Nahum 2

skeleton_assyriaNahum 2

1 The scatterer has come up against you. Man the ramparts; watch the road; dress for battle; collect all your strength. 2 For the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel, for plunderers have plundered them and ruined their branches. 3 The shield of his mighty men is red; his soldiers are clothed in scarlet. The chariots come with flashing metal on the day he musters them; the cypress spears are brandished. 4 The chariots race madly through the streets; they rush to and fro through the squares; they gleam like torches; they dart like lightning. 5 He remembers his officers; they stumble as they go, they hasten to the wall; the siege tower is set up. 6 The river gates are opened; the palace melts away; 7 its mistress is stripped; she is carried off, her slave girls lamenting, moaning like doves and beating their breasts. 8 Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away. “Halt! Halt!” they cry, but none turns back. 9 Plunder the silver, plunder the gold! There is no end of the treasure or of the wealth of all precious things. 10 Desolate! Desolation and ruin! Hearts melt and knees tremble; anguish is in all loins; all faces grow pale! 11 Where is the lions’ den, the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion and lioness went, where his cubs were, with none to disturb? 12 The lion tore enough for his cubs and strangled prey for his lionesses; he filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh. 13 Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard.

In 1963-64, Bob Dylan wrote his song, “Seven Curses.” It is a song about a powerful judge who uses the occasion of a father’s crime to commit a crime against the man’s daughter. He promises the daughter that her father (who had stolen a horse) will be set free if he, the judge, can have her. She agrees only to discover the next day that the judge had her father killed anyway. As a result, she curses the judge with seven curses.

Old Reilly stole a stallion
But they caught him and they brought him back
And they laid him down on the jailhouse ground
With an iron chain around his neck
Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand
When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father
The price, my dear, is you instead”
“Oh I’m as good as dead,” cried Reilly
“It’s only you that he does crave
And my skin will surely crawl if he touches you at all
Get on your horse and ride away”
“Oh father you will surely die
If I don’t take the chance to try
And pay the price and not take your advice
For that reason I will have to stay”
The gallows shadows shook the evening
In the night a hound dog bayed
In the night the grounds were groanin’
In the night the price was paid
The next mornin’ she had awoken
To know that the judge had never spoken
She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’
She saw her father’s body broken
These be seven curses on a judge so cruel:
That one doctor will not save him
That two healers will not heal him
That three eyes will not see him
That four ears will not hear him
That five walls will not hide him
That six diggers will not bury him
And that seven deaths shall never kill him[1]

Dylan knew well that seven is a number of completion. His point is clear enough: when the powerful commit atrocities against the weak they are utterly and completely cursed. Sooner or later, justice will come even to the powerful. The girl’s seven curses against the wicked judge bring to mind God’s oracle of judgement against Nineveh, an oracle spelled out in devastating detail in Nahum 2. Edward Dalglish sees “the charged atmosphere” of the destruction of Nineveh as “reflected in the staccato utterances, the multiplied word pictures hastily changing from theme to theme, and the stark realism of the portrayal” of Nahum 2.[2]He is right. This is a devastating picture of complete woe and judgment against Assyria and Nineveh, its capitol.

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Nahum 1:8-15

1927_Mississippi_Flood_Levee_BreachNahum 1

But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. What do you plot against the Lord? He will make a complete end; trouble will not rise up a second time. 10 For they are like entangled thorns, like drunkards as they drink; they are consumed like stubble fully dried. 11 From you came one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor. 12 Thus says the Lord, “Though they are at full strength and many, they will be cut down and pass away. Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more. 13 And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart.” 14 The Lord has given commandment about you: “No more shall your name be perpetuated; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the metal image. I will make your grave, for you are vile.” 15 Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off.

