Consider Your Ways

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Studying the book of Ezra means studying the books of Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets who figure prominently in the Ezra storyline. One identified himself as a young man (Zechariah 2:4). The other was probably an old man (Haggai 2:3 may point to Haggai having seen the Temple before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it). It’s possible that they both returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel/Sheshbazzar, though they are not named among the company (Ezra 2).

These somewhat-murky figures serve as God’s megaphone to a discouraged and distracted people. In no way am I condemning the Jewish people. I don’t blame them for being discouraged and distracted. Rebuilding the Temple (and Jerusalem itself, as seen in the book of Nehemiah) was no easy task. Opposition came from all sides. I understand why many of them threw up their hands and looked to reestablishing their own homes (Haggai 1:4).

It’s a picture of the fear and wrong priorities I have all too often.

Onto the page the ink spilled. These men of God begin to speak.

Haggai says, “Consider your ways” (1:5)

Our English “consider” is made up of three separate Hebrew words:

Sum/siym: to put, place, set, appoint, make; direct

Lebab: inner man, mind, will, heart, soul, understanding

‘al: upon, on the ground of, according to, on account of, on behalf of, concerning, beside, in addition to, together with, beyond, above, over, by, on to, towards, to, against

Direct your mind. Set your will. Make an account of what you’re doing.

Think about it.

Really think about it.

Haggai is calling his people to obedience. He is telling them to examine their priorities. He hearkens back to Ezra 3:3, when they built the altar and offered sacrifices to the Lord “despite their fear of the peoples around them” (NIV). He is reminding them. Drawing their minds back to what truly matters.

They were suffering through drought, famine and scarcity because they had forgotten their first love. Haggai’s voice, perhaps gravelly and low-pitched with age, demands their attention. He speaks the message of God. He tells them that they need to get down the business of restoring the Temple, restoring worship. Blessing would flow from their obedience.

They can do this. They can respond positively.

They can because they are not alone. They are not left to grapple with the overwhelming rubble and the sneering, hostile pagans. “I am with you, says the LORD” (Haggai 1:13)

We don’t have to stretch far to make the application to our own lives.

God does not promise to prosper us materially. The Church is not national Israel; the way the covenant blessings are applied to us is different. Yet He does promise to bless and keep us as we seek to please Him (check out the entire book of Ephesians for a plethora of examples). When our priorities are right and we seek to obey Him, we are graced with love, peace, joy and fulfillment – even if the circumstances remain difficult. We walk in the assurance of knowing we have done what’s right.

I didn’t want to hear this today. Didn’t want to read these words of Haggai.

Here’s the unspoken thought behind all this: Obedience costs something. Yes, the rewards are great. But the cost can be great, too. The returned exiles had to defy pretty much everyone from the king on down as they began the work once more. They faced harassment at best, death at worst. It was no joke to do what they did. (Further on in the story we find out that some of the officials in the area contacted King Darius about it. King Darius winds up saying, “Yeah, leave them alone – better than that, do whatever you can to help them. And have them offer some sacrifices for me and my sons.” Nobody knew that this was going to be the outcome, though).

Obeying God is worth the cost. I know that. He’s proven Himself faithful. I know that I must fear (reverence) Him and not those whose only power is to kill me (Matthew 10:28). (Not that I think anyone is going to kill me. I’m not paranoid. It’s just a principle about the place of God and the place of people in my life).

Still. In my smallness, in my humanness, I fear.

There are two lengthy blog posts in my drafts queue. Publishing one of them, let alone both of them, is scary. I don’t want to deal with the potential fallout. I don’t want to wade through nasty comments. I want to pretend that the things never happened. That I don’t know about them. That everything is fine and wonderful.

I can’t. I know I can’t.

I must consider my ways.

Set my priorities.

Obey God.

My journey to faith. (15)

His Fragrance Surrounds Us

Now thanks be to God who always leads us (5)

Gentle Reader,

Do you realize how good the Lord is?

I’m not sure we think about that often enough. He’s just plain good. He has no dark side. He doesn’t need therapy. He’s not messed up. He’s never stepped wrong or made a bad decision.

And this good God, this holy Lord, responds to us.

I’ve been reading the Book of Ezra. Unfortunately I don’t have time today to get into all the richness I’ve discovered, but six chapters in I marvel at how tender God is toward His people. The people of Judah (at this point their religion begins to be referred to as Judah-ism, or Judaism, and the people as Jews) return to Jerusalem after 70 years in exile and captivity. The city is in ruins. The Temple is a wreck. Despite the passage of time, no rebuilding or restoration efforts have taken place. Men with names like Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and Jeshua lead their people across the long miles into the mess.

God’s activity is everywhere. He moves Cyrus to set them free (in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 44:28). He grants them favor with their neighbors, who shower them with precious materials like gold, silver and livestock. The sacred items of the Temple, stolen by Nebuchadnezzar, are returned to them. They have all that they need to begin the process of rebuilding.

