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Monday, August 30, 2010

Did God Change His Orders?

Maybe this has happened to you before.  You believed unquestioningly that God told you to start an ambitious project.  The project opened with a spectacular, supernatural confirmation from God.  Then, sometime down the road, when you were well into it, you began to doubt the origin of your errand.  Maybe you started out in the black, but now you find yourself deeply in debt; maybe it started out as a happy relationship, but now there is nothing but discord; maybe every grade was a good one at the beginning, but now every class is boring and you are failing all your classes.  You had felt that God set the goal and you were pushing toward it, but now in light of what appears to be impossible circumstances, it seems this venture is nothing more than an exercise in futility.

Did you imagine the whole thing?  Did you really hear the voice of God?  What if you messed up, and God meant for you to take this other direction in your job, marry that other person, major in this other subject in college?  Perhaps nothing is going well because God's against you in this project, and you need to quit, and soon!  There may even be people in your life who are confirming the doubts you feel.

Lately I've be struck by these sorts of doubts, but I know that they are of Satanic origin.  I remember that Satan hates God-ordained projects, and therefore tries to bring trouble against them.  Just think of Nehemiah, when he tried to build the wall of Jerusalem, and how many things went wrong.  Despite the problems, he pressed on, and when "prophets" came to tell him to flee from his enemies (as if God had ordered him to abandon the project) he recognized that God had not sent them, and prayed, "Now strengthen my hands," (Nehemiah 6: 9 NIV).

The Man of God from Judah

Today God directed me to read 1 Kings 13, about the man of God from Judah, who spoke against Jeroboam's altar at Bethel.  This prophet set out from his home in the southern kingdom of Judah on an errand of God, to prophesy against the altar that Jeroboam had built to honor a golden calf god.  This was a risky task, to say the least.  He ventured into the other half of the divided kingdom, and dared to prophesy in the presence of Jeroboam, who was solidifying his position against the king of Judah.  Surely we can assume that he went with the confidence that God had ordained the errand.

As soon as he delivered the message, it began to be fulfilled--the pagan altar cracked in half and spilled its ashes on the ground, just as God had predicted (verse 5).  Jeroboam stuck out his hand against him, but God made it shrivel up.  What more confirmation did the man of God need to see that he was on the right track?

The second half of God's orders were that the man from Judah should not stop to eat or drink in Bethel, nor should he return by the way he had come.  He rejected King Jeroboam's offer of a meal and a gift, because He knew this was against God's plan for his trip.  He even set off on a different road from Bethel, just as God had told him.  So far, so good.

Then another man, also known as a prophet, who was in Bethel, heard that the man from Judah had left by a different road.  Even though he'd heard what the man from Judah had told the king, this old man decided to have him over for dinner, anyway.  He saddled his donkey and caught up with him where he was resting under an oak.  The man of God from Judah repeated what he'd said to the king.  Again, so far so good.

Then the old man lied and told the man from Judah that an angel from God had specifically told him to host this man at his home.  This is where the man from Judah did wrong.

Had God changed His orders?  Why was God now contradicting Himself?  God had confirmed the first set of orders with a sign, but now (perhaps because he felt thirsty, hungry, and tired) it didn't seem that God was in the errand anymore.  There were even others confirming his doubts.  The man of God from Judah went with the old prophet to his home and ate and drank.

Then God spoke through the old man and told the guest that he'd contravened God's orders, turning back and eating and drinking, and because he'd disobeyed, he would be killed by a lion and never return to his home--and that's just what happened.

Don't Stop Now!

There are many lessons that can be gleaned from this story, but the main one for today is that when we've been given a task from God, we must see it to the end.  Though there may be plenty of "words from God" that contradict these orders, we cannot heed them--even if it seems tantalizingly easy to just quit, and even if the messenger seems to be from God.  God confirmed His errand at the beginning; that means that if we have persisted in everything He told us to do, He is still in it, even if His involvement is not as visible as it once was.  He does not contradict Himself, nor does He change His mind (Numbers 23: 19).

Don't doubt now.  Press on.

"Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15: 58 NIV).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: The Nature of a Servant

The Bible instructs us to be "imitators of Christ" (Philippians 2), but today I feel God urging me to explain again what this really means.  It isn't a new concept for most Christians, but far too often we avoid any in-depth study of this topic.  What was Paul suggesting when he began to explain Jesus' model for our lives by pointing out that Jesus "t[ook] on the very nature of a servant"?

