Is This Our Year?

I’ve been thinking for awhile about a story from the Bible and the warning Jesus gave to the people of his day. It was on my mind again this morning, then when I saw the Word of the Day ChallengeWARNING – well, this is the perfect prompt for sharing my thought!

In Luke Chapter 12 + 13 Jesus gives various signs of “the end,” and tells the disciples they need to be ready, watching, and doing the will of their heavenly Father when the Master of the house returns. Then he tells them this parable of the fig tree:

He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”

Luke 13: 6-9

The owner of the vineyard took note of this tree that wasn’t bearing fruit in its season. In fact, it hadn’t given any fruit at all for three years. So he said, in effect, “This tree is taking moisture and minerals from the soil, plus the time we’ve already spent on it, and giving us nothing in return. Chop the thing down and let’s use the space for a tree that will be more profitable.”

However, the caretaker was loathe to do something that drastic. Perhaps he felt some pity for the tree, having tended it and fussed over it from its days as a promising sapling. “Let me try what I can with aeration and fertilizer for one more year. Then if it doesn’t bear fruit, okay, we’ll cut it down.”

When I read these verses recently, it occurred to me that “this year” Jesus talked about represented the time of his ministry on earth. The few years he spent teaching and preaching to the people, calling them to repent and come back to God. This was Israel’s “year.” This was the time for the Jewish nation to bear fruit. Would they received his message? Would they repent and turn back to God –the One who had delivered them so many times before. God was giving them this one last chance to bear the fruit He wanted to see.

The Apostle John writes that Jesus came to his own, the Jewish people, and “his own received him not.” History records that the Jewish leaders and the mob they stirred up finally had him put to death because they hated his message. And God rejected them; not very many years later He allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed and the Jews carried away as captives, ultimately scattered to the four winds.

Another fig tree scene happened not long before Jesus was crucified. Mark 11:13-21 tells of how Jesus passed by a fig tree, stopped to look for fruit, and there was no fruit on it. So he said to the tree, “Let no man get any figs off this tree ever again.”
The next day, as they passed this tree again, it was in sad shape. Peter, recalling what Jesus had said the day before, pointed out the shriveling tree. “Master, there’s the fig tree you cursed. It’s withered away.”
I doubt his disciples caught the symbolism of the fig tree to the nation of Israel until after the events of the crucifixion and the day of Pentecost. Then they would have understood.

Another comparison came to my mind. I’ll write it and hope that it speaks to you. I’ve been thinking about this last year when COVID has stalked the earth and menaced people all over the globe. A lot of us have had to leave our pursuits – jobs, schooling, arts and entertainment, sports events, even going to the polls – and return to our homes. We’ve written about 2020 as “A year we’re glad to see the end of.” We’re looking forward to a time when Covid-19 has been conquered. When most everyone’s been vaccinated, this giant has been laid low, and we can go back to our normal lives.

But what if this was our “year” to respond to the voice of God. What if this Covid “season” we’re in is that “one more year” God is giving our world, the time we should stop, think about him and his word, think about “the end” when the Master returns?

Think of the great issues of our day. Environmental, financial, political, justice, personal. How they fill our minds and cause us no end of worry. But what if this really was our last year? Not that we can just stop caring, drop every concern, let everything slide. But there’s a bigger picture here we need to consider: are we concerned about, and prepared to face, the most important event in the world?

“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer.”

Revelation 10:5-6

Jesus tells us to prepare, to watch and be ready. Just in case this is our Year.

Of Prophecies and Theories

Sharing my thoughts on the Kingdom of God and how it now appears.
Here are the first parts, if you’d like to read them:
Part One: The Kingdom of Jesus Christ
Part Two: The Kingdom Foretold by Daniel
Part Three: Three Things God Needed
Part Four: Kingdoms and Dominions to Come
Part Five: We Have Seen His Star
Part Six: The Roles Jesus Refused

Today we read much about the climate, the environment, what’s ahead for Planet Earth. Data is collected, theories are presented, predictions made. At the current rate, how long will this Earth support human life? How long will there be potable water? How long before the seas are dead, polluted beyond redemption?

While scientists occupy themselves with these concerns, Christians are also engaged in much speculation about what will come to pass in the political realm. Examining Daniel’s prophecies, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the Apostle John’s visions, and doing some creative cut-and-paste, evangelicals have put together some very interesting theories about when Jesus will return and in what way. No one really knows for sure, but it’s intriguing to speculate.