Almost immediately, they face opposition. They are harassed, tempted into bad alliances and falsely accused. Officials in the Persian government send letters to several monarchs, pointing out the past rebellion of the Jews. Why should they be allowed to restore their city?

Discouragement. Defeat. Exhaustion.

Onto the scene step Haggai and Zechariah, prophets of God. They spoke His truth to the weary remnant. They were “with them, helping them” (Ezra 5:2). The Lord knew what He had called His people to do and what it would take. He knew what hardship they would face.

He did not leave them to do a single thing on their own.

Because He is good.

He always leads us to victory. We may not choose to follow, but that’s His direction. That’s His path.

If we have a mind to, if we ask Him to grant us the perspective, we can see Him even in the toughest of times. We can hear His voice. We can even smell Him as the fragrance of His presence lingers. There is no opposition that can stand against Him. There is no plan of His that can be thwarted. He will see His plan through to completion. He will accomplish His purposes.

How humbling it is to realize that He does this for and through us! He doesn’t walk the triumphal parade route alone. He leads us on it. He equips our hands to do the work. He opens our mouths to speak His world. He uses us as atomizers, dispensing holy perfume throughout the world.

We are too quick to dismiss and avoid dwelling on the immense and even insane goodness of God toward us. That the infinite and majestic Lord would see our tears and send us comfort; that He would soothe our frustration; that He would remove roadblocks in His perfect timing because He wants to be good to us is too much for me to contemplate without tears of thankfulness and praise rolling down my cheeks.

He knew how these people had rebelled in the past and how they would rebel in the future. He knew all their faults and failures. He knew how overwhelmed they were, how big the project was. He knew they would face opposition and that the resentment of their neighbors would be palpable. Out of the richness of His goodness and grace, He covered them. He provided for all their needs.

So too with us. With you. With me. He knows each one of us so well. Better than we know ourselves. He knows how we rebelled and sinned yesterday and He knows how we’ll do it tomorrow. But He never lets up. He never abandons us.

Because He is good.

My journey to faith. (15)

31 Days of Brave: Ur

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Gentle Reader,

I’m working through the She Reads Truth: Women in the Bible plan right now, and the focus is on Sarai. There are so many things I’d like to know about her. And Abram. How did Sarai react when Abram told her to pack up the house because they were moving…somewhere? How did Abram know that this really was the Voice of God? Did either one of them have any previous knowledge of or experience with the Lord? What about their neighbors and family members – did they laugh? Scoff? Reflect?

So many questions.

What strikes me most deeply is that Abram and Sarai couldn’t stay in Ur and be obedient to God. The two things were totally opposed. Even though bravery can mean staying, like we talked about yesterday, it can also mean that you get your gear and go. No matter how it feels. No matter what other people say.

And really, that’s the call of God. Move forward, into the unknown, and trust that He is there. He issues that challenge to His children every day. The specifics look different for each of us, but we’re all on the same journey, putting that one small foot in front of the other, believing that He’ll reveal the path before us. It doesn’t have to be a physical leaving. It can be walking away from bitterness, gossip, our own plans.

We start out in Ur, but we’re not meant to stay there.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all of the posts in the 31 Days: Brave series, go here.

Sola What?: Soli Deo Gloria

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This post was edited July 16, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

Of the Five Solae (Five Alones) that are said to sum up the basic doctrine of the Reformers, Soli Deo Gloria is not generally listed first. In determining where to begin examining these ideas, however, I thought it best that we look to the source of all theology: God.

Soli Deo Gloria – to the glory of God alone; for God’s glory alone

“Glory” can be a difficult concept to nail down. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kabod, derived from kabed (to be heavy), “lends itself to the idea that the one possessing glory is laden with riches (Gen. 31:1), power (Isa. 8:7), position (Gen. 45:13), etc.” (1) This certainly describes the Lord, and yet leaves out the important aspect of His “inherent majesty.” (2) God is majesty itself, unmatched in splendor, by virtue of His being. He need not do anything to achieve this glory. This idea is carried over into the New Testament, the Greek word doxa denoting “His majesty [and] perfection.” (3)

There is another sense in which “glory” may be used:

The intrinsic worth of God, His ineffable majesty, constitutes the basis of warnings not to glory in riches, wisdom or might (Jer. 9:23) but in the God who has given all these and is greater than His gifts. (4)

Here we move from description to action. When we are instructed to “glory in God,” we are being told to take great delight in Him. To find Him as the source of all our pride and pleasure. Material possessions are not our security, nor is wealth or notoriety. Our satisfaction, identity and sense of safety is to come in knowing He who is glorious.

