Bible Notes

Things the Word is teaching me.

Genesis 1: Origin Story

Do you know what Genesis 1 has in common with other creation stories from other cultures?

I confess, this is not an illustration of a creation myth.  BUT IT SHOULD BE.

I confess, this is not an illustration of a creation myth.  BUT IT SHOULD BE.

Not a whole lot, actually. Try the story we have from Babylonian culture, which came out of the same part of the world as the Hebrew story in Genesis.  I'll give you a fast recap: Two gods exist first, and they "mingle their waters" (hrm) and give birth to a new generation of gods, who give birth to more gods, etc.  The crowd of gods gets bigger and rowdier until the original gods say "Oh. This is not AT ALL what we thought having kids was going to be like." and decide to kill off all the other gods to get their peace and quiet back.  Much violence ensues.  The champion god finally ends the conflict by killing his grandmother in single combat, and then he splits her body in two pieces to create (respectively) the heavens and the earth.  Humans are made out of a different dead god's blood, for the specific purpose of doing all work forever so the gods don't have to.

Nice, huh?

Take a look around at creation stories from other mythologies.  Most of them are not actually that bad, but many of them have at least some aspect of chaos or violence.  The Genesis story, by contrast, is incredibly different.  No chaos, no violence.  It shows a God working intentionally and methodically, making things he likes and then more things he likes and saying "Yeah, this is all really good.  This is what I wanted, I'm really happy with it."  The world he makes is orderly, peaceful, and rich.  If you're looking for drama, it's almost dull.  But compared to the options, it's reassuringly peaceful and kind.  Especially when you look around and realize everything we like about our world and each other -- the one who made it all, likes all of that too.

Seeding and Weeding (Psalm 72:6-7)

He will be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days the righteous will flourish;
prosperity will abound till the moon is no more.

The monthly cycle of psalm-reading (as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer) passed through Psalm 72 last week.  The "he" in these verses refers to "the king," as the psalm is a long prayer for God to raise up a just, righteous ruler, one who will protect God's people and foster the conditions necessary for peace and prosperity.  It can be understood metaphorically as a prayer for the kingship of Jesus Christ, the one who will rule with perfect justice and truly bring peace on earth.

Verse 6 is where I paused to meditate, appreciating the image of God's blessing entering our lives and work to bring forth life, just like falling rain enters the earth to make good, seeded ground bring up plants.  It's an especially apt image right now, at planting time in my part of the world.  I prayed for God's blessing to "fall" like the rain does and bring up good stuff in the "ground" that is my life.

I thought I was all done with my prayer time.  I was putting my Bible away, starting to move on to the next task, when I felt the pause, like the Spirit sitting me back in my chair.  Hold your horses, kiddo.  We're not done yet.

Yes, rain is necessary for plants to grow.  (All right, it's specifically water that's necessary, but work with me here.)  But if you care at all about what the rain is going to coax out of the ground, you need to invest serious and intentional work to prepare the ground for the crop you want.  To get a good yield, you need to plow, plant, cultivate, and fertilize.  Otherwise your ground will fill up with who-knows-what.  Whatever opportunistic seed comes along first.  Maybe you'll get some resown leftovers of last year's plants, or maybe some sweet little wildflowers, or maybe stuff with prickles, or maybe something that makes your skin itch. Maybe you'll just get nondescript green things with leaves, not pretty, not useful, not damaging, but not worth taking note of either.

This is the lesson I felt the Spirit give me from this psalm:  don't you dare pray for God's blessing to come down like the rain and make your life grow, but not care about what's going to sprout.  

If I want a life full of good stuff, useful and beautiful stuff, I need to prep the ground (that is, my life) for it.  My daily choices and actions are like planting seeds and pulling weeds.  What am I planting, what am I feeding, what am I protecting, what am I uprooting?

If I let any old thing grow up in my life, just whatever opportunistic seed that gets into the ground first, why should I pray and expect God's blessing?  Think about it.  If I have the habit-equivalent of a kudzu plant sprouting in my life, THE WORST THING God could do for me is water it!

So if I want to pray for the kind of righteousness and prosperity referred to in the psalm, I have work to do first.  I need to think about what kinds of good things I want to cultivate, and also ask God what HE wants to cultivate in my life.  I need to plant the right seeds (in my choices and actions) to get those things started.  I need to pull weeds (distracting choices and actions) that will get in the way of having a good crop.  Then I can pray for God's blessing to provide what I can't, like a sown garden needs the rain in order to grow.