Respecting Authority

The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor. -- Proverbs 15: 33 NIV
Earlier this week I explained what it means to "fear the Lord."  In essence, if we fear the Lord, we respect His authority and bow to His right to judge us and others.

Now, Jesus was and is God.  Even when He walked the earth, He had authority over all things, and therefore didn't have to obey anyone or submit to anyone's so-called authority over Him.  Still, to demonstrate for us what it really meant to respect authority, He chose not to exercise His rights.  God's plan to redeem mankind required that Christ submit Himself to the Jewish and Roman authorities to be murdered.  He didn't have to obey, but Jesus wanted God's ways and His plans to be exalted in everyone's eyes.  It wasn't about getting honor just for Himself on earth; He wanted God to be honored, and He wanted to honor humankind through His sacrifice.

In essence, by being humble, by humiliating Himself before others (because He could have prevented all the mockery He chose to endure), Jesus brought honor to Himself.  First, God honored Christ's humility by raising Him from the dead.  By this act, God brought all creation, throughout all time, to honor Him in a deeper way than they would have if Jesus had only sought the honor of mankind on earth, long ago.

In the same way, Jesus modeled for us the habit of bowing our heads to authority, because this brings us honor from those in authority over us.  It is in our fallen natures to seek honor from those that are beneath us, to make ourselves gods among men, but the greater honor is to be honored by those who don't have to do so.

Forgetting Ambition

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."  -- Mark 9: 35 NIV
 A servant, by nature, is stuck in a low social position, never expected to rise above this position to equality with the master.  Even in traditional fairy tales, when the servant climbed the social ladder, it was to a position higher than his or her original master.

As Paul pointed out in Philippians chapter 2, Jesus did not seek to be above God by doing this, nor did He even seek equality with God.  Jesus was content to be in the lowly position, servant to all, even God His Father.  He was content with the esteem that God gave Him, and accepted what He got from God as all that He needed or deserved.  Because He left this up to God, God gave Christ great honor, even seating Him on the throne above all creation and subjugating Christ's enemies under Him (Psalm 110).

In the same way, we should not seek to gain honor or a higher position for ourselves, but rather should view ourselves the way God sees us.  From God's perspective, we are nothing more than clay, animated by His breath.  From the greatest to the least of us, there is no quality or achievement that can raise us above this position.  Only God can do that, by bestowing upon us His special attention, calling us "friend" and sending His son to rescue us.  When we honor God with our whole hearts, He honors us with His redeeming love.

Loving at All Times

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. -- Proverbs 17: 17 NIV
When we decide not to love others, or to love them less than another, we are in essence looking down on them and judging that they are less worthy of love than we are.  To love someone is to raise him or her to a position in our hearts that is higher than ourselves--to honor him or her above our own worth.  Real love (not lust or fan club-gathering) is by nature a servant's attitude, that is, a position in life that does not change according to the situation.

Paul explained this quality in Christ when he wrote, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5: 8 NIV).  Not only did Christ demonstrate an attitude of servanthood to God His Father, but also He demonstrated an attitude of servanthood toward us, by treating us as friends who He loved, even when we did not show Him love.  To love someone unlikeable is to honor that person above our own feelings.

Wrapping it up: The Charge of a Servant

The principle purpose of a servant is to meet the needs of the master, and to bring honor to Him and all His household.  A servant's job is never about him, and a servant who is doing his job is not thinking about himself.  So when Jesus became a servant, He put behind Himself all of His needs and desires and sought only to fulfill those of His master, that is, God the Father, and those who He raised to a place of honor, that is, the whole human race (whether they choose to honor Him or not).

In the same way, those who obey God and imitate Christ are not thinking about themselves, but rather are always thinking about the needs of their Master and His household and accepting His correction and direction.  In every word and deed, in every facet of our lives, we are to put others above ourselves, including God our Lord, and leave Him the job of giving us honor.  Can we do that?  By His grace, with His help and His example, we can.
Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5: 2-4 NIV)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Fear of the Lord

When I was small and memorizing Bible verses for Sunday school, the phrase "The fear of the Lord" was a baffling one to me.  I couldn't understand why I should be afraid of my heavenly Father, since He had never been mean to me, and had sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross so I could be saved.  Why should I be afraid of a person like that?

