Wandering in the wilderness
Ephesians 2: You’re no longer wandering exiles.
We know the story of how under the leadership of Moses the children of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. In this passage, Paul describes the Gentiles as also wandering out in the wilderness, separated from God. Now, thanks to Jesus, the way into the Promised Land, the “kingdom of faith,” has been provided. Everyone is invited, both Jews and Gentiles, to make the crossing into that place of peace, at home with God. The reason, of course, that the children of Israel even make that long detour in the first place is that they didn’t trust God. Having rejected him, they turned away to the misery of the desert. For the Gentiles, the situation’s a bit different. Because of Jesus they’re experiencing their first opportunity to come to God and they’re taking full advantage of it, coming in by the thousands and tens of thousands. For those who respond, the wandering days are ended and the days of spiritual abundance have begun. On a personal level I’ve seen more than one respond to what Jesus has done. They’re rewarded with new, everlasting life for their decision. Sad to say, I’ve seen a few who have opted for the wilderness instead. Decisions have been made, priorities have been set, and they’ve followed the road out into the desert. Happily, God is the God of Second Chances. At some point, I hope and pray that they’ll find themselves once again at the point of decision. I sincerely pray that at that time their wandering days will end.
Take Away: Jesus provides us all the way to God.
It’s out of our hands
Acts 21: “It’s in God’s hands now,” we said. “Master, you handle it.”
In spite of repeated warnings from God’s people that this trip to Jerusalem will end with him in chains Paul remains convinced that this is what the Lord wants. He believes that the gospel will be advanced in entirely new ways as a result of his facing whatever it is that he must face there. Frankly, I’m not clear as to whether or not this is the Lord’s express will for Paul. It may be that this is mostly Paul’s idea and that the Lord has warned him but also assured him that he can get good out of what is coming. On the other hand, this may be exactly God’s plan. I just don’t know. Paul’s friends, though, know what they want. They want Paul to stay out of Jerusalem and away from the trouble that awaits him there. The great Apostle, though, is having none of it. He’s bound for Jerusalem and nothing they say is going to change his mind. At this point they do the only reasonable thing: they hand it all off to the Lord. Why try to press the debate with Paul? Why lay awake at night and worry about it? Sooner or later we find ourselves right where they are. We don’t agree with the course of action a respected brother or sister in Christ is taking, but they’re convinced that it’s the right thing to do. At that point, we need to decide to take our hands off and trust the Lord with it. From then on, we can go on loving and supporting our friend without trying to change their mind or even holding an “I told you so” in reserve. Know what? The Master really can handle it.
Take Away: There’s a time for letting others work out their own lives; for letting the Lord and them handle things without our help.
Crossroads in time
Luke 19: All this because you didn’t recognize and welcome God’s personal visit.
It’s the Triumphal Entry. As many cheer, giving Jesus a royal welcome into Jerusalem others harden in their opposition to him. In less than a week Jesus will be dead. Our Lord weeps, not for himself but for Jerusalem. This city is at a crossroads in time. This day could have been much more than the Triumphal Entry. It could have ushered in a new, transformed age of peace on Earth, good will to men. This week could have been a week without a cross. Instead, the results of these days for Jerusalem will be horror, pain, suffering, and destruction. It’s a moment in time. Listen, I don’t claim to grasp the theology of all this but Jesus says it didn’t have to be the way it was. He wept as he considered how different things might have been. As I deal with this passage from a devotional perspective I wonder how often people come to such pivotal moments. I wonder how aware they are that they’re about to walk into a trip wire that will change their lives forever. My consolation is that in the case of the passage before us Jerusalem has had hundreds of years of opportunities to prepare for this moment. It’s not in ignorance that they’re about to step off this cliff. I have to believe that in smaller, personal ways that it’s the same for us as we arrive at our crossroads in time.
Take Away: I may not always recognize the significance of life events so I must rely on the help of the Holy Spirit as I negotiate life.
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.
Spiritually deciding things in practical ways
Nehemiah 11: The people drew lots to get one out of ten to move to Jerusalem.
