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What an offer
Exodus 19: Everything God says, we will do.
The miracle at the Red Sea has provided a deliverance that will be remembered forever. However, what’s about to happen is intended to form these newly freed slaves into a people of God. They’re camped at the foot of Sinai and the Lord is stating his plan for them. If they’ll listen obediently to his words they’ll be a unique people on the face of the earth: a kingdom of priests who enjoy the blessings of the Almighty. The elders of Israel immediately respond that “everything God says, we will do.” I know that I’m standing at the beginning of what will be a long, failure-filled journey. They won’t even break camp at Sinai before there’s a massive spiritual failure. Still, if I stop looking ahead and simply consider this exchange, I’m impressed by what I see. First, The Lord’s making the wonderful, amazing promise of connecting their lives to his. They don’t deserve it but in an amazing act of grace the offer is made. Second, they say “yes.” Again, I know that many failures are coming, but in this time and place, when God offers them this unlikely partnership, they respond with just the right answer. In spite of the fact that I know things aren’t going to always work out as they should I also remember here that had they said, “No” the story would end here and now. In saying “yes” to God they open the door to an unprecedented relationship with him. To some extent, all human beings receive this same offer from the Lord. We can respond that we’re not worthy or that it’s too hard or that we’re likely to fail. Know what? He already knows all that. Still, the offer is there. When the Lord calls my name, I can respond no better than these ancient Israelites did: “Everything God says, we will do.”
Take Away: I can’t do better than saying the “big yes” to the Lord.
Come out, come out, wherever you are
Genesis 3: God called to the Man: “Where are you?”
I’m created for fellowship with God. Somehow, in ways beyond my comprehension, God desires a relationship with me. God, you see, is all about relationships. In the Creation he seeks relationships so much that he creates beings with free will. Only such creatures can genuinely connect with him. In the Garden Adam and Eve enjoy the fellowship with God, functioning as they’re created to function. When they sin, they break that fellowship and distance themselves from God. What will he do? Will he press the “reset” button on Creation and give it another try? No, instead, we see the Almighty’s commitment to us. According to the Apostle Paul, that commitment was made before the first act of Creation. Adam and Eve don’t have to sin. They’re created to live forever and to enjoy constant fellowship with their Maker. However, before the very first “Let there be light” words are spoken the Lord has considered the possibly that if he makes beings with free will that that they might just reject him. What will he do if that happens? Out in pre-creation eternity the Lord decided that, no matter what happens, he’ll remain committed to his Creation. Before the first moment of time, he has a plan to “seek and to save that which was lost.” When we hear him calling “Where are you?” we’re witnessing the very first step in that plan to restore the broken relationship that now exists between God and humanity. It’s the first step, and in the distant future, we see a cross.
Take away: God wants more than obedience from me…more, he wants to be in a relationship with me.
God’s people doing what God’s people do
Revelation 13: Meanwhile, God’s holy people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.
As I struggle my way through symbolism that has challenged Bible scholars across the centuries it’s nice to find some firm footing, if for just a moment. I can’t identify the Beast or the Beast’s puppet or solve the 666 riddle. Since John writes to specific congregations in a specific place and time I don’t buy into any interpretation that can only be grasped 2000 years in the future, so the 666 reference, in particular has to make sense historically, but again, I’m not the go to guy for this kind of stuff. What I do like is the momentary firm footing of “Meanwhile, God’s holy people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.” Their situation doesn’t sound very good. There’s some kind of leopard-bear-lion Beast dominating the whole world. This Beast hates the Church and intends to destroy it. Life is hard under this persecution (is it Rome or some future event or both?) and it appears that the Church will be crushed. God’s people, though, stand firm. In spite of prison and the sword their passion for Christ empowers them. In the face of this crisis of (literally) Biblical proportions they “stand their ground.” That’s exactly what God’s people do. It’s not that we travel easy roads, smelling roses all the way. Sometimes we take some hits that are anything but easy. We don’t like it and we do all we can to avoid it, but in the end, whatever comes we passionately and faithfully stand for God. Even as I have a hard time getting the rest of this passage into focus, my view of this truth is 20/20.
Take Away: The Lord’s people have staying power even in impossible situations.
What does it mean to have a genuine relationship with Christ?