What It Means to Fear the Lord

I think it was my parents who finally modeled for me what it meant to fear the Lord.  I was fortunate enough to have two parents who served God and took their responsibility for me seriously.  They disciplined me when I misbehaved, and tried their best to make the severity of the punishment reflect the severity of the offense.  Because of this, I learned that they loved me, and I shouldn't doubt that; on the other hand, they did not want me to keep disobeying them, so I shouldn't doubt the inevitability of punishment, either.  In this way, I learned to fear their wrath when I did wrong, whether or not they knew I had done anything.  This healthy fear of punishment was not the same as really being afraid of my parents; I always knew what to expect, and knew that their punishment wasn't motivated by sadism or hatred.

Similarly, "the Fear of the Lord," is an awareness of God's power, and a kind of respect or awe concerning that power over our lives and His ability to see and punish our sins.  He's not a meanie, and we shouldn't doubt His love for us, but if we lack that fear of God's wrath, we don't really know Him.

Am I saying that those who "fear the Lord" are living in actual, trembling fear of God's punishment?  That takes me back to the example of my parents' discipline.  I didn't shudder in fear when I'd done nothing, but my memory of the last time I'd gotten punished for something was enough to keep my behavior in check.  Whether I was awaiting punishment or obeying my parent's wishes, I was living in awe--fear--of punishment.  Only, when I was not on the wrong side of the law, it didn't feel like fear; it just felt like wisdom, because that fear of punishment kept me from bringing down harm on myself.

In the same way, those who are obeying God have no need to live in dread--trembling fear--of God, because they have no reason to expect punishment.  God is not cruel or random in His discipline, so even those who are awaiting His punishment know what to expect from Him, and indeed should expect that punishment.  When we have respected God's laws and boundaries, however, our fear of God's power feels more like wisdom.  It's just better not to challenge God to punish us.  It hurts less to obey!  "The fear of the Lord," then, is a respect for God, not a dread of Him.

The Value of Fearing the Lord

Once I learned to fear my parents' punishment, I was able to control my behavior, and my relationship with my parents improved considerably.  They went from expressing embarrassment about me to praising me in public for behaving myself.  The benefits of this improved relationship went beyond that, though.  When I wasn't at odds with them, I could spend quality time with them and learn things from them, where I hadn't before.  Eventually I even understood the rules they had set for me.

The Bible says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline" (Proverbs 1: 7 NIV).  This was clearly demonstrated to me in my relationship with my parents.  Learning to respect my parents' rules opened the doors for learning about them, and the way the world works; similarly, respecting God's laws and His discipline opens the doors to understanding Him and the way He governs the world.  When our eyes are finally opened and we see what life is like on the good side of the law, we can see that the law is good.  Only a fool would look back and say that a constant dread of punishment is superior to obedience.

Because of this, Solomon wrote, "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" (Proverbs 3: 11, 12 NIV).  God doesn't set laws and enforce them because He hates us, just as my earthly father didn't set laws and punish me because he hated me.  Both my heavenly Father and my earthly one were doing it for my own good.  When I obey their laws, I see that they were for my good.  Then my love for them--both my parents and my God--deepens.

Why? Because understanding the law is understanding and knowing the lawmaker. God's laws show a friendly regard for us. Who wouldn't want to know a guy like that? And if you knew Him, wouldn't you respect (fear) His power to rule?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tips for Spotting a Fake in the Flock

About a month ago, I read a biography about a missionary woman who served the Lisu people of southern China, just over the border from what is now called Myanmar.  One chapter was the kind that would shake most people to their core.  It detailed the story of a small group of men from Myanmar who had climbed over the mountains in the dead of winter (sometimes walking on snowdrifts so tall they covered trees) to find out the truth about Jesus in China.  They finally wandered into her mission station, half-starved and frostbitten.  Why had they gone to such extremes just to talk to a missionary?

According to the men, their village, for some time, had been terrorized by a demon who would randomly possess someone and claim to be named Jesus.  The "Jesus demon" had given them, through the mouths of others, most of the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament, and often quoted passages from the Bible to them.  It then told them to destroy all of their crops, or not plant enough, etc., on a promise that it would be their "savior" and that they only had to trust it.  Many people had starved to death over the previous decade because of this.  Finally, these men heard that there were missionaries in China who were talking about Jesus, and they had gone all that way to demand the truth.

