A Great Light

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 4:12‭-‬17

For some reason I have always thought that Jesus left after John the Baptist was arrested because there was some sort of conflict or competition between their ministries. I am not sure where I got this idea, but as I read this passage I am pretty sure I had it wrong. It sounds more like Jesus was being careful to prepare his disciples and his ministry before it became too well known and things became more difficult.

So Jesus withdraws to Capernaum along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. I explored this area using Google Earth and what is interesting is that the location that Google thinks is Capernaum is basically a farm with very few people living there. In fact the whole region along the Sea of Galilee seems strangely devoid of people and development. It would seem like in this region people would tend to live near this great “way of the sea” as it is described here.

The location where Jesus began his life and ministry after being baptized by John is both interesting and intriguing. It is described as “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”. This passage is quoting Isaiah 9:1-2. When I went back to see what I wrote about this passage I discovered that I had somehow floated by this water-related passage without reflecting on it. It is a ways back up the river so I will reflect on it here instead.

There are several details about this description that are interesting to me. The first part talks about two specific locations, the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. These were apparently named for sons of Jacob that settled in this region. I am not sure if their mention has any special significance here. The second part “the way of the sea” is really interesting and may have deeper meaning that it first appears. The “sea” was used metaphorically throughout the old testament to represent the great spiritual expanse that surrounds our corporeal bodies here on earth. So to say that Jesus retired to the “way of the sea” was a way of alluding to the coming confluence between the spiritual and physical worlds that occurred through Jesus.

It is also interesting that the passage refers specifically to gentiles, “Galilee of the Gentiles”. I think this is an allusion to the inclusion that Jesus would practice and preach about. He came not just for the people of Israel, but for all of us that are “beyond the Jordan”. People willing to cross “the river that no one could cross” with God’s help.

The last part is not about water, but light, another interesting metaphor used throughout the Bible. Light has a way of getting everywhere that is exposed to its rays. Jesus has certainly been a light for me when times were hard.

Lest we miss the point of all these meanings and metaphors Matthew provides the Cliff Notes version of Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” No need to spend out lives searching and striving to find God. He found us.

Prayer: God thank You for finding us and providing Your Light to show the Way.

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Heaven was Opened

Jesus baptism site along the Jordan River

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13‭-‬17

This passage marks the beginning of Jesus’ overt sharing about the coming Kingdom of God and His role in bringing this about. Jesus has traveled to the Jordan River from Galilee, which is the region near the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret. John understands who this young man from Galilee is and what His role will be in the future. He felt uncomfortable baptizing Jesus because he knew that Jesus was in fact the long awaited Messiah.  God in the flesh.

Jesus explains this seeming paradox to John by saying “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”. These are the first words of Jesus recorded by Matthew so it is probably worth a closer look. It strikes me that there are three parts to Jesus’ explanation: 1) Let it be so now; 2) it is proper for us to do this; 3) to fulfill all righteousness.

The first part is letting John, and everyone nearby, know that this baptism by John is a beginning; even more radical changes are coming. John is clearly pushing the Pharisees and the Sadducees to rebuild the temple, but this time using some of the unsavory “adopted stones” that he was baptizing in the Jordan River. Jesus will take this one step further by selecting and training twelve unlikely and imperfect followers to deliver His message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the world.

The second part is getting at whether John should even being doing what he is doing, in essence baptizing God. Since God is the asking Him to do it it is probably OK, but I can see how John would be potentially confused and conflicted. God is asking Him to do something which must have seemed somewhat blasphemous and scandalous. This is just the beginning of the scandalous changes and claims that accompany Jesus. Changes that will make many who encounter Jesus very uncomfortable. Jesus was a radical called for radical changes both in the lives of those that choose to follow Him and the ones that were supposed to be leading people to God.

The last part of the explanation is an intimation that there is an underlying spiritual reality and laws that even God must abide by on this earth.  This “righteousness” that Jesus is referring to in my mind means repentance and cleansing from sins. Much of the old testament was concerned with how one could become clean, and stay clean, so that they could be in God’s presence. This is the beginning of a new way to enter God’s presence, no entrails or animal legs required. All that is required is a choice to wade into the One River and following the Living Water wherever He leads.

At the end of this passage God makes it clear that He has arrived in the form of this man Jesus “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” All the three manifestations of God, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present as the “Heavens are opened.”

This opening of the heavens will be for all people and for all time. There will be no requirement or need for a temple built of stones because God will be with us, first as Jesus, then as the Holy Spirit and Christ in us. Jesus waded into Jordan River, and into this Land of Oblivion, so that we could get across the river that no one could cross.

