Yesterday I closed my post with the words of Jesus in Mark 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (RSV) This morning, through no other intention other than following my daily Bible reading schedule, I read Daniel chapter 3. The chapter focuses on Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Anyone not bowing down to the statue would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Anyone who has attended a Vacation Bible School in their life knows that the three faithful Israelites refuse to obey, and they are called before Nebuchadnezzar to hear their sentence.
Regardless of how many times I have previously read this story, today I was struck by the forcefulness of their response. I repeat it here in its entirety:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, HCSB)
Because there are three verses, it seems only poetic to make three observations about this text.
One, the three men don’t need to give a response to the king. Their lives have already told the king the answer to his question (read from the beginning of the chapter to get Nebuchadnezzar’s question). In today’s world we are all terrified that we will not have the right answer if someone asks us a tough question. This text lets me know that if it depends on my answer I have already lost the debate. If a non-Christian cannot see my faith, no amount of verbalizing my faith will accomplish anything. What an amazing thought. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Two, the three men begin with what might be considered an ominous statement, “If God exists…” But it is clear from the context that the if is merely rhetorical. They are proclaiming God’s existence by their lives and in their words. They know God exists, and that means two other iron clad truths – God can rescue them from the furnace and from the power of the earthly king. Do not be fooled here. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not quibbling about the existence of God. For them God was as real as was Nebuchadnezzar. It is just that they knew who the real King was, and who was the impostor. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Three, and the most amazing statement, “But even if he does not rescue us…” I love the way the Holman Christian Standard Bible phrases this response. Few, if any, other translations put the word, even, in the sentence, but I think it needs to be there. The statement is emphatic. The three men are fully trusting in God’s power to deliver, but even if he does not they will still refuse to offer worship to a false god. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
This story is just so terrifying for Christians today. We have become so used to bending over, to capitulating, to kissing the feet of false gods, to compromising with the enemy, that when we are confronted with genuine acts of faith we want to turn and run. We want to excuse ourselves. We want to minimize the story that is convicting us. We trivialize it. We turn it into a warm and fuzzy vacation Bible school story that we can quickly tell so that we can get to the punch and cookies.
Those who are opposed to God demand that we redefine the word “family” to mean any group of people that live under one roof, whether or not they are related by blood or marriage. Those who are opposed to God demand that we accept any form of sexual release whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, bi-gender sexuality or poly-amorous sexuality. Those who are opposed to God demand that we create and pledge allegiance to humanistic doctrines, whether they be political or religious, and if we do not bow the knee to them we are accused of both treason and atheism. Those who are opposed to God demand we put our faith and trust in guns and our military. Those who are opposed to God demand that we strip any mention of God out of our schools, marketplaces, and halls of justice. Those who are opposed to the one true God demand that we acknowledge every godless religion as being equal to all others, and especially equal to faith in that one true God.
And, like the pitiful, spineless little amoebas that we are, we follow along, weakly hoping that those big, mean, nasty bullies won’t dislike us, or if they do, they will not beat us up too bad.
To be perfectly blunt, and profoundly non politically correct, let me set the record straight:
“Family” means one daddy and one mommy living in a committed marriage and, if blessed to have children, raising them to understand right from wrong and male from female. The act of sexual intercourse is reserved for one male and one female who have committed themselves to each other in the sacred rite of marriage. There is one God to whom we pledge allegiance, and His constitution has no amendments and no flags. The kingdom of our God has no guns and no military. We are called to defeat spiritual enemies with spiritual truths. Those who follow God are not embarrassed to mention His name, regardless of the consequences. And, finally, the Godless religions of Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and dozens of others are mere phantoms – they are powerless and are meaningless.
I know any of those statements could get me in a lot of trouble in today’s world. Maybe not a fiery furnace, but certainly into the metaphorical “hot water.” But, I need to learn how to repeat the words of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (why do we not use their Hebrew, and thus people of faith, names?).
My God can and will take care of me if and when the time comes for me to confront my enemies.
But, even if he does not, I will not bow the knee to a false god.
“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?”
