How not to win friends and influence people
Acts 7: And you continue, so bullheaded.
The ragged transition in righteous Stephen’s sermon feels so out of place. He’s been debating with the religious leaders, and winning, so they come up with a scheme to lie about him and get him arrested. The charge is that Stephen claims Jesus of Nazareth is going to destroy the Temple and toss out the customs of Moses. Stephen’s defense begins innocently enough. For some reason he decides to recount the history of their people, from Abraham on. Everything he says is plain vanilla, middle of the road facts that every Jew knows. After several minutes of this walk through history Stephen arrives at the story of the building of the Temple. Now those who have made the charge that Stephen says the Temple is going to be destroyed by Jesus sit up and take notice. When Stephen reminds them that their own Scriptures state that God doesn’t live in any building made by man they, I think, decide he’s about to say the Temple isn’t important at all. Although it isn’t recorded in this passage, I believe that people start shouting Stephen down. That’s when he drops out of his sermon and responds by calling them “bullheaded,” “traitors,” and “murderers.” His enemies don’t take kindly to being thus accused and the result is that the mob lives down to Stephen’s description of them as murderers. I know I’m not anything close to being worthy of making a judgment call on this good man who, even as he’s being murdered prays for those doing the horrible deed. Still, I can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently had Stephen responded differently. It seems to me that when he gets into a shouting match with his adversaries that his opportunity to make any case at all is lost. Again, I know I’m not in a position to judge here but I think Christians are almost always more effective in spreading the Good News of Jesus when they live servant-lives, humble and kind. After all, Jesus said that when we’re rejected we’re to shake the dust off our feet and meekly move on. That feels a lot different to me than telling people they’re bullheaded murderers.
Take Away: Likely the best way to influence people for Christ is to take on the role of a servant while avoiding calling them names!
Haggai 1: The people procrastinate.
The land of Judah reels from a drought: no rain means no crops means no food. It’s a serious situation. Governor Zerubbabel feels a shred of hope as he sees prophet Haggai coming to meet him. Maybe the prophet has prevailed upon the Lord to send some rain. However, Haggai disappoints the governor. He’s heard from the Lord God and what he’s heard isn’t about rain. God’s man says that God’s displeased with them because they’ve settled in to their homeland but haven’t yet rebuilt the Temple. The Lord’s complaint is that they’ve found time to make their homes comfortable but they haven’t found time to repair the Temple which lies in ruins. Now, this charge of God doesn’t come the first day they arrive in Jerusalem. It’s likely that Haggai arrived with that first group of 50,000 people who returned from exile around 16 years earlier. At that time there was considerable emphasis on rebuilding the Temple. However, other needs were pressing so the Temple project was suspended as the city of Jerusalem was secured, permanent homes were constructed, and agricultural concerns were addressed. Along the way people got used to seeing the Temple as it was. Now, a serious drought threatens their welfare. Haggai says the lack of rain is God’s doing. The Lord’s getting their attention. There was a time for them to deal with the necessities of life but when the time came for them to take care of the Temple they put it off. This little book of our Old Testament is all about priorities. Apparently, the Lord didn’t mind their focusing on dealing with housing and food needed for survival. However, their place of worship was also a necessity and the Lord expected that matter to become a priority to them when the time was right. Today, I’m reminded that the priorities of my life are in constant flux. What I need to do at 8:00 in the morning gives way to what needs to be done at 11:00. Like a river, life flows along. Because of that, I have to keep up with the current priorities of my life.
Take Away: We have to keep up with the current priorities of our lives.
Ezekiel 43: Draw a picture…
As a casual reader, one of the bewildering portions of Ezekiel has been, to me, all the measuring that takes place in the final chapters of the book. In his vision Ezekiel crawls all over the Temple measuring every nook and cranny, carefully taking note of every inch. If I thought about it at all I thought maybe these were the plans for the promised rebuilding of the Temple. However, I don’t think that’s the actual intent. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “Draw a picture so they can see the design and meaning and live by its design and intent.” Concerning the Temple the prophet is told, “Everything around it becomes holy ground.” God had called the people of Israel to be his own, holy nation. All the laws, rituals, and even the construction of the Temple had the purpose of helping to bring that to pass. In this case Ezekiel is to rediscover the power of the architecture of that place of worship. Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple is to remind his people of how far they’ve fallen from the holiness to which they were called. It’s also intended to give them hope and call them back to God. Ezekiel’s going to go right on with his vision, talking about the rituals and the work of the priests and the feasts, all with that same intent. However, I’m still thinking about the purpose of sacred space. The Temple wasn’t just built to be a functional place of worship. It was to call people to holiness — a place set apart for the worship of a God set apart by a people set apart. The layout and the furnishings weren’t just for practical use. Just looking at the building was to create longing for holiness. I don’t know that I’m deep enough to fully grasp this, but I’m reminded today that as I read of Ezekiel with his tape measure that there’s more going on than just the drawing of blueprints.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for those gifted in the design of buildings set apart for the purpose of worship.
