God’s man isn’t much like God
Jonah 4: Jonah was furious.
The heart of the book of Jonah isn’t the first part with the oft-repeated big fish story. Instead, it’s the last part. It’s here that we find the motor that drives the story. When the reluctant prophet gives in and goes to Nineveh he does so in fear, not that he’ll fail, but that he’ll succeed. Jonah is nationalistic to the core and he’d like nothing better than for the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, to be destroyed. Still, with all his failings, Jonah knows a thing or two about God. The priests and other religious leaders of his country may promote a doctrine of Israel having a corner on the Almighty, but Jonah understands that God has compassion on all people. Israel may be the chosen people but that means God wants to use them to bless all the nations on earth, not that God loves them and hates all others. When Jonah runs from God, refusing to go to Nineveh he does so because he understands these things. He understands them, but he doesn’t agree with them. Now that his mission to Nineveh is a success Jonah’s angry with the Lord, not only for sparing his enemies when they repent, but for using him to bring it to pass. In spite of his unique understanding of God, Jonah isn’t much like God at all.
Take Away: God is love.
Good news for people who don’t find harp playing especially attractive
Obadiah 1: A rule that honors God’s kingdom.
The final words of Obadiah’s prophecy describe a coming golden age in which God’s people will be restored to their homeland. Beyond that, they’ll live righteously, in sync with the Lord’s purposes for them. Because of that they’ll be put in charge, ruling even over their old enemies of Edom. Their rule will not be that of a conquering nation, grinding their enemies into the ground, but a fair and just one, representative of their God who loves all human beings. I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul reflects this concept in his second letter to Timothy. Paul writes: “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” At the very beginning of the Bible I see Adam and Eve who are placed in dominion over the earth. In this passage from Obadiah, I find a promised brighter day in which God’s people rule justly, throwing off the old animosities. Then, I see Paul looking forward to the return of Christ and his righteous people ruling with him. I don’t claim to understand all that might include, but it sounds like God has more in store for his people than merely sitting on a cloud playing a harp.
Take Away: As a people of the Lord we’re to reflect his love for all human beings.
Another living parable
Obadiah 1: You stood there and watched.
It’s hard to call Obadiah a “book” of the Bible. The whole thing is two and a half pages long and so small that translators decided not to divide it into chapters. It’s also unique because the prophecy of Obadiah is addressed to a nation other than Israel or Judah. Obadiah is focused on their neighbor Edom. Way back in the book of Genesis we find the story of the unlike twins, Jacob and Esau. Here we find the expectant mother Rebekah experiencing such movement within her that she’s concerned about it. The Lord tells her that she’s pregnant with twins and that the two boys will be the founders of two nations that will never get along. In fact, they’re getting a head start on the conflict by fighting while still in the womb. No wonder Rebekah is both uncomfortable and concerned! The first born is Esau who becomes the founder of Edom. The younger is Jacob, who’s later called Israel. In Obadiah we find ourselves hundreds of years down the road. Israel is going through some devastating defeats while Edom watches from a safe distance. Not only does Edom watch it all but they rejoice in what they see. Their ancient enemy is being beaten up to the point of destruction. God’s man, Obadiah, turns his face toward this “brother” of Israel and utters a prophecy of condemnation. Edom and Israel may have a long history of disagreement but they’re still brothers who claim a common ancestry to Isaac. Obadiah tells them that by just watching and even cheering what’s happening to Israel that they’ve made themselves party to all the evil that’s being done. So to my surprise, even though I’m reading a tiny, little-read book of the Old Testament, I realize I’m reading a real life version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Obadiah’s scathing words, I see what God thinks of people who fail to show compassion on others, even their enemies, in their time of need.
Take Away: So, who is my neighbor?
Selling grandma for a buck
Amos 2: They’d sell their own grandmother.
