1. A Marker in the Sand

Getting to Know God Meditations:  1. A Marker in the Sand

Job 40:1,2  The Lord said to Job:  “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

For who? I have over the years written thousands of these meditations (studies) and my general goal has always been twofold: to teach myself and clarify my own thinking AND to provide material that I hope may strengthen and encourage the Christian community. In this new series, I want to make a slight difference, I would like to help new Christian believers AND perhaps shine some light into the darkness for those who cannot yet say they are believers and yet are here showing interest. Can I speak to that latter group first of all.

Questions:  The fact that you are reading these words means that somehow you have come across this site, or perhaps been directed towards it by a friend, and are at the very least intrigued by the thought of ‘God’.   Now that in itself is intriguing for we live in a world, here in the West, that has been changing dramatically over the last hundred years in ways that are greater than all of previously recorded history and because of that ideas and thinking has been shaken as well. Throughout history there have been ‘signs of religion’. One of my granddaughters said to my wife recently, “But surely, granny, there is no evidence for God.”  What a staggering statement built on what appears to be total ignorance. My wife, telling me of this later, said she had to struggle not to tell her all about what she taught every year at upper level education, a whole year of just that, examining the amazing range of evidence. But this meditation (study) is not going to do that; my remit in these studies is much more limited but, I hope, just as rewarding. Put in a nutshell, it is to find out about God from the Bible.

The Bible? And here, briefly, we have to counter the tsunami of ignorance that prevails in many today. Here is a book – a best seller still around the world – or rather 66 books with some 40 or so authors, made up of writings from Jewish history (the Old Testament) and of the first century CE (what used to be AD!) telling of the activity of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church. To short-cut pages of explanation may I simply put it to you if you are coming to this subject for the first time, that I am a reasonably intelligent person (teacher and retired pastor) who has read and studied the Bible for over fifty years (yes, that makes me old!), questioning, seeking, researching and never being content with superficial answers and have written studies that cover that vast majority of the Bible. At the end of all that, may I suggest to you that a) you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy and, b)  no, it is not full of inconsistencies or contradictions as popular ignorant opinion often has it. I would not waste your time with it if it did!

The Basis: The basis of these studies will be what the Bible says about God, not what people think about God or what people think about what the Bible says about God, but what it actually says. For that reason you may find these studies different from anything you’ve read before. They should, hopefully be full of the Bible, at least be looking to see what the Bible says. Now here’s an honest health warning. I want to change your thinking. I say that quite openly because, as I have already suggested, I believe many people come to this subject with a rucksack of ignorant wrong presuppositions that they have been carrying around that has weighed them down. I would like to invite you to lay that down and fill it instead, with reflections about what we find in the Bible. In a later study I will lay out the structure of the Bible for you because it does, despite it being 66 ‘books’, stand as a single-story entity.

A Fresh Starting Place: May I suggest, in respect of the Bible, an experimental fresh starting place for all of us. The scholars etc. who know about these things conclude, as I said above, you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy. Now having said that, it is legitimate to ask, why did the 40 or so writers write what they did, and can we believe their reports of their experiences. Now the one convincing thing, I find,  is that there is an amazing uniformity from such a wide diversity of writers who together form a compelling picture.

All I ask from the outset is that we ponder, IF all these people are being truthful about what they have written (and why should 40 or so people, spread over a long period of history, convey a lie?) what logically should that leave us thinking about God and, indeed, about our own lives? i.e. dare we assess the truth and be honest enough to say it might change us?  I will start each study with a verse of scripture from the Bible, and may include a lot more, but these are after all, Bible studies. We are studying the Bible. The early studies will be light on Bible quotes, not to weigh down those for whom the Bible is new reading, but I will constantly refer to people and places and give references for you to look up if you wish.

Job? The book of Job (which I do not recommend as your first area of reading – try Mark’s Gospel) is a tough book about a man who suffered and it is all about what his three friends thought about that suffering. Was God to blame for it? Whether it is history or a story with a point has often been debated. It is thought to be one of the oldest books in the Bible. At the end of all the debating within it (often with confused and wrong thinking, which is why I don’t recommend it as starter reading because it can be confusing reading; come to it after you have got more foundational reading under your belt)

Job encounters God who identifies Himself as ‘the Almighty’ or ‘the Mighty One’. Now philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater. We will go on to see what the Bible says about that as an idea, but it is a good starting point and it is the point that Job faced God and concluded, “I spoke of things I did not understand… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (see Job 42:1-6)

The point is we are not talking about an abstraction here, just a nice idea to play around with; we are working towards the idea that there IS a Being as uniquely described in the Bible, who is so much greater than anything or anyone we can comprehend, and that is scary. The more we go on, the more true we will see that is but, at the same time, be given great reassurance that although fear is a natural feeling (which is why many duck away from thinking through these things) the truth is that the Bible reveals Him as loving and for us. That’s the simplest way I can put it for the moment.

