Sunday, July 30, 2017

JE SUIS NICODEMUS

I do not know why Nicodemus waited until it was night before he went to speak with Jesus. Generally, we assume that it was because, as a member of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was afraid that the act of his going to see Jesus would cause him to be censured by his colleagues in their religious order.

By and large, we today have a largely negative connotation of the Pharisees of the first century. The Pharisees were a group of self-righteous religious leaders who were often the objects of scorn by Jesus.

Jesus said of the sect of the Pharisees as a whole, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”[1] Hypocrisy seemed to be the central issue of the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke to the Pharisees face to face, he even spoke in much harsher terms than he did when merely speaking to someone else about them.

Once, when Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees directly, he told them this: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”[2] Jesus also called them such things as “unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it,” [3] as well as “fools” and “hypocrites.”

Even John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, showed no deference to these men who always looked for the most important seats at gatherings and who loved to be honored by others. “You brood of vipers” John bluntly called them. These are the same words that were repeated later by Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees.[4]

Notwithstanding these comments by Jesus and by John, in the Jewish society at large, the Pharisees actually were largely respected as the religious leaders of the day. They, along with the Scribes (who also were often of the sect of the Pharisees), were the ones who studied and knew the Scriptures.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

LIVING IN THE TORRID ZONE

And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day,
And refuge and protection from the storm and the rain. Isaiah 4:6

The sun over my head seared down merciless upon me, blindingly intense and draining me of all energy. I was at the time living in a town in western Venezuela and I was walking across and open soccer field on my way home from an errand that I had to make that day on foot.

The errand began early that morning out in the hills surrounding the village. My journey into the hills had begun in the coolness of the day, and I had not prepared adequately for the heat that I should have known would come later. Actually, my task had taken me further than I first intended to walk, and I was returning home later than I thought that I would.

Our village was in the Andes Mountains. While it was not in the highest of mountain areas, it was still at quite a high altitude. In places such as these, with the thin air and dryer atmosphere, the nights may be refreshingly cool, but the day can warm up quite fast. By noon it can become pretty unbearable to be out in the sun without protection. That is where I was in this last part of my walk, under the full sun with no protection. As I entered the village, there seemed to be no shade anywhere. Now, I was cutting across a soccer field to get back to our home. The heat and the sun had exhausted me of any energy reserve.

I thought that it must be about noon as I walked across the open field. At this point at the end of my journey, the heat and intensity of the sun was more than I could endure. As I made my way across the turf, I noticed that the town had recently erected huge light poles around the field, the bases of which were nearly two feet in diameter. There were no lights on the poles yet, but the poles were in place, ready for the workers to later place them to illuminate the field at night.

I had been hiking under the cloudless sky all morning long. In the hills there had often been a little shade, but not in this last leg of my walk. It had been all intense sun. After enduring the heat of the sun for some hours, I decided that when I reached the other end of the field, I would sit with my back resting on the shady side of one the poles for a few minutes before making the very last of this bit of my return trip to our home.

Much to my dismay, however, as I approached my intended resting spot, I could see no shadow. I walked completely around the pole and was disheartened to find that every side of the light post was being heated by the sun. Squinting my eyes, I looked up at my tormenter above my head and realized that it was indeed noon, and I was in the Torrid Zone at the equinox. 
 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA

God once provided a path through the Red Sea for the Israelites so that they could pass. Our family also has experienced paths of God, perhaps not to the same extent as did Moses and his people, but nevertheless, we also saw the hand of God in these times. This is a story of one of those times: 

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA 

The city of Mérida, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, is built on a narrow plateau that sits like a castle high above several rivers that seem to surround it like a moat. It is a college town. The Universidad de Los Andes is there. During the years that we lived in that country, the university had about 30,000 students.

College towns usually have a culture all of their own, but this was especially true in Venezuela where both student and faculty protests and strikes were very common and where the strikes would frequently close down an entire town or even a city. The kids learned it from the earliest grades. It was not uncommon for us to see first and second graders in our own town carrying placards along with the rest of the students of a school, protesting some sort of “injustice”.

Mérida, because of the geography of the mountainous region where it is built, is a long and quite narrow city. There are really only three roads that lead through the length of it. The streets were not built for the amount of traffic they needed to bear when the city grew to its present size, and the downtown congestion was common.

One day we had to drive the length of the city to return to our own home in western Venezuela. Again, things may have changed since we lived there a couple of decades ago, but at that time, there were seldom bypasses to cities in Venezuela. One had to simply drive through the heart of town and hope for the best.