Prayer: God thank You for sending Your Son to show us the way of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

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Adopted Stones

Me “adopting” a pile of stones at the site of the Winter Olympic Games in Whistler BC, Canada

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:7‭-‬12

John goes a little “off the rails” in this passage when the religious leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees) come to the place at the Jordan River where His is baptizing those who are willing to heed the previous signposts and repent of their sins. He calls these leaders a “brood of vipers!”, which conjures in my mind a den or pile of poisonous snakes.

I have had my share of experiences with snakes, some of which were venomous.  Thankfully none of my encounters has resulted in being bitten or exposed to the venom of these snakes. I think perhaps one of my most harrowing memories about snakes is when we I was working as an exploration geologist near Salmon, ID.  We were looking for gold on a ranch north of town and were concerned about encountering rattlesnakes instead of gold.  We asked the owner of the ranch if there were many rattlesnakes in the area and he responded that there were hardly any.

One of the first days out on the ranch three or four of us were walking up a hillside talking about rocks and mapping when we came upon a large boulder with a small cave or hollow beneath it.  As we approached the boulder we heard something that sounded like a swarm of bees.  When we got closer and could see into the dark pit we realized it was not a swarm of bees, but rather a swarm of snakes!  There were snakes of all sizes and shapes congregating in this pit to keep warm in the chilly weather of early spring in the mountains of Idaho. It was truly an Indiana Jones experience I will never forget.  I, like Indiana, do not like snakes. Looking back we did a rather cowardly thing and killed most of these snakes so they would not emerge and bite us later in the summer. I wish we had come up with some other solution.

But I digress, back to the Jordan River, John the Baptist, and his “brood of vipers”.  The religious leaders were spreading all sorts of venom (bad fruit) when they were supposed to be bearing good fruit and attracting people to seek and find the God who sees them. Their reason for doing this was apparently that they felt in some way entitled because of their ancestry. They were the decedents of Abraham, and God’s chosen people, a legacy they were quick to remind everyone about.

Their focus was fundamentally on themselves and their position rather than the God that made the promise to Abraham in the first place and was the reason their power and position even existed. The consequences of their moral myopia is not so good for the religious leaders, but a good thing for all those not born into the Jewish faith or nationality, “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John is implying that a time is coming, and in fact has arrived, when God will adopt other “children” who choose to bear good fruit.

Then comes the water-related reference, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” John is using water to symbolize a change in the souls of those willing to repent and begin to bear good fruit for God. He shows all his cards and reveals that he is not the long-awaited Messiah, but He is coming soon. He will baptize in a different way, with the Holy Spirit.  God Himself will come and be with us.

This is a great thing for all of us “adopted stones”, but not so good for those who have chosen to take another path, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Better to be children than chaff in my book. God gives us all the choice of being “wheat” or “chaff”. He is about to arrive and start the threshing process, a process that continues to this day as people choose to pursue God or other priorities in their lives.

Prayer: God thank You for adopting us “stones” so that we can share in the inheritance of your Holy Spirit.

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Signposts to a Savior

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. – Matthew 3:1‭-‬6

Welcome to the New Testament and the Gospel of Matthew. I have passed by the confluence into a “new river”. In the beginning of the book Matthew goes to some lengths to establish Jesus’ earthly lineage through his father Joseph back to Abraham. I think this was for the benefit of the Jewish leaders who might be more accepting of this unconventional King if his lineage could be traced to David and Abraham. Matthew also makes it clear that this baby’s true Father is God through the Holy Spirit. I think His earthly lineage is not so critical in establishing His credentials, at least from my perspective.

According to biblical scholars Matthew’s Gospel is structured and written to point out similarities and linkages between the life of Jesus (Yahweh saves in the Greek) and the history of the people of Israel. In the first two chapters Matthew is already pointing out “signposts” along the “old river” from Isaiah 7:14, Micah 5:2,4, Hosea 11:1, Jeremiah 31:15.  All of these signposts were pointing to a savior that was to come and save His people, the Messiah.

This brings us to today’s passage which contains a very important “signpost” from Isaiah 40:3, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” This “signpost” was the subject of my post way back in October of 2015 and it was called “In the Hollow of His Hand“. I went back and reread that post and what struck me was one part of the post when God said through the prophet Isaiah “his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” At the time I was puzzled by this part of the passage and I am still, but at the time I wondered if what God meant was that the reward for His coming was in fact us, the ones He came to save.  This idea “swept me away” then and it still sweeps me away now.

