Sunday, October 30, 2016
If God Sent An Email To Our Leaders
By Rev. Paul J. Bern
Given the state of affairs of leadership in general throughout the world, and particularly here in the US with the current crop of Christian “leaders” such as Sarah Pailin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckaby and Michelle Bachman, I can't help but wonder what God must be thinking about all this. As you recall, Mr. Romney stated during the closing days of his 2012 presidential campaign that, if elected president, his first act as chief executive would be to launch an airstrike on Iran. Keep in mind that this is the same guy who is opposed to abortion and who calls himself “pro-life”. He fights for the rights of the unborn, but if you're already alive and living in Iran, you're toast. Go figure.
Of course, if you live in Syria, where the government is slaughtering the governed and where there is no oil, you're on your own. Yet in Iraq, where there is plenty of oil, we have occupied that country since 2003 while killing over 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians, over half of whom were women and children. But that war was supposed to be different because we toppled a terrible dictator. Never mind that that same dictator, none other than Saddam Hussein himself, was a former CIA collaborator and “asset”. So much for loyalty among allies. Yes, that's what our country has been doing in the Middle East since Gulf War 1 in 1990-91. And it is the American military-industrial-incarceration complex that has been doing this same thing throughout the globe since the Cold War of the 20th century.
Meanwhile here at home, one person in five depends on SNAP benefits to eat. Lots of people can't afford medical care or insurance so they show up at emergency rooms, only when they absolutely have to, knowing that the medical bills they are about to incur will bankrupt them. Twenty four million Americans can't find sufficient work (if any), but since they can't afford to go back to school and get retrained because of the staggering cost of America's for-profit higher education system, they remain stuck in their situation with no relief in sight. As I wrote in my first book, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto” (scroll down after clicking the link), our country has more than enough money to pay for lifetime medical care and higher education for every single American who wants either or both. All they have to do is call off all the endless wars and bring our troops home.
As I explained in this 2011 book, if the US government took all the money that is spent in just one day on the wars/occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and put it into an interest-bearing bank account, there would be ample funding for 4-year college educations for every school kid in America from pre-K through high school, including tuition, books, housing, food and transportation. Internet too. Yeah, just one day's war expenditures would do that. Besides, there is sufficient legal precedent in doing this very thing in the form of the GI Bill that was passed by Congress after the end of World War 2. If they could reeducate G.I.'s back then (and that law remains in effect), they can do it for everybody now.
But what do we have instead? Overseas military adventures purely for the sake of economic domination by the US against any country regardless of cost. This is not just unsustainable, it is sheer madness! Our government has been taken over by a bunch of psychopaths. They operate from behind the scenes bent on world conquest at any cost, failing to understand that the “superpower” era is over, and they are an integral part of the so-called “new world order”. Unless they are stopped they will take the world over the brink of the abyss of World War 3. Yet these people are, by and large, religious conservatives of one church denomination or another. Their counterparts in the Muslim world are similarly conservative religious fundamentalists. Only their names for God are different. Yet, as far as I am concerned, there is only one true God who is undoubtedly far greater than the sum of all the world's different religious faiths combined. If this very same almighty God, who is “The Great I Am”, sent us an email about all this mess down here on earth, I think it would be worded something like this:
“My children, I appear before you now to bestow upon you a supplemental to the New Testament. I offer this directly to the peoples of earth, without intermediary, cleric, or agent of any kind. Circumstances have compelled me to sever all ties, contracts and assignments with my earthly representatives. I have been, in fact, very dissatisfied with their performance of their duties for some time. Children get molested in some churches, adultery runs rampant in others, while still others have turned their churches into businesses and have enriched themselves with material possessions beyond all reason. You pastors and evangelists who drive around in cars with six-figure price tags while flying around in your own jets, you know who you are. There's nothing wrong with having a nice car and a comfortable house, but a good bit of that plane money should have been used to feed the poor and house the homeless, whom you are ignoring. But the rape of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and other crimes committed in my name by the USA, not counting the additional war plans they have made, has forced my hand. All my earthly representatives are now terminated! They no longer speak for me.”
“Humankind, however, remains in my affections and always shall. But it would be remiss of me not to explain why I have taken such drastic measures. War displeases me. Five thousand years of war among the humans over the right way to pronounce my name, not to mention the earth's resources which I gave you, has exhausted my patience. I will no longer be responsible for any more murders committed under color of my authority. Although I do not require that you worship me in any certain way, I much prefer that you who claim to believe in me should put some legs on your faith. It's good when you fast and pray, but it's far better to go and find someone in need and doing whatever you can to help him or her.”
“Someone who goes to church every Sunday but does nothing more during the week is not as faithful in my eyes as someone who donates to charity, who volunteers their free time, who is a role model for the fatherless, or who visits the sick, the elderly and the prisoner, and someone who is a defender of the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable individuals. I created you with a divine spark, in my image. But you persist in snuffing out that spark and destroying that image in those who don't agree with you about whether or not it is permitted to draw my face. Until you prove you can worship the divine spark I put in all of you, and desist from the mayhem and slaughter that you love more than me, I will summarily reject and disallow all your claims to my providence.”
“You have banded yourselves into tribes, nations and races and the results have not been pleasing to my eye. I take some responsibility for this distressing development; I should not have given you an earth so large. But had I started with a smaller Eden, you would have corrupted and polluted it until it became uninhabitable millenia ago. You have proven your refusal to understand the panoply of laws and wisdom I laid down for you when I set you upon the earth. I have been mistranslated by your spirit guides and abused by your leaders. Perhaps I was too complex. Let us try to simplify. Respect my creation and all the inhabitants thereof. Any so-called religious leader who tells you otherwise is a false prophet and does not represent me, my brethren or any part of my Kingdom which is to surely come.”