Continue as Begun (Colossians 2:6)

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him...

This is where I landed in the Bible yesterday morning, and I didn't get any farther than this one verse.  It's only half a sentence, but it gives me plenty to think about.

Let's look at it this way.  How do you receive Christ Jesus as Lord?

  • Via utter grace, with no reference to one's personal worthiness, either inherent or earned
  • By asking for it
  • Via personal connection in prayer (nobody else can ask for this or obtain it for you; you need to ask for it yourself)
  • Completely on the Lord's terms
  • Via childlike trust

I don't know if we really get that this is how we receive Jesus as Lord, when we first come to him.  This is my understanding now, after a long time of reading the Bible, listening to good teachers, and thinking.

If we don't understand that this is how we receive him, likewise I don't see how we can understand that this is how to continue in him.  This list is full of simple but hard things, things that really challenge our human self-reliance (not to mention our human selfishness).

Even though I am smarter about the truth of this list, it doesn't mean I've gotten a lot better at living according to it.

Thankfully grace is written in right at the start.  Through the Father's patient teaching I have learned this is how you receive Jesus as Lord, and through his patient guidance I am learning how to live by these same ideas.  Through his grace and generosity I have received, and I will continue to receive what I need in order to change.

So how do I do it?  How do I live, acknowledging that Christ Jesus is my Lord?  According to Colossians, I do it by the same means I received him in the first place:

  • Via utter grace, with no reference to my own personal worthiness, either inherent or earned
  • By asking for guidance and help
  • Via continued personal connection in prayer
  • Completely on my Lord's terms
  • Via childlike trust

Amen; I pray for God's help to live more and more according to this pattern.

Have I missed anything?  Would you add or delete anything from my list?

 

Trading Lives (Colossians 1:21-23)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation--if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.

I followed a very grim line of thought for a while this morning:  who am I willing to die for?

Not in general, in specifics.  I considered my family, my brothers and their wives, my nieces and nephew, my parents, my close friends.  If it came down to me and one of them, would I trade my life for theirs?  Would I give up life so they could keep it?

It's a horrible sort of calculus and not at all the way I usually think.  This morning I fell into it because it was a grim, gray morning, the sort which requires strong measures if I don't want to nod off at my desk instead of journal, or follow every pointless flight of fancy instead of meditate on the Word and pray.  So to force my brain awake and keep it on task, I took to pacing my office and asking myself very direct questions about what I was reading -- ending with this most baldly direct consideration of my life's value, compared to people I love.

Because this is what Colossians says here, and what the Bible says over and over.  In a direct choice between my life and his, Jesus chose to give up his life so I could keep mine.  Not in any merely metaphorical sense.  He gave up his actual alive-living-life, he really and truly died, so I wouldn't.

Considering the question personally forces me to a deeper understanding of his choice and what it means.  Because the only people I can imagine readily trading life for are the people I love the most and wish the very best of life to.  It would still be hard, but the deepest love might just make it possible.

So apparently, when Jesus had to choose between himself and I, it seems the very deepest love is what guided his choice too.

God in the Shrubbery (Exodus 3:1-4)

Do you ever have that experience where you read a section of scripture (or a section of any familiar text, but this is a blog about the Bible) and suddenly notice something you missed before, that helps you see something in a new way?  I know I'm not the only one who does that.

One of mine is in Exodus 3.  This is the beginning of a REALLY familiar story:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.  Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight--why the bush does not burn up."
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses, Moses!"

I'd guess nearly anyone with a Sunday-school background has some idea of what happens next:  God sends Moses back to Egypt, Moses talks to Pharoah, God sends plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.  We mentally skip ahead to that stuff, because we know it's coming and we know it's really important.

Skipping ahead means missing things, though, like the thing I noticed when I read this section and paid attention.

What first grabs our attention here?  The burning bush, because it's WEIRD, right?  It's a BIG WEIRD SIGN from God!  Actually, take another look.  It seems like the bush must not have looked that weird -- at least, not at first.

