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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.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
My favorite salvation story
Micah 6: Keep all God’s salvation stories fresh and present.
God has been good to them, delivering them from oppression and out of the hand of their enemies. Through the years, though, they’ve let those deliverance stories get dusty and worn. Micah wants them to keep those stories of salvation in the forefront of their thinking; to remember that God has never done them wrong, and, instead, has blessed them again and again. He wants them to clean the dust off and take a fresh look at those stories of deliverance. I need this. I’ve been a Christian a long time and, honestly, my story isn’t an especially thrilling one. Still, I need to be thrilled with it. What the Lord did for me and in me ought to be my favorite story of God’s grace. Micah says I need to revisit it often and keep it fresh in my mind and heart. If I forget where I came from I might never make it to where I’m going.
Take Away: What God did for me and in me ought to be my favorite story of his grace.
Good news for people who need a Second Chance
Ezekiel 33: None of his sins will be kept on the books.
Since Ezekiel’s mission throughout most of his ministry is to warn people of pending destruction, and since he is about as rough and tumble a guy as you’ll ever meet, his messages are generally not especially uplifting. He’s like a doctor with a poor bedside manner: he isn’t especially interested in dressing things up but for the good of his patient he tells it like it is. Still, as I journey through the book of Ezekiel, I find plenty of sunshine along with his gruffness. At one point he tells people that they can’t rely on past goodness to cover current sin. If even the most pious person turns from God’s ways to sin he or she will be judged not for their past, but their current life. However, there’s good news in flip side of that situation. If a person who’s living a sinful life hears Ezekiel’s hard message and decides to pay attention and straighten up there’s a real possibility of life. God will gladly give that individual a second chance. Now that’s a message for any day. The Lord loves it when sinners turn to him. He doesn’t hold our past against us and is more than willing to forgive sins and transform lives. That’s good news for every one of us who has made bad choices and wishes life had a rewind button. We can’t go back but by God’s grace we can go forward. If a person turns to God, Ezekiel tells us, “He’ll live.”
Take Away: We can’t go back but by the grace of the Lord we can go forward.
Don’t push God too far
Ezekiel 24: I wanted to clean you up, but you wouldn’t let me.
I don’t like this portion of Ezekiel. He graphically describes people’s betrayal of God as adultery. The picture is ugly and the images are “R” rated. Not only that, but Ezekiel offers them no hope. God, he says, is done with them. Even if the sexual content of this passage didn’t earn an “R” the violence Ezekiel says is coming would. Again, this isn’t a warm, fuzzy passage! The Lord doesn’t want it to be this way. Even after his people committed spiritual adultery with other gods and nations he reached out to them. The problem was that they wanted none of it. No matter what God did or said, they refused to respond. They turned their backs on God and acted in ways intended to send him the message that they didn’t want anything to do with him. It could have been different. His plan was to clean them up, to make them into a holy people, his very own. In fact, that’s still his plan. However, that will come in a different generation. For now, he’s finished with them and he’s going to clean the place up by getting rid of them. Their children and grandchildren will get another chance, not them. The Lord won’t force us to come to him. We can break his heart and we can make him angry but he’ll never force us to do the right thing even when it’s for our own good. I may not be able to solve the needs of my life but I do have the final say as to whether or not God is allowed to do so. If I agree, he’ll go to work, cleaning up the mess I’ve made. If I refuse, there’s a very real danger that he’ll let me continue down the path I insist on traveling and in so doing, will arrive at the destination I’ve persisted in reaching.
Take Away: We may not be able to solve the needs of our lives but we have been granted the responsibility and ability to allow the Lord to do so.
Isaiah 3: Those women are going to smell like rotting cabbages.
The books of the prophets are often hard to read, not because we don’t understand what’s being said, but because of the harshness of the message. Still, reading these words from a distance of centuries enables us to see some of the grim humor here too. In chapter 3 Isaiah talks about how the socialites of his day who pride themselves in their appearance and expensive perfumes will look revolting and smell like rotten cabbage. The common people of that day who see those in the upper class getting away with (literal) murder probably recognize the ironic humor in Isaiah’s words. Of course, this isn’t a comedy routine. These are real warnings that need to be taken very seriously. After all, the next lines of the prophecy describe death and mourning. Why is all of this going to happen? The answer is that Isaiah’s intended audience has fallen so in love with themselves that they’ve forgotten who they really are: a people who exist only by the grace of God. With that in view, I see that this isn’t punishment so much as it’s abandonment. That is, God isn’t going to ruin their lives. Instead, he’s going to let them continue down the path away from him to where that path leads. Modern Christians need to take a hard look at passages like this. We’re sometimes in danger of falling in love with our own spirituality. In time, we tend to claim responsibility for what good Christians we are and when we do that, this passage no longer contains ancient words directed to people who lived long ago. In the context of the passage I’m reading today, I can say that no matter how spiritual I might think I am I’m what I am by the grace of God. To cut myself off from that truth is to travel a road to an unwanted destination. Pardon the tenuous connection here but such a life “stinks.”
Take Away: Any good is my is because of the grace of God in my life.
A trophy of grace
2Kings 13: He never gave up on them, never even considered discarding them.
n spite of God’s patience and blessings and in spite of the difficulties the nation faces, Israel continues down a destructive path. When things are terrible they temporarily turn to God but before long they’re back in the old God-ignoring rut. Their future could have been bright, but that’s not how things are going to turn out. I know what happens over at the end of 2Chronicles when the twin kingdoms come to their official end. Then again, I know what happens on the next page after that where I see God’s faithfulness through the priest, Ezra. In fact, looking into their future as I can by simply turning the pages of my Bible I’m taken by the truth of this statement: “He never gave up on them.” Oh, the grace of God who clearly sees our failure yet declares, “I won’t even consider discarding you.” I’m a trophy of such grace. And so are you.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances…and third…and fourth…and….
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.