7. And so it begins

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 7: And so it begins

Lk 1:5  there was a priest named Zechariah

(Additional Reading: Lk 1:5-25)

Preparations: The years have passed and we arrive at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. I once heard someone say if you hear the audible voice of God you are probably in deep trouble if you need that. Reading about Abraham I was surprised to note that years would have passed and there are actually just a few number of times when God spoke to him. For him, we assume he heard God in the quiet thoughts in the mind (it may have been other ways, we just don’t know), but his was a time of building an embryonic relationship with God. Moses, by contrast, knew all about the history his people had with God and perhaps, because he felt so low about himself after all those years in the desert, he needed the audible voice plus the burning bush – and he had a pretty big job ahead, so he really needed that clarity of encounter.

Silent Days: The fact is that for most of us, I suspect the days go by, just like Abram, with hearing little from heaven. We may be those who sit silently before the Lord each day, waiting upon Him, but even then, I guess, if we can be really honest about it, it is a real mix of those days when we just don’t hear anything (most often), the days when He seems to draw near and there is a holy sense of His close presence (rare), and those times when it feels like He is down the other end of the universe (more than we’d like to admit).

And Zechariah:  I think I’ve probably written it before, but I think we often give Zechariah a bad press but, hey, remember he was an old guy, and he’s been a priest for many years and has done the stuff that priests do and lived the life that priests live, for decades, and nothing has happened. In fact God has been silent in Israel for over four hundred years. Now familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls expectations, so if I suggest that Zechariah was seriously surprised when the angel Gabriel turns up that is probably the understatement of the year.

And would you have been fearful when an angel turned up? Quite possibly, because such an encounter is so out of the ordinary, and sometimes we’re not very good with ‘out of the ordinary’!  But it gets worse because he is told that his aging wife (past it!) is going to have a baby. Right! That is really beyond a bridge too far when it comes to belief!  That also suggests a tricky conversation when he gets home. So was the angel Gabriel being unkind when he made him dumb for nine months? I don’t think so really. The Lord wanted Elizabeth to be pregnant and an encouragement to her niece Mary soon, and so Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth too) needed a little nudge forward and that certainly did it!

We must pray! “Lord, I have to confess when I think about Zechariah it leaves me feeling vulnerable. I would like to think I would have responded more positively but I think I may be kidding myself. Lord, if I am honest, those seriously pious individuals who go on about ‘total commitment’ feel a bit unreal. Lord Jesus, you said that, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn 15:5) and you know I really want to be available to you and be used by you so that I will “still bear fruit in old age,” (Psa 92:14) and so, Lord, I really need your help to achieve that.  Please help me Lord. Thank you. Amen.”

2. Priest and Prophet?

Gleanings in Jeremiah : 2 :  Priest and Prophet?

Jer 1:1-3   The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.

In the first study we noted the overall background of the day in which Jeremiah lived, a day initially of decline and then of restoration but then lapsing into decline again. But what about Jeremiah himself?  Chapter 1 is all about Jeremiah and it is only when we get to chapter 2 that we will see the message the Lord gives to him, so for now we focus on him and what happens to him, how he responds, and what it teaches us.

He is a priest who lived in a small town a couple of miles, it is thought, north east of Jerusalem. It was clearly a town given to the priests earlier in Israel’s history:  And from the tribe of Benjamin they gave them Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth and Almon, together with their pasturelands–four towns. All the towns for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, were thirteen, together with their pasturelands.” (Josh 21:17-19). In Solomon’s day we find the following: “To Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” (1 Kings 2:26). There is a strong link between the town and the priesthood.

Now there are three things about priests that are worth noting:

  • First, their background – it was hereditary. You were born into a priestly family and if you were a male you became a priest and served in Jerusalem in the Temple.
  • The second thing is their role: it was to bring people to God. They would have been those fully acquainted with the Law of Moses because they would need to know all the various requirements in respect of keeping the rules generally, and specifically of administering the Temple worship and sacrificial rules. It is interesting that the other major prophet running parallel to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, is also a priest (Ezek 1:3). So first and foremost, at least as far as Jeremiah would have been concerned, he was a priest because his family was a priestly family. His future, it would seem, is set. Jerusalem is his work place and will be the focus of his life. Well in that respect, it is true for it is going to feature largely in his life but his ministry is going to take him way beyond the confines and comfort and security of the priesthood.
  • Third, being a priest would mean Jeremiah had a strong support network behind him of the other priests, his family and extended family, and we so often tend to forget this of him. The priests were set apart by the Law and that no doubt made them feel different.