(P.S. – I chose the picture of my toothy little friend above because, one day if the Good Lord allows me to, I really want to get face to face with one of these fellas. Just one way in which I can “jump the shark” in a literal way.)
[And so ends my series on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt rejoice.]
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17 RSV)
There is a significant shift between commands #4 (to remember the Sabbath day) and #5 (to honor parents). That shift is from commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior before God and to commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior with other people. That shift has been widely noted and thoroughly commented on. However, there is another shift that occurs between commands #9 and #10, and it is a shift that I have not previously noted until I started working through this series. Maybe I read about it somewhere, but if I have it sure did not stick in my memory very well.
That shift is from overt behavior to an attitude of the heart. Think about it. Honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness – all of these require an action, or refraining from an action. But covetousness? That is strictly a heart issue. Therein lies a critical exegetical and hermeneutical point that I think many of us (okay, at least me) have missed when we study the 10 Commandments.
I have been raised with the understanding that the 10 Commandments were all about what you did or did not do. However, when Jesus came along he straightened everybody out and made sure that it was not just about what we did, but what we thought. Therefore (and I’m jumping over some intermediary steps here), the Old Testament is all about the flesh and the New Testament is all about the spirit. Therefore, we can reject the Old Testament and follow only the New Testament.
The only problem is, this is not true. The Old Testament was never just about the flesh. In fact it was not even primarily about the flesh. God simply used more fleshly illustrations in the Old Testament (animal sacrifice, oil lamps, incense, laws carved on stones) to teach His lessons. Like a patient and loving parent, God was showing his children how he wanted them to behave. But we do not discipline our children simply to inflict pain. We teach our children profound spiritual lessons through the use of very down to earth physical means. As they get older we can dispense with the physical, because they have (hopefully) already learned those lessons.
The truth is, the Old Testament is full of God emphasizing the spiritual truths that re-appear in the New Testament. But, if we dismiss the Old Testament because of a few bloody sacrifices and some arcane language about skin diseases and dietary restrictions we don’t see those truths. In fact, we consciously overlook them. And in so doing we excise a significant part of God’s complete word.
I know I have not dealt too much with the tenth commandment. So, let’s look at that command very briefly.
Why are we not to look upon our neighbor’s belongings (wife, servants, animals, anything) with longing eyes? Because, very simply, in so doing we are telling ourselves (and anyone who is sharp enough to catch on to what we are doing) that God’s gifts to us are not quite good enough. God loves other people more, and so if we could just have sex with our neighbor’s wife, if we could just own their servant (hire their employees in our world) or own their car then we would be loved by God just as much. Coveting what belongs to someone else is, at its core, a rejection of the grace of God-given to us. We shake our fist at God and say, “Not good enough! I want more, better, bigger, prettier, more expensive!” Coveting a neighbor’s wife is the sin of David – God would have given him anything he asked for, but no, that was not good enough for David (2 Samuel 12:8). He took that which was not only illegal, but primarily irreligious to have. He rejected God’s grace and demanded a physical pleasure. In one of the most amazing reversals of justice, God does not demand David’s death (which could have been expected due to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) and completely upon the basis of grace extends David’s life. Not only that, but God elevates the son of this union, Solomon, to the throne of Israel. How about that for a reversal of fortunes!
I would encourage everyone to re-think their appraisal of not only the 10 Commandments, but the Old Testament in its entirety. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. Yes the old covenant practices are removed (more correctly defined – perfected) in the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, we have done away with the physical nature of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly sacrifice of blood, the burning of incense, and the other trappings of the tabernacle/temple worship. But we also have to remember that the Old Testament was the Scripture for the first century church. By removing it from our study and our worship we have impoverished the modern church. It is time to recover this tremendous spiritual feast.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus on that mountain, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Let us learn to read the 10 Commandments, and the entire Old Testament, with new eyes.
This particular topic cuts into several hot-button socio-political issues being debated in the church today, so I know I am treading on thin ice, out on a broken limb and cruisin’ for a bruisin’. But I will share these thoughts anyway, maybe not because they offer any clarity, but simply because some things need to be discussed and since this is my blog I get to set the topic.
