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Margins of Miraculous – From Thresher to Threshed; the story of Ornan by Shawn Blythe

The story of Ornan often gets lost among the various exploits of David.  We know very little about him other than he is a Jebusite, had at least four sons and owned a threshing floor on Mt. Moriah.  We are introduced to him as part of the narrative recording David allowing his pride to get the better of him as he ordered a full census of the people of Israel despite his army commander Joab’s deep reservations.  David moves forward anyway with the result being three days of destruction being inflicted upon the people of Israel.

It is at the point when the angel of the Lord is poised to destroy Jerusalem that God pauses the devastation near the threshing floor of Ornan.  The story is included in both II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 (where his name is referenced as Araunah), but it is only the II Chronicles version that records the fact that Ornan and his sons working with him actually saw the angel of God (which promptly led his four sons to run away and hide – which seems a reasonable course of action to me).

There is nothing to indicate that Ornan’s threshing floor was significantly different than any other threshing floor in the region.  It would have been in a high, open place to take advantage of the wind to help separate the grain from the chaff and would have had a hard flat surface to assist in dislodging the grain from the stalks.

With the sword of destruction poised over Jerusalem, David is instructed to build an altar at this location.  We then have an interesting financial negotiation in which Ornan offers the site that David wants as a gift, but David insisting that he pay full market value.  Eventually David pays 50 shekels of silver for the threshing floor and the oxen, allowing him to proceed with the sacrifice.

There are three things of interest to me in this story.  The first is that Ornan was simply doing what threshers do when suddenly heavenly events interceded in his life.  As a Jebusite, he was part of a tribe descending from Noah’s grandson Canaan who ruled Jebus until David defeated them in battle and renamed the city Jerusalem.  They were a tribe that the Israelites were explicitly warned to avoid due to their idolatrous practices and were long-standing enemies of Israel.  In other words, Ornan likely had no basis to believe that he would or could be part of anything positive related to the God of Abraham.  Yet when this day came, he was ready to give away his threshing floor to David for nothing.  He was apparently a man who recognized that circumstances had changed and the things that were important yesterday were no longer important today.

The second is that David felt it necessary to buy the threshing floor and oxen from Ornan for a fair price.  While Ornan is offering it for free, David is insisting on paying full market value with his statement that he will not offer up a sacrifice that cost him nothing.   In other words, David recognized that the entire point of a sacrifice is that it must cost you something.  This is why the widow’s offering in Jesus’ time was so moving to our Messiah – it cost her everything that she had. 

But the third and most intriguing element of this story to me is the nature of a threshing floor.  As the sword of the angel destroying Israel is poised above them, God selects a threshing floor for the site of his altar.  It was a place that was specifically designed to separate good from bad.  The threshing floor was a reference of coming judgement for Israel used by Hosea (Hosea 13:3) while it was a place of redemption for Ruth (Ruth 2:8 – 13).  But ultimately, we all come to the same threshing floor awaiting our Messiah who will separate the good grain from the chaff (Mathew 3:12).

Of course, Ornan was unlikely to have known about Ruth and Boaz; and the subsequent events of Hosea’s prophecy or John the Baptist’s testimony about Christ were still to come.  He also could not have known that his simple threshing floor was located on what would become known throughout the world as the Temple Mount.  It would be the site of Solomon’s temple and would be a place of conflict over thousands of years.

I often wonder if, after having received an additional 600 shekels of gold from David for the land surrounding the threshing floor if he ever returned to the site to watch Solomon build the temple?  Did he regret not demanding more money for what would become an extremely important piece of land?  Or perhaps he recognized that the physical structure built over his threshing floor had not actually changed the fundamental purpose of this piece of land at all.  It remained a place where good was to be separated from bad – but rather than being the thresher, Ornan would be the threshed.   

Ornan is never mentioned again in the Bible.  Ornan’s entire life was likely an adversarial one with both the Israelites and the God of Abraham.  An approaching King and a heavenly apparition intent on destruction were likely not indicative of a change in that adversarial relationship.  I cannot even imagine what he may have been thinking when he saw the spectacular display of power that must have been evident in the angel over Jerusalem that day.  But in the face of what must have been confusing and conflicting priorities, Ornan recognized the significance of the event and effectively relinquished his earthly claim on this land and exited our narrative.

In one brief moment, Ornan recognized that yesterday’s priorities were not relevant today.  David recognized that his sacrificial worship had to cost him something.  And a place established for the common harvesting practice of separating grain from chaff would ultimately be the place God selected for his altar and temple.  It is worth reflecting on our priorities and what our worship is costing us.  It is worth considering our own personal effort to separate ourselves from sin before we approach the throne of God. 

Ornan found himself standing between a piece of land, an angel of destruction and the King of Israel.  He new nothing of the Temple at this point and would never meet the Messiah who would walk this land hundreds of years later.  We, on the other hand, are well aware of the context – the origins and ultimate destruction of the Temple.  We know of the Messiah and perhaps even have a personal relationship.  But regardless of our circumstances, we, like Ornan, will ultimately end our personal journeys at the same threshing floor – where our Savior and Judge awaits with winnowing fork in hand.


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Margins of Miraculous – Man, Do you see this? by Shawn Blythe

There is a verse in the Bible that has always struck me with its simplicity in illustrating humans’ limited understanding of what God shows us.  It is a great picture of how God shows us the miraculous, but we are just not able to comprehend what we are seeing.

The verse comes at the end of a rather lengthy description of a river flowing from the temple that God is showing Ezekiel in a vision (Ezekiel 47).  This river begins at the temple as a small stream and roughly a quarter of a mile downstream is only ankle deep.  But another quarter mile downstream, it is now knee deep; and a further quarter of a mile it is now waist deep.  The final quarter of a mile reveals a water that is deep enough to swim in and a river so wide that “no one could cross”.  It is at this point that the man escorting Ezekiel turns to him and asks: “Son of man, do you see this?”

The implication of course is that this river and its mysterious increase in depth as it flows from the temple should have an obvious meaning to Ezekiel.  The assumption is that after leading Ezekiel in specific, measured distances from the temple (and pausing at each interval to gauge the increasing depth) that he could not help but understand what he was being shown.  Ezekiel’s answer is not recorded and perhaps it is because, like me, he didn’t have one.

The river flowing from the temple has clear references to the purifying waters of the brass basin at the entrance to Solomon’s temple.  Ezekiel would have been quite familiar with this as he likely served as a priest before Solomon’s temple was destroyed.  However, the purifying symbolism of the water in the brass basin would not likely sufficiently illuminate the mystery of this river.  As a result, if I were Ezekiel I would be at a bit of a loss.

By my count, the book of Ezekiel records four other times in which Ezekiel is shown something and then asked, “Do you see . . .?” and they are all in chapter 8.  The first is when he is shown an idol at the entrance to the north gate of the inner court of the temple (verse 6).  The second is when he is shown what the elders worshipping idols in secret, seemingly unaware that God knows their deeds (verse 12).  The third is just a few verses further down when Ezekiel is shown women worshipping a local Mesopotamian god at the temple entrance (verse 15).   The fourth is toward the end of the same chapter where he is shown 25 men between the portico and the altar in the temple, but all of them facing east (away from the altar) worshipping the sun (verse 16).  In each case, the audacity of the Israelites to turn away from God and worship inanimate objects instead – even in the temple – is clearly shown and the meaning is not difficult to understand.  In the case of sin, particularly other peoples’ sin, the message is clear.  If I am Ezekiel, I can easily answer the question of “Do you see . . .?” with a confident, affirmative nod of clear understanding.