After all, Moses doesn't say "Wow, that bush is on fire in the middle of nowhere all by itself.  I wonder how that happened?  I'm going to go look."  Neither does he say "What an amazing and strange-looking fire, I've never seen anything like it before."  Apparently the fire looked like ordinary fire, and the fact that a bush was on fire in the desert wasn't important enough by itself to pique his curiosity.  It was only when he realized the bush wasn't burning away to nothing that he decided to take a closer look.

Now think about any time you've watched wood burn.  It takes time.  Twiggly thin wood takes less time than big chunks of it, but it still takes time.  Green, live wood also takes longer than dead wood.

Not only did Moses not take special note that the bush was merely on fire, he doesn't take note of it until he realizes the bush isn't being consumed.  That's what finally gets his attention, and there's some gap of time involved.  Maybe not a big gap, but some gap.

This is what I finally noticed in this passage:  God Almighty came down into a desert, sat in the shrubbery, and waited for an itinerant shepherd to notice him.

This is the very same God who would later make the mountain smoke and quake, when his people Israel came before him there.  He told Moses later on "you really and truly cannot see my full glory, because it will kill you dead."  He's the God who entered his first temple with such force of glory and majesty that the priests could not enter or minister.  This very same God chose, in this instance, to sit in a bush and wait to be noticed.

Our God is a God of mercy and patience.  That's what this scene tells me.  He's not "too good" to perch in the shrubbery and wait on a shepherd.  On the contrary, he is SO good he tamed his glory so a shepherd could stand close enough to speak to him.  He's SO good, he had the patience to wait for the right moment to make his introduction.

(I also tend to think it shows God's sense of humor.  Am I the only one who imagines God must have laughed to himself as he perched in the branches?  Just like we laugh when we find ourselves in ludicrous-but-real situations?)

Mercy and patience.  That's what God-in-the-shrubbery teaches me.

Psalm 46:10

"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

There is that thing people do, where they dissect individual verses out of scripture and collect them, like bugs stuck on pins and stored under glass, separate from the living truth they started out as a part of.  I think one of the most egregious examples is Psalm 46:10.  "Be still, and know that I am God."

In the dissected, bug-on-a-pin version, it looks like such a nice verse.  It's the sort of "nice" verse you can embroider on a pillow, or find on the face of a "nice" encouraging card.  There used to be a plaque hanging in my doctor's old office with this verse, accompanied by a typical sort of image of a deer drinking from a stream amid a few trees and maybe a little songbird or two -- all very peaceful and quiet.

It seems to me (and maybe I'm wrong, but this is how it seems) that no one who has ever embroidered this verse in scrolly letters on a pillow, or inscribed it on a picture of a deer drinking from a very placid stream, can have ever ACTUALLY READ THE WHOLE PSALM IT COMES FROM.

Psalm 46 is terrifying.  It's got some of the most vivid imagery I can think of in the entire book, and nearly all of it is apocalyptic.  It talks about mountains crumbling into the ocean and nations in utter turmoil and about desolation and fire.  There is no room for a deer drinking from a stream.  Any deer within 100 miles of the topics of this psalm are in severe danger of being firebombed into tiny atoms, after they are drowned by tidal waves and crushed under falling boulders.

And the verse in question?  The actual verse which inspires insipid pictures of nature scenes?  Oh dear me.  God is the most terrifying thing in the whole poem.  He's the one behind the mountains falling down, and he's the one who forces war to stop -- and please note, nothing here suggests God manages it through diplomacy.  He ends wars through sheer superior force.  He "breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire."  Earlier on the psalm says "he lifts his voice, the earth melts."

GOD MELTS THE EARTH.  Try embroidering THAT on a pillow.

There is, of course, the "still, small voice" of God which Elijah heard.  But that is not the picture of God here.  When God says BE STILL, his voice is juxtaposed against the chaos of earth crumbling and wars howling.  His voice stops all of it.  God's voice cracks over the whole world.  "Thunderous" doesn't cut it.  No adjective I can think of cuts it.  God's voice is the biggest thing, the most astonishing, awful, awe-ful thing in the poem, and he strikes me silent just reading the words.

"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

I WILL BE EXALTED.  With or without your recognition, human people, this is determined.  Be still.  I am God.

---------------------------------

There is one brief, sweet interlude in this psalm which is not about chaos and terrifying destruction.  It speaks of the river which makes God's city glad and the holiness of his dwelling place.  It is a single moment of beauty in the midst of the turbulent whole.