Every time I drive over the Mississippi River I marvel at it. Almost every time I do so I willl say something like, “Man. That is a LOT of water.” And it is! In 1927, America got to see the sheer power of that much water. Here is the Encyclopaedia Brittanica’s summary of the 1927 Mississippi River flood:

Mississippi River flood of 1927, also called Great Flood of 1927, flooding of the lower Mississippi River valley in April 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. More than 23,000 square miles (60,000 square km) of land was submerged, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and around 250 people died.

After several months of heavy rain caused the Mississippi River to swell to unprecedented levels, the first levee broke on April 16, along the Illinois shore. Then, on April 21, the levee at Mounds Landing in Mississippi gave way. Over the next few weeks essentially the entire levee system along the river collapsed. In some places, residential areas were submerged in 30 feet (9 metres) of water. At least two months passed before the floodwater completely subsided.[1]

The event has been memorialized in songs and stories ever since, perhaps nowhere more famously than in Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s 1929 blues song, “When the Levee Breaks,” a song most well-known, perhaps, through Led Zeppelin’s 1970 adaptation/cover it. The original lyrics to McCoy and Minnie’s song have some powerful imagery. Here are some select stanzas:

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonnna come in and we’ll have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody to keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Whenever the levee breaks momma, you got to lose

Oh mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Yeah the mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Told me leave my baby and my happy home

The power of this song, in my opinion, rests in its articulation of the sense of utter helplessness those along the river felt in the face of the raging waters that rushed through the broken levees of the Mississippi. There is nothing to do before such an onslaught! With that in mind, it is telling that the image of raging floodwaters was used by Nahum to describe God’s coming judgment against Assyria in light of their wickedness and mistreatment of the people of God. Indeed, “cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good” when the wrath of God finally falls.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 8)

Covenant1In September of 2017, Christianity Todaypublished an article entitle, “Catholic bishop apologises and priest resigns after Hindu deity Ganesh is welcomed in church.”

The Hindu community of Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla had been completing their worshipping celebrations of Ganesh, the famous deity with the head of an elephant and the body of a child.

On their journey, they were welcomed at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Africa, led by Father Castro. The Hindu party had been singing chants traditionally dedicated to Saint Mary, and then brought the image of Ganesh into the church and toward the Altar, where Catholics there sang Marian hymns with the deity’s image in view.

What was intended as a sign of respect on the part of the Hindu community was taken as scandalous to many in the Catholic community, who don’t share the pluralistic spirit that’s prevalent in Hinduism.

Bishop Rafael Zorzona Boy said the event was ‘regrettable’, and apologised for the cause of any ‘pain, confusion or scandal in the Christian community.’ Father Castro was ‘admonished’ for his role in the controversy, the bishop said.

A diocese statement said that in no situation was the ‘love of the members of the Hindu community or their beliefs [to be] rebuked,’ but that positive local Catholic-Hindu relations also ‘forces us to be increasingly more faithful to our Christian tradition.’[1]

This is not the first time that an ostensibly Christian minister has gotten into trouble for getting too cozy with Hinduism. Consider this 2006 article, “British priest in Kerala in conversion debate,” in The Hindu:

A controversy has broken out in the U.K. and the U.S. with the media reflecting a debate over an Anglican priest who converted to Hinduism in Kerala where he has now stayed for nearly a year, and where he regularly offers ritual prayers in a temple.

Rev. David Hart, 52, who has a fascination for Lord Ganesha, celebrated Vinayaka Chathurthi in front of his house here last month. Mainstream newspapers, church journals, popular websites and radio stations in the U.K. and the U.S. are now debating the propriety of allowing Rev. Hart to continue his “pluralist religious identity” while remaining a priest of the Church of England.

The Times, of London, in a report headlined `Hinduism no barrier to job as priest in Church of England’ (September 8), published a photograph of Rev. Hart offering prayers to Ganesha and quoted from a report in the Kerala editions of The Hindu on August 27. Church Times, of the Church of England, launched a poll on whether Rev. Hart, “who recites the Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist or offers namaz in Muslim prayer halls” should be allowed to continue as a priest…

Rev. Hart, an Associate Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Winchester, mentions his conversion in a book Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change. Focusing on a new model for understanding religious practice and faith, it was released here earlier this year. A follower of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Rev. Hart has changed his middle name from `Allen’ to `Ananda Krishna Das.’