But if you ask people about Jeremiah they will say he is a prophet and prophets are different to priests. Whereas it is said that priests bring people to God, prophets bring God to the people. Priests focus on administering the word of God, the Law, while prophets administer the now word of God, prophecy, words coming directly from God today, for today. An interesting thing about a prophet also being a priest was that the priests were to be cared for and provided for by the community so they did not have to have some other job to earn an income (see, for example Num 18).

But the big thing that marked the prophet out is that they heard God. In the modern church in the body of Christ, we make distinction between the office of prophet (see Eph 4:11) and the more common ‘prophetic person’, the person who exercises a spiritual gift called prophecy (see 1 Cor 12:10). Even though the apostle Paul encourages us to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor 14:1) the reality is that it is God who puts such desires upon our hearts or simply imparts such a gift to us. I remember once, when I was inputting to a small church not too far away and found a leadership team of four, and three of them were struggling with the fourth. I decided to meet with this man one evening and listen to him. After about an hour of talking I said, “I know what is your problem. You are frustrated. If you talk for an hour with most Christians there is something they do not keep on saying, but I have heard you keep on saying, ‘and the Lord said to me’.”  The man had a strong prophetic gift which neither he nor the others had recognised and so he kept feeling things about their church which were in fact, guidance from God, but he didn’t recognise it and neither did they. As soon as it was brought out into the open, it could be managed and understood. Prophetic people, and certainly prophets, hear God.

It comes as no surprise to us, therefore, that as soon as we reach verse 4 of this first chapter, we read, The word of the LORD came to me.” Prophets hear God’s word and this young priest hears God!  He’s not just a priest. Indeed the content of the ‘word’ makes that doubly clear for he hears the Lord saying, “”Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (v.5) Prophetic gifting is not something that everybody has; it is imparted by the Holy Spirit  When the apostle Paul speaks about this to the Corinthians, he says it is a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:7) and one gift is given to one person and another gift given to another person. Yes, we can eagerly desire to be used by God empowered by the Spirit, but He is the one who decides who will be what in the body.

In those words in verse 5 the Lord reveals His pre-knowledge, knowledge about it before it happens, and knowing what we will be like; He opens up areas of service for those who will exercise their free will to make themselves available to Him. As we’ll see when we continue tomorrow, we may have queries about that, but the Lord looks past them and knows what he can achieve through us. The big question is, am I available to the Lord for Him to lead me into whatever area of activity or service He may want for me?  For us as Christian believers this pre-knowledge of God still applies – to all of us – for the apostle Paul wrote, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Eph 2:10)   God knew us before we came to Him, and He knows what best ‘fits’ us.

Don’t be limited in your understanding of this. Yes, it can be spiritual gifts and ministries but it may be many other things. Maybe the Lord wants you to be a local or national politician to influence the affairs of the community for good. Maybe He wants you to be an author to bring goodness into the realm of literature. Maybe He wants you to be a scientist to open up further areas of discovery and blessing for the human race. Maybe it’s a social worker who will compassionately care for outcasts. Maybe it’s an office worker who will bring the light and love of God into their office. Maybe it will be to establish a company to provide goods and employment to bless the human race. The list is endless and I hesitate to stop there because you may feel, “well he hasn’t mentioned what I do.” No, and it is impossible to cover every eventuality. All we can say is, are we open to receive the Lord’s guidance, direction, anointing,  empowering and wisdom which may be for what we are doing now or for something completely different from what we are doing at present. Rest in His love and direction. Yes, He sees us, knows us and wants to lead us into what best ‘fits’ us. Hallelujah!

31. A Sin Offering

Meditations in the Law : No.31 : What is a Sin Offering?

Lev 4:1-3 The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: `When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands– `If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the LORD a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed.

As we come to the Sin Offering we should note that sin is defined in verse 2 as doing anything forbidden in God’s laws. The sin that is covered is that which was done unintentionally, i.e. the person did not realise it was forbidden at the time but has subsequently realised it and knows they have to do something about it.

The first person considered is the priest himself (v.3). If he sins, as representative of the people to God, he brings a sense of guilt on the whole people. His sin, should it occur, must be the first to be dealt with, because he is the one who stands in the Tabernacle as the mediator between man and God. If that mediator is tainted then the whole system crumbles. The rules for what happens are similar to the Burnt Offering in as far as an animal is presented at the door to the Tent, the Offeror kills it and the priest take some of its blood. Thereafter it differs.

