Category Archives: Your Questions

Encouragement for Week 9

Ezekiel 37:1-14 is one of the best-known passages in this otherwise little-known book. The valley of the dry bones. It’s an eerie scene of death and despair.  To understand what’s going on here, you have to know this is 587 B.C. – the lowest point in the history of God’s people.  In that year the mighty Babylonians wiped out the Israelite army, desecrated the temple of the Lord, leveled the city of Jerusalem and dragged off most of the survivors (including Ezekiel) to captivity.

That’s what this valley of bones is all about.  God’s people appear to be dead and dismembered, scattered like dry bones across the dreary landscape, cut off from any hope of a future.  As Ezekiel gazes across this valley of death, God asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  The obvious answer, the realistic answer, is “No way.”  But Ezekiel wisely says, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then comes what must have seemed like a bizarre command.  God tells Ezekiel the prophet to do his job and prophesy to the bones – say to them, “Dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.”  In other words, God says, “Pretend you’re in church, Ezekiel, and make like this is your congregation.  Preach to the bones.  See what response you get.”

It didn’t take much imagination for Ezekiel to pretend he was in church.  For years he’d been preaching to the exiles living around Babylon.  For years they’d listened to his words.  But nothing happened.  For years they’d been stuck in a sense of hopelessness, frozen in a feeling of God-forsakenness. 

Ezekiel obeyed.  He preached to the bones.  And to his amazement, they started coming together to form skeletons.  Sinews appeared.  Flesh began covering them.  And right there, before his eyes, those dry bones become human bodies.

But not living bodies.  Just corpses.  (Sounds like a zombie movie: “I see dead people!”). God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy so that breath will come into them.  To understand the text here, you need to know that the words breath and wind and spirit are all the same Hebrew word: ruach.  This time when Ezekiel preaches the ruach, the breath or Spirit of the living God enters the lifeless bodies and they come alive.  It’s like what happened back in Genesis, when God formed the first human body out of dust, and then breathed into it and it became a living being (Genesis 2:4-7).  It’s like what Jesus says needs to happen to Nicodemus – being born again by the Spirit, the breath of God (John 3:1-8).  It’s like what happened in the days after the first Easter, when the risen Christ brought together the scattered disciples to form a body of believers, and then on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit breathed life into them (see Acts 1 and 2). 

“I prophesied as he commanded me,” says Ezekiel, “and ruach / breath / Spirit entered them,” and those dry bones “came to life and stood on their feet – a vast army.”  And God said, “O my people, you say your hope is gone, you’re cut off.  But I say I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.”

And the question we need to ask today is the same question God asked Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these bones live?”  No matter what has happened in your life or in the lives of those you love, no matter what the disaster or defeat or death, can God breathe new life into that pile of dry bones? 

In our spiritual life? In our marriages and families? In our political systems? In our world economy? Can God possibly breathe new life into these dry bones?

 It wasn’t enough for Ezekiel just to preach at those dry bones.  What had to happen was for Ezekiel to call out to God and ask his Spirit to bring life back into these broken bones. It was something he had to pray for, something that could only happen by the mighty re-creative power of the Spirit of God.

 Through the prophet Ezekiel, God is telling us that YES, these bones can life… if God wills it to be so. All things are possible through Him. And God is telling us something else…

 Through Ezekiel, God is pointing us to the One who can make all dry bones live: Jesus Christ, to the One who takes on the power of death and defeats it on the cross, to the One who rolls away the stone and rises from the tomb on Easter, the One who says, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John.11:25-26) 

Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is God’s Spirit that brings new life to the deadness in you and me.  So we pray the Spirit of the living God will come and breathe life into us, today and tomorrow and on the final day.  Even though your body will die, the promise of the Gospel is that the power of God that “raised Jesus from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies” as well (Romans 8:11).

Son of man, can these bones live?  Yes, they can.  Yes, they will – by the power of God.

*Adapted from a sermon preached at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, Lake Oswego, OR


Encouragement for Week 8

Today, the term prophecy is often applied to predictions of the end of the world—regardless of whether those predictions are thought to come from the Bible, or Nostradamus, or the Mayan “2012” calendar.

However, all of this is a far cry from actual Old Testament prophecy.  The biblical prophets were concerned with the goodness and greatness of God, and the people’s response.   They had a passion to proclaim the word of the Lord as they received that word, pure and simple.  Sometimes that word dealt with what the future held, but it was always in relation to God’s work of judgment, blessing, and redemption.  The prophets’ words of long ago were never meant as a way to predict current events—except that the eternal themes of grace, obedience, and hope always apply to the human situation.

