1 Samuel 7: If you are truly serious about coming back to God, clean house…they did it.
A slow but sure movement of God has been taking place for over 20 years. People are more reverent concerning spiritual things and the worship of the Lord God has become more and more common. Now, through the ministry of God’s man, Samuel, they’ve arrived at a crossroads. It’s time for a clean break with the gods of Canaan and to surrender to the true God. They’ve come a long way during these 20 years but it’s now time to close the deal. It’s time to decide. It’s time to commit. Their response is a powerful three-word sentence: “They did it.” Reading these words reminds me of watching the eastern horizon at the dawning of a new day. The sky slowly becomes brighter, a hint of things to come. Then, with dazzling beauty, the sun slips into view, flooding the earth with the light of a new day. In the book of 1 Samuel we can watch the process with spiritual eyes. A childless woman prays and a son is given. The boy hears the Voice of God calling him in the night. The adventures of the Ark of God begin to transform the thinking of the people. Samuel inaugurates his ministry by calling for a decision. “They did it.” A new day dawns for Israel! Spiritual awakenings call for decision and commitment.
Take Away: God moves, but he doesn’t force us to respond.
Putting out a fleece
Judges 6: Let me say one more thing. I want to try another time with the fleece.
Here we are reading about Gideon and his fleece of wool. Actually, Gideon asks for, and receives, three signs from God. First, the angel of the Lord causes a fire to miraculously appear and consume his offering. Second, his fleece of wool gets wet from the dew while everything else stays dry. Third, the situation is reversed and the fleece stays dry while everything else gets wet from the dew. This is interesting reading, but it isn’t a lesson in how we’re supposed to deal with God. We’re to be people of faith, trusting in the Lord and learning to hear his voice. We’re not supposed to be sign-seekers and deal-makers. The star of this story isn’t Gideon, a near heathen who keeps getting signs from God confirming what he’s clearly already been told. The Star is God, who is patient even when Gideon keeps asking him to prove his own words. I’m thankful for a patient God who puts up with my shallowness even as he works to produce in me a more mature relationship with himself. Generally speaking though, I need to just do whatever it is God has made clear to me without “putting out a fleece.”
Take Away: Don’t press God’s patience – just obey in the first place.
The best thing to say to God
Exodus 4: God got angry with Moses.
Later on we’re told that Moses is the most humble man alive and knowing that I tend to cut him some slack when he keeps backing up on God’s call on his life. However, when I see the Lord getting angry in the face of all his objections I realize that humble or not, Moses is treading on thin ice with the Almighty. The Lord is appearing to Moses in a burning bush with the promise that, in spite of the king’s opposition that Moses will lead the people out of Egypt. Moses wants the Lord to give him a Name to use when he goes to the Hebrews and the King. The Lord obliges. Moses wants some kind of sign that will convince Pharaoh that it’s the Almighty he’s dealing with. The Lord gives him not one sign but three. Then Moses adds that he doesn’t want to actually do any of the talking and wants the Lord to name a spokesperson other than himself. At that point, he’s nearly found the end of God’s patience. The Lord promises Moses that he’ll give him the words to say and everything will be okay. When Moses persists in wanting someone else to do his talking for him, he nearly blows the whole deal with God. However, the Lord is merciful and tells Moses he’ll use his brother, Aaron, as spokesman. This, my friend, is a lesson in how not to deal with God. It’s not that exchanges with the Lord shouldn’t be open and honest. However, they should also be reverent and trusting. The best answer to God is just two words, “Yes, Lord.”
Take Away: The only reasonable response to the Almighty is: “yes.”
Jacob’s stairway vision
Genesis 28: God was in this place – truly. And I didn’t even know it.
Jacob – that “heel grasper” has lived down to his name. He, with this help of his mother, fooled his father, Isaac, into granting him the precious blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Now, he’s paying for it by having to get out of the country before Esau can get his hands on him. Alone in the night he has an unexpected encounter with God. In spite of his failure and lack of character God graciously renews to Jacob the promise he made to his grandfather, Abraham. Jacob awakes from his dream and says, “God was here, in this place – far from home, when I have done nothing but wrong, and when I am not thinking of him at all – he was here all the time.” Jacob is not only on a long journey in distance, he’s at the first step of a spiritual journey that will take decades. This “heel” has heard from God and while there’s still more wrong than right about him this “stairway vision” marks the beginning of that spiritual journey. The story of Jacob’s spiritual journey is more entertaining than most, but it does remind us of our own stories. I am glad today for God’s grace – his unexpected, unearned, promising, and patient grace.
Take away: Thank God for grace.
Revelation 18: The Strong God who judges her has had enough.
The actual God has had enough. It takes a lot to arrive at this place. A lot of God’s grace has to be rejected. A lot of his patience has to be wasted. As we’re reminded by the writer of Hebrews, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” All heaven cheers this act of Judgment, not because of vengeance, but because of righteousness. For a righteous, pure, holy God to be who he is, ultimately, the end of all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must come. It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities to turn around. I can say with confidence that there’s been at least 2000 years. At some point the patience of God will be exhausted. I want to be standing on the right side of things when God has “had enough.”
