Sunday, December 27, 2015

This week's lesson (December 26-January 1): Crisis in Heaven

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -- Theodore Roosevelt
It's a dirty job.

But everyone loves to do it.


In the Hebrew Bible, remember, "the satan" functions as a kind of auditor, much like the Persian Empire's "eyes of the king" or a police department's "Internal Affairs Division." 


Yes, he roams God's kingdom in a cheap suit with a battered briefcase, looking for accounts that don't balance, policies that aren't followed, and decisions that haven't been thought through quite as well as they should.


He's a Devil's Advocate, in other words, in more ways than one.


And there's nothing wrong with this per se -- no, every organization needs its gadflies and its "murder boards," just to keep people on their toes.


Unfortunately, this particular "satan" took himself a little too seriously (which is always a temptation in staff jobs) . . . and something that began as "constructive criticism" turned into a corrosive cynicism about everything but himself.


Not that we've ever done this, of course.


Still, it's worth remembering that speaking the truth must always be done in love (Ephesians 4:15).


And yes, it may be your job to speak that truth -- to be "the Devil's Advocate," so to speak.


But try not to love it too much.

This quarter's lessons (January - March 2016): suggested reading

This quarter's lessons are drawn from Ellen White's The Great Controversy -- but some other books you might find helpful are:
  • Finally, I've not read anything by William Wink; neither do I know anyone who has . . . but N. T. Wright speaks highly of him, and his interest in "principalities and powers" certainly sounds like something that could tie-in with this quarter's lessons. Anybody know anything about him?


Sunday, December 20, 2015

This week's lesson (December 19-25): lessons from Jeremiah

"Do not trust in deceptive words and say, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!' If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless." -- Jeremiah 7:4-8, NIV
There's nothing nicer than an idol.

Idol's give you clout with the god, after all; they give you influence with the divine.
  • Yes, post an idol in the corner of your house, and you know that god will be there for you.
  • Put some nice clothes on the idol, give it a parade -- maybe even take it out to dinner . . . treat it nice, in other words, and the god will be nice to you.
  • And if that god isn't nice to you -- if it's been slacking-off on the blessings you have a right to expect . . . then you can "lean on" that god by threatening to throw it's idol in the trash.
Best of all, idols don't require you to worship a false god -- no, you can commit idolatry with the true God of Israel!
  • Worried that He might not fight on your side? Carry His ark into battle -- that way, He doesn't have a choice! (cf. I Samuel 4-6).
  • Fearful that someone might attack your city? Point out that God would never allow His Temple to be captured -- much less destroyed (cf. Jeremiah 7).
  • And even today, you are guaranteed success if you just pray the right prayers, think the right thoughts, and belong to God's one true church.
What else can God do, after all?
He's the One who gave you the things, after all -- the ark, the Temple, even prayers and churches.
And if He didn't want you to use them as idols . . . 
Then why did He give them to you?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

This week's lesson (December 12-18): Back to Egypt

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. -- Psalm 91:5-7, NIV
Jerusalem was not a good place to be.

That did not mean someplace else was better.

Read Jeremiah 41-43, after all, and its clear why God's people wanted to move on.
  • The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem.
  • The Babylonians had wiped out most of Jerusalem's people -- had killed them, or taken them into exile.
  • And when the Babylonians picked a puppet to rule Judah, he was assassinated by the locals -- an assassination the Babylonians were sure to avenge.
No, things weren't looking so good in Jerusalem.
That's why the smart people were all packing their bags, buying their tickets, and checking out the real estate in Egypt.
Yes, Egypt looked safe . . .
Even though God disagreed.
"If you stay in this land, [says the LORD,] I will build you up and not tear you down; I will plant you and not uproot you, for I am grieved over the disaster I have inflicted on you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him," declares the LORD, "for I am with you and will save you and will deliver you from his hand. I will sho you compassion so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your land."  
. . . [But] "if you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die." -- Jeremiah 32:10f &15f, NIV.
And if that seems crazy, then remember all the dangerous places they'd already been with God.
  • During the Great Flood, remember, God's people were protected by nothing more than that thin, wooden eggshell we call "Noah's ark" -- yet God kept them safe.
  • During the Exodus, God's people lived in the Sinai Desert with snakes and the scorpions and the wild desert tribes for 40-years -- yet God kept them safe.  
  • And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would all be thrown into a fiery furnace there in Babylon -- the same Babylon that threatened God's people there in Jerusalem . . . and there they discovered that no place was safer than that fiery furnace -- not if God was with them; not if God wanted them there.
In short, Jerusalem may not have been a good place -- but it was the place God wanted them to be.
And no, God doesn't always put you in a good place.
But the place God puts you?
That's the best place you can be.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

This week's lesson (December 5-11): the covenant

"The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV).
Can you make a deal with God?

Why bother?

It's not that we don't try -- history is full of people who've promised God X if He would just do Y.

But look at the Bible, and you'll find something that's just a little disconcerting.

Yes, you'll find that God is not that good at making deals.

Consider the first deal He makes -- the one back in Genesis 1:26-28 where He creates humanity, gives them dominion over the earth, then tells them to "be fruitful and increase in number."

Pretty sweet deal.

And the rest of them are just as good.
  • Genesis 9:1ff -- "be fruitful, increase in number . . . and by the way: don't worry about another Flood."
  • Genesis 12:1ff -- "I will help you be fruitful and increase in number . . . and by the way: don't worry about your neighbors; I'm going to find a way to bless them too. "
  • Even the Ten Commandments show the same willingness to give away the store. God doesn't say ,"Be good, and then I'll save you." No, they begin with these words: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2, NIV).
Yes, first He give you the reward; then maybe He asks you to do something.
Maybe.
Not always.
And it's not that God isn't smart.
It's just that you get the feeling He's really not trying all that hard.
Consider Abraham, for instance -- a man who makes three deals in His lifetimes:
  • One about real estate with his nephew Lot in Genesis 13.
  • One about the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah with God in Genesis 18.
  • And one about real estate with Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23.
Now the experts agree that Abraham got snookered in two deals: the first, and the last.  He let Lot get away with grabbing the best land, in other words, and he paid way too much for the cave where he buried Sarah . . . 
Which suggest the only time Abraham ever got the better of someone was the time he bargained with God, i.e. the time he asked God to treat some really wicked people with mercy.
All of which suggests God does not try to get the best deal that He can for Himself.
Instead, He tries to get the best deal He can for us.
And He does this, even if He's the one who pays the price.
So don't try to make deals with God -- no, don't offer Him X if He will give you Y.
I mean, why bother . . . 
When you can get a better deal from Him?