First some of the blood is sprinkled before the curtain where God is said to reside. This recognises that that entrance, having been lost by sin, is first to need to be sanctified by a life given up. Then some is put on the altar of incense, the altar used to daily present incense, as a recognition that this path to God has likewise been violated by the priest’s sin. Finally the rest of the blood is poured out at the base of the main altar. Note that it is the fat and entrails that is actually cut out and offered on the fire, suggesting that it is what goes on inside us that needs sacrificing, not the shell of the body. It is our mind, our soul, and our will, that needs giving over to God, for it is from here that sin comes.

The offerings for the congregation (v.13), the leader (v.22) and the individual (v.27) are similar but for each one the beast gets smaller, as their importance diminishes. The things that need to be cleansed by blood change. For the congregation, as with the priest, the entrance into the Most Holy Place and the golden altar of incense are to be cleansed. This is a sign that God’s design is for the nation to be able to be represented as coming into His Holy Presence, but for the leader and an individual, the blood is only put on the horns of the bronze altar for they do not come into the Most Holy Place, in the same way that at Mount Sinai the people were not to touch the mountain (Ex 19:12). Only Moses and the leading priests and the seventy representative elders were allowed to approach (Ex 24:1). The design of the various different sin offerings is therefore careful to maintain this big distinction. Because those priests and key elders, representing the nation, had gone up on the mountain, nearer to God than the people, thus if they sin it is more serious and the nature and extent of their offering has to be greater.

For the ordinary leader (not an elder) and the ordinary members of the congregation, sin offerings simply recognised that they had broken their right to bring even burnt offerings, and therefore the blood they presented had to cleanse the bronze altar even before their offering could be burnt. It IS sin but they are less significant.

In the New Testament we find the apostle Paul exhorting us, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12;1,2). I am challenged by the question, have I surrendered my heart, my mind and my will to God?

Considering the different categories of this offering, dependent upon the person, perhaps we should recognise that in life different people hold different roles and those roles carry different responsibilities. The bigger the role, representing more people – parents, teachers, leaders, managers, directors, governors etc. – the greater the responsibility and the greater the sin when there is failure, and the greater the accountability to God. Where are we in this?

4. Think about Chance

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.4

4. Think again about Chance

Luke 1:8-11 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.

There are times in life when it seems that just being in the right place at the right time opens up a whole new set of circumstances, which leave us wondering about what theologians call ‘providence’. A basic dictionary defines providence as beneficent care of God, but theologians would expand that to talk about God’s foresight and activity in bringing things about to fulfil His purposes.

There are probably three sets of people in the world when it comes to thinking about this subject. First of all there are those who simply believe that everything is pure chance. There is no meaning, no purpose, everything just happens. At the opposite extreme there are those superstitious people who believe there are ‘forces’ or even ‘spirits’ at work in the world that need appeasing, and such people usually live in fear, because how can you be sure you’ve got on their good side?

The third group are those who believe that there is an all-powerful single deity at work behind all things. This group are subdivided according to the nature of the deity. For some His presence is bad news! For Christians, the presence of God is good news; they understand that ‘God is good’ or as the Bible says specifically, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). They also believe He gives them free will and so doesn’t force them down any good path – except on rare occasions, as we’ll see later in the story. So it is they believe God does intervene in the affairs of men and always to bring good.

So here we have this priest, Zechariah who has been chosen to go into the innermost part of the Temple to burn incense. He’s chosen by lot (chance?) from a large number and, in fact, each man would only receive this honour once in his lifetime. It’s pretty amazing, therefore, that he’s got this job at all. After all, he’s getting on in age now, and it’s never happened before and will never happen again.

Now of course the Temple was originally to be the place where the people came to meet with God, but for a variety of reasons you can find in the Old Testament, God hadn’t been turning up there for a very long time. In fact it was over four hundred years since Israel had really had any sign of the presence of God with them. So when childless Zechariah goes into the innermost part of the Temple, he is not expecting anything out of the ordinary, which makes the presence of an angel somewhat unnerving!

The problem with life and God, is that most of the time He doesn’t warn you that He’s going to turn up. There we were minding our own business and suddenly things start happening out of the ordinary. Could it be that God might start talking to you about your life as we go through these meditations this Advent? You thought you were just reading them to be spiritual, whereas God put them before you to speak specific stuff to you.  Hmmm?  How open are you to that?  Chance, that you’re here reading these things?  Possibly not! And when other stuff starts happening in your life that starts you thinking, is it just chance?  Perhaps not!