A STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE (Part 1)

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. [Exodus 32:9 (NIV)]

Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. [2 Chronicles 30:8 (NIV)]

great blue heronAlthough the Israelites often have been called the “Chosen People,” God chose a far less complimentary term early in the exodus when He called them “a stiff-necked people.” Having nothing to do with the stiff neck that comes with a long drive, sleeping in an awkward position, or hunching long hours over the computer, “stiff-necked” figuratively means stubborn, inflexibly obstinate, and even contumacious (which means flagrantly disobedient, rebellious or persistently refusing to obey a court order).

A commonly used term describing an obstinate ox, the Israelites didn’t need an explanation to know what God meant by “stiff-necked.” Ancient plows usually were drawn by a team of two oxen. While the plowman held the reins in one hand, in the other he carried an ox-goad: a pole with an iron spike on the end. The ploughman used it to prick the oxen on their back legs to increase their speed and on their necks to make them turn. A “stiff-necked” ox would keep his neck straight and refuse to turn even when poked by the goad. “Stiff-necked” perfectly described the intractable spirit of the Israelites, a people who seemed unwilling to respond to the commands of God. As the prophets later declared, it was because they were a stiff-necked people that God promised His judgment on Jerusalem.

While there are several “stiff-necked” references in the Old Testament, there is only one in the New. It occurs in Acts when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin. By summarizing God’s dealings with the Jews, he showed God’s faithfulness to Israel and then, calling them a “stiff-necked people,” he boldly accused them of resisting God just as their forefathers did. Instead of taking Stephen’s message to heart, the Sanhedrin grew furious. Rather than respond to God’s prod, they covered their ears, dragged Stephen into the street and stoned him. Indeed, like their forefathers, they were a stiff-necked people and not about to consider a new and better way—Jesus’ way.

Stiff-necked: stubborn, unmanageable, demanding, obstinate, headstrong, willful, pig-headed, uncooperative, uncompromising, troublesome, unaccommodating, and difficult. Do any of those words describe someone we know? At one time or another (probably more often than not), some of those adjectives could be used to describe any one of us. Are we ever so certain we’re right that we won’t even consider the possibility of error on our part? Unwilling to examine our opinions, motives, or behavior, do we ever refuse to listen to different points of view? Are we ever short on repentance and long on excuses, defensive when corrected, or unwilling to accept responsibility for our failures? Guilty, as charged! I may not be as stiff-necked as the Israelites; nevertheless, God frequently needs to use a sharp prod to get me moving in the right direction. Moreover, in spite of His prodding, I often seem bound and determined to go my way instead of His.

Father, forgive us when we are stubborn and obstinately insist on going our own way, when we’re inflexible and unwilling to adjust to circumstances, and when we defiantly refuse to listen to your truth. Keep prodding us to do your will; don’t let us be a stiff-necked people.

The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. … But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13a,14 (NIV)]

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IT’S OKAY

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

lilac breasted rollerToday’s email contained a meme of that lovable loser Charlie Brown with the caption: “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.” The meme reminded me of words spoken by Jane Marczweski when she appeared on America’s Got Talent last week: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. She said she wrote the song as a reminder that, “You can be happy and also be going through something really hard at the same time—you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

The young woman knows what she’s talking about. After being treated for breast cancer in 2017, numerous tumors in her lungs, liver, nymph nodes, ribs, and spine were discovered in December of 2019. The overwhelming diagnosis of terminal cancer came with the prognosis of six months to live and only a 2% chance of survival. But, as she optimistically says, “2% is not zero. 2% is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Although declared “cancer-free” after her second battle with cancer, she recently was diagnosed with this terrible disease a third time. At the time of her audition, she had “some cancer” in her lungs, spine and liver. Although Jane received more treatment after the audition, it is too early to know the results. But, as she so aptly puts it, “2% is not zero!”

As Christians, we shouldn’t need a cartoon character meme or even an amazing young woman’s example to remind us that circumstances need not determine our state of mind. Regardless of what we happen to be going through, as Christians, we know we are blessed every day in every way. Faith is trusting God’s plan, as inexplicable (and unpleasant) it may be. Faith is being able to smile in the midst of pain because we know that, in spite of our anguish, God loves us. Faith is being able to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what He throws at us because we know that we are not alone. As Christians, we know that faith is not about everything turning out okay; faith is about being okay regardless of how things turn out! Faith is being able to echo the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]

But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. … And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you, because God is drawing near to me. [Jane Marczweski (Nightbirde)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. … You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:6,8 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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EXTRA BIBLICAL EVIDENCE

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy [1 John 1:1-4 (NLT)]

hibiscus“The luckiest traitor ever,” are the words historian Mary Beard used to describe Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish general who ended up allying himself with the Romans—the very people who destroyed his homeland and demolished the Temple during the Great Revolt (66-70 AD). Born in 37 AD, Josephus grew up in Jerusalem and studied with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes before serving as a general during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. According to Josephus, when fleeing the Roman army, he led his troop of 40 men into a cave. Rather than surrender, they agreed to commit suicide and drew lots to determine the order in which they would die. Either Josephus was incredibly lucky or he’d fixed the lottery but, when only he and another man remained, he convinced him to join in surrender to the Romans. In support of his story, excavations at Jotapata in the 1990s revealed the remains of 30 to 40 men assumed to have been Josephus’ men.