In essence, then, every aspect of a Christian’s life is to be lived in recognition and reflection of the glory of God. We worship and honor Him because we love Him and understand our place before Him. We know who He is and know that this is what He is due.

Up to this point, orthodox Christians on both sides of the Reformation aisle agree.

The argument exists in the divide between Protestant doctrine, which does not distinguish between different sorts of glory or honor, and Catholic doctrine, which does. Catholics use three levels or degrees (for lack of better terminology) when describing the verb sort of glory. There is latria, the supreme worship reserved for God alone; dulia, the reverence (deep respect for someone or something) accorded to saints and angels; and hyperdulia, higher than dulia but less than latria, properly reserved for the Virgin Mary. These distinctions appear to be based in passages such as Exodus 20:12, where God commands children to honor their parents. Catholic authors point out that the word for “honor” here is the same one used to describe God’s glory, and thus, to their thinking, renders Soli Deo Gloria false.

I do not have time to get into each of the Marian dogmas; that will have to be reserved for another post. But let me say here that I’m thankful that Mary submitted to God. I’m thankful that she chose to cooperate with God’s plan to save humanity and set the cosmos to rights. And I certainly respect all faithful Christians who have gone before me, who can rightly all be called saints, just as we who live today can be called saints (1 Cor. 1:12). I appreciate the example of their obedience.

Here is the key question in all of this: What is the relationship between honor, glory and worship?

Yes, we are told to honor our parents. Yes, we should be thankful for and inspired by the obedience of Mary and other Christians. But the respect I owe to my parents by virtue of their position is nowhere near the same thing as the respect I owe to God by virtue of His. The language may use the same words, but the concepts are totally different. As an adult daughter, I respect my parents by seeking out their wisdom, speaking with love, doing as they ask when I am in their home (admittedly not always without a grumble) and, as they age, taking care of them. Yet I can (and do) disagree with them. Our views and habits diverge in many ways. Despite these differences, we are able to maintain relationship.

By contrast, when I disagree with God, it’s called sin and it has enormous repercussions. Certainly there is room for asking God questions, for seeking clarification of His will on this or that matter. And, to the everlasting praise of His name!, He does forgive us when we sin if we confess and ask. But, ultimately, I as a Christian will do what God wants me to do – and I’ll do it His way. Period. No exchanges or refunds.

There is a huge difference between the two cases.

Further, the fact that we are commanded to worship God (Deut. 6:13) indicates an intimate relationship between giving Him glory and worshiping Him. In fact, we might say that the two are synonymous. We thus tread very dangerous ground with the categories of latria, dulia and hyperdulia. There is no human being, no matter her outstanding qualities, who deserves greater respect than another. There are not various pedestals on which to place the people in our lives, past or present, some lower, some higher.

In short, the more we focus on another person, the more we hone in our attention upon him, the more likely we are to begin worshiping. The teaching of the Catholic Church on the “degrees” of glory paves the way to this idolatry. 

There is one pedestal, and only One who can rightly be upon it.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told that certain people are to occupy a space somewhere between ourselves and God. There are people and there is God. People below and God above. That’s it. We are to worship God alone, an idea outlined nicely here:

We worship God because he is God. Period. Our extravagant love and extreme submission to the Holy One flows out of the reality that God loved us first. It is highly appropriate to thank God for all the things he has done for us. However, true worship is shallow if it is solely an acknowledgement of God’s wealth. Psalm 96:5-6 says, “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.” In other words, our worship must be toward the One who is worthy simply because of His identity as the Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent One, and not just because God is wealthy and able to meet our needs and answer our prayers. We must focus our practice of worship on the worthiness of God and not his wealthiness.

So we give glory to God alone.

The examples of Mary and the saints, past and present, should drive us to live lives that glorify God alone. These believers certainly offered respect where respect was due (to their parents, to civil authorities), but I see no evidence of anyone other than God being at the center of their existence. Consider the Magnificat, Mary’s worship song, recorded in Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has been mindful
of the humble state of His servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is His name.

His mercy extends to those who fear Him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as He promised our ancestors.” (NKJV)

Over and over again Mary glorifies the Lord. She rejoices in Him. She is thankful for His mindfulness. She will be called blessed because of what He will accomplish through her, because of what He has done for her. He is holy, merciful, mighty. He lifts up the humble, fills the hungry, helps His servants. This is entirely about God.

The Lord fashioned this world and everything in it (Gen. 1). He knew us before we were born (Ps. 139:13). He placed a longing for eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11). We were made to worship God alone (Ps. 29:1). We were made to live for His glory. Our lives only make sense when oriented around the Lord.

Best to let Him occupy the pedestal and keep every person on the same, earthly level we ourselves occupy.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

 

References:

1 E. F. Harrison. “Glory,” in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 484.

2 Ibid., 484.

3 Ibid., 484.

4 Ibid., 484.