As we approached the city of Mérida, I suppose we should have been immediately suspicious that things were not right when a police barricade blocked off the first main street that we wanted to take.

However, this was not that uncommon. Streets seemed to be almost routinely blocked off for one reason or another, and without further thought, we proceeded to the second street. When we arrived at that second passage-way, we saw that there were cars on it, and they seemed to be moving along.

Well…the word moving may be a little misleading, because once we got in the line of traffic, we realized that they were mostly stopped, bumper to bumper. Nevertheless, since we thought we might have no other choice, we also joined in. With that, in the spirit of driving in the cities in Latin America or perhaps anywhere in the world, we hoped for the best.

We expected the line to move slowly, but as we sat in our car on this hot day, this one became agonizingly slow. As we tediously proceeded, I noticed that the cross streets were absolutely abandoned. In fact, there were very few shops open. No cars were parked along the sides. Something was not normal in the city of Mérida.

As we got nearer to the university and the downtown area, I could really tell something was up. The only street that had any cars on it was the one on which we were stuck in the traffic. The city looked abandoned with all the roll-down steel window coverings over the store windows (for some reason they call these security doors “Santa Marias”), and only a few university students standing idly about on the streets.

I was getting tired of sitting in the car going almost nowhere, and I saw a nice shady place where I could park our car on one of the side streets. I decided to get out and see if we could find out what was going on. Sticking my arm out of my window to try to get the other drivers to make a gap for me, I cut across a line of cars and made my way to our shady spot.

Vivian, our two boys that were with us, and I got out of the car and began walking toward where we saw a group of students standing in the middle of the intersection. As we got closer, our sons began to complain. “The air is stinging my eyes and burning my throat,” they said. Vivian and I really could not sense anything.

We approached the students. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“We are having a protest,” one of them told me.

“Why, what happened?”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

ESTHER’S DILEMMA

Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
***************
 
The story of Esther takes place in the citadel in the city of Susa. Susa was located in present day Iran, and is one of the oldest cities of history. During the days when we read of Esther at somewhere around 460 0r 470 BC, Susa was also probably the most splendid of all cities of the world. This was in the days of the first Persian Empire and the reign of King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I. This is where we pick up the story. 

The Party

Ahasuerus, whom I shall just call by his other name of Xerxes, was throwing a big party. In fact, it was a huge party. The invited guests where the nobles and officials from all of his provinces, and since these provinces stretched from Ethiopia to India, this included a lot of people. In addition to these guest dignitaries were also his military leaders. The king took them all around the area to show them his vast wealth and the marvels of his kingdom.

The party went on for 180 days (if you can imagine), and when this time was over, the king then held a special banquet in his enclosed gardens lasting seven days. The garden was bedecked with hangings of white and blue linen, fastened to rings made from silver and placed on marble pillars surrounding the dining area. The wine was served in goblets of gold, each goblet unique. It was open bar. The king specifically instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man as much as he wanted.

It was a party like no other. The king was eager to show off his great wealth. His queen was Queen Vashti. She also was having separate party in the royal palace for the women and wives of the nobles.

The party seems to have been largely a success until near the end, when things began to go wrong for Xerxes.
 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

THE RAVEN AND THE DOVE

Our Man Noah

What was there about Noah that caused God to look upon him with favor?

Like many saints of old, we really do not know very much about this man. We do know that the society of his day was extremely wicked, perhaps more so than any society which has ever lived. It must have been so to provoke such a severe judgement from God.

However, we do not know any of the particulars of the people of that day. We do not know for what reasons God declared the society to be so wicked. Nevertheless, as we earlier read in the account of Noah, God’s assessment of the people demonstrated the extreme depth of depravity to which they had descended.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Among the seven things listed in the book of Proverbs that are particularly detestable to God are “hearts that devises wicked schemes and feet that are quick to rush into evil.”[1]

King David wrote of this condition in the book of Psalms:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.

All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3 NIV)

Whatever form that the evil took in the lives of the people of Noah’s day, their immorality was apparently to the point that even their every thought was evil. There was no goodness at all left in them. After God had seen the deep corruption of the world, it was to Noah alone that he came with the news that he had determined to put an end to all people

Somehow, Noah managed to retain his goodness and stay strong in the midst of this evil society. Of Noah, we read, “he was a righteous man and he lived a blameless life among the people of his time.” Those words remind us of another outstanding person of the Old Testament – the man Job. God said of him, “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”[2]