“Those of you who find comfort in organized religion may continue to do so. I understand – I created you as vessels for love and love rejoices in the presence of others. Keep your churches, mosques and synagogues, but cease your bickering. And remember, when you engage in bloodletting in My name, you commit blasphemy. I realize that in severing my ties with so many of the sects, denominations and "holy men" that you rely upon for moral guidance, I have created confusion where there was once certainty in your souls. But that cannot be helped. Your certainties were almost certainly wrong and most certainly misapplied.”
“But do not despair, my children, for I have not abandoned you. There is a little piece of me inside all of you, a fail-safe guide to good and evil, a moral compass that never leaves you, a true voice you can hear amid the storms of fire that drive you mad with hatred and confusion. It is called your conscience and it always points upward. Follow it and you will be walking in my light. Ignore it and you'll be lost in the darkness cast by your own shadow. Here is your New, New Testament, starting with Commandment One:”
“I have given you a conscience. Use it.”
“Sort that out to my satisfaction and maybe next millennium we can talk about the dietary laws.”
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
The Birth of Jesus
[Luke chapter 2, verses 1-24]
For today's study we'll be moving on to Luke chapter 2, or the story of Jesus' birth. No matter what time of year you read this, this classic and timeless story of everything surrounding the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is a story for all seasons. The birth of Christ Jesus is the beginning of the salvation story of all humankind. Our Savior's birth is also the starting point of all our eternities. It is and will always remain the only way we can have reconciliation with our Creator. Without Christ, we are nothing! Bearing this in mind, let's initialize our study of the first half of Luke chapter two, beginning with verse one.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up to the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem in the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the Town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.'” (Luke chapter 1, verses 1-12)
All this took place somewhere between the years 3BC and 3AD, no one knows the exact date. But there is a discrepancy of approximately 6 years between the ancient Hebrew calendar and the modern Western calendar that we use today. Just to illustrate how much harder life was back then than it is today, Joseph and an evidently very pregnant Mary had to walk all the way back to Joseph's home town to be registered for Caesar Augustus' census, a distance of at least 150 miles. There were no cars, the only transportation was on horseback or by donkey. There was no electricity either, so having an Internet was inconceivable. Let this be an illustration of how fortunate we are today, having all those luxuries at our fingertips, sometimes literally.
The other thing I am compelled to point out is the circumstances and deep symbolism surrounding the birth of our Lord. “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.” What kind of cloths were those which Mary used, and what exactly is a 'manger'? A manger is a feeding trough for farm animals, such as cattle, pigs or sheep, among others. So it's safe to say that Joseph and Mary were in a barn or maybe a hayloft of some kind “because there was no room for them at the inn”. The symbolism of the infant Jesus being laid in a feeding trough is impossible to ignore (“I am the bread of life” – Jesus Christ). So are the cloths, which were used for milking cows and goats. They symbolize the extremely humble circumstances of our Savior's birth. The cloths were basically rags. Joseph couldn't run down to Wal Mart and buy diapers and a few 'onesies', as they're called today. Mary and Joseph had to make do with what was available to them, and they apparently didn't mind a bit.
I find it interesting that the news of Jesus' birth was not announced in the Temple courts in Jerusalem, or in the palaces of the rulers, or even in the town squares. It was announced to some shepherds in the fields outside of town, in the countryside, to ordinary people rather than those who held positions of power and authority. All the power and authority of the world's governments pales in comparison to that of Jesus Christ. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the Town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.'” The “town of David” is, of course, Bethlehem, which is located in what is currently southeastern Israel. I find it interesting that there are so many Arabs who call this area part of “Palestine”, when it is in fact the ancestral land of Christ Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, all of whom are documented Jews in our story. OK, so now that we've cleared up any questions about whose land this is, let's move on to the second part of our study, beginning at verse 13.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests'. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about'. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen them, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had just heard or seen, which were just what they has been told.” (Luke 2, verses 13-20)
“'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests'.” Peace on earth? Today things are worse than ever. The US military, to use a contemporary example, is currently involved, directly or indirectly, in approximately 75 military conflicts of various kinds globally. This insistent tinkering with the affairs of countries all over the world proves that America is deliberately disobeying the Word of God. Otherwise, the majority of these wars would either not have happened at all, or would have been long since over with. Plus, there would be a lot of people still alive today who got killed in these conflicts. We all have to face up to the fact that America has a bunch of out-of-control psychopaths running the country. It no longer matters who we vote for, because our elected Congressional and Executive branches no longer represents regular Americans. They represent the military-industrial complex and the American police state. Moreover, I strongly suspect that much the same thing is happening all over the globe. But before I get too deep into that, let me continue this Bible study instead. For additional commentary about the other, check out my blogs either here or here.
So the shepherds who had just been visited by an angel decided it was in their best interest to go and see the infant Jesus. After all, they reasoned, they would never get this chance again, to see and behold the newborn Savior and holy Redeemer who was none other than Christ the Lord! And they never questioned what they had seen, either. If some farmhands making the modern equivalent of minimum wage knew what they were seeing, how much more should we believe – we who have internet access to almost limitless knowledge, plus electronic devices and motor vehicles that were inconceivable to these people? The same thing happened when they related to others what they had seen, as it is written, “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen them, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” As you can see, those who the shepherds told about the birth of Christ had no problem believing them either. Like the shepherds, their faith was instantaneous and unquestioning, just as every true believer should be. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had just heard or seen, which were just what they had been told.” That's how they knew. Everything the angel told them happened exactly as he said it would, right down to the smallest detail. Only God can do that, and they knew it immediately. Having determined that this was so, let's now conclude today's study.