One phrase that I hear quite frequently in discussions regarding several different topics is something like this, “How can you tell me I cannot exercise my God given calling simply because I am (a) __________________?” and you can fill in the blank with any of a number of supposed “victims” of the status quo. That might be a female, a homosexual, a divorcee, a professional musician or dance performer, or a repeat sex offender. There really is no limit to a real or imagined victimhood. Rather than pick on one of these truly “hot as blue blazes” issues, I will shift the conversation somewhat and discuss a somewhat arcane question, but a question that I believe relates back to any and all of these other particular situations.
One issue that has divided Churches of Christ for about a century is that of whether a congregation should have, or even can have, a “professional” ministry staff or if they should operate on a “mutual edification” process in which every male in the congregation is allowed to, and often is encouraged to, lead in the worship service including teaching class and preaching. A “professional” preacher is defined as one who has been to a training school, either a college, university or preacher training school, and who receives full compensation for his service to the congregation. Most who serve in mutual edification congregations do not accept any payment for their preaching/teaching services.
To begin with, I want to say I share a lot of sympathy with those who believe in mutual edification. I think sometimes those of us who are “professionally” trained tend to look down upon, or otherwise overlook, men and women in the congregation who are both capable and qualified to lead in significant ways. As with virtually every profession, there can be a measure of hubris the creeps into the heart of every practitioner.
That having been said, however, I have significant issues with those who claim that there is no Scriptural warrant for a paid, “professional” ministry position (for reference see 1 Cor. 9:9-14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 where Paul quotes the Old Testament Scriptures and even quotes Jesus in proclaiming that those who preach the gospel should get their support for doing so.) One of my main concerns is that in my professional training I have learned just how easy it is to twist and distort any passage of Scripture to mean what you want it to mean. Racists have been doing this for years. So have those who advocate building nuclear bomb proof shelters in their backyards and hoarding 15 years worth of food in order to survive the coming nuclear war (I often wonder – if the destruction is that total, what good would 15, or 50, or 100 years worth of food do? You just cannot argue with stupid). Another concern is that just because you have an opinion, a poem and a verse of Scripture, that does not mean you have been “called” to share that passage, poem and opinion.
The point is, those who hold an extreme position have to do so by doing two things. One, they have to ignore, twist, or explain away many clear passages of Scripture that contradict their opinion. Two, they have to magnify their own personal sense of investment in the debate so that, if someone disagrees with them or, more accurately stated, disagrees with their conclusions, then that person is described as a “hater,” “phobic” or worse and so the objector’s point of view is discounted a priori. So, if someone attempts to defend the use of a paid, professionally trained minister, the discussion gets hijacked into an attack on the qualifications of the one advocating the mutual edification position. Now, the mutual edifier may truly be inept and unqualified to teach and preach. But his talents and qualifications have nothing to do with the passages of Scripture which allow for, if not support, a paid “professional” minister.
As I mentioned above, this scenario has specific applications with those who advocate for absolute and undifferentiated equality for females as males, and for those who advocate for the acceptance of homosexual behavior, and for those who advocate for more and more entertainment styles of worship. Are there spokesmen who defend such movements as Christian, Godly and Scripturally supported? Absolutely! But, before everyone simply nods their heads with these prophets of relaxed (or erased) doctrinal teachings, let me remind you of the history of false prophecy in the Bible. It started in the Garden of Eden and it continued right up to and including the desert in which our Lord was tempted and the Garden of Gethsemane where he endured his final battle with Satan. The apostles warn frequently and fervently for those who have been enlightened by the Spirit not to be taken by by a spirit of false prophecy. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular had to deal with the effects of false prophecy. The historical books of the Old Testament recount many tragic stories where God’s people listened to and believed false prophets. Just because someone says, “Thus says the Lord” does not make him or her a prophet of God. We have to use our keenest senses to determine whether a prophet is speaking the words of God or the words of the Deceiver.