This God is still terrifying; the God of this psalm truly scares me.  But setting aside fear, I must acknowledge that this God, this terrifying one, is FOR US.

The writer says at the outset that God is our refuge.  Always present in trouble.  And boy, is there trouble written here.  It doesn't take long before mountains are keeling over and there's war everywhere.

In the midst of all this madness, the writer can say with simple, firm confidence, we will not fear.  God is our God, and no matter what happens, we will not be afraid.

I wish I had that kind of confidence.

Actually, you know what?  I don't want that kind of confidence.  I want NO PART of that kind of confidence, because I actually hope I will never need it.  That's what I really want.  Safety.  Quietness.  I don't want the mountains to fall into the sea and I don't want tidal waves or wars or crumbling governments or chaos on every side.  I want no part of any of that, if I'm really and truly honest.

I don't even want the simple, everyday sort of chaos that I've got.  I can't imagine living through the kind of scenes written here.

The thing is, reality doesn't care what I want.  There have been numerous natural disasters around the world within easy memory.  There have been cases of man-made chaos and destruction.  There is war.  There are serious threats of conflict and terrorism all over.  I have no guarantee that I'm safe, really safe, from any of it.

I don't know what may happen.  I don't want to have to rely on the kind of confidence the psalm writer has, but that doesn't mean I won't need it.

And I need to know what sort of God I serve.  Maybe I like the still-small voice version of God better.  But if God was ONLY a tiny voice, no bigger and no more powerful or capable, what could he do?  Such a God could not "make wars cease to the ends of the earth."  He could not be my strength, my ever-present help in trouble.

He could not reassure me that I will not fall, because he is within me.

I am terrified by this picture of God, but I need him.  I need him to be exactly as he is, the God who is able to speak so very gently, but also able to stop wars with a word.  I need both, and I need to know this God is my refuge, and that it's possible to gain the kind of confidence in him that the psalm writer speaks.  I need all of that, like it or not, want it or not.  I need it.  I need him.

Philippians 2:5-7

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Sometimes it takes a long time for us to see things that are smack in front of our eyes.  Lately I've been meditating on one of these new realizations, and this section of Philippians centers on it.

People familiar with Philippians know this is only the first part of a gorgeous section of poetry about what Christ did for us after he was "made in human likeness."  But this section is what really arrests me right now:  Jesus, made in human likeness.

Author E. G. White is one of the people who have helped me see it:

"In taking our nature, the Saviour has bound Himself to humanity by a tie that is never to be broken.  Through the eternal ages He is linked with us.  'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.' John 3:16.  He gave Him not only to bear our sins, and to die as our sacrifice; He gave Him to the fallen race.  To assure us of His immutable counsel of peace, God gave His only-begotten Son to become one of the human family, forever to retain His human nature."  (The Desire of Ages, p. 41)

Part of the human family, forever retaining his human nature.  Before Christ died for us, he became human for us, and is still human for us, and will always be human for us.

I have no idea what the "nature of God" is like, which Philippians talks about and which Jesus Christ shared from before our world got made, but I'm pretty sure it has fewer limitations and needs than a human body has.  Jesus saddled himself with our limitations and needs, willingly and forever.

It's the "forever" part that really boggles me.  Certainly I recognized he did it for a short period of time on earth, and he suffered terribly during those years.  But Jesus is still human, still carries around a human body.  He will ALWAYS walk around in a human body now.  This is part of what he took on for us.

It's not the most vital part.  But it helps me realize the magnitude of Jesus' love and service a little more deeply, helps this to sink in with more weight.

It also gives other words even more boggling implications, makes me realize their truth and weight.  Some of them are in John 14, where Jesus tells the disciples "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

Madeleine L'Engle helps me understand this by spelling it out:  "We were not meant to be any more restricted than Jesus was during his sojourn with us here on this earth.  If we take seriously that during the time of his Incarnation he was truly man, human as we are, then anything he did in his lifetime is available to us too." (Walking on Water, p. 97)

Anything?

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

These verses always stick in my head a little.  I've always found it difficult to  understand what Paul means by our "light and momentary" troubles.  Look around, and you'll see a lot of people with big, heavy troubles.  Really hard ones.  Ones that hurt.

