Old Testament

A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.


As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.

 

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I Did It

Genesis 3:8-15 (ESV)

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
   cursed are you above all livestock
   and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
   and dust you shall eat
   all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
   and you shall bruise his heel.”


When we explore the larger story of “the fall,” that first act of disobedience to God, we often focus on the attractiveness of sin. It’s not hard to construct reasonable-sounding arguments for why we should disobey God; sinful acts themselves can be quite alluring, at least initially.

Today’s verses call us to examine the after-effects of sin. The false beauty projected by sin fades rapidly once we recognize sin as rejection of the source of all beauty, God.

The loss in this story is incalculable; our text today opens with God arriving to walk with the man and woman, eventually known to us as Adam and Eve. That simple fact is poignant to the point of being distressing, for we see the couple had what most of us crave, a simple, close relationship with God.

Oh, to be able to walk among the trees of Paradise with our maker, asking him anything that comes to mind and receiving a clear answer! Before sinning, Adam and Eve thought such walks were perfectly normal, the way things would always be. Shortly after sinning, they were hiding among those trees, fearing the One they had previously trusted as a perfect Father.

What they feared and what we fear is that moment of confrontation after sin. Even in our fallen state, we have enough of a sense of God’s righteousness to hate that impending moment. We can spend our lives hiding from it, even running from it.

There is nowhere to run, however. If we don’t have that moment of confrontation in this life, we certainly will have it in the next life.

We wriggle to find ways to justify ourselves, too, as if we can sort out the blame and defer the punishment on our own. As we see in today’s story, the first sin is also the first example of passing the buck.

Adam, who was first to hear God’s commandment about the tree, blames Eve. Eve, who clearly knew the simple “don’t eat” commandment, blames the serpent.

The serpent—well, he was the agitator, the twister of words who started the problem. The author of Revelation later would associate “that old serpent” with Satan, the ultimate bringer of confusion. To me, the talkative serpent is interesting in that he accepts his curse in silence, knowing he is facing his Creator, just like everyone else.

What the man and woman needed, and what we need, is a better way to move through that moment of confrontation.

Instead of buck passing, we need repentance. Whatever the sin, don’t try to rationalize it, don’t try to justify it. Don’t try to argue it’s really not that serious compared to what others have done. Just say:

I did it.

You can do terrible things and still never get around to saying, “I did it.” King David committed adultery and murder to have Bathsheba as his wife, but until the Prophet Nathan used a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man’s lamb, David wasn’t able to say, “I did it.”

Psalm 51 artfully records David’s “I did it”: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”

Saying “I did it” doesn’t fix everything. We’re still a long way from the fix, but at least we’re on the right road, the road that passes through repentance to salvation.

When Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden as part of their punishment, they found themselves on that road. God worked through them to begin a change that would make possible our restoration to Paradise.

I’m talking, of course, about events revealed in the great narrative of the Bible, the grand story running from Genesis to Revelation. Yes, we are trapped in sin from the moment we are born, and we are put in a position that makes us want to hide from God.

For thousands of years, a small group of people we call the Israelites tried to get back into relationship with God by following his law. We cannot get back to God on our own, however. As those Israelites fell in and out of the relationship, humanity remained lost.

A new solution was needed. As he did in the garden so long ago, God walked among us for a time as one of those Israelites, raised in a rural place called Galilee.

He actually took on flesh for his three-decade walk on Earth, and we call that God-Man Jesus. I hope you know the story and let that story shape your lives. Jesus went so far as to suffer and die for our sins, in the process explaining more deeply the importance of intertwined love and obedience.

We repent by saying “I did it, and I regret it. I want to put it behind me.” We believe in what Jesus has done, and we are saved from sin.

It is that simple. And in time, we are invited back into the Garden of Eden, the Paradise where we exist in the presence of God.

We have different ways of talking about the life to come. “Going to heaven” is one way to describe the experience. We also have elaborate imagery from the Book of Revelation, symbolic scenes of creation restored to holiness and heaven and earth re-joined.

What I look forward to is a walk in the garden in the cool of the day with my Savior, asking him whatever comes to mind.


