Numbers 14: If God is pleased with us, he will lead us into the land…just don’t rebel against God!…Don’t be afraid of them.”
Joshua and Caleb – I like these guys! While everyone else is talking grasshopper talk they’re talking faith talk! They saw all the same things their fellow explorers saw – both the good and the bad, yet while the others are convinced of sure failure, these two gents are trying to rally the troops into action. It isn’t that they’ve decided that their army is superior to those of their foes. Instead, they believe God has made certain promises to them, has brought them to this place, and now commands them to action. You see, Joshua and Caleb aren’t especially brave. In fact, they’re fearful. They’re afraid, not of giants, but of rebelling against God. Let’s see: giants over here, God over there. If I’m going displease one or the other, which should it be? It’s easy: I’d rather have God on my side against the giants than have giants on my side against God!
Take Away: If I’m going to be fearful, let me be fearful of failing God.
Big faith, little faith
Luke 17: There is no “more” or “less” in faith.
They’ve seen Jesus do amazing things. On some days he’s healed so many people that they couldn’t even keep track of them all. He’s fed thousands and walked on water. He then explains it all as the result of faith. They’re convinced so they ask Jesus to give them more faith. His response is that with faith there’s no such thing as more or less. You either have it or you don’t. A “little bit” of faith is as powerful as a “lot” of faith. At least that’s what I hear Jesus saying in this passage. At other times, though, Jesus talks about people having “great” faith and he sometimes chides the disciples for having “little” faith. Here’s what I think Jesus is saying: when I have faith I believe God can do anything. When I have great faith I apply that belief in some extraordinary way. It’s not my faith that’s large or small. Rather, it’s my application of what I already believe that can be “great” or “small.” Like the disciples, I don’t really need to believe in God more. I already believe that he is Almighty and acting in the world. However, also like the disciples, I do need to trust him with more of my life, even the areas that are so big and menacing that I tend to be overwhelmed by them.
Take Away: Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.
On the brink and not realizing it
Malachi 3: It doesn’t pay to serve God. What do we ever get out of it?
The message of Malachi is for people who are living in the broad middle, somewhere between the best and the worst days of life. They’re comfortable and secure, just going about the business of living. However, there’s hidden danger in that. When I’m living in the middle I’m tempted to take things for granted. Blessings that would have thrilled those who went before me are lost to me. God feels distant and that makes it easier for me to take spiritual shortcuts which make him feel even more distant. If I’m not careful, one day I look around and God is nowhere to be found. I think to myself, “Do I really need the hassle of religion? I don’t think it’s worth the effort I put into it. People who live as non-religious individualists seem to get along okay. Maybe that’s for me.” That’s where Malachi’s congregation is. Without a sense of desperation for God they’ve drifted away from him. Now, they’re on the verge of stepping off the cliff into the canyon of unbelief. The Lord responds that he’s well aware of what’s going on and that the day’s coming when they’ll be abruptly moved from the broad middle to the hard side of life. With all else ripped from their grasp, their faith will be all there is left to hold on to. There’s unseen danger for those of us living in the broad middle of life.
Take Away: We have to pay attention to spiritual things or they slip from our grasp.
The biggest fish story ever
Jonah 1: One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah.
As I finish my quick read of little-known Obadiah, I turn the page to find myself on very familiar ground. After all, everybody has heard of Jonah and the “whale.” This is surely one of the top five stories of the Old Testament and people who’ve never read the Bible or attended church know about this “fish story.” A few years ago I was teaching a church membership class and this story came up. The teens in the class wanted to know if Christians have to believe as literally true stories like Noah and the Ark and Jonah and the “whale.” Had the question been asked by some fine fundamentalists I’ve known I would have thought I was being set up for the old trap that sounds something like this: “If you don’t believe in a literal six day creation how can you believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus?” That question, by the way, ignores the clear teachings of the Bible which says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Note that Paul doesn’t add, “Also, you have to believe every statement in the Old Testament is literal.” I’m not required to believe in a literal six day Creation to be saved, but I do have to believe “God raised him from the dead.” Anyway, back to the teens in the membership class. I told them that I believe the Lord created all things and that sending a big flood or making a big fish capable of doing what the book of Jonah says it did would be a simple thing for such a Creator. However, the purpose of stores like this is to tell us something about God and ourselves and that it’s a bigger mistake to read the story, believing every word while missing the lesson than it is to read the story and “get it” while doubting that it’s literal. So, “big fish” or not, I’m supposed to come away from the Book of Jonah knowing more about God and his work in this world than I knew before. That’s still my goal as I start through this story once again.