But when we move from sin and the consequences of sin to grace – things get a little murky.  Sin is clear.  It is all around us and it is our fallen nature.  We see depravity, we experience jealousy, and we call things good that are not good.  We worship at the feet of whatever idol makes us comfortable that we don’t need God – whether it be wealth, professional achievement, physical fitness, fame, fashion, indispensability, knowledge, etc.  As I plod through the filth inherent in a world of sin, I am crystal clear on how to get dirty.  I can get dirty all by myself.

But when it comes to grace, this is not natural to me.  The kind of grace, cleansing and healing that God offers is confusing and we approach it with skepticism.  It is unnerving that the grace of God can wash away my sins.  As Ezekiel considered the river flowing from the temple and pondered the meaning, I wonder if his thoughts were the same as mine might have been.

The entire sequence starts with God telling me to look, listen and pay attention.  I am then shown a dizzying array of measurements and directional instructions which I dutifully record knowing that there must be meaning in there somewhere.   There are measurements of walls, gate thresholds, alcoves, projecting walls, porticos.  There are distances between alcoves, distances around the walls, and details like palm trees decorating the projecting walls.  And after doing this on the East side, he goes to the North gate and the South gate repeating the same measurements and confirming they are identical.  By the time I am done, I know the jambs on the temple portico are five cubits wide while those on the outer sanctuary are six cubits wide and those on the inner sanctuary are two cubits wide – but likely have no idea why.  It is against this backdrop of these meticulous measurements that I am taken on a mile long hike alongside a river that somehow increases in depth with no obvious source for the additional water volume.  I am then asked, “Son of Man, do you SEE this?”

Yes, I see it with my own eyes.  Just like the details of the temple that are I chronicled as instructed. I have surveyed the entire area and noted the measurement of every nook and cranny. I have walked alongside the river and likely waded in its refreshing coolness. I have experienced it firsthand and am convinced of its reality.  But despite all of this, when I am asked the question “Man, do you SEE this?”  I have no answer because I have no clue how this all fits together or what it is supposed to mean to me.  I am a passenger on this tour and no matter how many porticos or alcoves I am shown or miles I walk alongside this miraculous river I will inevitably disappoint my tour guide with a blank look devoid of even the basic understanding of what I am seeing. 

It is like handing an advanced calculator to a three-year-old.  They may hit some buttons and be mildly entertained by the numbers that appear on the screen.  They may even love the gift because of who gave it to them – but beyond that its meaning and capabilities are lost on them.  But still I try.  I attempt to translate my love of mathematics to this three-year-old by showing how the calculator can quickly do trigonometry.  I illustrate how the memory function works.  I explain the programming functions.  And as the child’s attention begins to wane, I exclaim: “Hey! Do you SEE this?”

I have been shown countless examples of God’s grace. And yet, like the people of Israel, I am constantly distracted and find myself wandering amidst unfamiliar territory.  Like the author of so many Psalms, I feel alone, and the challenges of this life are just a bit too much at times.  I know there is a plan but cannot find it.  I see things that apparently have meaning, but I am unable to grasp it. 

But when all seems lost, I feel a gentle hand on my shoulder turning my attention in one way or another with the question: “Son of man, do you see this?” 

I typically don’t . . .  but often that’s not what is important.  What is important is the hand on my shoulder.  A constant reminder of God’s presence, care for me and the existence of a path – even though it is not apparent to me.  I may not understand the grace that is before me.  But God does, and that is – and needs to be – enough for me.


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Margins of Miraculous – A Grandmother’s Love by Shawn Blythe

Whether you call(ed) her Grammie, Mimi, Memaw, Abuela, Grandma, Bubbe or something else – your grandmother likely thought of you more often than you thought of her.  This is not to say that we don’t love our grandmothers or think of them often – but I suspect the balance of love, thought and prayers are largely in favor of originating from the grandmother.  In many cases, this love and affection must come from a distance as it is not unusual for our grandparents to live in a different town or even state.

Mary’s mother (Jesus’ grandmother) was likely no different.  It is important to note that Mary’s mother is never mentioned in the scripture, so I will be making two assumptions.  The first is that Mary’s mother was alive during the early years of Jesus’ life.  Given the historically accepted premise that Mary was relatively young when she gave birth to Jesus, coupled with life expectancies at that time (particularly as Mary’s mother survived childhood), we have a solid basis for this assumption.

The second is that Mary’s mother lived in the Nazareth area.  Scripture clearly states that Mary lived there at the time of Gabriel’s announcement while she was betrothed to Joseph (Luke 1).  Given Jewish customs of the day where the bride lived with her family between the betrothal and marriage ceremony,  it is reasonable to believe that she is living with her mother when she received the news of her pregnancy.  I don’t know how much information Mary shared with her mother regarding her situation (or for that matter how much Joseph shared with his mother-in-law!) – but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a pregnancy during the betrothal period was not ideal. 

The inconvenient timing of the required tax registration in Bethlehem would have only increased her mother’s concern.  The travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem was roughly 90 miles and would have taken somewhere between five and ten days.  The journey was difficult with regards to terrain and included danger from both wild animals and bandits along the way.

There is no record that Mary’s mother (who I will refer to as Bubbe)  accompanied Mary and Joseph on their trip to Bethlehem, so it is quite likely that she waited in Nazareth for word of their safe arrival, as well as any news on her grandchild.  However, the news would not be what she hoped for.  Her daughter’s family would not be returning to Nazareth as originally planned but would need to flee to Egypt due to the threat from Herod (Matthew 2).  One can only imagine the worry of Bubbe as her grandson moved further and further away from her.  While Bubbe may have clung to the verse in Proverbs 17 that refers to grandchildren as a “crown to the aged”, she would certainly have wondered why that crown had to be so far away.  It is only later that both Matthew and Luke record the eventual return of Mary and Joseph to Nazareth where presumably Bubbe was waiting with open arms.

Bubbe, like us on many occasions, had to love from afar.  She likely did not experience the traditional joy and honor associated with being a grandparent.  The young child would not be placed in her lap, nor would she have the opportunity to physically care for him as Naomi experienced when Obed was born (Ruth 4).  She had little that she could offer in terms of physical assistance as the new parents overcame the risks of travel and the threat of jealous rulers.  All she could offer was an unconditional love and prayer.

She would stand alongside the countless others who have had nothing to offer besides love and prayer.  We are well acquainted with the exploits of Jacob and his 14 years of labor for Leah and Rachel; and the eventual tense separation from Laban.  But we rarely consider the worry that Isaac his father had during those fourteen years, nor the sorrow that Laban felt after he kissed his children and grandchildren goodbye at Galeed as they departed with Jacob (Genesis 31).

