23. Shock

 ‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 23. Shock

Mk 11:15  On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.

And so: It’s a new day. Every day with the Master is a new day; you never know what is coming next. Yesterday was excitement as we followed him into Jerusalem as he rode on a donkey and the crowds welcomed him and called him king. We went into the temple, looked around and left. Some days we travel, some days we stay in one place, some days we see no one, some days we see many people. It seems, here outside Jerusalem, it’s going to be a people day, staying here in Bethany waiting for Passover to come. In Jerusalem yesterday it was a people day, crowds shouting in the morning and then gradually in the confines of the city it was quieter. The master was talking quietly with us when Andrew came up – Andrew tells that Philip had had some Greek-Jews visiting for the Passover who had stopped him and asked if it would be all right to talk with the Master (Jn 12:20-22). People. But then we left the city and walked back to Bethany where we stayed overnight, and so here it is, Monday, a new day. It looks like the Master is getting ready to go back into Jerusalem.

Funny thing happened on the way back in: he stopped by a fig tree but because it didn’t have any fruit on it, he cursed it and it died. (Mk 11:12-14, 20,21) Arriving in Jerusalem it was clear he was going back to the temple and when he entered he caused a riot by turning over the tables of the money-changers and the sellers of doves for sacrifice and bellowed at them all, Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.” (Mk 11:17) His anger was great and the traders just protested feebly but it was clear the temple authorities were furious. I don’t know what got into the Master. I mean he saw it all yesterday but didn’t do anything about it, and he’s seen it before. In fact, as I come to think about it, he did the same thing three years ago when he was starting his ministry (Jn 2:13-17), but it seems he’s being purposely provocative, almost like he’s working on an agenda to upset the authorities, what with coming in with the crowds yesterday and now this! He sometimes says or does thing that are hard to understand. I remember at that first time, the Jews got really upset and challenged him and demanded he reveal his authority for doing it by performing a sign (Jn 2:18) and all he said was, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (Jn 2:19) I tell you that had them confused – me to if I’m honest. I mean what did that mean?  I don’t know what this present action is going to do. The people obviously love him and they seem to be rejoicing in him upsetting this mockery of religion, but it’s equally obvious the authorities are getting more and more upset.

Following: “The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” (Mk 11:18) “When evening came, Jesus and his disciples] went out of the city.” (Mk 11:19)

What if? To try and get into what is going on here, I want to ponder for a moment or two on what the disciples must have been thinking about all that was happening. They had surely been to Passover with Jesus on previous years and so there would have been a certain familiarity about going up to Jerusalem for this Feast. However it was the events we have been following which made it different. What if, back in Bethany, early in the morning, Jesus had got the twelve together and, in modern language, said, “Guys, I’m thinking of going into town today to clear out the temple.” Some furrowed brows, some lightening of spirits.

Disciple Responses? I have a feeling (and this is only speculation remember) that somehow Peter would have felt protective of Jesus and would not think it was a smart idea. Perhaps he would remember back to when he had challenged Jesus over his death talk (Mt 16:21-23). Maybe that challenge back then had not be so much that it just won’t happen as more I won’t let it happen to you. Anything now that puts Jesus under threat, he’s going to be against. James and John? Maybe they were still smarting a bit at having been rebuked by Jesus when they suggested calling down fire on the Samaritans who had rejected Jesus (Lk 9:52-55) and had the feeling now, “Oh, come on Lord, one law for you, another for us. We can’t do something violent but you can?” Maybe there was Judas, whose mind was confused, possibly wanting Jesus to reveal himself as king, and was ready to let him provoke such a declaration, or provoke it himself?  Or, of course, there was the one of the twelve simply known as ‘Simon the zealot’ (Mt 10:4) whose background would have been as a member of the party simply known as the Zealots, who were actively against Roman rule; perhaps he is thinking, “Awesome, Master, you’ve come round to my way of thinking. Go for it. But hold on that’s against the Jews not the Romans. What’s the point?”