To go back to the main title of this post. I do not doubt that many are hearing a “calling” to do whatever it is that they are advocating. My question to them is, “How do you know it is the voice of God you are hearing, or the voice of a false and deceiving prophet?” God would not command you to do something that He has prohibited for thousands of years. The last time anything even remotely similar to these advocates are promoting did occur, it took a miraculous vision of a sheet and some unclean animals to convince the recipient. And, lest I be misunderstood, God was trying to get Peter to do something that God predicted would happen several thousand years earlier to Abraham. And if there are several, if not many, passages in the Bible which contradict this “voice” you are hearing, what makes you think that God has suddenly changed his mind? Is the voice you are hearing not, in fact, your own just cast in a different tone and amplified in volume?
I ask the question because the stakes are so high. If you are right and God has changed his mind, then I need to correct my thinking and get in line with God. But if I am right and the prophets of change are wrong, then there are many people who are at risk of following the thief as he leads them from the Good Shepherd’s safe fold.
We all are wagering something in this discussion. What is it worth to be wrong?
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
Americans are obsessed with sex. Maybe not as much as other countries, maybe more than others. But, underlying all of our overtly expressive and occasionally repressive sexual mores lies a fundamental preoccupation with all things sexual. We demonstrate it in our clothing (or, lack thereof), our language, our advertising. I would argue we even incorporate our fixation on sexuality into modern praise/worship songs. There is just something that is profoundly icky to me when I hear someone wanting to be lovers with Jesus, or be intimate with Jesus, etc.
One of the ways in which we as professed followers of Jesus betray our schizophrenia as far as sexuality is concerned is to condemn and demonize certain sexual aberrations, while turning a blind eye to others. It is almost like we earn our heavenly citizenship card by standing up against homosexuality, pedophilia, and perhaps some other less than socially accepted sexual misbehavior, and after we convince others of our orthodoxy we are free to dive headlong into our favorite, and more socially acceptable, sexual misadventures.
In other words, we boycott Home Depot because they support homosexual marriage, but we have no issues at all with downloading an adult movie onto our computer or with divorcing our first, second or third spouse because “we just do not feel like we are in love anymore.”
I was going to say I wonder what God thinks about our flimsy little excuses, but I think I already know the answer to that question.
The same God who said, “You shall not kill” and actually meant it also said “You shall not commit adultery.” I think he meant it.
Adultery should not be thought of as simply mingling ones genitals with the genitals of someone of the same or opposite sex and who is not our lifelong mate. Adultery comes in many different sizes, shapes and colors. We can obviously violate our wedding vows with a one night stand or a multi-year affair. We can also violate those same vows by creating “emotional affairs,” office liaisons, addictions to pornography, and the mental journeys into fantasies that Jesus condemns in Matthew 5:27-30. Many marriage partners have been unfaithful to their spouse who would never seriously consider the physical act of unzipping his or her pants in an afternoon tryst at the No-Tell Motel.
And, believe me, the non-Christian world sees through this duplicity and it is one of the primary reasons that people will tell a professing Christian, “You can keep your hypocrisy to yourself, I don’t want any part of it.”
Have you ever wondered why God was so adamant about fidelity in our marriages and to our marriage partners? Might it be that the image of the marriage relationship is one of the primary images that He used to teach about His relationship with us? Is it not striking that one of the most powerful images of spiritual unfaithfulness in both the Old and New Testaments is that of adultery? God used the marriage relationship to teach us about His love for us and His commitment to protecting us, and He described our covenant relationship with Him in language that is identical to the marriage covenant.
This command is not an afterthought. It should not be a minor point of emphasis with Christ’s disciples. If we are going to raise our voices against the sins of homosexuality, pedophilia, polyamorous marriages and other sins of the flesh that we consider to be egregious aberrations of God’s holy nature, then it is well past time that we make the same noise against the sin of adultery.
That means adultery in every shade, color, size and permutation, from ogling the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalog to making that rendezvous at the No-Tell Motel.
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
I did not specifically plan to write about parents just before Mother’s Day. I guess that was just serendipity. But it does allow me to get something off of my chest. More of that in a moment – but first, let us look at this command.
Have you ever wondered why, after four commands that specifically relate to God and how we are to honor Him, that the first command that relates to our fellow humans is a command to honor our parents? This is not just important, I think this is critical to stop and ponder.
