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Why Bible Stories?

I was sitting in a Bible story-crafting group. Pastors and members from three different Baptist churches meet together weekly here in our city, slowly meditating, discussing, telling and retelling, and then finally recording certain passages of Scripture. These are the stories they then tell to others throughout the week, as sermons, in evangelistic conversations, and counseling one another. As we began our time, others in the group had already told about five different stories, just shooting the breeze and catching up on local news and events. Per usual, many of these stories centered on the use of charms.

One of the pastors spoke up, adding his own story:

There’s a group of huts near us I visit almost every week. The families that live there have such vulgar mouths most people can’t stand to go through there. I’ve even had people on the road question my motives. They’ll ask me, “Why do you keep coming over here? What are you looking for? Don’t you know these people have charms buried all over this yard?”

I tell them I’m just interested in talking with the people there, getting to know them better. People tell me it is a waste of time. Many church-folk have made their way back there and they always stop coming after a while because they just can’t stand those people. It’s true, they disrespect people and berate them day in and day out, even they do it to one another.

But one day I was sitting with them. I usually don’t say much because you can’t possibly respond to all of the nonsense. They’re constantly trying to pull you into debates. But one of the girls sitting there attends the local Lutheran church. Her mother and her grandmother are well-known church-folk, and she goes to church every Sunday. She was telling everyone sitting there about the sermon from Sunday. It was about not serving two masters. The girl recounted, “The pastor said, ‘You cannot serve two masters. You will hate one of them and love the other one.’ But I don’t really know what he meant.”

I told her the story of Jesus’ temptation. Even after Jesus had his confirmation and was baptized, God led him into the wilderness to be tested. And the devil tested his spirit. When he couldn’t deceive him with food or possessions or power, he turned to the holy writings themselves to deceive him. That is how the devil tries to get you to serve two masters.

Haven’t you seen people who go to church and take off their charms. Then, once they returned, they put the charms back on again. And when people bury charms here, do they pray Jesus’ name over them? No. They know that the master of the charms and the master of the church are enemies. That is what your pastor means when he says you cannot serve two masters.

She went and got her family and they burned their charms right then and there.

Pastor

His story was, of course, a huge encouragement. Praise God for this pastor’s faithfulness and these changed lives! Also, though, our pastor’s story struck me as a poignant illustration for why we do Bible story-crafting in the first place.

Stories acknowledge and resource the local church

I’ll start with perhaps the subtext of this example. Our presence as foreign missionaries here in Toliara, or even in Southern Madagascar, is not the only Christian witness. There are many, many Malagasy believers and many Christian churches. True, their theology–the ways these believers understand and interact with God–is sometimes very different from our own. Yet many of these Christians show in the good fruit of their lives they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Bible story-crafting is then a way that we can come alongside these Malagasy brothers and sisters and give them an additional resources as God’s primary witnesses in Madagascar. For example, this little community, vulgar and lost in idol worship as they may be, has a witness to God’s Word and love. However, even though there is a church in walking distance, even though they preach God’s Word, even though this young woman heard God’s Word proclaimed in that church, she still did not understand.

Our local team composes stories that allow people to hear God’s Word crafted to their daily life experience (missiologists call this contextualization). The stories are told in the dialect(s) they are used to hearing and communicating in every day. They do not use Christian lingo or Bible words. They do not include a lot of names or titles people cannot understand let alone pronounce. And because they are not crafted by foreigners but endlessly workshopped by indigenous believers, they are a faithful retelling of God’s Word from a Malagasy perspective. Essentially, stories allow people to bear witness to God’s continuing story in a way that is not foreign but very natural to them.

Bible story-crafting group meeting

People can understand and apply stories

The more overt lesson borne out in the pastor’s story is that people here (and I believe everywhere) simply understand stories better. The girl had heard someone preaching verses from God’s written Word, but still needed someone to flesh out the meaning before she was ready to apply it. If you don’t understand what God is saying (or why), you’re going to have a hard time obeying. Like Philip, whom God used to explain to the Ethiopian the meaning of what he had read from Scripture, stories equip people with ways to understand the Bible, even after they’ve read it or (more likely in our context) heard it read aloud (in a language not quite their own).

