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.
1 Samuel 10: Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed?!
The young man Saul is not a leader and he isn’t especially known for his spirituality. On this day, after his meeting with Samuel, Saul is headed home when he encounters a group of prophets on their way to worship. Before he knows it, Saul falls in with them, and then to everyone’s surprise he joins them in their religious expression. This is an unlikely event and word of it spreads throughout his family and friends. People are surprised at “Saul among the prophets.” After he becomes king a saying based on this incident becomes common. Anytime a person is surprised at something they shake their heads in wonder and say, “Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed!” I’ve seen God do some surprising things in people’s lives. When I was a kid I knew a man who had been the town drunk. He was wonderfully converted and became the Sunday School Superintendent in the church where I grew up. “Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed!” Another man, who was raised in the church, got away from God. His mother never stopped praying for him, but for years he seemed distant. One night he came to revival and responded to the invitation. A few years later he was a terrific youth leader in the church. “Saul among the prophets!” I love it when God does stuff like that and look forward to more “Saul among the prophets!” events in the days to come.
Take Away: The Lord does wonderfully surprising things in the lives of those who cooperate with his purposes for them.
Ruth 2: God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all! He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!
A ray of sunshine in a dark place
Naomi and Ruth are destitute and alone as they return to Israel. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. They are two widows on their own. Ruth goes out to the fields hoping to find enough left over from the harvest to give her and Naomi something to eat. To her surprise, she finds herself talking to a wealthy landowner who welcomes her and treats her kindly. Upon returning home she tells Naomi of her adventure. It’s then that Naomi makes this wonderful statement concerning God’s grace. “God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all!” It seemed that way. Naomi has buried a husband and two sons. In Ruth’s surprisingly good day of gleaning, and especially in her encounter with Boaz, she sees God at work. “He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!” That, my friend, is pretty good theology from a widow woman living in the dark days of the book of Judges. I’m reminded today that my circumstances aren’t an indicator of God’s work, or lack thereof, in my life. Just because things get hard it doesn’t mean that God has stopped loving me. Naomi is wise enough to recognize this truth, and I need to realize it too.
Take Away: Even in the hard days the Lord, sometimes unseen, is at work bringing good to our lives.
There, but for the grace of God….
Judges 9: Just then some woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and crushed his skull.
Not all the inhumanity of Israel’s “dark ages” of Judges comes from the belligerent peoples surrounding them. A lot of the bleakness comes from within. Gideon apparently makes himself into a sheik and fathers lots of children. When he dies there’s a power struggle that’s won by Abimelech, the son of Gideon and one of his maidservants. Abimelech seals the deal by murdering his seventy brothers. However, he’s better at murder than he is at leading and within three years there’s mounting opposition to his rule. Abimelech acts to quash the rebellion and arrives at Thebez, a town known for its fortified tower. As this wicked leader prepares burn alive those who have taken refuge there a woman drops part of a millstone on his head, thus bringing an end to the short and evil leadership of Abimelech. This is an ugly, if somewhat interesting story of a bad man who does bad things and then dies in a violent, unexpected way. No doubt, the detail of his inglorious death is told to us that we might see the judgment of God on Abimelech. In the larger view, I’m reminded that when God is removed from their lives just how much these descendants of Abraham look like the other heathen of that land. When I look around my community and see people doing stupid, self-destructive things to themselves and one another; when I see them blindly pursuing worthless things; and when I see them stubbornly traveling down the wrong road I’m wise to remember that without the Lord in my life that could easily be me. One response then, is to be thankful for what the Lord’s doing in my life. It’s not about me – it’s all about him. Another response is that, rather than feeling superior, I’m to be compassionate to them. These are people who are like me. They just don’t yet know the Life Changer I know.
Take Away: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Asking God hard questions
Judges: 6: If God is with us, why has all this happened to us?
The startling honesty of Gideon arrests my attention today. Even as he has an extraordinary encounter with the Lord he’s brutally honest about how things are going. Of course, the answer to his question has already been given. God didn’t leave the people. Rather, they left him: they “went back to doing evil.” God isn’t going to stay where he’s unwelcome. The Lord departs and they’re quickly dominated by Midian. Still, God doesn’t forget them. When the time is right, the Lord appears to Gideon and calls this unlikely person a “mighty warrior.” More on Gideon’s leadership later on, but, again, my attention is drawn to his honesty before God. If God is so good, if he’s on our side, if he’s our deliverer then why are things so bad? There’s power in asking hard questions to God. In this case Gideon need only look to the pagan practices he and his fellow Israelites have incorporated into their lives for his answer. God’s grace is clearly evidenced by, first, the fact that they haven’t been wiped off the face of the earth, and second, the fact that God is right there carrying on a conversation with him. The truth is, though, that God isn’t offended by our asking hard questions. We aren’t to take up permanent residence in that house of questions but we almost have to pass through that neighborhood to ever arrive at a meaningful faith.
Take Away: It is okay to ask the Lord hard, honest questions.
