Untitled Thoughts About Galatians 4 – or – If Jesus hands you a burger

Galatians 4 (& Ecclesiastes 7-8)

“All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.” (Ecc 8:9)

As you are all aware, the United States has a deep and dark history with slavery. Generations of family wealth were built on the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves. We abused our power and took advantage of others for our own gain. Thankfully, although through great struggle, we abandoned the practice.

But we still feel the ripples of our past today. Slavery ended, but it took many, many years before everyone could say they had the same fundamental rights. It takes a long time to recover from being held down as a people for so many years, especially as those in power do everything they can to stay in power. It is painful to see that senseless acts of racism and hate still happen, and that the systems and powers still propagate forms of racism. I do not claim to know what the solutions are, but there is still a lot of work to be done to correct our great wrongs.

The United States wasn’t the first nation to have a practice of slavery. For an example, let’s go back in time to the exodus. You probably remember the story, but if not, it’s… in Exodus. Moses and the Israelites were miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt. This was an important memory for the Israelites and was commemorated by the Passover meal. In fact, we trace our tradition of communion back to one particular Passover meal that Jesus had with his disciples.

If we move forward to the time when Paul was writing to the Galatians, slavery was a thing then too. It was a normal part of the culture. Although, compared to what the United States did, it was milder. Think more along the lines of indentured servitude. It was not a good situation to be in, but it was not to the level of horror that we took it.

Unfortunately, the practice of slavery is still alive and well in our world. There are more slaves in the world than ever before. Usually we call it “human trafficking” now, but the concepts are not that different. It is about owning people. The mindset that you can own a person and profit from them is big business, and it’s terrifying to think about.

We come to Galatians 4 and see that Paul is drawing a strong connection between following the Jewish law and being under slavery. This seems to fly in the face of what we have seen elsewhere in scripture about the law. The law is supposed to be a good thing that was received from God. For the Israelites, it was an important pathway toward connecting with God. Jesus himself upheld it as something good (Matt 5:17 and surrounding verses). In Galatians 3, Paul seems to agree it was good, and even necessary for a time. But if we have a chance to corner Paul and ask if he thinks the law is good or bad, he’ll probably say “Yes!” There are two sides to this.

Usually you don’t think of things as absolutely good or bad. You compare them to other things or judge them in context. A burger is better than salad. It is savory with lots of protein and fat. The salad is better for providing micronutrients and some fiber, otherwise it is worthless. I would put a tomato slice and lettuce on the burger and call it a day. If you are hard pressed for finding food, then a salad is better than nothing. But if you had access to a burger, then you would not bother with a salad. I am the least picky eater I know. I can enjoy and see the value in a salad. They are a good thing. But there is just no comparison to a burger. A burger wins every single time.

The law is like the lettuce that the Jews had to live on until they had burgers. It was the best option for a long time, and it was a blessing from God. But now that we have grace, the promises of God, and the spirit through Jesus, the law looks pathetic in comparison. After a bite of that burger, you won’t go back. Taste and see!

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Gal 4:4-7)

Paul is saying it is better to be a child and heir than to be a slave. Because of what Jesus has done, your status has changed from a slave under the law to a child of God and an heir of his promises. If you’re a child and heir, with rights and a large inheritance, you wouldn’t think of going back to having nothing.

You can imagine that trying to follow the letter of the law would feel burdensome, like it owned you. And the law has a way of making you hyper-aware of your sin. And sin is all tangled up with death. Thankfully we are filled with and are influenced by the spirit of God to help guide us. If we keep in step with the spirit and make ourselves vessels of God’s love, we don’t have to worry about breaking God’s laws. It is like they take care of themselves.

Starting in Galatians 4:21, Paul gives us an allegory of the slave woman and the free woman. He’s presenting us with a crossroads of sorts, but the choice should be easy. Of course if Jesus hands you a burger, you take it, and don’t bother with the salad. Why be a child of the flesh when you can be a child of the promise? Why be a slave when you can be free?

With all of this influence from Ecclesiastes lately, I can’t help but think Paul would say being slaves to the law is like chasing after the wind.