There is a lot that could be said about this principle, in terms of communication theory, culture, etc. However, suffice to say that content (what is said) is incomprehensible outside of context (how, when, to whom, and for what purpose something is said). “It hurts!” is a simple enough sentence to understand. But your reaction will vary greatly depending on whether it’s someone who just broke their finger, or your starved-for-attention four-year-old drama queen, or the character of Gollum as you host your annual Lord of the Rings marathon.

The girl in the pastor’s story did not understand the principle, “You cannot worship two masters” without the context of the story of Jesus’ Temptation, and then that story applied to her own context. I venture to say, if this article was simply the header above, “People can understand and apply stories,” it would make a lot less sense than it does when you understand the story behind that observation.

And don’t forget, this was story number six in our group. Stories are by far the most natural way people communicate here. Does that mean people cannot learn from a three-point sermon? It does not. But it is not the most natural way for people to learn, or communicate that information to others. While I have seen people listen to a story once to then turn around retell the whole thing perfectly, I have never seen anyone repeat a sermon after hearing it. Speaking of that, you might be surprised to learn that this particular pastor, who was telling this story, is an oral learner. The sermons he shares on Sundays are stories. He asks congregation members to read relevant passages aloud to the group, or memorizes key passages ahead of time with his wife, as he doesn’t read at all. And yet, through storying and story-crafting, he is equipped to bring God’s Word to bear on the everyday lives of the people in his community.

If you want to know more about the Bible story-crafting movement, you should follow along with the podcast That Reminds Me of a Story. They do a good job of walking through the different elements of the process, explaining origins, and how methods have developed over time.

Crafting Bible Stories: Four Rocks

There are a lot of aspects to crafting Bible stories. We often say it’s something you can’t explain, you have to experience it to understand it. I (Nathan) recently started teaching weekly at a local school for pastors. We thought it might be helpful to do a series of posts walking through the process of training others to tell and craft Bible stories. Would you like to see behind the curtain?

Continue reading “Crafting Bible Stories: Four Rocks”

Reunion

Holy Spirit,
Jesus, Rabbi,
Master, Friend.

Please,
burn my lips and singe my tongue,
before my mouth starts fires.
Chasten me with enough humility to take a lashing
from others, 
to look back
and lament without forgetting inconvenient details. 

Take that withering shame and animal anger
to forge within me that courage for the other:
Sister, Brother, and even stranger Strangers. 
Help me to see others, 
not as threats or rivals,
but family. 

I have always wanted to be left alone. But
it seems I’ll just rot in there. It seems
like instead I need a family
reunion.
You know I would rather just read books,
talk and then hide away.
But if you can save me, save us all from ourselves, by bringing us together,
do it.

I feel like I’m floundering, in 
over my head.
My past is regretful, our present in limbo and our future unclear. 
Give me at least some arms to hold onto
or others
to teach me how to swim. 

Seeing Culture

What you see is what you get. . . . .

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across and hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

What do a sheep’s head, a crowded thoroughfare, and a hole in the ground have to do with each other? When you take your time to actually see your surroundings and meditate on them (instead of just looking at them), they begin to teach you culture.

Two days ago, I was running up a mountain in the early morning mist (training for a local trail run). At the top of this rocky slope is a viewpoint where you can see Toliara stretching out underneath, and just past that is a large hole in the ground.

It’s nothing special . . . just a hole in the ground with a lot of trash in it. Or is it?

The hole

On my way back from a Bible story-crafting group, I noticed a stand on the side of the road. A lady sat swinging a rag back-and-forth over a roughly constructed wooden table. On one side of the table was a neat mound of leafy greens, in the middle, boiled cassava root, still steaming underneath its plastic wrap. This lineup was then concluded by a severed sheep’s head, plopped prominently, if not unceremoniously, in a tin bowl. Let me just confirm, all these items were for sale.

I moved on from this to enter the clogged artery of rickshaws, people and freight trucks squeezing around each other on the main road. No one seems to be paying attention to each other. People cross the road with little more than a side-ways glance at the oncoming traffic. Both bodies and bicycle rickshaws are pressed as close together as possible. At the last minute, people and vehicles swerve ever-so-slightly to avoid certain collision. All this happens at such a pace and velocity of back-to-back snap judgements that I actually feel as if I’m entering into some kind of sentient organism. Is this hive mind?