The prophet begins his message by characterizing God as a prosecuting attorney who’s making his case against the accused. The Lord has been keeping records of the sins he’s seen and now he makes his case against them. Amos starts this prosecution by focusing on the nations surrounding Israel. I can imagine the cheers of agreement from his fellow countrymen as he does this. They have bones to pick with Tyre and Edom and Moab. Nothing pleases them more than hearing God pronounce his judgment on them. Then God’s man turns his attention to Israel. The formula “for three great sins, make that four” that was used in judging other countries is applied to Israel too. The meaning is that the more God looks into their affairs the more he finds wrong and worthy of condemnation. Concerning Israel, in particular, all the failures God mentions are clustered around how they treat poor people. The Lord charges that they see people as only “things – ways of making money,” he then adds, “They’d sell their own grandmother!” The Lord has a history of caring about people who are down and out. He also has a history of opposing those who take advantage of such people. As I read these words I find myself examining my own attitude toward the poor. I want to be on God’s side of this issue.
Take Away: The Lord cares for those who are society’s outcasts – his people are to join him in that concern.
Just one of the shepherds
Amos 1: The Message of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa.
Aside from the few words of introduction found in the opening of his writings, we know nothing of Amos. He isn’t a member of the royal family or priesthood and he doesn’t have any famous relatives. He describes himself as “one of the shepherds” of an unimportant town. Amos numbers himself with the poor and unprivileged people of his society. That standing flavors his entire ministry. When he speaks of poor people being mistreated he does so as one who has experienced that mistreatment. In about 40 years Israel will fall, rejected by God and defeated by her enemies. One of the reasons for that fall is that God’s people have separated themselves from the compassion of God to their poor. The book of Amos is an important book for people of all periods of history because, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have among you.” How does God expect a prosperous nation to treat its poor? How does he expect we who live in comfortable, secure homes to treat those in our community who live in want? Finally, what if we fail at this point? Amos gives us a first-hand response to these questions.
Take Away: As a people of the Lord we can never separate ourselves from his compassion on the poor.
The Lord, reaching out
Jeremiah 31: Everything in me cries out for him. Softly and tenderly I wait for him.
In this passage the tribe of Ephraim represents the people of Israel. Jeremiah imagines Israel humbly coming to the Lord, asking if it’s too late and wondering if the Lord can ever embrace her again. God’s answer is immediate and compassionate. The Lord says that that’s all he’s wanted to hear all along and that the strong medicine was administered not because he had stopped loving Israel but preciously because of his love. This great God of love has longed for his people to return to him and with great tenderness he waits to receive them back to himself. I can’t help but respond to this passage in a personal way. I’m moved by God’s compassion on, not only ancient Israel, but on the lost people of my day. When I’m in rebellion against God he longs for my return; reaching out to me, crying out in love. Today, I stand in awe of the mercy, grace, and compassion of God for a lost human race.
Take Away: God is love.
Beyond having church
Isaiah 58: This is the kind of fast days I’m after….
The people Isaiah ministers to know how to do religious things. They stay busy with worship activities and doing what we’d call Bible studies. They practice prayer and fasting, spiritual disciplines that need some serious attention in the lives of most of us Christians today. However, they’re dissatisfied with the results of this frenzy of religious activity and complain to God about it. The Lord’s reply, through Isaiah, focuses on their failure to translate their “church” activities into their everyday lives. If they want to please God they’re going to have to tackle injustice, exploitation, and oppression in their world. They’re going to have to not just fast a meal or a day, but to share their food with those who are hungry, invite the homeless into their homes, and show loving concern for the needy of the world. Aren’t you glad that, these days, we just have to believe in Jesus and not worry about all that extra stuff? You know that isn’t true. Could it be that the problem of the powerless Church is that we think all our religious activities is what God wants when he’s clearly stated his demands in passages like this one? I do want God to answer my prayers and I want his blessing on my life. Maybe it isn’t that I don’t fast enough meals as much as it is that I don’t care for the hurting, down-and-out people he sends into my life.
