2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
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.
2014 – Monterrey Peninsula, CA
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.
2014 – Sweet Creek Hike – Mapleton, OR
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.
2014 – Cape Meares, OR
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!
2014 – Mt Rainier National Park
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.
2013 – Pilot Mountain, North Carolina
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.