Heaven will surely be worth it all
Psalm 84: These roads curve up the mountain, and at the last turn — Zion!
The psalmist is thinking about journeying to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Oh how the pilgrim looks forward to being in the Temple of God. He can’t help but think of how blest are those whose serve in that place day by day. However, there’s more than even that here. The song writer finds himself thinking about people who are living their lives in the Lord, journeying with him along the dusty roads and through the lonesome valleys of life. Not that there aren’t some blest times along the way because there are some “cool springs” that refresh the weary traveler. Then, there’s one last mountain to climb, one last curve to navigate; and then Zion comes into view. That “lonesome valley” journey is quickly forgotten as beautiful Zion is seen. What a powerful picture he’s painted. Today, I thank God for walking with me on my life journey. I thank him for the blessings of cool springs along the way and for his faithfulness to me even in the lonesome valleys. For me, and for most of us, the blessings far outnumber the trials. But whether or not that is true for you in particular we all have this hope: one of these days we’ll climb that last mountain and round the final curve and our Zion will come into view. As the old gospel song says, “Heaven will surely be worth it all.”
Take Away: We are a people with hope; hope both in this world and in the world to come.
Nehemiah 10: We will not neglect The Temple of our God.
Part of the pledge that’s signed by the civil, religious, an family leaders (and then ratified by the people) is a commitment to pay attention to the support of the Temple. The “not neglecting” part isn’t about attendance at worship services. Instead, it concerns their physical support of their place of worship. While it’s clear that our meeting houses are a far cry from the Temple in everything from architecture to national significance to actual worship practices there’s still the “House of Worship” connection. The Temple is where they worship and our churches are where we worship. In fact, the issue at hand presents a pretty strong connection between Temple and church. The people of Nehemiah’s day pledge themselves to proper support of their Temple. They’ll see to it that every resource necessary for its operation is provided. Today, I thank God for those who support the church like that. Because of their faithfulness the energy of the church can focus on doing the ministry it’s called to do rather than on endless fundraising that the bills might be paid and the maintenance might be done.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for faithful supporters of his work.
God’s man at God’s time in God’s place
Ezra 7: Ezra had committed himself to studying the Revelation of God, to living it, and to teaching Israel to live its truths and ways.
Ezra doesn’t make an appearance in the book of the Bible that bears his name until well into the second half of the book. By the time he arrives in Jerusalem the Temple project is complete and worship activities have begun there. This direct descendant of Aaron, the first priest of Israel, is as much historian as he is priest. In spite of his being born in a land far from Jerusalem, he committed himself to the study of God’s Word. Because of this he’s both a priest and a scholar. It’s this that makes him so valuable to the returned exiles. They have a Temple and now they need a spiritual leader to help them learn how to be a people of God. Ezra is God’s man at God’s time in God’s place. The verse quoted is a preacher’s dream! There are three obvious points and each provides lots of preaching material. First, Ezra has committed himself to studying God’s Word. Second, beyond studying it, he personally lives it. Third, he has a burning desire to teach God’s ways to others. It is when he’s given the opportunity to do the third goal of his life that Ezra travels to Jerusalem to be the leader and teacher of God’s people there.
Take Away:Thank the Lord for putting the right people in the right places at the right times in history.
God and construction projects
Ezra 6: …you are to help the leaders of the Jews in the rebuilding of that Temple of God.