The "showdown" in China eventually resulted in the conversion of all of the young men and most of the people in their home network of villages in Burma (Myanmar).

Now, this story made me think a lot about types of antichrists.  In case you've only heard of the last Antichrist, perhaps in a Left Behind novel, an antichrist is a person, used by Satan or a demon as a mouthpiece for evil, who seems to resemble Christ enough to deceive people into following him/her away from the true God.  Sometimes, antichrists are people we know and are trained to implicitly trust, like leaders and elders in a church.  In these last days, when the lines between the truth and lies are often very cleverly blurred, do we know how to judge the difference between Jesus and imitators?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Let's Talk Greek

Recently I've noticed a growing public interest in Greek mythology--for instance, movies like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and Clash of the Titans, among other books, movies, and television shows over the past decade.  I also speculate that the majority of modern comic book superhero genre type productions have their roots in Greek myth.  Is this harmful?  Well, not necessarily.  A nice break from reality can be fun sometimes.

However, the popularity of Greek myth does reveal to me a subtle change in the ideology of Western culture in general that has previously been mostly limited to educated circles.  Let's get this straight: I highly doubt that the average person in the world today believes in the Greek gods and goddesses themselves, or any of their exploits.  I do, however, believe that the secular humanism movement has influenced modern culture by emphasizing the godhood of man, that is, the belief that mankind is not corrupt, and that there are no external rules we should follow (in essence, we are a law unto ourselves).  This teaching leads to one conclusion: all morality is relative, and we should just do whatever comes to us because we are capable of setting the rules for ourselves.  What religion has modeled this better than Greek mythology?

The stories of the Greek gods are like patterns for living according to the modern secular humanist's model.  However, when you strip away all the superhuman powers, you will find you have a bunch of very selfish individuals, always fighting, sleeping around, and otherwise toying with the little mortal beings they were supposed to govern.  True, the gods and goddesses believed in things like justice, but often twisted it into something rather sadistic.  Take Prometheus, for instance, who according to legend was sentenced to be chained to a cliff-face for all eternity as punishment for giving fire to mankind.  Part of this punishment was to have his immortal, self-regenerating liver eaten out daily by an eagle.  Justice was acted out on a whim and seemed to be rather random and excessive according to this model.

So, I'm putting this question forward:  Is it preferable to base laws and decisions on situational concerns, or should we operate by a set of unbending, unmovable rules to govern behavior?

Personally, I must opt for the latter.  While it is fun to operate on the principle that it "felt good to me at the time," or "it seemed right for me," it is not fun to have others operating on that model also.  For instance, it might seem justifiable to steal something small like a candy bar from a store, perhaps on the principle that you were hungry and didn't have time to pay for it.  If you were the merchant, however, you wouldn't think it was justifiable, since you were selling that candy bar to help pay your bills.  As the merchant, you'd want to beat up on the thief, and you'd probably want to hit harder as long as it was him and not you getting the beating. 

There must be an external standard, an external justice, which both parties must uphold.   This external justice doesn't favor the thief or the merchant with penalties that are greater than the situation, but rather sends them both away feeling that their concerns were heard and weighed.  I must say, this kind of a standard is beyond human capacity.  There are always excuses, justifications, and shortcomings that get in the way of perfect justice.  This is especially true when we get to the level of judging whole cultures or time periods.

Greek mythology often weighs justice and other key concepts, but I feel it falls short of a perfect model of justice, because the gods by nature are too human.  They are very biased, very fickle, and often are above the rules they set for others to follow.  I would never want someone like that ruling my life, because I could never be sure I would get fair treatment.

I'm thankful to know a God who by nature wields perfect justice, because He exists outside of humanity and can truly judge our behavior without that personal or cultural bias and self-justification.  His standard is Himself, and He doesn't change (James 1: 17).  This means that He is held to the same standard, even if it inconveniences Him or prevents Him from attaining something that He wants.  This is why Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice for sins; God wanted a relationship with humanity, but Christ's death was the only way this was possible without breaking the rules He had set for us to follow.  Beyond laying out the rules by which we are judged, God has challenged us to judge Him by those standards, so that we see that He is fair (Psalm 34: 8).

