During the darkest and most precarious times in Israel’s history God’s presence and words brought challenge, renewal and re-orientation. Right now we need to hear fresh words from Jesus in the face of rising death tolls, partisan divisions, growing hostilities, racial injustices, and chaos due to false prophecies.
Gracie and I are feeling an urgency to experience Jesus’ core teaching afresh for our well-being and very survival. We all need God’s word as “a lamp for our feet and a light for our path” (Ps 119:105), because darkness is real and growing.
Scripture shows how God revealed himself and gave the Torah to the people in the midst of desperate and frightening times as they were tried and tested in the wilderness. He called them to total allegiance as his chosen people (Ex 19-20).
During a period when violence and idolatry were widespread among God’s people, someone found an ancient book and read it to King Josiah, who tore his clothes when he heard the words of Scripture. God’s words tenderized and humbled him as he saw how his people were facing serious consequences for failing to listen. He initiated a reform movement that involved removing the high places, exposing and eradicating idolatrous allegiances (2 Kgs 23-23). This didn’t stop the impending exile, but seems to have delayed Israel’s eventual decline.
Years later upon returning from Babylonian exile, Ezra the priest read Scripture publicly with the people, who wept when they heard it (Neh 8:9). God’s words to Solomon are certainly relevant today:
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chr 7:14).
We feel a need for forgiveness, healing, wisdom and clear discernment as we navigate in these dark waters. Paul’s call to action in Romans 12:2 is vital for us now:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In our daily reading of the Bible Gracie and I are finding encouragement, strength and continual direction– and hopefully the renewal of our minds. We long to see a movement ignite and grow, fueled by socially-engaged Bible study, prayer and action that will enlighten and empower Jesus followers.
We experienced this among peasants in Honduras in the 1980s and 90s, with inmates here in Washington State since then, which I’ve written up in Reading the Bible with the Damned, Guerrilla Gospel and Guerrilla Bible Studies. We are experiencing this now in weekly Zoom Bible studies and courses we’re leading with people from all over the world.
People desperately need to be informed from above, to drink from pure streams of God’s revelation—rather than feed on tendentious news, social media and entertainment. We appear to be heading towards still greater challenges and would do well to prepare now so we can endure hardships and advance Jesus’ kingdom in the face of increasing upheaval.
Jesus taught people that if they desired to build their houses on a rock that would withstand floods, they must come to him, hear his words and act on them (Lk 6:47-48).
We invite you to join us for a free weekly Guerrilla Webinar Bible study series “Basic Training for the Jesus Movement,” that will take place from 12:00-1:00pm (PST) on Fridays beginning February 5 through April 23 via Zoom. Sign up here and join us!
I’m excited to announce that Guerrilla Bible Studies, Volume 3: Basic Training for the Jesus Movement is now available!
This new book consists of thirteen discipleship Bible studies tried-and-tested in jails, rural communities in the global South, in frontline North American and European missional settings and in graduate-level theology schools. It is designed to work through individuals, in small groups or for use in one-on-one.
The New Testament tells the story of God’s sending of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who launches the final offensive of a liberation movement we are each recruited to join. Jesus’ movement grows person by person, as individuals agree to become disciples, learning from Jesus, seeking to live life differently, in alignment with his teaching.
Jesus’ movement is not partisan, religious or ideological, but deeply spiritual, highly relational and revolutionary. Jesus crosses lines of difference, challenging prejudice, embracing outcasts, inviting people to receive God’s love into the core of their beings to such an extent that it transforms all relationships.
Jesus describes his kingdom as in the world but not of it, light in the darkness, yeast in the dough, good news to the poor. Becoming a disciple changes you from the inside out, affecting the world from the bottom up.
This volume of thirteen Bible studies follows volume 1, Surprising Encounters with God, and volume 2, God’s Radical Recruiting– the third in a series of four sequels to Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit. In this collection you will find practical guidelines for facilitating liberating Bible studies, including a new sample study in the introduction on Philippians 4:4-9.
Each study focuses on one of Jesus’ core teachings for enlistees, who respond to his call to participate in his liberation movement. Each study is laid out for easy use by Bible study facilitators, including questions, suggestions for guiding the study, explanations, background information about the text, and invitations and calls to action for the participants.
Order your copy here.
