Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Afraid of Jezebel?

I KIngs 18 is an exciting read.

The people of God are living in a time of mixed allegiances. In Judah, King Asa is faithful to God, but in Israel, Ahab reigns with his idolatrous wife Jezebel. In Judah, idol worship is being abolished, while in Israel, Ahab "did more to provoke the Lord to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him." (I Kings 16:33)

Enter Elijah.

This courageous prophet of God proclaims a drought in Israel, and vows in God's name that no rain will fall until he gives the word. (I Kings 17:1) The drought indeed occurs, and Elijah rides it out by the brook in the Kerith Ravine, being fed by ravens who bring him food twice a day. When the brook dries up because of the drought, Elijah moves on and meets a widow who supplies him with food. Despite having only enough flour and oil for one last meal, her supplies miraculously never run out, and last until the drought is over. Elijah also raises this woman's son from the dead, by the power of God.

In I Kings 18, Elijah's most memorable moment occurs, when he openly challenges the people of Israel to no longer "waver between two opinions" and to make a choice between God and Baal. Elijah proposes a contest to see whose God responds to a call to burn up a sacrifice left out on an altar.

The stage is set for one of the most powerful moments witnessed by the people of God: Mt. Carmel, with Elijah on one side, opposed by 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah on the other.

1 vs. 850, with a standing-room-only crowd in attendance, hanging on each moment.

The outcome is an exhilarating victory for God's faithful, and a humiliation for the 850 idol-worshipers. When it's over, Elijah does not spare the prophets of Baal and Asherah, but puts them to death.

Elijah calls an end to the drought and tells King Ahab to hitch up his chariot and get back to the town of Jezreel before the rain comes. Elijah gives Ahab a head start, then runs at a dead sprint, outpacing Ahab's chariot, and beating him back to town.

Up to this point, Elijah's ministry has been a more or less uninterrupted string of successes: Calling and ending a drought, supplying miraculous food, raising a son from the dead, proving God's supremacy in front of an entire nation, going Jesse Owens on King Ahab. No challenge has proven to be too great, not even 850 enemies all gathered together against him at once. He was undefeated, and unbeatable.

Then came Jezebel.

The pagan wife of King Ahab gets wind of what happened to the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and swears in the name of her idols that Elijah will pay with his life by the same time the next day. And...

Elijah laughs with scorn.

Elijah mocks the queen.

Elijah marches straight into the throne room and dares the queen to do her worst.

Elijah counters her idolatrous threat with a threat of his own, in the name of Jehovah.

The queen swallows her threat and drops dead by the power of God.

Israel returns to her faithful Father!

If only....

The fact is, Elijah receives word of Jezebel's threat, and is scared out of his wits. He runs out into the desert alone, sits under a tree, and prays for death. An angel of God leads Elijah another 40 days' walk, until he arrives at Mt. Horeb, the place where God had provided water from a rock for the children of Israel as they escaped Egypt.

Once there, Elijah cries out to God that, after all he has done, he alone is left faithful to God, and that now his life is sought by his enemies.

God shows Elijah His presence, assures him that 7,000 remain faithful to God in Israel, and gives Elijah instructions: Anoint Hazael king over Aram, anoint Jehu king over Israel, and anoint Elisha to replace you as prophet. Not long after, Elijah is taken to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha becomes the new prophet of God.

If only one part of this story could be different. If only Elijah had not been afraid of Jezebel! Why was he so afraid of her? Why did he run and avoid the confrontation with her? Why did he not see that the same God who had supplied all his victories, the most recent of which had just occurred that very day, would also supply all his need against this pagan queen?

What is the worst that could have happened? Jezebel could indeed have killed Elijah, and he would have gone to the presence of God, which is exactly where he went anyway. The worst-case scenario still lands him in heaven! Why did he not see this?

It's easy for us to judge, all these years later, but why? Why did he run? Why was he afraid?

Scripture doesn't explain this; we're simply told that he was afraid.

In reality, most of us can relate. Most of us have experienced a fear of something or someone that was so intense, it eclipsed all of God's previous victories on our behalf. A fear that caused a quick reaction to flee, without even a moment's thought of God.

Most of us have Jezebels of our own.

What does it say about us, that we are so prone to fear things God has already overcome in our lives? So prone to forget the strength that comes with having the presence of God in our lives?

How do we explain to God:

*The wrong we refuse to right, because we are afraid of the conversation we would have to have with someone?

*The temptation we refuse to separate ourselves from, because we are afraid of alienating someone?

*The stand we refuse to take, because we are afraid of what people will say?

*The soul we watch destroying itself, because we are afraid of getting involved?

*The victories we forget, and the fears we preserve?

*Listening to Satan more than we listen to Him?

