Shelter-in-Place; Shelter-in-Christ – COVID Lockdown Devotion, Day 2

I wonder if, before Monday, March 16, 2020, you’d ever heard the term “shelter-in-place,” or, if you had, ever given it much thought.  Overnight the phrase “shelter-in-place” has rocketed into our common vocabulary as a euphemism (okay, not totally so) for “lock down.”  We in Santa Cruz County, like millions of other Californians, live at the moment under a “shelter-in-place” order.

The idea of “shelter-in-place” means to hunker down in response to a threat; to take cover; to seek refuge.  The military uses this phrase to describe how personnel should respond to certain “chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear”events.  More broadly, the idea of seeking shelter reminds me of months spent in Northern Iraq in 2007.  From time-to-time indirect fire attacks (think rockets launched at a base) required us to seek shelter in a bunker until the immediate danger had passed.  Like it or not, as a community we are all receiving “shelter-in-place” on-the-job-training, except this time it’s for real.

Now, while the chance to learn “shelter-in-place” may seem like a dubious honor at the moment, for we who treasure God’s Word it’s a golden opportunity (though, admittedly, it doesn’t always feel like one).  Why should we think so?  Well, just consider how much the idea of “shelter” or “refuge” appears in Scripture, whether with these words or other related synonyms (such as “stronghold” or “shade”).  The image of hunkering down in response to a threat runs strong throughout the Bible.  As we rehearse physically the practice of “shelter-in-place,” we have an opportunity to concurrently meditate spiritually, emotionally, mentally on truths like this one from Isaiah 25:4 (English Standard Version)– “For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat…”

Particularly in the Psalms, it’s clear that we as people need shelter, we need a refuge.  Our world is a beautiful place.  It’s a stunning and majestic place.  And yet, it hides a fatal flaw…sin.  Our world is a beautiful place broken by sin, and that makes it dangerous to us.  Not only that, we ourselves are broken by sin, and thus become a danger to ourselves and to others.  To top it all off, the greatest danger we face is not from the world external to us, and not even from ourselves internally, but rather from God himself, the same God who created us for his own glory.  His wrath burns hot against sin – justly so – and we, if alone and unprotected, face grave, eternal danger in consequence!  Consider how the American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards put this truth in stark terms during one of his more famous (and profound) sermons:

(Speaking of those in rebellion against God) The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If God should only withdraw his hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it (Quoted from“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

Indeed, we need a refuge!  But where are to find one?  Where is the refuge strong enough to withstand the wrath of God himself?  What bunker can hold up against the tidal wave of God’s anger?  Consider with me Psalm 91.

Psalm 91 is a song, a prayer, of shelter and refuge.  It is a prayer appropriate for days of “sheltering-in-place,” a song rightly sung when hunkering down in response to danger.  Here are just the first four verses (from the New American Standard Bible):

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust!”  For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence [Note: “Pestilence.” What a great word for we who are sheltering from the pestilence that is COVID-19].  He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.  

There is so much that we could think about just from these verses alone.  But, notice just one point.  The refuge that God commends is God himself.  The shelter we need is none other than God.  It is God who protects us from the wrath of God (not to mention something as fleeting as a potentially deadly virus)!  How is that possible?  How can we find shelter in God from God’s own wrath?  Answer: The cross.

We can, we must, find shelter, refuge, in God himself, because God himself suffered his own wrath in the person of Jesus Christ, on a cross, at a place called Golgatha.  Mark this…we find shelter because Jesus found none.  In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus saw the tidal wave of God’s anger rushing toward him: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me” (Luke 22:42a).  And yet, even in the face of that horrific threat, he stood fast: “…yet not My will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42b).  Some hours after this prayer the wave arrived with all its brutal, crushing force, while nothing and no one stood between Jesus and the waters of wrath.  There was no shelter at the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Because Jesus Christ endured the wrath of God for sin, we sinners can now find refuge in him.  Here is Jonathan Edwards again, from the same sermon quoted above:

“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.”

