January 4, 2018- The Nazirite Vow and Dedication to God- Numbers 6:1-8, Galatians 5:16-25

nazirite

 

The Lord said to Moses,  “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.

 “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.

 “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head.  Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord. Numbers 6:1-8 (NIV)

There are three important people in the Bible who we know observed the Nazirite vow. All three of these people were set aside (consecrated, if you will) before their births.  All three of these men were born to women who had experienced barrenness and the heartbreak and shame of infertility. All three of these men had high profile and game-changing missions for God in their lifetimes.

Samson was the first of these notable men to appear in Scripture (Judges 13:4-5). He became one of the Judges of Israel.  We know Samson primarily from the story of Samson and Delilah, but he was central in defeating the Israelites’ enemy, the Philistines.

Samuel was dedicated to the service of the temple when he was only four years old, and was also set aside as a Nazirite before he was born. (1 Samuel 1:11)  Samuel was the priest who anointed the first and second kings of Israel (Saul and David.)

John the Baptist was also a Nazirite from before his birth. (Luke 1:15) John was the voice in the wilderness paving the way for Jesus. John was also the one who would also baptize Jesus.

While the spiritual discipline of the Nazirite vow could prove to be a process that would draw one closer to God, the important aspect of the vow was obedience.

It is good at times to forgo certain things for a time to dedicate more time and effort to prayer and meditation, much as people in liturgical traditions- including Lutherans- do when we observe the season of Lent. The Nazirite vow was in most cases supposed to be a temporary observance.  These three men were notable exceptions in that they were set up by God for this observance from before their births, and for them the vow was intended to be permanent.

The bad thing about obedience is that human beings are not able to be 100% obedient, nor are we capable of perfectly observing the law.  Jesus came to be the fulfillment of the law for us, so that we are free to live by His grace.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Galatians 5:16-25 (NIV)

The difference between the Old Testament Nazirite vow and the freedom we have in Christ is that instead of rules that say no (such as no alcohol, no shaving, no grape products, no dancing, no short skirts, no, no, no…) we have rules that say YES. In Christ, our rules say YES to joy, to peace, to kindness, to patience, to goodness, and self-control.

Because Jesus came to live with us, we have the freedom to say YES to God-life, abundant and good life. Jesus has set us aside for those good things, both here in the world of not-yet, and in the world to come.

December 1, 2017- Faith Fulfilled, John the Baptist and Joy in the Morning- Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 30:5

zechariah

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  

 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:1-25 (NRSV)

Infertility is not just a modern issue. In Biblical times children (specifically sons) were viewed as gifts from God.  If a woman was not blessed with children those around her wondered what was wrong with her.  She was viewed as “defective,” and her husband was considered to be “cursed.” Zechariah and Elizabeth both wondered what they had done that was so wrong that God withheld children from them.  They had come to that place in life where they had probably accepted that they would never be parents.

Yet they still prayed, even when what they were seeing didn’t coincide with what they believed and hoped for.

Faith is not the absence of doubt, nor is it denying reality. Faith is trust in God that He has made a way, even if that way doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. God has the infinite ability to exceed our expectations and to answer our prayers in ways that we can’t envision.

For Zechariah (who had his doubt issues!) and Elizabeth the waiting and disappointment ended when God gave them the joy of a son in their advanced age, a son who God had very special plans for, who He chose to reserve for a couple who would cherish him and raise him in a home that honors God.

It seems a bit confusing that John the Baptist was a very austere man- set aside from the time of his conception to follow the Nazirite vow, (Numbers 6:1-21) a man who lived frugally, by himself, yet Jesus, his cousin who followed, enjoyed eating and drinking and celebrating.

John was a man who paved the way- a man who pled with us to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary, to open our hearts and minds to receive God With Us. It is said he was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament disciples.  He walked that long, lonely path of waiting and anticipating the “not yet.”

Many of us who walk similar paths of waiting and praying- those of us who are anticipating a breakthrough in our lives, whether it be an improvement in health, healing of relationships, financial worries, often have a hard time holding on to faith. We endure loss, suffering and pain of myriad kinds in this lifetime.  Whether we are aware of it or not, God does hear our prayers.  He does walk with us.  He does weep and mourn with us.  And He holds the promise of joy in the morning.

Our lives carry stories of tragedy redeemed. We live stories like the story of Ruth, who had lost everything and whose life looked hopeless, until she discovered Boaz, who married her and redeemed her. (Ruth 4)

Zechariah and Elizabeth had their joy in the morning. Infertility wasn’t the end of their story. Many of us are still in our lost and mourning and suffering part of the journey, wandering in the wilderness.  In this world we are waiting, anticipating, and almost consigning ourselves to the fact that the status quo will prevail.  God says differently. In the season of Advent we learn there is a Savior coming to us.  We can endure the waiting, the doubt, the suffering, because God With Us has promised healing, redemption and hope.  There will be joy in the morning.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NRSV)