians (though it does not directly say) to make for them gods.  They took the very possessions that God had given them and turned them into a god.  They went from putting trust in the only God to putting trust into the things which God had given them when they left Egypt.
The warning to us is clear: when it seems like God is taking a long time to answer a prayer, when it seems that the waiting period is going too long, when it seems like things are just getting too bad, when it seems like there is little hope with the economy, do not be tempted to put your trust in the things which God has given you.  Do not turn from trusting in the Giver to trusting in the gifts.  Beware of forgetting the character of God, the past faithfulness of God, and the sovereignty of God, for the moment that we forget is the moment that we will be most vulnerable to sin.  May we heed the example of Israel of what not to do.

The Divine "But"

How often do we hear the word but used in our lives?  Sometimes these buts bear good news,  but many times the word but will introduce bad news.  The ABC show The Bachelor is a good example of this as each week the bachelor says to a girl, “I really like you, but I think these are feelings of friendship.” Unlike the conjunction and, which strings together at least two similar ideas in a sentence, and the conjunction or, which gives you the option between two ideas, the conjunction but puts two opposing ideas in a sentence.  This little word is the hinge point at which a sentence changes directions, and usually whatever follows the but will trump what preceded it.    

What we find in Genesis 50:15-21 is an example of the divine but.  Joseph’s brothers were afraid that since their father had died Joseph was going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years prior.  So they got together and sent Joseph a message asking for forgiveness.  When the message came to Joseph, Joseph wept (which in these verses there is another great message – one of true forgiveness!).  After Joseph dried up his tears and his brothers came into his presence, Joseph responded to them with this in 50:19-20 – “you meant evil against me, BUT God meant it for good…”  As God stands behind the but, his purposes prevail, the direction of the situation is altered, and evil intentions are trumped by God’s good will.   Joseph had already said this to his brothers in 45:5-8 – “now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  So we see at the first level that God is providing for Abraham’s descendants’ physical needs since God foreknew that there would be famine in the land and that the descendants of Abraham would die without food.  At the second level, God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham to multiply his descendants as well as is moving salvation history to Jesus Christ.  For you see, had Joseph not come to Egypt, many of Jacob’s offspring could have died, Israel’s descendants would not have multiplied, and eventually there would be no Passover lamb (which was a foreshadowing of Christ).  So what Joseph’s brothers had meant for bad, God had already purposed for good.  The divine BUT!  
Romans 3:23 and Romans 5:8 sum up God’s gospel as a divine but, if you will.  We were dead in our sin BUT God showed love to us through the death of God the Son on the cross.  I love that when God stands behind the but in life he trumps whatever preceded.  God can take something that was meant for evil, before it even happened, and turn it around to fulfill his purpose.  Those of us who are children of God by faith have all experienced the divine but in our lives at the cross (cf Rom. 5:8).  And as children of God we are all guaranteed another divine but – “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51).  We will all one day die but death will not have power over us as God will resurrect us.  The divine BUT!
As my preaching professor Dr. Smith said many times, “God will put a comma in your life where others have put a period.”

What about Leah?

I’m sure most of you know the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.  Jacob loved Rachel so he promised her father Laban to work 7 years in exchange for Rachel to become his wife.  At the end of those 7 years Laban tricked Jacob and gave him Rachel’s sister, Leah.  (How Laban pulled that one over Jacob’s eyes is amazing to me!)  Shortly after Jacob married Leah, he was given Rachel in marriage but he still had to work another 7 years!  So at the end of 14 years Jacob ended up with two wives, one he loved and one he could care less about.  I don’t know about you but I have always taken away from this story two things: Laban was a bad man to pull such a trick and Rachel was to be pitied.  Poor, poor Rachel.  Not only did her sister get to marry Jacob first, but she also was barren (which was a terrible thing in the ancient near eastern culture).  

However, there is more to this story than I ever grew up thinking.  First, though Jacob loved Rachel, God showed love to Leah by opening up her womb (Gen. 29:31).  It did not matter how much Jacob loved Rachel, he could not make her pregnant!  God shows love to the unloved ones and only He can ultimately create human life.  Secondly, I believe it was in God’s plan all along that Jacob would marry Leah.  If it was up to Jacob then he would have just married Rachel.  From a humanistic standpoint, it was Laban who deceived Jacob and who gave Leah to him.  But God, who not only had in mind before creation the incarnation of Christ as well as Christ’s family treee, had already chosen to carry out through Leah the genealogy of Christ.  Judah was Leah’s son, not Rachel’s.  In fact if we were to look closer at Rachel, she was the one who stole her father’s gods when this big, disfunctional family left Laban’s lot (Gen. 31:19, 32-34).  Years down the road we can compare the descendants of the two women.   Saul, the first king of Israel who the people chose based on his appearance and who did not follow God with his heart, was from the tribe of Benjamin – Rachel’s son.  David, on the other hand, who became Israel’s greatest king chosen by God despite his appearance and who followed God with his whole heart, was from the tribe of Judah – Leah’s son.  Though Leah was not perfect by any means (check out the entire story – Gen. 29-31), God chose Leah, the one whom Jacob did not choose, to bear the tribe of Judah.  
What does this mean for us?  It means that God’s ways are higher than our ways.  It means that God has a soft heart for the marginalized ones.  It means that though we tend to look at the outward beauty (Gen. 29:17-18), God looks at our hearts (1 Sam. 16:7).   Most importantly it means that this passage in Scripture is more than just a good, moral story but part of God’s salvation-history.  Here we have unfolding before our very eyes God’s sovereignty over the house of Jacob, establishing through Leah, though unwanted and unloved, the very tribe to which the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, all of Jacob’s descendants, and even of Jacob himself, would be born. 
“And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered…” (Revelation 5:5)  

Love Before Time

I grew up in the church singing the song, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so…” It was an easy song to sing and to remember, and it embedded in my little mind and heart that Jesus loves me.  Here recently I have begun to ponder on the love of Christ that preceded the foundation of the world.  I believe, as John 1:1-4 and Hebrews 1:2 record, that Jesus existed with the Father and the Spirit before anything was made.  God, the Trinity, being infinite and all-knowing knew that when He created this world what would happen.  He knew that Adam and Eve would sin.  He knew that sin would enter into his newly created world and separate mankind from himself.  God knew that a sacrificial system would have to be made to bridge the separation. And what baffles me is that the Son knew that creating the world would eventually mean him taking on human flesh (though not losing his deity) and would mean his death.   The Son, God, chose to give himself up for us before the foundation of the world, and then “chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” (Eph. 1:4)  (How COOL is that???  So baffles my finite mind!)

All that to say is that his love is infinite.  He chose to love us before he created us although he knew of our sin, he knew we would reject him, and he knew of the cost.  “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)  The Bible, being a history of God’s salvation for us, is focused on the cross.  The Old Testament is looking toward the cross and moving us toward the cross because the cross was in God’s mind from the very beginning and at the cross is God’s greatest love displayed.  And what makes it an even more amazing, incredible love is that it was a choice made before Genesis 1:1.  
“For the love of Christ controls (or compels) us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” 2 Cor. 5:14-15