Paul is not flippant.  I've read him enough to know that he can be sarcastic to make a point, but I have never seen him take serious things lightly when he is instructing his churches.  He experienced enough big, painful troubles himself to know how hard they can be.  Later on in this very letter he describes some of what he has experienced in service to the gospel.  So he's serious when he calls our difficulties in life "light and momentary."  He knows something I don't, because I look askance at that phrase.  I don't want to suffer trouble, and I don't want to look at hard troubles and call them light.  I want to keep the option to whine about how hard it is, if I have to deal with troubles at all.

In light of my own troubles, I've found comfort in thinking about the temporary nature of difficulties.  I need to remind myself of Jesus' promise that we will certainly have problems and suffer pain, but that these things are absolutely limited.  After this broken life comes restored life.  After Jesus comes back, we will not suffer any more, at all, ever.  

If the definite end date for my suffering is the day on which I die, then it nonetheless a definite end.  After all, I know that death is not THE END.  For the one who trusts in Christ, death is simply a change.  Afterwards, life continues, and it is a better life.  Paul says here that the things we suffer now are fixing a weight of glory for us in that not-so-far-off future.  He suggests there is no real comparison between the two, no matter how these troubles feel to us now.  When we get to that point, when we experience the glory that is coming, we will have the proper perspective.  We will be able to compare the two things directly, and we will see that the troubles of life were as nothing.

I've never really grasped that, but it helps me to start thinking about how long our changed life is, and how final the end of our troubles must be.  It reminds me of newborn babies.  A baby begins life in an enclosed, warm, comfortable place where he grows contentedly for a while.  Then there is a big, scary earthquake (a mom-quake?) and he gets pitched out into a very different world, one where there is too much light and big weird sounds and it's cold and absolutely everything is new and wrong.  He responds exactly as we expect: he cries.  He yells his head off.  And the people around him don't even seem to care that his entire world just got wrecked.  They laugh and cry happy tears and are so excited, the heartless jerks.  If he could express himself in a grown-up way, he would give them what-for.  He'd demand to know what was going on.  He'd probably want to go back.

We do rejoice when a baby is born, because we have a greater perspective than him.  We want to hear him cry, because that means he's healthy and strong and has entered a big, beautiful world.  We aren't heartless.  We just know babies need to get born.  Most babies are delivered straight into highly compassionate hands, belonging to people who know exactly what babies need and who set to providing it instantly.  It's not long before babies get held and rocked and fed and find their way to settling down.  Only minutes, and baby is quiet in his new world.

Minutes.  A tiny fraction of his whole life, those first few minutes, in which he yells his head off because he doesn't like what's going on.  Such a small part, and all the adults know it.  He doesn't, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.  He doesn't understand how light and momentary his troubles are, or how much the people around him care, or how hard they work to make sure he is safe and well and healthy and whole.

What if this part of my life is just that short, compared to the whole?  What if I flail around and yell sometimes, wondering why God doesn't FIX IT ALREADY, while he's rejoicing at my new, young life, taking the most exquisite care to deliver me safe and whole into the fullness of life and love coming to me?  What if comfort is not actually far away, the real experience of being at rest, settled with my Father in a big new awesome world?

Maybe I'm less grown up than I think; maybe I really am that tiny, and maybe I have no idea yet who I will grow into under my Father's care.  Maybe someday I will marvel when I look back at the images of the tiny human person I am now, and rejoice at the care my Father gave me, every part of it, including the moments I find heavy and scary now.  Maybe that's true.  I rather hope it is.

Psalm 132:11

The LORD swore an oath to David,
a sure oath that he will not revoke:
"One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne..."

Psalm 132 is one in a section of psalms called "songs of ascents," songs the people sang while traveling to Jerusalem for the yearly festivals.  It strikes me hard today, this image of God's people going up to Jerusalem singing about Jesus, and they didn't know it -- they didn't know God's whole plan to fulfill this promise to their legendary King David.

What would they have thought, if the full plan had been revealed to them?  That you yourself, LORD, would enter the house of David to fulfill your promise?

I don't know what the people climbing to Jerusalem, singing this song, would have thought.  I know it fills me, re-fills me, with wonder.  Before Israel ever knew what you would do for them, they sang about it.  And you went so much farther to keep your promise than any mere human person could ever guess.