“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, 'every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord' [Exodus 13: 2, 12]) and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of doves or two young pigeons' [Leviticus 12: 8]. (Luke 2: 21-24)
As I pointed out in a previous study, male circumcision on the eighth day after his birth was required in the Old Law in Genesis chapter 17 and verse 10. Luke wrote about this and all the other things to illustrate that Mary and Joseph followed the law to the very letter, making them blameless in God's sight. That's why God chose them to begin with. They also presented the baby Jesus to the Lord, as the Law of Moses required, as their first-born, and offered a sacrifice of “'a pair of doves or two young pigeons'”, but Luke's gospel doesn't say which of the two it was. Under the Old Law, a sacrifice of a lamb, a young heifer or a goat (“without spot or blemish”) was required of those who had herds of their own. But for those who were not in agriculture, such as those too poor to own any land, a pair of doves or pigeons was allowed as a substitute. It was right about this time that the next character in the story of Jesus' birth enters the picture, a gentleman named Simeon. To find out who he was, and the role he played during the time Jesus was being presented at the Temple, stay tuned until next week, when we'll pick up where we left off. Everybody enjoy your week, or what's left of it, until next week's study of the 2nd half of Luke chapter two. Shalom!
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Ways to Fight Back Against an Evil and Dangerous World
By Rev. Paul J. Bern
America's electoral process plows ahead towards what could turn out to be a Constitutional meltdown, although I sure hope not. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of our senior citizens live into their 100's while mired in poverty. The horrific specter of terrorism rears its ugly head as it spreads globally, threatening everything in its path over, ironically, religious differences. One priest/minister saves lepers and drives out demons, another abuses kids. One Nazi ran the ovens while others hid Jews. There's life and death, positive and negative, good and bad in all kinds of folks, even the 'bad' ones. And when we marvel at those contradictions we have a ready explanation. There's good and bad everywhere, in all races, nations, societies. We have yet to bridge our differences in race or culture or nationality or faith, but at least we can all agree on that simple truth while we continue to work on all the others.
We live in a 21st century of instant communication, jumbo jets, knowledge and computing power that grow exponentially, and everything on social media all the time. Nations are beginning to blur; races, ethnicities and various nationalities are mixing, our globe has shrunk to an overheated marble, yet the world seems more fractured than ever. So much divides us while so much more scares us half to death, like the ever-present threat of nuclear war, or a sudden and unexpected job layoff. What unites us? Religion? It could, but having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is much better, because it can unite us all when put into practice, as it is written, “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2nd Timothy chapter 2, verses 11-13) Meaning that Jesus Christ, as always, is and has the answers we are all searching for. The maximum number of true Gods is only one. Yet we've been waging wars for millennia over what to call him and whether he likes his picture shown or not. But while religions, unfortunately, can't agree on the real nature of God, they're remarkably close on people. There is near universal agreement on what makes a good one.
Be kind to people, treat your neighbors well, be hospitable to strangers, pray for your enemies instead of attacking them, love one another, live honestly, and a dozen other virtues seem to comprise the teachings of Jesus. Its a definition of being as close to 'the perfect human' as we can possibly be. All societies agree on them without exception. It's as plain as daytime in the Bible, starting with the four gospels. Humankind has been speaking these words since the first philosopher carved cuneiform into clay.
We must have an instinctive sense of goodness taught by our parents, teachers, pastors and all others who chip in to get the next generation on the right path in life. Goodness is not born into us. The Bible reprimands us that, “All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory” (Romans 3: 22-23). Rather than saying we are all sinners, which is still ever so true, let me put this in a more modern context. We – every last one of us, all of humanity, myself included – are born with a natural enmity towards our Creator. We are like disobedient children, wild horses that cannot be broken in, or dogs that cannot be trained. Not all of us are particularly grateful for being alive, some simply presume they're supposed to be here.
Moreover, since God made us all with a free will, we are prone to abuse it without considering the consequences first. Many of us have no relationship with God at all, for various reasons that I will decline to judge, at least for now. That's what “sinful nature” means. We also agree on what makes a bad person: The manipulator, the cheater, the bully, the taker, the liar, the murderer and the thief. We know who we are. The vast majority of us try not to hurt people. We try not to cheat, lie and steal and we're ashamed of ourselves when life drives us to those ends, or when things don't go according to plan. We profess peace on earth and goodwill towards men, yet we Americans in particular look the other way while the USDoD continues to stockpile nuclear weapons. And for ten thousand years we've let the bad people push us around and tell us what to do and whom to do it to. We've let them dominate us because they were mean and ruthless enough to force us, and we were too soft or lazy to stop them until they did terrible damage. We should not ever hesitate to stop evil people.
Bad people are very hard to ignore. You can't avoid a bad person if he or she happens to be your boss at work. And that happens a lot, because bad people seem disproportionately to occupy corner offices and seats on the Board of Directors. They know how to play the cynical, cold hearted game of office politics. That can be rough on you if you work with them. But the worst people also know how to play the high-stakes game of real politics, and that's rough on everybody. Bad people hate, and they convince ordinary good people to hate the same things. Oh sure, there are always a few saints who rise above the evil that bad people do, and they usually die for it. We know about them posthumously from the Bible (Christ's crucifixion, the story of Stephen in Acts 6, 7 & 8, etc.), the King and Kennedy assassinations of the 1960's, stories about 9/11, and books about the Holocaust.
But those aren't good people, they're great people, and we can't count on them because they don't come along every day. But there are always plain old good people around, because there's good and bad in all kinds. To borrow a truism, the only reason bad people succeed is because good people stand by and do nothing. And so this is a call to arms for good people everywhere! We have to stop following the bad people immediately! Without us, bad people lose their power, bad governments lose their legitimacy, ditto for these huge corporations that pollute the earth and poison our food and water. Does anyone reading this who believes in a Higher Power seriously believe that God has not seen all this? Is there anyone remaining who does not understand that God is sitting back waiting for just the right time, just the right set of circumstances and for the worst possible moment to unleash the fury he has stored up for those who know only violence, death and cruelty??