-Jay Laurent

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at Bible Gateway here – Ecclesiastes 7-8 and Galatians 4

The Best Shape for a Table

Galatians 3

Sometimes when you read a section of the Bible, something in particular sticks out to you. As you think about it, several other thoughts bloom from it. I love Ecclesiastes, but there are 4 verses from Galatians 3 that stole my attention.

“…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29)

Paul is letting the Galatians know that any lines that divide people do not exist under Christ. Anyone who calls Jesus “Lord” is right there with him as an heir to the promise, as much of a child of God as any other child of God. As much of a child of God as Jesus himself!

Does this seem too good to be true? Is it too radically inclusive? As we’ve explored, some of the early Jewish Christians scoffed at the idea of including the gentiles without making them meet certain conditions. That’s like saying that in order to have access to God, you have to be like me. How would you feel if I expressed that I was part of the “in” crowd that has particular boxes checked, and unless you also have them checked, you’re an outsider without proper access to a relationship with God? Do you sometimes think other Christians are not real Christians because they think differently than you do or have other ways of doing things?

What other categories might Paul have included in his list if he were here today in our culture? Would he have said there is no Republican or Democrat, no conservative or liberal, no boomer or millennial? No black, white, brown, or any other skin shade or culture you can think of? No rich or poor, young or old, dumb or smart? No Catholic, Lutheran, or Pentecostal? No introvert or extrovert? No lawyer or plumber? No young earth, old earth, or evolutionary creationists? No five-point Calvinists or process theologians? I can go all day.

How does it make you feel that everyone belonging to Christ is equally a child of God? Is it a liberating and empowering thought, or does it ruffle your feathers a little? How does it sit with you to know that females and males equally carry the image of God (Gen 1:27)? Can you handle that those with political views different than yours have a place at the table with you? Are you uncomfortable that you are a brother or sister in Christ of someone who doesn’t have the same doctrine as you, or has less money than you, or has a thousand times the money you have? Through Jesus, God extended his promise out to anyone who would accept it. Who are we to try to take that away because of dividing lines that were already erased?

When we think of a round table, we think of King Arthur and Camelot. We think of the Holy Grail, the Bridge of Death, questions about swallows, Tim, witches, and very small rocks. At least I can’t help but think of all those things and so many more. Anyway, it’s a round table because it doesn’t have a head. Nobody has the seat of honor; everyone has equal status. It’s the kind of thing that elevates everyone and excludes no one. Are the Christian circles you are part of really like that?

Paul is saying that under Christ we’re all sitting at a big round table. That’s just how it is. You and I differ in important ways. Being in Christ doesn’t make us all uniform, but it does make us united. Your personality, gifts, and things that make you unique do not disappear under Christ! They are expressive of a beautiful diversity capable of reaching all the dark corners of the world.

We have a lot to talk about, and so many things to do. Will you sit at the table?

-Jay Laurent

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway here – Ecclesiastes 5-6 and Galatians 3

You Forgot Your Membership Dues

Ecclesiastes 3 & 4 and Galatians 2

What we know as Christianity started as a movement within Judaism. The first Christians were Jews who became part of this new movement that Jesus started. They recognized not only that Jesus was a great guy with revolutionary ideas, but that he was also the son of God and the messiah, and that his death and resurrection shifted the course of history.

The Jews had certain traditions and customs to stay right with God and set themselves apart. They followed the law of Moses as closely as they could and worshiped at the temple. The males were also set apart physically by one particular practice called circumcision. Within a different age and culture where public nudity wasn’t that rare, you might be able to tell if a guy was Jewish by catching a glance. It sounds completely strange to us now, but it was an important marker that set them apart. Over time, the idea of circumcision didn’t just mean cutting off some skin, but started to symbolize all the things the Jews did to set themselves apart as belonging to God.

Through Jesus, the grace and promises of God that belonged exclusively to the Jewish tribe for millenia were suddenly being extended to the entire world of uncircumcised gentiles. Imagine how scandalous this would have seemed to the Jews. The gentiles didn’t have their penises cut a certain way (literally uncircumcised), but also, they hadn’t done anything else that a Jew is supposed to do to live out being the image of YHWH (metaphorically uncircumcised). It doesn’t seem fair because it isn’t.

