Nazareth!

“…Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Luke 18:37

Nazareth! Little village on a hill.

Remember those games without toys, invented by dust-covered, poor boys?

All the water jugs filled and brought home, Mama cooking on a stove of hot stone,

Every child to his house, every father sitting down,

Some folks saying bad words loudly, drinking buddies getting rowdy.

A million years, the same things happening. A million souls, the same sins committing.

Nazareth! So much moving, so much staying still.

 

Nazareth! Did you always know it?

Remember when they first came in, young parents with a toddler babbling Egyptian?

Their generations had left markings here, a typical mix of blood, vomit, sweat, tears.

Refugees returning, newlyweds still learning,

Grandma just around the corner, grandpa sure is looking older.

For you nothing much had changed. For them nothing was the same.

Nazareth! Did you realize who’d shown up?

 

Nazareth! Podunk town where God grew up.

Remember how he played those games, knowing all those dirty boys’ names?

Bringing water jugs inside for Mama, mediating sinful family drama,

Helping siblings to behave, callusing, learning the trade.

Angry men discussing politics, angry kids discussing gossip,

And him right there, listening to everything. To man-made things, man’s Maker assimilating.

Nazareth! You taught God a lot about us.

 

Nazareth! A certain time and place.

Remember when you kicked him out? It stung because you could not doubt

That he had loved and known you, that even his true self he’d shown you:

Every alley memorized, every neighbor analyzed,

Favorite haunts with friends and brothers, fresh-baked bread from second mothers,

Particular faces in obscurity. You, not convinced? An absurdity.

Nazareth! You saw the very face of grace.

 

Nazareth! Foolish little plot on the ground.

Imagine! The Son of God’s hometown.

A world of work and food and friends and sleep:

Sweaty human life, the very thing he came to redeem.

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Judges: when society crumbles

Judges, the biblical book, is two things at once: a record of historical heroes, and a detailed, exhausting chronicle of human failure.

Reading about the heroes is fun. The entertainment never lasts, however, because the author painstakingly takes care to point out the flaws in every hero and the crumbling society in which the judges found themselves. The author of Judges, like all the other authors of the Bible, zoomed in uncompromisingly on that one most unpopular topic: sin.

It can be hard to read the Bible for exactly this reason. It doesn’t let up on sin. Many people especially shy away from books like Judges, for an understandable reason. Reading Judges is like watching an extended movie called “This Is What Sin Looks Like.” It is a brutal read.

After a chapter and a half of setting the scene with some essential background information, the rhythm of the book gets going in chapter 2:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. Judges 2:11-12

If you come to the beginning of Judges having read Genesis through Joshua, these verses will break your heart. For six books straight, God had set up every precaution, prescribed every law, held up every incentive, to keep the people of Israel faithful to him. He had given them a glorious vision of themselves as the beacon of hope for humanity, the shining city on a hill, a blessing and example to all people. To accomplish this, all God had asked of them was to “fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him, and to keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

By the beginning of Judges, the potential was huge. God had freed Israel from slavery and brought them to Canaan where he had led them in a string of military victories under Joshua, giving them the land and the security they needed to flourish as a nation. The question on everyone’s mind at this point in the biblical story is, “Will Israel pull it off? Will they keep God’s law and fulfill their God-given mission as a nation?”

The author of Judges wrote his or her book (the author is unknown) for the purpose of answering this question with an unambiguous NO. Why, you may ask, write 21 chapters expounding upon this simple answer, in such painful detail? Perhaps it is because the reason for the No was sin, and sin is complex and convoluted. Apparently, although we dislike hearing or reading about sin, we must understand it if we want to be deeply joyful, deeply useful Christians.

For Judges-era Israel, the disease of sin most often expressed itself by blending in with the pagans around them by intermarrying with them (3:5-6) and adopting their religious practices (8:27, 10:6, 17:4). It was the spiritual, not ethnic, dilution that mattered. In the same breath, people said things such as, “I dedicate the silver to the LORD… to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3), as if even in the wake of Moses’ life people had not heard of the second and third commandments.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6 (repeated in 21:25)

Overall, the author of Judges gives very little direct commentary about the events he recounts. At two brilliantly ironic places in his narrative, however, he pauses to say, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The author deliberately uses the same phrasing Moses had used several years earlier, before Israel entered Canaan.

“Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes”; that is how the author of Judges explained Israel’s chaos. And perhaps that is the most fundamental way to define sin: me defining my reality, what I will call good and what I will call bad; me deciding whom or what I will worship and love. Me deciding what is worth my time, my self. The god of Me, doing what is right in my own eyes, with no thought to God or the debt of love.

