Free will and accountability
Isaiah 8: No, we’re going to study the Scriptures.
While telling of future events wasn’t the major job of most prophets, it’s the one we immediately think of when we think of the work of the prophets. Actually, these men of God mostly “forth-told” rather than “fore-told.” Even when they speak of the future it’s often spoken of in a conditional way: “If you do this, then that will happen; if you do that, then this will happen.” In fact, a major theme of these men of God is to remind the people of their free will. That doesn’t mean God is helpless, but it does mean, at least in this context, that the Lord allows people the freedom to decide, and then makes them accountable for their decisions. As Isaiah goes about proclaiming what’s coming if these people stay on the road they’re on, people say to him, “When I want to know what’s coming, I’ll go to a fortune teller or hold a séance.” Isaiah says, “If you want to know what’s coming, take a look in the Scriptures.” He isn’t saying that the Scriptures contain some kind of secret road map to the future. Instead, he’s saying that there’s plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that God won’t forever put up with their foolishness. Repeatedly, in the Scriptures, the Lord has warned them and it doesn’t take some supernatural experience to see what’s coming. Talk about a timeless truth, this is one! Today, I don’t need a fortune teller. There’s plenty of information already available to me in the Bible about how God responds to sin and rebellion. If I insist on ignoring God I don’t need a crystal ball to know what’s coming.
Take Away: The Bible is quite clear as to the intentions of the Lord.
Leadership and accountability
2Kings 14: God wasn’t yet ready to blot out the name of Israel from history, so he used Jeroboam son of Jehoash to save them.
Jeroboam II, king of Israel is another in the line of leaders of Israel who doesn’t make the grade. He could do better. In fact, he should. Instead he continues the march away from God, even as so many of his predecessors have done before him. Leaders can’t force morality but they can model it. Beyond that, leaders, even especially powerful ones, must give account of themselves to Almighty God. Still, Jeroboam has some successes: military victories that win back territory that’s been lost to their enemies. We’re told here that God is helping Jeroboam do that, not because he favors this pitiful king but for his own purposes. Although the day of destruction and defeat is coming, for now the Lord isn’t ready for Israel to be defeated. Because of that he helps Jeroboam lead Israel in some specific ways. This is good for Israel. Still though, Jeroboam will face a God who’s displeased with him. I see here that even though God acts according to his own agenda it doesn’t get people off the hook when they fail of their own free will.
Take Away: Ultimately, we will each give account of ourselves to the Lord.
Taking care of business
Deuteronomy 29: God will take care of the hidden things but the revealed things are our business.
Moses has been outlining the terms of the “blessing and the curse” for his congregation. He warns them that what happens along that line is up to them. God has already laid out his intentions for them, and it’s perfectly possible for them, by God’s grace, to live up to them all. Still, there’s much they don’t know. Once they cross the Jordan River they’ll encounter new obstacles and challenges. It’s here that we find this shining gem of both a promise and a charge. If they do their part, God can be counted on to do his. Without doing too much damage to this statement, I can pull it out of context and be warmed by its promise. If I’m not careful, I’ll spend way too much energy worrying about the “hidden things.” God says, “You pay attention to the things you know are your responsibility and I’ll take care of the rest.” That, my friend, is a very good deal!
Take Away: My accountability ends with the extent of my knowledge, but I’d better remember that that accountability is real and I am responsible before God.
Deuteronomy 13: Do the right thing in the eyes of God, your God.