The unpracticed eye might not make anything of these observations; they are events or arrangements of items that merely appear strange. If we’re especially not careful, we’ll start abstracting moral lessons from what we see: these people are trashy, not concerned with hygiene, unaware of proper social boundaries, etc. What we would be missing is the lessons these familiar scenes offer about Malagasy culture and the material reality from which their worldview arises.


You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Take the hole. On my second lap, I stopped and did my best Sherlock Holmes impression: I tried to not just see but to observe.

Approaching the pit it is clear there have been many visitors to this place. Smouldered remains are scattered all around: ashy rocks, blackened sticks, dark spots where flames have flickered, makeshift fires started in darkness. There are bits of tattered clothing left behind; the leftovers of a rope tethered to a root hangs limp by the edge of the hole. That’s where they tied it up, I think. Sure enough, a quick scan reveals a horn, chicken feathers, and oily, crimson stains along the mouth of the shale cavity.

It’s not just a hole, this is a place of sacrifice. And that’s not just trash. True, the hole is littered with plastic bottles of various shapes and sizes. Yet the spilled-out innards of those containers reveal they are charms, filled with earth and seeds and hair: bits of life brought together to forever alter it with other-worldly knowledge. This place is a symbol of animism. Spirit and material reality are a unified entity and even at a place that, at a glance, looks like a trashy hole in the ground.

Then there’s the seller’s table with the sheep’s head. Everything about the seller communicates hardscrabble ingenuity. The table is made from leftover scraps of wood. The roots and leaves of the humble cassava are sold and eaten as food. Even the base of the plant is dried and stored away to be planted next season. The best part, the thick, potato-like root, has been boiled and wrapped in dusty plastic, plastic that once encased high-priced filtered water bottles. Now, salvaged from the trash and repurposed, the plastic traps the heat of this staple food, boiled in dirty water. Nothing is wasted. The epitome of this is the sheep’s head. It is not sitting on the table as a ghastly warning. It is prime food. Like the cassava, animals are harvested for every valuable piece. Hide, hoof, and head, yes, even down to tongue and cheek, will be sold and eaten. Nothing is wasted because choices are limited.

And the roadside manner. People here are used to living very close together. Personal space has not been invented yet in Madagascar. I joke, but in many ways that is true. There is a connection between poverty, limited choices, and closeness. Affluence grants distance, independence, autonomy, true. But people with many choices do not have nearly the social IQ, they don’t have to. There is a certain paradox seen in the street where raised in interdependence are both highly aware of their own responsibility and yet simultaneously aware of others’ as well. I will step off the road just before you run me over, because ultimately I have to fend for myself. But I also know you will swerve just before you hit me, because ultimately it behooves you to keep yourself disentangled from me and my problems (which of course will end the moment you crash into me). The careening sea of humanity is humming along to the song of interdependency: sometimes discordant harmony of expectations and roles. And the worst thing someone can do is step into the middle of that song and try to belt out a solo. Most likely they will get hit by a bus, literally and figuratively.

The best way, then, is to notice these curiosities. Store them away and ponder them, like Mary, in your heart. Take your cue from Sherlock Holmes and learn the picture between the pieces, that s logic. Or like Annie Dillard marveling at the gift of sight and how often we do not make good use of it, don’t miss the daily miracles surrounding you. If we can practice seeing the people and place around us, we will finally know where we are and what it means. And we may even start to understand if and where we can fit in among these strange new scenarios.

I believe in every place and in every culture God has already placed an invitation for us to accept and join him in his work. But if you do not ever slow down, you may never see it.

Malagasy Missionary Internship

Jonoro seeing the fruit of his ministry

For decades, a Malagasy pastor named Jonoro has been engaging people groups in southwest Madagascar with the Gospel. Jonoro has modeled personal sacrifice and a commitment to indigenous leadership, language and culture study, and advocacy for the most unreached. His example has inspired Malagasy Baptists as well as IMB missionaries working in the area.

Since January, Pastor Jonoro, with funding from Child Evangelism Fellowship, has hosted a group of 15 Baptist leaders from around the island—representing 8 different people groups—all passionate to learn to be Malagasy missionaries. Jonoro has worked with other Baptist pastors to put together this residential school for missionaries. These Malagasy missionaries-in-training have been immersed in the life and ministry of four local Baptist churches. 