Philippians 3: I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally.
A friend of mine commented that he was preparing to do a certain thing. His intention wasn’t to do something bad but it seemed to me that there was a superior course of action. In an off handed remark I asked, “Have you asked the Lord about it?” His response was, “Oh, the Lord understands.” Later, I found myself thinking about the exchange in view of my own life. How often do I do whatever I want to do with the attitude: “It’s okay, the Lord understands.” Tell you what; I don’t treat my wife that way. When I’m thinking about taking some out of the ordinary action I talk it over with her. Most of the time I could probably go ahead and she would “understand” but the thing is that we have a relationship with one another that includes our respecting each other and valuing one another’s opinions on things. Surely, I should have a similar respectful, intimate relationship with the Lord. There’s a place for prayers along the lines of, “Lord, I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think?” The Apostle says he gave up a lot of stuff that he might have a personal relationship with Jesus. If I want to have a vital, real, living relationship with Jesus one of the things I must give up is having a self-willed, presumptive attitude toward him.
Take Away: Do we treat the Lord as a real person or as some abstract idea?
Paying attention to the big deal of life
Ephesians 5: Observe how Christ loved us.
So what does a thoughtful, genuine Christian life look like? What examples are good ones for me to study and then apply to my life? Paul says the place to start is by looking upward. As a child of God I study his behavior, doing all I can to make true the proverb, “like Father like son.” If I want to see those attributes “with skin on them” I look to Jesus. Whatever I see in Jesus, I attempt to copy into my life. And what do I see? I see extravagant love. Out of love my Lord gives of himself without reservation. He doesn’t use God for his own purposes. Rather, he reflects the loving compassion of the Father in all he does. The Apostle says that I get chances to live like that. Opportunities to love selflessly come my way and I need to make the most of those opportunities. Some folks miss that boat and rather than filling their lives with Christ-like love they let other things dominate their lives. I understand the problem. Everyday a thousand voices cry out to me. Like carnival front men they invite me to try their game. If I’m not careful, I wander off into their diversion. Today, I’m reminded that love is the thing. When all is said and done in my life, the big deal will be love. Have I loved God with all my heart and soul and mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself? This passage reminds me to “make the most out of every chance I get.”
Take Away: Love is the thing.
Living unreservedly for God
2Corinthians 6: The smallness you feel comes from within you.
These are emotional words from the Apostle. He loves this church. They’re his dear friends. In fact, he considers them to be his children in Christ. At the same time he’s frustrated with the smallness of their lives. The infighting, bickering, competing attitude of theirs not only breaks his heart but it also limits their view of God and what he does in people’s lives. Without reservation Paul has given himself to them and to the Church in general. He’s suffered physically for it but at the same time he’s been blessed beyond description. If the Corinthians feel their religion puts them in a straightjacket it’s their own fault. There’s so much more to being a Christian than trying to be first in line at church potlucks or getting to be the one who sings the special song. Paul calls them to a better way: a passionate life lived joyfully for the Lord. These words speak to church people throughout the ages. Am I going to make church about meetings and rules and authority or am I going to make it about living passionately for the Lord? The first binds and limits me. The second sets me free to live “openly and expansively.”
Take Away: The Christian life isn’t binding – rather, it’s wonderfully freeing.
Church camp commitment
Matthew 26: I’m ready. Do it your way.
When I was growing up a high point of my summers was attending church camp. I loved playing ball and taking hikes and all the other things associated with camp. The ministry at children’s camp focused on the plan of salvation. Many children first gave their hearts to Jesus at camp. At teen camp, though, the focus was more on full surrender, sanctification, accepting a call to the ministry. Teens, more than any other group, grasp the idea of radical commitment. Still, there was a sort of insider’s secret shared by “old timers” like me who had been going to camp through our childhood years. It worked something like this: the Lord will ask you if you’re willing to be a missionary or a pastor but it’s just a test. Once you say “yes” and mean it with all your heart, he won’t actually call you. With that tidbit of information buried in one’s mind, even a sincere seeker had a little bit easier time making a full surrender. When I work with teens I still see in them a willingness to go all out in their commitment to the Lord. Adults carry baggage (jobs, bills to pay, family responsibilities) that has to be sorted through so it’s a more thoughtful process for them. However, adults also have a more realistic attitude concerning what it means to sign on the dotted line. If I commit myself to making monthly mortgage payments I’m really going to have to pay them; there’s nothing theoretical about it! When I see Jesus praying in the Garden I hear him making a full commitment to do his Father’s will. No doubt, Jesus is emotional at this point but there’s more. He knows that this “yes” is the real deal. With his eyes wide open Jesus commits to go to the cross. His full commitment to do the Father’s will both challenges and instructs me as I live the Christian life.