Who is your Jezebel?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Identity


If you followed college football a few years back, you might have seen Reggie Bush in his heyday at USC, playing running back, scoring touchdowns, and sporting the area code 619 on his eye black in tribute to the area of San Diego he called home.

It looks like he might have started something.

There's a trend emerging to decorate the back window of a car with a decal of the outline of a state map, so the driver can make clear to everyone on the road that he/she is from Georgia, Louisiana, California, etc., just to name a few I've seen in recent weeks. The other main feature of this trendy decoration is to add numeric decals of the telephone area code in which the driver lives or used to live.

For instance, a vehicle I've seen a time or two here in Killeen features an outline of California, with 213 on one side and 310 on the other. I am guessing the driver is from the 213 area code of Los Angeles, while perhaps a significant other came from the 310 area code.

It got me to wondering whether I could recall the area codes from the places where I've lived: (254, 806, 325, 915, 503, 714, 213). That goes back to 1980. Beyond that, I would need some help.

It also got me to thinking about identity, and how important it is for people to know where they belong and who they belong to. People want to be part of something. People want to be part of a group. People want to identify with something larger than themselves.

How else to explain an emotional attachment to an area code? It's three random digits, of no significance in their origin, shared by thousands, if not millions, of people, complete strangers to one another, who will never be involved in each other's lives. Yet, those digits have become, to some people, a symbol of pride and belonging. Yes, possibly just another gang-related attempt at intimidation, but for many people such as Reggie Bush, a way of saying, "Whether or not I'm there right now, that is the place I call home."

What does this say about people today? How could something as insignificant as an area code become an object of emotional identity for people?

There are probably many answers to that question, but another question is actually more important: Do Christians understand that, in Christ, they have all the identity they could ever need?

"The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." (Acts 11:26) Such a simple term; such a powerful statement of identity. Besides the salvation of the soul, every human need for belonging is fulfilled in wearing the name of Christ and being a part of His body.

We all have sources of pride and belonging in our lives. Who isn't proud of their country? Their alma mater? Their hometown? Their family tree? The question is not whether we take pride in these things. The question is whether we keep them in perspective, and what our main source of identity is. If you had to clear everything else off the table, and identify yourself with only one word, what would it be?

Area codes. Regions. Homes. Careers. Vehicles. Schools. Skin colors. Nationalities. Languages. Sports teams. Music. Hobbies.

All these things and more are neutral in and of themselves, but if allowed to, are capable of becoming a person's identity, separating people from each other, and most of all, from God. Why would anyone allow any of these things to define himself, when there is an open opportunity to define oneself in being a child of God?

And, why would any child of God elevate some other form of identity, when he is already wearing the name of Christ?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Do we appreciate it?


These are my beloved sons, in whom I am well pleased. One of my most sincere hopes is to be buried by them, instead of the other way around.

How do parents feel when they send a child off to war, and the child never returns? Thousands of Americans know this pain all too well, and I won't insult them with a feeble attempt at describing it.

My great-grandparents almost found out what this feels like. Their son, my grandfather, Alfred Dominguez, joined the Marine Corps at the age of 19 and later took shrapnel to his head and body on the island of Iwo Jima. It's our understanding that, had an unknown fellow Marine not removed him from the battlefield, he would not have been likely to survive. Grandpa was only 19 or 20 years old when he sustained this grave injury, and would not meet his wife, my grandmother, until several years later. Three generations now exist in our family which would not have if Grandpa had died in that black sand in 1945. He is 82 years old now, and has only recently begun to tell stories of the most intense experience of his long life.

Grandpa once told me of his concern that many young people today fail to appreciate the sacrifice of a generation of warriors before them. Since then, 9/11 occurred, and I hope Grandpa feels more peace about this now that there is so much outpouring of emotional support from the American people for our troops and their families. Living in Killeen, TX has made this more real for me. Three doors down from our house, hangs a banner on a garage door: "Welcome Home, Daddy!" There are many, many more like it all over this city.

Imagine the feelings of the parents and families of our lost troops. Imagine now their feelings if their child's sacrifice were not appreciated. If their child's sacrifice were made light of, taken for granted, ignored, reviled, or forgotten about altogether. Surely, it would be too much to take.

There is One who knows this brand of pain. He, too, sent His Son far away from home, not knowing His Son could die, but knowing His Son would. Intending for Him to. Knowing the importance of the mission outweighed the fear and the pain. Willing to lose His Son to give us the opportunity to be restored to Him.

Yes, someone might say, but in this case, the Father knew His Son was coming home again after it was all over.

Not really. If Jesus had turned His back on His mission, He could not have gone home. God cannot tolerate the presence of sin, a fact His Son knew all too well.

