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Category: Prophets

We cry “Hosanna!” now more than ever

Today is Palm Sunday.

This is the day thay marks Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The story is found in Matthew 21:7-9:

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Matthew was intentional to mention the donkey that Jesus rode in on. He was connecting this event to a prophecy written by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years before:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Palm Sunday is typified by churches across America lining children along the sanctuary’s center aisle waving palm leaves cut out of green construction paper and shouting “Hosanna!” to a bearded man walking between them dressed in a white robe and a purple sash.

There always has to be a purple sash.

I have fond memories of those Palm Sunday performances.  My acting debut was as one of those kids lining the aisle waving my paper leaf so hard it tore before Jesus could reach the pulpit. I played one of the branch wavers for many years.

Unfortunately, I never got the lead. I never got to play Jesus.

Surely, it had nothing to do with my acting skills. Perhaps it was because I didn’t sport a beard. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact I was five years old.

However, true to the performing arts, I as a budding child actor was having trouble trying to figure out my character’s motivation. I only had one line that needed to be shouted over and over again: Hosanna.

What does this even mean? It seems like a pretty important word.

Hosanna only appears twice in the New Testament: once in Matthew and once in Mark. It is a Greek translation from the Hebrew word Hoshi’a na. The root word hoshi’a serves as a basis for such names as Elisha (the name given to my great nephew), Hosea, Joshua, and others.

Hoshi’a simply means “salvation.” Those names listed above mean “God is my salvation.”

Salvation. Salvation in the highest.

The children lining the church aisle, the people lining the streets in Jerusalem that day were all crying out for salvation.

“Save us.”

But it goes even deeper. At the end of the word hoshi’a, is attached the tiny word na.

That seems relatively insignificant.

I assure you, it is not.

Together, those words mean “Save us please.”

But It is not just a monotone liturgical chant, but a cry of absolute desperation: “Please! save us!”

The Jews at the time were violently oppressed by Rome. The religious leaders did little more than try to make a tense peace with them. The Jews had little hope. God was the only one who could save them from the world’s superpower.

This is exactly what he came to do.

It’s odd to think that, in a manner of days, those very same people would be yelling, “Crucify!”

How quickly things change.

We want to put to death the very one who could save us.

This last week has been a very hard week as a nation. Following a horrible massacre at Covenant Christian School in Nashville, Tennessee, in which woman who identified as trans murdered six individuals, three of whom were only nine years old, the nation reeled.

We saw pure brokenness, evil unleashed on the innocent. We cried at the mayhem and loss.

Hosanna, Lord! Please save us!

Then, within hours, we rejected the Savior and shouted: “We reject prayers. We reject his power and salvation. If God was good he would have stopped this. We need action! Only government legislative action can stop the murders.”

As if any government policy can actually change the human heart.

Honestly, I have troubling trusting a government that bends reality back so far that it makes the shooter the victim. Instead of helping the nation grieve and supporting the Nashville community, the president declares Friday National Trans Awareness Day.

The government don’t have our best interests at heart, only their agenda. And they are not beyond pushing its own citizens out of the way. Government will not and cannot fix human nature. Government is essentially broken human nature on steroids. Given the choice between prayer and policy, I’ll take prayer any time.

So what is Jesus saving us from? When Zechariah prophesied Israel’s king coming to them on a donkey, he also mentioned all that this king will do:

“He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.” (Zechariah 9:9b-12)

The solution to evil is Jesus, the only source of peace. It is not “Jesus and…” and we’re arrogant to assume it is. Human solutions to sin sound more like what Satan told Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Jesus is the only constant. And only Jesus can save us, from oppression and even  from ourselves.

Palm Sunday is the start of the Passion week which culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the very foundation of Christianity.

This Holy Week, like those people lining the streets of Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna!” to the God-man on the donkey, we must shout “Hosanna!” once again. We must pay heed to God’s word to Solomon:

“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

The tragic event of this last week and the entrance into Holy Week has to result in a call to prayer.

We have to believe only our God can save us. There is no Plan B.

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Hearing the prophets: What could they possibly say to us today?

9d43523b09f7b5f24a22d3e6f4dbcc39Every so often in my personal devotions, I decide to read the Bible cover to cover. Starting with Genesis 1, I work my way through, reading three chapters a day and five on Sunday. That’s no magical, spiritual formula, just a tip I got from one of my college professors for how to get through the Bible in about a year. When I do a read-through like this, I do so without any commentary or teacher holding my hand. I simply want to allow God’s word to speak into my story right now.

Often a verse leaps out at me, and I post it on my Facebook page. I include no added thoughts, no set-up, no discussion questions. I just let God’s word stand on its own, as it is more than capable of doing. Frequently, individuals respond with a simple “Amen,” which speaks volumes. Sometimes, people share more.

Currently I am working through the Hebrew prophets, which use rich poetry and imagery to illustrate God’s loving relationship with his people—and also, in some cases, with the surrounding nations. These writings are bold and fascinating – a joy to read. But reading these ancient Middle Eastern prophets from my little corner of the twenty-first century America makes me wonder: What could they possibly say to me today?