Take Away: There’s more to religion than just going to church on Sunday.
Isaiah 49: Even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you — never.
The prophet describes the glorious reign of the Messiah, looking not only to his distant future, but to ours as well. The work of the Messiah isn’t only to provide salvation to the people of Israel, but to bring, in his words, “global salvation.” Of course, that’s good news for me, since I’m on the “global” side of the equation. Isaiah envisions some of his fellow Israelites looking at their current situation and thinking that God has forgotten them. Their lives are anything but glorious and, while they want to hear this good news, they can’t get their hearts around it. To them, Isaiah says, “Can a mother forget her own child? God has been Father and Mother to us and he hasn’t forgotten us.” Israel has messed up in every way and her sin has had real, and painful, consequences. In the darkness of those consequences she feels forsaken and forgotten. But it isn’t so. God reaches out to them with the compassion of a mother nursing her infant. Israel isn’t the only one who’s messed up. The world is filled with people who’ve had far more failures than successes in their moral lives. Does this describe you? If so, the message of this passage isn’t just for ancient Israelites; it’s God’s word to you, today.
Take Away: The Lord reaches out to us with the compassion of a mother reaching out for her infant child.
Telling it like it was
Psalm 78: He…commanded our parents to teach it to their children.
Asaph’s longest psalm tells the story of Israel’s failure and God’s faithfulness. In the opening part of the psalm he states that its purpose is to tell their story so that the next generation will learn to trust God. Honestly, from Israel’s point of view this isn’t a very flattering story. Each verse of the song describes a failure of Israel and how God responds with compassion to rescue them from some mess they’ve gotten themselves into. I don’t know about you, but when I’m telling the “next generation” about God I usually skip the “I failed” part and jump straight to the “God helped” part. Maybe that’s a mistake. It might be that I’m unintentionally saving face instead of teaching others to trust God more. Of course, there are things in all our pasts that must be told carefully and at the right time, but there’s likely a time for the telling. If I’m not careful I give the impression that I wised up and decided to give my heart to the Lord. In doing that, I make God into a concerned bystander in my story, wringing his hands, hoping I’ll turn it all around and then pleased that I’ve done so. It really isn’t that way. It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption. Yes, I have to cooperate with him, but he’s the one who ought to get all the credit. I need to be sure that “my story” is truly “God’s story.” A part of that is my, at the appropriate time and place, honestly admitting my failure. That gives God the glory and also gives hope to that one in the “next generation” who already has some spiritual failures of his or her own.
Take Away: It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption.
You can draw more flies with sugar….
2 Chronicles 10: Be considerate of their needs…they’ll end up doing anything for you.
Solomon’s accomplishments are impressive…and expensive! All of that building takes a lot out of the nation. When Solomon’s laid to rest and his son Rehoboam ascends to the throne his subjects come to him with a reasonable request: “give us a break!” For a generation they’ve faithfully served his father, focusing their efforts on accomplishing his grand projects. Now, they want to put their efforts into building their own lives, capitalizing on the prosperity Solomon brought to them. Rehoboam goes to his father’s advisors and asks for their opinion and they agree with the people. These folks were committed to Solomon, but Rehoboam is starting new. If he’ll back off and show compassion his father’s people will become his people. These advisors wisely add that, in the long run, he’ll get more accomplished by getting the people on his side than he’d ever get done by using his sovereign authority and just ordering them to work. I know that Rehoboam foolishly listens to the advisors of his own generation and manages to split the country but, for the moment, I’m taken with the wisdom of the first advice he receives. I think there are times when a leader sees a bigger picture than others do. At times like that, he or she may have to prod people to move in the right direction. However, most of the time a leader who conducts himself or herself as a servant who cares for people and has compassion on them is going to accomplish more. A leader who appreciates what people do, who has their best interests at heart, and who is willing to listen to what they say is going to almost always get more done.
Take Away: People follow leaders who they believe have their best interests at heart.