But, because He fulfilled His mission and went home again, every one of our brave souls who give their lives for freedom has the opportunity to see their loved ones again after this world is all over.

And, how does our Father feel when His Son's sacrifice is not appreciated? When it is made light of, taken for granted, ignored, reviled, or forgotten about altogether? Surely, it is too much to take.

As a matter of fact, it is. He promises us that. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

On that day, every soul will bow the knee before Jesus Christ. But, it will only matter for those who already did.

When was the last time you grieved over Christ on the cross?

When was the last time you wept over putting Him there?

What good did it ever do?

An interesting challenge is found in Romans 6.

Paul is trying to teach Christians that they should no longer desire a life of sin. They should not take advantage of God's grace by sinning all the more. They should no longer live as slaves of sin, but as slaves of God.

Paul makes clear that "our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin." (6:6) The idea is that the Christian is a new person, no longer doing the things he used to do that separated him from God.

Why would Paul feel the need to explain this? It must be because the fact of becoming a Christian does not take away the temptations we've always faced. May no one considering the Christian life ever be led to believe that such is the case. It's not!

Every Christian is vulnerable to temptation, even the temptation to return to the very ways of life we left behind when we came to Christ. In fact, especially that.

Paul seems to know this as he writes to Christians in Romans 6. He specifically challenges the Christians in Rome to look back on their previous ways of life and consider them. He states three times from verses 15 - 20 that his readers were once "slaves" of sin. This challenge culminates in a tough question, found in verse 21:

"What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?"

Is there anything more personally challenging than taking an honest look at the results of our actions? How often are we willing to do this? And, how honest are we really willing to be?

What have been the consequences in our lives of the things we used to do, that we repented of, and that we're tempted to return to again:

*The spiritually apathetic grown children, who never saw a commitment to the Lord in our lives.

*The knowledge of sports trivia that exceeds our knowledge of God's word.

*The spouse alienated by a taste for pornography.

*The children driven away by a volatile temper.

*The friendship lost to a judgmental mind and a sharp tongue.

*The career ruined by alcohol.

*The body needlessly wracked with disease because of a careless lifestyle.

*The family shattered by an adulterous affair.

*The job lost due to laziness and complacency.

*The financial security squandered by wasteful spending.

*The church divided by a vicious rumor.

*The relatives kept at a distance over past wrongs unresolved.

*The shallow (or non-existent) relationships with God's people, due to nothing more than a lack of time spent with them.

*The sleepless nights brought on by a need to control and a refusal to trust God.

*More sleepless nights brought on by a refusal to accept God's forgiveness.

*The continuation of all this and more, played out in the lives of our children.

"So," Paul asks his readers, "you're tempted to return to your life of sin, despite God's grace? Tell me, how did that work out for you before?"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

"And they were afraid."

Mark 5:1-20 tells an amazing story.

Jesus visits the "region of the Gerasenes", on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and encounters a man possessed by many demons. The story describes the man's pitiful state: He lived alone among tombs, cried out uncontrollably night and day, cut himself with stones, apparently ran around naked, and was completely beyond anyone's ability to control him. He had "often been chained hand and foot", but always "tore the chains apart". This poor man displayed super-human strength coupled with sub-human conduct, in a hopeless and tragic situation.

Can you imagine such a frightening spectacle in your community? Can you imagine the legend that would have spread to the surrounding area? Can you imagine growing up as a child with this very real monster menacing the outskirts of your town? Can you imagine being a parent trying to comfort your frightened child and get him to sleep at night despite the mad howling in the distance? Can you imagine the hopelessness of there being literally nothing anyone could do about it?

The story doesn't make clear how long this man had been like this. It's fair to assume he was not born this way, which would indicate someone must have known this man before he was overtaken by these demons. Imagine the grief of looking at this monster, and seeing the contorted face of a friend who no longer knows you.

The story conveys a sense of acceptance of the situation. The townspeople have done all they can to try and subdue the man, but to no avail. It seems that things have come to an awkward stalemate, with everyone knowing something is terribly wrong, but everyone coming to a strange peace with it. Learning to live with it. Accommodating it. Making plans around it. Explaining it to outsiders. Less and less often even contemplating life without it.

Then, Jesus comes ashore in a boat, and nothing is ever the same.

The demons, who recognize Jesus as the Son of God, are driven out of the man, and into a herd of swine, who rush into the sea and drown. The men keeping the swine run away and bring back the townspeople, who see a sight they had long since given up on:

"...they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind..."

It's easy to judge these people from this safe distance, but should this not have been a cause for immediate celebration? A chorus of "Ding-Dong, the witch is dead"? An embrace of a long-lost friend? An outpouring of gratitude to Jesus?

Instead, there is one singular reaction: "...and they were afraid."