The water reference here, the first one I have come to in the New Testament, is about the Jordan River.  John is baptizing people in the river who have confessed their sins, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. The people who came to be baptized were being washed clean by the Jordan River, and the Spirit of God, who will soon show up in the form of Jesus.

The Jordan River has always represented a crossroads of sorts for the people of Israel, a point of decision. It has also represented a barrier between where they were (wandering in the desert) and where God wanted them to be (the promised land), a river that no one could cross. It is very interesting that John is using it here to commemorate a very important decision being made by the people coming to be baptized.  They are at a very important crossroads in their lives. They are deciding the path, and Person, they will follow for years to come.

I made such a decision many years ago now when I was in college and God found me while I was looking for Him. God provided many signposts for me along the way to help me. That crossroads in my life has resulted in many adventures and a lifelong journey with God; part of which is this journey I am on exploring water references in the bible.

Prayer: God thank You for providing so many signposts to the Savior for me and others. Help us to heed their messages and seek out your Messiah every day.

 

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Eddying Out at the Confluence

“He [Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ . . .” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Well it has been a long stretch of river to reach this point and I was not sure I would ever make it when I was floating about back in Leviticus learning about mold and geckos, but I have arrived at last at at the Gospels, the Good News about a coming Messiah, the spring of Living Water Incarnate.

I began my journey exploring water-related passages in the bible June 22, 2014, just over four years ago. I am sure I have missed some passages, but I have identified and reflected on about 450 water-related passages in the Old Testament.  I have also taken time to “eddy out” about 25 times including today, and I have taken a trip down 14 rabbit trails when I felt God leading me to make a detour from my float along the river.

As I have floated through both this task and my life during this time I have been to numerous countries and I have written posts walking through forests, along beaches, and on snow-covered paths. There have been highs and lows and long periods of time off the water when I struggled to make time to continue my float. Though all of these times I have felt God’s presence, sometimes like a drenching rain that took my breath away, and other times I felt His absence like a dusty drought.

There have been many confusing passages and perplexing people which I am still puzzling over, but there is a picture that has emerged as I look back over my entire float so far in the old testament. The picture is of a loving God desperately trying to have an intimate relationship with “His people”. During much of the old testament “God’s people” was primarily the people of Israel, but there are many references and intimations that God’s love was not exclusive, and that God’s love would someday spread beyond the boundaries of Israel and the Jewish people.  As a follower of the Way of Christ I believe that time came with Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

Confluence of the Rhone and Arve Rivers in Geneva, Switzerland

As I approach the confluence of the Old and New Testaments I have reflected on what I know about where rivers meet, confluences. River confluences are interesting and dynamic places where waters from different rivers mix and become one. This mixing sometimes happens quickly and other times the waters can remain separate for some distance downstream of the confluence. At some point downstream the two streams are thoroughly mixed and it is not possible to separate them.

I am curious if this will be my experience when I pass “the confluence” between the old and new testaments. Will the “waters” remain distinct? Will I see evidence of the old testament “water” mixing into the new testament? Certainly many of the new testament writers were accomplished at navigating the sometimes turbulent and confusing waters of the old testament. I suspect there will be many times when the waters will mix, and new testament authors will reference familiar water-related from the old testament. There were certainly abundant references to a coming Messiah who would help us cross the river that no one could cross.

It seems to me that the prophets of the old testament were the equivalent of signposts along “the river” pointing towards this coming confluence. Part of their job was to tell the people that the River, and their image of God, was about to get much bigger. It would never be the same River after this merging of rivers and traditions.  The old river remained, but it was now mixed with the Living Waters of the incarnate Messiah and His teachings about how to navigate the tricky waters of this worldly existence. Many people, especially people very familiar with the old river like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, wanted to continue to run the old river rather than embrace this uncomfortable mixing that Jesus represented.

After the confluence trying to run the old river would only be impossible without a long and tortuous portage back upstream, over and over again. This is what the Sadducees and Pharisees were trying to do when Jesus arrived. They wanted to run to old familiar river rather than this scary new River that was full of uncharted water.

Running the same old river would ultimately not be satisfying because “the Guide” was on another stretch of river downstream having all sorts of adventures with those willing to follow Him.

This has certainly been true of my journey since I was “swept away” by the River, and I first began to Follow the Messiah. It has been a wild ride. God and I have had many adventures together. I expect there are many more adventures and rapids to come before my days are done. I am so thankful that I am not alone in the boat, and I have a Guide who loves me even more than I can love myself.

Prayer: God thank You for serving as my guide as I have struggled to understand how You have used water in the old testament to communicate with Your people.