Today is Epiphany and we have a choice: to let ourselves be overly troubled by power politics and react– or be filled with joy and wonder at the revelation of King Jesus and enlist. The story of the magis’ pilgrimage to find and worship baby Jesus is followed by their and Joseph’s recruitment into alternative kingdom not of this world. This story has caught my interest, inspiring me into expectancy of new adventures in 2021.
The Gospel of Matthew recounts how “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,” asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
This inquiry from foreigner pilgrims as to his whereabouts of the newly born King of the Jews, together with talk of “his star,” and their desire to worship him “troubled” king Herod “and all Jerusalem with him.”
Today in America our current president is likewise troubled by another who has been elected to replace him—and many in America are troubled with him (or against him). Herod’s highly problematic and eventually death-dealing next moves are revelatory of what can and is happening in our world today.
King Herod quickly “gathered together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born” (Mt 2:4). The Greek verb used here, sunago, in the one describing the positive action of gathering as believers for worship, prayer and teaching (Mt 13:2; 18:20; Acts 4:31; 11:26; 13:44; 14:27).
However, the verb is also used to describe gatherings against Jesus and his followers (Mt 22:32; 26:3, 57; 27:27; Acts 4:5), and that’s what’s happening here. When political and religious leaders gather together in Scripture, it’s always negative. These gatherings represent the counter or false kingdom of God and are anti-Christ. Unity is often achieved over and against true spiritual authority, which they seek to suppress if not destroy (Mt 27:62; 28:12; Psalm 2:1-2; Acts 4:25-28).
Here the spiritual leaders of God’s people allow themselves to be gathered by the head of state, and why? To share Herod’s power? To benefit from his favor? To avoid his wrath? Herod uses them, requesting information he needs to mount his offensive against the God’s elected King Jesus, who threatened his power. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they tell him citing Micah 5:2-4 and 2 Samuel 5:2, prophecies of a future leader, the Messiah who will shepherd God’s people.
The scribes and chief priests provide assistance and insider information to the head of State rather than withholding it. In so doing they fail to protect their Messiah Jesus, the incoming King, and all the baby boys of Bethlehem from the volatile, tyrant king. Maybe their collusion is due to ignorance regarding the timing of God’s intervention in the world. Their Messiah has appeared! Their indifference is evident in their failure to join the magi to meet and worship their Messiah. Their ignorance leads to a massacre, as they both gave Herod the information he needed and failed to warn or protect their Bethlehem flock. What damage is happening now due to the indifference and ignorance of Christians, and outright collusion with power!
In contrast, the magi foreigners, (whose equivalents now might include astrologers, scientists or even fortunetellers), know God’s King has been born. They’ve been following the spiritual star that is leading them to pledge their allegiance in worship. Herod has no special star leading pilgrims to him, and he likely coveted their and everybody’s worship.
King Herod then calls these magi together secretly, determining from them “the exact time the star appeared.” We as Matthew’s readers are let in on this secret meeting as part of our spiritual and political education. We learn that Herod or any future political power monger cannot be trusted. He’s gathering intelligence to stop any would-be threats to his power and we can expect the same to happen now. Herod opportunistically commissions these magi and anyone like them: “Go and search carefully for the child; and when you have found him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship him.”
After hearing the king and going their way, the star which the magi had seen in the east goes before them. In contrast to the troubled king and all who inhabit Jerusalem, when the magi see the star, “they rejoice exceedingly with great joy.” They are being led by the Master of the Universe to meet his Son, the Eternal King.
“After coming into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped him.” Then, opening their treasures, they present to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—fulfilling Isaiah 60:1-7’s powerful prophesy.
These magi inspire me greatly this day when US Senators and Congress gather together, and many are troubled about a contested election. I feel led to turn my gaze take to the King of kings.
The magi are warned in a dream to not return to Herod—and so they return to their country by another way. They refuse any further collaboration with the powers that be. Instead, they tune into a higher power, who leads them by means of the star and speaks to them in dreams.
Joseph too, like the earlier Joseph in Genesis is given a dream where an angel of the Lord appears to him, telling him: “Get up! Take the child and his mother while it is still night and flee to Egypt. Joseph follows the divine orders, getting up and taking the child and his mother to flee to Egypt, where they remain until after Herod died.
What might it look like for God’s people now to refuse collusion with the powers and tune into God’s communiques– whether they be stars, dreams, visions or Scripture? I want to “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” and fall on the ground in worship, pledging my allegiance to Jesus, the only legitimate king.
