Based on a true story… so the movie subtitle goes.

Ezra 1

It is often hard to correlate historical descriptions contained in the Old Testament with other scholarly knowledge of the ancient world. “Why would Cyrus not only give permission for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, but also shower them with resources of wealth to achieve it?” This is a fair question but there are a couple of points here that are relevant. Firstly, Cyrus did not capture the Israelites in the first place but came to be in charge of them after conquering the Babylonian empire. Secondly, Cyrus pursued a policy of supporting and nurturing local culture in the countries across his vast kingdom stretching from India in the East to much of the Middle East. (After his death his son extended the empire into Egypt and North Africa). It was politically successful to allow local administrations to continue with their customs even though they had been conquered and dominated by the Persians who were renowned as great administrators.

So, it is quite in keeping with secular, historical knowledge of Cyrus that he may have allowed the Jews to return to their home lands and rebuild the temple. Interesting that the writer of Ezra here says this whole episode occurred “in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah”. It is just so hard to get the big picture that God is completely sovereign when so many things have to gel over centuries to arrive at a particular point in history.

Matt 14: 13 – 36

Here we have another pair of historical descriptions which can in no way be explained by any natural phenomenon, historical sequence, coincidence or interpretation of the facts. These two miracles defy the laws of physics as we know them. This passage is one of those that will divide readers of the Bible into those that accept the supernatural and those that do not. The critical verse however is v 31. Matthew does not tell us directly that it is faith that allows the miracle to occur but there seems to be a hint that it is so. But wait! If faith causes Peter to walk on water then it is not a pure miracle. It could be said that we could command all sorts of miracles if only we had enough faith. Not so. We have seen already in Ezra, that God is sovereign and acts over centuries to bring His plans to fruition. Similarly here, the miracles occur to demonstrate the power of Jesus as the Son of God. Yes, we are required to have faith in Jesus and his redemptive sacrifice, but we will be disappointed and confused if we think that faith can allow us to do things like walk on water. Have faith in God and let him work things out. He worked thought Cyrus, one of the most powerful kings to ever reign and He is still sovereign today.

Matthew 15:

Ezra 4, Matthew 15:29-39


Matthew 15: (New International Version)

Who shall dwell on your holy hill?


Psalm 15 asks – and answers – the question: “Who can reside with the LORD?”  The answer converges on actions in four areas: rectitude, relationships, reputation and revenue.

• Rectitude – conduct oneself blamelessly, do what is right, speak the truth;
• Relationships – do not speak evil, do not do evil, do not hold grudges;
• Reputation – shame the shameful, honour the honorable;
• Revenue – earn every cent earned honestly, spend every cent generously.

Who can tick off all the items on this list? No one.

Except Jesus, and those in him.

Ears to hear

Today’s readings are Lamentations 3:25-39 and Matthew 13:1-23.

“It’s not fair!”

I suspect every child ever born has uttered those words at one point or another when something bad has happened to them, or they have received unpleasant consequences for their actions.

After the first two and a half chapters of Lamentations, filled with graphic description of suffering and pain through God’s consequences delivered to Jerusalem, it’s notable that we don’t hear Jeremiah cry out it’s not fair – in fact quite the opposite. What we hear instead is acknowledgement of the goodness of God, and how good it is to wait upon the Lord for his mercy. We see that even though God is the source of the suffering, God does not delight in it, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men (v33).

Jeremiah is convinced that both good and bad come from God, and that his current suffering is just. It’s as if he’s crying out the opposite of children everywhere “that’s totally fair”.

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
Why should a living man complain,
a man, about the punishment of his sins?

 

Over in Matthew 13 we read again perhaps one of the most famous of Jesus parables, one of the only ones where Jesus himself provides the interpretation. It is perhaps ironic then that both the explanation of why Jesus uses parables, and the parable itself feature people’s inability to understand. Yet there is a subtle difference between the two groups.

For the first, it has not been given to those listening to Jesus’ parables to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. It seems their lack of comprehension is part of God’s plan. This does not seem to be the case for the three groups not producing fruit in the parable itself however. In these groups the hearers themselves appear to be the cause of their own lack of comprehension. They don’t understand what they hear, or things get tough and they give up, or they love the things of this world more than the word of God. For these groups, it does not seem to be because God withheld understanding.