Orders to stop rebuilding the Temple brought the project to a halt for about 3 years. In time, two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, began to urge the people to get back to work. Now, the precise chronology of the letters and which king wrote what is a bit muddy, but that doesn’t diminish the actual story here. First, the king receives a letter that causes him to issue a stop order to the Jews who are rebuilding the Temple. Then, upon the urging of the prophets, the work is started again. The regional governor writes to the king to report what’s happening, and, upon review, the king finds that years earlier they had not only been given permission to rebuild, but were ordered to do so. He responds by directing the governor to allow the work to continue, and beyond that, to assist in any way he’s asked to. The temporary halt to the program actually results in the full support of the current king and speeds up the process. Even though there’s a bit of a mystery in these passages about who is king when there’s a clear message that God works even through what we see to be road blocks to our obedience to his will. This is a difficult lesson for us to learn, as we want green lights all the way before we even start. It’s hard to understand how God’s “go” and how the on- the-ground circumstances that force a “stop” can be working together, but, sometimes, that’s just how it is.
Take Away: The Lord works through circumstances beyond our control to accomplish his purposes.
God and “good old boy” politics
Ezra 5: Who issued you a permit to rebuild this Temple and restore it to use?
Years ago our small south Texas congregation was preparing for a building project. For a larger church, this would have been a drop in the bucket, but for us, it was a big deal. One key element was that we needed a city code variance to build a few feet closer to the street than was normally allowed. The whole project depended on that variance. We went to the city planning commission and presented our case. They took it under advisement and then turned us down. This put our project back to stage zero. Disappointed, we went back to the drawing board. A couple of weeks later I noted that the small grocery store across the street from our church was getting ready to do some remodeling. It just so happened that they needed (you guessed it) a zoning variance that was almost exactly the same as the one we had had rejected. No doubt, small town politics had a hand in it and their variance was approved. We went back to the city and asked to be put on the agenda for the next meeting. When our turn came, one of the members asked, in a perplexed voice, “Isn’t this the exact same plans that we turned down a few weeks ago? What makes you think we’ll accept them now?” I patiently replied, “We think you should reconsider in light of your giving the grocery store next door to us a variance to do the exact same thing.” There was a moment as the facts of the matter became apparent to the commission, then one of them said, “I think we should give the church its building permit.” Isn’t it interesting how the Lord can navigate through small town politics? In light of the passage before us, we see that he’s just as good in working through big government. Never count God out of the equation.
Take Away: The Lord can handle building permits, city ordinances, and such.
Ezra 4: They even hired propagandists to sap their resolve.
Beyond the actual challenge of rebuilding the Temple in the ruins of Jerusalem is the presence of those who oppose the project. People from distant lands were exiled to this area in the same way that the people of Israel were moved elsewhere. Now, the new residents (and I say “new” guardedly because they’ve been there over 60 years) view the presence and work of the Jews with suspicion and hostility. At first these people offer to participate in the project, but it’s almost certainly an offer made with ulterior motives. When that fails, they go to work trying to stop the work. At one point they even hire people to give their time to discouraging the builders and those “discouragers” pretty much succeed. For 15 years the big project limps along and then, thanks to a carefully worded letter to the new king, the work is stopped altogether. This incident is a good reminder that we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that because we’re doing the right thing and giving sacrificially to the work of God that things are going to go smoothly. For one thing there are some “professional propagandists” (some of them on the “inside” of things) who’ll do all they can to divert our attention away from that to which we’re called.
Take Away: Beware of listening to, or even worse, being, a professional discourager.
Ezra 3: People couldn’t distinguish the shouting from the weeping.
Joining the young adventurers in returning to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem are some who, as young children, saw the Temple before its destruction. When they hear of the expedition to Jerusalem they bravely sign up to return to the land of their birth. These people have stories to tell of what life was like in Jerusalem before it was destroyed. When they stand before the pile of stones that was the center piece of the city their memories are almost more than they can bear. More than anyone else these senior adults realize all that’s been lost. Now, as the foundation for the new Temple is being laid and the dedication celebration is taking place, the younger people shout in excitement. These “remember-ers,” however, begin to weep aloud. Their weeping is a mixture of sadness and joy. They join with the younger people in rejoicing over prospect of the place of worship being rebuilt but they’re saddened as they remember just how much has been lost. The rebuilding of the Temple means a return to God. For the younger people, this is something new and thrilling. It takes the senior adults, those who’ve been “around the block” a few times, to fully appreciate the power of this event. As I hear these white-haired people weeping aloud I’m reminded of the depth some precious “senior saints” provide to my life.
Take Away: Senior Christians offer a depth of perspective that won’t come from any other source.