Naturally, this caused some conflicts and disagreements in the early church. Some thought that in order for them to be truly justified, the gentiles would need to be circumcised and follow the law. You might say they would need to become Jews. Others, like Paul, thought that the gentiles didn’t need to do this. Paul had already shared the gospel with the churches in Galatia and told those gentiles that they were just fine not becoming Jews. Then others came along to them saying that they were doing it wrong and that they had to become Jews to be in the club.

When Paul heard about this, he knew he had to write this letter to the Galatians. You can almost feel his frustration bleeding through the pages. Paul says in chapter 1 that if anyone (even an angel) comes around preaching a different gospel than what he originally shared, they should be “accursed.” Those are strong words.

Paul mentions in chapter 2 that he had a big argument with Cephas about this issue. Cephas was hanging out with the gentiles until he came under pressure from the people who insisted the gentiles needed to be circumcised. So he separated himself from the gentiles to avoid criticism. Paul was rightfully disgusted by this two-facedness.

According to Paul in Gal 2:16, we aren’t justified by following the law, but by faith in Jesus (or by the faith or faithfulness of Jesus, some interpreters suggest). Jesus loves us and gave himself for us. That is how we received that grace. If we are made right with God by following the law and being circumcised, then what did Jesus die for? We can’t earn grace by jumping through hoops. It has already been given to us. The gentiles had already received the grace through Christ and were walking in the spirit. Paul was not going to let someone come along and say what they had was not real and try to heave them back to square one.

There was a lot hanging in the balance. What if Paul and others had not intervened, and the gentiles had been convinced they should become Jewish for all intents and purposes? Would Christianity among the gentiles have died away, leaving just a sect of Judaism? The message may not have spread like it did. Maybe everyone who believed Jesus was the messiah would have quietly died out and we never would have even heard the good news today. All we’d read about is some first century Jewish insurrectionist being executed by the Roman government and his strange but brief cult following.

No wonder Paul was frustrated. He knew that having the gospel twisted in such a way could have been the demise of the church. Thank God that Paul channeled his anger and pain in this matter to write an important letter of correction and encouragement. And thank God that it has been preserved and passed down so that we are able to read it today.

-Jay Laurent

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages on BibleGateway here – Ecclesiastes 3-4 and Galatians 2

The Part Where the Bible Flirts with Nihilism

Ecclesiastes 1-2 and Galatians 1

Often I think that mowing the lawn is pointless. Why do we mow lawns? Who decided for all of us that it is just something we have to do? Wouldn’t the grass and weeds exist happily without being cut down every week during the warmer months? How does it really benefit me or anyone to mow the lawn? Also, it’s time consuming, and costs money for gas and to maintain the mower.

Yet, I cave to societal expectations and take reasonable care of my lawn. It isn’t so bad. Often it is enjoyable, and can be therapeutic or meditative. It’s a chance to sort out my thoughts. But still, there are so many things on the list of things I’d rather be doing.

We could all come up with lists of what we think is pointless. It would be an easy project. The harder project would be to see what is left over. What actually matters? What has true significance?

This is the question brought to the table by the book of Ecclesiastes. Our Qoheleth (Hebrew for teacher) is beginning to let us know about all the things he thinks are pointless, and there are a lot of them. All the work we do is pointless, because you can’t take the results with you when you die. Someone else gets all of it (2:18). The pursuit of wisdom is pointless because “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1:18). The pursuit of pleasures is pointless too, like chasing after the wind. He tried all of them, and gained nothing from it.

Are these things bad? The teacher doesn’t say that. Surely working is something we have to do, otherwise we can’t provide for ourselves or our families. Wisdom and knowledge are positive things. Isn’t it beneficial to understand things? Pleasure is a good thing given a few healthy boundaries. We all need opportunities to appreciate and enjoy the good things in life.

The teacher does mention a few things that might be worthwhile: eating, drinking, and enjoying your work. They are from the hand of God, he says. Also on the list of not-so-pointless things is pleasing God. This is a good start. If we think about it long enough, maybe we can figure out what the essence of something meaningful is. Could we decide what is meaningful or not based on a set of criteria? I currently don’t have a good method of deciding this, but I’d like to get better at recognizing what is meaningful and what is not.