Because of the longstanding relationship between IMB and these local leaders, we as IMB personnel were able to enter into this training as learners and co-laborers. We literally walked alongside the students as they practiced what they had learned about the missionary task (entering into a new area to evangelize, make disciples who then form a church, and investing in local leaders until such a time as the missionary can exit leaving behind new partners). We were not trainers only but students as well, learning from our Malagasy brothers and sisters, asking them how they did things and why, as all of us together learn how to make Malagasy disciples.

IMB Ministry Gifts of $150 were used to send these students to conduct an M-Task practicum among two local people groups (Masikoro and Mikea), one of which is still a UUPG. These students themselves represent 8 very different tribes from around the island. As they returned from 10 days of immersive hands on experience as missionaries, listen to what they were saying:

“I’ve never understood what Jesus meant when he said, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.’ Now I understand. There are so many people out there who are thirsty for Jesus. They are just waiting for someone to come and lead them. We have to send more leaders!”

Gaston, Sakalava tribe from Morondava

“It was very stressful to me the way the people lived. For 10 days we did not shower. I’m not used to that. But we were taught to enter into the life of the people, live as they live. So I think if we are missionaries we would not shower if we were working with them. That’s how we would show them God’s love.”

Lande, Bezanozano tribe from Moramanga

“We met with a young man who was ready to give up his charms. I told him the story of Legion about the demon possessed man. We asked him if he was ready to follow Jesus, and he said yes. We prayed for him and his stomach and legs were healed, no longer swollen. He said he wanted to follow us. But I told him what Jesus said to the man whom he healed. ‘No. Go back home and tell your family what God has done for you.’ So, the young man went back home and led his mother to turn away from her charms.”

Madera, Mahafaly tribe from Betioky

“I cried myself to sleep the first night after meeting these people and seeing the way that they live, the way that they eat, the way other tribes treat them. My heart is burdened for the Mikea people.”

Alex, Antanosy tribe from Tongobory

“It was hard for me to understand people and for them to understand me. Even though we are all Malagasy, I finally understood that we have to work very hard to understand one another. If we are going to take the gospel to other tribes, there is still a lot I need to learn about language and culture.”

Stephan, Betsimisarika tribe from Mahatsara

“I thought because I was a woman, I didn’t have much to offer on the trip other than to cook and to clean. But when I arrived in the village there were so many eager women. I asked them if they knew the story of Esther. They didn’t. So, I taught them the story of Esther, how we women must be like queens speaking wisely and protecting our family instead of protecting ourselves and leaving them to ruin. I told them we are to be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, bringing blessing to the world by raising our children well. I thought I didn’t know anything. But it turns out as I went to the mission field, I became a teacher.” 

Tina, Tanalana tribe from Toliara

Many of the students returned with a vision for reaching the tribes in their own backyard. The students from the east now have a plan to work together to reach the outlying tribes in their area. They will be casting vision with their local churches in the East. Two men from the Southern region have a plan for starting with their local church and cell groups to expand outward. They now have a plan for how to work through the missionary task with the goal of raising up more indigenous leaders. The impact of this practicum will continue to reverberate around the island. And it would not have been possible without the trust and relationship with indigenous, local churches founded by the gifts of Southern Baptists, who have now not only sent out American missionaries to cross cultures to fulfill God’s mission but now indigenous, Malagasy missionaries as well.

Exile: Easter Sunday, April 17 – Malachi

Read:

Now that the people were officially out of Babylon, the verdict was clear. It wasn’t exile that was the problem, it was them. Nothing had changed: the religious leaders were just as corrupt as ever, caring less about others or God than themselves. Everyone did whatever they wanted sexually—disregarding the damage to their own souls or the body count of others left behind them (2:10-16). And on top of all that they were a bunch of Scrooges! (1:6-14; 3:6-12). And they wondered why God wasn’t listening to them? Ironically, people assumed God didn’t care about them; they certainly didn’t care about God (3:13-15).

