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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.
The hardest work of all
Jonah 1: He was sound asleep.
We don’t know anything about Jonah’s background. It may be that he’s been a prophet for years, faithfully preaching God’s messages to his people. On the other hand, this may be Jonah’s first encounter with God. He may have been an average fellow just minding his own business who heard the Voice of God. Either way, the mission he’s given isn’t one he wants. Nineveh is the capital of the hated and feared Assyrian empire. There’s nothing Jonah or any of his fellow countrymen would like better than to see Nineveh destroyed. Just a few pages over in our Bibles we find ourselves in the book of Nahum. That short book of the Bible is all about God’s promised destruction of this same city. Now, that’s the sermon Jonah wants to preach. Instead, God calls him to call them to repent that they might be spared. Jonah doesn’t want the job so he flees Israel and, he supposes, the presence of the Lord by hopping a boat headed in the opposite direction. Once aboard, he heads for the deepest, most out-of-the-way spot he can find and falls fast asleep. I’ve only been out on rough seas one time so my experience is very limited. Still, I can say with confidence that such a time and place isn’t a good one for a nap. In fact, the only possibility of falling into a sound sleep in that circumstance is exhaustion. I think Jonah has wrestled with his call to preach to Israel’s enemies to the point that he’s not slept for days and is operating on the ragged edge of collapse. People think that doing what God wants is too hard or that it won’t satisfy their lives. To their chagrin they discover that refusing God is even harder and that whatever they do instead fails to satisfy. Running from God is hard work.
Take Away: Disobeying the Lord is hard work.
Handwriting on the wall
Daniel 5: Mene, Teqel, Peres.
Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, only makes a brief appearance on the grand stage of Biblical history and in that appearance he’s a drunken loser. In spite of the fact that his father’s story is well known Belshazzar chooses stupid arrogance and practically dares the God his father came to honor to do anything to stop him. So, God Almighty takes up his dare. Even as Belshazzar uses the items taken from the Temple as tableware for a drunken party the hand of God miraculously appears to write the three words of condemnation. As Daniel explains to him, “God has numbered your life and it just doesn’t add up! He’s weighed the value of your life and it doesn’t make weight. He’s decided to divide your kingdom and give it to others.” This unworthy man’s life is about to end in an unworthy way. It’s pitiful isn’t it! Nebuchadnezzar did all the heavy lifting for his son. Not only did he hand over to him the most powerful kingdom on earth, but Nebuchadnezzar went through the years of out-of-his-mind torment to get his head screwed on straight about the God of the Hebrews. All Belshazzar has to do was pick up where his father left off. Instead he delivers stupidity. The Lord expects him to gain from his father’s experience. When he doesn’t do it, it’s “Mene, Teqel, Peres” and a brief appearance on the world stage before going down in flames.
Take Away: While parents have the responsibility of passing on their faith to their children, children have the responsibility of taking up that faith and making it their own.
Accepting fault, doing something about it
Ezekiel 18: The soul that sins is the soul that dies.
A common saying in Ezekiel’s day is that “the parents ate green apples and the children got a stomachache.” That saying describes the current plight of the people of Judah. Their nation has been defeated and many have been exiled far from home. They blame it all on their parents and consider themselves to be victims of the failure of others. Ezekiel says that isn’t so. While it’s true that their ancestors failed God, the current generation has plenty of failure of its own. Ezekiel wants them to understand that when a wicked person turns from his or her wicked ways that God is gracious and rich in forgiveness. God, he tells them, doesn’t hold a grudge. On the other hand, if a righteous person abandons that righteousness he or she stands guilty before God. Past righteousness doesn’t make a person immune from current failure and judgment. The bottom line is that the Lord will “judge each of you according to the way you live.” The spiritual principle here is that it’s our current relationship with God that really matters. Ezekiel’s advice is still good today. He says since it’s “right now” that counts, those who are living apart from God and blaming their parents (or someone else) for it need to “turn around…make a clean break” and “live!”
Take Away: It’s our current relationship with the Lord that really matters.
A sad love story
Ezekiel 16: Your beauty went to your head.
This section of Ezekiel isn’t uplifting. It’s graphic and weighty. The sin of Israel is described as adultery. The prophet is a rough and tough guy and his language is hard and attention getting. Ezekiel describes Israel as a baby abandoned at birth, destined to die without ever having a chance at life. Instead, the Lord rescues this pitiful infant and lavishes his love on it. Then the imagery changes as he describes this rescued one as a grown woman, beautiful and loved by the Lord as a devoted husband loves his wife. Ezekiel says that Israel, who should have never even existed, has become vain and disinterested in the God to whom she owes everything. Instead of being faithful to the Lord, though, she’s become an unfaithful harlot. Anyone hearing Ezekiel’s words should be disgusted with such betrayal and sin. None of this is intended to be a pretty picture. Instead, Ezekiel wants us to recoil at what he describes. Today, I’m reminded that my nation is a blessed nation too. In the early days our chances of survival were small, yet we survived by the grace of God. Now we’re a nation many others watch, and many watch with envy. And even as Israel began to take God for granted and rebel against him, so have we. This section of Ezekiel isn’t fun to read but it needs to be allowed to speak to us in this day.
Take Away: It’s a dangerous thing to forget the blessings of the Lord and take them for granted.
Looking up from the bottom
Lamentations 5: Give us a fresh start.
The prayer I find near the conclusion of this book of laments is one that has been prayed many times through the centuries. Jeremiah describes for us the devastating loss his people have suffered remarking, “Our dances have turned into dirges.” In their miserable state they exclaim, “Would that we’d never sinned!” That’s another statement that has been said many times. As some unknown preacher said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” How many people have found themselves at the bottom, crushed by the consequences of their own sin? For some reason we always think we’ll be the ones to get away with it, that we’ll beat the odds. It never happens and sooner or later we add our voice to the chorus lamenting, “Would that we’d never sinned!” It’s in that place, when everything seems hopeless that we can lift our faces to the God we’ve failed and pray, “Give us a fresh start.” Our God is the God of Second Chances. Even when I’ve messed my life up to the point that all is lost he can give me a fresh start. That isn’t to say that he’ll press the rewind button on my life. What’s done is done. However, he’ll do something just as meaningful: he’ll make me into a new person. When I’m weary of my sin and crushed by my failure, I can look to the God of Second Chances and ask him to give me a fresh start. The Lord delights in answering that prayer.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.