And Us?  The thing is, we all come to the crises of life with different agendas formulated by different backgrounds and different experiences. For us as Christians we come to these things with different understanding of Scripture. Some of us hold the “turn the other cheek,” attitude to the wrongs of the world – let them do their thing and God will sort it, all we’ve got to do is hold a right attitude – while others  hold the ‘salt attitude’ – we’re to be changing the world, purifying it and sometimes that means we demonstrate, protest and so on. It is never an easy path to walk. It is perhaps easy to say, “Just listen to God and only do what He says,” which is the path I would prefer to take, but that can be a cop-out for doing nothing, it is not always easy to glean the will of God. As I had to text a friend the other day who was worrying about the part they had to play in the midst of the immense complexities of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, “The complexities of the present often mean that we can only pray and then act and just trust in Him that He will be there for us in it, whatever the outcome.” If we get it wrong then we may have to appeal for forgiveness through the Cross, if we get it wrong we may upset other people, but if we get it right, whatever the outcome, we will have a sense that somehow we have managed to conform to the will of God.

Back to Jesus: The fact is Jesus said he always did what he did, following the Father’s guidance. He knew the big picture that the Godhead had agreed upon before the foundation of the world, that he would come, reveal the Father and then die for the sins of the world.  How that death would be procured – through the sinful acts of mankind against the perfect Son of God – starts being seen as the events we have been following are rolled out. It involved, on Jesus’ part, doing good, teaching the people, healing the sick and raising the dead AND correcting wrongs – the  wrong use of the Temple. All those things collectively raised the ire of sinful mankind in its many forms, to eventually take him and kill him. Thus they will, without realizing it, offer the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and progress the will of God to eventually bring glory to the Father and reconciliation of those who would hear and respond. Today’s events have been part of that.  Much to think about, but at the end of it, realize we are each part of the plans and purposes of God that are being worked out this very day. We may not understand them but our part is to listen, respond, act and trust, as imperfect as we sometimes feel that is. Be blessed in this day. Amen.

19. The Uncertainty of Jericho

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 19. The Uncertainty of Jericho

Mark 10:1  Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

Mt 20:28  As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.

Context : We have considered Jesus’ warning to his disciples (which they were unable to take in) and we’ve seen his two visits to Bethany as well as his retiring to the east of the Jordan. We have also noted the way Jesus followed the leading of his Father, and so his travels at time seem a little erratic, although they always bore fruit. Some put going to Jericho as before the raising of Lazarus although, as I hope to show, the indications are that he went to Jericho and then on his final trip to Jerusalem. If I am correct then he has been ministering to the east of the Jordan, keeping away from possible too-early opposition from Jerusalem, was called back to Bethany to raise Lazarus and then returned east again to give time for the word to spread while he was able to continue ministering out of sight, so to speak. Note, in passing, that John does not mention Jericho in his Gospel, as he usually didn’t pick up on the events clearly recorded in the Synoptics unless they were specific things that would show the glory of Jesus in what John was conveying (e.g. feeding of the five thousand).   Also bear in mind what we said about the different mindset that the writers had from ours, not being particularly concerned to itemize each step. Let’s see how each of the Synoptics cover this time.

Matthew: “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests.” (Mt 20:17,18) That was followed by the incident involving James and John’s mother and then immediately afterwards we find,As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. (v.29) For Matthew, the incident that follows where two blind men are healed, is the important thing showing the coming of the kingdom which is a priority in his Gospel.  (see v.30-34) All we know from Matthew is that they have been to Jericho where this healing occurred.

Mark: We start in chapter 10 with, “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.” (v.1) A reference “When they were in the house again,” (v.10) would suggest that is the Judea part, probably back in Capernaum but we can’t be certain; it may just be a place where they were staying in the east. Direction and warning after a section of teaching: “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him.” (v.32) The fact of going to Jerusalem, Mark interestingly informs us, creates a sense of fear in some of those following. Obviously they knew the rumblings in the authorities in Jerusalem and feared the outcome of a further visit. Then comes the James and John incident followed simply by, “Then they came to Jericho.” (v.46a) Peter, reporting through Mark in his Gospel remembers that (apparently) one of the two blind men stood out as a local character: “As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging.” (v.46b) and healing follows (v.47-52) and this man follows them, hence the reason he stands out to Peter.