Many have found shelter, refuge in Jesus Christ.  Have you?

Brothers and sisters, while you shelter-in-place today, remember Christ.  And as you do, rejoice in the word of Psalm 91 that you can listen to in full by clicking here.

In Christ,

P.J.

The God Who Binds Pleiades – COVID Lockdown Devotion, Day 1

As we joyfully make our way through Santa Cruz County’s shelter-in-place order until at least, seemingly, April 7th, I’d like to greet you each day with a short devotional.  My hope is that we can be encouraged together from God’s Word, and thus live well in a rather strange time.  After each devotional I’ll include any pertinent update information you may need.  So, here goes:

Have you ever taken the opportunity to read through the book of Job?  It’s an absolutely stunning account of God’s work in a man’s life.  Even more, it’s an absolutely glorious description of God’s sovereignty over all things; not as a cold, removed, hostile deity, but as the compassionate, righteous, just, and loving Creator.

For the first thirty-two chapters of Job, we hear about God’s interaction with Satan, the calamities that befall Job (who is, we’re told, “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil”), and Job’s long process of questioning God, complaining against God, and debating with foolish friends.  The back and forth continues for long sections until, in chapter 32, God’s voice begins to come through, not first from God’s mouth directly, but on the lips of Job’s youngest and, ironically, wisest friend, Elihu.

As Elihu begins to speak, the picture begins to sharpen…perspective begins to form…reality in the midst of calamity begins to emerge.  Elihu’s words are striking, especially because they proclaim and defend the sovereign power and righteousness of God, over and against Job’s self-justifying complaints and the foolish counsel of his other companions.  Consider for instance this passage from Job 33:12-18 (Elihu speaking):

“Behold, let me tell you, you are not right in this [meaning, Job is not right in his complaint against God], for God is greater than man.  Why do you complain against Him that He does not give an account of all His doings?  Indeed God speaks once, or twice, yet no one notices it.  In a dream, a vision of the night, when sound sleep falls on men, while they slumber in their beds, then he opens the ears of men, and seals their instruction, that he may keep man from pride; He keeps back his soul from the pit, and his life from passing over into Sheol.”

Notice what Elihu asserts here.  Job has counted God his enemy and wondered at God’s silence in the face of his just complaint.  And Elihu answers, “Not so Job!  Who are you to question God when he does not explain all his doings to you?  What’s more Job, God has in fact spoken.  It’s just that we are so slow to hear his voice.  God speaks in order to turn men away from their prideful sin; to rescue them from the place of death; to bring them into a vibrant new life (see verses 23-30).”

It strikes me that we may be tempted to complain against God in times like those we face at the moment.  But, what if we stop and listen first?  What if we stop and let God’s Word speak to us?  What if a county-wide “quarantine” is God’s way of tuning ears afresh to the sound of his voice?  One major message of Job (a writing inspired by the Spirit of God himself) is this: silence before God.  Perhaps it’s time to be silent for a while.

As we work through the last chapters of Job, we eventually arrive at Job 35:5-8.  In these verses Elihu says to Job:

“If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against Him?  And if your transgressions are many, what do you do to Him?  If you are righteous, what do you give to Him, or what does He receive from your hand?  Your wickedness is for a man like yourself, and your righteousness is for a son of man.” 

Elihu’s reminds Job that nothing Job does, whether good or bad, affects God at all.  God is so “other” than Job, so wholly and completely self-sufficient, so holy and removed, that neither Job’s sin nor Job’s righteousness affect him.  Before we temper Elihu’s words, take a moment and just glory in them.  God is God…you are not…I am not…and nothing we do changes who God is.  Nothing we do, or fail to do, changes his plan and purpose.  He is GOD!  What does COVID-19 mean in relation to God?  In one sense the answer must be: absolutely nothing.

