The “rest” for the people of God
Hebrews 4: The promise of “arrival” and “rest” are still there for God’s people.
In the Old Testament story of the people of God we read of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. By God’s hand they triumph at the Red Sea and not long after that come to the Jordan River with the promise that this is to be their land of rest. Once they possess Canaan they’ll be home at last. However it doesn’t work out. The people refuse to trust God and, because of that, are sentenced to a lifetime of wilderness wandering. The writer of Hebrews uses that sad story to tell his readers that the Lord calls his people to a “rest experience” in their relationship with him. After deliverance from sin, there’s a “Jordan River” crisis in which believers are to trust God to give them rest from the inner struggle and freedom to love him with all their heart and soul and mind. The failure of the people of Israel is a real possibility for the believer: to doubt the extent to which the Lord can deliver his people from the bondage of sin. To fail here is to turn back to the wilderness and to experience the spiritual journey as a constant struggle with failure and sin. To believe God and trust him with all of one’s life is to cross the Jordan and enter into a deeper spiritual life of freedom and liberty. “The promise of ‘arrival’ and ‘rest’ are still there for God’s people.”
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives our sins – he also delivers us from that sin.
Do it again, Lord
Habakkuk 3: Do among us what you did among them.
The prophet of God has the heart of a psalmist. As I started reading Habakkuk and saw his reverent complaint to God I was reminded of the Psalms of complaint in which the writer pours his heart out before the Lord. Now, as Habakkuk experiences God in a fresh way, his words remind me of the Psalms again. He pens a psalm of his own in which he recounts God’s past deliverance and looks to a day of restoration. His opening lines: “Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them” is the prayer of many of God’s people through the ages. In this case, Habakkuk is specifically thinking of the deliverance of his ancestors from Egyptian bondage. However, through the centuries, many have looked back to great movements of God: revivals, healings, and other times of special blessing and prayed this prayer. In my life there have been times of extraordinary blessing, some so private and precious that I seldom speak of them. However, I mention them to the Lord, thanking him for what he did and marveling at his grace to me and, in the spirit of Habakkuk, ask the Lord to “do it again.” It’s unhealthy to spend our lives talking about the “good old days” but we should allow those times of special blessing to remind us of what God can do and to encourage us to seek his best for in our lives in this day and in these circumstances.
Take Away: There are times when we do well to revisit past blessings and allow those blessings to encourage us to expect renewed blessings of God in our lives.
Daniel 6: God…closed the mouths of the lions.
Daniel’s political enemies might have conspired to have him thrown into the den of lions but they couldn’t control the lions, themselves. God sends an angel to do that and his man survives unscathed his night with the big cats. The king is relieved. After all, it was his gullible foolishness that caused all of this in the first place. He’s ready to acknowledge the power and authority of Daniel’s God. Darius then turns his attention to the conspirators and their families. He has them all thrown into the lion’s den. God’s angel has already departed and they come to a horrible end. As I read this I’m reminded that Daniel represents God in a wicked and heartless regime. Nebuchadnezzar, it seems, had a genuine change of heart. Darius, on the other hand, has been impressed and humbled by Daniel’s God and from now on he will treat Daniel’s God with respect. In other words, Darius’ experience was not nearly as personal as was Nebuchadnezzar’s. Daniel prospers under Darius and then under Cyrus. Apparently, neither of these two become worshipers of the Lord but they respect Daniel and his God. We Christians have something to learn here. If possible, we want people to become believers; to join us in worship of the only one worthy of worship. However, we may not always see that happen. In some cases the best we will see is that others will decide we and our faith have earned their respect. Hopefully, that will be a first step to something more for them, but that decision is out of our hands.
Take Away: Live in such a way as to influence people for the Lord – if nothing else, to earn their respect and to cause them to respect the one we worship.
He’s still in the fire
Daniel 3: I see four men, walking around freely in the fire.