The context of the prophets is one of judgment. Israel and Judah—respectively, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Hebrew nation—have not simply ignored the teachings of Yahweh but have openly rebelled against them (think in terms of God’s chosen people giving God the finger). During this time, in a remarkable act of grace, God raises up a group of prophets to reveal truth. All of these prophets expose sin, warn of judgment, offer a way out through repentance, and preach the abundance of God’s lovingkindness and forgiveness. But, typical of human nature, his people don’t listen—in some cases even beating up these messengers of God’s mercy (ironic!). Finally, just as they predicted, God’s righteous judgment comes:

-First, Assyria invades and destroys the northern kingdom, dispersing its people (later referred to as the ten “lost tribes” of Israel).

-Eventually Babylon invades the southern kingdom and its capital city of Jerusalem, carrying the remaining tribes (of Judah) into exile.

So in ancient times, God’s purpose in sending the prophets was to warn his people to repent of sin, in order to avoid judgment and be restored to relationship with him.

Nowadays, however, Christians seem to read something different into these Old Testament books of prophecy. First, some use them to try to “decode” the future and God’s plan for the “end times.” These folks interpret all Old Testament books of prophecy as predictive of things yet to come: they believe the prophets spell out God’s plan for the future, and it is our job—our duty—to unlock the secrets. While I agree that the prophets do contain many prophecies about the future, particularly messianic ones, I think these books are meant for more than mere eschatological (end-times) proof-texting.

Second, some use the prophets to claim that God’s wrath is coming against unbelievers, or even against believers with whom they disagree. This approach may have a bit more validity since the prophets are obviously writing about God’s judgments, specifically against Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations. But using the prophets to deflect blame onto others seems a little self-serving.

So how do we read the Hebrew prophets? Do we just ignore them—like, say, Leviticus? My answer is that I don’t think we should ignore any part of the Bible (including Leviticus!). Besides, many sections in these prophetic writings start with phrases like, “The word of the Lord says…”, indicating the importance of what comes next. For these reasons, along with others, we should read the prophets and meditate upon them.

But what do they mean to us today?

I don’t pretend to be Dr. Hebrew Scholar; I know these writings have deep layers of meaning, and I always enjoy reading the many scholars who know more about them than I. At the same time, I don’t think a degree is necessarily required to mediate on any part of God’s word.

So as I read the prophets, I try to focus on two simple questions: What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? And what is the purpose of their message today?

What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? Like all of the books in the Bible, the writings of the prophets were originally written for a certain group of people in a certain historical context. In other words, each prophet’s message had a clear meaning for his contemporaries – not just a cryptic message to be decoded centuries later, woven in and out of today’s headlines. It is always important to reflect on who the recipients were. What were they doing to warrant such strong words of warning? One need not be a Bible scholar or commentator to find out. The time during which the prophets spoke occurred primarily during the books of 1 and 2 Kings. In fact, the Jews have always considered 1 and 2 Kings as one book, and they list it not as a history book but with the prophets. So reading 1 and 2 Kings provides a good overview of people’s behavior during the time of the prophets, and of the context in which God was speaking.

By showing how messed up the people were and how they continually chose sin over God, the prophets clearly explain the justification of God’s judgment. However, in doing so, they also reveal the extent of God’s love.

-First, according to the prophets, God is offering his people a lifeline: Judgment will fall—but not without a clear and concise warning, and not without the chance to escape it through repentance.

-Second, amidst all of this judgment is a promise of redemption and restoration: the people’s defeat and exile would be severe, but also temporary, after which they would return home and rebuild the temple—God’s symbolic dwelling-place, and thus a symbol that he would come and live among them again.

What is the purpose of the prophets’ message today? After a quick run-through of the headlines from any typical news source, I always feel like society has “jumped the shark,” so to speak. I can hardly wrap my mind around what’s happening around me. It seems everyone’s gone crazy, and every day brings news that is crazier than the day before. Just as in the days of the prophets, people seem determined to come up with new ways to rebel against God, each one with a darker, more perverse twist than the last. The world is so screwed up, I tell myself, and so richly deserving of God’s wrath that no one should be surprised when it comes.

So it’s tempting to pull out a verse about God’s judgment and launch it against other people or groups.

For example, consider Ezekiel 24:14 (NIV):

“‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

Hooya! I could post that on Facebook, with my own little social commentary: “Ha ha! See, America? See, people I disagree with? See, sinners who aren’t me? That’s what happens when you kick God out of the culture! You really have it coming!”

But to do so is to remove myself from the equation. If I delight in the thought that God will judge others’ sins, I’d better be ready for him to judge mine too. So, instead of reading the prophets as a brilliant spotlight of judgment to flash into the eyes of others, I should reflect on my own life first.

The truth is, reading the prophets for ammo to attack the sins of others is the wrong motivation. The Bible has this incredible rhetorical ability to circle back to my own sin whenever I try to point it out in others.

So, just as the prophets had a two-fold message for their contemporaries, they have a two-fold message for us today. It’s a message of repentance and redemption.

-First, repentance: How is God convicting me personally through the prophets? How am I worshipping idols of pride and greed, like Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 23:30)? Where am I ignoring the poor, the sick and the helpless, as they did (Amos 5:11-12)?

-Second, redemption: In my brokenness and rebellion, how is God’s judgment redeeming me? How is he leading me through repentance and back toward restoration?

So this is the message of the prophets: They were relevant in their time, and they are still relevant in ours. They reveal the depths of human sin and rebellion, but also of God’s never-ending love and pursuit of sinners. They communicate the overall message of God’s relationship with his people, which is that we continually fail, but God redeems. He is always present to convict, to judge, and to restore those who will listen to him.

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