He is unruffled by the debate. On September 10, the BBC’s Radio 4 did a live telephone interview with Rev. Hart for its `The Sunday Programme.’ Around 20 U.S.-based online discussion groups have sprung up debating the controversy.

Defending his decision not to inform the Bishop of Ely about his conversion while renewing his orders, Rev. Hart told The Hindu: “Becoming a Hindu has not brought about any change in my spiritual status. The act has not shaken my Christian beliefs by even one per cent.”

Also the international secretary of the World Congress of Faiths based in London, he does not find any contradiction in being identified as a “religious pluralist.”

He said: “Asking me to express my preference for any particular faith is like asking me to choose between an ice-cream and a chocolate. Both have their own distinct taste.”[2]

We live in strange times, though this last statement about ice-cream really takes the cake! The question is this: is the church, as followers of Jesus defined by a particular conviction about a particular belief that we believe to be true above all others or would we say that the gospel, the core belief of Christianity, is simply one dessert among many others? Is the gospel a non-negotiable that we dare not edit or add too, or is it simply a preference that we dare not privilege above other religions’ preferences?

I want to argue this morning that the former is true, that the gospel is not simply a casual opinion among other equally-valid opinions. Rather, it is the very truth of God that defines who we are! This is the conviction of our church, and it is expressed in the second section of our covenant, the first line of which we will consider this morning.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel

What does it mean to “covenant to embrace the whole gospel”?

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Nahum 1:7

500dc32b3acc29050ce940f7d583b994Nahum 1

The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.

I think that one of the more fascinating books I have ever read is the publication of historian Larry Hurtado’s lecture entitled Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?In it, Hurtado unpacks that question by considering the high costs one paid for becoming a Christian in the first three centuries of the movement and then by asking what it was about Christianity that made it so unique and attractive when compared to the many religious offerings of the paganism of the time. Among his many interesting conclusions, he proposes that Christianity presented a view of God that the pagans had never encountered before and that love was at the root of that strange image. He writes:

In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans or being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse (setting aside the myths of the erotic adventures of various male deities with human females).  As MacMullen noted, loving gods or love for gods simply did not figure in pagan piety.

       So is it too much to suggest that the early Christian portrayal of “God” was an attractive and affecting factor for converts?  From the frequency of references to the Christian deity as both all-powerful and powerfully loving, it seems to me entirely plausible.  In a world of many deities, early Christianity proclaimed one almighty deity in absolute sovereignty over all, beneath whom all other beings were mere creatures, unworthy of cultic reverence. And this all-powerful sovereign deity was moved by a powerful love, so Christian teaching claimed, and so sought and offered a direct relationship with people.  I suspect that this was heady stuff, and certainly very different from notions about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and, I suggest, powerfully winsome for some others.[1]

It was the Christian proclamation of the love of God and specifically of God as one who would lay down His life to save people from their sins that most dumbfounded the pagans of the time. But the love of God, while it finds its full flowering in the cross of Jesus Christ, finds its earlier expression in the Old Testament. In fact, in Nahum 1:7 we find a beautiful expression of God’s love in the midst of an oracle of judgement. In this one little verse, we find a theology of hope and a profound argument as to why we should not despair in the midst of difficult times.

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Nahum 1:1-6

Nahum

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. God’s Wrath Against Nineveh The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.

In the British Museum, one can find the following relief, carved from 700 to 692 BC:

2801

The Ancient History Encyclopedia describes what is happening in this scene:

This wall relief depicts the Assyrian king Sennacherib after the fall of Lachish (Lakhisha), the second largest city in Judah Kingdom. The king sits on a marvelous throne and watches prisoners. He also greets an Assyrian official who appears to be in very close proximity to him, almost touching the king. This man most likely represents the commander-in-chief of the Assyrian army.