A “theophany” is the appearance of God in human forum, specifically in the Old Testament. Abraham and Jacob and Moses have such encounters and then there’s this incident: three men are tossed into the fire, but the king sees four. I understand that there are theological reasons to hesitate here, but I’m glad to hide behind the “devotional” aspect of my writing and leap wholeheartedly into this fire! The Hebrews are being executed because of their faithfulness to the Lord. Then, in the fire there’s a fourth man who, even the pagan king, can tell is “God-like.” On this day Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego experience a “theophany.” They meet the Lord in that furnace and he protects them from the fire! The furnaces of life might scare me to death, but it’s in those places that I find one who’s not only unafraid, but is in complete authority. Since he’s God he can appear in whatever form he wants, and because he’s God there’s nothing that’s going to happen to me there that he does not allow and can’t see me through.
Take Away: There’s nothing that can happen to us that the Lord doesn’t allow and that he can’t see me through.
A good word from the Lord
Ezekiel 29: I’ll give you, Ezekiel, bold and confident words to speak.
A turnaround is coming. For some time now Israel had heard nothing but condemnation from God’s prophet, Ezekiel. According to him things are going to get worse before they get better. Now, we see that things will, indeed, get better. The same man who’s condemned their sin and the sins of the nations associated with them is going to be given a different word from the Lord. His words will bring hope and deliverance. His messages will reconnect them with God, himself. What powerful words they’re going to be! These aren’t the empty promises of a politician. This is God’s man speaking God’s word to them. When the Lord gets involved words take on an additional element of power. As a preacher I’m both encouraged and challenged here. I’m encouraged that, as old fashioned as it might seem, that God can communicate to people through a weak vessel like me and that as I preach God can “stir up fresh hope” and usher in “deliverance” in people’s lives. I’m challenged to live close enough to the Lord that he can direct me in that endeavor; to trust him and cooperate with him in what he wants to say to those who are listening.
Take Away: Words directed by the Lord are powerful and can be life changing.
The end – sort of
Jeremiah 52: Judah went into exile, orphaned from her land.
The final pages of Jeremiah are a sort of historical wrap up. We hear about Zedekiah’s failure, the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the striping of the city of anything of value. People are marched off into exile and it seems the story of the people of Israel has ended. The epitaph is: “Judah went into exile, orphaned from her land.” It all happened as Jeremiah said it would. The nation has refused to take every off ramp it came to, steadily advancing to this point. Thus, we come to “the end.” Well, not quite. God not only promised this destruction, he also promises restoration. The final words of the book describe the kindness shown to the surviving king, Jehoiachin, by Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Evil-Merodach. After many years of imprisonment, Jehoiachin becomes an honored guest at the Babylonian king’s table. By concluding with this account we see that even as the curtain has fallen on a horrible period of Israel’s history, the story continues with a new, hopeful episode about to begin. I find that story both by moving forward and backward in my Bible. I can go back to Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Or, I can turn forward a few pages and spend time in Daniel or Haggai or Zechariah and continue this story. If I want I can hit the fast forward button and advance to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to find the account of God’s ultimate deliverance of his people.
Take Away: With the Lord “the end” might just also be “the beginning” – that’s true because God is the God of Second Chances.
A heaping helping of humble pie
Jeremiah 21: I’ve giving you a choice: life or death.
It’s doubly hard for the priest, Pashur, to come to Jeremiah with the request. He’s Jeremiah’s sworn enemy. Just recently he put the prophet in stocks for the night to teach him to mind his tongue. Still, things aren’t going well for the nation. They’re at war with the juggernaut Babylon and barring a miracle they face certain defeat. Even that, though, isn’t why Pashur finds himself in this humiliating conversation with Jeremiah. He’s here because King Zedekiah ordered him to go to Jeremiah and ask this troublesome man to pray for God’s intervention. Pashur protested, sputtering out that Jeremiah has already stated God’s judgment on him and his household. Maybe the king should send someone else. Zedekiah, though, ordered and didn’t ask, so the priest finds himself, hat in hand, asking Jeremiah to pray to God for the deliverance of the country from their powerful enemy. Jeremiah’s response is exactly what Pashur expects: more gloom and doom, more defeatist talk. The prophet says he won’t pray for them, in fact, he’s throwing his support to Nebuchadnezzar and his army. The stubborn prophet declares that not only does God refuse to help them but that he’s actively working against them. God’s offer of mercy is not that he’ll deliver them in battle, but that, if they surrender, they’ll live, carried off as captives. As I read this, I can’t help but think that bargaining with God is never a smart thing to do, but doing so while still rebelling against him, well, that’s just plain crazy.