I could talk longer about this, but I think I'll just leave you with this to ponder:  Does mankind's objection to God's perfect standards indicate errors/imperfections in the nature of those standards, or does it reveal uneasiness about how we each personally measure up to those standards?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Best Back-to-School Essential

Before we know it, summer will be over, and people will be heading back to school or college.  Frankly, it still feels strange to me not to go down an aisle and fill my cart with two-for-$1 bags of pens and a dollar's worth of 10 cent spiral notebooks and folders.  If you're really organized, you've probably made yourself a checklist of things to buy, or things to pack to take to the dorm.  This list is all of the things you don't want to find yourself without on the first day of school (that should include an umbrella and flu medicine, but that's a different tale for a different time).  If you have such a list, be sure to put Jesus on it.

Sure, you can't throw Jesus into your shopping cart when you're at the office supply store, and you can't stuff Him between your bedding and your laptop in the back of the car.  Even so, He's the only way you're going to make it through a school year.  Take it from someone who spent most of 17 years in a classroom setting.

The Bible says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9: 10 NIV).  The world is full of many things called "wisdom," and lots of things called "knowledge."  Many of these things are essential for your career and your ability to function in society.  I'm not here to talk down about them.  Study is a good thing, and I think it's good to apply yourself.  However, if you are looking for a way to live that won't steer you into a disaster, you need to start  with Jesus.  No amount of "worldly wisdom" can bring you success if you lack the spiritual guidance of Christ, whether you are a failing student or a highly-decorated PhD candidate.

How can I say that without blinking?  I have heard hundreds of very clever, complicated arguments explaining why God should not be in the center of my life, and why God has nothing to do with school or modern education in general.  I have also, in my lifetime, constructed hundreds of complex arguments to defend the logical, practical side of Christianity.  In the end, Christianity comes down to something so simple that it doesn't seem "grown up" enough to be accepted by academia.  Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18: 3 NIV).  After all logic has been explored, a moment comes when we go from examining Christ like a specimen under a microscope to personalizing the message and seeing how it changes us.  We have to humble ourselves like children and trust that God is telling us the truth.  The Apostle Paul wrote,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God....Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1: 18, 20-21 NIV).  
This "foolishness" is the moment where we depart from all the opinions of the "wise men" of our day and decide for ourselves that we are going to take the rope that has been thrown to us.  Is it easier to believe in cold, honed "facts" that give us no hope or guidance, or shall we accept what we feel in our hearts is true and right--basing all on a faith that by its nature cannot be sterilized and dissected by science?  I have found that faith in the truth of the Bible is more than just grasping at a thread.  When you grab on to it, you will see that the truth found in Christ is the warp that weaves everything together and finally makes sense of it all.  As David wrote, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119: 105 NIV).

That leads me to another crucial point.  Taking Jesus to school with you will do more than help you be courteous to others on the bus or teach you not to cheat on the final.  He's not just a guide for moral living at school or college.  He will go with you and bless your studies if you commit this part of your life to Him.  I can't number the papers I've prayed over, asking God to give me a great sentence to wrap up a paragraph or an ounce of insight to help me unravel a difficult subject.  In every situation, Jesus has helped me in spectacular ways.  He took a lousy reader with atrocious spelling and drilled her into a writer with an English degree and a growing list of publishing credits!  I'd be a fool to take all the credit for that miracle.  If Jesus can help me with my homework, I'm sure He can help you with yours.  (And remember, there is no disgrace when you have done your best.)

There's one more thing left to say about this.  When you take Jesus to school with you, He's not just a tool to be used to get good grades, and He's not just a bunch of words to live by.  Jesus is your friend.  There will be moments in every student's life when it feels like there are no friends out there, or that the only friends you have are the kind who will leave when things get rough.  Who is the friend who will always be there?  The Bible says, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Proverbs 17: 17 NIV).  There will be good friends in our lives who assume that role as friend and brother, but Jesus alone fits that description 100% of the time.  He's the first responder when we're in trouble, He's bigger than the schoolyard bully, no situation is beyond the scope of His knowledge and advice, He's patient when we're rotten, and He'll forgive us when we ask Him.  What better school buddy can be found?