When the Jews return to the vicinity of Jerusalem to rebuild the city and reestablish worship there they find a city in ruins. They also find small settlements of the descendants of the remnant of Jews who had been left behind a generation earlier. Many, apparently, opt to live in those settlements rather than in the rubble of Jerusalem. That makes good sense; after all, this is an agrarian society in need of open land for their livestock and for growing food. Now, though, the wall project is complete and worship has been reestablished in their holy city. I’m impressed that the leaders have already led the way back by making their homes in Jerusalem. Now, the decision is made to draw lots to decide who else will join them. It’s an interesting mixture of spiritual and practical decision making. As God’s people they want to have a real presence in this City of David. However, they’re practical about it too. Not everyone can immediately relocate to this broken city. Instead, one tenth of them will, and to be fair, it’s decided by drawing lots. To me, this all embodies the balance the Lord wants us to have in our lives. Some would have us live mystical lives in which God opens parking spaces at the mall for us and in which we just flip our Bibles open to a random passage to find “God’s will” for us in big decisions. Others want us to keep our feet planted firmly on planet earth. “If it’s to be it’s up to me” is their motto. They plan their lives and operate the Church as though they’re putting on a performance for God, who sits off at a distance being impressed by it all. In the middle is the balanced life. Living with an eye toward God, seeking his direction and relying on his strength while at the same time using the brains he gave us, applying our experiences, intelligence, and gifts to all we do. As I watch these Jews lining up to draw lots, I’m impressed by their desire to walk with God even if it means the inconvenience of moving to the destroyed city. I’m also impressed by their practical way of working through who will do what.
Take Away: The people of the Lord are to live between the extremes; both trusting God and, at the same time, using all the capability he has given us.
The funeral service was poorly attended
2 Chronicles 21: There were no tears shed when he died – it was good riddance!
Jehoshaphat fathers five sons and he leaves them each an inheritance of wealth. Additionally each one is given a fortified city to rule, basically setting them up for life. His oldest son, Jehoram, gets the throne. This could work out as the most successful handoff of power since Solomon took the throne from his father, David. Instead, there’s murder and abandonment of God. This wicked man murders all his brothers and leads his subjects away from God. The Lord, in turn, is disgusted with him. There are rebellions and then a humiliating and destroying illness. After eight years of failure Jehoram is dead. And no one cares. What a pitiful life story. How sobering it is to think that the untimely death of a person is considered a favor of God to those under his influence and authority. What an important reminder to realize it all started when he turned his back on God. Each life journey arrives at key forks in the road. When I arrive at such a place I make a fresh decision concerning the type of person I will be. That decision will impact not only me, but those who are closest to me, and in some cases, even people I’ll never know. Because of the importance of how I handle those big moments in my life, I want to practice for them by dealing with the little stuff in the right way. Little things lead to big things. Big things lead to eternity.
Take Away: We become the people we are by the decisions we make along the way.
Hopefully, David wasn’t trustworthy
1 Samuel 29: He’s not going into battle with us.
How about that, wisdom from the Philistines! Fleeing from Saul (maybe said better: “getting away from Saul so he won’t have to kill him”) David’s living in Philistine territory, the town of Ziklag. Now the Philistines are uniting to take on Saul and the army of Israel in a major, decisive battle. Amazingly, David’s with the Philistines! King Achish, who mistakenly thinks that David has already been attacking his fellow countrymen in Judah, is confident that David has completely betrayed Israel. However, the other warlords of the Philistines aren’t convinced. They don’t know David, but they know his reputation. They think that in the heat of the battle he’ll turn on them. Achish reluctantly sends David and his men home. Are the other warlords right? I hope so. David has no business living in the land of the Philistines in the first place much less fighting on their side. I think this event is crucial to David’s future as king of Israel. In the story of Abraham and Lot, it’s Lot who mistakenly decides to live in the wicked city of Sodom. That decision changes his life. Had he not made this crucial mistake he might have gone down in history as a great man who walked in faith with his uncle, Abraham. Instead, his story is a mere footnote in the history of God’s people. In this incident, David’s at a similar crossroads. If he joins the Philistines in this battle he’ll never lead Israel. Instead, he’ll only be a minor player in the story of redemption. I hope these warlords are right and that David would have turned on them. If not that, I wish that it had been David, himself who decided to leave the battlefield. Instead, it’s the enemies of God and his people who wisely send him away. Is it possible that we can see the hand of God in this decision of the Philistine warlords?