We of course, have the benefit of being able to read the explanation of the parable – God is not withholding understanding from us. With that explanation we therefore have the chance to decide into which category of hearer we fall.

Perhaps this morning is a good time to reflect on whether you have ears to hear.

But this I will call to mind

Lamentations 3: 1 – 24

The Lamentations passage today contains the profound and extraordinary verses of trust and hope which many of us hold onto in times of great trial, sorrow and grief. If you can bear to, come this morning into the passionate covenant relationship expressed here between God and His people.

Lament is frankly the only appropriate response to the trauma, injustice, pain and suffering which confronts us day to day. It may be our own personal experiences and stories, it may be the travails of the world, it may be the disintegration of the institutional church under the horror and shame of child sexual abuse. Lament is our expression of grief and sorrow, and Lamentations is the poetic record of the Hebrew grief and sorrow at their destruction, exile and dispossession. Lamentations is our communal expression of rage and sorrow, our communal attempt to find purpose and meaning amidst terrible sadness and pain.

When faced with unbearable heartache, with cruel injustice, with unceasing sorrows, it is to God that the people of Lamentations cry out. God, I feel afraid of you; God, I feel betrayed by you; God, you do not listen to me, you turn away from me; God you have abandoned me; God, I am utterly bereft of peace, health and happiness, I am empty.

…And then, like the pin prick of a torch light through a night of pitch dark; like a fragile, wavering candle flame in a blackout, comes verse 21.

But this I will call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

This new morning, let us hold in prayer those of us who are in terrible pain, who feel in utter darkness.

This new morning, may our God light in us again a hope, a hope in His faithfulness, a hope in his mercies. As certain as the arrival of morning, is our God’s steadfast love.

Amen

God is Angry!

 

How often do we read of the almighty, all powerful, Creator of the Universe described as a loving, soft hearted Lamb? This Lamentations passage does not conform to that same image!

 The passage begins with graphic pictures of how God has abandoned his people and their communities, verse 3 He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel;

he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy;

he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all round.

What a frightening picture!

 The details of despair and pain of his people are hard to read. What horrors were faced by children in particular.

 Verses 18-22 are the prayerful pleas for mercy of these humbled people to this fierce and angry God. Verse 20 Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus.

 I pray that we continue to seek our Lord in all we do and say and be grateful that we are living now, under Jesus. The bible says that in our natural, sinful state we are enemies of God, Romans 5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. We are comforted that by Jesus’ death we are welcomed into His presence. Through our repentance and acceptance of Jesus’ death, we are even called his children. Thankfully, God no longer sees our imperfections. Only by what Jesus has done for us are our sins forgiven, our relationship with God restored, and our eternity secured.

 I am thankful that he sees me through his Son. 

Processing trauma

How does one process trauma? Be it as the result of a natural disaster, an accident or war. The book of Lamentations is an attempt to give voice to this process.

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative states that scholars working on the connection of literature, narrative, and trauma have made important connections between an individual’s ability to maintain a coherent sense of self (a personal narrative) and their own psychological and social well-being. Some literary expressions from traumatic circumstances, therefore, can be read as individual attempts to repair personal narratives. The biblical book of Lamentations may well be such an exercise in narrative repair.

Lamentations is raw and unfashionable – both to read and preach or write about (indeed I had to create a category tag for Lamentations in this blog as no one had previously done so). Like any war zone, it is a place we would rather flee from and want to visit.

 

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(This powerful image of a man and his daughter wandering the devastation in the city of Mosul, Iraq gives us some insight into the grief and bewilderment felt by the author of Lamentations)

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the book is entitled ekah, meaning “how” or “alas,” taken from the first verse. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) there is a brief notation to the effect that these are the writings (laments – crying aloud) of the priest and prophet Jeremiah when he went up on the hillside and sat overlooking the desolate city.

Lamentations consists of five separate poems, each in the literary form called an acrostic. Each verse begins, in alphabetical order, with a letter from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (sadly something lost in translation from Hebrew to English).  Each chapter stresses and develops a particular aspect of sorrow.