Bubbe, like Isaac, Laban and others before her, were necessarily ‘absent in body’ from those they loved.  However, this does not negate the opportunity or responsibility to be ‘present in spirit’ (Colossians 2).  We live in a spiritual world and therefore our ability to care for people is not limited to our proximity to them.  The Roman centurion understood this quite clearly as he explained why Jesus didn’t need to come to the centurion’s home in order for his servant to be healed (Luke 7).

For any who are grandmothers or have even witnessed a person becoming a grandmother, it is not difficult to imagine the spiritual connection between Bubbe and the Christ child as he lay in a manger with at least a week’s journey separating them.  I doubt this distance mitigated her love for her grandson.  I further doubt that this distance somehow reduced her thoughts and concerns for him.

We have that same amazing opportunity.  The entire world is at our fingertips.  No person or situation is too distant for our love and prayers to make a tangible difference.  There is no broken relationship that is beyond our ability to prayerfully seek a reconciliation.  There is no ambivalence or even hatred that can preclude our ability to express love  – even if it is but a pale reflection of the love that has been given to us.

There is no earthly reason why the birth of a child in a small town in Judea should have made a hill of beans of difference to the world.  But there is a spiritual reason why this birth would impact generations for time eternal.  There is no earthly reason that the thoughts or cares of an aging woman in Nazareth could have any impact on a newborn child in Bethlehem.  But there is a spiritual reason why her love was important.

The gift of salvation that we celebrate at Christmas was given to all of us – whether we were in Bethlehem that day or not.  God’s love is not constrained by time or distance.  The Roman centurion understood this.  Our ability to love and care for others is equally unconstrained.  Any grandmother – including Bubbe – understands this.  Our grandmothers loved us for no other reason than we were their children’s child.  God loves us for no other reason than he has chosen to love us. 

As we consider the gift, we should embrace the opportunity to actively love, care with determination and pray without ceasing for those who are distant from us.  For me, it is simply a poor attempt to replicate for others what I have already received for myself – not only from God, but also from my grandmother.

 


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Margins of Miraculous – Hananiah’s Folly by Shawn Blythe

We all want to hear good news.  More specifically we all want to hear good news from God.  We want that clear message that our loved ones will be healed, our families will be protected, and our problems will be resolved.  We want to be reassured of financial success, long life, and good health.  We want the equivalent of hearing Jesus tell us to wash in the pool of Siloam and our sight will be restored (John 9). We want the blessings of God to rain down on us.

On the other hand, nobody wants to hear bad news.  We don’t want to hear that illness will lead to death or that financial hardships will not pivot to fiscal stability.  News that challenging times will continue, or that the problems of today will get worse are poorly received or even rejected.  We don’t want to be told that our “wound is incurable, [our] injury beyond healing” (Jeremiah 30).  The lack of receptivity to bad news was the challenge that Jeremiah faced during the reign of Zedekiah.

Zedekiah’s reign as King of Judah came at a historically bad time for Judah.  The Babylonians had effectively conquered the land.  His nephew (King Jehoiachin) had already been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.  There was not much left of Jerusalem after at least two sieges by Babylon culminating in the removal of everything precious in the Temple and the exile of anybody of any value to the victors (i.e. soldiers, craftsmen, artisans, etc.)  Per II Kings 24 “only the poorest people were left”.

This is where we find King Zedekiah.  He is facing a disheartened people and had no personal relationship with God on which to base his rule.  As a result, he looks to others for guidance and receives two very different messages ‘from God’.  The first is the repeated message of doom and gloom from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah prophesied an extended punishment for the sins of Judah.  He not only confirmed the current hard times but prophesied harder times ahead if the people did not repent.  In contrast with this prophecy of judgment and prolonged servitude to the Babylonians, Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) was delivering a message of hope.   His was a message of short-term deliverance.  The exiles and King Jehoiachin would return and the riches of the temple would be restored to their rightful place.  The oppressive bondage perpetrated by the Babylonians would be broken.  This is clearly a message the people wished to receive.  It is a message that requires no repentance, little judgement and promises a short-term deliverance from the current situation.

While Jeremiah was parading around with a yoke around his neck symbolizing the prolonged subservience to Babylon, Hananiah was prophesying deliverance within two years.  At one point they both find themselves in the temple at Jerusalem.  Hananiah repeats his prophecy of deliverance while Jeremiah challenges the source (i.e., it’s only a message from God if it comes true).  Hananiah responds by removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaking it as his own symbol of the yoke of oppression being broken.  Jeremiah apparently sees no benefit to further discussion and departs.

The rulers and people listening to these two diametrically opposed messages have a choice to make.  Which news do they believe?  In our own lives we face a very similar situation.  There is a secular song lyric that I have always found interesting which challenges how we speak with God and more importantly, how we interpret His response:

“Tell me again how you can talk to God
And how he tells you what to do
And how you’re sure it’s not your own voice
Disguised as something absolute” – Birdtalker (from the song “Nothing’s Right”)

Although I may be offended by the insinuation, I think we can all agree it’s a legitimate question.  When we pray, whose response is it that we hear?  Is it the message that we want to hear?  In other words, are we taking our own wishes and desires and wrapping them up as a message from God?  After all, if it’s just ME saying something that’s one thing (particularly if it’s something I want anyway).  But if it’s a message from God, who can argue with that?

It is easy to blame Hananiah for being a false prophet and he suffers the consequences as we will see.  But it is worth considering, how many times have we prayed – and in the absence of an immediate positive response filled the silence with a response of our own liking?  We convince ourselves of the veracity of the message and are filled with relief that our prayers have been answered.  We wait in anticipation of the promise while God is likely shaking his head in disbelief at our willingness to put our words into our Creator’s mouth.

The people of Judah were likely no different.  Do they wish to believe a prophecy of hope and short-term deliverance (two years) or do they wish to believe a prophecy of continued servitude and long-term deliverance (seventy years)?  From a human standpoint, it is easy to see why people would be swayed to the first message.

But as the messenger who led the people astray, Hananiah bore personal liability for this false testimony.  Shortly after leaving Hananiah in the temple, Jeremiah returned to him with a new message from God.  God explicitly confirmed that He was not the author of Hananiah’s message and as a consequence Hananiah would die within the year.  Two months later he was dead.

I would like to believe that none of us would purposefully lead others with a false testimony.  However, I must admit it is easy to believe our own.  I am quick to believe news that is beneficial to me.  I dismiss the refinement that prolonged hardship may bring.  I cast aside the possibility that my misfortune may be the result of my own doing.  I reject the thought that God may be using a situation for His own purposes.  I pray to God and before the silence has even had a chance to settle in, I fill the void with my own wishes, desires and judgement regarding what is fair or right for me.  

I purposefully replace my faith in things hoped for, and substitute evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11) with scenarios more convenient for me.  I place my own message above words of the Almighty God.  In fact, the only difference between Hananiah and me is that I am only fooling myself. 