Good people everywhere, I'm speaking to every one of you. We need to go on strike against the world! Let's tell the bullies and haters they no longer exist as far as we're concerned. Let's tell the warmongers we refuse to go to foreign lands and fight their wars, because we don't want to have to kill any more people for the benefit of a few. Let's laugh at the conspiracies of their 'intelligence communities', reject the twisted right wing-nut theories of “American exceptional-ism”, and refuse to be provoked by the aggression of small minorities. Let's tell them we won't play their deadly games anymore! Let's tell them it's over! We're not going to buy their stuff any more, either!Let's tell all the capitalists where they can go with all their junky merchandise, and exactly how to get there! Maybe we can give them an island where they can fight it out to their black hearts' content. Greenland comes to mind, so does Antarctica. Maybe they'll all just kill each other off there, on the island of the damned. Maybe then, and only then, the rest of us can finally have some peace and quiet.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
The Birth of John the Baptist
[Luke chapter 1, verses 57-80]
For today's lesson, we'll be finishing up the rest of Luke chapter one, which is a pretty long chapter as far as Scripture is concerned. So far we have learned that Luke's gospel was written – in all likelihood – when the apostle Luke was an elderly man, and that this is actually a long letter to a gentleman named Theophilus composed for posterity's sake, something like a 1st century version of a blog posting. We have also studied the circumstances surrounding the conceptions of Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, including the story of Zechariah the Levite priest who, when told he would become a father even though he was of old age, asked one single question – 'how?' – only to be rendered mute by the angel who visited him until the birth of his son for questioning the will of God. The remainder of this chapter completes that process, as we shall soon see. So, let's take up where we left off beginning at verse 57.
“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eight day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, 'No! He is going to be called John.' They said to her, 'There are no relatives among you who has that name.' Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, 'His name is John'. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking all about these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?' For the Lord's hand was with him.” (Luke 1, verses 57-66)
You will recall from part one of our study of this chapter that Elizabeth and Zechariah had conceived a child even though they were elderly, and what a miracle that was! Keep in mind the average life span back then was 40-45 years of age, and that since life was a lot harder people tended to age much more quickly. Elizabeth and Zechariah were likely older still, probably in their 50's or 60's, so Elizabeth's pregnancy was most assuredly miraculous in every sense of the word. “On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child”, refers to Genesis chapter 17, where male circumcision was first made mandatory. “They came” refers to coming to the Temple at Jerusalem, which was where the circumcisions were performed in those days.
The other thing that really stands out here, at least to me, is this couple's complete agreement on the baby's name despite the fact that Zechariah couldn't speak. As we found out in part one of this Bible teaching, Elizabeth's baby was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he was conceived. So both Zechariah and Elizabeth insisted that the child's name was John because that's what they had been told in advance by the visiting angels. They also had foreknowledge of the baby's gender for the same reason, and all this at a time when knowing the gender of an unborn child prior to its birth was unheard of. It was for all these reasons that the people in the Judean hill country (this would be the higher elevations of the West Bank area today) were so awestruck by this series of events. “Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?'” So it can be clearly seen that everyone knew this was going to be a special child, completely out of the ordinary. And now let's conclude today's Bible study beginning at verse 67.
“His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and he has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High: for you will go on before the Lord to prepare a way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.' And the child grew and became strong in the Spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1, verses 67-80)
Zechariah knew when he wrote on that tablet, “His name is John”, that he would get his voice back, but he also knew when it was in his best interest to just go ahead and believe God. Everyone has seen or experienced this very thing at some point in their lives. There are times when it seems to us that God must have taken a break and left our very fate open to question. Things will seem to be going haywire all at once in spite of our best efforts, and we sometimes don't know why this is so. I have no doubt that Zechariah's inability to speak for nine months straight took a heavy toll upon him. In much the same way, things continuing to go wrong in our own lives for what seems like no logical reason can at times take a heavy toll on us as well. Living for Christ can be stressful at times because we live in an anti-Christ world. Just look around you and you, too, will conclude that our overall situation is rapidly deteriorating. Indeed, we are headed for a major war, something I just posted about this past weekend. (please see http://wp.me/p4uvMi-fT)
Yet God has been trying to “guide us into the path of peace” throughout humankind's recorded history. This anti-Christ world will continue for the near future, and it's going to get a lot worse, especially for those who are ardent Christians. But that is the price we must pay to prove our faith, because Jesus has already paid the ultimate price to save all of us. It is up to us to reciprocate as best we can because Jesus has already saved us, if only we will believe. If there is anyone reading this who has not believed in Jesus up to this point, I implore you to embrace him as your Savior while you have the time and the opportunity! Please don't delay because things are winding up very quickly, and current events will soon take a turn for the worse. It is not enough to simply “accept Jesus” as some denominations erroneously teach. Don't just accept him, as if we're doing Jesus a favor – embrace him wholeheartedly! Your world will be much better because of it, so claim the eternal salvation of Jesus Christ today, a salvation that has been yours all along! Enjoy your new relationship.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
The Confrontation Between Russia and the US Found In the Bible, and the Outcome Doesn't Look Very Good For America
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
I'm quite sure everyone is well aware by now of the rising tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria, the Ukraine, and the Crimean peninsula. Although the roots of US-Russo tension go back to the late 1940's, let me give a brief history of events between the two countries over the last 7 years or so. In March 2007, the U.S. announced plans to build an anti-ballistic missile defense installation in Poland along with a radar station in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials said that the system was intended to protect the United States and Europe from possible nuclear missile attacks by Iran or North Korea. Russia, however, viewed the new system as a potential threat. Vladimir Putin warned the U.S. that these new tensions could turn Europe into a "powder keg". On 3 June 2007, Putin warned that if the U.S. built the missile defense system, Russia would consider targeting missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic. On 16 October 2007, Vladimir Putin visited Iran to discuss Russia's aid to Iran's nuclear power program and "insisted that the use of force was unacceptable." Despite U.S.-Russia relations becoming strained during the Bush administration, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama struck a warm tone at the 2009 G20 summit in London and released a joint statement that promised a "fresh start" in U.S.-Russia relations.