“Situational ethics: wrong is not always wrong and right is not always right.” “There are no absolutes.” “What’s wrong for you may not be wrong for me.” These are the creeds of our day. Sin is out and self-realization is in. Excuse the poor English, but it ain’t so. We have a Creator who is an ethical Being. He says that no matter who you are, or where (or when) you live, that there are universal standards of right and wrong. These aren’t arbitrary rules made up by some kill joy preacher and they aren’t the result of mere superstition. That isn’t to say that every rule and regulation of the Church is pure and above question. In fact, in this passage I note that Moses doesn’t say, “There are community standards of decency that must be observed.” Rather, he says, “Do the right thing in the eyes of God.” First, that means there are some actions that are always right and some that are always wrong; no matter who, when, or where. Second, it means that God is the Judge of whether or not those standards have been met in our lives. Now, some might take comfort in reminding me that I’m not their judge. That’s fine with me. I have plenty of my own concerns to address. However, it needs to be clearly stated that there is a Judge and each of us is accountable to him.
Take Away: I can’t please everybody, but, for the sake of my own soul, I must please God.
Don’t mess with God
Deuteronomy 4: God, your God, is not to be trifled with — he’s a consuming fire, a jealous God.
On one hand, I have the matchless grace of God: his patience, forgiveness, and good will toward me. On the other hand, there’s his justice: a hatred of sin and a love for righteousness. I’d better not ever forget God’s justice. Ultimately, God will have his way. To presume on God’s grace is to ignore his justice. Moses tells the people to be careful that they don’t mess with God. They have made certain commitments that include promising to keep the ground rules God has laid out. What’s true for them is true for me. It isn’t that God requires perfect behavior from me — that’s beyond my reach. However, he does require me to keep faith with him. He requires me to live my life as a man of God and to be open to his correction and leadership in my life. This relationship is not only my valued treasure, but is also my greatest responsibility. It must be held in utmost reverence in my life.
Take Away: Being a follower of God is a wonderful blessing – along with that blessing is an awesome responsibility.
How God’s people live
Leviticus 5: …the moment he does realize his guilt he is held responsible.
So how do a people of God live? How do they conduct business, relate to one another, and worship? That’s the challenge that’s met in Leviticus. There’s a lot of “sin” language here. “If a man sins by…then he must….” Living justly, making things right, even being holy are the goals of Leviticus. Today I read, “If anyone sins by breaking any of the commandments of God which must not be broken, but without being aware of it at the time, the moment he does realize his guilt he is held responsible.” So much of this book of rules and regulations seems out of touch. They’re part of the Old Covenant and therefore subject to modification by the superior New Covenant. Still, there are principles that can be applied anywhere and anytime. This is one of them. Responsibility is linked to knowledge. It’s when I realize that I’ve come up short that I’m responsible for making things right. There’s grace in this – that is, God isn’t waiting for me to mess up so he can come down on me like a load of bricks (if so, I sure wouldn’t be writing these words right now). There’s also responsibility here – once I do know, I can’t retreat to, “I didn’t know.” If possible, I must make it right. I must acknowledge my failure and repent of it. To do otherwise is to presume on God’s grace and to bring condemnation upon myself.
Take Away: To know is to be responsible.
A lesson on leadership
Exodus 32: Moses said to Aaron, “What on Earth did these people ever do to you that you involved them in this huge sin?” Aaron said, “Master, don’t be angry. You know this people and how set on evil they are.”
Aaron is left in charge while Moses is up on the mountain meeting with God. Just as the Lord said, there’s an idol-centered orgy going on. Moses demands an explanation from his brother who responds that these people are just bad people and there’s nothing he can do. Aaron is supposed to be the leader here, but he’s a spectacular failure. Leaders must have vision and be skilled in organizing and persuading people to work toward the fulfillment of that vision. Aaron’s view of leadership is to help the people do what they want to do already. His excuse to Moses is, “that’s just how these people are.” His error is huge and because of it he fails his people, Moses, and God. Genuine leaders don’t wring their hands as people do the wrong thing. Neither is it testing the political winds and “leading” the people to do what they already want to do, right or wrong. In fact, leadership can be lonely and occasionally it is practically suicidal. Aaron should have stood for God’s way even if it meant that the people just ran over him to do what they wanted in the first place. Moses understands leadership. He takes a position away from the goings on and calls for those who are on God’s side to join him. He’s going to make things right no matter what the cost. That’s leadership.
