One hundred percent
Matthew 7: The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention.
A hitter in baseball might love the cheers of the fans and all the perks of being a star but when he’s in the batter’s box he’d better pay attention to business. Hitting a 95 mph fastball requires one’s full attention. Jesus calls people to radical commitment. Fishermen abandon the tools of their trade to follow him. Tax collectors pay back, with interest, padded tax collections. Rich people are told to give it all away and follow. How can we read this kind of stuff in the Bible and come away thinking that all God wants from us is a lukewarm, half-hearted relationship? If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus I have to focus and commit. Living the Sermon on the Mount takes a lot more than an hour of church attendance each week. How in the world could anyone ever think otherwise? The payoff is wonderful, but the payout is huge: all of me for all of God. I’m the winner in that deal, but it’s still a deal I have to be willing to make.
Take Away: When it comes to living the Christian life it’s all or nothing.
The challenge of living in the level ground days
Malachi 1: Worship of God is no longer a priority.
Anyone who’s gone through significant weight loss will tell you that the hard part of a diet isn’t the “cut-back-on-the-calories” weight loss phase. Instead, it’s the maintenance phase. At that time, the individual moves from trying to lose weight to living a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t result in regaining the weight that was lost. The problem is that there are constant temptations to give in a little here and a little there. Once one starts down that road the end result is a return to the former state of things. The people Malachi speaks to are at a cross roads. They’re secure and comfortable. The work of rebuilding the Temple was finished by their parents and grandparents. Now, it falls on them to live a spiritually healthy lifestyle as an every day people of God. Frankly, they aren’t doing a very good job of it. When they bring an animal to offer to the Lord, they’ve fallen into the habit of bringing one that they don’t want anyway. Worship, in general, is drifting to a lower and lower priority in their lives. They aren’t back at the stage of their idol-worshiping, baby-sacrificing ancestors, but, without even recognizing it, they’re gradually drifting away from God. It doesn’t take a big effort to connect the dots from this to my own life. I don’t hope a crisis will come to my life to remind me of my priorities, but, here on the level ground of life, I want to live a healthy, day-to-day spiritual lifestyle.
Take Away: Living for the Lord on the common days of life has challenges of its own.
Legacy of faithfulness
Zechariah 1: But the Message…isn’t dead and buried.
Zechariah remembers the stories of the old time prophets of his history. They were spiritual giants like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These mighty men proclaimed God’s message with, admittedly, limited contemporary success. The people of their day ignored their message and faced the consequences. Now, all that is in the distant past and the people God claimed as his own are back in their home country, reestablishing their lives there. Zechariah has a new word from the Lord. Well, the word is new, but the message is old. The Lord still calls people to an obedient walk with himself. He still invites those who will to live in his fellowship and to participate in his holiness. The messengers might have changed, but the purpose of God remains. It’s humbling to realize that, as a pastor, I have a role in this process today. I know that someday my voice will be silenced (hopefully, not for a few decades yet) and hope that when the kids (these days, that’s anyone less than thirty) look back on my ministry that they’ll remember me as one who was faithful in proclaiming the timeless truths of God.
Take Away: As people look back on our lives let them remember us as those who were faithful to God’s call on our lives.
Getting stuff from God
Micah 2: I’ll preach sermons that will tell you how to get anything you want from God.
God’s man says that when the people of his nation send out a pastoral search committee that they’re looking for a specific kind of preacher. They aren’t interested in hearing sermons about repentance and judgment, but they’d love to hear sermons that tell them how to get God to do stuff for them. Such a preacher is sure to be hired on the spot. Obviously, this desire isn’t limited to Micah’s day. For many people manipulating God is what religion’s all about. Many years earlier the suffering Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13:15) Earlier, Job had gotten an enormous amount of stuff from God. Now, it’s all gone and all he has left is a broken life and a stubborn faith. So which approach to God describes me? Am I in it for what I can get? What if everything I hold dear is taken from me and it seems God’s no longer playing Santa Claus? On one hand, we have people who don’t want to hear what God has to say but are very interested in what they can get God to do. On the other hand, we have a man who’s so committed to God that even when most of his theology has crashed he insists on continuing to hope in the Lord. I pray I never have to travel Job’s road but I’m certain I don’t want to follow that of the people of Micah’s day.
Take Away: Do we serve the Lord for what we think we might get from him?
Amos 5: You talk about God…being your best friend.
I was talking to a car salesperson about a car. He was a friendly guy, a bit rough around the edges, using a few words I don’t have in my vocabulary. Then, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was the pastor of a church. Guess what happened? Suddenly, he was a very faithful Christian man. He told me about his church and his pastor and some words disappeared from the conversation. Amos complains about people who claim God as their best friend but live very different lives than what the Lord demands. The big issue to Amos is how the poor are treated. He says that in his society “justice is a lost cause” and people are “kicking the poor when they’re down.” God’s man says that won’t cut it. I can’t expect to get away with giving the Almighty lip service while ignoring his directions on how I’m to live. Amos says, “You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, being your best friend. Well, live like it, and maybe it will happen.” By, the way, I bought my car elsewhere.
Take Away: Live like it.
Keep up the good work
Daniel 6: He continued to pray just as he had always done.
The king has been duped by Daniel’s political enemies into banning prayer. They’re sure Daniel will “break the law” and pray anyway…and they’re right. I like the phrase “he continued to pray just as he had always done.” One can’t “continue” to pray unless he’s in the habit of praying in the first place. Daniel has lived in a pagan culture for a long time but he’s found an anchor in prayer. Three times each day he retreats to a place of prayer, keeping his connection with his God intact. Through the years he’s risen to a powerful position in multiple administrations. He’s been an explainer of dreams and a solver of mysteries. Now we see the key to it all. Daniel prays. I don’t think I can overestimate the importance of my “continuing to pray.”