May we resist what troubles the powerful and their subjects, and refuse all collusion that comes from devotion to nation, party and political leader. May we fully join and stay enlisted in Jesus’ movement, taking our orders from the highest and most loving shepherd, experiencing the protection and the escape routes given to us by the Spirit. In this way we can be about the work of the true and eternal Kingdom of God.
Listen to Gracie’s sermon “Humble Seekers Find Jesus”
In the USA, these days, we are witnessing grave injustices committed under the guise of legality, exposing the fallacy that ‘legal’ means ‘just.’ Presidential pardons of soldiers and government contractors convicted of war crimes, billions of dollars in benefits for the rich and powerful tucked away in the 5,000+ page Congressional Relief Bill, and a rush to execute prisoners on death row, grieve me deeply. The Old Testament prophets are sounding more and more relevant in our times:
“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; For truth has stumbled in the street, and uprightness cannot enter. Yes, truth is lacking… Now the Lord saw, and it was displeasing in his sight that there was no justice” (Isaiah 59:14-15).
In the 26 years I’ve visited inmates as a jail chaplain I’ve seen grave injustices committed by our legal system against individuals and families that are technically legal. Prosecutors routinely file charges that are higher than what evidence warrants, with intimidating threats that additional charges might be forthcoming. Once someone has a criminal record “points” are added to a defendant’s “score,” upping the minimum amount of time in jail or prison people can expect to serve, if found guilty.
An example from this week involves a man I’ve befriended and pastored for 25 years, who is currently facing 240 months in prison for 4-5 “controlled buys”– sting operations where he was caught selling small amounts heroin. This excessive amount of time is due to his points, based on the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1981, Washington State’s version of sentencing guidelines that vary from state to state— “reforms” that underlie mass incarceration of indigent people like the world has never seen.
Bail is calculated and set based on current charges, and people’s points. While defendants are usually legally eligible to post bail, or seek a reduction in bail before trying to bail out, only people with financial resources can actually be bailed out and leave custody, fighting their case as “innocent until proven guilty.” Those who fight charges while incarcerated are clearly at a disadvantage: spending months or even years in jail while they fight their cases, losing income, employment, and housing that brings hardship to their families, and appearing guilty during court appearances in their jail-issue clothing. The presumption of innocence, fighting charges from outside the jail, and effective legal defense are largely privileges of the rich.
Those unable to post bail usually cannot afford a private defense attorney, meaning they must qualify for a court-appointed public defender. While there are many excellent public defenders, most have heavy caseloads, lacking time and finances to represent a defendant as effectively as a high-powered (and expensive) private attorney, especially in a trial. Being found guilty by a jury means judges are required to sentence the convicted within a required minimum-maximum range— which is usually much higher than the sentences offered by prosecutors in plea agreements. This puts pressure on poorer defendants and people of color to plead guilty, even to crimes they haven’t committed, rather than go to trial.
The prospect of standing trial before a possibly mostly-White jury, insecurity over a public defender’s capacity to defend them, and inability to afford a private trial attorney cause many to agree to lengthy prison sentences people with money can usually avoid. In this way millions of men and women from the poorest social classes in America have been legally sentenced to excessive and unjust time in prison, often with big fines and years of probation included.
There’s so much more that can be said about the grave injustices rampant in US legal systems, which are compounded for anyone held in immigration detention, where public defenders are not provided. Re-entry presents near impossible challenges, as ex-prisoners face the stigma of labels such as “felon,” “ex-con,” and crippling debt to pay back child-support, restitution and other fines– often with driver’s licenses suspended until payments are made.
That President Donald Trump can legally act above the rule of law that ordinary citizens are beholden to, overturning legal convictions in order to free his friends (who already had minimal sentences due to well-funded, expert defense), exposes the gross inequities present in American society, making a mockery of justice. The pardoning of US Special Forces soldiers guilty of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the more recent pardon of the four US Government contractors working for Blackwater, who committed war crimes when they killed 14 Iraqi civilians at a traffic stop in 2007, shows the world that US soldiers with friends in high places can get away with abuses of authority and murder. That the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is Donald Trump’s Education Secretary’s Betsy DeVos’ brother, is another sign that corruption is rampant in the highest places of US government—a serious undermining of legitimate legal authority and rule of law.