It’s a big deal
Deuteronomy 32: This is no small matter; it’s your life.
After the sermon comes a special in song. No, really. Moses finishes preaching and then teaches them a song that sums up all he’s said. It’s a song of God’s grace and faithfulness to them even in the face of disastrous failure on their part. After the song Moses tells them to take the words of both his preaching and the song he has taught them to heart. These aren’t the ramblings of a very old man. Rather, these concepts are life and death for them. I’m reminded today that most things in life are just “small matters.” In spite of the fact that I try to make them into big deals the fact is that they don’t amount to a hill of beans in the long run. However, there are big deals in life; things that last forever. Such things matter even across the scope of history. I must identify both the small and the big matters and deal with them accordingly.
Take Away: Treat big deals as big deals and little deals as little deals and don’t mix up the two.
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!
God’s second best
Numbers 21: Israel moved in and lived in Amorite country.
For some reason I’ve always imagined the ancient Israelites just wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. Apparently, it wasn’t quite like that. As they prepare to enter the territory ruled by King Sihon Moses sends representatives to negotiate safe passage through the territory. He promises that he and his people will only pass through and won’t take anything that isn’t theirs. However, Sihon sees them as easy prey and orders his army to attack them. Israel fights back and not only defends itself but takes possession of the territory ruled by Sihon. Later on they also defeat Og’s forces and take his territory too. They haven’t arrived in Canaan but now they have a base of operations. In spite of their massive failure to occupy Canaan the Lord has provided them with temporary housing. The other stories of battles and other conflicts all orbit around this territory which is east of the Dead Sea and of Canaan. For this generation, this is as good as it gets. They could have been taking the Promised Land, securing a future for their children but instead they’re in a “holding pattern” just shy of their goal. On one hand, I’m moved by the grace of God. In spite of their failure the Lord continues to care for them. On the other hand, it’s disappointing that they came so close yet failed to take possession of Canaan. (Even to the point of fighting Og who is described in Deuteronomy as one of the giants of Canaan). As I see the Israelites busying themselves with moving into their temporary housing I can’t help but wonder how often I’ve accepted God’s second best for me. There’s a lot of grace in this passage, but things aren’t what they might have been.
Take Away: God’s people never need settle for second best when it comes to God’s provision.
One messed up family
Genesis 27: Fix me a hearty meal so that I can…bless you.
If there ever was a dysfunctional family, this is it. Isaac, frail and blind, is basically interested in being taken care of. Rebekah is a conniving, manipulative wife. Esau, well, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and Jacob is, as his name suggests, “a heel.” Here my friend is a family in dire need of counseling! Isaac, who will live for years longer, is convinced he’s dying and needs to pass the promise given to his father, Abraham, on to his son. However, he can’t imagine blessing anyone without his having a full belly. Rebekah hears her husband’s intention and goes to work to secure the blessing for her favorite, Jacob. Again, this is a messed up family! For the people of ancient Israel, hearing this story must have been a letdown. After all, these are their ancestors: their heroes of their faith. Abraham had his share of blunders, but, ultimately, he comes out looking good. Isaac, his son, ends up with a family that would be at home in a modern sitcom. However, there’s one redeeming feature to all this. You see, the story isn’t really about the tragic comedy of Isaac and family. Instead, it’s about God. Their pitiful story is redeemed by the Redeemer. The Lord has made promises to this family and he intends to keep those promises. The Lord’s always gracious and while their situation may not be very pretty it does serve to highlight the brightness of God’s grace.
Take away: I’m thankful that the Lord works through the comedy of my life in redeeming ways.
Competition for the title “Number One Sinner”
1Timothy 1: I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work.
The letters to Timothy and Titus are all about pastoral leadership. Paul has entrusted congregations to these men and now he writes them letters of encouragement and instruction. The Apostle writes, not always as an overseer, but sometimes as a fellow pastor, a man called by God to proclaim the gospel and shepherd the Church. He pictures himself as one of Jesus’ favorite trophies of grace. That is, he, of all people should be declared too bad, too lost, too committed to sin to ever be saved. In his grace and mercy though, the Lord has done just that. He not only saved Paul but he called him to proclaim the gospel message. Every time he preaches his life is speaking more loudly and eloquently than his words. He sees himself as example number one of just how gracious, forgiving, and merciful God is. If that’s true, then even as I read these words 2000 years after they were written, the very fact that they were written by this “Public Sinner Number One” speaks as loudly as what he actually writes. Still, having said all that, I’m compelled to add that any minister worth his or her salt shares Paul’s confession of unworthiness. To some extent, no one can properly proclaim the gospel, or even get saved in the first place, unless they read Paul’s words and think, “not so fast on that ‘Sinner Number One’ stuff Paul, let me tell you my story.” The bottom line is that if not for Jesus none of us would have a chance. Those called to the ministry, of all people, can join Paul in his thanksgiving to Jesus for making us “adequate to do his work.”
Take Away: Anything “adequate” about us is evidence of the Lord’s grace at work in our lives.