In May 2012, Russian General Nikolay Yegorovich Makarov said that there is a possibility of a preemptive strike on missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, to apply pressure to the United States regarding Russia's demands. In July 2012, two Tu-95 Bear bombers were intercepted by NORAD fighters in the air defense zone off the U.S. coast of Alaska, where they may have been practicing the targeting of Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Later in August 2012, it was revealed that an Akula-class submarine had conducted a patrol within the Gulf of Mexico without being detected, raising alarms of the U.S. Navy's anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Following the collapse of the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, in March 2014 Russia annexed Crimea on the basis of a controversial referendum. The U.S. submitted a UN Security Council resolution declaring the referendum to be illegal; it was vetoed by Russia on March 15 that same year; China abstained and the other 13 Security Council members voted for the resolution. As unrest spread into eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, relations between the U.S. and Russia worsened. Russian support for separatists fighting Ukrainian forces attracted U.S. sanctions. After one bout of sanctions announced by President Obama on July 16, 2014, Putin said sanctions were driving Russia into a corner that could bring relations between the two countries to a "dead-end”.
From March 2014 to 2016, six rounds of sanctions were imposed by the US, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. Due to the situation concerning Ukraine, relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold war. In early October 2015, U.S. president Obama called the way Russia was conducting its military campaign in Syria a "recipe for disaster"; top U.S. military officials ruled out military cooperation with Russia in Syria. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and other senior U.S. officials said Russia's campaign was primarily aimed at propping up Assad, whom U.S. president Barack Obama had repeatedly called upon to leave power. Since then there have been incidents where Russian aircraft have flown by, and narrowly missed, US Navy ships patrolling in the North Sea and the Caspian Sea. Russian military aircraft have been intercepted off the Alaskan and California coasts while they were probing Us military defenses. As tensions continue to rise between these two countries, the risk of a nuclear exchange greatly increases. Being a resident of a large metropolitan area, my only consolation in the event of a nuclear attack would be that my death would likely be instantaneous.
These worrisome trends can be found in the Bible in a number of places. Since much has been written and discussed about the Book of Revelation, with some of the teaching being very good and some not so much, I will bypass that for now. Today, I want to compare what is written in the Book of Jeremiah chapter 51 with current events, and I find some alarming similarities. For example, verses 6-9 read as follows: “Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for the Lord's vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves. Babylon was a gold cup in the Lord's hand; she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad. Babylon will fall and be broken. Wail over her! Get balm for her pain; perhaps she can be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; let us leave her and each go to his own land, for her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds.”
Babylon? What was the prophet Jeremiah writing about here? One thing for sure – it wasn't the ancient Babylonian Empire, which had conquered ancient Israel by the time this was written. Although there are a number of places in the Bible that can be cross-referenced with this, one of the most extensive is in Revelation chapter 18. To sum it up, “mystery Babylon”, as it is called there, turns out to be the USA (please see http://wp.me/p4uvMi-ep for a fully detailed commentary, it's just a 5-minute read). So when Jeremiah wrote that we should flee for our lives, it wasn't just a suggestion. He was imploring all to whom this prophecy applied to get the heck out of there. A lot of Americans – thousands each month, both Christian and secular – have been going to live in other countries for quite some time now, and they are leaving in increasing numbers. Many of them say they made the decision to leave after reading Jeremiah 51. “Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for the Lord's vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves.” What sins was Jeremiah writing about here? Where should I start, I wonder? Polluting the earth would be one. The nations of the world, with China being the worst offender and America following close behind, have poisoned earth's land and waters to the point that huge masses of animals are dying off all at once. More people suffer respiratory ailments, from asthma to lung cancer, due to air pollution than die each year from cigarette smoking!
Oppression would be another sin. According to Wikipedia, the US is currently involved in 75 conflicts all over the world. These wars of various types are all being fought over natural resources for the exclusive benefit of the American Empire and the super-rich elites who control it, to the complete detriment of everyone else. This American oppression continues unabated here at home too – just ask any person of color or other minorities and you'll likely get an earful. The other, and biggest, sin is the eviction of God and Jesus Christ from our governments and our schools. If there are those who want “freedom from religion” as they call it, then that is entirely their affair. I will respect their beliefs so long as they respect mine and that of other Christian folks, that's what the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution is there for. To prevent school-age kids from being taught about any theological subjects is a different matter altogether. That's not what our Constitution says at all, and humankind has offended God in this regard whether they realize it or not! “...she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad.” I don't think Jeremiah was talking about alcoholic beverages here, I think he was referring to excessive wealth and profit – materialism, if you like – resulting from the US being the economic and military center of the world. After all, riches, fame and fortune can all be intoxicating as well, and even more so.
“Babylon will fall and be broken... We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; … her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds.” This could not be more clear. Other nations would have helped us out when America falls, but there will be nothing anyone can do. “Her judgment... rises as high as the clouds”. To me at least, this sure looks like Jeremiah was describing a large mushroom cloud from an atomic blast. As I said in the beginning, this looks very much like it's not going to end well for the US. How far into the future this prophecy is, no one can say for sure. The rest of chapter 51 is equally inflammatory towards “Babylon”. Let me quote one more time from further down in this same chapter: “You who live by many waters and who are rich in treasures, your end has come, the time for you to be cut off. The Lord Almighty has sworn by himself: I will surely fill you with men, as with a swarm of locusts, and they will shout in triumph over you.” (Jeremiah 51: 13-14) “you who live by many waters” is an unmistakable reference to the USA. What other country is besides many waters (having two coasts) and rich in treasure? “To be cut off” means being cut down or pruned decisively, When written in reference to a country, people or nation it means military defeat. So this is unmistakable! We better start praying for America, that we would be spared her fate! We had better start praying for world peace as well, meaning the return of Jesus Christ, because without him there can be no peace. In the meantime, I'm considering applying for a passport, but I will still be praying while I wait for it to arrive.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
The Birth of Jesus Christ Foretold
[Luke chapter 1, verses 26-56]
Today we will take up where we left off last week in our in-depth study of the Gospel of Luke, beginning at verse 26 of chapter one. As we begin, the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus' predecessor, has just been foretold, and the Temple priest Zechariah has been rendered mute by the archangel Gabriel for hesitating to believe what Gabriel said about Zechariah and Elizabeth conceiving because he thought they were both too old. So, while Zechariah and Elizabeth were coping with his inability to speak, we find the archangel Gabriel busy visiting the future mother of our Lord and Savior.