For those of us who are believers, I invite you afresh to pause and worship and ask Him to teach you anew. If you are not at that place, may I simply invite you to keep an open mind and come with me in the studies ahead of us, and possibly experience something you’ve never come across before. We live in a doubting, disbelieving world, more often built on ignorance, a dry and spiritually arid place. My intent is to draw a line in the sand of this modern-day desert and say, enough of this ignorance, let’s have the courage and honesty to face it and say, let’s change it! Take a few minutes each day to come with me on this expedition.

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Snapshots: Day 87

Snapshots: Day 87

The Snapshot: “a grain offering… an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” (Lev 2:1,2) God is concerned with the smell of an offering I bring to Him? My child, it is a picture of the response that I have to your obedience. The point is that you burn this grain as a picture of a gift to me, and that pleases me. All of these offerings are simply pictures of a bigger reality, the reality of your sin and how it separates you from me, the reality of your desire to get right with me, the reality of your desire to fellowship with me. Instead of you struggling with these things, I simply give you this straightforward way of you being able to do something outwardly that signifies what is going on inside you – and so that action pleases and satisfies me. The reality will be what my Son will do one day.

Further Consideration: Because so many write off Leviticus as difficult and complex (it isn’t!) they also fail to give much thought to the purpose behind the various sacrifices. Perhaps an aside here: God doesn’t come up with things in the law because they were magical, fanciful or mysterious; the things in the Law are very practical, they have purpose, they are there to help the people live in community as the people of God.

Now that last phrase is all important: the ‘people of God’, not just in name but supposedly in experience. From the outset of the Exodus, God sought to reassure Israel that He was with them. If the miraculous plagues in Egypt hadn’t convinced them of this, a bright pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night accompanied them all the time. Now they will know (you would think!)

The grain offering is not about sin, it is about obedience and fellowship. This act ‘pleases God’ and is not about giving up a life, it is about grain and oil, fruits of the earth, reminders of God’s provision. Num 28:12 links burnt offering and grain offering, duty and fellowship. There is not enough space here to see this as a type of Christ, suffice it to say he made it possible for our sins to be dealt with AND for us to be drawn into fellowship with God, our provider.

Only part of the grain was burnt (to create the smell), the rest was given to the priests to enjoy (Lev 2:2,3) as if God was saying I want to share this pleasure with you. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.  (Rev 3:20) “You prepare a table before me.” (Psa 23:5) What amazing pictures, God who wants to fellowship with you and me. Imagine sitting round a table eating (not in front of the TV). What happens? Talk, sharing, fellowship. That is the picture conveyed here. Wonderful? Tell me!

Snapshots: Day 86

Snapshots: Day 86

The Snapshot: “it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you.” (Lev 1:4) How can killing a cow or a sheep make atonement, and what does atonement mean and do I need it? Some have suggested at-one-ment i.e. being made one with God again after a division caused by my sin. Synonyms are ‘compensation, amends, punishment’. This animal will be accepted by God to make up for my sins? However I see it, it is God saying by doing this one thing, I can take it that He accepts me back. But I feel bad about this animal dying for me? Accept it, it’s just a picture of what my Son will do for you one day. Your action will indicate your repentance and your obedience; that is enough, that is what this is all about.

Further Consideration: As we continue our slow progress through the Bible, the great temptation is to omit Leviticus because it seems at first sight to be so obscure in the light of today’s world – and messy. Yet we need to remember this was part of the Law given to Moses by God for Israel at that time and acted as part of the foundation of their lives as a godly community.  Some of the Law was about the priesthood but that was partly to support the expressions of activity laid out in the early chapters of Leviticus that we may summarise as ways of getting right with God after personal failure.

Living in a world as we do, where personal failure is simply something we quickly cover up but fail to deal with properly (so guilt remains and a vulnerability to repetition), it is difficult to grasp the simplicity of purpose found in the early chapters of Leviticus.