Our culture is respect phobic. Just think about what passes as humor today, what gets the biggest laughs. If a comedian can make a joke about any authority figure the house goes crazy. We disrespect the office of the President of the United States. We disrespect the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court. We disrespect the courts and our police officers. We disrespect spiritual leaders (especially if they are conservative Christian spiritual leaders!) and we disrespect school teachers.
And all of this disrespect begins in the home. We, as a culture, have virtually dismissed the concept of respecting our fathers and our mothers.
Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this situation began with parents who decided they did not need to be respected. Somewhere back in the 1960′s or maybe a decade or so later the latest and greatest philosophy was that parents were not supposed to be authority figures, they were to be their children’s best friends. So, respect went out the door and it was replaced with a faux friendship, something that was neither friendship nor was it parental leadership. A generation deprived of parental guidance then went on to raise their children without any real understanding as to how to be parents. Now, at least the third generation of children is being raised by parents who do not know how to instill respect, and more tragically, will not support those adults who are left who are capable of teaching respect.
Respect must be learned, but if there are no teachers, how can it be taught?
Strangely enough, it is exactly during this time that the “Hallmark Card” holidays of Mothers Day and Fathers Day (and now Grandparents Day and who knows what other day we will choose to celebrate) exploded. I think there is a telling sociological process going on here.
Simply put – we are not honoring our parents throughout our normal year, so when that one “special” day comes along we have to assuage our guilt and so we buy flowers, or an expensive necklace, or a fancy gizmo for dad, and we pass that off as “honoring” our mother or our father. How many times will you be told just before Mothers Day or Fathers Day to “honor” your mom or dad by spending a lot of money on something that is either basically pretty trashy or on something that will wilt and fade away within days if not hours? That is honor? Excuse me, but that is buying forgiveness to mollify a guilty conscience.
We don’t honor our parents by giving them some cheesy gift once a year. We honor our parents by respecting and obeying them while we are in their homes, and by continuing to honor and respect their guidance throughout our adult years. We honor our parents by raising our children to believe in and to respect the teachings that our parents instilled in us. We honor our parents by working hard and by doing our best in everything that we do. We honor our parents in the way we treat other parents who are both older and younger than we are. We honor our parents by mentoring younger parents in the craft of raising children – and that means that we demand respect from those tyrannical three year olds who absolutely refuse to offer it. We honor our parents with our words, our actions, and our thoughts. Everything that we do communicates either that we respect and honor our parents, or that we could not care less about those who raised us.
We honor our parents when, at that point we must disagree with them, or decide that we must act or believe in a way that our parents would never act or believe, that we still honor and cherish the guidance that brought us to our adult decision. No parent is ever perfect, and in a way it is no dishonor to disagree with our parents. But it is a huge sign of disrespect to mock or disparage the thoughts and beliefs that our parents held deeply. We can disagree in a most holy and honorable manner.
Our “retirement centers” and “nursing homes” and other facilities have become nothing more than warehouses for abandoned and disrespected parents. I know that many older adults can no longer take care of themselves and require specialized attention. I am not speaking about those individuals. I am speaking about those parents whose children cannot be bothered by the physical demands of taking care of an older parent and who simply ship them off to some out-of-the-way institution so that they can maintain their upper middle class lifestyle of soccer games and ballet recitals and country club events.
When we disrespect and dishonor our parents the land will vomit us out. I think that is pretty much the message of Exodus 20:12.
I do not think that day is in our future. I think it is here and now. We live in a land of mockery, abandonment, disrespect. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he shall also reap. I think that is pretty much a New Testament principle. And, sadly, I think we are living it out right now.
“Holy God, as our eternal Father – teach us how to respect. Give us the courage both to respect our elders and to instill respect in our children. Help us to once again live in a land blessed by the sweet odor of respect and honor. Help us to see the error of our way, and lead us back onto the path that we have forsaken so long ago.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)
This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.
Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.
While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.
And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.
We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.
But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.
I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.
LORD, please save us from our own religion.
The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.
But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.
When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.
The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)
Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.
Our gender-neutral older sibling in the ethereal realm -
How, like, totally common is your personal identification.