Why do we do this?  Scripture tells us over 70 times (depending on how you count!) to WAIT on the Lord.  We are given a long list of examples in the Hebrews’ passage above of people who listened to God rather than competing voices and were ultimately blessed for it.  I can look back at my own life with the perspective of time and see the examples of grace in those situations where I can silence my own voice long enough to hear God’s guidance.  We know the overwhelming sense of peace that comes with knowing that you have placed yourself in the arms of your Creator.  We remember how the inconveniences and cares of this world fade away as you we consider the infinite love of our God and Savior.  There is no question in my mind that God is speaking to us.  The question is are we listening?

We are cautioned not to boast of our wisdom, riches, or strength (Jeremiah 9).  But of course, this is exactly what we do when we place our own words into the mouth of God.  We exchange eternal wisdom for temporary expedience.  We ignore the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 11) and chart our own path with self-serving guidance.  This is the same trap to which Hananiah fell victim.  When we hear a voice whispering in our ear, we should pay careful attention to consider whose voice it is.


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Margins of Miraculous – Michal by Shawn Blythe

We all know people who seem to get the short end of the stick at virtually every occasion.  They are in constant peril, suffer endless setbacks and are never able to get their heads above water.  Even when things are going well for them, it is difficult to enjoy the moment as there is the clear expectation that it will be short-lived – and when it ends it will likely be in spectacular fashion.

Michal is just such a person.  She was King Saul’s youngest daughter and therefore an important part of the royal family.  Michal likely knew things that the general population did not.  She was a first-hand witness to the royal family dynamics and certainly would have been a respected person among the Israelites. 

She would have also been aware of her father’s fear and jealousy of David and subsequent efforts to eliminate him.  As part of Saul’s first attempts to neutralize David, she watched as her father offered her older sister Merab to David in marriage.  After David turned down this offer, she would have been there to experience the despair or relief of her older sister depending on Merab’s feelings toward David.  Michal at some point fell in love with David herself.  This provided her father with a second opportunity to eliminate David by requiring the death of 100 Philistines as the price to become his son-in-law.  His assumption was that this task was too great for David and would ultimately result in his death. 

It is worth pausing a moment to consider Michal’s position.  We know very little about her other than she was the younger daughter of Saul (I Samuel 14:49) and was in love with David (I Samuel 18:20).  It is difficult to think that she did not at least have some understanding of her father’s feelings toward David.  It is likely that she and Merab may have discussed it given that both had been offered to David. The palace scuttlebutt would likely have been split on David’ ability to meet the requirements to obtain Michal’s hand in marriage.  I can even imagine a palace betting pool with Saul’s supporters betting against David and David’s supporters betting against the Philistines.  Perhaps she recognized that she was being used as a pawn in a game of royal subterfuge, but simply didn’t care if she ended up with David in the end.  Perhaps she was furious with her father for setting such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle (remembering that there was no such requirement when her father offered her older sister Merab to David). 

But it is equally plausible that Michal was so in love that she assumed David would conquer hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands to be her husband.  It is important to note that at no point does the scripture indicate that David loved Michal.  In fact, in discussing the situation, David refers to the opportunity three times as one related to becoming the king’s son-in-law rather than becoming Michal’s husband.  More specifically it states that David accomplished the task specifically to become Saul’s son-in-law (I Samuel 18:27).  Regardless of the motivation, Michal got what she wanted as David met the requirement twice over and the scripture now refers to Michal as David’s wife rather than Saul’s daughter.

It is difficult to tell how much time David spent at home following his marriage.  We know that he fought regularly with the Philistines and therefore likely spent some time away from home.  But we also know he was around enough to play the harp in Saul’s house on occasion.  Whatever familial routine that had been established was quickly disrupted as  Saul returned to his efforts to kill David.  Michal maintained her allegiance to David rather than her father by taking an active role in helping David escape.  She took an idol and placed it in the bed with goat hair around the head to make it appear as though David was asleep in his bed.  She lied both in claiming that David was ill – and then after being caught lied again in claiming that David threatened to kill her if she didn’t help him escape.

We will pause here a second time to touch on a point that could easily be passed over.  Michal used an idol (in Hebrew the word is teraphim) that she had in the house.  It is the same word used in Geneses 31 to describe the household gods that Rachel stole from her father Laban when she and Jacob left her family to return to the land of Jacob’s father Isaac.  The presence of an idol in the house would indicate that at least Michal (and perhaps even David) had not wholly eliminated idols from their home.  It would suggest that although Michal was in love with David, her undivided love did not extend to the God of Abraham.  It is possible that she worshipped the man God had created, rather than God the Creator.  This is a mistake which inevitably leads to disappointment and would so in this case.

At this point Michal’s life takes a turn for the worse.  David is on the run, avoiding Saul while periodically winning battles against the Philistines.  Saul dies and David is anointed King of Judah.  However, at no time does he seek out Michal.  In fact, there is a notable passage that describes David taking the time to find a refuge for his father and mother while hiding from Saul (I Samuel 22:3), but there is no record of any such thought or kindness toward his abandoned wife.  He has time to tenuously and temporarily reconcile with Saul, but no time to reunite with his wife.  Rather, over this time period David takes other wives (I Samuel 25:43) and Michal’s father Saul effectively reclaims his daughter from David and gives her to a man named Paltiel (I Samuel 25:44).

Let’s be clear – Michal is not being treated fairly.  Her father used her for political advantage.  Her husband has abandoned and forsaken her.  She is caught up in events far beyond her ability to control.  Her life is not turning out as she may have imagined so many years earlier when she fell in love with a brave, handsome young man.  It is only when David is about to be anointed king of Israel that he demands that Michal be taken from her current husband and returned to him (II Samuel 3:14-16).  There is no record of a joyous reunion and no indication that this was a rekindling of long-lost love.  In fact, the only indication of love we have is the anguished weeping of Paltiel as Michal is being taken from him.

I believe that somewhere between helping David escape from her father and her return to David, the love she had for husband had died.  Their relationship had not been fed, nourished or otherwise encouraged.  In its place was a bitterness that would become apparent in the last record we have of Michal – who is now once again referred to in scripture as the daughter of Saul rather than the wife of David.

In celebration, David danced as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem.  However, Michal was furious and the anger in her sarcastic attack is palpable: “How the King of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (II Samuel 6:20) And David responds with an equally devastating reply stating quite clearly that he simply doesn’t care what she thinks and actually places more importance in the honor bestowed on him by slave girls than the concerns of Michal.  It is a painful end to their relationship and Michal is only mentioned one last time as being childless to her death.

We will pause a third and final time to consider Michal’s position.  She would be well aware of David’s other wives – many of which had already had children with David (II Samuel 3:2-5).  She may have lived to see the debacle with Bathsheba.  She saw a “man of God” behave in the worst possible ways and was a victim of a man who most others held in high esteem.  She was his first wife.  She married him and risked her life for him when he was nothing but a young soldier.  But now that he was the King, she was no longer worthy of his attention or honor.  There must be an enduring loneliness in that position.

It is not possible to know the full story here.  Perhaps I am having more empathy for Michal than she deserves.  Perhaps she was rejected by God just like her father was.  But it is equally plausible that she is just like so many other women who were treated like property – bartered and traded for the benefit of others.  Who was Michal’s advocate?  Who pleaded her case before the decision-makers of the day?  Who provided comfort through her life’s many setbacks?

