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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!
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.
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.
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.
Numbers 13: Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.
I’d love to come up with some unique, interesting way to talk about this famous statement, but, alas, I think preachers across the centuries have pretty much nailed it. In preparation for invading the Promised Land twelve explorers are sent to check out the area. They find a rich, bountiful land and, to the dismay of most of them, they also find physically imposing warriors. All their faith in God and his promises concerning this land dissipates. The most famous line of the report of the majority is that, compared to those big guys they feel like grasshoppers. Through the centuries since, preachers like me used this passage to remind our listeners that if we think of ourselves as grasshoppers others will do the same. Grasshopper thinking stops us from even attempting great things by defeating us before we ever begin. It’s a self-fulfilling and God displeasing prophecy. When God gives me his plan, my job is not to evaluate the wisdom of that plan. Instead, I’m to trust him and obey in the assurance that God will provide everything necessary for it to succeed. To do otherwise is to see myself as a grasshopper – what Zig Ziggler called, “Stinkin’ thinkin’.”
Take Away: If we think of ourselves as grasshoppers we’ll perform like grasshoppers and others will tend to see us that way too.
I didn’t mean to
Leviticus 4: If the whole congregation sins unintentionally…they become guilty even though no one is aware of it.
A group of children are playing in the yard when one accidentally knocks another to the ground. Soon there’s lots of crying, some because of pain and mostly because of anger. Mom comes to see what’s wrong. Billy says, “Johnny knocked me down!” Johnny responds, “I didn’t mean to.” Mom tells Johnny to apologize to his friend because, intentionally or not, he has wronged him. In this passage, as the law is given every contingency is covered, including unintentional sins. God tells them that when they fail at some point, even if they don’t know it at the time, that they’re to take action to make things right. In this instance, he isn’t talking about making restitution to a neighbor who’s been intentionally wronged. Instead, the Lord’s talking about making things right with himself. Like Johnny, we tend to stiffen and declare that we didn’t do it on purpose. Our theologians might debate about the level of guilt and work through the definition of sin but they all agree that, intentional or not, failure is an affront to God. Jesus, when he teaches his disciples to pray, instructs them to ask for forgiveness even as they forgive others. When I realize I’ve failed the Lord my response isn’t to be a declaration of innocence. Rather, it’s to be an honest confession and an effort to make things right. For these ancient Israelites that meant they needed to make an absolution-offering. For me, it may only require my sincere confession of failure and apology to the Lord. One thing that won’t work is for me to stiffen up and declare that it wasn’t on purpose.
Take Away: The proper response to a realization of failure is to confess and repent.
A lesson on leadership
Exodus 32: Moses said to Aaron, “What on Earth did these people ever do to you that you involved them in this huge sin?” Aaron said, “Master, don’t be angry. You know this people and how set on evil they are.”
Aaron is left in charge while Moses is up on the mountain meeting with God. Just as the Lord said, there’s an idol-centered orgy going on. Moses demands an explanation from his brother who responds that these people are just bad people and there’s nothing he can do. Aaron is supposed to be the leader here, but he’s a spectacular failure. Leaders must have vision and be skilled in organizing and persuading people to work toward the fulfillment of that vision. Aaron’s view of leadership is to help the people do what they want to do already. His excuse to Moses is, “that’s just how these people are.” His error is huge and because of it he fails his people, Moses, and God. Genuine leaders don’t wring their hands as people do the wrong thing. Neither is it testing the political winds and “leading” the people to do what they already want to do, right or wrong. In fact, leadership can be lonely and occasionally it is practically suicidal. Aaron should have stood for God’s way even if it meant that the people just ran over him to do what they wanted in the first place. Moses understands leadership. He takes a position away from the goings on and calls for those who are on God’s side to join him. He’s going to make things right no matter what the cost. That’s leadership.
Take Away: Leadership is more than helping people do what they would do anyway.
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.
Sin, murder, and grace
Genesis 4: Sin is lying in wait for you…you’ve got to master it.
The first children are born to the human race, two boys. These boys become men and these men are worshipers of God. One is a dirt farmer and the other raises livestock. These two worshipers of God bring sacrifices to the Lord. To Cain’s dismay God likes his brother’s offering better than his own. I’ve heard a few sermons on the reason why. In fact, I’ve attempted to deal with the topic myself. Some people think it’s the lack of blood in Cain’s offering. Others pounce on the “firstborn” aspect of Abel’s offering and the writer of the book of Hebrews focuses in on the faith aspect of it. Deciding why one offering is more acceptable than the other is a hard call. After all, Cain brought from what he had, just as Abel did. Of course, we know that this passage isn’t here to elevate one type of offering over the other. This account is about sin, murder, and grace. When Cain’s angry with God about his brother’s offering the Lord warns him that he’s skating on thin ice. Being disappointed with God, apparently, isn’t sin in itself; but such an attitude attracts sin. The Lord speaks to Cain like a father talking to his son, warning him that it’s a dangerous road he’s traveling. This situation has potential for Cain to be humbled. If he responds to the Lord by asking for an explanation concerning why his offering is inferior to Abel’s we won’t have the mystery concerning it. Instead, Cain proves God right by doing the wrong thing. At this point, the score is Sin: one, Cain: nothing.
Take away: Some things that aren’t quite sin, can, if I’m not careful, open that door.
The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.