Dear Lord, with you there is never a point at when we should give up or give in. There’s always hope, and this hope extends through our life, into our past even, and onward to the future that you are putting into place. I feel tempted to put this hope aside, wondering if I’m delusional or thinking maybe you’ve left me on my own. Those are the lies that whisper in my thoughts. Even when I don’t listen to them, don’t give up, they can easily dampen my spirit and leave me feeling lost or shallow.
This week, may I hear your voice throughout my life. May I walk with you in courage and perseverance. May I not let go or give in, may I see your work in new ways, answering my prayers and giving me renewed perspective about what has already happened and what is happening. May I encourage others in my life, helping them where they need help, hoping with them and for them, being present with them. May you be with them as well, answering their prayers and encouraging them in their lives. Guide us. Guard us. Lead us. Amen.
1. Psalm 139
2. Reading through 2 Chronicles 32-36 and Ezra
With the end of 2 Chronicles we come to the end of another era in Israel’s history. The Promise to give the people a land of their own, to make them into a true People, to give them all they needed to thrive, came to seeming ruin. First the united kingdom was split in half after Solomon. The northern kingdom lost its way earlier, but even the southern kingdom of Judah held on longer, with various kings returning to God and leading the people in light of God’s mission, but then other kings abandoned that cause. God responds according to their devotion. Note this isn’t about just sins or misbehavior, it’s about who the people worship and how they orient their life and goals and priorities. It’s about where they find their identity.
We’re faced with much the same challenges. Success can pull us away from God as can misfortune. At no point, however, do we have an excuse. The only way of hope, the only way of life, is continuing to walk with and trust God. Even when it seems counter-intuitive, it’s the better way in every way. In these chapters, we see the effects of serving God and the effects of ignoring God.
It’s not entirely cut and dry either. There are times we are mostly on God’s side, but if we start imposing our own ideas about things we can get off track. Like Josiah (a good king) did with Pharaoh Necho, a story that shows that while the Bible is focusing on the events in Israel, God is not limited to that story and has a much bigger mission in mind.
We aren’t the lord of the Lord, we are servants, and so do well to listen to God’s words and watch for God’s actions even if they don’t fit our assumptions.
2 Chronicles ends with the last straw. While the back and forth of the kings has kept the kingdom going, eventually the instability of commitment takes its toll. Jerusalem is destroyed. The people are taking into captivity. The Temple itself is looted and ruined. All the signs of the Promise come to an end.
Well, not all the signs. 2 Chronicles ends with a wonderful testimony of God’s commitment. God isn’t going to be abused or dismissed. God gets his way, one way or another.
And God’s way demands Sabbath. The land gets its great Sabbath, a rest and renewal that happens out of the desolation.
God isn’t done with his Promise, not at all. God is much more committed to it than the people ever were. And his Promise remains.
With Ezra we turn to a period of restoration. This is a second act. The Rise and Fall of the kingdom were the first, and then there was a long intermission (though we’ll hear more about that when we get to books like Daniel).
When we don’t read the Bible, but just hear the stories and teachings from an occasional sermon or other source, we get the Reader’s Digest version, the quick telling that gives us the basic introduction, what went wrong, and how God put it right. That’s okay, it’s a good start, but the trouble is we start thinking of God’s work according to the Reader’s Digest version, the quick telling and easy solutions. We don’t see that in our own lives and think maybe we went wrong some way or that God is gone.
That’s why reading the Bible itself, all the way through, is so important. There’s a lot of time in between events. There’s a lot of ups and downs even in the process of God putting things right. Even when God answers, the experience isn’t immediate, as if God is a genie that only cares about satisfying our wishes or that God is a 5 star customer service agent who will get things in order.
God cares about the results and also the process. God cares about us, not just what we get but who we are. Often in leading us to fullness, God allows us to experience tests or frustrations or concerns that show whether we really do have faith and what it is that we really care about. God is not, never has been nor never will be, just a means to an end. God won’t be used.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which we’ll get to next week), can be considered one longer book with 2 sections telling us about how the people of Israel got back into the land. For us, as Christians, it’s setting up the story of the New Testament. What happened that Jerusalem was once again a major city and the Temple a part of the telling of what Jesus did? It wasn’t a quick or easy process and this restoration is filled with stories of renewed commitment and courage of faith by all sorts of people, including our two key leaders in this restoration.
Ezra is a priest, a skilled scribe and leader, who represents the spiritual aspects of God’s Promise, but unlike a lot of assumptions in our era, the spiritual is not in contrast to the physical. These are interconnected and involved with each other, so devotion to God has an expressive aspect that also has material concerns and goals. The key, though, is that these are oriented in light of devotion to God and the gifts that God gives, not simply to rebuild or restore for the pride of the people. Ezra keeps things going and keeps the focus where it needs to be.