It is a reminder of the role that we as Christians must play when we see the Michal’s of the world being unfairly treated.  I often wonder what would have happened if Michal had a godly influence in her life besides the clearly flawed David.  Somebody to reinforce that the unfairness of this physical world is temporary and must not distract us from our spiritual responsibilities.  Somebody to remind her that her role on this earth was not limited to being Saul’s daughter or David’s wife.  Somebody to remind her that our eyes must remain on the Creator, not the created. 

We should actively search for those opportunities to be that somebody.


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Margins of Miraculous – Habakkuk by Shawn Blythe

For those of you who may know little about Habakkuk apart from a book in the Old Testament being named after him, you are not alone.  Apart from the fact that he potentially lived and prophesied in the period of Jehoakim’s reign over Judah, virtually nothing is known of him.  He appears in the scripture unknown and departs the same way.  I am including him in my Margins of Miraculous series because his interactions with God are very similar to what I believe most of us experience: long periods of silence followed by intermittent responses we may not like or even understand.

Habakkuk lived in a time of strife where the law was ‘paralyzed’ and ‘justice never prevails’.  He observes the wicked overcoming the righteous and cannot understand why God tolerates it.  He observes this continuing condition and cries out to God for a remedy.  He not only calls to God – but does so repeatedly for such a length of time without results that he resorts to the phrase that all of us have used at one time or another: “Why don’t you listen to me?!”

It is a cry of desperation and frustration – and we have all been there.  We witness situations that are so egregious or experience such loss or pain that we cannot understand why God does not act to comfort us.  Or better yet, why He didn’t act to prevent the situation from the start.  We know that God can act, but it appears that God won’t act.  This failure to come to our rescue subsequently raises an additional level of concern regarding whether God truly cares for us at all.  Habakkuk was no different.

When God finally did reply, His response was not what Habakkuk had hoped for.  Habakkuk, like us, was looking for God to come to the rescue.  God’s answer was something quite different.  He tells Habakkuk (paraphrased), prepare to be amazed because I am sending the Babylonians to run roughshod over your country.   God warns Habakkuk that He is going to do something that Habakkuk could have never imagined; He is going to send a ruthless, atheistic and dreaded people to conquer Judah.  After this clear response, I can only imagine God gently nodding his head in satisfaction that the question has been answered and the issue satisfactorily addressed.

Habakkuk was less impressed.  He brought a problem to God and the solution provided was appalling.  This was not a theoretical, theological or philosophical issue for Habakkuk.  This was a practical disaster with life-altering consequences.  People would die.  Families would be torn apart as captives were taken.  Homes and cities would be destroyed.  This was God’s response to Habakkuk’s plea for help: life in Judah would be forever changed – and certainly not in a good way.  Habakkuk did his best to characterize the cure as worse than the disease, but it was to no avail.  God’s mind was made up and the only variable remaining was how Habakkuk would respond.

The root of the issue was, and is, a foundational difference in perspective.  As God told Isaiah “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55).  Yet we constantly try to fit God into our plans and timetable.  God’s plan for our salvation was not dependent on which nation ruled Jerusalem at any point in time.  The eventual consequences to the Babylonians would assuredly come, but not in time to make any difference for Habakkuk. 

In a similar way, we must acknowledge that God’s plans may or may not include what we could consider an acceptable answer to our grievances or pleas at any point in time.  If we trust God, then we must trust His plan.  We must acknowledge the long-term benefit of submitting to a plan we do not understand administered by an omnipotent God who loves us.  It is inconceivable that we could ever compare our short-term thinking, fixes and schemes favorably against a plan designed by the Creator of all things.  And yet Habakkuk did – and I do.

So how does one respond to this dilemma?  Fortunately, God provides that answer in Habakkuk 2: “the righteous will live by faith.”  But this is not a faith that our problem will be resolved tomorrow, or we will be healed next week or that justice will prevail soon.  It is a faith in the ultimate righteousness of a loving God and a realization that our individual lives are a single short thread in a tapestry stretching across time eternal.  My faith must be in God alone – not swayed by what God will or will not do for me in some finite time and space.

Habakkuk understands this message clearly.  He chooses to look beyond the coming destruction and instead focuses on waiting patiently for God’s judgment against the invaders.  A judgment that he has no expectation of seeing in his lifetime.  He responds with a prayer of praise and a recognition of God’s power and authority; leading to a commitment to rejoice in God regardless of his present or future circumstances.  He fixes his eyes faithfully on the ultimate plan of God despite the short-term calamity it will bring.

I am not suggesting that this is easy or pleasant.  The hardships that some people must endure can be overwhelming and the evil that we inflict upon each other can be staggering.  Our mortal paths are often littered with obstacles no human mind can explain.  Therefore, we must constantly remind ourselves that the righteous live by faith.  This is not a paper faith.  This is an active, well used faith that allows us to overcome the challenges of our current earthly situation with a clear focus on an eternal spiritual purpose designed by a loving God.

It was a necessity for Habakkuk as he closes his prayer toward the end of Habakkuk chapter 3:

“Though the fig tree does not bud

And there are no grapes on the vines,

Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,

Though there are no sheep in the pen

And no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

 

He recognizes that the disconnect between how God responds to a situation and how we feel He should respond to a situation does not represent a failure on God’s part.  It simply illustrates the gaping chasm between God’s thinking and ours; the difference in perspective between the eternal Almighty God and a person like me whose life is like “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”. (James 4)

The first step in being useful to God on the path He has laid out for us is to accept that path.


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Margins of Miraculous – Jethro the Father-in-Law by Shawn Blythe

As the father of a married daughter, I understand the challenges of the father-in-law to son-in-law relationship. There is a constant fear of over-stepping boundaries, figuring out how to show support even when you disagree with a decision, and a myriad of other issues that arise as two men find themselves in completely new roles – both in connection to the woman they love (daughter/wife) and to each other. And this is where we meet Jethro the Midianite—my favorite father-in-law of the Bible.

Jethro first met his future son-in-law after Moses helped Jethro’s daughters water their flocks (Exodus 2). Moses, having fled from Egypt, was offered a home. He settled down, married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, raised children and overall spent forty years living with Jethro while laboring alongside the family in Midian. Think about that – forty years side by side, facing good times and bad as they celebrated and mourned, prospered and struggled, and made their way through life.

Then one day, after coming home from tending the flocks, Moses asked for permission to go back to Egypt to visit family and friends (Exodus 4). It is not difficult to imagine that after forty years of presumably contented existence, Jethro may have been shocked at this request. He must have pondered the risks of such a long journey for his daughter. He may even have questioned whether Moses was making wise decisions or considering the full range of implications. Moses’ appeal and Jethro’s response are included in the same verse in the Bible (Exodus 4:18) – but I often wonder how much time/thought/discussion may have elapsed during their exchange. In the end, if Jethro had any misgivings, he kept them to himself, wished Moses well, and subsequently watched as his daughter, grandsons, and son-in-law prepared for their trip to Egypt.