The featured image on this blog page is “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Thomas Cole, 1828.

Why Stop?

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NLT)

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.

“On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.

“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.”


Is the idea of a Holy Sabbath day even important anymore?

After all, we Christians certainly have shifted the meaning of “Sabbath” a lot, going so far as to change the day. When Moses gave the people of Israel this commandment—the fourth of ten commandments and the last one specifically defining how we are to relate to God—they were thinking of Saturday. With a few exceptions, those of us who call ourselves Christians think of Sunday when we think of the Sabbath.

The reason for the shift in days is obvious. Jesus’ resurrection happened on a Sunday, and as more and more non-Jews came to follow Christ, Sunday became the logical day of worship for us. The Israelites spent the Sabbath day remembering how God saved them from slavery; we remember how Jesus Christ, God among us, saves all of humanity from sin and death.

In recent decades, European and North American Christians have shifted seismically in how serious we are about Sunday as the Sabbath. In my own lifetime lived in the Southeast United States, I have seen Sunday move from being a quiet day when most stores and restaurants were closed to a day when pretty much everything is open, Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers being notable exceptions. Ball teams even hold practices and games on Sunday mornings, something that would have been unthinkable or even unconscionable in the South 30 years ago.

The Sabbath of Others

About ten years ago, I asked a very bright young adult in my congregation why churches have such a hard time getting people under the age of 30 into worship. He looked at me wryly and asked a question:

“What are you going to do after church is over?”

“Well,” I said, “We will probably go out and get some lunch.”

“Who do you think cooked the lunch, cleaned the tables and got the restaurant ready?”

Duh. Of course. Who is most likely to be working on Sunday mornings? Young people just starting out in the labor force.

Those of you who go out to lunch after worship may not like me saying this, but we Christians who care about reaching teenagers and young adults are shooting ourselves in the foot every time we eat out on Sunday. The same principle applies any time we take up an activity that may impact working people’s ability to worship.

We’ve still not answered our first question, however: Is the idea of the Sabbath important? If you take the Bible seriously, it’s hard not to say yes.

S-T-O-P

Through the law, God established some underlying behaviors and principles that simply are good for us—we follow them and prosper in our relationship with God, or we ignore them and slip into confusion and misery.

God’s idea of the Sabbath can be summed up in one short word: “Stop.” I’m not talking about stopping and freezing like a statue. The Sabbath is more of a contemplative stop.

If you’ve ever read any survival books, you may have learned that stop is not just a word, it’s an acronym: S-T-O-P. When lost in the wilderness, this acronym defines a pattern you should follow. First, the “S,” which stands for—you guessed it—stop. Second, you think, going over where you’ve been and what has happened since you began your journey.

Third, you observe: Are you on a trail? Are you near water? Can you hear road sounds? Is night coming soon? What are you carrying?

Fourth, you plan what to do next. In one of my survival books, there’s a picture of a hunter who got lost, panicked and froze to death in the snowy woods. When would-be rescuers found him, he was next to a pile of dry brush, a box of dry matches in his pocket. Obviously, he didn’t S-T-O-P.

God offers us a Sabbath so we don’t go through life running in panic like a lost hunter. We stop to be with him. We think of him in prayer, worship and fellowship. We observe the tools God has given us, in particular his holy word, and where we are in our Christian journey. And then we plan how to move forward.

And yes, as part of our Sabbath, we go to church on Sunday. We S-T-O-P together. After all, there’s far less danger of getting lost as a group. And even if we do find ourselves a little lost, it’s so much easier to get back on the right path as a group.

The Habit of Worship

There is a basic principle regarding worship attendance that has been repeated for years. I cannot find who first came up with it, but after leading churches for 15 years as a pastor, it sounds right to me.

If you miss church three weeks in a row, there’s about an 80 percent chance your worship attendance will become very irregular. To get back to your original attendance pattern, you have to make the decision to show up for worship at least three weeks in a row.

Judging from the book of Hebrews, irregular attendance has long been a problem for Christians. In the tenth chapter, the author writes this:

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Ironically, when you miss worship, you’re also missing a lot of the good work that happens on the Sabbath. God may have told us to take the day off, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking the day off.