What if we spent more time thinking about and pursuing things that are truly meaningful? Doesn’t that allow us to focus our efforts on things that will actually benefit us and others? If only it was easy to know what those things are. We constantly have to prioritize the many options for how we could spend our time, whether we consciously think about it or not. The teacher is not giving us a complete guide for what should take priority, but he is challenging us to think about it.

Looking at Galatians 1, we might be able to pick out a few things the apostle Paul thinks are pointless. Perverting the gospel, being a people-pleaser, persecuting the church, and climbing up the ladder of Judaism all could make his list. What does Paul think is worthwhile? Serving and proclaiming Christ! As we continue on through Ecclesiastes and Galatians, maybe we will get more insights into what these authors think is important, and by doing so, improve our understanding of what God thinks is important.

Seek ye first…

Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Ecclesiastes 1-2 and Galatians 1

A Center for Ants?!

Job 41-42 and Psalm 89

I struggle with the book of Job. I come to the end of it anticipating answers. I’ve read it before, and I didn’t find answers then, so why would I expect answers this time? Maybe I will read it enough times that the key to all of it will suddenly spark into my understanding. But I could be asking the wrong questions. What if the author of Job wasn’t trying to answer the questions I care about? Is it still fair for me to excavate it for the answers I want?

If I was going to judge the book of Job like I would a television series, I would say it got canceled and they had to scramble to figure out a way to end it in the last episode. But there were too many details and connections to squeeze into one episode. There are only so many options in that situation, and none of them are good. So the producers of The Job Show, driven by the fans’ need for closure, opted for the fairy tale ending where some magical element swooped in out of left field and restored Job to his former glory. Then nothing really had to be explained. It was tied up with a bow without the need to craft all the right connections.

Somehow having two Ferraris to replace the first and getting a replacement family doesn’t feel like closure or justice to me. Really, I’m happy that Job had a great life after all of that, but that doesn’t wipe away the lingering questions.

Probably the biggest question everyone has about the book of Job is how a good and loving God can allow such terrible suffering. In Job, it is even more problematic, because God is making some kind of wager with the accuser and giving him permission to take everything from him. It doesn’t really take God off the hook to say that technically he didn’t do anything to Job. It sure sounds like Job was a chip being pushed out into the middle of the table during a divine poker game.

Another uncomfortable question is about the satan/accuser. The assumption might be that he is the bad guy, and that if justice is done, he should be dealt with. But he isn’t dealt with. He’s not important enough to even mention as the story comes to a close. It isn’t clear at all from the text that he is supposed to be understood as being evil. It sounds like he is just fulfilling a role of someone on God’s staff responsible for playing devil’s advocate, to enact checks and balances against God’s policies.

Short of having good answers for these questions, the next best thing I can do is suggest that they were probably not on the radar of Job’s author. The book of Job is not really about why we suffer or where suffering comes from, although Job’s suffering is like the emotional setting of the story. It isn’t about who or what the satan is, nor about his relationship to God. Not that these are not important questions! It’s just that the author of Job didn’t set out to address them. I think the real questions on the table are more about God’s wisdom and justice, and that the events at the beginning of Job serve to propel us into a hypothetical situation where we can sandbox the questions with Job and his friends.

In all the haste to bring the series to a close, there was time for a good bit about Leviathan. He’s a chaos water-dragon type of creature that we are apparently completely powerless against. You could take him to be a representation of our deepest fears and unknowns. How do we face such absolute terror? And if God is his creator, how much more terrifying must God be? Just imagine that we are like ants to Leviathan, but Leviathan is just a tadpole to God. Just a tadpole in a drop of water on a rock orbiting a star, somewhere within a galaxy of billions of stars, somewhere among billions of other galaxies. Do you feel insignificant?

After reading Job, we are left feeling small and with more questions than we had before reading it. Our status is upset from expert to beginner. This is a good place to be. This is humility that can lead to wisdom. God didn’t inspire the author of Job to answer all of our questions or connect all the dots for us. God is prompting us to ask bigger and better questions.

