Oh, God is so good!
Psalm 103: As far as sunrise is from sunset, he has separated us from our sins.
I’m not sure concepts like this one impact me as they should. David says that God separates me from my sins and the psalmist picks the widest distance he can think of to describe just how far those sins are removed from me. The testimony of a young woman comes to mind. Although she was raised by a godly mother she messed up in several ways. After some years as a prodigal daughter she came back to the Lord but was living a very different life than she might have lived without that disastrous detour. In a church service I began to deal with the concept I find in this passage: how God casts our sins away as far as east is from west. For everyone else in that service it was just another Sunday sermon, but the Holy Spirit spoke to her heart that day making that truth her personal truth that day. Since her return to Christ she had carried the burden of her past, often aware of her failures. However, on that day she realized that she had not only been forgiven by the Lord, but that he had also set her free from the guilt she was carrying. From that day forward she had a new freedom and joy in the Lord. Maybe this is the message you need today.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for forgiveness and, beyond that, for separating our sins from us, casting them out of our lives.
Psalm 84: “A Korah Psalm”
This is one of the Psalms written by the sons of Korah. Actually, there’s a lot of information on Korah and his descendants. These psalm writing “sons” are really descendants of the Levite named Korah who challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron way back in the book of Numbers. He dies at the hand of God in that rebellion, but it seems his descendants continue on and here we see that they’re among the Levites David assigns to be worship leaders. It’s good to remember that even though there’s spiritual failure in our past (or that of our family) that we still have opportunity to be well used by God. Great-great grandpa might have challenged God’s chosen leaders (or might have been a slave owner or been hung a horse thief) but that doesn’t make us of any less value in God’s sight. This kind of thinking sounds pretty old hat to me and my fellow Americans. We’re all individualists anyway and think it’s wonderful to be able to say, “I did it my way.” To people through most of history, the “my way” approach is unheard of. They see life from the group’s point of view and speak in terms of “our way.” That means that their culture sees grandpa’s failures as the failure of all those descended from him. In their way of thinking, the stigma of failure is passed down from generation to generation. Every time we glance at the top of a Psalm and see that it comes from Korah’s clan we’re seeing redemption at work! In more current terms, these psalms remind me that God forgives my past failure and is very willing to use me as a worker in his Kingdom today.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Some lessons are learned the hard way
Psalm 51: Going through the motions doesn’t please you.
This Psalm probably ranks in the top four or five best known psalms and it comes from the worst event of David’s life. He’s sinned against God in his affair with Bathsheba and then tried to cover it up by engineering the death of her husband. His evil plan never has a chance. All the time God is watching as the whole ugly thing unfolds. God sends his man, Nathan, to confront David and when he repents he writes this psalm as his prayer of confession. Its theme is “God’s loving grace.” David pleads for mercy and forgiveness and asks for a changed heart. There’s no, “I’ll try harder” in his cry to God. He realizes that his greatest need isn’t better performance but that he be made new from the inside out. I think the most powerful insight of the psalm is David’s realization that God isn’t nearly as interested in performance as he is in motivation. The Lord isn’t as interested in our behaving in some proscribed way as he is interested in our hearts. When the heart is right, performance (within human limitations) will follow. Otherwise, performance becomes for us, not a source of righteousness, but a source of pride.
Take Away: A changed heart results in changed behavior.
God provides a way back
2 Samuel 14: God does not take away life. He works out ways to get the exile back.
After avenging the terrible thing done to this sister Tamar by murdering his half-brother, Ammon, Absalom has fled, fearing for his own life. Now three years have passed and David’s general, Joab, thinks it is time for David to reconcile with his son. Earlier, Nathan brought to David a made-up story and confronted him with the memorable words: “You are the man!” Now, Joab sends a woman from Tekoa to do a similar thing. She pretends to be the mother of two sons. In her story, one son has killed the other. Now her family is out for revenge by taking the life of her remaining son. David rules compassionately saying he’ll take care of it. It’s then that the woman challenges David for doing the same thing concerning Absalom. She points out that God seeks ways to bring the exile back and that David should do the same thing. David sees the hand of Joab in this but agrees to at least open the way for his son’s return. This incident is a mere snapshot taken during a fast moving flow of events, but I’m taken with the wisdom of the woman from Tekoa. Before Jesus ever tells the famous parable, she pictures for us the forgiving mercy of God for the prodigal. She’s one hundred percent correct: “He works out ways to get the exile back.” We serve the God of Second Chances.
