Tuesday, 26 September 2023

When they arrived at the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings toward the rebuilding of the house of God on its site. – Ezra 2:68

Today's Scripture Reading (September 26, 2023): Ezra 1 and 2

It was called the Achaemenid Empire, an empire founded by Cyrus the Great. One of the things that Cyrus and his Empire are remembered for is that they returned the exiles taken from their homes by the Babylonians to the various places where they belonged. This "return" included the Jews who were authorized to go home to Jerusalem and the surrounding area, but they were not the only exiles who were returned. All exilesHowever, not everyone received the decree of Cyrus happily. After all, it had been five decades since these people had lived anywhere other than Babylon or Persia. These exiles were a different generation from the ones who had been unwillingly taken from their homes, a generation that did not remember Jerusalem and didn't remember the temple. They had built homes in Babylon and had children and grandchildren. They were content right where they were. As a result, they had no desire to return to Canaan; this place was home.

As I considered this journey, I began to remember some of my own. I was born in Newmarket, Ontario, a town just outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada. At the age of eight, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta, the home of the Calgary Stampede. When I was sixteen, we moved to Sundre, just southwest of Red Deer, Alberta. From Sundre, I moved back to Calgary, then to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I met my future wife, Nelda, and then back to Calgary. I spent twelve years in Claresholm, Alberta, an hour south of Calgary, where both my children were born. And then, twenty-seven years ago, we moved to Edmonton, Alberta, the home of West Edmonton Mall and the Edmonton Oilers.

I have great memories of all of those places. A church in Claresholm was recently going through a pastoral transition, and I met an old friend who suggested maybe it was time for me to return to Claresholm to finish my career. It was a bit of a tempting offer to return to a place I knew with some old friends. But the problem is that Claresholm is not my home. Newmarket is not my home. Once, these places were home, and I was happy, but not now. Calgary is not my home. Edmonton is my home. I have lived longer in Edmonton than I have in any other place. I have friends here who are special to me, but even more importantly, this is where my children and grandchildren live. This is home. It wasn't always, but it is now.

Cyrus gives the decree, and the people receive it, but many don't want to return to where they once called home. Babylon, or some other town within the emerging Achaemenid Empire, had become their home. Some were now living in Persian-dominated territory. They already lived in the places where their children were born and their grandchildren lived. These places were home, not Jerusalem.

And yet God had set this in motion before the first exile left Judah. It is a struggle that we all sometimes have to suffer through. But our service to God is a responsibility. Christians are not the ones who chase after God's hands, always seeking gifts from him like a child greeting a traveling parent with words like "What have you brought for me this time?" We seek after his face; his presence is enough for us, and we live lives of responsibility to him. Some received the declaration from Cyrus and made the tough decision to become part of the remnant that would return and rebuild what was once Israel. They gave of themselves and what they had to support the project and the return home. They would give their sweat and treasure to rebuild the land of their ancestors because they believed that this was what God wanted from them.

As I struggled with this passage, the thought came to me that I am not a Christian because I am loved. Even though I know that if no one else loves me, God loves me, that does not define who I am. I am a Christian because I love; God's love travels through me to others.

A friend is always asking why Christians are so entitled and why we think we are perfect. My answer is always the same: that shouldn't be who we are. We are a people of responsibility. We love even when no one else seems to love. We serve even when no one else serves. We reflect the person of Jesus to those around us. This is who we are and what makes us Christian.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Ezra 3

Monday, 25 September 2023

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12:2

Today's Scripture Reading (September 25, 2023): Daniel 12

Oscar Wilde commented, "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." It is a thought-provoking concept. We are the designers and builders of our own hell, at least the one through which we suffer in this life. And I do agree with Wilde. I think even we, as Christians, construct a hell here on earth so we have a place to go and suffer. And we find ourselves in these mini hells too often. But the real tragedy is that we have no reason to go there. Maybe we just have an inborn need to have a place to go to suffer.