I leave you this week with this, my best advice for a good school year.  Take Jesus to school with you.  Stay close to Him and always be willing to follow His lead, and you'll be reminded again of how great He is when you see His power displayed in your life!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Christianisms--God Among gods

I thought I'd explain today about one tiny bit of trivia that runs through all of my posts on Savvy Sheep.  Perhaps it is as subtle as the format for writing a Bible reference (read how in the "Christianisms" post here).

Have you ever noticed how I capitalize the letter "G" in "God," but when referring to Greek gods, Hindu gods, or even individuals who are "gods in their own minds," I don't capitalize the same word?  Also, when I use a pronoun to reference Jesus, such as "Him," I capitalize that, but I give no such special treatment to pronoun references to deities in other religions.  Why is that?

This habit dates back to early grammar lessons in my Christian textbooks, where I learned to capitalize certain proper nouns and important words.  Words specifically associated with Jesus and God the Father (including pronouns), and words related to the Bible (the name of the book itself, as well as common terms for it such as Scripture or the Word of God) were included in the grammar capitalization rules.  Apparently this was once a standard English writing rule, perhaps a holdover from the days of Daniel Defoe, when writers capitalized every word that they felt was important.  Most modern translations of the Bible don't even adhere to it as strictly as I was taught.

It never felt strange to me to pay special homage to the God I worshiped when composing sentences that mentioned Him.  However, when I got to college, I noticed that I was pretty much the only one following this rule (not too surprising, I guess).

I made it a point to continue adherence to this rule, despite lectures on Structuralism, a linguistic theory that argues that words are merely symbolic referents to meaning and contain no special qualities in themselves.  I also adhered to the rule despite lectures on multiculturalism and post-colonialism, which argued that I was imposing my belief structure on other cultures and beliefs and implying that mine was better than others. Was I just being petty?

Deuteronomy 4: 7
 I don't think so.  I don't want to go into arguments about the lectures I've just mentioned.  I will explain my own motives, however.  I capitalize "God" but not "gods" because I do believe that my God is bigger than all the other gods that the world worships. 

I know that the letters that compose the word in English have no special significance in themselves, but I do believe that in the context of a sentence, a capital letter does have a certain weight that causes a person to give pause and think about the meaning of the word.  The "shift" key doesn't make God holy; but it does make people think about God and His holiness.

This is part of my personal worship, and as far as I know, I am still free to express this opinion.  I capitalize God but not gods because I believe that the God of Christianity is special among all the other religions.  This God is the only one I know; the rest stand aloof and cannot be reached.  In fact, I believe they are imaginary.  This God whom I constantly discuss is uniquely real.  He came to earth to personally offer friendship and even adoption to all who would know Him.  Hitting the "shift" key on my keyboard is a small difficulty that reminds me of how special He is to me.  That's why I do it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The King's Favor is the Best Heritage

 David asked, "Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan's sake?" --2 Samuel 9: 1 NIV
 Jonathan, the expected future king of Israel and David's closest friend had died tragically in battle.  Mephibosheth, Jonathan's only surviving son, was crippled in both feet, destitute, and living in someone else's home.  The tables had turned.  Before, David had been the poor young man who had been invited to eat with the king's son; now, Jonathan's household was poor and David had a chance to invite Mephibosheth to eat with him.  He went beyond that, raising Mephibosheth out of poverty and giving him his ancestral share of the land in the tribe of Benjamin and a servant to work it for him.

This is the kind of Cinderella story that most people enjoy, but it doesn't show the nature of the man who was Mephibosheth.  Was he grateful?  Did he share the humility and godliness of his father Jonathan, or was he wicked like his grandfather?  I recently reread a later story about Mephibosheth that seemed to reveal to me the answers to these questions, and I thought I'd talk about that here, today.

Who is Telling the Truth?

When David was forced to flee Jerusalem to escape Absalom and his rebelling army, Ziba, the man who was appointed to tend Mephibosheth's land for him, met David with supplies and an ugly story about Mephibosheth.  According to Ziba, "[Mephibosheth] is staying in Jerusalem, because he thinks, 'Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather's kingdom' " (2 Samuel 16: 3 NIV). 