Take Away: Never give up on God – after all, he never gives up on us.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
1 Samuel 27: The best thing I can do is escape to Philistine country.
One thing about the narrative of the Bible is that we’re told the whole story, both good and bad. I think that David’s time in Philistine country is, for him personally, what the book of Judges is for the Israelite people as a whole. David does it and we’re told about it, but none of it’s to his credit. Right off, David says that he thinks sooner or later that Saul’s going to capture him, so he needs to escape the country. Where’s his faith in God who’s proven faithful to him across the years? Has he forgotten the incidents at the cave in En Gedi and at Hakilah Hill? Then we see him go to the enemies of Israel and of God, the Philistines, for refuge. King Achish foolishly thinks to himself that, “An enemy of Saul is a friend of mine.” That’s a major mistake on his part but David’s decision stinks to high heaven. It’s unworthy of one anointed of God. Once he settles in Ziklag, David starts raiding small towns. When Achish asks him where he’s been he lies and says he’s been raiding his own people, Judah. Instead, he raids Philistine towns and hides it by killing everyone living in them. When I read of mass killing during the occupation of Canaan I’m uncomfortable, but at least that they felt they were doing God’s will. In David’s case, he’s just making a living off of raiding villages and killing people. The writer of the Scripture just tells us what happened, but I come away from this passage thinking that this isn’t of David’s proudest moment. Later on, when David wants to build the Temple he’s told he has too much blood on his hands. I think this incident is an example of that. I understand that David was living in different times and that beyond that I’m not David’s judge. I also remember here that even biblical heroes (not to mention me) stand in great need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Take Away: Even heroes of the Bible need God’s mercy.
There’s a remedy
Deuteronomy 4: If you seek God…you’ll be able to find him if you’re serious, looking for him with your whole heart and soul.
Again, Moses is no stranger to spiritual failure. As the leader of this people he’s seen repeated failure. Even as he warns them against trifling with God, even as he cautions them about having wandering hearts — even then, he knows that they’ll mess up again. The thing is, not only is Moses familiar with spiritual failure, he’s also familiar with God’s grace. Time after time he’s seen God reach out to these people in mercy, love, and forgiveness. In this, Moses has learned some important things about the God who called to him from the burning bush decades earlier. He tells them, “Before anything else, God is a compassionate God.” Even if his warnings to these people go unheeded, God’s character will be unchanged. People, even people who have miserably failed, who seek God whole-heartedly, find God. There’s so much hope here that it takes our breath away. There’s a remedy for spiritual failure. There’s hope for the fallen. There’s a God of Second Chances and if we seek him with all our hearts we’ll find him…and in finding him we’ll find hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Numbers 5: Tell the People of Israel, When a man or woman commits any sin, the person has broken trust with God, is guilty, and must confess the sin.
The book of Numbers is about naming names. It also contains considerable practical instruction on how this nation of former slaves is going to function as a People of God. Reading Numbers is not always the most uplifting devotional reading one might do. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth reading here. Instead, we have to do a little prospecting to find the gold. This statement from Numbers 5 is a good example of that. Moses explains to the people the true nature of sin; that it is a breaking of trust with God. It isn’t a mistake and it isn’t human shortcoming. Rather, it’s behaving in a disloyal way toward God. Still, there’s hope rather than condemnation here. In spite of the guilt, there’s the possibility of restoration. First, the sinner must acknowledge his sin by confessing it. No excuses are allowed. The offender must meet the issue head on. Second, restitution is to be made. True to the nature of the book, a practical approach is outlined: restore the full amount of the offense plus 20 percent. The concept is even expanded to include just who is to receive the compensation in extenuating circumstances. As a person who lives under the New Covenant, I’m not bound by the letter of the Law. Still, though, the concepts here apply. To sin is to break trust with God. The first step to restoration is to acknowledge my failure. The second is to make things right. The specific steps to a remedy are different but the concept sounds a whole lot like the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: Confession and restitution lead to restoration.