The Hebrew Bible doesn't have an organized understanding of heaven and hell. But this is one of the most straightforward statements of the concept of eternal life found in the books of our Old Testament. Those who sleep in the dust will rise, and some will be raised to eternal life while others will be condemned to suffer in shame and everlasting contempt.

The first readers of this vision were suffering in exile. There might have even been an understanding, like we often have today, that they had suffered enough in their own self-created hells that there was no need for an everlasting one. But Daniel needs the people to understand that how they handle themselves in exile is essential to the life to come. We all suffer, sometimes because of the actions of others and other times in our self-imposed purgatories. But either way, what we go through here in this life is somewhat unconnected to what's to come. And Daniel wants us to understand that we can follow God regardless of what the circumstances might be around us.

I have no idea what "Hell" might be like. But my concept of hell is that it is a place utterly devoid of God and his love. And I don't think that we have any idea of how terrifying such a place might be. But for those of us who insist on going through life without him, we will be condemned by our own actions and choices to exist in eternity without him. And without God, there is no redemption or possible escape from our little hells, let alone one that Daniel says is our place of shame and everlasting contempt.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Ezra 1 and 2

Sunday, 24 September 2023

His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. – Daniel 11:31

Today's Scripture Reading (September 24, 2023): Daniel 11

Antiochus IV Epiphanes was born in 215 B.C.E. He was the son of the Seleucid King, Antiochus III the Great. As was common practice then and the result of various treaties, the young prince Antiochus IV was surrendered to Rome as a political hostage to ensure peace between the Romans and the Greek Seleucid Empire. Antiochus III died on July 3, 187 B.C.E., and was succeeded by Seleucus IV Philopator, the brother of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At that time, Antiochus Epiphanes was returned by Rome to Athens in exchange for Demetrius I Soter, the son and heir of Seleucis IV Philopator. Political intrigue continued in the Seleucid empire, and the King was assassinated. Because the King's rightful heir was a captive in Rome, Antiochus IV Epiphanes claimed the throne of the Seleucid Empire. Later, Antiochus IV had the young Demetrius assassinated, solidifying his claim to be the Seleucid Empire's King.

I know it is a long story, but Antiochus and how he came to the throne is important. It is at this moment that some believe the prophecies of Daniel could be explained. Antiochus Epiphanes has become one of the prime villains of the Jews. His ascension to the Seleucid Throne changed everything. Antiochus would stop the practice of the Seleucids from honoring the Jewish people and their religion. Until his reign, the Greeks were benevolent overseers of the nation, allowing the Jews to practice their religion without interference. But Antiochus Epiphanes ended that practice and set up the conditions which would facilitate the following Jewish rebellion. He started by forbidding many of the daily practices the Jews followed, an action that was foretold by Daniel, saying that he "will abolish the daily sacrifice." But then he began to sacrifice pigs at various places in the Temple, including the altar, and the stakes were raised by sprinkling the pig blood throughout the Temple. The significance of Antiochus IV's action was that pigs were unclean animals according to Jewish Law; therefore, their blood made the Temple unclean. But he didn't stop there. He also forced the High Priest and various other high-ranking Jews to eat the pig flesh, something that went against the Jewish food laws. The sacrifice of the pigs and the sprinkling of the blood throughout the Temple made Jewish worship there impossible. And ever since Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Great Swine he sacrificed at the Altar of the Temple, has been called the "abomination that causes desolation." It was the sacrifice that made the Temple area unclean. 

But is it? Is the "abomination that causes desolation" Antiochus Epiphanes's Great Swine? Was the Great Swine the reason why Daniel was written? It might surprise some to know that Jesus says no. Antiochus IV Epiphanes may fit the prophecy well, but Jesus makes this remark almost two centuries after the time of the Seleucid King.

"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Matthew 24:15-20).