As an enemy general, Josephus was taken to the Roman general Vespasian. Presenting himself as a prophet, he used Balaam’s Messianic prophecy [Numbers 24:17] to predict that Vespasian would become emperor (which he did two years later). Shrewdly, Josephus then allied himself with the Romans by advising and translating for Vespasian and his son Titus.

Following the Judean war, Josephus returned to Rome with the victorious Titus where he was provided with an apartment in Vespasian’s house, given an annual pension, and made a Roman citizen. Josephus volunteered to write a history of the war for the Romans, The Jewish War, that provides an eye-witness account of the Great Revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His second work was a twenty-volume Jewish history called Jewish Antiquities.

In his Antiquities, Josephus wrote of Herod’s fear of, “John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” [18:5] Josephus also made the earliest existing non-Christian referral to Christ. Since many scholars believe Christian copyists later may have added to Josephus’ words by calling Jesus the Messiah and mentioning his resurrection, I am only including what is believed by most to have been the ancient historian’s original account, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” [18:63-64]

Josephus also reported the trial and death in 62 AD of James: “But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent … assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” [20:9.1]

The Bible doesn’t require outside sources to prove its truth and, as followers of Christ, we don’t need an ancient Jewish historian to tell us that Jesus actually existed. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that it isn’t just believers like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter who attest to His existence. We have Josephus’s account along with the Greek historian Thallus who wrote of the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, Pliny the Younger who wrote of dealing with Christians who sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god,” Tacitus who wrote of the “pernicious superstition” (Christ’s resurrection) that broke out in Judea following Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Greek historian Mara bar Serapion, who referred to Jesus as the “wise king” of the Jews.

For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. [2 Peter 1:16 (NLT)]

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TEACH IT

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronSince 1890, a common teaching method in a surgical residency is to “see one, do one, teach one.” The med student learns the basics by watching an experienced physician do a procedure and then puts his knowledge into practice by doing the procedure himself. He hasn’t mastered the procedure, however, until he’s taught someone else to do it; it is only when we can teach something that we truly understand it.

While Jesus doesn’t call us all to be physicians, he does call us all to be disciples and discipleship follows much the same “see, do, and teach” philosophy of med school. Almost anyone, if they studied hard and observed enough of them, could learn how a coronary heart bypass is done, but that wouldn’t make them cardiovascular surgeons any more than just knowing about Jesus makes someone a disciple of Christ. The first disciples did more than just watch Jesus perform miracles and listen to His parables and, if we’re to be Christ’s disciples, we need to do more than just learn about our Lord.

For the budding heart surgeon, just knowing how a heart bypass is done isn’t enough; he actually has to do one. He actually has to do it by making an incision, opening the chest, touching the heart, and grafting blood vessels from other parts of the body to reroute the blood around the clogged arteries. For Christians, the equivalent of doing one is living like Jesus—applying the Lord’s teachings to our lives and becoming like Him. We put into practice all that we’ve learned about love, forgiveness, redemption and salvation. While few of us would be able to take that second step in medicine and perform bypass surgery, we can take that second step in our faith and put into practice what we’ve been taught by Jesus.

Just seeing and doing, however, aren’t enough if we really want to comprehend something or master a skill. It’s when we try to help someone else understand a concept or technique that we learn in greater depth. In the third step, the training physician teaches someone else how to do the procedure. Because this new student sees things from another viewpoint and asks different questions, the teacher has to think harder and dig deeper to answer and explain his reasoning. It is when the new surgeon can clearly explain and demonstrate which arteries have the best results when grafted and how to remove and reattach them, that he has become a competent surgeon. It’s successfully taking that third step of teaching that eventually turns a med student into a skilled physician.

In Christianity, we often hold back when it comes to that third step: teaching, talking about, and demonstrating how our faith in Jesus works. The command to be disciples was given to us so the gospel message could spread far and wide but, perhaps, in His wisdom, God also knew that it is in sharing our faith that it becomes deeper and stronger. The faith of those early disciples intensified as they spread the gospel message and their knowledge expanded as they taught. When reading Acts and the Epistles, we see how the men who abandoned Jesus in the garden became mature disciples as they shared the gospel, clarified points, answered questions, and explained their belief. Most of us have no hope of ever becoming a surgeon and we’re probably not going to become theologians or even Sunday school teachers. Nevertheless, we have an opportunity to teach about Jesus whenever we open our mouths. Our faith will grow stronger and deeper not just by seeing Jesus in Scripture and doing as would He, but by sharing the gospel message with others.

To teach is to learn twice. [Joseph Joubert]

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)]

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BUCKET LISTS

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

clock

Although its origin is unclear, the term “kick the bucket” as a figure of speech for dying has been in use since 1785 when it appeared in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The term “bucket list,” however, is far more recent. Meaning a list of things a person wants to do, learn or experience before he dies, it seems to have originated with the 2007 film, The Bucket List, written by Justin Zackham. His list of “Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket” (later shortened to “Justin’s Bucket List”) included having a screenplay produced by a major Hollywood studio. Wondering what a bucket list would look like if someone had a brief time left in which to live, he wrote a screenplay about two terminally ill men who go on a road trip with a bucket list of activities to do before their deaths. The term “bucket list” was born and Zackham checked off an item on his own list!