Take Away: Leadership is more than helping people do what they would do anyway.
On being my brother’s keeper
Genesis 4: How should I know? Am I his babysitter?
An interesting thing about the Lord’s exchange with Cain is that they both know the answer to the question that’s asked. Obviously, the Lord knows what has happened. Of course, Cain knows where Abel is, after all, he’s his murderer. Cain’s response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has become one of many famous one liners from the Bible. This murderer not only pretends he doesn’t know about Abel, but that, even if he does know, it isn’t his responsibility to take care of him. On a very specific level, I agree with Cain’s statement. As creatures with free will we’re not responsible for what others do. As a pastor of several years of experience, I’ve heard plenty of excuses from people who place the blame for their failure on someone, anyone, else. Because of that, I agree with Cain on at least one level. However, Cain’s suggestion that he operates solo and isn’t accountable for his brother’s whereabouts is a pitiful failure on his part. Even (and that’s a mighty big “even” in this situation) – even had he not killed his brother, and had poor Abel just wandered off in search of one of his sheep and gotten lost, in God’s eyes, Cain has a certain amount of responsibility for him. Our lives are connected at many points and the Lord expects our behavior to reflect this. Many years down the road, Jesus will help me understand this better in the parable of the Good Samaritan and even better when he takes personal responsibility for my lost condition.
Take away: I’m not responsible for what others do of their own free will, but I am accountable before God to show compassion to them.
Not acting like a bully
Zechariah 1: …Godless nations that act as if they own the whole world.
About half of this book of Zechariah contains descriptions of visions the prophet is given. In the first vision the Lord tells Zechariah that he’s angry with “godless nations that act as if they own the whole world.” Not only is the Lord angry, he’s about to do something about it. The Lord had given the mega-powers of the region authority over Israel but they went too far, crushing that tiny nation without any show of mercy. The Lord says he was angry with Israel, but now he’s very angry with these nations that acted without mercy. The vision is intended to condemn those world powers while comforting powerless Israel. I’m reminded as I read these words that I live in a nation that is a world power. We have the economic and military might to dominate others. The vision of the prophet speaks to me, not as one of the oppressed but instead, as one of the powerful. God has a history of looking out for the needs of the powerless and of holding the powerful accountable. We aren’t to go around the world flexing our muscles like a bully who always has to get his own way. The truth is that we don’t own the whole world and we had better remember who does!
Take Away: It’s God’s world and we’re accountable to him for how we live in his world.
Jeremiah 23: You’ve scattered my sheep…you haven’t kept your eye on them.
This passage is clergy oriented so pastor types like me need to sit up and take notice. The Lord’s displeased with the spiritual leaders of Jeremiah’s day. He pictures them as shepherds who are given the responsibility of caring for the Lord’s flock. These leaders are entrusted with the spiritual welfare of God’s flock but they’re betraying that confidence. Instead of loving the flock, leading and caring for it, they’re taking advantage of things for personal gain. In some cases they’re actually harming those they’re supposed to protect. Otherwise, they’re neglecting them or even driving them away. God’s disappointed in these leaders and is angry with them. Sometimes I think that church people are too pastor oriented, giving way too much authority to the pastor, including letting the pastor do their thinking for them (or, standing on the sidelines and cheering as the pastor works him/herself to death – but that’s a subject for another day!). Today, I’m reminded that there’s a strong biblical foundation that supports some having spiritual leadership. The Lord has wired us in such a way that we look to some as “shepherds” acting as God’s representatives. These leaders are to be servants who put the interests of those entrusted to their care before their own needs. In this passage Jeremiah reminds me that as a pastor I’ve been honored with the position of leadership, but with that position has come accountability, not just to the congregation I serve, but to the Lord, himself.
Take Away: Church leaders are to be good shepherds of the flock of the Lord.