Take Away: Nothing takes the place of prayer in the lives of the people of the Lord.
At least they know what Daniel stands for
Daniel 6: We’re never going to find anything against this Daniel unless we can cook up something religious.
At the end of chapter five we find a simple statement that Darius the Mede is made king. Apparently, there’s a lot of history loaded into that statement. The handwriting on the wall informed the now dead Belshazzar that his kingdom was going to be handed over to the “Medes and Persians,” a confederacy that rose to challenge the power of Babylonia. Apparently, there’s a lot of historical push and shove concerning all that happened in that takeover. Daniel spares us all that, barely mentioning his own rise to authority in the reorganized kingdom, now under the rule of Darius. This king recognizes leadership capability when he sees it and makes Daniel, first, one of his three vice-regents, and then moves to make Daniel the man in charge. Of course, there are those who oppose this elevation of Daniel and they scramble to find some way to discredit him. When they can’t come up with anything bad about him they focus in on his religion. They conclude that his devotion to his God is his weakest point and decide to attack there. I know it isn’t intended, but what a compliment to Daniel! After living among the Babylonians for many years he’s still known for his devotion to the Lord. It all started many years earlier when he decided to keep the dietary laws of his religion. Now, we see him untouched by the pagan culture. Things are about to get dicey for Daniel, but for now, he can say “thanks” to his enemies for the compliment.
Take Away: Live in such a way even our enemies recognize our devotion and commitment to the Lord.
Winning in little ways first
Daniel 1: Daniel determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food.
The hardest time for me to stay on a diet is when I’m on vacation. There are so many nice places to eat, we’re out of our routine, and there’s the strange notion that “what happens on vacation stays on vacation.” One “off diet” meal leads to another and I end up bringing home, not just pleasant memories and photos of all the places we saw, but a few extra pounds too. Of course, Daniel and his companions aren’t on vacation. They’ve been taken against their will to a distant land with little hope of returning home. Even if they could go back, things are very different than when they left. Still, they’re in very pleasant surroundings. They’re part of the household of the most powerful king on earth and they’re being groomed to serve in the royal court. Their rations aren’t bread and water but, instead, are the richest of foods and the finest of wines. The thing is that their religion has strict dietary rules. That pork chop might look quite tasty, but it’s forbidden to them by their God. If we struggle with our diets just because we’re a few hundred miles from home, think of their struggle. The Temple, Jerusalem, and their family ties are all in their past. Do the rules even apply anymore? If they do just go along with what is being asked of them where will it take them next? Does saying “yes” here mean they’ll be expected to say “yes” somewhere else, like, for instance, the worship of an idol? Daniel decides to draw the line right where he is. He’s a follower of God and God has given him some dietary rules. He’ll be respectful, but he’ll hold steady at this minor point. If he never starts down the path away from God he’ll never end up where that path leads. I don’t know if this passage will help me stay on my diet or not, but it certainly can help me remember that spiritual failure doesn’t start with my rejecting God in some big way. Rather, it starts with little things. If I win there, I’m much more likely to conquer the “biggie” when it shows up.
Take Away: If we never start down the path away from God we’ll never end up where that path leads.
Ezekiel 33: You, son of man, are the watchman.
Ezekiel’s job, the Lord says, is that of a watchman. He’s to cry out, warning people of impending danger. If he does that, he’s done his job. If he fails, then part of the blame for the loss is his own. Ezekiel has done his job. The book bearing his name contains page after page of his warnings which are given, sometimes, at considerable personal cost. Had he failed in doing his part the story would be considerably different, in fact, I doubt we would have a book of Ezekiel at all. God would have sought out another spokesman and it would be his name that would appear as the title of a book of the Bible. It could be that Ezekiel wasn’t God’s first choice, that he started by calling someone who’s unknown to us today. Also, there’s the record of massive failure here that we do know about. The failure is that of those who heard the warning and rejected it. Ezekiel is God’s watchman for Israel and his faithfulness to that task is impressive. I pray not only that the Lord will send a faithful watchman for my nation but that his or her message will be heard and heeded.
Take Away: All a person can do is be faithful to do what the Lord directs.
Trust and obey for there’s no other way
Ezekiel 3: …but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life.
As the prophet is commissioned he’s told that his job is to warn people. If they refuse his warning, then they’re responsible to God for that refusal. Ezekiel’s job is to issue God’s message. His salvation is contingent on his faithfulness in doing so. My first reaction to this passage is one of caution. I read this from a New Testament point of view and immediately respond that my hope of salvation isn’t in my performance but in my faith in the Savior, Jesus. Does that, in some way nullify this passage for me today? Upon reflection, I think not. Old or New Testament, preacher or listener, the requirement of God is the same: obedience. The Lord calls Ezekiel to preach his message and that’s what’s required of him. He’s called to obedience even as he calls his listeners to obedience. It’s the same for me. As I understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world I must obey his call to yield my life to him and follow him. Anything else is disobedience. So, Ezekiel obeyed by preaching God’s message. His listeners were to obey by forsaking their sin and worshiping the Lord. I obey by trusting in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and living in a relationship with him. People may refuse Ezekiel’s message, but he’ll be saved in his obedience in preaching it anyway.
Take Away: No matter where a person is on their spiritual journey, the Lord’s requirement is this: obey.