We meet God in worship to be changed into the holy creation he intended us to be. We meet God at church to be healed spiritually, emotionally and even physically. We meet God on Sunday so the week to come can be lived fully in God’s light, be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

Once we’ve considered the importance of the Sabbath, I suppose we’re left with some additional questions. What happens if I miss the Sunday when God intended everything to change for me, my spouse or my children? What do I lose if I fail to stop on the Sabbath where God waited for me?

We should never let the frenzy of work and play separate us from the gifts God offers us when we stop.

Children, Make Room

1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.


This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.

John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.

Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIn my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.

A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.

About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.

The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian.  When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.

Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.

In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.

There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”

A Matter of Space

How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, asking if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

The Church’s Call

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.

The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.

John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.

It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

 

Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.


The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

A Simple Act of Faith

John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


In the midst of much talk about Christian discipline in the season of Lent, perhaps today’s Scripture will be a bit of comfort. This salvation thing is shockingly easy.

Jesus said these words after talking to Nicodemus the Pharisee rather cryptically about being “born from above” and “born from the Spirit,” leaving this leader of the Jews confused and asking questions. Jesus would ultimately make a life-changing impression on Nicodemus, however.

Three years later, the Pharisee, at great personal risk, would help Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus’ body. Nicodemus is credited in the Gospel of John with bringing the costly mixture of oils and spices needed to properly anoint the body.

Perhaps it was Jesus’ reference to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness that aided Nicodemus’ understanding. The idea of salvation being linked to a bronze serpent on a pole can confuse us, but Nicodemus, being a good teacher of the Jews, would have immediately recognized the story for what it was, an illustration of faith.

The story is found in Numbers 21:4-9, which recounts God giving the Israelites a vivid lesson in sin and the way out of sin. Having grumbled against God in a most irrational way, they found themselves beset by poisonous snakes. Eventually, they admitted to Moses they had sinned against God, and God told Moses the way out: Make a metal image of a serpent, put it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten could simply lift up their eyes to the serpent and live.

Some modern people struggle with the story because the imagery seems so primitive. When reading the Old Testament, we have to remember that for the Israelites to learn about their God, the lessons had to be given in ways people barely out of the Bronze Age could understand.

There is an underlying pattern to the story, however, one that carries into today:

  • First, a rejection of God and his plan is sin.
  • Second, the results of sinning are painfully brutal, carrying the strong possibility of death.
  • Third, when we confess our sins, God will provide a way out, a path to restoration.
  • Fourth, God will make the way out so easy a child can understand.

Jesus was able to link his great work on the cross, his “lifting up,” to the bronze serpent incident because salvation through Christ follows the same underlying pattern. We have all rejected God in some way, and we have all experienced the sad effects of sin.

At some point, if we are to survive, we must wake up to our circumstances and confess we have turned our backs on God. From there, it’s simply a matter of believing there is an easy way out.

We believe the story of Jesus—who he is and what he did on the cross—and trust that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign sin and death are truly defeated. Faith is as easy as lifting our eyes to the cross and holding in our hearts the story it tells.

There is more to Christian living, of course. We should quickly move into the lifelong practice of the Christian disciplines. In short, we don’t continue to stand among the snakes (duh!), and we learn to rely on a relationship with Jesus Christ, who gives us the power to escape the snakes.

But never forget, the very beginning of salvation is so simple. If you’ve never completed this pattern to the point of salvation, you can do so right now, today. If the reading of this blog has helped you to believe for the first time, e-mail me or call me at (865) 376-7040, and I will try to take you further. It doesn’t matter where you are. The United Methodist Church has good people all over the planet.

Don’t worry too much about the discipleship and holiness stuff right now. The community we call the “church” will walk with you as you grow in your understanding and practice of your faith.

The Temple Most Real

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


The Passover of the Jews was near … “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The story of the cleansing of the temple is so important that we hear versions of it in all four gospels. In John, this cleansing happens early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he has performed his first miracle, changing water into wine. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes late, and is seen as one important trigger bringing about Jesus’ execution.