Immediately, the people "plead with Jesus to leave their region". Jesus obliges, getting back into the boat and shoving off. The formerly demon-possessed man wants to accompany Jesus, but instead Jesus sends him out to spread the news of what He had done, and the man carries out this mission.

They were afraid? Afraid of what? Hadn't the source of their fear just been eliminated? Sometimes it's a question of what a person fears more.

These people feared Jesus's power to purge and to transform more than they had feared the very evil He came to overcome. They had made room in their lives for the demon-possessed man, but not for the Son of Man, with power over the very demons they so feared.

He has power over our demons, too. But, the question is: What do we fear more? The sin we accommodate in our lives, or His power to remove it and make us more fit for His service?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

In Which Life?


Psalm 17 records David's prayer for protection from evil people. One phrase in particular makes a clear distinction between a soul in submission to God, and a soul devoted to doing its own will:

"...men of this world whose reward is in this life..." -- Psalm 17:14

This phrase sets a definite boundary for the views, activities, and destination of "men of this world". Like the world of Truman in the movie "The Truman Show", it is a finite space, limited in scope, a dome that traps a soul, no matter how large or satisfying the dome might seem. The person living under this dome has little to live for, other than his own satisfaction, or whatever purpose, even noble purposes, he might find under the dome. Ironically, he finds this fact liberating, thinking he is free of all things. He does not know that he is actually trapped and missing out on something far better. Whatever return he receives on his actions will be limited within the scope of the dome.

It's not just unbelievers trapped beneath this dome. Jesus uses language silimar to David's to point out the fruitlessness of religious displays that do not come from the heart. Of those who pray long, public prayers just to impress people, Jesus says, "...they have received their reward in full." Of those who give to the poor only to impress people, Jesus says, "...they have received their reward in full." Of those who fast only to impress people, Jesus says, "...they have received their reward in full." (Matthew 6:1-16)

What is the reward they have received in full, under the dome? The praise of men, which they desired most anyway. Not an eternal reward with the Father, which they should have sought at the expense of all the rest.

Paul reminds Christians that, if not for the fact that Jesus rose from the grave, we would all be trapped beneath the dome. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins....If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." (I Corinthians 15:17, 19)

The Christian is blessed with the opportunity to see beyond the dome of this life, and to live for a reward far greater than anything to be found here.

The question we all must answer is: In which life do we want our reward?

Be Healed of Your Affliction

Most of us know the story.

Jesus is passing through a town, and is swarmed by people wanting to see Him, hear Him, be near Him. He is asked to go to Jairus's house to heal his daughter, and agrees to go. While navigating His way through the crowd, Jesus suddenly feels that power has gone out of Him, and He stops to find out who touched Him. His disciples scoff at the idea of trying to figure out who in all that crowd might have touched Jesus, but He insists on finding out.

The woman who touched Him comes forward. She had suffered for twelve years from a "flow of blood", and had spent all she had trying to find healing, but the condition had only grown worse, until the moment she touched Jesus. She admits she was the one who touched Him and explains that she had believed she would be healed by merely touching his clothing.

Jesus responds to her: "Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction." (Mark 5:34)

It's clear that the woman's healing was given by the power of Jesus in response to her faith that He could heal her. It's also clear that she was fully healed the moment she touched Jesus's garment. There was no delay of any kind.

Why, then, does Jesus tell her to "be healed of your affliction"? One translation uses the phrase "be freed from your suffering", but the idea is the same. He's telling her something that is already done. She is already healed when he tells her to "be healed".

Why say this? Is this simply an incidental phrase tacked onto the end of this conversation? Or, is there something else here?

Beyond the physical healing, there is a challenge to lead a new life.

This woman is challenged to assume the mindset and identity of someone who has been healed. Someone who is whole, not broken, strong, not weak, free, not enslaved.

This woman's affliction, over a twelve-year period, had become the central fact of her life. It's fair to assume that her activities and plans were centered around, affected, or restricted, by this chronic bleeding. Then, in a moment, it was gone, as though it had never been there. Imagine what this meant for her. What would the rest of her life look like?

Every Christian faces the same question: You used to be lost in sin. Your separation from God was the central fact of your life. But now your sins are gone. What is your new identity?

Christians must continue to "be saved" in the sense of living as people set free. There is a joy, an appreciation, and a freedom we should sense each day because of what Jesus has done for us. The life after should be different from the life before. Are we living as people set free from sin, or as people still in need of salvation?

Can you imagine this poor woman leaving Jesus's presence and returning to all the worries, habits, precautions, and frustrations of the previous twelve years? The woman who was healed was challenged to leave behind her life of affliction, and there's nothing to indicate she did not.

Have we done the same?