Of course, today we know what Jethro did not: something momentous had happened to Moses between the time he left to tend the flocks (Exodus 3:1) and when he returned to ask Jethro’s consent to leave (Exodus 4:18). Moses had been in the physical presence of almighty God, witnessed miracles, and was about to embark on a task that was impossible in human terms. He had been inexorably changed and was no longer the same person Jethro had come to know. There is no record to show that Jethro was aware of any of this. It is probable that Jethro spent the days of Moses’ absence uneventfully, under the assumption that things would continue as they had before. But Moses had begun operating under a very different paradigm. For him, nothing would ever be the same again. 

Imagine Jethro’s anxiety as his daughter and grandsons departed for Egypt on a donkey (Exodus 4:20). Lack of reliable communication meant that Jethro was unlikely to hear the outcome of their journey for many months – if at all. One envisions Jethro and, perhaps, his wife, expressing a fond farewell with no real expectation of being reunited. 

As a result, it must have been quite a surprise to Jethro when his daughter and grandsons reappeared – without Moses. It should be noted that we have no way of knowing exactly when this occurred; it could have been shortly after their departure (perhaps related to the encounter with God at a resting place along the way), before the plagues (upon recognizing the difficulties ahead), or even later, before the battle with the Amalekites. Biblical scholars argue for and against these options, with no definitive evidence to prove or disprove any of them.

As a matter of personal preference, I lean towards the theory of an early return. In that scenario, Jethro’s happiness and relief would surely have been counterbalanced by concern over the increasingly erratic behavior of a son-in-law who was now proceeding to Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage.   I can only imagine the double-take as Jethro hears the story and says, “Wait a minute – Moses said he’s doing WHAT??!!” Zipporah’s description of the encounter with God along the road (Exodus 4:24-26) would have done little to ease Jethro’s mind.

We do not know much about life in Jethro’s household over the following year. Chapters 5 through 17 of Exodus focus on activities in Egypt, rather than back at the homestead in Midian. But throughout this period, life went on for Jethro, Zipporah, and the family.  Meals were cooked, flocks tended, sons raised – all with the uncertainty of when, or if, Zipporah’s husband would return. Zipporah may have felt a spectrum of emotions during this time, from relief at being safely home, to fear for her husband’s wellbeing, to anger that Moses had left her and the children behind.

But it’s clear that Jethro did not bear any permanent grudge against Moses. When he learned what God had done for Moses in Egypt, Jethro sent word that he and Moses’ family were coming. When Jethro met with Moses, he rejoiced with him, offered burnt offerings to God, and broke bread with the elders. It was at this celebration that Scripture first mentions contact between Jethro and God – as Jethro, Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel ate bread in the presence of God (Exodus 18:12).

Note that, prior to this event, there was no record that Jethro had any revelation or guidance from God. He was referred to as a priest of Midian, but it is unknown whether his priesthood was related to the God of Abraham or some other local deity. Jethro, at least during this time period, was limited to seeing God work through someone else. Not only that, but God’s plan actually had an adverse effect on Jethro, as his daughter was abandoned—at least temporarily—when Moses went off to do God’s bidding.

Despite this, Jethro never closed his heart to the possibility that there was more to his son-in-law’s activities than might appear on the surface. There is no documentation of complaint, no sign of distrust, no evidence that Jethro tried to leverage circumstances to his own advantage, and certainly never any jealousy as to why God chose to work through Moses, and not Jethro. Instead, Jethro maintained a trust relationship with Moses to the point that, upon their reunion, his son-in-law implemented all of Jethro’s practical administrative suggestions. 

Jethro experienced the miracles of God secondhand – and not only believed but rejoiced in the work that God was doing through Moses. Jethro found himself in a situation that is familiar to many of us: he watched God perform miracles for somebody else. Jethro heard the stories of how God had delivered the Israelites from their oppressor, how God had afflicted the Egyptians and destroyed the pursuing army. He heard how God had provided drinking water by sweetening the waters at Marah and causing water to burst from a rock. He heard how God had provided food in the form of manna. Jethro heard these things and rejoiced.

When we watch God work for others, there can be a natural inclination to ask why God isn’t doing similar things for us. Someone else is healed and we are not. Someone else gets a job and we do not.  Somebody else’s problems are resolved and ours remain unaddressed. As a tribal leader, Jethro undoubtedly had a list of issues that would have benefited from God’s direct intervention. But Jethro did not go down that path. Jethro was “delighted to hear about all of the good things the Lord had done for Israel.” He praised God for rescuing not only Moses but the Israelites. He brought offerings. He rejoiced actively and enthusiastically in the work that God was doing through Moses. He acknowledged the sovereignty of God and celebrated – not because God had done great things for Jethro, but simply because God had done great things.

The Bible is full of people praising God for the great things He has done for them, and equally full of people praising God despite dire circumstances – albeit often in anticipation of the great things that God will do for them in future. But we have few examples of a person like Jethro, who praises God explicitly for what He has done for others.

In a world that certainly has its share of trouble and heartache, it seems like a missed opportunity not to occasionally brighten our days with the delight and rejoicing associated with celebrating the blessings of others. Jethro was able to set aside his day-to-day issues to praise God for the blessings that others had received. We would be well served to follow this example. Are our days so full that we would not benefit from a bit more joyful celebration?


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Margins of Miraculous – Simon of Cyrene by Shawn Blythe

There may be no more poignant reminder of the ways by which we cross paths with our Savior than the story of Simon of Cyrene.  His intersection with Christ was unlikely and under the most unimaginable circumstances. Cyrene was approximately 800 miles from Jerusalem – a journey that would take approximately one month to complete by land.  It was a pilgrimage that was likely only undertaken a handful of times over the course of a lifetime.  But in order to understand Simon, we need to understand why he may have come to Jerusalem that weekend.

Cyrene is located along the coast of Northern Africa in the eastern part of what is currently Libya.  Over time, the city changed hands between the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.  It was during an Egyptian rule that Jewish roots take firm hold when Ptolemy Soter established a Jewish garrison there in roughly 300 B.C.  Strabo the historian records a significant Jewish presence in Cyrene with the following quote recorded by Josephus: “There were four classes of men among those of Cyrene; that of citizens, that of husbandmen, the third of strangers, and the fourth of Jews.”  By the time of the early church there may have been as many as 100,000 Jews living in and around Cyrene.

These Jews were not living independently from their Jewish homeland and were in regular contact with their counterparts back in Israel.  They were present at Pentecost (Acts 2).  Jews from Cyrene were regular attenders of the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6) and they are recorded as having helped spread the word in the church of Antioch (Acts 11).  The Jews of Cyrene regularly sent their offerings back to the temple treasury.  Josephus records interventions from both Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa in protecting the transfer of money from Jews in Cyrene back to Jerusalem.