May your egalitarian and democratic socio-political relationship utopia be realized;
May your totally non-authoritarian suggestions be accepted;
On this environmentally protected sphere as well as your inter-planetary dwelling.
Give us, like, everything we totally want, as well as the obvious things we need.
And forgive all those self-righteous bigots who are constantly making it sound like we need being forgiven.
Don’t let us get too close to the homophobes, male chauvinists and other haters;
And, for Thomas Jefferson’s sake, please keep us away from the Pope and anyone else who happens to care about his backward religion.
Nice chattin’ with ya – see ya later.
Today, command number 2:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
As all the commands have a common thread they must all be read together. But command number two is inextricably linked to command number one, the command to have not other gods before, or beside, God. In my meditation on the first command I listed some, but by no means all, of the possible gods that we set up in opposition to the one, true God.
A graven image may or may not be synonymous with another god. That is to say, a graven image, or an idol, may actually be a false god, or it may be a false representation of the one true God. For continuity sake, in my last post I mentioned that some false gods are power, sex, glory, honor, entertainment, etc. I cannot remember if I mentioned ambition or not, but certainly ambition would be a false god. I believe each of these can be represented with a “graven image” or an idol that represents that god. On the other hand, we may have an image, an idol, that we believe represents the true God, but instead of worshipping the true God, we end up worshipping the idol, which then becomes a false god. In this regard I note that in Exodus 32 the name of the LORD was mentioned in regard to the golden calf that Aaron had created. Also, in 1 Kings 12 when Jeroboam set up the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel he said, “here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” connecting the two graven images to the one true God. Thus, creating a graven image certainly violates the second command, but also may violate the first command.
What are some of our graven images today?
A gun is an idol. It is an idol of the false god of power. It can also be an idol of the false god of safety and security. If I trust in the killing power of cold steel and lifeless wood, I am rejecting the power of the life-giving and life protecting God.
The flag can certainly be an idol. It is the image of political power, and also of an ideology. This is why I am growing very uncomfortable with the concept of pledging allegiance to the flag. In a very real sense I believe we are violating the second command, and possible the first as well, when we do so.
Methods of birth control can be considered idols. They are symbols of our unending fascination and slavery to our sexual natures. When anyone, male or female, loudly protests that “you cannot tell me what I can or cannot do with my body” you can be sure they are not very far away from idolatry.
Houses and cabins can be idols. We have an idol in the cool mountains to escape the summer heat. We have an idol in the warm south to escape the winter snow. We have an idol on wheels that we can drive or pull to escape the tedium of the work week. Some of us have all three, in addition to the mundane little mansion that we inhabit daily.
Health equipment are used as idols. They are images that we worship in order to create the perfectly sculpted and healthy body.
Vehicles are used as idols.
Anything that distracts us from our daily routine can be idols: music instruments, cameras, tools for hobbies, books, computers.
How do you know if any of these, or something else in your life, is an idol? Simply follow two well-traveled trails. The most obvious is the trail of money. How much money do you spend on a particular item? The larger the percentage of your annual income the greater the possibility that it is an idol. The second trail would be the trail of attention devoted to that object, especially measured by time devoted to spending with that object and the emotional attachment you have to that object.
Absolutely unwilling to part with your guns? Say hello to your idol. Salute the flag, pledge “allegiance” to the flag, and bow down before the flag as it passes by? Welcome your idol. Spend thousands of dollars annually and countless hours chasing a little white ball around a carefully manicured park? Meet your idol.
God said not to make any graven image, especially that of something involving a creature only he himself created. We have broken ourselves of worshipping calves and birds and cats and snakes. But mark these words well – our lives are full of idols.
The question is, when we stop and spend some time meditating and thinking about Exodus 20:4-6, will we rid ourselves of those idolatrous behaviors? Or will we make excuses for ourselves, and thus end up infuriating a God who very plainly tells us He will not stand for any created thing to replace Him as the center of our lives?
Dear God, as we contemplate the deeper meaning and application of this second command, please reveal to us our graven images. Purge our lives of our idolatrous thoughts. May we truly and wholly focus on you as our one and only true and living God.