Luke: Now we’ve already noted that Lord records their journey south – “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee,” (Lk 17:11) and picks up on him healing ten lepers along the way (v.12-19). Teaching follows until in chapter 18 we read, “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.” (Lk 18:35) and healing follows (v.36-43) As there would have been numerous beggars it does not need to be a contradiction; it is just whoever Luke used as a resource remembered that particular one. The end of it is worth noting: “When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” (v.43b) Into chapter 19 we read, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus,” (v.1,2) and the whole incident involving Zacchaeus is revealed. Jesus’ popularity with what we might refer to as the underclass (involving tax-collectors and ‘sinners’) would have been seriously boosted by this incident. After finishing teaching we then read, “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” (v.28)

Why Jericho? We may look at these parts of the records and wonder why Jericho? There is uncertainty hanging over this part of the journey all the time – why? Well each of the accounts emphasize a different aspect of what went on. Matthew seeks to emphasize the coming of the kingdom in the way two blind men are healed. Peter, through Mark, is more focused on one of then who was a local character who ends up following them. Luke, the doctor, the people-person, the one interested in people, picks up on the gentle way Jesus healed the beggar on the way into town – getting into town is not so important that Jesus can’t pause up to help a beggar on the way in.

As far as Luke was concerned the big issue in Jericho was the calling and the change brought about in the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus, whose area of control probably covered the whole of the south of Judea at least. His significance was the equivalent of saying the mayor of London or of New York getting saved. An amazing transformation that may have ongoing long-term effects.

But why have we bothered to cover this part of the trip? Well, apart from the fact that it happened, if it was on the way back from the area to the east of the Jordan (and Jericho is a few miles west of the Jordan), it shows Jesus in no rush to get back to the conflict in Jerusalem but, taking his Father’s leading, picking up some significant popularity while ‘bringing in the kingdom’ through miraculous healings and life transformations.       Right up through this time, it is as if he pushes out what has got to come in Jerusalem and simply concentrates on bringing the love and goodness of the Father into each situation he finds as he travels. On the way down from the north he had healed ten lepers. In Bethany he had raised Lazarus from the dead, to the east of the Jordon he continues teaching and healing, on the way back through Jericho he shows his love for the outcasts by healing blind beggars and his love for the sinner called Zacchaeus. If I had that lot on my resume I would be thrilled.

And us? Can we apply some of what we find here? What I find coming through here is that, first of all,  the pattern of their travels overall, or the strategy of Jesus, although often seeming unclear, seems to be a strategy involving a general desire to get closer to Jerusalem, bring the blessing of God to aggravate the religious authorities, and yet keep at a sufficient distance but not to provoke confrontation too early. Having said that, there is also just this sense of Jesus continuing to take any and every opportunity to bring the love and power of God to bear in changing people’s lives for the good. Yes, there may be that big pattern strategy (which the disciples probably couldn’t see) but behind it, there is this taking every moment left to him to continue to bless people. In a sense, it doesn’t matter about the long-term strategy, the question is what will I do with today? Can I catch something of the Father’s heart and the prompting and leading of His Holy Spirit, so that TODAY will be a day of blessing others, those closest to me and perhaps further afield, TODAY will be a day when Jesus will use me? Can we see it like that?

15. Target Jerusalem

PART TWO: On the Way

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 15. Target Jerusalem

Lk 9:51-53 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.

Lk 18:31   And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.

Context?  We are two weeks off Easter and as much as I would like to map Jesus’ activities in this period running up to Passover, our Easter, it is not clear. There are some time and date indicators but it is very difficult to be able to pin down various parts of the Gospel accounts to specific days. When we get nearer to that final week that we tend to call Holy Week it does become a little clearer and when we get there we will try and do that, but for now we simply want to try to gain some perspective using Luke’s Gospel.

Direction?  In Luke at least, 9:51, our verse above, is a turning point. He is in Galilee and he determinedly turns south and aims for Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards we find in 10:38 him coming to the home of Mary and Martha which we know was in Bethany, which is close to Jerusalem, but he doesn’t now go on to Jerusalem. Whether this is an insert (but out of historical context just to remind us who Mary and Martha were for later on) is unclear.

It seems as if Luke, is using

– both Mark’s information,

– the other general information picked up by the three Synoptic Gospel writers referred to as ‘Q’ (from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning ‘source’, thought to be a written Greek document of sayings etc. in existence in the early church),

– and his own sources, people he came across who contributed to his account,

but is not necessarily following a historical narrative, but partly narrative and partly individual teachings picked up along the way.