The Abomination that causes Desolation is still in our future and will be much worse than the Great Swine sacrificed in the Temple. But the Abomination will arrive; the question is simply when it will finally appear.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Daniel 12

Saturday, 23 September 2023

I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. – Daniel 10:7

Today's Scripture Reading (September 23, 2023): Daniel 10

One of my favorite shows as a kid was “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.” The Canadian Children’s Show starred Billy Van in many roles but also starred Vincent Price, among several others. One of the Characters that appeared on the show was that of “The Librarian,” played by Billy Van. The Librarian would tell children’s stories like “Humpty Dumpty” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as if they were horror stories designed to scare young children (“Are you scared yet?”) and is mystified when his audience doesn’t seem to be disturbed by the stories he tells. Ah, but in the end, the act of reading is what is important, regardless of whether the story being read scares you.

When I was young, nothing seemed better than huddling around a fire outside at night and telling ghost stories. I still remember some of the stories that were told and have been passed around by generations around similar fires. Oh, maybe some updates have been included that were missing when the story was told a hundred years ago, but the main plot points remained the same, along with the intention of the story to scare people when there is really nothing of which to be frightened. It is another version of the Librarian all over again.

Daniel was in a state of mourning when he received this vision. The vision pertained to a great war. Daniel looked out over the landscape and saw what looked like a man standing on the banks of the Tigris River. But Daniel stresses that this was a vision that had been given to him. Those who were with him did not see the vision. The vision did not appear on the landscape in any communal way. It was a dream that had been given exclusively to him.

However, those who were with him were scared, even though they saw nothing, and went and hid. One biblical authority commented, "Of course they couldn’t see the vision if they were hiding from it.” But that misses the point. They weren’t children hiding from a scene they didn’t want to see. There was nothing to see, yet they were still terrified. They ran and hid but had no idea what it was from which they were hiding. For Daniel, this was proof of the validity of the vision; not that his friends saw what he saw, but they felt a terror in their chests that caused these adults to run and hide like children.

It was the scare of the Librarian or the campfire without the story because no story was needed, only the presence of something they couldn’t see or understand. The presence of this something was enough to send them running to places where they hoped they would not be found, but it also testified to the authenticity of Daniel’s vision.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Daniel 11

Friday, 22 September 2023

Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. – Daniel 9:7

Today's Scripture Reading (September 22, 2023): Daniel 9

Dolly Parton might have the best response I've heard to a dumb blonde joke. Yes, I have told my share of dumb blond jokes, even though some of the most intelligent people I know happen to be blond. Dolly's response to a dumb blond joke? "I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb - and I'm not blonde either." I like the response.

But Dolly is also speaking a truth that is true for all of us, and that truth is that we are all hiding something. What is that something? Well, that is none of your business. Dolly's response reminded me of a well-meaning lady who brought me a magazine article she wanted me to read to an evening Ash Wednesday Service several years ago. Ash Wednesday is a day that the Christian Church has set aside as a day when we recognize our mortality. On Ash Wednesday, we face death as a universal reality; in light of that mortality, we are encouraged to confess our sins to God. And on this night, I received an article that revealed what this lady believed was my sin. And it was a sin that I share with Dolly. The article was written by a Pastor who had realized that his habit of coloring his hair was a sin, one of which he needed to confess. Yes, there are things that I might try to hide, but coloring my hair is not one of them. In my twenties, I was cured of that sin when I attempted to join the "dumb blond" club with a home coloring kit but turned my hair red instead of the desired blond color. At the time, my contemporaries ruthlessly kidded me, and that was the last time I tried to color my hair.

To be blunt, I think there are many things that, as Christians, we need to confess to whomever it is that we trust and want to be accountable, but I am not sure whether or not we dye our hair really makes the list.

As Daniel continues his prayer, he comes to the place where we all should find ourselves. God, you are holy and righteous; we know we are not. Anything good that we have received we do not deserve. We understand that we have suffered because we have disobeyed you. And for that reason, we are covered with shame.

I am sure that the pastor who had felt convicted over the color of his hair had an important point, but sometimes I think these little things are a smoke screen so that we don't have to confess the sins that we really need to confess. So, my prayer continues to be, "Father, I know I have not loved when I should have loved. I have squandered our time on petty things instead of correcting what is important. Dad, I need your presence wherever we go, yet I leave you behind. In the days of Daniel, we were unfaithful. And we still haven't found our faithfulness. Forgive me, Lord, and help me to be faithful."