The prophets represent a breakthrough in human history.  Their divine message connected the dots, making it clear that there was a purpose behind every event.  “Stuff happens” was definitely not their mantra.  Rather, they viewed all of life as being under the direction of the sovereign, loving, and holy God. For God’s people, there was a high standard.  Faithfulness led to righteousness and peace; idolatry resulted in terrible defeat.  Pride was taken down, yes. But in times of hopelessness and humiliation, the Lord picked up the pieces and restored the blessing.  Sometimes in reading through, we may be overwhelmed by all the punishment for sin.  But don’t miss the words of peace and renewal; don’t miss the message that ultimately God overcomes sin and restores the broken. 

The prophets’ North Star was the glory of God, and the purity of worship: “You shall have no other gods…”  This constant was reflected (or not) in how Israel treated their neighbors, and cared for the least among them. In other words, their faithfulness to the Lord was in part measured by humble, decent living.   Wrath came whenever they turned from God and God’s compassionate ways.  Loyalty to God, and God’s blessing, went hand in hand with compassion toward others.  Living in such a way as to bring praise to God was key to Israel’s vocation.

We learn in Isaiah that tiny Israel has a cosmic role to play:  “I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  (Isaiah 49:6)  Israel was being prepared for a bigger mission.  Christians see in the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets, a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ.  Passages such as Isaiah 42:1-4, point us to the One who would live among us, bringing forgiveness, salvation, and true justice. As we read, we should look for those texts that proclaim the coming Savior, and God’s new covenant of grace.

Encouragement for Week 7

The Book of Psalms has been called the Prayer Book of the Bible.  Praise and pleadings are found in its honest, heartfelt, and God-centered pages.  The words of the psalms give voice to our deepest needs, informing individual prayer.  The psalms have also been used in public worship, Jewish and Christian, from earliest times.  They are spoken responsively and set to music, forming the basis of some our greatest songs and hymns.  Many people have a favorite psalm, such as the 23rd, which they learn and carry with them in their hearts.

Psalms cover the vast range of human experience, always in the context of God’s wise and gracious dealings with us. Psalms celebrate the Lord’s work in creation, they express great joy and dark fears, they give thanks for protection and deliverance, and they recall the wonder of miracles and the majesty of the law.  Often, psalms ask for salvation from enemies, and may even look for God’s judgment on foes.  Some psalms, such as Ps. 51, form a confession of sins, directing us to place our hope in God’s forgiveness.

Jesus in his boyhood and youth would have been profoundly shaped by the psalms.  His teachings often contained references to them.  New Testament writers saw in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the fulfillment of prophetic words in the psalms. 

The psalms can strengthen our spiritual life in many ways.  As we make these biblical prayers more and more our own, we will be blessed by the Word dwelling in us richly.

Encouragement for the Old Testament

As we journey through this 90 Day Bible adventure together, I’ve heard from many of you that you’ve found the experience of reading the Old Testament to be a difficult one. Reactions have varied from boredom to confusion to downright anger. Some are starting to wonder, “If the Old Testament is so difficult, why do we still read it? Couldn’t we just focus on the New Testament and be done with it?” In his book, The Bible Jesus Read, author Philip Yancey offers some helpful insights…

First, he writes, Christians believe that neither testament is enough, in and of itself. Jesus the Messiah came to introduce a “New Covenant”, a new promise to which all the experiences we read about in the Old Testament lead.

Second, we simply cannot understand the New Testament apart from the Old. You’ll notice when you get there… the writers of the New Testament depend heavily on the Old. The books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation refer to myriad of Old Testament concepts. The Gospels can be read as stand-alone stories, but they lack their intended richness and depth without an understanding of their Old Testament roots. Paul constantly appealed to the Old Testament. The new work of God written about in the New Testament makes little sense without an understanding of the earlier “old” work.

But most importantly, Yancey writes, we read the Old Testament because it is the Bible Jesus read. “These are the prayers Jesus prayed, the poems he memorized, the songs he sang, the bedtime stories he heard as a child, the prophecies he pondered.” The more we understand the Old Testament, the more we understand Jesus.

Both the Old and New Testaments are vital to our Christian faith. However, that doesn’t mean both Testaments have equal weight.  Christians have always believed that the Old Testament must be interpreted by the New Testament, especially the teaching and example of Jesus.  If there appears to be a contradiction between the two Testaments, Christians have always held that the New Testament gives us the clearer, more comprehensive picture.