Now, it’s important that we immediately pivot here and say – with Scripture – that Elihu has not said all there is to say about God.  Yes, Yahewh is entirely “transcendent.”  That means he is not us, and we are not him.  It means God is fundamentally unaffected by anything in creation.  BUT, our God is also entirely “immanent.” That means he is personal, present, and deeply concerned with his people and his world.  Elihu speaks truly about God, but there is more to say.  And what is perhaps most spectacular about Job is that God himself adds to Elihu’s words.  God himself balances Elihu’s declaration of his transcendence with his own proclamation of his immanence!  In other words, God says to Job, “Yes, Job, I am wholly ‘other’ than you, but I am also intimately present with you!”  In other words, God says to his Felton Bible Church flock, “Yes, children, I know what you’re facing, and I care about it intensely.”  What does COVID-19 mean in relation to God?  In one sense the answer must be: absolutely everything.

God’s divine speech – the speech that brings balance to Elihu’s assertion – thunders into Job’s life beginning in Chapter 38 with these awesome words: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said…”  These words are some of my personal favorites in all of Scripture.  God is ready to do business with his burdened, troubled, and belabored son.  He will not fix Job’s problems by changing circumstance.  No, God will give Job something far better than a band-aid solution of changed circumstances.  He will give Job himself, through his word.  The last chapters of Job, spoken by God, are beautiful beyond description.  They tell us, among other things, about God’s intimate and powerful care for his creation.  Here is our God!  Who are we to question Him?  Who are to doubt Him?

My voice will not do justice to God’s Words, but click this link for a reading of Job 38:1-42:6.  Listen to it, and let God’s testimony of himself be your solid rock in a difficult but passing moment of time.

Love in Christ,

P.J.

 

 

Responding to the Virus – Update

What follows is posted here for the Felton Bible Church family as we continue to navigate our response to the Coronavirus:

 

Brothers and Sisters,

As things have unfolded over the course of yesterday and this morning, the better part of wisdom means we need to postpone meeting this week.  This morning we learned that the missionary individual scheduled to preach and share with us tomorrow was exposed to a brother from Mexico who began exhibiting flu-like (Coronavirus-like) symptoms.  The probability is that our missionary is just fine (it’s been two weeks). It’s also highly likely that many of us have been exposed to this virus already, without even realizing it.  But, I take it as the Lord’s providence – and providential redirection – that we’ve had to weigh the question of meeting again this morning.  A general sense of unsettledness over tomorrow suggests that we need to change direction.

Please enjoy a Sunday morning at rest with Jesus in your own home!  Take the opportunity to read through Luke 17:20-37 and consider where we’re headed next in our study of the Gospel.  Please also consider giving online through the link available on our website.

We’ll be in touch as the week unfolds about what to expect for the next couple Sundays.  Let’s pray that the Lord will quickly bring us back together. In the meantime, we have a wonderful opportunity to show the world how people who know the sovereign God can live at peace in the midst of difficult uncertainty.

I love you all and will miss being with you tomorrow.

In Christ,

P.J.

Responding to the Virus – A Local Church

What follows is posted here in support of Felton Bible Church’s response to the Coronavirus issues in our community.  Part A is a letter emailed to members and regular attenders.  Part B are further considerations in support of the letter itself:

Part A

Brothers and Sisters,

After prayer, discussion, and communication outside our body, what follows outlines how we intend to proceed as Felton Bible Church in response to the Coronavirus concerns.

Bottom Line Up Front

We believe what God’s Word says to us in Romans 8:28-30 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  God is working through this Coronavirus experience for the good of Jesus’ church.  In some manner, this is God’s instrument to shape us into the likeness of Christ.  Glory will be the end result.  Praise God!

In light of this truth, and after due consideration of the present circumstance, FBC will proceed as follows:

1. As a church we will continue to meet for worship until the Lord directs us otherwise.  This will be a week-by-week consideration accomplished through prayer, by giving attention to our civil authorities, and in wise discussion with one another.