Our tendency is to avoid talking about our failures and pretending they didn’t happen, or to make excuses for them. God’s method is to openly confront them, not to leave us feeling guilty failures but to be left with a sense of resolution, that the failure (sin) has been properly dealt with before Him and so we will not have a constant feeling that He may yet be coming after us for it. The Bible is the best counselor on the planet. Instead of months of costly therapy, God declares the way to deal with guilt. For the embryonic nation of Israel it was to bring an offering, a sacrifice to the Tabernacle and to kill it before the priest. The shock of taking a life would impact the person offering it and convey a sense of the awfulness of sin but would leave them with the memory of an experience they had been through that left them clean and their sin dealt with before God so there would be no further likelihood of repercussions because of it.

Today you and I trust that Jesus is our sacrifice, when he died on the Cross and so when we “confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9)

Snapshots: Day 85

Snapshots: Day 85

The Snapshot: “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Ex 40:34) When the ‘house of the Lord’ is built according to His instructions (see the previous ‘Thought’) surely we should expect the glory of the Lord to fill it – us individually and corporately. IF that actually happened – in whichever local expression of the church that you can think of – what do you think would be seen? How would God’s glory be seen? Can any of us (maybe a few) in churches in the West at least, honestly say this is what we experience? In the days, weeks and months ahead, dare we make this prayer: “Show us Lord, what we need to change that will make this dwelling available for you”?

Further Consideration: Recently I found myself writing the following: “At the end of a Sunday morning say, do we have a buzz about the wonderful things that happened in that morning, the amazing words of revelation that were brought, the powerful testimonies of change brought, the lives that were clearly touched and changed, the obvious power of the Holy Spirit’s presence seen and felt, the heart-warming encouragements brought, the strong faith stirred, the powerful challenges brought, maybe even the tears of conviction brought, and was there a sense of having been fed by God’s word so that we walk out with head held high, stronger in conviction, more sure of our walk and certain of our future? I must pray more.”

That came out of constantly being confronted with thoughts and writings about ‘Holy Dissatisfaction’, a healthy prompting by the Spirit to get us to pray. The above is, I believe, an honest appraisal of how so much modern church life is (there are exceptions) and how many hungry Christians come away at the end of Sunday morning.

However, it is possible not to come away like this if we have no expectation of the presence of God, if we have settled to the neatly planned and orthodox service where, to be quite honest, you would not know if the presence of God was absent or not.

The glory that was seen in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple of Solomon was unique, never to be seen again (except in visions by Ezekiel). Today that ‘glory’ is the almost tangible presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst when we meet – when He is given space and welcomed. I suspect this is not something experienced by most modern churches. It is only when you have had a glimpse of this will your heart yearn for something more – the ‘more’ that God wants to bring to His people to deepen their relationship with Him, strengthen and embolden them to confront the many ungodly pressures that have been coming and continue to come on the Church today. We can opt for the familiar or we can pray for the godly Presence. May it be the latter.

Snapshots: Day 84

Snapshots: Day 84

The Snapshot: “Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them.” (Ex 39:43) Interesting! They build the tabernacle as instructed and Moses checks the finished work. I wonder how many leaders check to see that the modern-day tabernacle, the church, is being ‘built’ according to God’s instructions or do we just assume that what we are and what we do is as it should be?  Do we conform to the New Testament pattern comprising born again ‘bricks’ being built together (Eph 2:19-22) in love (Eph 4:16), gifted parts of ‘the body’ (1 Cor 12:27) all harmonizing together under the anointing of the Spirit, producing the righteous acts of the bride (Rev 19:8)? Wow!

Further Consideration: In a day when the thinking of the world is individualistic – leave me alone to be myself, work out my own salvation without you imposing your moralistic laws on me – the reality so often is, I believe, similarly true in the life of the church. One modern writer has written about some leaders who are, “a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus.” That was definitely not Moses!

Moses put God first (except on that one tragic notable occasion at the rock when he lost his cool) and so was more concerned with what God wanted and that was translated into being a Shepherd of Israel, ensuring his people did what the Lord had said.

The modern day spiritual shepherd (the name of the ‘Pastor’, overseer, elder of the New Testament) is concerned not just to make his people feel good, but that they become mature. That means he has an understanding of God’s goals for His people, and he is not fearful in portraying a vision of the Lord’s desires and intent for His church. Yet he seeks to do it with wisdom and grace and humility that carries his people with him, so when he lays out the scriptural blueprint of the New Testament, they catch the vision and rise in faith to receive it. Yes, this shepherd leads by grace not by rules and is concerned more with life than with ritual, more with the presence of God than with plans and programs (although he may have both).