Take Away: For the Lord to be righteous, pure, and holy, sooner or later all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must be defeated.
2Peter 3: So what’s happened to the promise of his Coming?
The Apostle tells his readers that as the time for the return of Christ gets closer that people will be more outspoken in their doubt that it will happen. One of their reasons for doubting is that it’s been so long since the promise was made. Common sense, they think, dictates abandoning belief. People will think, “Nothing like that has ever happened since the beginning of time, now so long after the promise, things have continued as they have always been. It’s time to move on and forget about the promise.” Peter gives a three point response to that kind of thinking. First, there’s precedence for God stepping in and changing everything. After all, for eons the universe existed without this planet. Then, God stepped in, bringing about the creation of this very world. Later on, in Noah’s day, God changed everything again by bringing to pass a great flood. Here are two prime examples of God intervening in Creation to do a new thing. Second, time matters a lot more to us than it does to the Eternal One. A thousand years is a lot of time for humanity, but it’s a blink of the eye for the Ancient of Days. Third, God has reason to wait. That reason is that he wants to give more generations opportunity to be redeemed. The Lord wants to save people; all the people he can save. Therefore, he’s patient, taking all the time necessary to get as many in as he can. The Day of Judgment is definitely coming. Jesus will return and that will set the whole End of Time in motion. Meanwhile, we wait with the understanding that God knows exactly what he’s doing and at just the right time Jesus will come back. My job is to get ready, to stay ready, and to help all who will to prepare for that certain upheaval of history.
Take Away: No doubt about it, Jesus is coming back.
2Corinthians 13: I want to get on with it, and not have to spend time on reprimands.
The final portion of this second letter to the church at Corinth isn’t just a warm, friendly closing. Paul writes with apostolic authority to the church there. He lays it on the line, telling them that he’s soon to make his third trip their city and that he’s already warned them that if habitual sinners don’t clean up their act that in the name of Jesus he’ll clean up the church there. He tells those who’ve been demanding proof that he speaks for the Lord that, unless things improve, they’ll get more proof than they want. This is pretty strong stuff and it’s not just a bluff. Some years earlier, for instance, on the island of Paphos a sorcerer named Elymas opposed Paul’s preaching of the gospel. The Apostle turned to him, and without laying a hand on him struck him blind. When Paul tells those who oppose his gospel at Corinth that if they don’t straighten up they’ll get plenty of reason to believe he speaks with the authority of the Lord he’s not just making a lot of noise. However, that isn’t how Paul wants it to be. His job is to bring people to the Lord so he can make them complete, not to strike people blind or worse. Paul’s approach here reminds me that spiritual things are serious and need to be handled carefully. It’s dangerous to be flip and irreverent. It may seem that people get away with stuff like that, but Paul warns them (and us) that it’s possible to go too far for too long and that to do so has real consequences. At the same time I’m reminded that that’s not what Christian leadership is all about. Paul has shown a great deal of patience in this situation. He’s prayed and pleaded and appealed to them as a father dealing with loved children. He’d much rather help broken people find restoration in Christ and, in fact, the only reason he warns them as he does in this case is that his mission of reconciliation is being threatened by some insiders who oppose this ministry.
Take Away: Be carefully reverent about the things of God.
1Corinthians 1: You must get along with each other.
As I understand it, Corinth is a lot like the Old West of American movies. It’s a rough and tough place with lots of immorality. Paul comes preaching the Gospel of Jesus and many of these rowdy people become believers. For a year and a half (a long time for him) Paul stays, establishing them in the faith, teaching them what it means to be Christians. Now, he’s moved on, but has received word that things aren’t going very well in Corinth. One of the big problems is lack of unity. The Church of Corinth is splitting, not into two parts, but into several. In fact, if there’s an opportunity for discord, they’ve found it. Paul writes to them, saying, “You must get along with each other” and then both reasons with them and shames them into unity. As I consider this passage the call of Jesus to his followers to be one even as he and his Father are one feels quite distant. I share the Apostle’s concern as I look at the state of Christianity today. Sometimes “oneness” seems out of reach and I wonder if Paul was writing to the Church today what he would say. There is, though, a silver lining in these opening words of 1 Corinthians. It’s Paul’s sunny, optimistic approach to all this. He describes the church as “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God filled life” and reminds them that Jesus “will never give up on you.” The Lord has already done a lot in their lives and Paul assures them that he’s going to keep right on working. So, as I read these words today I confess that the state of Christianity today concerns me. At the same time I’m infected by Paul’s optimistic view of the Church. It’s good to remember that God’s still at work today.
Take Away: The Lord is working inside the Church to make us one, and, as we cooperate with him, that’s just what he’s going to do.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
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.