They were still going to church, but did it really matter? Leaders of a previous generation, the Martin Luther King Jrs and the Billy Grahams, were dead. Many were losing their faith. People were falling off into cynicism as many had no answers for their questions. Up steps an anonymous figure. We don’t know who Malachi was, the word simply means “My messenger”–more of a title than a name. But this person steps into the vacuum to remind God’s people of their past, put their present into perspective, and address their questions:

Cynics: How has God loved us?God’s messenger: Do not forget the blessings he has allowed you to experience. Blessing you did not earn, but God gave you as a gift because he loves you (Mal 1:1-5).
Cynics: How have we shown contempt for God?God’s messenger: By disregarding what you owe him, worshiping him with token gestures (1:5-14).
Cynics: Why does God no longer pay attention to me?God’s messenger: Because he’s standing up for the women you’re abusing (2:13-16).
Cynics: How have we wearied God?God’s messenger: By complaining that God loves evil since we see evil men succeed (2:17).
Cynics: How are we to return to God?God’s messenger: Stop robbing God. Act like your life depends on him, not money (3:6-12).
Cynics: What have we said against him?God’s messenger: You’ve said faith in God doesn’t make any difference. Those who don’t follow him are better off (3:13-15).

Malachi, again, takes us back to the beginning to urge us forward. Malachi reminds us of Moses, of the promised blessings and curses. God was right. They had been exiled. And he had brought them back. But now what? Nothing is really resolved, right? Malachi basically repeats Moses’ warnings: follow God, watch for a coming messenger, and try not to get cursed (4:4-6). Just as Moses knew, Malachi still seems to be waiting on the time when God would change peoples’ hearts. But when?


John is standing in the water, shouting out to the crowd, “I am the one saying, Prepare the Yahweh’s Path! The Day of Yahweh is coming! (Mal 3:1-5). Get ready. Can you help anyone? Do it! Are you using anyone? Stop it! Do your job fair and square and trust God to take care of you (Lk 3:10-14).”

He looked out at the religious leaders of his day, the pastors, the conference leaders, the missionaries, the Christian authors, and grew angry. “You bunch of snakes! Who told you this was the cool thing to do now? Change! Do something tangible that shows you’re actually serious about returning to God, and stop telling yourselves you’re so much better than everyone else. The purifying fire is about to expose you” (Mt 3:7-10).

Then Jesus came up to the water. John’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head. But Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him close, saying, “Go ahead, John. Put me in the water. Let’s put into motion what God has planned for so, so long. Let’s set things right.” And just like the Israelites crossing with Moses’ words still ringing in their ears, Jesus stepped into Jordan, coming out of his baptism burdened with the mission to finally bring the exiles home. 


The rest is history . . . and yet the story’s still unfolding. Over and over, God kept His promise from the Garden to defeat the enemy through humans; every time, though, the enemy gets his pound of flesh (3:15). Two steps forward, one step back. Through kings, prophets, dirty shepherds, etc., God never failed to remind His people of the blessings He offered, as well as the curses that waited if they did things their own way. But ultimately, what God’s people needed was a prophet, a king, yes, a shepherd, who could remake people’s hearts

If you call yourself a Christian, you should know that this hoped-for human has already come. We believe Jesus has already remade our hearts to follow God. Like Israel, we look back to remember God’s promises: how, left to our own devices, we will choose our way over God’s way, we will marginalize people, we will give ourselves over to the corrosive effect of power. And we will be cursed for it. We remember, too, that God never lets evil go unpunished, but also has so much compassion that he came as Jesus to rescue this world and make it more like home.

We’re still far from home. A look at your phone or a glance at the news confirms it. And so, like Israel, we wait for the day when Jesus comes again and finally brings everything back together. Lent is about being between two advents. Jesus has already come. And He’s coming again. In the meantime, we let go of things, slow down, and remind ourselves there ain’t nothing in this world we can fix on our own. 

We are still pilgrims. Already catching glimpses of God’s justice and love, but not yet fully. The question is, will we choose life? The answer is not far off, He is near. He is our King, Jesus. Through His death and resurrection, He made it possible for us to truly live with hearts alive to God, and able to inherit His promised blessings. Let’s never forget: our hope is not in comfort in our own culture, or power to affect change. Our hope, even with exile threatening, is and always has been a God who is so compassionate and gracious, so just yet so patient, He will always welcome those who truly seek Him home. Happy Easter. 


Watch: Bible Project video on Malachi; Bible Project video on the Baptism of Jesus

Listen: Malachi 1-4; Luke 3

Exile: Good Friday, April 15 – Ezra-Nehemiah

Read:

Nehemiah’s chest was still heaving, spittle still stuck in his beard. He had chased the half-breed infidels off. Bits of their hair were still stuck between his knuckles. For the third time, as he watches his life’s work unraveling before his eyes, Nehemiah lifts his head to the roof with tears in his eyes and yells, “Remember me, O God! Remember me for the good I tried to do!” 