What stands out in the story of the people returning? How does Ezra’s leadership shape what happens? What are the key struggles the people encountered? What were their temptations? In this time of renewed commitment, a radical devotion to God that arose out of the long experience of frustrations, what are the key lessons for us in facing our own frustrations and temptations?
3. Reading Through Mark 15-16
Once again, we come to the end of a Gospel. This is the fourth Gospel we’ve gone through, and so even if the narrative wasn’t familiar before, it is now. Why do you think we have four Gospels? I’ve talked about this before in previous posts, but am wondering how you’d explain this to others.
This can seem like the end of the mission of Jesus, his death on the cross and the resurrection, with all these entail. But rather than say this is the culmination of the mission of Jesus, it’s not quite that. Yet, this is certainly a crucial kind of moment, an ending that’s not an ending in itself but an ending of a stage or era of humanity. It’s a crucial moment, quite literally, in which everything changes after this. Yet, like we see in the Old Testament passages, the end and new beginning can often be long processes of transformation. It’s a new beginning for the people, but that doesn’t mean there’s an end to crises or a need to forget patience. Jesus is inaugerating the Kingdom, a kingdom that confronts the religious and political leaders; a kingdom that offers a whole new way of life, not just competing for the scraps of the same old power structures.
In this version told by Mark, what stands out to you? Go through the other crucifixion scenes from the other Gospels and see what they have in common and what they might say differently. They certainly emphasize this and often using the same wording, a testimony of how the earliest disciples were in remembering the events and passing them on to followers.
Which is to say, this is very, very important stuff. This is the teachings that helped the earliest Christians grow in depth and breadth, spreading the faith, transforming lives, and transforming the world even to our day.
What are we going to do with this message in our contexts? That’s the question set before us, the reason we are still being told and asked to read the big work of God in history. God works in actual events, in the flow of history, bringing astounding work within mundane or even discouraging circumstances, bringing life out of death, and hope into every circumstance.
Who will we be in light of this message?
These are questions asked since the earliest followers saw the risen Jesus. As we’ve read much of the rest of the New Testament already, we know how they wrestled with this. Sometimes they did well, sometimes they did poorly, sometimes, well, they did what they thought was best and God made something of it.
The last verses of Mark, 16:9 and following, may be reflections of that. Some of you may be reading in Bibles, like the NIV, that make some kind of note about these verses, saying they’re not in the earliest manuscripts we have. This can seem very odd or even angering to some, since it seems to suggest we have parts of our Bible that shouldn’t be there, or translations of our Bible that are critiquing parts that we have. It might be confusing, but it doesn’t have to cause us too many problems. The early church had the book of Mark and the other Gospels. Everything we need to know about Jesus, including the cross and resurrection and all the teachings/miracles are there. Like John 16:12 says, there’s a lot they left out that might be interesting but wasn’t vital.
But people sometimes don’t like gaps, and if the earliest manuscripts of Mark end at 16:8, then that seems to leave out some key aspects. Later editors then, it seems, filled in the blanks, using material from the other Gospels and Acts to make sure Mark was a more complete package. It’s not wrong, but it probably wasn’t part of Mark’s original. Like a preacher may add clarifications or tell the other parts of a story to help a reader, so too do these verses give more closure. When people are reading from separate scrolls, and copying manuscripts is a long process, it makes sense. Nowadays, though, we have all the Gospels together and can read their perspectives in light of each of the others.
The truth is that the Bible is a testimony of witnesses handed down to us through the generations by faithful men and women who copied and preached this testimony. It’s a work of the Spirit that came into being as part of a very human story, and it is this miracle of God working through Jesus, entering into humanity, sharing and spreading the story through the very human disciples, that makes it all the more marvelous. God does a great work and is continuing to write a great story, the story of the Promise, the story of the enacting Kingdom even now.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
4. Psalm 140
If you’ve fallen behind in the readings or haven’t started yet, don’t worry. Reading the Bible isn’t a limited time offer. Jump in this week. Start where you can and then continue on.
I highly encourage you to share your thoughts with others in your family, or immediate community. Talk about this stuff!
Since I sometimes feel lonely, share your thoughts in the comment section.
Talking about your thoughts and questions is a very important part of the reading goal. Writing out our thoughts can help us remember what we read and keep our minds on the passage.
It helps to share as we learn from each other.
Our questions or confusion can bring us together, as we highlight what others may have missed or address what a lot of us are also wondering. Don’t feel like you have to say or write a lot, or feel pressure to be profound. Respond with honesty and openness.
Just jump right in where you’re at, knowing that Christ invites you to respond without pressure or anxiety. It’s a journey not a performance.