Prophecy is an intense subject and scholars, historically and currently, have spent many years trying to decipher it. But when we think of all the scriptural knowledge the Scribes and Pharisees had at the time Jesus was born, we marvel at how they totally missed recognizing him. His arrival was no big secret, what with angels singing in the skies over Bethlehem and the shepherds going around telling everybody about the infant Savior-king.

Also, a caravan of oriental magi arriving in Jerusalem and going right to the palace to ask, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East.” This made a big splash.
“When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes…together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written, And thou Bethlehem… art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Matthew 2: 1-8

This verse, Micah 5:2, is one of many Old Testament verses that foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Governor, Shiloh. But the details didn’t all jive. Isaiah wrote:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”
– Chapter 9: 6-7

But he also wrote:
“Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Chapter 53: 1-5

One lesson we can learn from the scholars of Jesus’ day: while they believed the Messiah would come, and though they had all the verses memorized about his coming, the prophecies varied enough that they didn’t recognize him. Even his own disciples were confused until Jesus came to them and talked with them after his resurrection.
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” See Luke 24:13-35

Regarding the understanding of prophecy, I’ve lived long enough to see various changes of interpretation in what scholars said were “scriptures that show clearly such and such will happen.” I’ve also read enough to know that Christians of other ages have been just as convinced of a completely different interpretation.

Prophecies and Interpretations: A Quick Recap

AMILLENNIALISM

Amillennial teaching says that Jesus did come planning to suffer and die. When He rose again, he defeated Satan, the ruler of this world. He did set up his kingdom, but it’s not – and never will be – a visible nation or country on this present earth. The entrance into his kingdom is the New Birth. Jesus came to be the Door, to open the Way into the Kingdom of God. Ever since his resurrection, he has been reigning in the hearts of all people who choose him as their king. Someday he will come again to gather his own to be with him in heaven.

The citizens of God’s kingdom may live anywhere on earth, but are not “of the world” — which is why they pay taxes (render unto Caesar) and obey all laws, but may decline to vote or bear arms in defense of the country they live in. (The words of Jesus, such as “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, etc.” are taken literally.) Rather, as Paul explains, Christians act as official ambassadors of their King, entreating on Christ’s behalf, “Be ye reconciled to God.”

As I understand it, this has been the traditional belief of the Mennonites, Amish, and some groups of Brethren. Few, if any, Protestant Evangelical churches teach this.

POST-MILLENNIALISM

Back when we were learning about prophecies, the pre-millennial theory was so prevalent, that I was quite shocked when I read Douglas Frank’s book, Less Than Conquerors (c 1986, Wm B Eerdmans), and learned that in up until the US Civil War almost all evangelical Christians believed the POST-MILLENNIAL theory. Which is:
The world will get better and better and finally it will be so good that Jesus will come back to earth and set up his kingdom. American Christians who believed this theory threw their support behind abolition and the Civil War because they thought they could help things along by getting rid of “the blot of slavery.” With Christians improving society, making it more hospitable to Christ’s return, the world (or at least the USA) would get so good that Jesus would come and set up a kingdom on earth.

Alas for their dreams! The Civil War brought so much death and destruction, and generated so much animosity that the world — or at least America — was even farther from being ready for the kingdom of Jesus Christ. In the next twenty years evangelicals abandoned the theory en masse. In my lifetime I’ve never met anyone who advances, or has even mentioned, post-millennialism. I wonder how many Christians today have even heard of it?

In a different vein, it must have been one of the most bitter disappointments any group of people has experienced, when southern blacks, set free from the shackles of slavery, found that FREE didn’t mean EQUAL in the eyes of most whites. Not in the South for sure, but sadly, not in the North, either.

PRE-MILLENNIALISM

According to Frank’s book, evangelicals gave up on the post-millennial theory and switched to pre-millennialism. Because it’s such a complexity and so entwined with dispensationalism, I’m going to save it for another post. A bare-bones explanation would be:
Jesus is coming back to claim his children, and at some point establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. From there he and his followers will rule over the whole the earth for 1000 years, at the end of which humans who don’t accept his rule will stage a major revolt. Then he’ll call an end to time and the great Judgment Day will begin.

“And (Jesus) said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.” — Luke 24: 46-48

“We Have Seen His Star”

“Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

When Jesus was born, wise men in the East, star-gazers, saw an amazing sight. They were aware of an old prophecy among the Jews that a star would appear (Numbers 24:17), and that this heavenly sign would indicate the birth of a special king. So they headed off to Jerusalem. Where else would you find a King of the Jews? They went right to the top, asking King Herod himself, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

Bad move. Herod wanted to know when the star appeared, then checked into the location — and proceeded to exterminate all babies under two years old in that area. He wasn’t giving his kingdom to any newcomer.