This is how the return from exile ends. When a dream dies, it kills part of us with it. The collective story of Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one story written on one scroll) reminds us of the limits of reform. Three leaders, political, religious, and private sector, respectively, set out to lead their people out of exile and, by sheer force of will and religious zeal, bring God back to their nation. It doesn’t work. 

Exile had always been “a death to make way for a rebirth” (1). Whether Adam and Eve stumbling away from Eden, or the Hebrews crying for rescue in Egypt, the story of exile has always been learning hard lessons while hoping for a new future. Yet now, a group of God’s people are allowed to return to their Promised Land, fewer in number than ever. 

The stories of Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah started off great. As prophesied by Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22), the kings in power were now legislating and even funding Israel’s return to Jerusalem. To control their empire and promote peace through a kind of religious liberty, the Persians allowed conquered nations like Egypt, Greece, and Israel to restore their religious practices (2). It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement they must have felt. Finally, God was back on their side!

Zerubabbel leads the people back and rebuilds the temple. Ezra teaches the people God’s word and sees fruit. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall. Yet, despite God’s promises that all nations would worship him in Jerusalem, outsiders are chased off (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 13:8), families are split apart (Ezra 10:10-11:44; Neh 13:23-25), and, unlike before, God’s Spirit does not return to dwell in the rebuilt temple (Ezra 3:11-13). In fact, one of these interracial, Samaritan families built their own temple to worship Yahweh (John 4:20-22) in this period after they were marginalized by Nehemiah and company. This is their new normal. 

Even after all the foretold blessings and curses had come. Even after they had been returned to their Promised Land. Nothing had changed the condition of the human heart. Still, they were waiting on something no legislation, no amount of funding, not even limitless moral effort could provide . . . a heart not bent on self-centeredness and self-destruction, a heart able to follow God. 


Footnotes:

  1. Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15.
  2. Kidner, 21.

Watch: Bible Project video on Ezra-Nehemiah

Listen: Nehemiah 9-10, 13

Exile: Maundy Thursday, April 14 – Daniel

Read:

Others had spoken for God to those who claimed to carry his name. Not Daniel. In Daniel’s story we see the consummate exile: God’s people completely divested of political power, deported slaves in a foreign country.

Daniel had been resettled when Babylon exiled the leaders and the educated from Judah, and proves to be a wise and winsome leader in the midst of a culture that has its own new version of morality. It’s hard to find a better example of Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles, to seek the welfare of the country of exile (Jer 29:4-7). Time and again, Babylon prospers because of Daniel’s devotion and effort. In some ways, Daniel is the token minority: his food is different, his customs are different, he is in constant threat of losing his job or his life, and everyone is always looking to find fault with him. In spite of this, Daniel works harder and is more competent than any of his contemporaries—knowing their own literature, language, and magic better than they did! For all these reasons he’s loved . . . and hated. 

After breaking a law made especially for trapping people like him, Daniel is sentenced to death, placed in a pit with a stone rolled over the entrance and sealed. This righteous man, in the pit of his worst nightmare, is not torn to shreds by the vicious animals surrounding him. Instead, he is raised out of the darkness of the pit, has his life restored, and is completely vindicated. Meanwhile, his enemies, poetically (at least as poetic as death by lion can be) suffer the defeat they intended for him. It wouldn’t be the last time the stone rolled away revealing how God’s kingdom works.

Time and again, Daniel watched the long arm of the Lord reach into Babylon, reminding him and them who was the real King of the World. No one, no king, no nation, was beyond his reach. He reached inside the furnace (3:25), He could drive a dictator out to pasture (4:28-37), and He literally put the writing on the wall of the rave-turned-orgy in front of the most powerful man on earth (5:1-9). With all the violence and all the upheaval as the nations raged like animals, God still laughed at them (Ps 2). They didn’t know who they caught a glimpse of in the furnace, protecting His boys. He was the stone who turned world empires to dust and filled the world (2:34-35). He was the hand over the lion’s mouth (6:22). He was the human Daniel saw rolling in on thunderheads (7:13) given all power and authority (Mt 28:19-20) and worshiped by every tribe, nation, and tongue in an everlasting, invincible kingdom (Rev 7:9). Daniel’s God was a king. Not just King of the Jews, the King of Kings. 