The scene in John is a crowded one. People came from all over Israel for the Jewish Passover, and just like today, where there was a crowd, there was money to be made. For Jesus, the problem was that business had spilled into the outer precincts of the temple itself, which of course served as the home of God among his people.

Two basic commercial acts were going on. First, animals needed for sacrifice were for sale. Most travelers did not bring animals with them for the journey. Second, Roman and other foreign coins had to be exchanged for Jewish coins if they were to be used in the temple, along the lines of how we might exchange dollars for euros or yen when traveling today.

We can assume that with high demand came high prices and inflated exchange rates, although that may have been a mere side issue for Jesus in this version of the story. The very presence of commercialism in this holy place was what ultimately disturbed him.

Jesus’ response was certainly aggressive. People sometimes cite this passage as evidence of God acting in anger, but as I read it, it seems Jesus took his time to devise a calculated plan. We’re told he made a whip of cords to aid driving the larger animals—fashioning such a device would have taken a few minutes, at least.

There’s also no evidence humans were endangered in this dramatic cleansing, although I do imagine the moneychangers bruising their knees as they scrambled to recover their coins bouncing and rolling across the pavement. It’s an ironic posture for people who were being irreverent before God just a few minutes earlier.

This story of cleansing raises an interesting question for us. Do we ever go too far in letting worldly desires, passions, and objects enter into our sacred spaces? What about worldly ideas? What is among us as we worship that might keep us from properly revering God?

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus was a good Jew, and the temple represented the primary way God had related to the “chosen people,” the Israelites, for thousands of years. Because of sin, even the people of Israel had difficulty with the idea of being in God’s direct presence, preferring instead to have him symbolically housed in some way, with God’s permission and according to God’s instruction, of course. (This is another example of God meeting us where we are.)

Early in their history, while escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had seen and heard from God more directly, experiencing him in the form of fire and smoke, earthquakes, terrifying trumpet sounds and a thunderous voice. God had spoken his commandments out loud to them, but the people then asked for an intermediary, telling Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

Later in Exodus, this need for separation led to an elaborate tabernacle, a portable holy place where God could be among his people and yet separated from them enough for their comfort. Centuries after taking and occupying the Holy Land, the Israelites established a temple in Jerusalem as a more resilient expression of God’s house, replacing the portable tabernacle. (The first link details King David’s desire for a temple and God’s response. You also might want to take time to read the account in 2 Chronicles 3 of the construction begun by David’s son, King Solomon.)

By Jesus’ day, the Israelites were on their second temple, the first one having been destroyed in an invasion. Like the tabernacle before it, the temple became holier and holier as one moved deeper into it, until one finally reached the Holy of Holies, considered the abode of God, a place where only the high priest could enter once a year.

The “zeal” quote is a reference to Psalm 69:9, a prophetic statement about the Jewish messiah. Obviously, Jesus cared deeply for this great expression of God’s holiness in the midst of the humans he was trying to save from sin.

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

As much as Jesus cared for the temple as a Jew, he also knew his very presence marked a change in how humanity would relate to God. Where the tabernacle and temples had symbolically represented God’s presence, Jesus, God in flesh, literally existed to be God’s direct contact with his unholy creation.

Of course, for the relationship to be maintained, a path to holiness for all people had to be created. The Gospel of John indicates that even early in his ministry, Jesus knew where he was headed.

The Jewish leaders, in ways they could never imagine, did tear down the temple, with help from Pontius Pilate and the Roman guards’ whips, nails and cross. And crucified Jesus, working with the authority of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, did rebuild the temple most real in three days, through the act we now call the resurrection, making the temple of his body indestructible.

This is the great work of history, the path to eternal life and holiness for all of us no matter how sinful we are. We hear this story of tearing down and rebuilding, we understand how much God loves us, and we believe, making salvation our own.

Eternity is ours, and from the temple now in heaven, God’s Spirit flows forth on his redeemed, sustaining us until we see God’s glory in full.


The featured image is Luca Giordano’s “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple,” circa 1675.