The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Tough Lessons from Hebrew’s Desert Experiences

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Number 21:4-9)

I am not sure how this is biologically or medically – actually, it makes no sense for either science. You can’t just look at an image of a poisonous snake and survive. Especially when there are no anti-venom or transfusion, or anything like that. But if you succumb to something evil and poisonous to your spirit, and then recognize your error and sin – then you can be cured! I am not saying that there were no poisonous snakes or they were not as dangerous as the writer of Numbers has told us. I am not doubting there were snakes, nor that Moses put a reminder of them up on a pole, nor that the Hebrews were not saved.

I think this passage from Numbers has something to say to us, and we can glean just as much meaning from the metaphor as from the actual. What we can learn is this – when you are in a desert and your faith is being built up and tested, it is not a good idea to complain and gripe about the lessons you are to learn, and the period of time of the testing. Something worse may come along and “bite”you; then you will really know what suffering is. The only way to survive this experience is to realize what you have done, and confess the sin and error realizing that it is all part and parcel of the testing and learning experience.

The season of Lent is often characterized as a “desert” experience. That is, there are tough lessons to be learned and the resources that you might have are meager. Many people, in the past and in the present, give up something for Lent or take up an extra challenge or task for the Lenten season. This practice had deep roots in Christian history. I have not said much about it because many of the scripture passages used during Lent do not speak directly to this spiritual practice. And it is not always a spiritual practice that melds well with our contemporary life. Indeed, it takes a deliberate decision, best done at the beginning of Lent, to “deny” ourselves something or add something to our daily practices. So, I will not ask you, beloved reader to take on any additional practices. This week we will look at the issue of sin, and together we will glean what lessons there are and how the metaphor of the snakes might be used again. Shalom!

DAY OF THE LORD . . . Terrifying in its coming

See, the day of the LORD is coming–a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger–to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir.” (Reference: Isaiah 13:9-12 )

What can I say beloved? That the writer of Isaiah is correct, and when the Lord comes all these things will happen? It will the apocalypse as if it was stage for a movie only the sound effects and special effects will be real as will the blood etc?! Is this how you envision the day of the Lord?

I do not hold to one of the end times over another. There will be tears, and there will be rejoicing. Which one does depends on whether are one of the haughty and ruthless. And if it would calm your fears beloved, I will tell you that this is actually an oracle concerning, and proclamation against Babylon. Yes, that generic, mystical and all-encompassing enemy Babylon. So, you have nothing to worry about . . . unless you are the haughty and ruthless enemy Babylon.

I will pose the question that I “danced around” yesterday – have you lived your life so that no one would call you their enemy – that you are not someone’s “Babylon”? Because if you are, then you should be worried about the “Day of the Lord.” And the cruelness you have committed against others will be brought back to you! But you are not such a person, are you beloved. When the Lord comes you will be part of those rejoicing that the Lord has come to the world and you will be spared what happens to those of “Babylon.”

The historic Anabaptists warned each other not to sin or be sinners, and I am assuming to not be like “Babylon. “Hence hear further the terrible, relentless and awful punishment of God upon sin and sinners, which has ever taken place and will yet take place. Take heed, my dear children, I counsel you, as much as you value your souls, to this special, eternal punishment of sin and sinners” writes Hendrick Alewijns to his children. It is simple and simplistic to say “be good” so as to avoid the wrath and fierce anger of God. But what more can we do?

While today’s scripture passage does not hold out much chance for mercy, we can still hope that on the Day of the Lord there will be mercy for us. And may that hope sustain you beloved. Selah!

CONCERNING DESIRES OF THE FLESH . . . Battling it life long

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
(Reference: Galatians 5:16-21 )

As I read this passage, I was reminded of a very important fact. The writer and his audience have only been living the Christian life for 5 to 10 years at the most. Not a lifetime! It explains for me, at least, why the expectations are so high for living such a perfect life! In addition, they did not believe that it would be a long time until Christ returned; and that soon, very soon, they would be taken up by Christ to live in perfection in heaven. In other words, these are not exhortations written for the long haul. That is not to say we can do and be all of those sinful things that the writer of Galatians wrote about. What it does mean is that if we “slip and fall” we have time to pick ourselves up, confess and repent, and then carry on living as we should.

It is easy to think about avoiding temptation if it is for a short time. But for the rest of our natural lives?! Again, not that we should give into to the desires and temptations of the flesh! But I can’t help but think that the writer of Galatians (yes, it was Paul!) might have come up with more coping strategies and oases of grace for the long haul.