As a follower of Jesus I believe in the power of God’s mercy, grace and love, manifested in actions like pardons, debt forgiveness and enemy love. I am not an advocate for punishment through prison sentences, sanctions and violence. However, if forgiveness is to mean anything to the forgiven and lead to any significant change, it must include confession, deep repentance and lead to conversion and even reconciliation– and it must be available to all.
Jesus exposed and actively resisted the legal injustice inflicted by the law-enforcers of his day. He broke religious/cultural laws openly and regularly, actively removing sanctions viewed as punishments when he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, defended the accused and befriended outcasts. He publicly reprimanding law-enforcers, who deprived the most needy people of healing and inclusion through Sabbath and purity laws. He brought justice to the least, and was persecuted to the point of death by execution.
Jesus undoes penal justice through taking the curse of the law upon himself on the cross (Gal 3:13), canceling it forever in his death and resurrection. Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and death expose legal human justice, with all of its religious underpinnings for what it is—unjust and even evil.
Today the darkness of legal injustice must be exposed as equal to and even worse than illegal injustice. We must strive to bring together what is being ripped apart, reforming legal systems so they are equitable and just so as to benefit the poorest and most marginalized of the earth. Deep reformation is needed in our legal system from the highest presidency to county courthouses to reverse the trend towards increasing mass incarceration. A national moratorium on executions and the death penalty is urgent now, especially for those scheduled to die before January 20. Get involved here.
“Remove the evil of your deeds from my sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:16-17).
As we begin 2021 may we commit to bring together truth and justice like never before, including confession and repentance– the essential ingredients to God’s life-transforming and saving pardon. Only then will we witness true and credible personal and social change.
Sign up for one of our upcoming People’s Seminary trainings at www.peoplesseminary.org
Many people with whom we’re in relationship have suffered from deep rejection and resulting shame. I’ve been leading Bible studies that show how Jesus heals these wounds through his dignifying interactions.
On Thursday evenings I meet for Zoom Bible study with 25 Russian men in a recovery house in Krasnodar. The following day I read the same Biblical text in a park beside the Skagit River in Mount Vernon with whomever shows up. Scripture comes alive in each setting, dispelling the darkness as the Spirit wields it to challenge old mindsets and call us into new ways of being.
Last week we looked at Jesus’ public embrace of Zaccheus, a man who was rejected since he was a hated chief tax collector. He’d become rich through extortion in collaboration with the Roman occupation.
I arrive at Edgewater Park before our 5pm Bible study. I’d heard a homeless encampment of 40+ people had been flooded out due to the Skagit River’s rapid rise from heavy rains and thought I’d try to make contact with some of the people. A group of homeless men and women who’ve set up their tents under a covered outdoor stage tell me how the night before, police and fire department had rescued some and arrested those who had warrants. Rumor had it that everyone had 24 hours to leave the area. People were stressed, not knowing where to go.
In the parking lot I encounter a group of homeless men: Mexican, Native, Black and White. I tell them that our weekly Bible study is about to start, and invite anyone who might be interested to join us. A Native guy approaches me, gesturing with his hands as he speaks with passion.
“I want nothing to do with the Christian religion,” he says. “They built their churches on our ancient burial grounds.”
“There is no excuse for that and I’m totally against that kind of colonizing religion,” I say. “Building a church on burial sites is dishonoring to your people and outright wrong, This country is in fact largely stolen land from Native peoples, established on the backs of slaves trafficked from Africa,” I continue.
The Black man looks at me in surprise and the Native man’s face comes alive and he moves towards me like he’s going to give me a hug. “Hey thanks man. I appreciate you saying that!”
Just then Jessica, one of our Tierra Nueva faith community members, walks up to tell me that the people have arrived for the Bible study. About to head off, I offer some parting words that went something like this:
“The Jesus I follow loves and respects each one of you. He’s cares about your struggles and wants to help you. He’s not allied with the systems that oppress but with people in need of healing and liberation.”
One of the Mexican-American guys says he recognizes me from the jail and thanks me. He puts his hand out towards me as I start to leave, and the others extend their hands. “Bless you man! God bless you!”
I feel very blessed as I walk over with Jessica to her car, parked alongside mine. She’s come with a carload, five young people. The group reflects some of the beautiful diversity of our community: Native, Mexican and White.