Lamentations pictures a man of God puzzling over the results of evil and suffering in the world. Suddenly the greatness of Jerusalem is gone. The city and Holy temple has been destroyed, thousands have been taken into captivity and many more have died. Why had God allowed this calamity to fall upon his once great Holy city ?  Whereas Job dealt with unexplained evil, the writer laments a tragedy entirely of Jerusalem’s making stating categorically that God had rejected His people because of their continuing rebellion against Him. There is no specific mention of the invading Babylonians.

“The book expresses with pathetic tenderness the prophet’s grief for the desolation of the city and Temple of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, the miseries of famine, the cessation of public worship, and the other calamities with which his countrymen had been visited for their sins. The leading object was to teach the suffering Jews neither to despise ‘the chastening of the Lord,’ nor to ‘faint’ when ‘rebuked of Him,’ but to turn to God with deep repentance, to confess their sins, and humbly look to Him alone for pardon and deliverance” – Joseph Angus, The Bible Handbook

The imagery in Lamentations 1 is confronting, it gives us a description of the utter depths of sorrow, the desolation of spirit that sorrow makes upon the human heart, the sense of abandonment, of complete loneliness. Here we can see how vividly the prophet has captured this feeling as he pours out the feelings of his own heart.

Jeremiah remembers the greatness and weeps for the desolation. He was there to see it all. He warned them ahead of time, but they did not listen. People from many nations had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Now, there is no temple for anyone to worship in. whereas New Jerusalem is described as a bride; Jerusalem destroyed is like a widow and her “lovers” the lands they had made alliances with, such as Egypt.

The people have been vanquished and taken into captivity; the city has been set on fire and totally destroyed. Verse 16:

“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Lamentations provides us all with a hard but brutally honest template to consider when we are faced with traumatic events in our lives.

I guess it would be remiss of me not to include a link to the Lamentation Blues which was used to introduce a recent preaching series on Lamentations.

His Glory in our Weakness

Today’s reading is taken from Psalm 71.

In my experience every time before the Lord brings a blessing into my life he first takes me through a trial of sorts. I’m not sure I completely understood the significance of this process during my early stages as a Christian. However, as I started familiarizing myself with the writings of Paul in 2 Corinthians I started to grasp the logic and wisdom behind it. It was the Lord in his love, gently showing me my weakness, my helplessness and my desperate need for him. And in a way setting the stage for a blessing so that when it came, I knew that it wasn’t me, but Him. When God decided that he wouldn’t remove the thorn from Paul’s flesh, it wasn’t out of spite or judgement. But so that Paul could encounter his own weakness and ultimately experience the Grace of God!

In Psalm 71 David in his old age -probably on the run from Absalom- cries out to the Lord for His grace and consideration during this time of trial. It is quite evident in this chapter that the great King David who slew tens of thousands of Philistines (1 Sam. 18:7) as a young man now feels the inability and helplessness of losing all his strength (v.9). And what makes things worse is that he is being pursued by his enemies. Is this happening to David because God wasn’t powerful enough to stop it? I think not! This in my opinion is God designing a place in time where David can come face to face with his own mortality and be reminded once again that he in his flesh is not able, but God is.

Now we know that David throughout his life has had front-row seats to experiencing the goodness of God. Yes, David has seen some tough times and has been on the run before (from Saul). But by the looks of things David by now understands just how God works out his purposes in him. In verse 20 David gives us a glimpse of what he knows of the character of God. He has ‘seen troubles, many and bitter’ and every time, God has restored his life again. At the end of each trial God has always without fail increased his honour and comfort. And it is with this confidence that he able to praise the Lord ‘with the harp’ (v.22) and sing of his ‘faithfulness’. Even when his own fragility is staring him in the face, David has a peculiar resilience that enables him to see the bigger picture and continue to be assured of the love of God.

We as Christians, like David have walked through some great seasons and have experienced the goodness and love of Christ but when those not so savory seasons come around we begin to get a sense that God may have abandoned us. David in Psalm 71 shows us through example what it means to walk with God and how encountering our own weaknesses can be God perhaps setting the stage for a breakthrough. As we make our way to the various services today let us ask for a greater discernment to understand the purposes of God in the trails that we face and constantly like David be determined through whatever situation to ‘praise Him more and more’ (v.14).

Sam

KIC