2014 – Davis Mountains State Park, TX
1 Samuel 9: He had a son, Saul, a most handsome young man…he literally stood head and shoulders above the crowd!
Since I know where this story’s headed I tend to brush past the way the Bible introduces Saul. Here’s a good man. In spite of his physical domination and naturally handsome good looks he’s humble. We meet him taking care of his father’s business, looking for some lost donkeys, but also concerned that his father might be worried about him. When it’s suggested that he visit the man of God, Samuel, and ask for help in locating the animals, he goes with offering in hand. When I read this introduction to Saul I’m impressed with him. He has the potential of being a terrific leader of Israel who’ll guide the people to a close, faithful walk with the Lord. As I begin reading the story of Saul I find no reason to expect failure on his part. Instead, everything’s in place for success at every level of his life. In choosing him, the Lord isn’t setting him up for failure. Instead, Saul’s being set up for success. That’s true, too, I think, in the lives of followers of Jesus. No one is saved to ultimately fail. In fact, success is guaranteed by the blood of Jesus. The only way my spiritual journey can end badly is if I sabotage it myself. Sorry to say we’re about to see an illustration of that from this capable young man.
Take Away: The Lord gives us everything we need to live for him and then live with him in eternity.
2014 – Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, AZ
Making the most of what God has given
1 Samuel 2: I’ll establish for myself a true priest. He’ll do what I want him to do, and be what I want him to be.
The priest Eli is an interesting person in the story of Samuel. He presides over the worship activities at Shiloh but is a deeply flawed individual. He has some spiritual insights, but won’t control his own sons who make a mockery of spiritual things. At the same time, he’s entrusted with the young Samuel who’ll usher in a new day in Israel’s relationship with God. I want to cut him some slack because he lives in these days of transition but it’s plain that the Lord holds him accountable for his failure. I don’t have to judge him because the Lord already has. Eli is, I think, a person who has great potential that’s never realized. He has position, insight, and opportunity to make a real impact for God. Instead, he shows only occasional flashes of that and is ultimately told by the Lord that he and his family will be replaced by someone more worthy. Frankly, I think one reason I want to go easy on Eli is that I fear my life also sometimes fails to measure up. God has been good to me and blessed me in many ways. I don’t want to someday look back and see years of wasted opportunity.
Take Away: Make the most of opportunities the Lord gives you.
2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Judges 16: Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me, dear, the secret of your great strength.”
Samson is a one-man army. Other Israelite liberators inspire people to follow them and rally armies to action. Samson does it all by himself. It’s just Samson and God. Well, really it’s just God. Samson’s unshaved head is the symbol of his connection to God and cutting his hair will break that relationship. Subtract God from his life and Samson is a zero. When Samson stupidly tells Delilah his story he breaks that relationship with God. Soon, the wheels come off and all is lost. I’m tempted to say, “Without his hair Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Actually, though, it’s, “Without his God, Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Subtract the unique features of this story and we’re left with the truth Jesus stated in John 15:5: “apart from me you can do nothing.”
Take Away: Every good thing I accomplish is because of the Lord’s presence in my life.
2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
So how’s that “ignoring God” thing working out for you?
Judges 10: They just walked off and left God, quit worshiping him.
It’s been over 60 years since Gideon died. We have short paragraphs mentioning two other leaders who have judged Israel and now, once again, the wheels have fallen off. The word picture is graphic. “They just walked off.” This was definitely one of those, “If God seems far away, who moved?” scenarios. The people aren’t kidnapped and carried away from God. They don’t accidentally wander off. Instead, we see them pull the plug, deciding that they’re no longer going to worship the One who has been so faithful to them. However, that’s not the most sobering part of this story. You see, God doesn’t chase after them. When they come to him in their distress, he replies, “I’m not saving you anymore. Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen over me.” It’s when they repent that the Lord reconnects with their lives. God always honors our free will. He doesn’t force us to serve him and he’ll allow us to face the consequences of our choices. The good news here is that he remains true to his character. While he won’t force us to live our lives in a relationship with him, he’s always ready to forgive and welcome us back into that relationship.
Take Away: We’ll either live in a relationship with the Lord of our own free will or we won’t live in a relationship with him at all…
2014 – Jerome, AZ
Almost, but not quite
Judges 1: When Israel became stronger they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they never got rid of them.
The failure of the army of Israel to purge the land of the Canaanites is mentioned in the Book of Joshua but becomes a major factor as I turn the page and begin reading the Book of Judges. Clearly, the army of Joshua has experienced unprecedented success. They arrive as underdogs in a new land occupied by fierce and evil people who have superior weapons and fortified cities. This is the home of the warrior-giants of the Bible. In spite of all that these children of ex-slaves cross the Jordan and win victory after victory to become the dominant force in the land. All in all, what they accomplish is quite impressive. It’s just too bad that they don’t do what the Lord told them to do and press on to complete victory. The book of Judges tells the story of the result of that failure. This is far from being anyone’s favorite book of the Bible. It is, though, a book in which the grace of God shines forth against the black background of so much spiritual failure.
Take Away: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”
2014 – Oregon 101 – along the southern coast
Achan lied and men died.
Joshua 7: Israel has sinned: they’ve broken the covenant I commanded them.