Take Away: The Lord is sovereign and can use whoever he wants to accomplish his will.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
1 Samuel 27: The best thing I can do is escape to Philistine country.
One thing about the narrative of the Bible is that we’re told the whole story, both good and bad. I think that David’s time in Philistine country is, for him personally, what the book of Judges is for the Israelite people as a whole. David does it and we’re told about it, but none of it’s to his credit. Right off, David says that he thinks sooner or later that Saul’s going to capture him, so he needs to escape the country. Where’s his faith in God who’s proven faithful to him across the years? Has he forgotten the incidents at the cave in En Gedi and at Hakilah Hill? Then we see him go to the enemies of Israel and of God, the Philistines, for refuge. King Achish foolishly thinks to himself that, “An enemy of Saul is a friend of mine.” That’s a major mistake on his part but David’s decision stinks to high heaven. It’s unworthy of one anointed of God. Once he settles in Ziklag, David starts raiding small towns. When Achish asks him where he’s been he lies and says he’s been raiding his own people, Judah. Instead, he raids Philistine towns and hides it by killing everyone living in them. When I read of mass killing during the occupation of Canaan I’m uncomfortable, but at least that they felt they were doing God’s will. In David’s case, he’s just making a living off of raiding villages and killing people. The writer of the Scripture just tells us what happened, but I come away from this passage thinking that this isn’t of David’s proudest moment. Later on, when David wants to build the Temple he’s told he has too much blood on his hands. I think this incident is an example of that. I understand that David was living in different times and that beyond that I’m not David’s judge. I also remember here that even biblical heroes (not to mention me) stand in great need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Take Away: Even heroes of the Bible need God’s mercy.
Joshua 9: The men of Israel looked them over and accepted the evidence. But they didn’t ask God about it.
Word of the impressive victories of the Israelite army has spread far and wide. Waves of fear sweep across Canaan when the powerful armies of the kings west of the Jordan fall. Now, with Jericho and Ai both destroyed the region is in the grip of dismay. Some are gearing up for war but one group desperately tries a different approach. The people of Gibeon send emissaries to the Israelites. They’re made up to look as though they’ve been on a long journey but actually they’re local. They tell Joshua’s people that they’ve heard of the might of God and their exploits and that, from a distance, they want to make a peace treaty with them. Apparently, the Israelites are somewhat flattered that their fame has spread far and wide, so, without giving it much thought, they seal the deal with Gibeon. To the surprise of the Israelites, they find that they’ve made a deal with one of the groups they’re supposed to purge from Canaan! What a blunder on the side of the Israelites and what resourcefulness on the side of Gibeon! The problem, of course, for Israel is that, while they were examining the dried, moldy bread from the saddlebags of the emissaries they forgot to “ask God about it.” They relied on their own wisdom rather than on the guidance of the Lord. I’d like to be very critical of the Israelites at this point, but I’d better tread carefully here. How many times have I, in my so called wisdom, checked out all the facts, made up a “pros and cons” list, researched the issue and moved on it. Only after the fact I may have tossed an “and, by the way Lord, please bless what I’m about to do” prayer. As I see Israel making an un-prayed over deal with Gibeon I’m sorry to say I see myself all too often doing the same sort of thing.
Take Away: You’ll never be sorry you prayed first.
A practical conversion
Joshua 2: They left and arrived at the house of a harlot named Rahab and stayed there.
As the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan two spies are sent to learn about their first target, Jericho. They slip into the walled city and take up residence in what was likely a common place of lodging. The commentators tell me that Rahab’s house was likely a tavern and inn. While some squirm around Rahab’s being called a “harlot” it’s likely that the scriptures are simply telling it as it is. We’re talking about a Canaanite women living in a Canaanite town here. When she acts to protect the spies it isn’t because she’s gotten saved in a revival meeting! She’s acting out of self-preservation. Still, her actions carry real weight. In spite of her questionable past and her lack of knowledge about the God of the Israelites she’s concluded that this God of theirs is powerful and will deliver Canaan to his people. She may not know the Ten Commandments or the Shema or the story of Abraham and Isaac, but she’s heard enough about this God that she’d rather be on his side than on the side of the people and gods of Canaan. In what might be considered a “practical conversion” she picks that God over all others. Hopefully, in the years to come her theology will mature and her relationship with God and his people will deepen. However, for all of us, our faith journey has to start somewhere. Deciding one would rather be on God’s side in the battle isn’t a bad place to start.
Take Away: All spiritual life begins with a simple decision concerning one’s relationship to the Lord.