Confusing Direction: Perhaps it is because of this it seems like Luke jumps back with a general comment insert:, “On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues.” (Lk 13:10) which would suppose he is in Judea, having passed through Samaria but then we find, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Lk 13:22) Along the way we find other incidents, for example, “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee,” (Lk 14:1) and we also see that, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” (Lk 14:25) Later on we find, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.” (Lk 17:11)

Modern Frustration? It could be at this point that you might be muttering about divine inspiration and wondering where there are signs of it? But this is where our uncertainties have a modern flavor to them, this need that I have referred to before in these studies, to be in control and to package everything in a neat, concise, easily understood document, but God doesn’t work like that. He chose a time in history for his Son to come, a time in very many ways very different from ours and one of those was the Jewish mentality. It didn’t have this same neat orderly package approach that we have. They weren’t out to ‘prove’ a case by its logic and order, they were out to simply convey the wonder of what was going on. Sometimes it did have chronological order but for the most part that wasn’t the all-important issue, it was what Jesus was teaching and doing and sometimes I think their writing is like our memories. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this but sometimes if you are in a group that is talking about the past, as someone is sharing a recollection, suddenly, from nowhere it seems, a memory comes to you that you hadn’t thought about for years and as the group of you share memories, sometimes they are in neat chronological order and sometimes they appear haphazard.

So if, like I’ve just tried doing, you try to get a clarity through the Gospels, a neat order of events, don’t be frustrated if you can’t do that. Just take the clarity you can get but relish the wonder of what is being taught and what happened. I warn you, the closer to the awful events of Easter we get, the more confusing it will be, but that is simply because it was an utterly confusing time.

Catching the Order: Go back to that thought that comes in Jn 5:19 that the Son only does what he sees his Father doing. What that says is that the Spirit picked up on what was going on in people’s lives, the things the Father was saying to them or, perhaps more accurately, the things they were doing, probably without being aware of the prompting coming from God. So Jesus arrives in town and the Spirit prompts the spiritually hungry people to put down what they are doing and go and see him. Some, as we’ll soon see, will be prompted to climb trees to see him.  Some will be prompted to simply cry out for his help. Can we enlarge our understanding to see that actually God is at work all the time, even though we either don’t understand it or realise it ? Can we see that living ‘in Christ’ is partly looking out for what God is doing in the lives of people around about us, and acting accordingly? It may appear confusing or uncertain but it is an area we perhaps need to think about as an area where we can learn.

So instead of seeing a neat pattern in the Gospels sometimes, I suggest we see Jesus moving about the countryside teaching in the open and teaching in synagogues, taking any and every opportunity that came before him to flow in the Spirit and address that situation or those people, hence one of them we saw above, was simply to go and eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee (Lk 14:1) We’ve seen previously how he was there for Nicodemus in the night, how he traveled up to Sidon for a rest but was there for the Canaanite woman when she came with her need. We’ll see him pausing up to respond to blind men crying out to him, and calling out a chief tax-collector watching him up a tree.

And Us? Are we too concerned to maintain order in our lives to be open to the prompting of the Spirit to guide us to something or someone new? Do we ignore the thought to ring a friend, write a letter, send some flowers or whatever other possible opportunity the Lord wants you to create?  Does he want you to write something, a poem or a story, or be creative in some other way through which His glory might shine? These may appear as small things but they could have big consequences. Being available to the Father was the key to Jesus’ ministry, and even if life around about seems confusing and uncertain, learn to let His whispers into you mind and spirit bring guidance, direction, blessing, assurance and certainty into your life.

2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

12. God’s Holy Mountain

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  12. God’s Holy Mountain

Psa 3:4    he answers me from his holy mountain.

God’s Presence: Again, how casually I have sped over these words with so little thought, and yet I suspect (is He telling me?) that here there are such profound truths to be mined as we meditate. Before we move on in this psalm, I believe there is something of significance that we have passed by without comment here in verse 4: “he answers me from his holy mountain”. What is that ‘holy mountain’?

Zion: Well, back in Psa 2 we read, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psa 2:6) Further back in 2 Sam 5:7 we read, “David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” That is the first reference to ‘Zion’ and it clearly meant Jerusalem. It had long been known as Jerusalem, occupied by the Jebusites who Israel had failed to overthrow initially (Judg 1:21), and it had not been taken until David arrived in power, when he re-established it as his base and subsequently the capital of Israel. When the ark was brought there, and later in Solomon’s reign the temple built, and filled with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10,11), it became known as the ‘holy city’: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.” (Isa 52:1)

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is described as “set high in the hills of Judah” (New Bible Dictionary) and one Internet site describes Jerusalem as follows: “Jerusalem’s seven hills are Mount Scopus, Mount Olivet and the Mount of Corruption (all three are peaks in a mountain ridge that lies east of the old city), Mount Ophel, the original Mount Zion, the New Mount Zion and the hill on which the Antonia Fortress was built.” When a prophet or psalmist refers to the ‘mountain of the Lord’ or ‘his holy mountain’ it can either mean Jerusalem generally or the hill or mountain on which the Temple was eventually built.