Jericho’s defeated and destroyed. Now their attention’s on a much smaller, less fortified place, Ai. An armed force of 3000 is sent to do battle at Ai, more than enough to win an easy victory. However, it doesn’t work that way. The people of Ai rise up and rout the larger Israelite force. How could that happen? They not only have superior numbers, but God is on their side. Right? Wrong! They go to Ai without God and are defeated there. Dismayed by what’s happened on his watch Joshua goes to the Lord. He’s told that there’s sin in the camp. As long as there’s sin there’ll be no help from God. You see, sin is always serious in the eyes of the Lord. Beyond that, my sin impacts others in unexpected ways. Achan thinks that God won’t notice and that his intentional disobedience of the Lord’s command will have no consequences. Instead, because of his sin, God withdraws his blessing and over 30 men die. In our western culture, we like to think it’s every man for himself. Had an American written this story, Achan, and maybe family, would have died for his sin in tragic poetic justice. Everyone else would have gone on with “business as usual.” Here we see a different picture. “Achan lied and men died.” Is it possible that some churches struggle because there’s hidden sin in the camp? And why stop at the church? What does this story say to me as an American? A country where babies by the millions are aborted, where immorality is the accepted mode of behavior? Am I really free to stand back from that and be dismayed, expecting the judgment of God to only fall on “them?”
Take Away: Our lives are interconnected, what I do impacts others, maybe many others.
2014 – Cape Meares, OR
Deuteronomy 9: You’re stubborn as mules.
I doubt the congregation is shouting out, “Amen!” in agreement with Moses’ declaration of their stubbornness, but they know it’s true. Just in case they need reminding, Moses is about to list all the failures of this nation…failures so great that at one point God is ready to just wipe them off the face of the earth. However, this portion of the sermon is more about God’s grace than about their stubbornness. In fact, it might be said that as great as their stubbornness is, God’s grace is greater. This is a story of “big failures but bigger grace.” By the way, the reason I can think about their stubbornness in particularly vivid ways is that I’m no stranger to stubbornness myself. However, that isn’t the end of the story for them or for me because I can also tell you that I am no stranger to grace. Any time grace is given a chance it wins.
Take Away: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
2014 – Cape Disappointment Lighthouse
Watch out for the little things
Deuteronomy 4: Don’t let your heart wander off.
Moses is familiar with failure. For 40 years he’s struggled to keep this nation on the track God laid out for them. They’ve had both successes and failures. Now, with the end of his life in sight this man of God urges them to stay alert. He wants them to be aware that spiritual disaster sometimes comes bit by bit rather than all at once. It’s possible to become dully satisfied, to fail to be alert to negative changes in our attitudes, and to begin to drift spiritually. The problem isn’t limited to individuals who temporarily lose sight of their goals. Instead, such gradual failure can be national in nature. It can also be generational when parents fail to pass their faith on to their children. Having a current, connected, committed relationship to God is worth any effort it might take. For those of us who are wonderfully blessed the danger isn’t that we’ll wake up tomorrow morning and declare that we aren’t interested in God anymore. Nor is it that we’ll decide we aren’t going to attempt to influence our children to be genuine Christians. The danger is that we will drift. Moses says, “Don’t let it happen — be aware of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”
Take Away: While we can’t stay self-focused all the time, once in a while it’s a good idea to do a spiritual checkup.
2014 – Cape Disappointment, WA
The distant reach of failure
Deuteronomy 1: Don’t be terrified of them, God, your God, is leading the way; he’s fighting for you.
The “you” in this passage isn’t the members of the present congregation. It’s their parents. However, Moses is speaking to them as a nation of people, seen as one with the previous generation. This doesn’t sit well with my Western mindset. We Westerners are individualists who like to think we make our own decisions apart from others. In this case it was 40 years earlier that Moses had said these words and “they” refused to hear, refused to have faith, and refused to obey. The penalty was 40 years in the wilderness — an experience all those in the congregation hearing this sermon did share, at least to some extent. Soon it will be their turn to hear, believe, and obey. Moses is preparing them for it by reminding them of their already shared failure in their parents. Still, God is the God of Second Chances. Soon they will stand on the banks of the river. To a great extent they will have the opportunity to erase the failure of those who went before them. While I’m no expert on “generational curses” (or “generational blessings” for that matter) I’m reminded that my failure or faithfulness reaches far beyond my individual life.
Take Away: It’s unlikely anyone ever sees the full extent of their influence, be it for good or for evil.
2018 – Mt Rainer National Park
Talking to rocks
Numbers 20: Speak to the rock…do we have to bring water out of this rock for you…slammed his staff against the rock.
We’re familiar with most of the big events in the life of Moses. We know about the bulrushes, the burning bush, the plagues, the Red Sea crossing, and Mount Sinai. Sadly, when the story of Moses is told his failure at Meribah has to be included. This is the blot on his life and, later on, this is what disqualifies him from entering the Promised Land. On the surface it seems like a minor infraction. God says to him, “Speak to the rock” and, instead, he “hits the rock.” As I read this and see the seriousness of God’s response I immediately think that there has to be more. I think the “more” is what Moses says before he strikes the rock. Moses’ leadership has been challenged before and each time he’s responded by pointing the people to the Lord. Moses’ entire case for leadership, his credentials, is that he’s God’s man. In this case as his leadership is being once again challenged, he takes matters into his own hands. He doesn’t say, “Listen, rebels! Watch what the Lord is going to do for you.” Instead, he says, “Listen, rebels! Do we have to bring water out of this rock for you?” The difference is profound. Instead of God getting the credit, Moses and Aaron are taking it. Remember, this is not the mistake of a young person in their first pastoral assignment. This is an intentional shifting of emphasis by a seasoned man of God who’s had many personal encounters with the Lord. God takes this intentional failure seriously. We see here that God expects gifted leaders to remember the source of their authority, to remember that they are stewards of his, and that they’re expected to always serve with that in mind. To do otherwise mars an otherwise exemplary ministry.
Take Away: The longer we walk with the Lord the more he expects of us.