Historic Anabaptist Pilgrim Marpeck wrote something very interesting in 1531. He said, “While the unbeliever is nothing more than flesh and death (Rom. 8:6; John 3), the true believer will not be able to slacken the struggle between Spirit and flesh. His flesh cannot bear the rule of the Spirit until it submits itself to the discipline of the Spirit. Then the struggle between flesh and Spirit begins (Gal. 5:17). Only then are all defects and infirmities revealed and recognized.” [Emphasis mine] Here then is grace! And from a “strict” source at that!

I don’t about you, beloved, but that makes me feel as if I can struggle one. May you struggle on too making Godly choices each day inspired and support by the Spirit. Selah!

CONCERNING FLESHLY AND SPIRITUAL WHORING . . . If the label fits . . .

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (Reference: Revelation 2:20-23 )

Historic Anabaptist Valerius Schoolmaster has some interesting thoughts, inspired in part by this passage. He says, “in short, every sin is left uncommitted more on account of constraint, shame, and fear of men, than from voluntary goodness for the Lord’s sake.” He puts forth the theory that the poor do not get drunk because of lack of money. And the rich have to much honor and sense of place to do wrong. Furthermore, he says, crime deterrents work to stop people from committing crime. Would that our modern society had such built in constraints.

Nowadays the poor find ways to drunkenness and vices of sin. The rich have no shame or sense of place, but assume and depend on their financial resources and place in society to get them out of trouble or not be held accountable. And crime deterrents do not seem to work.

Schoolmasters makes another observation that does seem to find echo and confirmation in our current society. He says, “And though men are so devoid of shame and given up to evil that they openly keep brothels, and live far more detestably than beasts; they are nevertheless called Christians, and claim to be children and heirs of God by grace.” I found this statement and his previous sort of at odds – but I do not want to make an issue of it.

His final comment to excerpt I think could and should be applied to this current generation; but come to think of it, it might not mean much in current society. He said, “Oh, if men’s sins were written on their foreheads, how constantly would they keep in the house, and conceal themselves in corners, holes and dens, so as not to be seen by men.

I could go on a diatribe about how the social media seems to broadcast the sins of men and women as if each one had their faults listed for all the world to see. And sadly, if there is no shame from that, why would they care if God knew their sins and faults? This is one of the times, beloved, that Christians who strive in all things to live an accountable life seem to be out of step with everyone else. The theme for today forms a very apt title for these reflections. May you beloved seek mercy and forgiveness from our Lord for each of your sins – both those seen easily and those hidden away. Selah!

LEAVEN . . . It gets into the most unpredictable places

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. “ (Reference: 1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Five years ago, when this scripture passage under the theme of Reading from the Anabaptist Bible appeared on “Sip of Scripture” I wrote Crackers of Goodness. I focused on the history of the Jewish Passover and the prohibition of using yeast during the period time of the Passover. And while rough in some spots, in capture in essence what the writer of 1 Corinthians was saying. But it is not how the historic Anabaptists appropriate the verse.

Their focus was on keeping unworthy people out of their circle of faith, as opposed to each person doing a self-cleansing of their own life. The editors of Reading from the Anabaptist Bible tell us that “Many Anabaptists took these words of Paul as support for fraternal admonition. Menno Simons, who supported a strict application of the ban, appealed to these verses.” Menno Simons himself wrote, “Again, with these words Paul reproves the Corinthians and all other churches with them, who glory in being the church of Jesus Christ and the spiritual house of Israel, and nevertheless tolerate such shameful, corrupting leaven as this Corinthian and his ilk, in their communion. For how can we glory in the piety of the church and reprove the outside churches on account of their ungodly doctrine and life, so long as we tolerate the like leaven of doctrine and life among us, and do not expel it? If we are unleavened, why are we not afraid of the leaven, since the apostle tells us that, A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?”

Simons is not talking theology or philosophy of church life and discipline. He is being very pragmatic and fundamental; how can we, he says, exhort and challenges those outside the church to life a scriptural life when we allow people in the church to get away with all sorts of things (according to Simons’ standards).

What Simons (conveniently?) forgets is that Paul is writing specifically to the church at Corinthian on a particular issue that was both religiously and socially contrary. Paul’s exhortation rests on the fact that they (the Corinthians) were saying they were a pure and holy people, yet this sin was among them. I assure you beloved, an Anabaptist would rarely say they are pure and holy!

It is, I think beloved, a very Anabaptist thing to apply scripture to every day living. I have been doing it for . . . untold amount of years. My writing is proof of that. We grab on to a verse and passage, and try it out in many spots to see where it might be applied best and most accurately/appropriately. We may also see a situation that needs a verse or two . . . or three or four, and then look for scripture that matches our mood and temperament; if we are lucky and bible-literate (in that order!) we will find a verse or more. It is beloved, our cultural “leaven.” It is also might be why the book Reading the Anabaptist Bible could be long enough to span 365 days – they had a lot to say about/write about scripture. But I digress.