To list for your reading enjoyment a complete catalog of the disturbing, heart-breaking, and dreadfully ironic examples of human sin recorded in Judges would take a blog post unto itself. Suffice it to say the list is long, and diverse.

But why did Israel fail? They possessed God’s law, and every privilege. God had carefully inculcated into their culture both the motive and the opportunity for obedience. The Apostle Paul reflected on this question some eleven centuries later, and concluded, in light of Jesus’ advent and the Spirit’s outpouring:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [or as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Because Jesus (1) came to the world as a man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and (2) offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin, (a) sin is condemned and (b) the law is fulfilled in us whose hearts and lives are penetrated by the Spirit.

They had the law, but we have the Spirit. How dare we forget that for a moment. God the Creator, the King, the Judge, the Promise-Maker, the Promise-Keeper – the God of Judges – is alive, and living in us. The same Spirit of Yahweh who “rushed upon” the judges and made it possible for them to deliver Israel militarily now abides in us without leaving, making it possible for us do outlandish, “foolish,” beautiful things for the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:11, 14-15

meditations on exile (1): seeking a homeland

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:13-16
The longing for a homeland is indelibly etched in the human heart. It is elemental to human nature, common to all: the desire for belonging, identity, a sense of rightness. The ability to say with a deep and satisfied sigh, “This is where I am supposed to be. This is my home.”

For decades, Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Israelite nation, lived in tents, childless, away from their home and family, waiting for God to act on his promises to give them a big family and a land of their own. They waited, and saw only the hint of the fulfillment in the birth of their son Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his family, also received the promises, then spent their lives waiting and sojourning. “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you,” Abraham told his neighbors (Genesis 23:4). So he remained for the rest of his life. In his lifetime, he never got his homeland.

In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says that, by calling himself a sojourner and foreigner, Abraham meant not only that he was a stranger living in a foreign country. He also meant he was a stranger and an exile on earth itself.

Exile is a major theme of the Bible. For over 400 years, the young Israelite nation lived as exiles and slaves in Egypt, until Moses and Joshua led them out of Egypt and into Canaan, the “promised land.” Some number of centuries later, the entire nation of Israel was taken out of Canaan into exile again, first by the Assyrian empire, then by the Babylonian empire.

Foreign invasion and mass exile is traumatic in the extreme for any people group  in any time period, but perhaps for none more so than the Israelites. Invading conquers stole the promised land from them; their national and even spiritual identity, their self-understanding, their hopes, their plans, not to mention their possessions and livelihoods: all gone on an tyrant’s whim.

In one of the Bible’s most bitterly sad and poetic psalms, an Israelite expatriate expressed the pain of exile like this:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1-4

The promised land was, to the people to whom it had been promised, home and more than home. It was nearness to God himself. Their God was the God of Israel, the God of Jerusalem, the God of Zion. To be away from Jerusalem was to be away from the temple, the designated “dwelling place” of God.

To the exiled Jews, physical separation felt like, and represented, spiritual and relational separation from God. When God sent Israel into exile, away from the land, he was sending them away from himself “with a decree of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8) because of the flagrant paganism and corruption of the people, which he called “adultery.” To them, home was where God made himself present. And God was not present in Babylon.

Even to this day, Jews are still seeking the homeland of their ancient past. They are waiting for the day when God will fulfill his promises to give them back their land, and by doing so, give them himself.

In Hebrews 11, though, the author says something really amazing. He says that the homeland the patriarchs anticipated, and that the exiles in Babylon ached for, was in fact “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

For [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:10

Not Jerusalem, but the New Jerusalem, was Abraham’s real home. That is to say, God himself was Abraham’s homeland. Paul said,

But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Galatians 4:26

In our lives we live with an idea in our minds of where and what our home is; or perhaps, what we want it to be. As Christians, God forbid that we settle for a homeland on this earth. In fact, he does forbid it: he forbids that we live as natives and citizens in this world, in “Babylon,” when in truth, because of Jesus, we are exiles and strangers. Like Abraham, we spend our lives sojourning. God’s promises are what we base our lives on.

Jerusalem above, the city of God, the promised city, “built by God,” is our only home. Jesus has gone ahead to prepare it for us. Indeed, Jesus has bought and paid for our citizenship with his life.

More on that later.

lessons from the psalms

Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.

The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.

The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.

The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.

As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.

When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.

If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7