God trusted that Job would endure the most severe unrest and still serve him. Job was somehow able to trust that God was a God of justice even though he didn’t have the evidence we’d all require to do the same. Can I really trust that ultimately God will set everything right? Am I willing to accept that I most likely will not see all of this happen in this lifetime? Can I accept that God has the wisdom to enact true justice in his time, to his standards? 

Little did Job know that having his riches restored was only a small taste of God’s restorative justice. Our ideas of what justice, goodness, and love look like are so tiny compared to the true versions of these that come from God.

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14)

-Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway at Job 41-42 and Psalm 89

The Under Pressure / I Will Survive Mash-up

Job 39-40

I’m intrigued by tardigrades. They are eight-legged microscopic animals that look almost like bears when they move, earning them the alternate name water bears. They can be found anywhere on earth, surviving the most extreme temperatures and pressures. Apparently it is no big deal for them to have no air, water, or food for a while. They can dehydrate in a water shortage and sit dormant for decades until more water comes along, and then rehydrate and continue their life as if nothing happened. They can even survive exposure to outer space unshielded from dangerous radiation. They have a resilience of almost mythical proportions.

Consider Behemoth (Job 40:15-24). He seems pretty solid. He makes me think of an elephant, hippo, or in the Harry Potter universe, an erumpent. Who knows what he is anyway? All I know is that I’d rather not cross paths with one. The most a tardigrade could do to me is crawl on me, and I wouldn’t notice it. Encountering a black bear could be scary, but they’d likely run away, especially if we are in a group. They don’t want to run into you any more than you want to run into them. But Behemoth doesn’t care. He’d trample you.

“Even if the river is turbulent, it is not frightened; it is confident though Jordan rushes against its mouth. Can one take it with hooks or pierce its nose with a snare?” (Job 40: 23-24)

Like the tardigrade, Behemoth is resilient. You or I would be swept away by the current, but not Behemoth. He makes his way through the turbulent Jordan and doesn’t lose his confidence. He knows the struggle is real, and the waters may even slow him down, but this is not the end of Behemoth. Not even close.

We’re of “small account” just like Job (40:4). We all have our struggles, our raging Jordans, that we are trying to make our way through. During the process, it’s fair to want to know why we have to struggle and suffer, and where all of it comes from. Is it from a broken world paying forward the hurt? Is it the natural consequence of our poor decisions? Does it come from God, like the author of Psalm 88 might suggest? Is it from evil forces trying to discourage us? Is it just general suffering we’re guaranteed to experience? Is it some combination of all of them?

But do you think Behemoth or the tardigrade worry about why they suffer? Probably not. They just try to get through it. Maybe while you are suffering, the “why” questions aren’t going to be the most important thing. You may only have the energy or capacity to react to the crisis and pick up the pieces later. Figuring out the deeper questions might be something you only worry about on the other side of suffering.

The ability to think about suffering is both a blessing and curse. If you think about your situation and realize that you are at least partly responsible for your suffering or the suffering of others, you have the ability to learn from your mistakes and avoid making them again. In that way, being able to avoid unnecessary suffering is a blessing. But it can seem like a curse to keep thinking about the purpose of your suffering when it comes from something completely beyond your control. This is the carousel of painful thoughts Job was on.

In that situation, it is fair to want to challenge God, like Job did. Where is his supposed justice? Go ahead and challenge God and have the wrestling match (Gen 32). He can handle it. Just be prepared to be challenged back. Be prepared for the possibility of injury. Be prepared to grow and receive a new name. Be prepared to be more resilient, more Behemoth or tardigrade-like.

To quote someone who voluntarily took on suffering for our benefit and was resilient through death itself: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)

-Jay Laurent

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway here – Job 39-40 and Psalm 87-88

Gird up now thy loins like a man

Job 37-38 and Psalm 85-86

There is an idea called the “retribution principle” that you can find woven into much of scripture. If you think that being good and righteous means that you will be rewarded, and that being wicked means you will be punished, you think that the retribution principle is true on some level. It seems to make sense as a general rule. What goes around comes around; you reap what you sow.

For most of the book of Job, we’ve been immersed in a debate between Job and his friends about whether this principle holds up. Job’s friends insist that Job must have done something wrong to bring on this suffering. Job insists he’s righteous and that his suffering makes no sense, bringing God’s justice into question. Elihu shows up, defending God’s majesty and justice, and condemning Job for being too self-righteous.