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a woman pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said. 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.' Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.' 'How can this be', Mary asked, 'since I am a virgin?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.' 'I am the Lord's servant', Mary answered. 'May it be to me as you have said'. Then the angel left her.” (Luke 1, verses 26-38)
The 4,000 year old Hebrew calendar is considerably different from the one we use today. Although there are similarities, the Hebrew New Year starts in our month of March, and there are usually 30 days each month. So we can conclude that Gabriel's visit to Mary was sometime in September, although I can only speculate about the date. Mary and Joseph were by all accounts very devout Jews, and so was Jesus during his entire life. Interestingly enough, since our Lord and Savior was evidently conceived sometime between early September and mid-October, that would mean Jesus must have been born sometime during our month of July. I remember when I was very young, I wondered around Christmas time how the poor baby Jesus, along with his parents, survived the late December cold sleeping in that barn, with the infant Jesus lying in a manger in freezing temperatures. Well, the answer is [1st] they weren't cold at all, and [2nd] it was summertime. Christmas in December is a human invention of the emperor Constantine from around the year 300AD, when he consolidated the pagan holidays with the religious ones into the calendar we use in modern times.
Joseph, the man who was Mary's husband and who raised Jesus (talk about being held to a higher standard!), was a descendant of King David of the Old Testament (see Matthew chapter one for the genealogy of Jesus). Further down, Mary had “found favor with God”. The Bible doesn't specify anything Mary had done to earn this favor, and maybe that's the whole point of this part of it. Nobody can “earn” favor from God, as if God owed them something. God doesn't work like that. Christianity teaches that only by the blood of Jesus, which he shed on a cross for each of us, can we be saved. God sent his only Son Jesus to save us because without Jesus no one would be able to stand in God's presence. Everyone would perish, and without exception! So Mary did nothing by herself, but I think since she was carrying the infant Jesus in her womb, the very presence of the unborn Christ very likely saved Mary from any judgment by God, since the unborn Jesus and Mary were already one physically as well as in spirit.
“...he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” What was the angel talking about here? He was referring to the very beginning of what we call Judaism today, going all the way back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Abraham's two sons were named Jacob and Esau (for the complete story, see Genesis starting at chapter 17). To make a long story short, Jacob became the father of what later became the Israelites, the people who built Jerusalem, and whose descendants live in modern Israel today, as well as the US and other countries too. Esau, on the other hand, became the father of what became the Arab nations in the Middle East that we know today. So the entire conflict in the Middle east between Arab and Jew originated from within the same family! Now you know why the wars in the Middle East never end. It all stems from a domestic dispute from roughly 3,500 years ago! There's one other thing I want to point out here. Unlike Zechariah, Mary took the angel at his word. She was obedient, not only because she was told to, but because she wanted to. Mary embraced her destiny wholeheartedly, something we can all take a lesson from. And now let's continue where we left off, beginning at verse 39.
“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord has come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!' And Mary said, 'My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.' Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.” (Luke 1: verses 39-56)
Like our initial study of Luke's gospel from last week, we have another example of the Holy Spirit being mentioned approximately 33-34 years before the Day of Pentecost (see Acts chapters 1 and 2 for the full story of Pentecost). “When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Not only was Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of our risen Lord, but the baby she carried was filled as well. That baby was none other than the unborn John the Baptist (more about him later in this series). Then Elizabeth said, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!'” From Elizabeth's exclamation to Mary, we can clearly see that when God says he is going to accomplish something through yourself, which can and does happen to believers, you may as well go ahead and believe it because it is definitely going to occur! When Zechariah was rendered unable to speak in last week's study, we saw what can happen to those who do not believe God when he speaks to them. Moreover, He does not have to speak audibly for any of us to hear him. His Spirit speaks to our spirit in a small, still voice that we must be very quiet to hear. Otherwise, the Spirit of the Lord gets drowned out by our own voice, and that's never a good place to be.
“ And Mary said, 'My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me...” God is always mindful of the humble state of all His servants. “Those who exalt themselves”, Jesus said, “will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you put yourself first in this life ahead of everyone else, you will be last in the life to come, and the reverse is equally true. Mary knew the primary reason she was chosen by God to carry the unborn baby Jesus in her womb was because of her humble circumstances, and because she carried herself well and admirably in spite of what must have been a really difficult life, especially by modern standards. Still, Mary chose to embrace her circumstances and her calling, and that's the rest of the reasons God chose her to begin with. “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Once again, the word 'fear' is not really the best translation of that sentence from the original Hebrew or Greek; fear of the consequences of disobedience to God, or having a deep reverence for God, would be the more accurate translation. But the payoff for deep reverence for the Lord is mercy – limitless mercy! That's what the blood of Jesus represents, as we will see when we get deeper into this study of Luke's gospel.
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.'” Here it is again – down go the proud and up go the humble. Mary, rather than being proud of herself at being chosen to carry the Son of God until birth, gives all the credit to her ancestors, “ remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever”, a clear reference to her impending marriage to Joseph. The 'Kingdom of God' is quite the reverse of humankind's ways of doing things here on earth. The high and mighty rule with an iron fist globally, while some of the nicest and most humble people live in little apartments, small nondescript houses, and even in tents and shanties, or vehicles of various types. The harder and meaner you are, the richer you get in this life, but not so in the next. That's why economic inequality has become such a problem in modern times. The top 1% has hoarded the overwhelming majority of the wealth for themselves, at the expense of everybody else. Fortunately for humankind, this situation is about to change, but the 7-year Tribulation period prophesied in the Bible (see the Books of Daniel and Revelation) will have to come first, and that has not yet started. So, until next week, keep Jesus in your heart and mind. When we return, we will complete our study of chapter one of Luke's gospel.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Weeping For Aleppo
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
The Syrian Civil War has been raging for five years now. It is, to say the least, a multifaceted conflict. Aleppo is the capitol city of Syria, with roughly the same population as Houston, Texas. One of the primary reasons it's in the news a lot is because the rebel-held, eastern part is one of the hardest-hit areas of the war. We're talking airstrikes and food, water and supply shortages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. There are a thousand reasons why you may not care about Aleppo. The question is, what's the one reason why you would? Things that happen far away, to people we have never known from areas of the world we have no connection to, don't hit us as hard as whatever is happening at home. So if you don't particularly care about the Syrian civil war, or the crisis it's created in places like the city of Aleppo, I think it's high time you did. Even as you read this, the world is watching the exploding humanitarian catastrophe known as the Syrian civil war unfold in real time. But this disaster should surprise no one: It is the natural result of a series of policy decisions that led to the current diplomatic standoff. Step by step, the very nature of humanitarian access and relief has almost been redefined in Syria.