In chapter 9, Daniel repents for the sins of his ancestors. Remembering the curses from Moses’ day, Daniel also acts like Moses, standing in the gap: confessing the sins of his sinful nation while begging for God’s mercy on that nation. And God answers in a peculiar way. He lets Daniel know that instead of the 70 years Jeremiah had predicted, the exile will actually last 490 years (70×7), confirmation that the small band led by Nehemiah and company had not ended anything.

Daniel reminds us there is no more profound act of resistance to oppressive world systems than prayer. Instead of kowtowing to authority figures to be sucked in and pulled along by either promises of promotion (5:17) or threats of violence (2:17), Daniel prays. Every day, he kneels before God so he can stand up to world powers. He is not unkind, he simply tells it like it is, calling Nebuchadnezzer to change his ways for his own good and for the sake of the oppressed (4:27). Daniel had everything to lose by simply praying. Yet he practiced civil disobedience by showing everyone to whom he bowed the knee, from where his power and agency came. He would not, could not, change anything before acknowledging his dependence on God. He staked his life on God revealing what he should say and do instead of his ability to figure it out (2:17-27). What about us? 

The whole time he resisted oppressive systems, suffered the pain of marginalization, stuck his neck out for his friends and enemies, was threatened with death multiple times, and then gave his best energies to the country that had enslaved him and killed his family, Daniel probably wondered why God had asked him to seek the prosperity of this place, these people. Our recourse is not escaping the systems of this world. No. Even while the nations rage and ravage around us like animals, no one can ever stop us from serving the true King, here and now on this planet. After all, it is all his, and He is always with us.


Watch: Bible Project video on Daniel

Listen: Daniel 1-12 (especially Daniel 1-6, 9)

Exile: Palm Sunday, April 10 – Jeremiah

Read:

Jeremiah paces around the room, unable to quench this fire eating away at his bones. His faithful scribe Baruch looks up every now and then, concerned, as Jeremiah dictates a letter to those exiled in Babylon. 

Jeremiah had been born as King Josiah was inaugurated. He probably entered his ministry as Zephaniah began lambasting Josiah and his government. An Assyrian empire had leveled the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Many of the people were carted off to Assyria and resettled there. Other people from other defeated countries were resettled into Israel, effectively obliterating their cultural and religious heritage. Already God’s words were coming true (Deut 28:36-37). 

Assyria had turned to do the same to Judah, but God had intervened. Yet, even after the Assyrian army finished off the Northern Kingdom, and Judah celebrated that they had been spared, Jeremiah had stood in God’s temple and shouted, “Do not think for a minute this place makes us special! Look at the way we’re treating immigrants and foster kids! Look at our senseless abuse and addictions!” God himself had told him, then and there, not to even pray for the nation (7:1-16). The threat of exile still loomed over them. 

No matter how hard they had tried, no matter how many times God warned the kings of Judah, they would not listen. Several times, Jeremiah had received death threats and even attempts at his life. No one wanted to hear this message. All throughout their culture, the religious experts were predicting peace and revival. But there would be no peace (8:11). Hadn’t Micah told them their wound was incurable? (Jer 15:18; 30:12) Why were they slapping around band aids trying to preserve their institutions? 

The Southern Kingdom must have thought they were lucky. Maybe they could dodge Moses’ prediction (Deut 32)? Maybe they had already skirted disaster and would just skip to God blessing them again? They had narrowly avoided Assyria’s army. But they had not escaped the curses the had sworn upon themselves. Another army finally showed up. Assyria had faded, but Babylon was just getting started. They raided the country and exiled most leaders and educated people to Babylon. It is to those people, those surviving leaders, that Jeremiah is writing. 

“This is what God is saying to those of you He carried off into exile . . . purse the peace of Babylon! There is no plan for insurgency. This new normal will not be over anytime soon, as some are saying. Things are not going back to the way they were. So plant yourselves where you are: live your life. You’re going to be here for a long time. But don’t worry, I know the plans I have for you . . . And I’ll bring you back one day.”  