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Daniel 10

Thursday, 21 September 2023

As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. "Son of man," he said to me, "understand that the vision concerns the time of the end." – Daniel 8:17

Today's Scripture Reading (September 21, 2023): Daniel 8

I love to talk to people about "End Times Theology," as long as I don't have to drink the Kool-Aid in the process. That might surprise some of my friends. I know that some people genuinely hate the "End Times" conversation. And that is okay, too. But I think the real problem is the talking heads on television who preach their guesses about the future as if they are reporting on events that have occurred that day. The result is a generation of people who genuinely believe that you can draw a straight line between the Bible's prophecies and today's events. But prophecy doesn't work that way. And so, all of my friends who have built up this kind of relationship between prophecy and the day's news are doomed to be frustrated.

Daniel sees a man, and that man speaks to the Angel Gabriel and tells the Gabriel to unwrap the mystery of the vision. In response, Gabriel begins with, "The vision concerns the time of the end." And that might not be all that much of a surprise. It is so clear to some that they have moved the words of the prophecy from being written in the later years of the sixth century B.C.E. to being written in the middle years of the second century B.C.E. The reason? The description is so close to the events that actually took place in the second century under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes.

But that also introduces a problem. If this is about the end times, how could it be about Antiochus Epiphanes? Some have even argued that, according to these visions, Antiochus Epiphanes is the Antichrist. Maybe the existence of several characters in history who seem like they could have been the Antichrist is the basis for the Italian Theologian Joachim of Fiore (1130-1202 C.E.) to speculate that there are a series of Antichrists that lead up to the Great Antichrist of which the Bible speaks. For Joachim, these Antichrists would have included Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero, Muhammad, and even Joachim's contemporary, the Islamic general Saladin.

What we need to understand from this passage is that this prophecy concerns the end of all things. It is what God wanted Daniel, and by extension, us, to understand. And prophecy is shrouded with mystery, but at the same time, when the prophecy takes place, well then, we will understand.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Daniel 9

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. – Daniel 7:1

Today's Scripture Reading (September 20, 2023): Daniel 7

Roy Jenkins penned his acclaimed biography of Winston Churchill in 2001. Jenkins closes his biography by comparing him favorably with W. E. Gladstone, a British politician who served as Prime Minister for twelve years in four non-consecutive terms. And then Jenkins says this:

I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.

There is no doubt that Winston Churchill was a complex person, and sometimes he was hard to understand. But he also seemed to be a person who was created to meet his time in history, and that time was the Second World War. Everything he had gone through in life seemed to prepare him for his moment: his war. During World War II, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom and the Western World needed his leadership. But it is also true that we struggled with what to do with him outside of the war years. And when we study Winston Churchill, we not only need to know the various events of his life that shaped him, but we also need to understand his philosophies and what he believed to be true.

That is true of all of us. The events of our lives are essential, but so are our beliefs. To understand the whole person, we need to know the events of their lives and the things they believed or learned while on their journey.

The biblical Book of Daniel could be divided into two books. The first six chapters tell of the events of Daniel's life. Here, we learn about what Daniel did, starting with the choices he made when he was first brought to Babylon as a teenager and continuing through his adventure in the lion's den when he was older. It is the story of what Daniel did. But the last six chapters tell us of four visions that Daniel received. The first one he received in the first year of Belshazzar. As previously discussed, Belshazzar is a bit of a problem because he never was king unless he co-reigned with his father, Nabonidus. But even with a lack of specificity about when the first year of Belshazzar might have been, we can date this vision to between chapters four and five of Daniel.

Daniel says that in this first vision, he wrote the substance of the vision. Daniel could have given us more detail, but the Holy Spirit had forbidden that report. So, in his first vision, he provides us with an overview of the vision's impact on Daniel. We may wish we had a more detailed report, but this is what God wanted us to have.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Daniel 8