I have been working on the lessons for Vacation Bible School this week and when it came to writing a blog, I searched for something new or creative to write, but came up with nothing that really struck me outside of my prep for the adult class I will be hosting all week next week. The Theme Verse for our Mighty Fortress VBS is 1 Corinthians 15:57 “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, it is interesting to me how the stories are selected for these studies, because when I first looked at it, I thought that some of the selections were…well…interesting! We start off with the tale of a fortress and God’s people coming up against there enemies at Jericho. A classic VBS story for sure! Here, we can see the connection between the theme “Mighty Fortress” and the notion that this Jericho fortress was not one that the Lord God built and so it had no position or power over God’s ability to bring victory. The next two stories baffled me, the stories of Hezekiah and Josiah. I must admit that in my years going to VBS, I never remember covering these stories. The second day will cover the siege that the Assyrians placed on Jerusalem. Hezekiah was king in Jerusalem and God saved this fortress, His city, from total destruction. The lesson here is that God is our refuge and strength, a help in times of trouble. Ok - I see the connection with the theme and the Bible story really focuses more on King Hezekiah’s faith in God and prayer when Isaiah reassured the King that God was present. Now on to day three and Josiah…and here we see a different notion of “mighty fortress” in that it doesn’t have to be big walls and cities, but God’s Word and teaching! God’s story is important and obeying His word is essential if we are to experience the victory of Jesus. Josiah’s reforms, tearing down idols and restoring the Temple, showed that God was most important and this was all prompted by reading the Word of God to the people. These three lessons set up the last two days of VBS, Jesus enters into Jerusalem and Jesus dies and rises from the tomb. This is the ultimate story of God’s victory and thus our victory. Jesus is our champion, and our enemies of sin, death, and Satan are defeated and we can live the victorious life in Christ.
I look forward to a great week of VBS, and if you want to join us, bring your kids, it will be from 6-8 PM Monday through Friday of next week. I think one of the things I like most about a Vacation Bible School program is the combination between having fun and learning God’s story! Thank You to all volunteers who make these weeks possible for children, I can tell you that it makes a difference!
Today I was listening to Christian radio after thinking about this text in Matthew regarding the “unforgivable sin” and the speaker, John McArthur, a well-known voice in Bible study said that rejection of Jesus is the unforgivable sin. That is to say, if someone rejects Christ as Savior, then his or her destiny is Hell. Now, this is representative of what his claim was, and it puzzled me and I’ll explain by having you read a passage of scripture that is JESUS’ own words in the Gospel.
Matthew 12:31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This is puzzling to me because Jesus actually contradicts the notion that those who reject Christ cannot be forgiven…and seems to place more emphasis on a more abstract notion of “blasphemy” or rejection of the Holy Spirit over and above His own treatment. So, if you are scratching your head, then you are in good company because I think this goes against the Evangelical notion that those who believe in the Lord will be saved and those who “believeth not” will be condemned. And this is why context is so important…in any scripture study that we can do! You might notice that our text begins with the word, “Therefore” and so as Mike Cope used to preach, when we see therefore we should stop and ask, “What is that there for?” So, leading up Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was this…
Matthew 12:22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
When the Pharisees heard it they decided that this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of the prince of demons. This is a striking judgment…one that is motivated by their need for power and control, enticed by their religious superiority, walled in from any experience of the divine that was outside their theological boundaries. The question that was raised by the people who saw the miracle was asking if Jesus was the Messiah or Son of David…and the Pharisees do not speak against Jesus, but against the power, or empowering force, that makes the miracle possible. Jesus sees into their thoughts and motivations, and provides a lecture correcting their terrible logic and even worse understanding of the spiritual world. Then comes the hammer…
Jesus essentially says, “It is one thing to question who I am and to make claims about my validity…but when you question the very working of God, that being the Holy Spirit, and judge God’s action to be something else, you make an eternal mistake.” It makes you wonder who would have that type of arrogance? Who would place themselves as judge over the actions of God? Well, the Pharisees would…that’s who and that is why Jesus speaks so harshly to them. You see, the unforgivable sin is not the one time rejection of Jesus, because as long as there is breath in our lungs, we can choose to come to Christ. Speaking against Christ was not the issue here, but the issue was making oneself the judge over the Son of God’s action, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that is clear to me is that the unforgivable sin is not something that the faithless commit…because they are ignorant. I’m not suggesting they don’t sin, I’m simply suggesting that the Bible and Jesus do not argue that the lost, or those outside of Christ, act in a way that is beyond the forgiveness of God. Therefore I must also conclude that God forgives many of the sins that some of our more conservative thinkers might see as a challenge to the church's purity. So, who does? Well, whether it is this passage or the warnings in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere, it is the religious person whose righteousness is prized over the Lord God to the point that they become the judge of whether or not God is acting or working in a particular case…those are the ones most at risk of committing the unforgivable sin.