2. As you may arrive at the conviction (in prayer) that participation on Sunday morning is unwise for you personally, then please obey the Spirit and remain at home! We encourage you to make this decision a matter of weekly prayer, and to return to fellowship as soon as you are able.  Please keep the church office informed of your needs so that we can help care for you along the way.  Such is our privilege as the body of Christ.

3. If you are actually experiencing Coronavirus symptoms, or other infectious symptoms, then please stay home and get the care you need.  Be sure to let the FBC office know how your brothers and sisters can help and support you.

4. Depending on your age and general medical condition, wisdom may also require that you remain at home on Sunday mornings.  If you fit into a “high risk” category for severe Coronavirus symptoms, then please consider abstaining from Sunday mornings until this threat has passed.  The article linked here – written by a Jesus’ following doctor and pastor – is quite helpful.  He highlights that the “highest-risk patients are those older than 60 and those who suffer from chronic disease, either respiratory or another type such as diabetes mellitus or renal failure.”

5. We will modify our time together on Sunday morning consistent with wise precautionary measures.  Hand sanitizer will be available in the foyer on Sunday.  Please use it!  Better yet, bring your own, use that, and help preserve the church’s limited supply.  We will encourage you to bump elbows on Sunday and forgo shaking hands (but we won’t run you out of town if you do).

6. Please consider that the church’s financial needs will continue throughout this period of Coronavirus difficulty.  Remember that you can give electronically through the Online Giving tab on the FBC website.

What you’ve just read is the “Bottom Line Up Front” of a more extensive discussion available at the “Fix Your Mind” Blog.  Please read the latest post if you’d like to understand how we’ve arrived at this point.

May the Lord bless and keep you.  Please pray for wisdom as we consider our unfolding circumstances and seek the Lord in this situation.  It will be a day-by-day process…which is to say, an exercise in faith!

In Christ,

P.J. and Warren (In consultation with others)

Part B

Theological Grounding

Gathering together in worship is not “optional” for the body of Christ, it’s essential.  It’s not incidental to our lives as followers of Jesus, it’s central.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we live under a law of particulars about how, when, or in what manner we gather.  Indeed, God’s Word gives us great freedom to do what is both edifying and wise.  But, the centrality of corporate worship to the life of Jesus’ church means that we ought not surrender such time easily.  In other words, we look to the Spirit of God to direct when and how we meet, particularly as God himself providentially orchestrates the circumstances we face.  It seems that we are not yet at the point of needing to voluntarily forgo meeting for Sunday worship.  May the Lord, in his mercy, spare us such a day!

Experience of the Church

It’s worth remembering that Jesus’ church has often gathered under difficult and even dangerous circumstances.  One excellent story of persistence in worship comes from World War II England and the experience of believers at Westminster Chapel.  On one occasion during a service a German bomb landed nearby the church building, such that, “Windows rattled and plaster fell.”  In response, the pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “paused for a moment and then continued to pray…the man who gave the notices…came up, gave the announcements as always, and dusted her father off, and then watched her father go back up and start preaching” [Mark Dever, “What I’ve Learned About Preaching from Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” in Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 258].

If we went even further back in church history, we’d find Christians busily ministering to their plague-ridden family and neighbors.  For instance, in the year 1527, Martin Luther wrote a response letter to Christians in Breslau titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”  It’s a document full of sound theology and neighbor-loving practical wisdom.  Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Of course, even as we note the above, it’s also important that we remain mindful of times when the church did cease gathering in response to a public health threat.  The last time such extraordinary measures took place on a large-scale in America came with the 1918 global flu pandemic (Note: You may appreciate the two articles linked to here and here).  For brief periods of time in the fall of that year civil authorities in many places specifically prohibited most or all public gatherings, including church services.  In obedience to the law and out of love for neighbor, churches complied.  After the month of October when the infection and death rates began to drop, church leaders lobbied civil authorities for a lifting of the ban (see the linked articles).