Posted in Christianity, Eddying Out, Following God, God's Love for Us, Gospel, Jesus, Love for the Lost, reconciliation, Redemption, religion, Sharing the Gospel, The Earthly Realm, The Nature of God, The Spiritual Realm, Trusting God | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Return to Me, and I Will Return to You

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty. – Malachi 3:6‭-‬12

“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” So said Frodo to Sam as they were sitting on a boulder having accomplished their task of delivering the ring to Mordor.  They were not sure they would survive much longer, but they were glad to be together.   This passage marks the end of my voyage with water, and God, in the Old Testament.

I am by no means comparing my task of exploring water passages in the bible with the saga of delivering a ring of power to Mordor, but I feel a similar sense of having accomplished a task that was hard and feeling a bit lost about what lies ahead. I do feel a sense that God is with me, even more so today than the day when I started this journey four years ago.  So lets run this last bit of water and see where it leads.

Go starts out with a bold statement here in Malachi, “I the Lord do not change”.  God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  He does not change.  Even though He may have come across as a different God in parts of the old testament, in reality He is not different, or in the words of that sage Yoda, “No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”  The people of Israel will soon have to “unlearn” some of the things they think they have learned throughout their history about God.  They think they have God figured out.  It turns out they do not.

God reminds the people that He has always been with them, and they have always had a hard time understanding what the Lord required of them, “Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”.  So God is boiling down the entire old testament into a pretty simple formula for them.  Return to God and He will return to you. This is a little bit perplexing, like a celestial game of playing tag with God, but that is the way that God has structured our relationship. There is something important about the act of pursuing one another that helps to build trust and intimacy.

The people are still clearly confused about what God is talking about, they ask “How are we to return?” What does “returning” look like?  It seems to me for one to know how to return one has to acknowledge that they are not where they are supposed to be and in need of “returning”. In response to their question God seems to focus on tithes and offerings, “You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this”.

I think God is talking about more than a tenth of their treasures here.  He is talking about the people giving God their leftovers and scraps when they need to give Him their first fruits.  Only then will the people experience the abundance that God has for them, “see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  God is saying to the people that if they give him what He has been asking for, returning to Him, then they will have more than they need or want. If they do this one thing “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land.”

Unfortunately many were not able to do this when God came to earth in the form of Jesus.  He came to accept their “tithe” and they continued to withhold it from Him. The reassuring thing is that God does not change, and He has assured us through Jesus that restored relationship with Him is only as far away as we make it. We need only admit we are going the wrong way, “return to Him”, and He will make all things new.

Prayer: God thank you for making all things new and returning to us as we choose to return to You.

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An Altar Flooded with Tears

Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord remove him from the tents of Jacob —even though he brings an offering to the Lord Almighty. Another thing you do: You flood the Lord ’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord , the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. You have wearied the Lord with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord , and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?” – Malachi 2:11‭-‬17

Welcome to the last book of the old testament, Malachi.  It is hard to believe I am finally on the cusp of the confluence between the old and new testaments, it is just around the bend.  The last two books (Haggai and Zechariah) have been a discussion of how the people of Israel can “rebuild the temple” and find God.  It seems in the passage today that even though the temple is complete they are still looking for God, perhaps they are looking in the wrong places?

There are apparently still issues with idols and accepting the gods of people around them through intermarriage, “Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god”.  The core issue is that God wants all of the hearts of His people and they are still divided.

The people are apparently aware of this estrangement as they “flood the Lord ’s altar with tears.” They “weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands.”  Although the people seem to understand their is still some sort of impassable river separating them from God they do not seem to know why. They are soul sick and the tears are an outward manifestation of an inward illness of the soul.

God answers their question, “it is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit.” So I am pretty sure that God meant this metaphorically.  The “marriage” He is really referring to is the covenant that He has with the people of Israel.  They have forsaken the “wife of their youth” for a newer more attractive model.

What God is ultimately looking for is “Godly offspring.”  He wants the people to pass on an intimate relationship with Him to their children and their children’s children.  The only way this is possible if for the people to have their own intimate relationship and share their experiences with their children. You can’t share something you do not possess yourself.

The other issue that God is calling the people on is apparently calling bad things and people good when they are in fact evil.  Even more damning is that the people were speaking for God and saying that the evil deeds of these people were in fact pleasing to God.  It is always a bit dicey trying to speak for God and in this case the people clearly messed up the message pretty badly. I think that is part of the reason God will soon come Himself to settle the matter once and for all.

Prayer: God help us to walk humbly and intimately with You.  

 

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