It seems that those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and in Christ Jesus should be able to see God at work as discern it correctly. And yes, sometimes we miss it due to distraction or apathy or a myriad of other reasons. But that is not the same as a blatant condemnation of something God is doing among us that doesn’t fit our theology or our experience of religion. Let’s be cautious not to misrepresent the one who has been given as a gift to us empowering the work of God in our time, in our world.
I stood in the cemetery, looking at the stones with the different names on them, spotting familiar last names that brought up persons whom had been distant memories. There were flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. There were flowers on the more recent ones, and down at the other end were grave markers from the 1800s. I saw years that indicated long life and years that indicated only a few months. Of course, the one place that is special to my wife is the large stone that reads “Weaver.” This is where her grandparents are buried. This is where, each year on Memorial Day her aunt sets up her music stand and plays her trumpet to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” among other selections. I watch as others bring flowers and gather around graves…Lee; McCombie; Coble; some more Weavers, among others.
This year, for the first time, I attended a Memorial Day service featuring “Taps” and a message by a retired minister about the importance of remembering. He told a brief history of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it has been designated in the past, and then moved on to remind us of the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. He touched on the Vietnam Days and those who didn’t support the war…or the soldiers…and how that trend is thankfully changing…slowly, but it is changing.
My mind wandered a bit as he told stories, and I went to Joshua 3 where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and they were commanded to place rocks at the place where they crossed as a memorial to God’s action. This happens in several Old Testament stories, and it made me wonder if that is where we get the notion of headstones in our cemeteries. So, a quick search…
These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood, apparently, as a way to keep the dead from rising. (Ok...I thought this line was funny!)
They were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved involving large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. (https://www.iscga.org/history-of-gravestones.html)
Interestingly enough, gravestones can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, and that could also explain the use of them as memorials by Israel. But what I thought about was not just gravestones, but remembering and how I am trained to look forward and not backwards. We don’t do much remembering or reminiscing do we?
Here I stood in the cemetery and I began to think about my own family, my grandfather who served in the Navy. I remembered, and as I did I started to tear up, longing for just one more conversation with those who in my childhood seemed so large and so wonderful. In that graveyard was the story of our families…and it is the same with all of us. It is a shame that we don’t take the time to ponder, reflect, and tear-up from time to time. Or once a year, just because we get the day off to do it. I have heard it said among Christian circles that the person is on there anyway, so why visit? Well, maybe visiting a graveyard isn’t supposed to benefit the dead, but to benefit us who are living. Maybe when we see the larger story of life, we have a better understanding of the unfolding larger story, and not just the moment.
At one point, we started talking with my mother-in-law and came to the realization that the place we were standing were actually the plots that my wife and I own…we were standing in the place of our burial. That was sobering! Shocking really…and I joked that I wanted to make sure the view was nice! WOW…awkward moment.
It made me wonder who might come and visit my headstone one day. I wonder what the name “Woodall” will mean to those who visit the cemetery and who will plant the flowers and decorate my grave, because my life meant something to them. You see, the day before my daughter and her grandmother went to put flowers on the family graves, and her artistic flare could be seen…her presence definitely known. I’m all about having a good time, enjoying family and friends, and having a great meal—but we must also learn to remember in a sobering and weighty manner that places our lives in the context of larger “Life.” If you haven’t visited a cemetery that matters to you in a while, my homework or challenge for you is to go there and sit by a headstone and remember for a few moments.
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces
In the writing of Zephaniah, there is a recurring theme of the “Day of the Lord.” Two points to be made about this “Day of the Lord” is, first, the prophets use it to point us to a particular moment in which the Lord’s intended order of things will replace the brokenness and corruption we know and live currently. Second, there may be several “Days of the Lord” before the grand and never changing “Day of the Lord” in which God’s justice and will correct a piece of the whole, but not the entirety of the world.