Amidst all these experiences it has constantly been the duty of Jesus’ church to boldly and wisely proclaim the Gospel.  Now it’s our turn (in much less dramatic circumstances) to be wisely bold while we too speak and live the Gospel.  By God’s grace, we will.

Santa Cruz County and California State Guidance

Currently the Santa Cruz County Public Health Office recommends canceling “non-essential” gatherings of 50 or more people.  The county has not yet formally banned such events through legal channels, and in the meantime other public services and venues remain open and functioning – shops, malls, zoos, etc.

Beyond the county, the California Department of Public Health states, “…gatherings that include 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled…Smaller gatherings held in venues that do not allow social distancing of six feet per person should be postponed or canceled…This applies to all non-essential professional, social, and community gatherings regardless of their sponsor.  Gatherings that do not meet the aforementioned criteria should only be conducted when they are essential…”

Because these guidelines remain in the realm of recommendations, we feel that FBC is still free to exercise wisdom in whether, or how, we gather.  Should our public health agencies move to the level of legally supported, limited-time bans on such gatherings, then we will need to reconsider our approach.

Experience of other Local Churches

Our decision is essentially consistent with that taken by our brothers and sisters in a nearby like-minded church.  While each congregation is free to pursue its own decision before the Lord, we appreciated the opportunity today (12 Mar 20) to confer with a church outside of our own.

Other congregations in our community will decide differently according to their own unique needs and circumstances.  For instance, the largest church gathering in Santa Cruz County determined that it will forgo meeting physically (in favor of livestreaming) through March 22nd.  We honor this church’s desire to serve and love its “neighbor.”

The Beauty of “Smallish” 

For some time now we as FBC have struggled – just beneath the surface often – with awareness of our small size relative to some churches in our area.  While this is not the place for a full-orbed discussion of congregation size, can we not, for a moment, rejoice in being a smallish local church?  It is much easier for us to continue meeting because God has limited our numbers at this point in our congregational life.  Praise God!

Preparing for The Future

As we wait on the Lord for an end to this public health concern, we will also work to think creatively about a way ahead should corporate gatherings become necessarily (or legally) restricted in our area.  “Creative” may include things like:

Livestreaming the service

Gathering in smaller groups

Conducting our services outside

By God’s grace we are not the first Christians to encounter a situation like this, which means we can borrow good ideas from others!

Christian Freedom

We close by emphasizing where we began.  Yes, at present Felton Bible Church will gather for our normal service on Sunday morning.  But, be free before the Lord (in prayer) to remain home as you deem it necessary.  Be encouraged that our God is merciful, and the difficulty of this moment will pass according to his timing and good purpose.

Super Tuesday?…Super God!

It’s Super Tuesday in America’s “every four-year” cycle of presidential electoral democracy.  That means the affairs of humanity and nations occupy much of our mental space at the moment.  Not only that, but we daily read headlines of great significance – coronavirus, Taliban peace deal, Turkey and Syria, and the list could go on.  How good then is this breath of fresh, heavenly air from Psalm 33 (the biblical text appears in italics):

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. [Look at the stars tonight and capture a small sense of what this means!]

He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deeps in storehouses. [Do you live by the ocean? If so, go look and contemplate Yahweh’s power!]

[What should our response be to this Creator God?] Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.

For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. [Yahweh is God who spoke all that is into existence!]

[Now, listen to how this God deals with men and nations.] The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. 

The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance. [Who is a nation like this? Who is a people like this?  It’s Jesus’ church, his body, his bride.]

Why does God nullify and frustrate the plans and purposes people when we act in our sin?  Rewind to verse 5 and here’s the answer: He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the LORD. The Lord acts in mercy for the glory of His name and the joy of those he means to save; those who will repent of their sin and follow Jesus.  Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.  He is the radiance of God’s righteousness and the exact representation of his justice (I’m adapting Hebrews 1:3 here).  He is the great expression and the apex “tangible-act” of God’s lovingkindness, his mercy.