The Syrian civil war has laid bare a great deal, including the world's unwillingness to intervene to stop civilians from being killed in their beds and on their streets, in a conflict that has pinned them down in their homes. Every time those close to the war think things have sunk as barbarically low as imaginable – from bombing convoys to starving towns – things get even worse. For many of those in the US government who have worked on Syria policy for years, the overwhelming sense of frustration has made the bloodshed nearly impossible to watch, in part because of its predictability. Grief-stricken families embracing in the rubble of what used to be their home – a home like any other, and probably similar to yours. Mothers and fathers crouching over their dead children as they sob uncontrollably together. A father and son, crushed in place under the wreckage of another airstrike. And these aren't even among the most iconic images. This is every hour, every day. That's five elementary school classrooms gone in a matter of days. That's more children than you likely know by name. That's only one week of fighting. When we say trapped, we mean Aleppo's citizens literally cannot leave. Roads out of parts of the city are under constant attack. That doesn't only mean people can't leave, it means things can't get in; things like food, water, medicine and fuel.
Take Houston off the map. Yes, the whole darn city. Or Atlanta, or Miami and then some. Do you live in Lansing, Michigan? Destroy it – four times over. That's the number of people who have been killed in five years of fighting in Syria. It's easy to think that, if things were really that bad, someone would surely be doing something about it. That's the whole point. The world is trying and failing. The US can't decide whether to authorize military action against the Syrian regime. Ceasefires designed to help bring aid to people trapped in war-torn areas only last a matter of days. The biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II drags on. The ghosts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still looms large in Washington, but the question is, what lessons has it offered? Without question the conflict has prevented the Obama administration from committing sustained resources to stopping the carnage. Officials in Washington who for years argued for greater intervention could never prove that further American action would make things on the ground in Syria better, not worse. And so the status quo prevailed. And that status quo was to do little to address the conflict's root causes, but a great deal to fund help for refugees who were suffering the war's effects. Meanwhile, the carnage has continued.
The United Nations once spoke of a responsibility to protect and defend. In 2009 it said that in the face of war crimes, when a state was miserably failing to protect its population, then the international community was prepared to take collective action in a "timely and decisive manner." Yet there is nothing either timely or decisive about the world's approach to Syria, which has become the theater in which global and regional actors pursue their own goals, with Syrian mothers and fathers trapped in cities under attack paying the price. But this piece is not about dueling political aims; it is about the shared misery of those on the ground and an international community that has failed them. What is life in Aleppo like now? Bombing in plain sight. Hospitals crushed under the weight of the injured and the dying. Food and water supplies dwindling. Medical supplies limited to almost nothing, leaving anesthesia near nonexistent and babies dying without functioning ventilators on the dirty floors of the few overwhelmed facilities that remain standing. And all of it is happening in real time as the city's life and death is captured on social media and shared with the world. And yet the world seems to have stopped watching. And the international community is now shown to be impotent in the face of what the British ambassador to the United Nations termed "war crimes."
That has been the pattern for years, only now the death toll is growing even higher and the "barbarism," to quote Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has grown more bold. For those on the ground in Aleppo and other areas under siege, it is clear that no one is prepared to stop the carnage everyone can see and many had predicted. The pictures may be on phones and screens within easy reach, but a solution to ending the bloodshed remains much further away. We don't want to lose hope, but in the end if you look at the situation it seems hopeless, that we can't do anything, so the world is just watching. People keep on dying and the situation continues to get worse and worse, with no end in sight, and no plan to help those children in Aleppo from facing death the next time they go outside to play on their streets. From the very beginning of this on-line ministry, this blog, and this website, I have vigorously opposed and vehemently stood against warfare in all its forms. There is no ideology that can justify mass murder, no economic or governmental policy that justifies terrorizing an entire populace, and at the end of the day that's what warfare is! What's all this killing for, for what purpose? If we pause to step back and examine the reasons for warfare, I see two little words coming to my mind – pillage and plunder. Or, if anyone prefers, criminal activity are two other words that could be substituted. Jesus summed this point up perfectly when He said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Of course, I can practically hear all these 'conservative Christians' say these wars are necessary to address the perceived threat of militant Islam. They are likely excoriating me even as they read this (if any of them are actually reading this at all), stating that I'm not patriotic enough, or that if I don't help kill more Muslims they will be at my doorstep to kill me. Problem is, this is the kind of thinking that gets wars started in the first place! Still others would – and do – say that if America doesn't take a more aggressive stance in the Middle East in order to protect and defend “our” oil, that we will be cut off from “our” petroleum reserves and suffer a military and economic defeat of unimaginable proportions. The problem I have with that is the internal combustion engine is at the end of its useful life span. At the very least, America should have converted over to much cleaner-burning natural gas decades ago after the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970's. At best, the US should have engaged in a crash-program of developing battery and solar-powered cars and trucks, again starting decades ago, but no! There's still too much oil in the ground for the 'big oil' companies to simply walk away from, there's too much profit to be made! Never mind that all those car, bus and truck engines and slowly asphyxiating our planet – the only one we've got! Never mind that more people die from respiratory illnesses caused by pollution globally than from cigarette smoking! We Americans, I conclude, are indirectly responsible for the catastrophe of Aleppo. Those who support 'blood for oil' – mainly the US political, military and corporate systems and their respective organizations and entities, are accessories to the murder of hundreds of thousands just in Aleppo alone, not counting the remainder of Syria. Moreover, the fact that these are primarily Muslims who are dying is, to me at least, completely beside the point! And what is the point? Murder, no matter what the context or circumstances, is wrong. Period, end of story. And so, I sit here at home today and I silently weep. I, too, weep for Aleppo.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