As David writes pre-the Temple, it is more likely to mean Jerusalem at large, Jerusalem the whole city. The designation ‘mountain’ may refer to the fact that all of the ‘hills’ of the Jerusalem area are well over 2000 feet above sea level, or it may simply be creating spiritual significance of a place of ascent on which God resides. A study of ‘mountains’ in the Old Testament must take us first to Moriah: Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen 22:2) Amazingly this was Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Chron 3:1) equated today, it is said, with the vicinity of Calvary. What a symbolic picture. The second mountain that stands out is Sinai where God met with Israel during the Exodus (See Ex 19-). The imagery that goes with that encounter suggests inaccessibility except by divine permission. So often when people went there, the record says they went up to Jerusalem, that same picture of ascending to meet with God that Moses showed us. Thus Jerusalem becomes the place of encounter with the inaccessible God and the place of god’s offering of His own Son to save the world.

Tent of Meeting: God’s instructions to build a Tabernacle (Ex 25-27) appear to be His early means of bringing limited access to Himself by His people. It was also referred to as ‘the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21 etc.): Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month. Place the ark of the covenant law in it and shield the ark with the curtain.” (Ex 40:2,3) and it continued in existence until Solomon replaced it with the Temple (see 1 Kings 8). However in the time of Eli and Samuel, after the debacle with the Philistines, the ark (and presumably the Tent) stayed at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:1,2) until twenty years later David took it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6) where it was placed inside “the tent that David had pitched for it.” (1 Chron 16:1), but this was clearly different from the Tabernacle still pitched at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39) The ‘tent’ was clearly simply the home or location for the ‘ark of the covenant’ that was seen to be the place where the presence of God resided on earth. As we noted above, both ark and tent of meeting (as this tent now clearly became) were taken to the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:1-4)

God’s Dwelling Place? The ark in the Tabernacle? The ark in the Temple? The ark disappeared in history, but the Temple remained until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it during the Exile but until then the Temple (and the ark) had been the focus or ‘dwelling place’ of God on earth. Why is that so significant? Because it was there by God’s instructions, and it was a place of focus on God, a place where people could go to worship God (even though they could not encounter His presence hidden in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies). So when David prays and get answers, they come from the God who has revealed Himself and positioned Himself in the midst of Israel.

And Today? The writer to the Hebrews conveys something quite amazing when he speaks to us: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18,22) For us, Mount Zion is not just a mountain but a city and it is in heaven. At the end of his amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelation, John records, “One of the seven angels…. said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:9,10) In the final words that follow it is clear that this heavenly city comes down to the newly recreated earth and is accessible to all, and Father and Son are in the midst of it. The mountain where God had been inaccessible, the place where the Godhead dwells, has finally come to be in the midst of redeemed mankind. In heaven or on the new earth, the dwelling place of God is accessible to redeemed mankind, to the people of God.

A Poignant Psalm: For David it was the place towards which he uttered his prayers, which makes this psalm, headed by “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom”, so poignant. Until then he had focused on God in Jerusalem but now he was on the run out of and away from Jerusalem and so his focus became more ‘long distance’ if we may put it like that. Yet there is another significant truth: even though David may not have close access to the Tent in Jerusalem, the Lord is still there; He has not departed Jerusalem, it is still HIS city and therefore there is a sense when David utters these words, they come with an underlying assurance that he is still in God’s hands, this is all happening because God is working out His disciplinary will for David and He, the Lord, is still the same and will still be there in Jerusalem for David to call to, and will still be there should the Lord allow him to return. God IS there – for us in heaven and for us by His Spirit, incredibly, indwelling us – and so it doesn’t matter what the earthly circumstances appear to be showing, in respect of the Lord, nothing has changed! He is there and He is there for us and He is there available to us because He has made it so! Hallelujah!