The Moses model shows a leader who spends much time in God’s presence, who catches God’s heart, who learns His ways, and who is then able to graciously guide his flock to higher ground.

When is comes to supervising ‘the work’ he encourages others to step forward, grow up and ‘do the stuff’. He holds the work lightly for it does not belong to him but to his Lord. Thus when he guides and corrects it is with gentle firmness. May we see that in our churches.

Snapshots: Day 83

Snapshots: Day 83

The Snapshot: “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones.” (Ex 34:1) What amazing grace. God meets with Moses and Israel at Sinai and gives them the Law, part of which were on two slate (probably) slabs. Israel blow it, Moses loses his cool and smashes the two tablets. End of the story of Moses and Israel. Well, no, not actually.  Here’s the puzzle: why didn’t God slap Moses, why didn’t He abandon them, give up on them? I suppose it’s the same reason He doesn’t give up on us. He knows what we’re like, He knows we’re prone to getting it wrong, needing to be constantly encouraged, needing to be given a second chance – and third and fourth, and who knows how many chances. Amazingly love means He’s committed to helping us succeed. Yes, amazing!

Further Consideration: There is an infamous crusading atheist, who I shall not name, who became notorious by concocting a paragraph of total abuse describing God. The only problem was that it was complete rubbish based upon his ignorance of the Bible – and yet it was heralded and applauded by his devoted followers, which only goes to show there are a lot of people who are ignorant of what the Bible actually says.

I believe those of us who are believers may not be quite as bad, but often we skim over scriptures and fail to take in the wonder of what it is we are reading. I have sought in the snapshot above to counter that tendency by slowing us up and getting us to realize the grace of God that was being displayed when He instructed Moses to chisel out a second set of stone tablets on which He would rewrite the Ten Commandments.

I imagine a loving father with their young child and the child has just smashed up a model that the father had made for them. Resignedly, for he is a human father, he sighs and smiles and says, “OK, let’s have another go,” and commences to rebuild the broken model.

Again we take for granted, I believe, some of the New Testament teaching. For example, My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1) There is this same thing – the God of second chances. He doesn’t want us to sin, He doesn’t want us to have temper tantrums and smash that which is precious, but when we do He is there, saddened I believe by our immaturity, but ready to forgive when we come to our senses and ask forgiveness, ready to get us up on our feet again and, pointed in the right direction again, and is there helping us have fresh resolve to get it right this time.

Yes, this is the God of second chances, the God of grace and mercy who is there for us. Never say otherwise. Worship and be thankful.

Snapshots: Day 82

Snapshots: Day 82

The Snapshot: “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you.” (Ex 33:13) What wisdom! God, tell me, show me how you work. I want to know you, I want to please you, I want to go with you and I want you to bless us! Once you accept all the evidence that there IS a God as described in the Bible, the sensible path through life must involve finding out about Him. Suppose we reach the end of life, meet Him face to face and look back and see ‘what could have been’ if only we’d taken the trouble to ask Him, “Teach me your ways”. How upset we might be that we’d had the opportunity and blown it. Yes, we’re there in heaven but what we missed on the way! How tragic that would be.

Further Consideration: I wonder how many of us dare pray this most simple of prayers? Why do I ask that? Well it crosses my mind that many of us may be sufficiently insecure in God’s love that we aren’t too sure what sort of answer we might get and, not only that, once we know, there is a certain implication that I ought then to be living in accordance with His ways once I find what they are.

However, may I dare to suggest that there is a great deal of difference between Moses and us. No, not that he was called to shepherd Israel and we aren’t, but simply at this stage of his life it is probable that you and I have fifty times more revelation about God than he had!

You and I have the whole of the Old Testament (he was still yet to write the first five books probably) not to mention the wonder of the whole of the New Testament so, again, dare I suggest some of the things that are now obvious to us today about God.

First He is the Creator of all things who knew the end from the beginning and knew the Godhead had to plan for Jesus coming if there was to be any hope of saving us.

Second, He is committed to your and my salvation, which is why His Son came.

Third, He does still judge ungodliness and unrighteousness but has made a way for us to avoid that judgment by accepting Jesus as our Saviour.

Fourth, once we have accepted the salvation He holds out to us, He has given us His Holy Spirit who is the source of all grace, wisdom, guidance etc. that we need for daily living.

Fifth, Jesus is ruling in the midst of his enemies to eventually destroy all the enemies of the kingdom of God and that includes negatives, bad attitudes and bad behaviour within us. So that we can more fully enter into the goodness of all he has for us, he is working to conform us to his own image. See how much we know! Amazing!