Take Away: The Bible tells us the story of God and us. It has no interest in answering every scientific question or providing for us fodder for religious debates.
Good old Agur Ben Yakeh
Proverbs 30: There is no God…I can do anything I want!
Some of the final pages of Proverbs are attributed to Agur Ben Yakeh. Aside from the name and that he is from a town or country called Massa we’re pretty much in the dark about him. The name, I’m told, doesn’t appear to be Israelite, but is more Arab sounding. Of course, Solomon rules a vast empire and has friendly relations with many countries. It may be that Agur Ben Yakeh is considered to be a very wise man in his home country and that Solomon agrees, collecting his sayings and including him in his book of Proverbs. However, there’s a bit of a problem with this idea because the nation of Israel alone worships Jehovah God at this time. Clearly, the words of Agur Ben Yakeh are those of a worshiper of God. I know these little things are often of more interest to me than to others, but it is kind of fun to think about this ancient mystery. If the identity of Ben Yakeh is mysterious, his opening proverb is pretty straight forward. He isn’t impressed by people who doubt the existence of God. They may think they can ignore God and his commandments but when they do it isn’t the commandments that get broken! The wise man says “every promise of God proves true.” He warns those who doubt that to reconsider, warning, “he might take you to task and show up your lies.” The day’s coming when everyone will believe in God. After all, we’ll stand before him in Judgment. Those who doubt will be convinced, but for them, it will be too late. The One they have doubted and ignored, will “take them to task.”
Take Away: Sooner or later everyone will believe in God – it’s better to be part of the “sooner” crowd.
What to do after God answers
2Kings 19: And Hezekiah prayed — oh, how he prayed!
Through Isaiah Hezekiah receives an encouraging word from the Lord. God is at work even as Sennacherib issues his threat against Judah. Things are going to be okay because God says they’ll be okay. Soon thereafter Sennacherib has to turn his attention to another battle line, but before doing so, he sends Hezekiah another message which is intended to scare him witless. Whether it succeeds in scaring him or not, I do not know, but it certainly gets his attention. Rather than running and hiding, Hezekiah goes to prayer. Taking the letter from the King of Assyria to the Temple he spreads it out before God and begins pouring his heart out to the Lord. The answer comes sooner and not later. A messenger arrives from Isaiah with word that God has heard his plea, and that God has an answer for Sennacherib; an answer that should scare him witless! Well, this all makes for good biblical drama; fine devotional reading from which I can glean lessons to apply to my life. However, today I’m reminded that on this day so long ago this isn’t just a story from out of a Book as far as Hezekiah is concerned. There’s a real and powerful enemy who intends to kill him and massacre his people. When I see him going to pray I see a man desperate beyond words, and when I hear God answer him through Isaiah, I know that the story isn’t all wrapped up with a neat bow at that point. Now that Hezekiah is hearing from God he must do what may be the hardest part of all: he must believe. It’s one thing to read stuff like this in the Old Testament but another to see it really work in our lives. What do I do when a sad doctor is saying that there’s nothing else to be done, yet some uncertain messenger from God is saying otherwise? Even when I want to believe it isn’t all that easy. Hezekiah cries out to God and God answers. The rest of the story is that, when God answers, Hezekiah believes.
Take Away: Believing takes effort and is an act of the will. We choose to believe.