Take Away: Bargaining with the Lord is never a smart thing to do.
The great Deliverer
Isaiah 42: He won’t be stopped until he’s finished his work — to set things right on earth.
Even as Isaiah writes words of comfort to those banished from Jerusalem by the crushing might of Babylon, he looks forward to a great day of deliverance. “One day,” he promises, “God will send the ultimate Deliverer, his prized Servant, to the world. He’ll do an even greater thing than bringing a scattered people back to their homeland.” Isaiah looks to the coming of the Messiah, a man filled with the Spirit who’ll “set everything right.” One day, in Isaiah’s distant future, a man will be baptized and God’s voice will be heard proclaiming, “This is my Son.” Here we see that proclamation being foretold as the Lord declares through Isaiah, “He’s the one I chose, and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.” The prophet doesn’t have all the details. In fact, it’s unlikely that he has a vision of Calvary or of the empty tomb of Easter. Isaiah doesn’t see a cross, but he does see a Messiah. This Promised One will overcome every hindrance to accomplish his work. That’s just what happens when even a cross can’t stop this Servant of God. Know what? Neither can he be stopped by the seeming insurmountable obstacles of the world today. We Christians need to remember this and join the Messiah’s mission. Followers of his don’t sit around wringing their hands while lamenting the state of things. This Messiah won’t quit until things are set “right on earth.” That’s our mission as well as our hope.
Take Away: It’s not that there aren’t any challenges because there are. Still, the fact remains that the Son of God will, without question accomplish his mission of redemption.
Taking it to the Lord
Isaiah 37: Then he went into the sanctuary of God and spread the letter out before God.
The threat Sennacherib makes to Judah through his general Rabshekah can’t be ignored. King Hezekiah sends representatives to God’s man, Isaiah, to seek a response from the Lord. God doesn’t let Hezekiah down. The Lord has heard the threats and the blasphemy and is going to personally deal with the situation. Not long after that, Sennacherib is called away to deal with a crisis elsewhere in his kingdom. However, before he leaves he sends a letter to Hezekiah, promising that he’ll be back to finish the destruction of Jerusalem just as he promised. Upon receiving that letter Hezekiah takes it to the Temple. There, in the presence of God he opens that scroll and spreads it out before the Lord. He prays, reminding himself and God of the promise the Lord made to take care of Sennacherib and to protect his people. I love what Hezekiah does with that letter. He knows that the Lord has promised to deliver him but that letter and the threat it contains is real. Rather than letting it consume him with fear he takes it to the Lord. This is a lesson I need to learn. What difference might it make if I take that lab report from the doctor that’s causing me concern and lay it out before the Lord when I pray? Or maybe a good course of action is to write out the situation from work that’s worrying me and then lay it out before the Lord? I’m not saying that this is some magical formula for getting the Lord to do what I want him to do. However, I do think that it might serve as a practical reminder to me that God does know about these difficult situations and that he has promised to walk with me through even in them.
Take Away: In the words of the old hymn: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
Judges 7: You have too large an army with you.
The Lord has such a sense of humor. Gideon’s been rounding up the troops to take on the mighty Midian army and he’s done a pretty good job of it. Now they’re on their way into battle, but first, God has some trimming to do. First, those who are afraid are invited to leave. Two thirds of the army decides this is a good time to go home. Then, as they get a drink of water, the few who show “battle sense” are kept while everyone else goes home. Gideon was reluctant enough to take on this fight. He must be beside himself as the Lord keeps whittling down his army. He’s now left with just 300 fighters. Of course, God has a purpose in all this. Even as we see the Lord’s disqualification of almost all of Gideon’s army, we see that the Lord is quite intentional here. If Gideon’s large force wins a victory they’ll take all the credit for it. The Lord wants not only to bring deliverance to Israel, but to restore them to himself as well. I believe proper preparation for things I attempt is wise and reasonable, but I also know that the ultimate Source in my life is, not my plans and resources, but my Lord. Sometimes, he has to whittle down my approach so, when it all works out, I’ll know who it is that gets the credit. And, as he does it, I think he’s smiling to himself.
Take Away: The Lord loves turning the tables and doing the impossible.