Whether Simon of Cyrene was part of the Jewish Diaspora or a native convert from Northern Africa, he was probably not a simple tourist taking a holiday in Jerusalem that weekend.  He was much more likely a devoted Jew making his pilgrimage for the Passover festival.  He is mentioned by three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) with Mark including the additional detail regarding Simon being the father of Alexander and Rufus.  There are many theories as to why Mark may have included this detail while the others omitted it.  One potential rationale is that Mark’s readers would have known who Alexander and Rufus were and therefore the reference to his children would have provided an explicit link to the Simon that Mark was referencing.  Although there are many depictions of Simon with his children when he was compelled to carry the cross, there is no record as to whether Alexander and Rufus were present – or even born yet.  But whether young or not yet conceived, given that Mark was written approximately 30 years after the crucifixion, Alexander and Rufus would have been old enough to have made a name for themselves within the community by the time that Mark was written if that was their desire.

There are theories and traditions that identify both Simon and his child Rufus as leaders in the early church.  However, there is no definitive record of Simon once he deposited the cross on the hill of Golgotha.  There is nothing to prove that the Rufus referenced by Paul (Romans 16) was in fact the son of Simon of Cyrene.  There is no evidence to support that the “Alexander Son of Simon” written in Greek on an ossuary found in the Kidron valley in 1941 belonged to the son of Simon of Cyrene.  But, of course, there is nothing to say that they aren’t related either!

It is possible that Simon of Cyrene completed his required task, wiped the blood from his clothes as best as he could, and hurried away in an attempt to put the distasteful experience out of his mind as quickly as possible.  It is also possible that the Via Dolorosa changed him forever.  It is an interesting to consider that Simon carried a burden that was unwanted, uncomfortable and clearly deviated from his plans for the day.  It is not dissimilar from the countless days when things don’t go as we have planned.  We are forced to do things we don’t wish to do, and go to places we don’t wish to go.  We are stained from the experience and no matter how hard we try; we find it difficult to wash the unfairness of it all out of our minds.

But of course, while we and Simon are carrying our temporary burdens, Christ was carrying the sin of the world – past, present and future.  It is one thing to forgive somebody for what they have done to you in the past.  It is something quite different to forgive somebody for what they are doing to you in the present.  But it is surely a sign of a love that we cannot understand to forgive us for the stripes we will apply in the future.  Simon may have been wondering about these thing as he walked next to Christ.  Or he may have been wondering if he was going to be reimbursed for his ruined clothing.  I can only speak for myself in confirming that both perspectives are well known to me.

Regardless of his motivations, Simon’s actions on that Friday have triggered a variety of ministries over the years.  The Cyrenians, based in the UK, focus on helping the homeless with a core concept of “sharing the burden”.  The Cyrene Movement focuses on healing racial trauma and references a commonly held view (and certainly possible) that Simon was a man of color.  Like Simon, they encourage us to help lift each other’s burdens. 

There is no record that any of the apostles accompanied Jesus in any physical sense on his tortuous walk to Calvary.  It seems that only a stranger from Cyrene would accompany him – and then only under duress.  But while Jesus may have been a stranger to Simon, we know for certain that Simon would not have been a stranger to Jesus.  If Simon did not at least look at the man who was walking to his death alongside him and wonder, it was surely a missed opportunity.  We should pay careful attention when we are grudgingly carrying our daily burdens that we do not forget that our Savior is walking right next to us – having already carried a far greater burden for us than we will ever know.


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Margins of Miraculous – Judas by Shawn Blythe

Judas is one of the most abhorred people in all of scripture and yet we know very little about him.  His background is vague, his motives are unclear, and his decision-making is questionable.   In other words, apart from the unknown background – he was likely not that different from you and me.  It is worth perhaps just a few minutes to think about how he went from a called apostle to a man who, per Jesus, would have been better off not being born.

His first name was quite common for the day and was perhaps even more popular in honor of the local hero Judas Maccabeus.  Even amongst the apostles there appear to be two men named Judas as Luke 6 refers to a ‘Judas, son of James’ (an apostle that the other gospel writers refer to as Thaddeus).  The name is honorable enough likely meaning “God is Thanked”.

John provides us with his last name when he is referred to as the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6).  There are many theories regarding the meaning of this last name – the most accepted of which is that it references a hometown of Kerioth.  Kerioth is a small town south of Jerusalem and west of the Dead See.  It is on the edge of the Judean wilderness where according to John 3, Jesus spent part of his early ministry.  Assuming Judas was from Kerioth, it is quite likely this is where he encountered Jesus for the first time and would have made him the only Judean apostle (the rest being from Galilee).

Another less popular theory regarding his last name is a reference to “dagger man”, which could potentially link Judas with a Jewish extremist group called the Sicarii.  They are best known for terrorist acts starting much later in the AD 40s and 50s which involved assassinating political rivals (i.e., those aligned with Rome) by stealthily stabbing them with knives held under the cloaks in public places.  This revolt later played a part in the temporary liberation of Jerusalem around AD 66-67 – but eventually led to retribution by the Romans that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.   Although not as widely accepted as the “from Kerioth” interpretation, it is an interesting historical perspective that the Sicarii were largely based in Judea and were violently opposed to Roman rule.  They would have been anxiously awaiting a Messiah they believed would liberate them from their oppression.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to regarding the meaning of his last name, it is important to remember that Judas was far more than his last week on earth portrays.  He was a selected member of the twelve and was likely with Jesus for the vast majority of his three-year ministry.  He clearly upended his previous life to follow Jesus, at times went hungry with him, at other times ate with him, and generally suffered the normal hardships of travel with him.  He inevitably talked with Jesus and prayed with Jesus.  He witnessed the miracles of Jesus repeatedly.

Despite this, John clearly believes Judas was a thief and a liar.  On the other hand, Jesus permitted him to oversee the money.  And if Judas was in fact a thief whose primary motivation in following Christ was the money, it is equally unclear why he would participate in an act that would literally kill the golden goose.  Further, thirty pieces of silver was not a huge amount of money and would certainly not substantially change Judas’ long-term financial status.  For those who would simply wish to blame Satan for the entirety of Judas’ betrayal, it is important to note that Satan did not enter Judas until he was actually at the Last Supper (John 13), which was after he had already approached the chief priests with the suggested plan (Matthew 26).  As noted, Judas was clearly a man of unclear motivations. 

This lack of clarity was temporarily brought into focus on that fateful Thursday.  He left the disciples near the end of the Last Supper and scurried away to find the chief priests to let them know that the time was right.  Perhaps he knew that Jesus would be going to the garden after dinner – or perhaps he rushed back to the Upper Room with the soldiers in tow only to find it empty.  One can imagine a momentary panic in having led Roman soldiers on a wild goose change until he was told by a servant where the group had headed.  Regardless, at this point Judas had already given himself over to the plan and the wheels were in motion.

I suspect that Judas was not very different from you and me in that we often have a very clear view as to what we think God SHOULD do.   It is at least plausible that Judas was frustrated with Jesus’ failure to step into the Messiah role that Judas (and many others) likely believed was his destiny.  It is possible that Judas was trying to force Jesus to declare his kingship and trigger the revolt many Jews were eagerly awaiting.  But Judas, probably like us on many occasions, missed the point.  His eyes were on the wrong prize.  His passion for what he felt God should be doing obscured what God was actually doing.

He experienced the miraculous but misunderstood the reason for the miracle.  Despite being AROUND God, he hadn’t given himself TO God.  Despite being shown first-hand the path of Christ, he still felt that perhaps his way was just slightly better.  Who among us can say that we haven’t done the same thing?