In short, Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, and supremely through the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus the holy wars of the Old Testament must be seen in light of Jesus’ command that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), His insistence that His kingdom cannot be defended by the sword (Matthew 26:52; Luke 9:54-56), and His submitting to violent death on a cross by his enemies (John 10:17-18; 1 Peter 2:20-25).

So even where it’s difficult, keep reading. We need the whole Bible to interpret its parts.  When in doubt, trust the teaching of Jesus (but you need to know the Old Testament to understand His teachings).  And trust that God still has more light to bring through each and every page of the Old as well as the New Testaments.

Encouragement for Week Six

So here you are. You’ve made way through over half of the Old Testament! You’ve seen an entire nation of people grow from one old man and woman, survive forty years in the desert, be led mightily into the Promised Land, only to lose it all when they couldn’t remain faithful to the God who had led them there. You read about how they were brought back to this land and how they recommitted themselves to fidelity and obedience to God. And if you’re like me, you’ve begun to put one and two together.

 From what we’ve read so far, it seems fair to say that good behavior = good rewards, bad behaviors = bad punishment. That’s the way it worked for Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, David, Solomon, Ahab, and Hezekiah, right?

 So you think you’ve got it all figured out and then you get to the book of Job. And everything falls apart. Here’s this guy, whom the Bible says is “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” According to our formula, Job should be rolling in the blessings. And yet, as we read on, we are somewhat horrified to discover that this “contract faith” assumed in the earlier books of the Old Testament doesn’t hold up. Job suffers, seemingly undeservedly, and we are left to wonder what in the world is going on.

 As we begin to think about what the book of Job has to teach us, let us first start out by saying that it is quite possible that Job is a work of fiction. We have no historical record of this man “Job,” or his friends, ever existing. The book itself seems totally unconcerned with matters of history. There are no dates or markers of time and place. That’s not the point.

Whether or not this exact story happened in this exact way matters not, for the truth is variations of Job’s story are happening all the time. Though there may not have been a specific man named Job who underwent inordinate suffering, there are men and women who are suffering today, who need to hear the truth a book like Job has to offer.

So what is it that Job teaches us? Three things…

 1.      The one on trial here is not Job, but God.

Satan (Hebrew for “the adversary”) comes to God and claims that God’s policy of bringing blessing on righteous people is flawed because they will then be motivated by prosperity rather than simply the desire to be righteous. Satan is claiming the humans really only love the gifts, not the Giver, that we try to be good only for the sake of God’s benefits, that we are “religious” and “good” only because it pays.

 If that’s true, if Satan is right, that means that human beings aren’t truly free. Sure, we are free to descend- to rebel against God. But are we free to ascend- to believe in God for no other reason than, well… no reason at all? Satan’s accusation is that human beings only love God because we are bribed to do so and therefore not truly free at all. And God cannot allow that accusation to stand. And therefore, God allows this test.

2.      “Right” answers are not always right

Job’s friends have all the “right” answers. Common sense and all reason tell us, they argue, that a just God will treat people fairly, Those who obey and remain faithful, God rewards. Those who sin, God punishes. Therefore, Job must have some unknown, unconfessed sin in his life. If he would just confess and repent, God would surely forgive and restore him.

 Theologically, they are right. The problem is… they’re wrong. Job is sure of two things: God is just and he is righteous. How those two truths fit together in this situation, he does not yet understand.

 3.      God’s wisdom is far beyond human understanding

When God finally appears in chapter 38, God does not spend any time explaining why Job had to undergo this time of trial. Nor does God try to defend his justice because no one is in a position to assess his justice. To assess God’s justice in running the world, someone would have to know exactly how world is run. And only God knows that. We simply do not have enough information to be able to affirm that God is just. We do have enough, however, to affirm that God is wise. If we believe that God is wise, then we can believe that God is just.

 So what are we to take away from our reading of Job? Quite simply, faith in God is never as simple as good and bad, reward and punishment. Unfortunately, we know all too well that good people undergo immeasurable, incomprehensible suffering for which there are no easy answers.