May you beloved keep yourselves pure and holy, and apart from sin and those things that mar sincerity and truth. Selah!

SIN . . . Right and wrong paths

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (Reference: 2 John 1:9 )

I am not going to write about or quote what the historic Anabaptist quoted this day wrote. It is a letter from a mother to her son, her young son. It exhorts him in his faith and asks him how he feels/thinks about his faith. The editors suggest that he was young enough that he was just learning to write. I can image him laboring over a letter to his mother, expressing what sort of faith I do not know. But what child of the age that h e/she is learning to write is concerned about anything other than the fact that his mother is not with him, and that perhaps his father has already been put to death. No beloved, I could not and would not use it. It comes to close to the current modern situation of Christian children or at least children of Christian parents who have been put to death in the most horrific way. And disrespected after death. No beloved, I will not use that letter.

I firmly believe that until a child is of the age of accountability that being naughty is not sin but just misbehaving. Jesus said let the children come to him. And they came. And I believe that children who suffer unto death in this world are most warmly welcomed and comforted when they arrive in heaven.

Have you ever seen a child “run ahead”? My middle child/oldest son would run ahead, or try to run ahead, just about everywhere we went. It was a challenge to make sure he was save and that he was running ahead to the right place. That is how I think this verse best applies; making sure our children are save and introducing them to Jesus so they can run to meet him in their own time. Teach a child in his/her youth and they will not stray from it when they are older. But let us not burden a child with sin; neither with the harsh realities of this world. Time enough when they are older.

And may you, beloved, be children of God, running ahead of all other things to meet Jesus. Selah!

SIN . . . Confession and Belief

But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (Reference: 1 John 3:5-10 )

Peter Riedeman’s, historic Anabaptist, wrote his Confession of Faith. It says in part, “We believe that we have salvation in Christ. We believe that Christ has redeemed us from the might and snare of the devil, in which we were held captive, for he has robbed the devil of his power and overwhelmed him. [Heb. 2:12-15] The devil’s snares are the sins in which we were imprisoned. By sinning we were serving the devil until Christ came to dwell in us by faith. Then through Christ’s strength and work in us, [Eph. 3:14-17] our sin was weakened, quenched, put to death, and taken away from us, [1 John 3:5-6] so that we could live for righteousness. [1 Pet. 15:1-5] Christ is the one who brings about this righteousness in us, because without him we can do nothing. [John 15:1-5] The Lord is truly our Redeemer. He works in us and has taken away those sins from which we could not otherwise ever be freed. [1 Cor. 15:51-57]”

As I said before (yesterday in fact) confession is good for one’s soul. And a confession of faith that is inclusive speaks to sin and the absolution of sin. I talk a great deal about theology, faith issues, spirituality, right living etc. I cover a lot of theological issues in my writing and also address pragmatic issues in Christian life. But I don’t say a great deal explicitly about my faith – I mean what I believe as opposed to how I live out my faith. Now beloved, you might feel that you know a lot about my faith beliefs, reading between the lines . . . and reading the lines. But I am not sure I have ever said explicitly what my faith beliefs are. I am not sure really how to articulate them. Maybe that is because I am aware of so many different ways to speak of, understand, and live out faith. And that might be why there is more reading between the lines than of the lines.

However . . . recently I became aware of a song by the group “Newsboys” – the song is “We Believe.” And the lyrics pretty much sum up my confession of faith; or at least that is I how felt after hearing it and really listening to the words. Turns out my faith is pretty basic.

We believe in God the Father!
We believe in Jesus Christ!
We believe in the Holy Spirit!
And He’s given us new life!
We believe in the crucifixion!
We believe that He conquered death!
We believe in the resurrection!
And He’s comin’ back again!”

So, where is the issue of sin in this song you may ask. It’s there beloved, it is there.

Or more precisely, confession and belief means coming back to square one each time you get off course. And for me, sinning is getting off course in life. Oh the little sins are there everyday of our lives – being less perfect than we ought and should. So we go back to our core beliefs and back to the new life that the Holy Spirit has given us. As for the big sins? Well, belief – that is, strong belief – keeps us from those sins. And if not, it’s back to the core basics. Because the wages of sin are death, but Jesus conquered death so we don’t have to pay that peace. And what does Jesus require for our sins to be paid? Belief! Believing in Jesus, and believing that the example that Jesus set is the way to live will keep us from sin, and tell us when we have sinned!

I think Riedeman stated very well the same belief I have of sin. I hope that in his fuller confession of faith he talked about more than just sin, because the Christian life is more than just avoiding sin and being forgiven of sin. I hope you believe that too beloved. I encourage you to look up the “Newboys” song “We Believe” because it has more in it than just a statement of faith.

May your beliefs comfort you every day of your life and insure for you the mercy and forgiveness of sin that you need. Selah!