Yes, it’s Super Tuesday. Yes, coronavirus ravages.  Yes, wars rage.  But, “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His lovingkindness, to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine.  Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield.  For our heart rejoices in Him, because we trust in His holy name. 

Amen!  May it be true of us.  Let your lovingkindness, O LORD, be upon us, according as we have hoped in You.

Thou Shalt Not Work!

It’s easy for us to sometimes disregard, or functionally set aside, those portions of Scripture with which we are less familiar or culturally less connected to. Leviticus is one such portion. And yet, the Holy Spirit means to use all Scripture in his work to teach us, to reprove us, to correct us, and to train us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).  The Lord recently blessed me with an experience of this truth while reading Leviticus 23:26-32, Yahweh’s instructions to his people for the Day of Atonement.

Recall first the purpose of the Day of Atonement (Note: I’m helped here by the entry for “To Atone” in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).  Held on the tenth day of the seventh month (Israel’s “holy” month), this was the day each year when the high priest offered a special sacrifice, or series of sacrifices, before God to address the sins of Israel as a whole (see Leviticus 16). It was the day when a “scapegoat” was sent out and away from the camp, symbolically taking the people’s sins from them.  It was the one day each year when God said the high priest must enter into the Tabernacle’s (and later the Temple’s) Holy of Holies; into the presence of God before the Ark of the Covenant with its mercy seat.  The word “atone” carries with it the idea of covering over – “to cover over, atone, propitiate, pacify” (Vines, “To Atone”).  On the Day of Atonement, God covered Israel’s sins, presenting his people pure to himself, ready for relationship.

With that background, let me quote verses 26-32 of Leviticus 23.  As you read these (from the New American Standard Bible), pay special attention to what Israel must notdoon the Day of Atonement: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD.  You shall not do any workon this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.  If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people.  As for any person who does any workon this day, that person I will destroy from among his people.  You shall do no workat all.  It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”

 Did you catch the overwhelming emphasis of these verses?  On the Day of Atonement, the day each year when their sins were covered and sent away from them, God commanded the people of Israel to cease working and rest.  On other days of religious celebration they were not to do any “laborious,” or “ordinary” (in the ESV), work (see Lev. 23:36), but on the Day of Atonement they were to cease from allwork.  It’s a point repeated at least three times in these seven verses, and so it is abundantly clear – on the Day of Atonement, no work!

Now, why does God command with such stringency this ceasing from labor on the Day of Atonement?  In the theology of the Old Testament we could probably give several answers, but one that captures my attention and won’t let me budge.  On the Day of Atonement God covered and dealt with the sins of his people. He took them away (and by implication took away both the consequence and the power of sin).  This process of covering and removing required nothingin terms of work from his people.  There was nothing they could do to deal with their sin before God…nothing they could do to save themselves.  Atonement, from start to finish, was God’s work.  Do you see it?!  It’s as if God says to his people: “Sit still and rest.  I love you, and I will deal with your filthy rebellion against me.  You can do nothing, I must do all.”  Paul’s rendering of this same truth comes in the well-traveled (and much beloved) words of Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  God does everything while we rest in faith.  Therein lies salvation.

The great and final Day of Atonement came on the day when Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross.  He was at once the sacrificial bull, the lamb and the ram and the goat of burnt offering, and the scapegoat sent outside the camp bearing the people’s sin (see Leviticus 16).  What is our part in light of Jesus’ atoning work?  Our part is to Sabbath (to rest) in faith, doing no work, but living lives of joy where labor is worship and effort is the outcome of grace.

Rejoice! The Day of Atonement has come.  In Christ, if you will come to him, your sins have been covered and removed from you.  Will you now rest in him and cease from all your work to do and earn what you cannot achieve or merit?

 

 

A Bush that Leads to Repentance

Recently, while reading in Leviticus 14, I came across this prescription in God’s requirements for the cleansing of people afflicted with leprosy (Note: In Old Testament usage, “leprosy” is a broad term that covers a multiplicity of skin ailments): “Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and the cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop.  And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water.  He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water.  And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field.” (Leviticus 14:3b-7).