We launch right into our Bibles study on Luke 19. I suggest that Felix, a twenty-year-old man play Jesus, and he’s willing. We pretend Zaccheus is up in a tree in front of our cars, and I invite the others to walk towards it to act out the story. Jessica reads the text:
“Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see him, for he was about to pass through that way” (Luke 10:3-4).
Stopping before the tree, I ask our little group if they ever find themselves secretly checking out Jesus from a safe distance like Zaccheus—not sure whether they’re ready to follow him yet.
“Maybe you wonder whether he’d accept you the way you are—or require you to stop smoking weed, swearing, or gambling at the casino,” I say, smiling. Felix smirks and others laugh and look at each other.
I invite Jessica to read the next verses.
“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received him gladly” (Luke 19:5-6).
I remind our little group that Jesus had a crowd around him—so what he says to Zaccheus is in public. We all look up at the tree against the darkening Winter sky, and Felix tentatively addresses imaginary Zaccheus, inviting him to hurry down so he can hang out at his house. We imagine him rushing down, and I think of the Native man who I thought might hug me.
I share with our group that the word used for “look up” (anablepo in Greek) also means “recover or receive sight.” It is the same word used by the blind man in the previous story when he responds to Jesus’ offer: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to regain my sight (anablepo)!” he says (17:41). “And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight (anablepo); your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight (anablepo) and began following Him
Might Jesus himself be regaining his sight, so to speak, getting recalibrated– receiving a new vision of this rich tax collector, rejected as an extorter/traitor/crook? Jesus, in contrast to the critical crowd literally looks up to Zaccheus before calling him down.
An additional detail that confirms Jesus’ honoring posture is the mention of Zaccheus’ name, rare in Gospel healing stories. In Hebrew Zaccheus literally means “innocent” or “pure.” That Jesus knows his name, and spontaneously and publicly calls this notorious bad guy “pure/innocent,” and then invites himself over to his house seems to touch my little group.
We talk about how this story shows that Jesus sees us positively, from God’s perspective. It makes sense to everyone why Zaccheus would hurry down from the tree and receive Jesus gladly. There from in his hidden vantage point in the Sycamore tree, Zaccheus realizes that he is seen as good.
“Let’s see what the crowd thinks about this,” I suggest, nodding over to Jessica to read the next verse.
“When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
No one is surprised that the crowd reacted this way. We’d seen the week before how the crowd tried to silence the blind man at the entrance to Jericho as he cried out for Jesus to have mercy on him. My Skagit Valley friends have themselves experienced distain from “the crowd”: judgment, rejection, dishonoring, and shaming.
We notice together the huge impact Jesus’ public acceptance has on Zaccheus.
”Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”
“How would you feel if you were poor, or one of these people in the crowd who’d been ripped off by Zaccheus?” I ask.
“Getting four times what I lost would help me catch up on some bills,” says Jessica, wryly.
But who might the equivalent of Zaccheus be for us today? I wonder to myself.
I think of people I look down on in today’s toxic political climate: the tax-evading rich and powerful, racial-profiling cops, White supremacists, climate-change deniers, border wall advocates and certain Republicans. The judgmental crowd can be seen rejecting the homeless, addicted, undocumented immigrants, felons, sex-offenders, traffickers, pro-choice advocates, rioters or the Antifa. Or a left-leaning crowd might reject pro-lifers, climate-change deniers, Proud Boys, Trump and his supporters, and gun rights advocates.
Here the judged one responds to Jesus’ radical acceptance with a shocking public declaration of repentance and generous act of reparation. Who could have imagined the hidden innocence, purity and capacity for justice inside this tax collector!
Jesus offers the final word there before the crowd, announcing salvation, re-affirming Zaccheus’ identity and inclusion in God’s community and announcing his (and our) mission:
“And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Salvation coming looks like Jesus stopping as he passes through Jericho, receiving sight, looking up to Zaccheus hidden in the tree, and calling him down to host him at his home. Salvation coming looks like the host’s joyous reception of Jesus’ embrace, his willing hospitality to God incarnate, who doesn’t let sin separate himself from “them.” I love these details and want to be part of this movement! And you?
I am personally struck by Jesus’ grace towards the judging crowd, who he includes when he says: “because he (Zaccheus) too (along with the members of the crowd) is a child of Abraham (member of God’s people).
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Little details, like Jesus’ referring to people as “lost,” take the blame and the shame off of them. Jesus embodies and inspires a seeking and finding approach, calling those who have “lost” these excluded ones, to join him on his mission to seek and find. We pray together that we too would receive our sight, to see ourselves and others as Jesus does.