The cuneiform inscriptions read “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before the city of Lakhisha. I give permission for its slaughter.”

Sennacherib’s face appears to be deliberately damaged, most probably by an enemy soldier after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE.[1]

It is no stretch to say that the scene depicted in that relief set the stage for the little Old Testament book of Nahum. The IVP Bible Background Commentary states that Nahum “most likely dates to the period between 663 B.C….and the fall of [Nineveh] to a combined army of Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C..”[2]

The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was its capital, had harassed and persecuted Judah for a very long time! Here is a nice summary of the historical situation:

Assyria was the Great Power that threatened Israel and Judah from the middle of the ninth century B.C. on. She had made Israel part of her provincial system after the fall of Samaria in 720 B.C. and had been taking tribute from Judah. Sennacherib’s attack in 701 B.C., after Hezekiah rebelled and withheld his tribute payment, left the country in ruins, with only Jerusalem intact (see 2 Kings 18-19). Judah was again a tributary.[3]

What we find in the little book of Nahum, then, is a divine promise of future deliverance in the midst of current distress. As such, its value lay in the fact that (1) it is God’s word to us, (2) it records God’s faithfulness to His beleaguered children, and (3) it offers hope to us in the midst of our own trials.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 7)

Covenant1James Montgomery Boice has passed along an interesting story he heard first from Watchman Nee.

            Watchman Nee, the Chinese evangelist, tells of a Christian he once knew in China. He was a poor rice farmer, and his fields lay high on a mountain. Every day he pumped water into the paddies of new rice, and every morning he returned to find that a neighbor who lived down the hill had opened the dikes surrounding the Christian’s field to let the water fill his own. For a while the Christian ignored the injustice, but at last he became desperate. He met and prayed with other Christians and came up with this solution. The next day the Christian farmer rose early in the morning and first filled his neighbor’s fields; then he attended to his own. Watchman Nee tells how the neighbor subsequently became a Christian, his unbelief overcome by a genuine demonstration of a Christian’s humility and Christlike character.[1]

It is an intriguing story because it hits at the core challenge in human relationships: the inability to see and understand one another as a result of our anger at one another or our need to be first or right. This farmer, in fact, did something profoundly counterintuitive. He subjugated his own needs to the needs of another. In essence, he considered his neighbor as more important than himself. In doing so, he broke down the growing wall of hostility that was between them and allowed the grace of God to move.

I believe that the New Testament calls us all to precisely this kind of thinking. I further believe that this kind of selflessness will result in a powerful movement of God in our midst. This idea of considering one another as more important than ourselves, while difficult, is the concluding statement in the first section of our covenant.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

Again, these are daunting words and we might wonder if such is even possible. But I want to argue not only that it is possible, but that, to the child of God, it should become more and more natural to us.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 6)

Covenant1In January of 2008, Christianity Today quoted Robert Pollack, the lawyer for Cynthia Howell. Cynthia was suing her husband, Reynold Howell, the pastor of Grace Christian Church of Brooklyn, and wanted the church “considered a marital asset in their divorce.” In other words, she wanted the court to give her the church the way a judge might decide to give one spouse the house or one of the cars. The comment that Christianity Todayquoted from her lawyer truly gives one pause. Robert Pollack said: “That church is no different than any other business he might have opened.”[1]

I have been chewing on that statement, off and on, ever since I first read it ten years ago: “That church is no different than any other business he might have opened.” And my question is this: is Robert Pollack correct? Is the church no different than any other business that might be opened? It seems to me that this is one of the truly important questions. Is there anything different about the church, about who we are, about what we do? Or is it just another business after all?

The great tragedy is that any study of Christian history would reveal that oftentimes the church has acted just like any other business. To our shame the church throughout the ages and around the world has sometimes exhibited the same cunning politics, the same corporate greed, and the same disregard for actual humanity that we see in the cut-throat maneuvering of so much of the secular business world.