Picture of Hyssop
Hyssop growing in Israel (Credit: Todd Bolen, Photo Companion to the Bible – John 19)

Now, obviously there’s much to consider in these verses – ritually, culturally, theologically. But, what struck me most in the moment is the text’s mention of hyssop.  Hyssop, in the context of ancient Israel, was probably a particular plant that grew on walls (this from A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament and A Dictionary of Biblical Languages: Hebrew – Old Testament; see also 1 Kings 4:33).  David, in his devastating and amazing song of repentance (Psalm 51) says this to the Lord: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).  Why did David reference hyssop?  Because he knew God’s Law and God’s Word.  He knew the connection between hyssop and a restoration to purity in the sight of God. I think David thought of his sin as something like leprosy – a defiling affliction that made him utterly unclean and unfit to enter God’s presence (Note: Lepers were not permitted to remain within the congregation of Israel but had to live apart from the main camp.  It’s also worth observing that washings were part of the restoration process connected with leprosy – wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow).  When he prayed a prayer of repentance for restoration, David prayed along the lines of God’s revealed Word in his Law.  He prayed like a leper needing cleansing.

Something else strikes me about David’s prayer, especially when I think about it in connection with leprosy.  Leprosy is a skin disease.  It is, in a sense, surface-deep.  And yet, even in the Old Testament Levitical code we get the sense that, symbolically at least, leprosy pointed beneath the skin to deeper issues of sin and brokenness (Note: This does not mean that all lepers were “sinners” any more than every Israelite was a “sinner”).  For instance, diagnosing a true case of leprosy involved the priest determining that what appeared on the surface of the body derived from a condition deeper than the skin itself (see Leviticus 13:3).  Even this nuance is not lost on the leprous David.  His sin is not merely “surface-deep”: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spiritwithin me” (Psalm 51:10).  What appeared on the skin of David’s life (adultery and murder) reflected the disease of his heart.  It was a disease that only God could heal!

Finally, one last point from David’s song of repentance and its mention of hyssop.  There is one other Old Testament reference to the plant, a reference David must also have known about.  It’s the reference of Exodus 12:21b-22.  As God prepared to bring the judgment of death on the land of Egypt, he determined to rescue his people from his own wrath.  This rescue necessitated the blood of a lamb applied to the lintels of the doors of the Israelite’s houses.  How was this supposed be done?  Just consider Moses’ words in Exodus: “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb.  Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin.” The blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorway with hyssop covered the Israelites in the day of God’s wrath. As David prays for purging with hyssop, it is that God-ordained covering for sin that he so earnestly desires in his own case.

I want to end with two concluding thoughts, beginning first with the dual nature of repentance that we see in David’s reference to hyssop.  True repentance knows and readily admits at least something of the real nature of sin; it’s depth, it’s defilement; it’s ugliness.  Sin is like leprosy that springs from the heart, and true repentance says as much.  But, even as it readily admits the leprous nature of sin, true repentance also finds real hope in confession.  The same mention of hyssop that links Psalm 51 to leprosy also links it to God’s great act of covering and deliverance in Exodus, an act that clearly foreshadows Jesus himself. True repentance is never despairing, it is always the starting point of saving hope.

Second, and finally, when God brings us to a place of utter conviction, what do we do, what do we say? When confession and repentance begin to grab hold of our consciousness, how do we express to God and others the workings of our heart?  For David, the answer was God’s Word.  In the moment of soul-rending conviction, David’s language cues us to the workings of his mind, the pondering of his heart.  In that moment of crisis, David’s mind and heart dove into God’s Law.  That Law shaped his song, his prayer of repentance, even down to the very words and images he employed.  What better place to go, especially when God’s Word brought not only righteous conviction, but also a pointer to glorious redemption?  When the Lord brings us, like David, to such moments, shouldn’t we go to the same refuge this king found so ready and powerful?

All that…from one little plant…Merry Christmas!