When he was on earth, Jesus talked different times about “The Kingdom of God” but people didn’t understand him. They so much wanted a David or a Charlemagne to conquer their enemies. But Jesus never campaigned for a throne, or even for a place in the government or the Sanhedrin. One day when an enthusiastic crowd tried to force him to be king, he slipped away from them. (John 6:15)

The Jewish leaders just didn’t get it.
And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the Messiah would come to establish the kingdom of God, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17: 20-21

Still, they worried about Jesus one day making his play for the kingdom of Israel. They didn’t know he’d already refused having the whole world as his kingdom. Satan had come to him right at the beginning of his work and made this spectacular offer:
“And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, sheweth him all the kingdom of the world in a moment of time.
And the devil said unto him, “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.”
Luke 4: 5-7

Standing on that mountain, Jesus would have seen the great Chinese Dynasty of the time, the Japanese Emperor’s palace, the Inca kingdom and how many others, in addition to the Roman Empire. Could he see only what existed then, or could he even look into the future and see King Charlemagne, the Ottoman empire, the power of Spain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Sun King’s splendor in his palace at Versailles, King Aurhur’s court or Great Britain when she ruled the waves, the Russian Tzars, the United States in its ‘Camelot’ era? Did he see these, too?

But Jesus totally refused. “Get thee behind me Satan; for it is written; thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.” Verse 8.

Could Jesus look ahead and see the rejection, the cross, the shame, when he refused Satan’s offer?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem that last time, for the Feast of the Passover, the Scribes and Pharisees watched with a jealous eye as the crowds thronged Jesus, welcoming him as a king, laying palm branches in his path. They realized that one word from him would do it. The raising of his arm and a shout to the crowds, “The time has come. Let’s deal with Rome,” and all those people would rally behind him.

They recalled the miracles he did; they saw the dead raised. If Jesus would turn his miraculous gift to military ends, even the mighty power of Rome would be toast. They may have muttered to each other that “If he sets himself up as king, the Romans will send in the troops and wipe us out,” but did they honestly believe that? Or did that rationale spring from fear?

They knew where they stood with Jesus. He’d called them “blind leaders of the blind.” They in turn had made it clear to one and all that they thought Jesus was a fake – a son of the devil, even. Still, there must have been a niggling doubt, unspoken questions about all those miracles. And raising the dead? Suppose he does seize the throne? What will happen to us?

Hadn’t Jesus told the parable of the vineyard, how the land was let to men who weren’t faithful (Matt 21:33-41.) “He will miserably destroy those wicked men…” And the parable of the talents, where someone in the past had been set up as king, but his citizens didn’t want him to rule over them. The new king went off to his superiors and got back-up and when he returned, what did he do? One of his first commands was: “As to those men who wouldn’t have me rule over them, bring them and slay them before me.” (Luke 19:12-27)

When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate and accused of being the ringleader of a rebellion against Rome, Pilate asked him bluntly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Luke 23:3)

Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight to save me from the Jews (who want to see me dead.) But now my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
Note: This is my paraphrase. Take a moment to read verses 28 -36 to get the whole exchange between Jesus and Pilate.

At that point Pilate knew Jesus was no threat to Rome and wanted to release him, but the Jewish leaders weren’t having it and Pilate, to avoid an uprising, gave in to their demands. In defiance of the Jewish leaders, Pilate even had a sign tacked on Jesus’ cross saying, “The King of the Jews.”

Centuries later, ideas about his Kingdom — where it’s at and/or going to be – continue to bounce around. A ton of books have been written, quoting this or that scholar — and these teachers mean well but they tend to just build on each other’s thinking. Then time proves the scholars wrong and the waters get murky again. Another Bible teacher steps up with another book, another clear explanation of what’s ahead for this world and a new wave ripples through evangelical circles.

It has a certain magnetic appeal, this idea of Jesus someday coming like another Charlemagne, the conquering hero who’ll set up his kingdom and make people follow the rules. Trouble is, this picture is so anti- all his examples and teachings.

Three Things God Needed

When my dad was on his deathbed, fearful of what awaited him on “the other side” but still not wanting to think about a Holy God, I asked him, “Why do you think God created mankind in the first place?”

When he grunted an “I dunno,” I told him God wanted someone to love…and someone to love him.” My dad had a father who never loved him. He struggled all his life with this loss — and with the concept of a loving God. Sadly, a lot of people do.