Take Away: The call to full surrender is a real call and needs to be taken seriously.
One hundred percent
Matthew 7: The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention.
A hitter in baseball might love the cheers of the fans and all the perks of being a star but when he’s in the batter’s box he’d better pay attention to business. Hitting a 95 mph fastball requires one’s full attention. Jesus calls people to radical commitment. Fishermen abandon the tools of their trade to follow him. Tax collectors pay back, with interest, padded tax collections. Rich people are told to give it all away and follow. How can we read this kind of stuff in the Bible and come away thinking that all God wants from us is a lukewarm, half-hearted relationship? If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus I have to focus and commit. Living the Sermon on the Mount takes a lot more than an hour of church attendance each week. How in the world could anyone ever think otherwise? The payoff is wonderful, but the payout is huge: all of me for all of God. I’m the winner in that deal, but it’s still a deal I have to be willing to make.
Take Away: When it comes to living the Christian life it’s all or nothing.
Unreservedly in love with God
Hosea 6: I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.
The prophet has fallen head over heals in love with his deeply flawed wife. She’s left him but he isn’t over her and wants her to come back. However, he knows that just getting her back won’t be enough. For her to return yet remain unchanged will only start this whole destructive sequence over again. Something in her has to change if there’s any hope for their future together. That, Hosea says, is how it is between God and his people. The Lord loves them and wants them to turn from their idol worshiping ways and return to him. However, what he wants from them isn’t just a polished approach to doing worship. Instead, he wants them to love him with the abandon and passion that he has for them. He says to them, “I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.” As old as this concept is, and as reasonable as it is, people to this very day fail to grasp this. God doesn’t want me to go to church; to “practice religion,” or to attend Bible studies. He wants me to passionately love him. He wants me to throw myself into that relationship without reservation. When that happens, no one has to tell me I ought to worship and pray and study my Bible. The only reason for me to go to church and study my Bible is that in doing these things I better experience the Object of my strongest attraction: God, Himself. That’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with me and with you.
Take Away: The Lord wants us to passionately love him.
Winning in little ways first
Daniel 1: Daniel determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food.
The hardest time for me to stay on a diet is when I’m on vacation. There are so many nice places to eat, we’re out of our routine, and there’s the strange notion that “what happens on vacation stays on vacation.” One “off diet” meal leads to another and I end up bringing home, not just pleasant memories and photos of all the places we saw, but a few extra pounds too. Of course, Daniel and his companions aren’t on vacation. They’ve been taken against their will to a distant land with little hope of returning home. Even if they could go back, things are very different than when they left. Still, they’re in very pleasant surroundings. They’re part of the household of the most powerful king on earth and they’re being groomed to serve in the royal court. Their rations aren’t bread and water but, instead, are the richest of foods and the finest of wines. The thing is that their religion has strict dietary rules. That pork chop might look quite tasty, but it’s forbidden to them by their God. If we struggle with our diets just because we’re a few hundred miles from home, think of their struggle. The Temple, Jerusalem, and their family ties are all in their past. Do the rules even apply anymore? If they do just go along with what is being asked of them where will it take them next? Does saying “yes” here mean they’ll be expected to say “yes” somewhere else, like, for instance, the worship of an idol? Daniel decides to draw the line right where he is. He’s a follower of God and God has given him some dietary rules. He’ll be respectful, but he’ll hold steady at this minor point. If he never starts down the path away from God he’ll never end up where that path leads. I don’t know if this passage will help me stay on my diet or not, but it certainly can help me remember that spiritual failure doesn’t start with my rejecting God in some big way. Rather, it starts with little things. If I win there, I’m much more likely to conquer the “biggie” when it shows up.
Take Away: If we never start down the path away from God we’ll never end up where that path leads.