The Apostle Luke Series, Installment One
[Luke chapter 1, verses 1-25]
Today I will begin a new series of Bible studies, the gospel according to Luke, an apostle of Christ Jesus, who is the Son of God, hallelujah! Chapter one of Luke's gospel is 80 verses long, so I'm breaking this first chapter up into three parts. As we begin chapter one at verse one, we find this gospel being addressed to one “Theophilus” in the form of a very long letter. So who was this guy Theophilus? According to 'gotquestions.org', “The fact is that we really do not know who Theophilus was, which is why there are several different theories as to who he might be. No matter how much evidence there may or may not be for each theory, the simple fact is we do not who Theophilus was because the Bible does not identify who he was. However, from the context of Luke and Acts, it seems clear that Luke is writing to a specific individual, even though his message is also intended for all Christians in all centuries. While both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have applications for all Christians, they were probably written to a specific individual whom Luke addresses as “most excellent Theophilus”. Since it seems clear that Theophilus was an actual person, …it is important to note that Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” a title often used when referring to someone of honor or rank, such as a Roman official.... Therefore, one of the most common theories is that Theophilus was possibly a Roman officer or high-ranking official in the Roman government.” So now that we have determined that Theophilus' true identity has been lost in the mists of time, let's begin exploring Luke's gospel.
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. Therefore, since I myself have investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. In the time of Herod King of Judea there was a man named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's regulations and commandments blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (Luke 1, verses 1-7)
King Herod of Judea was an appointed dictator and king sent from Rome. The Roman Empire was at its peak during the time this was written, which will become increasingly clear as we continue to read this gospel. The “priestly division” Luke refers to here alludes to the Tribe of Levi. These were the Levitical priests who performed the animal sacrifice rituals that were required in the Old Testament, which was still in force historically speaking, but was about to come to an end with the impending birth of Christ, which had not yet occurred. So Hezekiah was a Levitical priest from the division of “Abijah”, which presumably is a division of the Tribe of Levi (for a more detailed explanation check out Exodus chapters 28 and 29 as well as Leviticus chapter 21 and the first half of chapter 22). Despite their unfruitful marriage, both Zechariah and Elizabeth had remained faultless and faithful to the Lord in everything they did. I find this quite noteworthy in a world where many people change spouses as if they were putting on a new set of clothes.
“Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, and he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of their fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.' Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.' The angel answered, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.'” (Luke 1: verses 8-20)
What is actually occurring here is the fulfillment of Zechariah's responsibilities, which is that only one of the priests is allowed inside the inner sanctuary, one who is designated by what amounted to the pulling of straws. So that day was Zechariah's 'short straw' day to burn incense in the Temple. Only the designated high priest was allowed to enter the Temple to burn incense or make any kind of offering under penalty of death, according to the Old Testament (see the Books of Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy in no particular order). But, after Zechariah enters the “Holy of Holys”, as the Bible calls the inner sanctuary, something most unexpected happens. “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, and he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” So the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth, we find out, have been answered by God. Immediately afterwards, the angel who appeared to Zechariah tells him what his son's name will be, and that his about-to-be conceived son will be a servant of the Lord's. If you were about to become a parent, what would you think or say if an angel appeared to you? Needless to say, this is not exactly a commonplace occurrence, which is why Zechariah was so terrified. It probably would have unnerved me too.
“...he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of their fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” This is one of the earliest mentions of the Holy Spirit in the Bible, particularly for the New Testament. The naming of Elijah, an Old Testament prophet (see 1st Kings 17: 1 and 2nd Kings chapter 2), is noteworthy here. Zechariah is being told that his unborn son would take up where the prophet Elijah left off centuries earlier. Zechariah's unborn son, as it turns out, fills Elijah's shoes very well indeed. “Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.' The angel answered, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.'” This, my dear readers, is what can happen to anyone who doubts God's word. “You don't think you can accomplish the Lord's will for your life”, said the archangel Gabriel? “Fine, because you won't be accomplishing much else until God allows it, because I am going to make you mute until the day of your son's birth”. Never, ever doubt the word of the Lord! If He says something is going to come true, it will with 100% certainty! And now let's finish this week's lesson starting where we left off at verse 21.
“Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the Temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the Temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 'The Lord has done this for me', she said. 'In these days he has shown His favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.'” (Luke 1, verses 21-25)
So Zechariah comes out of the Temple, unable to tell anyone why he had been in there so long. He then goes home, and can't tell his wife either. This must have made Elizabeth at least somewhat perplexed, and I only imagine the one-sided conversation that took place between Zechariah and Elizabeth (“Why can't you tell me what happened? Are you sure you're not hiding something from me? I can tell if you are, you know!”) But by the mercy and grace of God, he and his wife conceive! Moreover, they both know the gender of the child before he was born, something that was unheard of back in those times. But in the end, Elizabeth says a prayer that basically says, “Thank you, Lord, that I have finally conceived a son. You have made people respect me just by letting me get pregnant, for they used to show contempt for me because I was barren”. This goes to show you how much times have changed over the centuries. Back then, women were scorned if they couldn't have children. These days, it's quite the opposite. Single women with children are oftentimes singled out as being 'immoral' or as having insatiable libidos, but I never have agreed with the stereotyping of single women with kids. The majority of them have escaped from abusive or violent relationships, and I will decline to judge them for that. In closing, we'll leave off right here for now, and we'll be starting up at verse 26 next week, where the births of Jesus is announced. So until then, have a blessed and safe week!