A big two-letter word: IF
Jeremiah 26: If you refuse to listen to me and live by my teaching….
On one side of the coin Jeremiah tells what’s coming, and it isn’t good. Soon his nation will fall to Babylon and with that fall terrible things will happen. Later on, Babylon itself will be judged. Even as Jeremiah preaches this message the flow of events has begun, bringing it all to pass. On the other side of the coin is God’s hope that Jeremiah’s message will cause people to consider their ways and repent. The message of the Almighty contains the powerful word “if.” What a huge word it is. It indicates a fork in the road; an opportunity to decide. It’s also a word of mercy, hope, and grace. So here we have it all before us. God intends to bring disaster but IF they listen and IF they repent he will, even at this late stage, relent. Frankly, he doesn’t expect it to happen. The Lord says, “You’ve never listened! Why would you start now?” The Lord doesn’t expect things to change, but he offers them a different path. Two thousand years ago the Lord personally came to this world to offer all humans a choice. He didn’t come to condemn, we’re already condemned even as were those people of Jeremiah’s day. Through Jesus we’re offered hope. Once again “if” becomes the operative word. He says: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)
Take Away: The little word “if” becomes a big offer of hope, mercy, and grace when the Lord speaks it.
Trying to lock up the wind
Ecclesiastes 8: No one can control the wind or lock it in a box…as long as men and women have the power to hurt each other, this is the way it is.
I’m not sure that the writer intends for me to associate these two statements but they tie together for me. I’ve seen people make bad choices. If I ask them about it, they’ll most often have someone or something to blame for what they’re doing. I’m not saying that everyone else is always innocent in some of these things but the bottom line is that people pretty much do what they want to do. Sadly, even when I see what’s going on I can’t force people to do the right thing. As Ecclesiastes says, “no one can control the wind.” Well, neither can one control the hearts of others. The very fact that I love people, encourage them, and help them through their darkest hour means that I also give them the power to hurt me. At some level I have to just let things go and protect my own heart. As the writer says, “This is the way it is.” When I’ve done all I’ve been allowed to do, and when my heart has been broken, I come to the place where I have to let go and entrust those I “can’t control” to the hands of a gracious God. He’s able to work through issues if he’s given an opportunity, even after I’ve been removed from the situation.
Take Away: Sometimes we just have to walk away knowing that the more we try to help the worse we’re making things. Happily, the Lord never has to just walk away.
Free will with strings attached
Proverbs 19: People ruin their lives by their own stupidity, so why does God always get blamed?
The Proverbs have a strong undercurrent of self-determination that runs counter to the mysticism I hear so often. For instance, a person uses tobacco for years. When they’re diagnosed with cancer, they say, “God gave me cancer as punishment for smoking.” The wise man of the proverbs would say, “No, you gave it to yourself, don’t blame God for it!” Now, I do believe God is active in this world and touching our lives in many ways. Still, I’ve been given free will and with that freedom comes responsibility. I can’t have things both ways, declaring that I’ve been granted the freedom to choose and, at the same time, think that everything that happens to me is brought about by divine intervention. The Lord will walk with me and will guide me in my choices if I’ll allow it. However, he’ll also let me make dumb choices if I insist. When I, in my own free will, decide to get on some toll road I shouldn’t be surprised when I come to a toll booth!
Take Away: The Lord is willing to help us with our choices, but, ultimately, we’ve been granted the freedom to choose.
It’s your call
Judges 2: That’s why God let those nations remain.
The Book of Judges is the story of God’s patiently developing a people he can call his very own. There’s a cycle of failure, repentance, grace, and deliverance that’s repeated again and again. When they fail to completely drive out the people of the land the Lord leaves that pagan culture there and uses it to develop the Israelites into the people he wants them to be. The remaining Canaanites become the “alternative choice” for the Israelites. I see a parallel in my own culture. I believe the Lord intends that the Church be the dominant force in society. Sadly, in many cases it fails. The result is that there’s a thriving alternative secular culture in the land. This culture has no place for God (or at least wants God to mind his own business). Every day God’s people are exposed to the values of this self-oriented, market-driven, materialistic society. As it was for the Israelites of the Book of Judges the people of God must decide “who I will serve.”
Take Away: No doubt the popular culture is, well, popular – sometimes God’s people have to journey the less traveled road.
Point of decision
Deuteronomy 11: I’ve brought you today to the crossroads of Blessing and Curse.
Free will is both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. It’s a gift in that it sets us apart from all other creatures. We’re made in God’s image. It’s a burden because it’s possible for us to freely make foolish decisions, which God will allow us to make, and for which he will hold us accountable. The people Moses speaks to stand at a point of decision. On one hand, they have the route to blessing. On the other is the cursed route. Clearly, the Lord wants them to pick “Blessing Street.” However, he won’t force them to do so. Since I have the benefit of being able to turn the pages of my Bible and gaze into their future, I find that, while there are many “blessing stories” yet to be told, there are plenty of the others too; even to the point of near extinction of their race. In his Sovereignty the Lord grants Israel the right to choose. By his grace they’ve arrived at this place of choice and by his grace they’re allowed to decide the next step. However, their choice at this point isn’t without consequences. Some of those consequences are good, others bad. The ability to choose is a gift of God but it’s also a burden because choices have consequences.
Take Away: The exercise of free will can bring wonderful blessings into our lives. It can also be our downfall.
Road to ruin
Genesis 19: God was so merciful to them!
I really dislike the story of the destruction of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s almost nothing uplifting in it. Years earlier, Lot and his family had taken up residence in the vicinity of Sodom. Now, in spite of its reputation for sexual wickedness, we find him at home there. When the messengers of God warn him to take his family and flee he doesn’t want to go. His wife can’t bear leaving and his daughters have a warped view of morality. Even when he’s convinced to run he can’t bring himself to leave the area and, even though he later changes his mind about it, strikes a bargain to move to a smaller town in the area. I squirm a bit as I read all this and then, even though I’ve read the story many times, I want to turn my head as the fire and brimstone falls in judgment. I come away from this passage thinking I’d better be careful about the choices I make…that they may have more impact on me and those I love than I realize. I’m also reminded that I must never underestimate the seriousness of sin. As does Abraham, once in a while I need to glance out over the plain and see the smoke rising from the destruction and remember that Judgment is real and sure and serious. And, as I see Lot and his family being ushered away prior to that Judgment, I had better be reminded of God’s mercy. That was their only hope and it’s also my only hope.
Take away: I’d better be careful about the choices I make.