The God of Second Chances
Leviticus 26: On the other hand, if they confess their sins…I’ll remember my covenant….
I can’t imagine anyone enjoying the middle portion of Leviticus 26. It’s the “curse” part of the chapter in which God lists all that will happen if they break their promises to God. Like anyone else, I enjoy the “blessing” section and can happily skip the “cursing” part. However, there’s more to the chapter than those two elements. The final section is about God’s faithfulness. You might say that it’s the best part of all. God says that even if they utterly fail and if the entire “curse” comes to pass…even then, he’ll be just a prayer away. These words are all about grace and mercy and faithfulness. In this the Lord opens his heart to us. When it all falls apart because of sin the Lord waits to reestablish the covenant relationship with them. Here’s a clear view of the Lord as the God of Second Chances. There’s unbelievable power in the words, “I’ll remember.” In spite of failure, in spite of the feeling of a people being utterly rejected – in spite of it all, God remembers. I’m thankful, so thankful, that I serve the God of Second Chances.
Take Away: We all need this God of Second Chances in our lives.
The Day of Atonement
Leviticus 16: In the presence of God you will be made clean of all your sins.
Built into the Law given in Leviticus is a special annual event called the Day of Atonement. Both priests and people are to prepare themselves for this event by fasting. The High Priest is to follow a precise ritual and on this day only he is to enter the most sacred part of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. Here, in the Presence of the Lord his, and the sins of the whole nation, will be cleansed. Once this is done a great celebration of thanksgiving takes place. I find it interesting that after all the sin offerings with all the shed blood that there remains the need for a specific encounter with the Almighty for their sins to be wiped out. In this I see that, in the end, these ancient Israelites rely, as I do, on the grace and mercy of God. As this High Priest in his colorful and strange garb prepares to enter the most holy place on the face of the earth, I think of my own approach to the Throne of God. When the Priest comes in humility the result is cleansing from sin. It’s also that way for you and me. We approach the throne humbly but in expectation of receiving grace, mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing. It’s only in the presence of God that we are made clean of all our sins.
Take Away: When all else is said and done, we rely on God’s grace and mercy.
More on “God did it”
Genesis 50: Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good….
For over 20 years Joseph’s brothers carried the secret guilt of what they did to him. Now, even though Joseph has forgiven them we see that they haven’t yet forgiven themselves. The reason for this is that, if their roles were reversed, they’d still be holding a grudge. When their father dies they’re afraid that it was for the sake of Jacob that Joseph never took revenge on them. When Joseph realizes what’s happening he assures his brothers that he has no intention of striking out at them. Through the years Joseph has had lots of time to think about the flow of events in his life and he’s developed an insightful theology about it all. On one hand, he knows that it wasn’t God who planned evil things against him. Clearly, it was his brothers who did this and Joseph makes no attempt to say the Lord was behind their evil deed. On the other hand, Joseph sees that when his brothers did their worst that they couldn’t derail God’s ultimate plan. God moved in and redeemed their evil act, turning it into good for Joseph and even for those evil-deed-doing bothers. Earlier, Joseph told his brothers, concerning his being sold into slavery, that “God did it.” Now we see that, while this statement isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete. When people act in their own free will to do the wrong thing God has a knack of stepping in and transforming it into something good. My friend, considering that this conversation takes place over a century before the Ten Commandments are given that’s a pretty mature theology.
Take away: God doesn’t do bad things to accomplish his will, but he’s capable of working through bad things to bring his purposes to pass.