“What’s on your bucket list? What would you do if you only had a short time left to live?” asked our neighbor over dinner the other night. I know one man whose immediate answer would be, “Start smoking again!” but I had no answer. In actuality, a Christian doesn’t need a bucket list because this is not the only life we’ll live. Someday, we’ll live in bodies made new in a world made new—one without suffering or sin. For a Christian, death doesn’t end our adventure—it begins it!

Nevertheless, I continued to ponder my neighbor’s question but failed to come up with a decisive list of adventures I must have. It’s not that I’ve lived a life full of fabulous travel and daring activities. There are many things I haven’t experienced but, if I had just a few months to live, I wouldn’t spend them visiting exotic locations or experiencing thrills. After spending an hour or so straightening my drawers and closets (so no one would know what a secret slob I am), I wouldn’t spend another minute cleaning, travelling, or looking for excitement. My remaining time would be spent doing pretty much the same things I do every day but with family and friends nearby instead of thousands of miles distant. We’d laugh, play silly games, bake cookies and brownies, hug, watch the men grill, eat way too much, watch sunsets, have water fights in the pool, play in the park, talk late into the night, and dance to Y.M.C.A.!

When facing imminent death, my regrets wouldn’t be about places unseen or thrills not experienced. They would be for time wasted being angry, hurt, critical, dissatisfied, argumentative, offended, resentful, pessimistic, grumpy, surfing the Internet, or being “too busy”—time that could (and should) have been invested in being forgiving, loving, compassionate, generous, positive, helpful, understanding, joyful, pleasant, peaceful, and present.

We all know we’re going to die and yet I wonder if we truly believe it. If we did, I suspect we’d spend less time dreaming about seeing the Great Wall of China, trekking to Machu Pichu, whale watching in Antarctica, or going skydiving and more time tending to what really is important—expressing thanks, making apologies, loving openly, giving generously, forgiving freely, laughing loudly, living the life we have right now with our loved ones, and being the person God wants us to be.

For all any of us know, we may have even less than a month in which to live. Will we waste it or wisely use whatever time is left?

Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper. [Billy Sunday]

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.  [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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FAKING IT

The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra-long tassels. [Matthew 23:2-5 (NLT)]

cliffroseThere is a funny scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally when, in the middle of a delicatessen, Sally proves to Harry that women can successfully fake being in the throes of passion. After a rather loud and vivid demonstration, Sally calmly returns to her meal. After watching Sally’s display of ecstasy, an older woman tells her waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having!” While it may be possible to fool people about a number of things, we can’t fool God. He looks beyond appearances right into our hearts.

Around the 4th century BC, the Jewish rabbis starting taking the commands in Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18, and Exodus 13:9 literally. They wrote God’s command to love Him and keep His commandments, placed the words in small leather containers called tefillin or phylacteries, and strapped them to their left hand and forehead during prayers. There were various rules regarding the length and width of the straps, the color of the boxes, the knots used, the parchment and ink, and even the number of lines for each verse. These were the “extra wide prayer boxes” to which Jesus referred.

The “extra-long” tassels Jesus mentioned were called tzitzit and were worn on the four corners of an outer garment’s hem. In response to the command in Numbers 15:38-40, the original intent was to remind the people to keep the Lord’s commandments and be holy before Him. As happened with the prayer boxes, by Jesus’ time, additional rules had been added regarding the quantity of threads used in each tassel, the amount of white and blue tassels, and the knots used.

Jesus wasn’t criticizing the wearing of tefillin or tzitzit. After all, as Jews, He and the disciples may have worn them. Jesus was criticizing the religious leaders for the burden they placed on the people with so many demanding man-made regulations. Moreover, He was taking to task those men who sought to draw attention to themselves rather than God by enlarging their tefillin and lengthening their tzitzit in a conspicuous show of their piety and religious zeal when they didn’t truly obey God’s commands. Their garish example of faith was as false as Sally’s intense example of ecstasy. While their display may have fooled and impressed the people, it didn’t fool Jesus.

Some Christians wear crosses or t-shirts announcing their faith while others might display bumper stickers or hang crosses in their homes. More important than how we decorate ourselves or our possessions is the way in which we conduct our lives. Without the love of Jesus and the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, we’re no different than the self-righteous Pharisees; we’re just faking it.

I remember a song from my Sunday school days in which I proclaimed having the “joy, joy, joy,” the “love of Jesus,” and the “peace that passes understanding down in my heart…down in my heart to stay!” It’s that joy, that love of Jesus, and that peace that passes understanding that truly identify us as Christians. When we know, love and worship God, His love instills a joy into our hearts and lives that only He can produce and, unlike passion and piousness, they can’t be faked. It is, however, only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live the kind of lives and exhibit the sort of behavior that truly will make people say, “I’ll have what they’re having!”

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22-23a (NLT)]

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