 When it is we, or the people we love, who are suffering, we can take courage from Job…

  1.  Despite our circumstances, whether or not we are actively receiving blessing from God’s hand, we can know, we can believe that God is GOOD, ALL the time. We can ask God for the faith to love and follow Him, despite our circumstances. When we are in the darkness, we can hold on to what we have learned in the light.
  2. “Right” answers don’t help. Job’s friends weren’t a comfort to him, and neither will we be to our friends in pain if all we can offer are trite religious sentiments. As it turned out, the most compassionate things the friends did for Job took place at the very beginning, when they sat in silence with him for seven days. Simply being with person in pain speaks volumes more than any words you could ever say.
  3. It is in the moments that seem most impossible that we need to hold on to our faith the most. Though we do not understand what God is up to when we suffer, how we respond matters. Though God clearly is not upset by our true expression of our feelings (Job had some pretty choice words for God), what God asks is that we continue to hold on. To believe even when it seems impossible. We don’t have all the answers to why suffering happens. The best thing we can do is hold on to one another and to the God who promises, one day, to work all things for good.

Encouragement for Week 4

The big picture of Scripture offers a portrait of God as one who fulfills plans and keeps promises. This One is trustworthy: we can confidently stake our lives on God’s faithfulness. It’s important to hold onto this grand theme as we make our way through hundreds of years of history. 

 Along the journey, there are setbacks, failures, and disobedience on the part of the people.  We shake our heads at human behavior, and sometimes wonder if the promises will ever truly come to pass.  Reaching the Promised Land is great—but even there, where is the respite from sin and violence? We even wonder about some of the commands God is said to have given to the people to carry out. Questions do arise. 

 So…how do we “read” the setbacks, the seeming disappointments, the shocking instructions?

 One of the principles of Biblical interpretation in our Presbyterian approach is this: we should understand the smaller details in the light of the Big Story of our good and gracious God.

 This God has acted mightily in history, and especially through Jesus Christ, to overcome sin and make a new creation.  Whenever there is “fog” that seems to obscure this understanding of God’s true nature, we opt for the more profound reality.  As Christians, we are incredibly blessed to have Christ as our guide and interpreter.  

 In a real sense, we view all that went before through the lens of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. He is the supreme self-revelation of God, by which we measure everything else.

 Some believe that when we get to heaven, we will have the opportunity to get all our “earthly”questions answered.  That should be very interesting.  In the meantime, let us live by the light we have been given, following Christ in everyday life.

What’s up with Exodus 4:24-26?

Last week, Marie Nebel-Schwalm posted this question…

Exodus 4:24-26 is very bizarre! I would love to hear any insights!

Here’s my attempt at an answer…

That’s a really good question, Marie. And a HARD one! I’ve been thinking about it and reading and wondering myself for the last few days!

The “Interpretation” Bible commentary offers some insights…

Though we don’t normally think of Moses this way, it seems that he was not so eager to be totally obedient to God. He argued, he whined, he seemed to mistrust the command and promise God had spoken to him. According to the commentary, “Apparently there is a matter between Moses and God that has not yet been resolved.”

One matter that clearly had not been resolved between Moses and God was the matter of circumcision. In Genesis, we read of the covenant between God and God’s people… and the sign of the people’s faithfulness to the covenant was circumcision. Moses wants to be included in the people of promise, presumably, but he has failed to hold up his end of the bargain. Is that why God tries to kill Moses? We are not sure. But it certainly seems that Zipporah’s quick intervention in circumcizing their son has an affect on the situation.

The commentary also notes we’re told that God “was about to,” or “tried” to kill Moses. This is the God of the universe, remember. The Creator of the heavens and the earth. What God wants to do, God does. Period. And yet, God didn’t just kill Moses. God came, with a serious intent no doubt, but left room for Moses to be protected. Perhaps was the overall goal not death, but a message instead?

It is thought that perhaps this is a time of testing for Moses. A time of preparation for Moses for the trials that are just around the corner. Again, quoting the commentary…

“He can now face any foe, no matter how hostile… This is a divine demonstration of the seriousness of the matter upon which God and Moses are about to embark: a life and death struggle in which Israel’s very life will be imperiled… Israel will be maximally dependant upon God’s decision and action on its behalf, yet Moses’ own obedience is integral to the divine mission… This (story) is thus a sign of what is at stake in all that which is to follow.”

Of course, that doesn’t answer all our questions. We don’t like to think of God as trying to kill people… especially the people whom He calls to serve Him! But once again, we must remember that we follow a God who is remarkably good, but who is certainly not safe (C.S. Lewis). We follow a God who died on a Roman cross, and calls us, if we want to follow Him, to take up our own crosses daily as well.

Oh He’s not safe. But He is good.