8. Mourning & Grieving (2)

Transformation Meditations: 8. Mourning & Grieving (2)

Isa 61:1-3   He has sent me ….. to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion

In the previous study we focused on personal grief, what happens when someone close to us has gone, but I am aware that when Isaiah wrote these words he included, “in Zion” which suggests that he also had in mind the grief that a man or woman of God would have felt when Israel went through times of unbelief and the land was invaded and Jerusalem was plundered, and the glory of God removed.

We find such times of mourning in the life of Israel expressed in its earliest years by David when Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle by the Philistine army. This man, described as a man after God’s own heart, poured out his grief when he heard of their deaths with the refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Sam 1:1) and repeated again and again “How the mighty have fallen in battle!” (2 Sam 1:25,27) The song of lament extols them both, despite the fact that again and again Saul had tried to kill him. He extols Saul, honoring his position of king over the people.

Years later Jeremiah (it is believed) lamented over the destroyed Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar’s army had burned down both city and Temple: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.” (Lam 1:1) In chapter 2, verses 1 to 8 it is again and again attributed to the Lord. Yet in chapter 3 there is hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (v.22-26) Anguish with hope.

In the New Testament Jesus mourns over what will yet happen to Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” (Mt 23:37,38)

In each case there is a mourning over what has happened or what is about to happen to the people of God and, more specifically in the latter two, to Jerusalem, the city that held the Temple where the Lord had revealed His glory, a glory that had gone.

The question arises, are we sensitive to the state of God’s people, do we yearn to see the glory of God revealed in and through His people, do we anguish when that is absent? The song of the Messiah brings hope, because the Messiah is sent to comfort us, even when we mourn over the loss of His glory. One day Jesus WILL return (see Rev 19) and God’s honor will be restored. In the meantime those with eyes to see grieve over so much formal ritualistic religion where the life of God is absent, but they also rejoice when they come across the body of Christ empowered and directed and moving by the Spirit and the glory of the Lord is seen. Pray over both situations.

31. Postscript

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 31. Postscript

Acts 1:12-14  Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives … When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying….. They all joined together constantly in prayer

It didn’t feel right to stop at Easter day for the story has to go on. But it is not merely ‘a story’, it is time-space history, it happened and continues to happen. We move on to what are events that are probably a month and a half on from Easter Sunday. Since then the disciples – men and women – had spent a period of time up in Galilee with Jesus as we noted yesterday. Then they had returned to Jerusalem where Jesus left them and ascended back to heaven to sit at his Father’s right hand.

One of the things I have found in the back of my mind this Easter has been the emotional roller coaster that this time has been. For Peter, much of the time, it had been a nightmare. As one of Jesus’ leaders, he had let his master down – badly! He had denied Jesus three times – and, as we said previously, Jesus knew it (Lk 23:61). Who else would have known? Dare we even suggest there was a measure of relief – over this at least – when Jesus died. When Jesus rose, there was this specter of a confrontation with Peter, just hanging there in the back of his mind. But he didn’t take the cowards way out as Judas had, so he didn’t take his own life. He stayed with the others and went to Galilee, probably full of foreboding. And then, beyond anything he might have expected, Jesus told him to lead his church. But I am an absolute failure! Yes, but you are still here. “Feed my lambs …. Take care of my sheep … Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:15-17)

A couple of years ago, a young man came to me and said, “I want to be a church leader.” I replied, “You must be out of your mind! However, if God is calling you, go for it.” Why that response? As my wife says having watched me for many years, if you have never been a church leader, you just don’t know and can’t possibly comprehend the difficulties and stresses that church leaders go through. They carry the church in their hearts, they are there on call twenty-four hours a day, they are front of the queue for enemy attacks, they carry the discouragements and the criticisms and are so often expected to be perfect, but they know they are not. We don’t know what Peter felt when Jesus ascended and left them, but I doubt it was relief. His calling would result, according to tradition at least, in his also dying on a cross. So now? They did the only thing you can do in such a situation, they sat down and prayed.

Life will go on despite our failures; we have an amazing God of grace and forgiveness. We are out the other side of Easter now and life goes on. But he IS still here, by his Spirit at least, and he is still leading his church and he is still there for us; that is the wonder of Easter. Our failures, our confusions, our hurts, are not the end. He will continue to lead us and work out his Father’s will. Join him in heart and worship – and keep on! The future is in His hands. Amen? Amen!