Thirty years later I still read it this way: God wanted a people to be his own, to love him, trust him, and serve him voluntarily. So He created a people, and a beautiful garden. And he loved them. He walked and talked with them in the garden. But…there had to be a choice.

God has always been about choice. He could send an angel to bop each one of us on the head and say, “Yes, God is real,” but he’s never been about forcing people to believe. So he gives us a choice, the knowledge of an option. In the Garden of Eden the couple God created was given a choice. A tree…and the command, “You shall not eat of the fruit of this tree.” A simple enough test. You likely know the rest.

The way the universe is set up, and God being pure and holy, sin has to be punished. Even you and I who have deliberately done things we knew were wrong – though we may hope our own small-ish sins will be pardoned – believe there must be some reckoning. We aren’t willing to let the Hitlers, Stalins, Jack the Rippers and Bin Ladins, the torturers, murderers and pedophiles, all be whitewashed and slide into Heaven along with their victims. Every religion on earth teaches that cruel people have to face the music/karma/judgment day. They will be punished for the suffering they’ve caused.

Sin must be dealt with, but God wasn’t willing to cast away every sinner. He isn’t a “That’s it; you had your chance. Now beat it!” kind of Creator. He has a heart of love for mankind. So, in his dealings with us and our sins, God worked out a rescue plan. Then he demonstrated it in a way mankind could grasp. You don’t talk quantum physics to an eight-year-old even if he thinks he knows everything. Rather, you give him a simple demonstration, enough basic details that he can get it in a small way.

Three Things God Needed For His Plan:
— A mirror
— A cradle
— A substitute

The nation of Israel was God’s mirror, a literal depiction of spiritual truths. He chose the Hebrews from among the nations and set them up in a land all their own. This would be an illustration of the spiritual promised land Christians enter when they are born again.

Through these people he demonstrated his plan of redemption, giving them living sacrifices to show how sin must be atoned for. He punished them when they strayed by letting enemy nations conquer them – just as Satan conquers a soul and brings it into bondage. He showed how, when the people turned back to him, he delivered them from their enemy.

Israel was his mirror – or you could call it his “stained glass window.” Israel was his church on earth, but with all the flaws and wanderings that mankind are prone to. These were real people so that we can now look into this mirror and see ourselves. He worked into this window a tableau of his dealings with his people, with individuals who are faithful as well as those who turn away, and how he would someday deal with the Church, his Bride, the New Jerusalem.

The Apostle John was given a vision of this wonderful new world:
“And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her bridegroom. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” – Revelation 21: 2-3

The nation of Israel was also God’s cradle. He promised Abraham that “in thee and thy offspring, will all the nations of the earth be blessed.” So many writings promised a coming King, “the lion of the tribe of Judah,” and “of the lineage of David.” He would redeem mankind, both Jews and Gentiles. He would be the sacrifice, the acceptable substitute for sin — for those who looked to him in faith and made the choice to follow him.

Having completed the tableau, having used the cradle of Israel to bring forth his Son, the Redeemer of all men, having offered salvation to the Jewish people first of all – and been rejected – God finally abandoned Israel as his people. We still have the tableau in the Old Testament writings, but the mirror has been shattered.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” Matthew 23:37-38

“Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Matthew 21: 43

The Waters of Babylon

The Friday Fictioneers prompt has come around again, thanks to the diligent efforts of our host, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and a photo prompt donation from Roger Bulolt. (Please note the photo is copyright.)

It happens that I’m prepared for today’s prompt — though palm trees would have been a nice touch. 🙂  I was inspired back in spring to write a verse from Psalm 137 and stashed it away for the right opportunity. I thought of it when I looked at this morning’s prompt, so here goes:

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Butolt

“By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, yea,
we wept,
when we remembered Zion.”

“Sing!” soldiers commanded,
sick of our sobbing. “Sing
some cheerful song from your land.
Stop this wretched wail.”

Sing?
We who’ve seen our toddlers trampled,
our elders left to starve; our maidens
in the hands of these brutes.

Jerusalem, the beautiful city, ravaged;
the temple of our God in flames.
Sing? Not a chance!

“Vengeance is mine,” Yahweh declares.
He will repay in full measure,
oh Babylon!

Hush — the prophet speaks!
‘The fire shall purify but never consume;
the waters shall cleanse but not overwhelm
Jacob, my beloved.’ *

Yahweh has not forgotten us.
He will preserve his people
in the waters of Babylon.”

(*Isaiah 43:1-2)