There in the dark under the trees between our cars by the Skagit River we wrap up our time summarizing Jesus’ beautiful mission. We talk about receiving Jesus’ acceptance, and pray together to surrender to his searching love. A young Mexican-American woman who had come for the first time tells me she wants to be baptized, and asks when we could meet up with her and her boyfriend. She and her Yakima Indian partner then show up at our Sunday service in the park in Burlington, and we arrange a time to meet again.
Jesus is alive and active, looking for others to join him! May we too receive our sight, notice who Jesus would have us notice, and become seekers and finders of today’s lost ones.
Fear and anxiety abound in these days of global pandemic, a US presidential election, natural disasters related to climate change, and economic insecurity. People are searching for explanations, advice as to how to best prepare, spiritual direction, and prophetic counsel. There’s a vulnerability to deception, and false prophecy abounds, visible in declarations endorsing candidates, conspiracy theories like QAnon, and political promises and prognoses. Jesus offers strong warnings to his disciples:
“See to it that no one misleads you. “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (Mat 24:4-5)
These “many” who come in Jesus’ name who “mislead many” can include those who claim to be Christian prophets themselves—even a majority of them.
In a number of places in the Old Testament hundreds of “court” prophets stand with Israel’s King, over-and-against a lone prophet who speaks for God. Each king of Israel was anointed by a prophet and called Messiah/Christ (meaning “anointed”). God’s prophets brought words of challenge, direction and rebuke—unless they were co-opted, which has largely happened now in the USA.
King Ahab gathered together 400 prophets, who prophesy success and counsel war. The lone, largely unknown prophet Micaiah is then consulted, who prophesies that Ahab would be killed in the battle—which subsequently happens (1 Kgs 22:6, 13-17, 37). Amos, Jeremiah and others too stand alone, vastly outnumbered before a majority of prophets who stand with Israel’s king– a warning to not trust the validity of prophetic declarations based on who is all agreeing. God’s Kingdom does not operate based on majority opinion.
Ezekiel is called by the Lord to expose and prophesy against false prophets with words that ring true today.
“Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy from their own inspiration, ‘Listen to the word of the Lord! ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe to the foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing (Ez 13:2-3).
“They see falsehood and lying divination who are saying, ‘The Lord declares,’ when the Lord has not sent them; yet they hope for the fulfillment of their word” (Ez 13:6).
Jeremiah too, strongly critiques Israel’s false prophets:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer 23:16).
“They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord has said, “You will have peace”’; And as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you.’ “But who has stood in the council of the Lord, that he should see and hear his word? Who has given heed to his word and listened” (Jer 23:17-18)?
In Ezekiel 14 idolatry is identified as blocking prophesy. Ezekiel critiques the people and prophets who hold idols in their hearts, that keep them from seeing and hearing from God.
“And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all” (Ez 14:2-3)?
Setting up an idol in our heart can easily happen whenever we elevate anything or anyone other than the revelation of God in Jesus to a place of prominence in our hearts. Materialism, nation, ethnicity, money, self, political party, ideology can all become idols. Human leaders are often deified, and Scripture prohibits this idolatry.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
Endorsing, pledging one’s allegiance, and putting undue hope and trust in a human leader counts “worshipping and serving,” and idolatry that must be named and renounced. Jeremiah’s words ring as a highly relevant warning at this moment in America.
Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the person who trusts in humankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord. “For s/he will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant (Jer 17:5-6).
Jesus himself warns against going after human leaders who claim to save.
“Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.”
The equivalent of saying “I am the Christ” is to say something like: “I am the one who will make you [or America] great again,” or “I am the one who will bring you prosperity.” Prophesies circulating now stating that a particular candidate will bring America (or any nation) back to God” or be the Jehu to rid the land of Jezebels mislead and must be exposed as false.
When Christians publicly endorse or prophesy in favor of a political leader, candidate or party as God’s choice, regardless of the values they embody, there’s a slippery elevation of that leader into a savior or Christ status, and their values (USA, constitution, constituency) easily becomes the false presence of God’s Kingdom.
When anything or person takes the place of total devotion to Jesus as Savior and Christ in a believer’s heart, then people will prophesy “from their own inspiration,” “following their own spirit,” “of their own imagination,” “in the stubbornness of one’s own heart.” If false prophetic words end up being seen as fulfilled, then the body of Christ will be in even more danger of going further into deception and entering a false presence of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus states bluntly: “Do not go after them” (Lk 21:8).