God had specifically told Jeremiah to not pray for these people (7:16; 11:14; 14:11). How ironic it is that these people are now told to pray for Babylon (1). But this was part of God disciplining them. As Moses had seen, their hearts were still not loyal to God. But one day, Jeremiah had Baruch take this down: 

I’m going to marry Israel/Judah again. Not like before when I led them out of Egypt and they were unfaithful to me, even though we had just gotten married. No, I’m going to commit myself to them again. Only this time, I’m going to put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people (31:31-33).

A glimpse of hope for the future.


Footnotes:

  1. Michael L. Brown, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 358-59.

Watch: Bible Project video on Jeremiah

Listen: Jeremiah 29

Exile: Wednesday, April 6 – Zephaniah

Read:

This man is no Amos: the shepherd prophet with no notable lineage or profession. Imagine, instead, a regal figure from royal blood, most likely of African descent, standing before the nation’s leaders and religious advisors (1). 

The anonymous army promised by Amos had come to the Northern Kingdom. Assyria had obliterated Israel. Perhaps the kingdom to the south thought the real problem had been dealt with. True, they weren’t perfect. But they were the part of the country serious about following God. 

Something miraculous had happened after Micah prophesied against the Southern Kingdom. The king (Hezekiah) had listened. “Micah’s powerful voice changed Hezekiah’s heart, reshaped Judah’s policies and so saved the nation from immediate catastrophe (cf. Jer. 26:17–19)” (2). Of course, the next king offended God more than ever. But now, the current king, Josiah, had implemented several aggressive reforms to again steer the nation back to God. 

Again, miraculously, someone had found a scroll of Moses’ words from Deuteronomy in the temple as they were renovating it. The young king asked them to read him the words written on the scroll. And as the blessings and curses (Duet 27-28), and the foreboding song of Moses (Duet 32), rolled off their lips, King Josiah’s heart grew heavier and heavier. Finally, he tore his clothes, barking out orders, “Go, inquire of Yahweh for me and for the people and for all of Judah concerning the words of this scroll that was found. For the wrath of Yahweh that is kindled against us is great because our ancestors did not listen to the words of this scroll to do according to all that is written concerning us!” (2 Kings 22:13). 

Here stands Zephaniah, a devout believer and elite member of society in the middle of a reform movement, most likely bringing some helpful insight for turning the place around. Maybe they nodded in satisfaction as one of their own railed against the cultures and countries surrounding them (2:4-15), as God threatened to turn the unassailable world power, Assyria, into a spooky abandoned house infested with animals (2:15). But their smiles turn upside down when he turns on them. They are ravenous lions and wolves, he says (3:3-4), as he blasts every level of leadership. He warns, God wasn’t going fix things (2:12). God was still going to work every morning, never failing to bring justice (3:5), and yet there was no level to which they would not stoop to do their own work instead of His! And now God’s about to wipe the slate clean with fire (1:2-3; 3:8). This man may have delivered the first “turn or burn” sermon (literally!).

Though other prophets spoke of the “Day of the Lord,” it is front and center for Zephaniah. The Day of the Lord is Yahweh’s Day, when He would unleash the consequences of people’s decisions, and their collective cultural impact. Since Moses, God had promised Israel blessings and curses depending on whether they listened to Him or not. Zephaniah now feels the tremors growing closer as a foreign army marches to invade, bringing chaos with them, bringing the exile Moses promised. They had already watched this promise come to pass in the northern kingdom. Now, it was their turn.

Zephaniah, whose name means “Yahweh has hidden,” echoes the words of the pagan king of Nineveh from the story of Jonah, when he says “Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zeph 2:3). With God’s cleansing inferno of justice also comes His purifying love. Just as always, God will use calamity to remove humanity’s impurities. As three young men–Daniel’s friends–will later discover when that foreign army finally arrives, the safest place to be when the fire comes is at the blazing center, talking with the one who himself is light (Dan 3), “no one to make them afraid” (Zeph 3:13). The southern kingdom would feel the blaze of that cleansing, holy, convicting fire . . . Would they still trust God, even after the painful purification? Or would they allow it to consume them? What about us?


Footnotes

  1. J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, Series Ed. D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology – 14, (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, InterVarsity Press, 2003), 123.
  2. Bruce Waltke, “Micah,” from , Obadiah, Jonah and Micah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 26, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 150.

Watch: Bible Project video on Zephaniah; Bible Project video on The Day of the Lord

Listen: Zephaniah 1-3