But must it be that way? Must the church act like any other business? I think not, and to that end we have been given the words of Jesus and the apostles to steer us home. And, on the basis of this, our church, like many others, has drawn up a covenant, an agreement of expectations for who we want to be. We have done this because we have a basic shared belief that the church is not just like any other business, that there is something different about the church. The gospel is at the center of the church! Christ is in our midst! And He is making of us a new people, a different people, a people who look different from the world.

As we have considered how we should look different from the world, we come today to the idea of protection. Here is how our covenant puts it:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another

What an interesting phrase, “protecting one another.” Why would we include this in our covenant? What does it look like to be a church in which we protect each other?

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 5)

Covenant1In a 2004 article for Touchstone magazine entitled “The Bookish Virtues,” Perry Glanzer wrote of the efforts of some schools to teach their students certain virtues. He wrote:

Should state legislatures tell us what kind of character our children should acquire? Actually, many states already do. Seven states recently passed a law requiring public schools to teach students “courage.” Texas and Virginia mandate that students learn to be “reliable,” and Arizona insists that they learn “orderliness,” while five states (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas) now require that children acquire “patience.”[1]

I am not sure what it says about Florida, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas that they “now require that children acquire ‘patience’” but probably most of us can resonate with the hope behind such an effort. Patience is hard to come by! Growing up, there was a little plaque on the window sill of our kitchen above the kitchen sink overlooking the backyard. It read, “Patience is a virtue, practice if you can, it’s found seldom in a woman and never in a man.” As I think back on that I wonder why my mother had to put such a little statement there. I can only assume it had to do with my two brothers. But I digress.

We have built patience into our church covenant. Whenever we recite it together, we are covenanted to be patient with one another and we are covenanted to help one another in that effort. Our covenant reads:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another

Once again we must ask ourselves the crucial questions: Is such a statement biblical? Should it be included? Why should we covenant to be patient with one another? Why does this matter?

I would like to argue that it matters a great deal. I would further like to argue that although you may have never heard a sermon on patience, it is a deeply and profoundly biblical idea. So let us approach the scriptures in an effort to answer our questions. Why should we covenant to be patient with one another?

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The Committed Covenanted Church (Part 4)

Covenant1In the 4th poem of his collection of poems entitled The Black Riders and Other Lines, Stephen Crane, the author best known for writing The Red Badge of Courage, wrote:

Yes, I have a thousand tongues,

And nine and ninety-nine lie.

Though I strive to use the one,

It will make no melody at my will,

But is dead in my mouth.[1]

It is a fascinating thing for a person to admit, that they find lying much more natural than telling the truth. I wonder how many of us would have to say the same?

The church is to be a truth-telling community. For this reason, we have built a statement about telling the truth into our church covenant.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love

That is an interesting phrase, “speaking truth to one another in love.” Truth without love can be a blunt instrument of pain. Love without truth can be a mushy veneer that we use to coate over reality. But speaking truth in love, that is the biblical position.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 3)

Covenant1What if our church and, perhaps, most churches are simply neglecting the single most poignant gift that God has given to us to help us stay in right relationship with Him and with one another? What if He has given us a tool to help us cultivate authentic family around the whole gospel for the glory of God and the reaching of the nations but we refuse to pick it up? What if He has given us, in fact, a weapon to ward off the devil and his attempts to corrupt our character and mission as a church but we lean it up in a corner somewhere and promptly forget it?

I will let Samuel Chadwick reveal what this gift, this tool, this weapon is.

Satan dreads nothing but prayer…The Church that lost its Christ was full of good works.  Activities are multiplied that meditation may be ousted, and organizations are increased that prayer may have no chance.  Souls may be lost in good works, as surely as in evil ways.  The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from praying.  He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion.  He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.

Any church that truly becomes a church that God can use powerfully for His purposes is a praying church. This is why we have crafted the next statement in our church covenant to say what it says:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another

Today, we will consider why. Why should we pray for one another?

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