Sometimes Job’s friends seem like they have a grasp on the truth, but other times what they say seems misguided, and in the times left over, we just aren’t sure what to think. They all have worthwhile things to say, but at the core are still flawed humans. When reading anything in Job, we have to use some discernment to decide if what is being said is really true. After all, in the last chapter of the book, Job’s friends are criticized by God for not speaking of him what is right. 

At this point we have read a large chunk of Job, yet we are not sure who to believe or how to make sense of all the things that are being said. Suddenly in chapter 38, God rejoins the conversation from a whirlwind, signaling that this should be the dramatic moment when all our questions are answered.

We get no answers. In fact, God says he is going to ask the questions now.

If Job is man enough to challenge God, then he’d better be man enough to be challenged back. He’d better brace himself like a warrior. Job, were you there when I put down the foundation of the earth and gave the chaotic waters their boundaries? Do you have intimate knowledge of how all of creation works? Have you explored the highest highs and the deepest and darkest chasms? Do you have control over light, rain, snow, lightning, stars, or animals? Where does wisdom come from?

What would you say back? Really, what could you say back?

Does this frustrate you? It frustrates me. We call out to God in our deepest despair and questions but then feel like we just have more questions. It is not any fun to be humbled and put in our place. It’s disheartening to follow God and still go through hard times; we think it isn’t supposed to work that way. It’s natural to ask why we even bother serving God when we can’t seem to find the benefits, and yet the troubles have no trouble finding us. This all hurls us back to the question posed in Job chapter 1: If all the benefits were stripped away, would Job still serve God? Would you?

Through the story, the author of Job is asking us to question the retribution principle. Apparently, being good doesn’t mean you’ll expect only good things in your life. And being bad doesn’t mean getting a lump of coal. Reality is just more complex than that. It rains on the righteous as well as the wicked, and even in a desert land where nobody lives.

I’ll close with prayers of hope from the other part of our reading today:

“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” (Psalm 85:8-9)

“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:15)

-Jay Laurent

Some of you may know Jay as the really tall bass player in the FUEL worship band. We welcome his deep thoughts on God’s Scriptures this week.

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Job 37-38 and Psalm 85-86

My House Is In Ruins

Haggai

Yesterday we ran across Ezra 5:1-2, which mentions that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah come and encourage the people in Jerusalem to continue rebuilding the temple. As promised, today we are zooming into Haggai’s role in this. How convenient that there is a book in the bible named Haggai that gives us this information.

We know from Ezra 4 that the people in Jerusalem were forced to stop rebuilding the temple by the Persian king Artaxerxes. Some time passes by, and Haggai comes on the scene to prophesy to them. God has some things to get across to them.

The temple sits unfinished, and people of Jerusalem are either too fearful or apathetic to continue working on it. God calls them out on this, saying that his house is in ruins while they are decking out their own. They have been running around doing their own thing, and they never seem to have enough of anything. It’s a rat race. And since the house of God is being neglected, there is a drought in every aspect of their lives. God commands them to get working on the temple again.

This convicts their hearts as it should ours as well. What is the work God has called us to do that we’ve been putting off? What are we allowing to distract us from it? How could we be more intentional about building the opportunities to encounter God in our daily lives?

Heeding this conviction, the people begin building again, but there are some who are discouraged about something we saw in Ezra 3. The people who are old enough to have seen the original temple think this new temple is nothing in comparison. God tells them to take courage, and work, because he is with them. He assures them his spirit is among them as promised when he brought them out of Egypt. That hasn’t changed, don’t be afraid. God tells them he will “shake” things, which at first sounds like an earthquake, but is a dramatic way of saying he will upset the balance. The treasures will be transferred from the nations to his house. He owns all the gold and silver anyway! What doesn’t God own? God promises the splendor of this new temple will be more than the old, and that he will give prosperity.

When you work for God, you do what you can. It is easy to get discouraged. But the one who commissioned you will honor your efforts. He has all the resources in the universe at his fingertips to make it happen. What may be impossible for you is possible for God; he wants it to be your project too.