Zephaniah displays this in his oracles against nations and cities, using flood and fire language to talk about wiping them out and leaving them desolate for their arrogance and complacency. In fact, one line that stood out to me was from 1:12 which reads:
“I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners
to punish those who sit complacent in their sins.
They think the Lord will do nothing to them,
either good or bad."
In the midst of this alarming and terrible imagery, there seems to always be a way out of the judgment that is eminent. For example, Zephaniah, shares this with the people at the beginning of chapter 2:1-3
Gather together—yes, gather together,
you shameless nation.
Gather before judgment begins,
before your time to repent is blown away like chaff.
Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls
and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins.
Seek the Lord, all who are humble,
and follow his commands.
Seek to do what is right
and to live humbly.
Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you--
protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.
One of the aspects that we must face in thinking about the “Day of the Lord” is the fact that God has feelings and the “Day of the Lord” is prompted by God’s pain and anger that peoples have not responded to God’s actions in their lives…God’s care and protection and victories have gone unappreciated. God speaks in Zephaniah 3:7 and listen to his words, you may even begin to sense the pain that God is feeling here:
I thought, ‘Surely they will have reverence for me now!
Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
to continue their evil deeds.
I like the ESV that ends this verse by asserting: “But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” So God has poured out his love, protection, and in the law a guide to help humans live a righteous life, and in return their actions have prompted this “Day of the Lord”
Yet, in the end we cannot simply see the “Day of the Lord” as purely negative, and we must flip the metaphorical coin over on the other side and see this event as a stoppage to the broken world and as a world that truly is full of God’s order. Some the verses in Zephaniah 3 speak to this order:
9 “Then I will purify the speech of all people,
so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
11 On that day you will no longer need to be ashamed,
for you will no longer be rebels against me.
I will remove all proud and arrogant people from among you.
There will be no more haughtiness on my holy mountain.
12 Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
17 For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
20 On that day I will gather you together
and bring you home again.
I will give you a good name, a name of distinction,
among all the nations of the earth,
as I restore your fortunes before their very eyes.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Yes, the “Day of the Lord” has a positive side, it is the world we long for and one that can only happen through the purifying work of the Lord. Which brings us to the notion that there are several “Days of the Lord” before we get to the ultimate and full “Day of the Lord” Every time we are called to deeper faith, greater service, purer hearts, and truthful speech, we are experiencing a “Day of the Lord” that is preparing us for the “Day of the Lord.” If we choose to obey and not rebel, then the “Day of the Lord” is not something to be feared and dreaded, but something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Lord, help us to hear your word, obey your will, and wait for your Day to come!
I was reading in Acts 7 this morning where Stephen is preaching to a very hostile crowd. If you know the story in Acts, Stephen gets stoned to death by those listening to his words, and while being stoned that Bible records that he looked up to heaven to see, “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The crowd of the high priest and synagogue attendees was so angry at Stephen that the text says they “ground their teeth” at him and were “enraged.” So, what did Stephen say? Well, there were several aspects of the old system of religion that Stephen criticized, but I think the nail in Stephen’s coffin happened when he spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem. He said this:
46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who actually built it. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
50 Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’”
The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… God lives in the heaven and the earth, God created his throne and God crafted his dwelling place. God lives with us, not separated from some stone barrier. …and this didn’t go over all that well, but we should understand why. In fact, that mound that still exists in Jerusalem sure does continue to get a lot of attention from religious people. Stephen tells them that they resist the Holy Spirit…that is God’s indwelling, God’s presence among his people. They resist it because they have put their faith, trust, and allegiance in the Temple.
God is bigger than that temple, and maybe we might say that God is bigger than our temples. I know we don’t have stone structures that contain God, but we all have boxes that contain God. I know how God thinks and I know how God acts. I know given a particular situation God would do this…and I know that if we don’t fully do what God wants then God will respond in this way. But Jesus changes all of that, we are talking "law" and Jesus came to SAVE…which the law only condemns.
So, let’s check our “temples” today and not try to contain the Most High in boxes created by human hands (or minds). Lord God, show us your glory as high as the heavens and may we see your throne not as a temple, box, or doctrine, but as a Kingdom where you reign and a Kingdom we live today, now, and forevermore in your presence! Amen.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.