The way forward into faithful adherence to God’s counsel begins with a commitment to total trust in only God, as Jeremiah states:
“Blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. “For h/she will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jer 17:7-8).
God’s Word through Ezekiel to those with idols in their hearts is bold and clear:
“‘Thus says the Lord God, “Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations” (Ez 14:6).
Ezekiel himself models a prophetic posture that is rooted in the following commitments.
- Rootedness in a community of exiles. Ezekiel’s ministry is “among the exiles” by the river Chebar in Babylon (Ez 1:1) and not “among the powerful” at the top. Court prophets were informed from above, by news sources friendly to the privileged. They told the king and the people what he and they wanted to hear. In contrast, Ezekiel spoke from his friendship with slaves, prisoners and the excluded—who were experiencing firsthand the failures of the dominant powers. This gave him a perspective “from below.”
- Divine revelation. The heavens were opened over Ezekiel, enabling him to receive visions from God, rather than ones inspired by his own spirit. The Word of the Lord came to him personally, right where he was among the exiles (Ez 1:1-2).
- Perceiving God in human form. When Ezekiel caught sight of the heavenly throne, upon which there was “a figure with the appearance of a man” (Ez 1:26), and “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he was completely humbled, writing: “I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking” (Ez 1:28).
- Hear God for yourself. Ezekiel heard the voice speak to him personally: “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak with you!” This was followed by God’s Spirit empowering him to do so: “As he spoke to me the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet and I heard speaking to me” (Ezek 2:1).
- Being sent by God. Once standing at attention before the voice of God, Ezekiel was then positioned to receive his sending, with precise instructions. The distinctive mark of a true prophet is being sent by God.
- Speaking God’s Words on difficult missions. “Then he said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel [the people of God], to a rebellious people who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ez 2:3-4).
- Faithfulness despite opposition. “As for them, whether they listen or not—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.
- Fearless obedience. God tells Ezekiel: “neither fear their words nor be dismayed at their presence, for they are a rebellious house. “But you shall speak My words to them whether they listen or not, for they are rebellious” (Ez 2:6-7).
- Continuous receiving of spiritual nourishment from God’s Word. “Open your mouth and eat what I am giving you.” Then I looked, and behold, a hand was extended to me; and lo, a scroll was in it”(Ez 2:8-9).
- Ongoing empowerment by the Spirit. Ezekiel is then led by the Spirit to bring God’s distinct messages to places where God sends him (Ez 3:12).
Jesus himself outlines the future, with no illusions of glory or prophesies of nations becoming great. Matthew 24 presents a highly relevant prognosis for our times.
“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. “But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:6-14).
Now is the time to offer our total devotion to God, standing before him to receive his direct counsel, messages and be sent on missions. May we be careful to not be misled in these perilous times, listening instead to God’s distinct communications. May we fix our eyes on Jesus, the only Christ and Savior of the world. May we attend to the preaching of Jesus’ message of the kingdom “to the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” as our primary mission until the end.
Most of the people we relate with at Tierra Nueva do not have a long history with the Bible. They encounter Scripture for the first time through our faith community, personal visits or jail Bible studies. They expect messages from the Bible to be positive, as they have little to no negative baggage to overcome. So they are open and hungry for Bible study, but have not yet incorporated regular reading into their lifestyles… but that is changing.
Friday I met with Jessica and Jason at a park beside the Skagit River in West Mount Vernon. We’ve met there three or four times on Friday afternoons for short Bible studies, done as we lean against the hoods of our cars—which are parked far enough apart to assure appropriate physical distancing.
After collecting a bag full of chestnuts together from under a tree by the side of the road, I open my Bible and we read Matthew 20:17-28.
Scripture comes alive as we reflect on how the mother of the sons of Zebedee, two of Jesus’ disciples, approach Jesus, bowing down and asking him to command that her beloved sons sit at his right and left in his Kingdom. We notice how she and they seem oblivious to Jesus’ clear statement about his immediate destiny and way into the Kingdom— betrayal, condemnation, mockery, torture and crucifixion.
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify him, and on the third day he will be raised up” (Matthew 20:18-20).