What follows is an interesting discussion about how contagious holy and unclean things are. If you are carrying around a holy ribeye steak and it touches your fries or soda, does it make the fries and soda holy too? No. But if you touch a dead guy and then touch your fries or soda, does it make them unclean? Yes. Holiness doesn’t just spread automatically, it takes work. Spreading bad things around takes no effort at all. You don’t have to do anything at all, things will fall apart without your attention. “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the LORD; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.” It’s like there was a contagion of apathy spreading while they were not doing the work, or the work they were doing was with the wrong heart, and things were not going well for them. But now that they are working on the temple according to God’s wishes, they will be blessed. They’ll have enough of everything.

What’s the reason God wants them to build a temple, anyway? It isn’t like God needs a temple. He would be just fine without one. The temple is the way they know how to connect with God and have his life-giving presence among them. To build this temple is to invite his presence. To not build it is to signal to God that they aren’t interested enough in his presence. For us, the temple isn’t a structure we go to, but a kind of metaphor for the sacredness of our own bodies, the network of others in our churches and faith communities, and the use of our time.

At the close of the book of Haggai, God mentions shaking things up in a dramatic way again, and that he will make the governor Zerubbabel a “signet ring” or chosen one. It sounds like God is making him a messiah of sorts. Of course, with hindsight, we know he won’t be the messiah. But he is being recognized by God as a leader of significance. And to add to his significance, he is from the line of David, mentioned in the genealogies of Christ provided by both Matthew and Luke. That’s quite the legacy, when you think about it.

There’s a lot that God wants to do, and he is asking for our cooperation, to take up the projects with him, and by doing so, to invite his presence. My advice to you, and I am speaking to myself as well, is to not put off those good things God has put on your heart to do. Even if you don’t feel ready, you’ve got the support network of the God of the universe, and your brothers and sisters in Christ.

-Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible reading can be read or listened to at Bible Gateway here – Haggai 1-2

Tomorrow we read Zechariah 1-7 as we continue on our

The Scourge Of Red Tape

Ezra 4-6 and Psalm 137

Part of today’s reading is Psalm 137. I’m starting with it because this is not a note to end on. Sit with it a few minutes, but don’t take it with you for the whole day. Maybe there is no helping that. 

Psalm 137 is a tour through the raw emotions felt by those in exile. It’s the lament of the desperately misplaced. It’s a prayer to remember their home, Jerusalem, and their former standing with God. It’s a chilling and shocking request for God to repay Babylon for what they did to Jerusalem, concluding with the horrifying mental image of babies being smashed against rocks. The emotions are palpable and powerful.

Let that be a “looking back” exercise from where we are in Ezra. Look how far things have come, from complete and utter despair in a foreign land, to being home again and in the process of rebuilding and restoring. Speaking of Ezra…

When you try to do something worthwhile, there is likely to be a few obstacles. Even the most simple of projects can take twice as long as you’d thought. And that’s without anyone trying to sabotage your efforts.

At this point in the book of Ezra, the people of Jerusalem are working hard on rebuilding the city and temple, probably running into all the usual pitfalls of trying to build things. But they have a much bigger problem: Some locals are trying to stop them from building, even actively sabotaging their building plans.

These locals write the king about the people in Jerusalem, employing disinformation and half-truths, and claiming that they are all troublemakers who will rebel once the city and walls are built. The king Artaxerxes can agree that, historically speaking, they are indeed troublemakers, and he orders the construction halted.

Amidst the long hiatus, the Jews in Jerusalem receive some much needed encouragement from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and are sparked to begin rebuilding again. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the part Haggai played in this.

Soon after starting the project back up, they are pestered by the locals again, who are questioning if they have permission to build. They provide their entire story, and inform the locals that Cyrus commanded them to rebuild. Word gets back to the king and they do some fact checking in the archives. They find the papers regarding the edict of Cyrus, and the king makes it clear that the original edict stands. The rebuilding will continue, and the efforts will be subsidized by the empire, including animals to sacrifice.

But did you catch what the king’s motivations are? It is “so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king as his children.” So it isn’t so much for the people as much as it’s to ensure the well-being of the king. What, did you think the king wasn’t getting something out this deal?