At this point, Mephibosheth sounds a whole lot like Saul--cunning, power-hungry, and full of envy.  We can imagine how this hurt David, because it probably reinforced a sense of betrayal in light of his immediate circumstances.  Several people close to him, including his son and one of his close advisers, had secretly plotted against him and were coming to kill him.  Why not believe the worst about Mephibosheth (this was, after all, the kind of threat that made so many kings kill off the previous royal family when they gained power).  In that moment, Ziba seemed to be acting in good faith, so he believed him, and rewarded him with all the land that belonged to Mephibosheth.

Later, when David was returning to the throne, Mephibosheth approached him and bowed down to him.  He was a physical mess, having not taken care of himself the whole time that David had been away from Jerusalem.  According to Mephibosheth, he had told Ziba to saddle his donkey for him, so he could ride out of town with David when the city was evacuated, but Ziba had abandoned him.  He had one thing to add, which was not a Saul-like thing to say: "My lord the king is like an angel of God; so do whatever pleases you.  All my grandfather's descendants deserved nothing but death from my lord the king, but you gave your servant a place among those who eat at your table.  So what right do I have to make any more appeals to the king?"(2 Samuel 19: 27b-28 NIV).  He does not appear to be trying to manipulate the situation in his favor.   He actually suggested that David had every cause to put him to death, and he was underscoring his own vulnerability.

What did Mephibosheth have to gain?  Was he just trying to get his land inheritance back?  When David heard Mephibosheth's explanation, he didn't know who to believe.  He told Mephibosheth to divide his land in half with Ziba, but Mephibosheth answered to that, "Let him take everything, now that my lord the king has arrived home safely" (2 Samuel 19: 30 NIV).  This is not the statement of a power-hungry man who had a sense of entitlement.  Should David die or lose interest in him, he and his son would go back to their former destitute state, so his statement shows to me that he believed David to be a man of his word, and that he respected him as his father had.

Had Mephibosheth betrayed David but repented?  We do not really know.  We do know that if Ziba lied, it seemed to gain for him a lot of land for himself and his many sons.  However, after that incident, we never hear of him again.

In rereading the story, I get the impression that Mephibosheth got a better deal than Ziba, because he regained David's favor.  He was unable to work the fields for himself anyway, so if he had gone back to his half of the fields, he probably would have lived in poverty and obscurity all of his life.  Because he gave up his inheritance and returned to the king's court, he and his son would be protected and cared for throughout the rest of their lives.  His decision had one more beneficial result; the last time Mephibosheth is mentioned in Scripture, David has issued an edict that seven descendants of Saul would be handed over to the Gibeonites to be put to death for Saul's genocidal crusade against them--but Mephibosheth was spared (2 Samuel 21: 7).  If he had turned his back on David, I doubt that any such special treatment would have occurred.

What is the moral of Mephibosheth's story, for me?  The king's favor is a richer inheritance than any amount of power or property.  Solomon, David's son, shared an apropos proverb: "When a king's face brightens, it means life; his favor is like a rain cloud in spring" (Proverbs 16: 15 NIV).  The fact is, if you please the king, you are not only safe but also honored.  Mephibosheth had lost the argument between himself and Ziba, but he had gained something that proved more valuable in the end.

How Does That Apply To Me?

Most parts of the world today do not have kings, and the children of former presidents don't appear to be at any personal risk from their fathers' successors.  If we look deeper at this story, however, we can see a symbolic significance to everything.  David has been called a "type of Christ," because so many of the events in his life, and so many of his writings, parallel what happened to Christ.

Looking at it this way, we can see that Mephibosheth set an example for Christians to follow.  It was more important to him to know that David was victorious and to have David's favor than it was to have land and carry on as his forefathers had.  Similarly, we should seek God's favor in our lives rather than looking for prosperity that may not last.  Just as Mephibosheth was powerless and by all accounts unworthy of the king's favor, we too should not try to justify ourselves before God.  Instead, we should humbly acknowledge the unmerited favor God has showered upon us.  In the end, like Mephibosheth, we who fall on the King of king's favor will be spared from destruction.  Isn't it a greater thing to live in the hands of God and at the end, inherit eternal life?

This is what I hope for, and I have faith that God will keep His promise, which He made long before I knew Him.  How about you?  Are you confident today that you have the King's favor, and that He has secured your future?  If you haven't asked Him yet, take Mephibosheth's example.  It is never too late to fall on God's mercy, and those who do will receive a sure reward.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. -- 1 Peter 1: 3-5 NIV