This mom and her disciple-sons, like many of us today, have their minds set on earthly power—ascending and governing (like the Seven Mountains philosophy fashionable in some Christian circles– see critique here).
Jesus responds to her prayer with realism and a question: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” After all, two thieves were destined to hang at his right and left as he was crowned with thorns as he entered his Kingdom as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior.
We read on how on “hearing this, the ten became angry with the two brothers.”
Jessica calls out the jealousy and resentment expressed by the other disciples.
We notice that Jesus doesn’t shame or shun the ambitious mother and her sons, or the other ten. Rather he calls them all to himself, naming what he assumes they already can recognize about how the world operates.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them” I read, asking them if they see this attitude today.
Jason and Jessica are quick to identify this as the way the street, politics and the workplace operate. We are now ready to hear Jesus’ heart and alternate way.
“It is not this way among you,” continues Jesus. “But whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mat 20:26-28).
Jesus doesn’t condemn his disciples, but states that the Kingdom of God reality is already operational among them: “It is not this way among you.” He doesn’t put them on blast for wanting to be great or first, but offers a new way, serving one another—even to the extreme of being a slave as the way to greatness.
Jesus clearly states his own commitment to this upside-down-way, saying he didn’t come to be served but to serve—and to give his life as a ransom—the payment to assure the liberation of many.
Jesus speaks prophetically to the universal church- hoping all future disciples would fully internalize and live out what he himself embodies. The radical truth of Jesus’ words hit us like a refreshing breeze on a hot day—submerged as we are in power-grabbing, contentious politics of our time. We look at each other and I can see there’s agreement that we love Jesus and his message– which inspires us as we ponder it there in the park.
Just then a car rolls slowly up and stops in the street beside us, and a heavily tatted-up man leans out his window to greet us. “Hey, what’s up?” he states. I hadn’t seen E for over two years- since he was last in jail before heading to prison. Jason and Jessica know him since they were all teenagers running the streets together.
E leaves his car running, gets out and comes over to greet me. I place my Bible on the hood of my car and we catch up. He tells me he’s been out of prison for a little over two months. He tells me tomorrow’s his birthday—“I’ll be 38,” he says.
“What can I give you,” I say, surprising myself.
“How about a prayer,” he says.
“Yeah for sure,” I say. “For something in particular?”
He brings his right hand up and taps the left side of his chest and tears up, saying: “for my heart!”
Quickly he returns to his car and opens the passenger door, leaning in to talk with a young woman, who returns with him.
“Can you pray for both of us?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say, and they hold each other and bow their heads shyly.
Words come that surprise me as I pray for the healing of their hearts, for understanding, love and more. They’re moved by the prayer and thank me, and then return to their car– where Jessica is conversing with another passenger in the back seat.
They drive off, and Jessica and Jason have to go too. I drive to a nearby store, where I suddenly realize my Bible is missing. Had I driven off with it on the hood of the car?!
I turn around and head back to the park, searching the area where we’d parked– my heart is still warm from the sacred encounters. My Bible is nowhere to be found, so I drive back, scanning the side of the road, lamenting the loss of my beloved leather Bible—a gift from Gracie. I console myself that maybe someone has found it who needs it, and pray they will discover a life-giving message.
After dinner I head to the jail for a one-on-one with a man who the jail staff are finally letting me see after two weeks of refusing me entry. We read and discuss the same text from Matthew 20. Around 10pm I head back to the park to search for my Bible again– walking the street leading out of the park, searching along the sides of the road. I pray that it’d somehow turn up—or bless someone, or both. The next morning I get an email that warms my heart:
“Mr. Ekblad, found precious item that belongs to you. I’m Jose and would like to return to you. Email me or call me. Not to worry, it’s safe! Jose.”
He includes his number and I call him. He welcomes me to his house twenty minutes north of us.
We meet on his doorstep. He recounts how he saw my Bible in the middle of the road as he was driving out the park at 5:30pm the night before— shortly after I’d left for the store.
We converse about his faith, past vocations and other things. I offer him a copy of my book Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit, which he warmly receives. He welcomes me to come back anytime to talk some more. I leave amazed that my Bible has brought me from Jason, Jessica and E to Jose, and now it has come back to me– like a divine connector there to serve Jesus’ liberation movement.
I’m ready for the next opportunity to sow this sacred Word, and wonder what sort of fruit it will produce. Isaiah 55:10-11 to mind:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11).