Overcoming these obstacles, the rebuilding of the temple is eventually finished, followed by a dedication for the temple, a massive sacrifice to atone for the sins of Israel, the appointing of priests, and observing feasts (think back to the first temple in 1 Kings 8). In other words, they are doing all the things they were not able to do while in exile. Now they have a stronger connection to and reestablishment of their worship and traditions they enjoyed before they were exiled.

It is a joyous day. Indeed they’ve come far toward restoration, but we’re left with an anti-climax and the feeling that there is much work left to be done. You can’t just build a temple, go through some motions, snap your fingers, and declare that the people are restored. There is work yet to be done on the hearts of the people.

-Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Psalm 137 & Ezra 4-6

Tomorrow we will read the two chapter book of Haggai as we continue on the

Hello, IT. Yeah Huh. Have You Tried Forcing An Unexpected Reboot?

Ezra 1-3

The book of Ezra picks up the story of Israel at a very important moment: the return from exile. The Persians swoop in and conquer the Babylonians in 539 BC. The persian King, Cyrus the Great, acknowledging God for giving him the kingdoms of the earth, issues a proclamation that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. The Jews who were taken captive and exiled in Babylon are allowed to return to the land they call home and help rebuild the temple. We’re reminded of the Exodus, when God’s people were freed from the clutches of Pharaoh.

For an ancient king, Cyrus seems to be especially respectful of the customs and religions of his subjects. It turns out that this is in a way beneficial for him, since allowing your subjects freedom of religion and not enslaving them earns you so much more support and makes for a more stable empire. He was a bit of a trend setter in this regard.

Cyrus is reversing what Nebuchadnezzar set in motion. Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, took the temple vessels, and scattered the people into exile. Cyrus has conquered Babylon, allowed everyone to go back to where they call home, given back the temple vessels, and ordered the temple rebuilt. But really it is God doing the exiling and reversing, through the hands of these kings, to give his people another chance.

Ezra 2 gives an extensive list of the wave of 50,000 some people who returned to Judah, and details the livestock, if you were dying to know. We usually think this kind of passage is a bit of a drag, but it’s really more of a celebration, with more confetti at every name and number. Think of the importance they placed on leadership, and the legacy and roles of the people mentioned. Each of these people are going back to wherever they call home, where they have deep roots and history. Each of them has something unique to contribute toward rebuilding their lives, and they’ll need the skills and resources of everyone to restore Jerusalem and the temple.

Similarly, in the body of Christ, we need the unique skills and gifts everyone brings to the table. We all play an important role in taking care of each other and reaching out into the world.

And so the project begins. First things first! They make sure there is at least an altar and that the usual schedule of sacrifices is back on track. They are trying to build a continuity between what their lives were like before the exile and what they are like now after the exile. Being able to worship again is a stepping stone toward restoration. Routines are important!

Into the second year after returning to Jerusalem, the materials and workers are all being gathered to get the temple together again. When the foundation is laid, there is a big ceremony with music and singing to God. They sing, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” Things are looking up. We’ve got the people, the temple foundation, and some semblance of our usual worship.

But there is something in the air that signals to us that not everything is quite right again. While many people are shouting loudly for joy, many of the older folks who saw the first temple are weeping loudly. It is bittersweet. It is good that there is now at least part of a temple, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to what it was before.

We end chapter 3 with this very divided response to the temple. The noise is so loud that they can’t tell who is joyful and who is sorrowful. They’ve been waiting so many years just for this chance to rebuild, and now it’s not even clear if it is a good thing or not. 

But restoration is a process. Most things that we want, we can get almost instantly. I can drive to the store and get ice cream. I can order something from Amazon almost without moving a muscle, and it will arrive in two days. Way in the future, in the year 2000, we’ll just think of what we need, and it will materialize in our teleportation device. But doing something of significance takes time, effort, prayer, and also probably money. And so does rebuilding Jerusalem. It is tempting to compare back to what things used to be like (the “good old days”) and be discouraged. What we might be missing is that God’s plans and ideas usually break our categories for what we think is even possible.

-Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to on BibleGateway here – Ezra 1-3

Tomorrow’s Bible reading will be Ezra 4-6 and Psalm 137 as we continue on our