Judas’ spirits may have soared when Jesus’ declared “I am He” in response to the mob’s statement that they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth.  A declaration that caused those searching for him with torches, lanterns and weapons to draw back and fall to the ground (John 18).  Judas may have felt that this was it – this was the moment.  But this exhilaration would have been short-lived as Jesus rebuked the violence and allowed himself to be taken away.  It must have been a torturous realization that his life had in fact been destroyed by the great deceiver.  By morning he was trying to return the silver, and by the end of the day had taken his own life.

Perhaps, frequently like us, he only saw what he wanted to see.  Or perhaps, frequently like us, he was so blinded by his own plans and ambition that he didn’t see anything at all.  But in either case he experienced the grace of God but mistook it for failure.  He experienced the miracles of Christ but tried to contain them within a time and geography that was simply not relevant to what God was accomplishing that week.

How many times have we done the same?  We are not so far away from Judas.  Our motives are often misaligned with God and our decision-making is often made without the benefit of spiritual guidance.  We need to ensure that we not only bear testimony to the miracles of God, but that we acknowledge that the purpose and ultimate objective of God’s acts on this earth are solely within the sovereignty of God.   Otherwise, like Judas, we run the risk of trying to force fit God’s plan into our plan; a task that can range from frustrating to disastrous. 

It is easy to despise Judas.  His actions in that final week of his life ultimately define him.  But in order to learn from him, we must first acknowledge that the differences between the motivations of Judas and our own may be uncomfortably difficult to distinguish.  In both cases, personal ambitions, plans and desires become more important than subjecting ourselves to God’s will.  When reflecting on the life of Judas, perhaps we should recall the paraphrased words of the martyr John Bradford: “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

 


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Margins of Miraculous: Pilate by Shawn Blythe

How will people remember you?  It’s a question that many of us ask ourselves as we seek to live our lives in accordance with God’s will, but keenly aware of our abundant shortcomings.

Pontius Pilate is a classic example of a man for whom a single incident over-shadowed a lifetime of service to the Roman Empire.  Decisions made over the course of only a couple of hours would ultimately define him.  When somebody mentions the name of Pontius Pilate, nobody mentions his standing in the Roman equestrian order, nobody remembers his likely notable family roots back in Italy and nobody references his relatively long tenure as the governor of Judea. We all remember him as the man who (at least in earthly terms) condemned Jesus to the cross.

Pilate, like any prefect or governor, was a politician.  His ability to maintain his role as governor required a careful balance between the forces of Rome and the local Jewish population.  If he leans too heavily towards Rome, the people revolt, and he fails.  If he leans too heavily towards the local Jewish population, Rome sees him as a traitor, and he fails.

Pilate was the 5th Roman prefect of Judea to attempt this balance – following Coponius, Marcus Ambibulus (or my favorite alternative spelling for a politician: Ambivulus), Annius Rufus and Valerius Gratus.  The first three served roughly three years each, while Valerius Gratus and Pilate each served approximately eleven years.  Each of them worked with, but kept a tight reign over, the local leadership (Sanhedrin).  In fact, it was the Roman governor who appointed the high priest who led the Sanhedrin.

This relationship led to the potential for ‘conflicts of interest’ for the high priest as they sought to balance their responsibility to the Jewish people as both an administrative and religious leader, while at the same time keeping the Roman governor satisfied enough to maintain them in the position of high priest.  The high priests under Pilate’s predecessor were unable to maintain that balance.  Valerius Gratus went through several high priests before settling on Joseph Caiaphas in AD 18.  Caiaphas apparently learned from his predecessors mis-steps and managed to keep this role as high priest through the remainder of Valerius Gratus’ rule – and throughout the entirety of Pilate’s reign as prefect.  This is a significant length of time to serve as high priest and suggests a reasonably congenial relationship with the Roman government.

In fact, Caiaphas was only replaced after Pilate was recalled to Rome by Tiberius, likely due to Pilate’s mishandling of a revolt in Samaria.  Vitellius (Governor of Syria – under whom the rule of Judea fell) appointed his colleague Marcellus as a replacement for Pilate.  Marcellus in turn immediately replaced Caiaphas with Jonathan ben Ananus as high priest in order to wipe the slate clean.  The death of Tiberius ends the written record of Pilate as there is no indication of the disposition of his hearing, nor any further reliable record of his life.

Pilate was not known for running a clean administration and is often accused of collusion with Caiaphas to spend Temple treasury funds for projects outside their intended purpose.  He likely significantly mis-handled the sensitivities of the local population on at least three occasions, the last of which led to his recall to Rome.  His apparently cozy relationship with Caiaphas was ultimately not seen as a positive factor for either one of them.

But it is less than an hour or two of interaction with Jesus for which he is best known.  He came face to face with the human incarnation of God – but somehow managed the situation as just another task in a long list of tasks requiring his daily decisions.  He met Jesus for the first time early on Friday morning and by 9:00 a.m. Jesus was already being crucified (Mark 15).  Pilate likely went about his normal daily business for the rest of the day but was aware enough of the crucifixion timing to be surprised that Jesus was already dead when Joseph of Arimathea requested his body later that afternoon (Mark 15).  Pilate’s agreement to allow Joseph to take Christ’s body is the last Biblical record we have of Pilate.

All four gospel writers record Pilate’s role that day.  The Believer’s Prayer (Acts 4) also references Pilate’s actions.  Paul does the same in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13).  More contemporarily, Pilate’s deeds were incorporated as early as the eighth century into the version of the Apostle’s Creed that we know today.

Pilate was a man who believed that he had the power and authority to make decisions on his own accord (John 19).  I fear that he is very much like us in that regard.  We go about our lives pleading with God about the jobs we need, the healing we desire or the relationships we want created, ended or mended.  But we do so without the humility of Jesus’ addendum to his own pleadings “Yet, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26).  We proceed without recalling the answer Paul received to his own supplications “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12).  Don’t get me wrong – God wishes to hear our prayers, but His answer will be within the context of God’s plan based on infinite love for us. 

Pilate’s interaction with the Savior of the world was limited in his view to the confines of his duties as Prefect of Judea.  He never allowed it to get any bigger than that.  He never permitted Jesus to become personal for him.

The final historical verdict for Pilate is somewhat mixed.  Some believe that he was convicted of crimes by Caligula (Tiberius’ successor) – perhaps even exiled or executed.  While others believe he may have taken his own life in remorse, or simply moved on to his next assignment, or just retired.  Some even treat him as a saint (e.g., Ethiopian Orthodox) and believe he and his wife eventually become Christians.

As we consider how we might be remembered, we should strive to leave no such ambiguity.  Our interactions with God should not be treated as distractions from the life we ARE leading.  They should be a continual reminder to repent of the life we WERE leading.  We should not try to place our exposure to the miraculous within the tidy box of our plans for the day.  It is an opportunity to unpack the box, examine each of the contents, and consider what should be kept and what should be thrown away. 

We should not make the same mistake that Pilate did in assuming that our interactions with Jesus fit within the confines of our world; rather we need to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus’ interaction with us has no such boundaries.


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