God won’t be manipulated
1 Samuel 4: When the Chest of the Covenant of God was brought into the camp, everyone gave a huge cheer.
There’s war between the Israelites and the Philistines and the Philistines have the upper hand. In one battle 4,000 men of Israel are killed. What can they do to turn the tide? Someone has the idea of bringing the sacred Ark of the Covenant to the battle lines. Like the fictional German officers in the Indiana Jones movie these ancient Israelites think the Ark has power of its own that can be controlled by whoever possesses it. As the Chest arrives at the camp everyone cheers. Now they have the Power of God at their disposal and nothing will stop them. However, it doesn’t work out that way. On one hand, the Almighty clearly has an interest in the Ark of the Covenant. As the story continues that becomes abundantly clear. On the other hand, God is in authority over the Ark rather than the other way around. Bringing the Ark to battle doesn’t guarantee victory. They need God much more than they need the Chest. Today, as I read this story I’m reminded that in spite of the Indiana Jones movie, the Ark hasn’t been located and even if it was there’s not much chance that it could be used as a secret weapon now any more than it was in this story from the Bible. In my life, the key to spiritual power isn’t in my waving my Bible around or in my wearing a cross on a string around my neck or in my being anointed with oil. As it was with the Ark, those things may have value, but they’re nothing in and of themselves. It’s God who I need and I’m wise to remember that no matter how many props I come up with he won’t be manipulated.
Take Away: The Lord is real and he insists I treat him as something other than some unseen force to manipulate to get my own way.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Judges 16: Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me, dear, the secret of your great strength.”
Samson is a one-man army. Other Israelite liberators inspire people to follow them and rally armies to action. Samson does it all by himself. It’s just Samson and God. Well, really it’s just God. Samson’s unshaved head is the symbol of his connection to God and cutting his hair will break that relationship. Subtract God from his life and Samson is a zero. When Samson stupidly tells Delilah his story he breaks that relationship with God. Soon, the wheels come off and all is lost. I’m tempted to say, “Without his hair Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Actually, though, it’s, “Without his God, Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Subtract the unique features of this story and we’re left with the truth Jesus stated in John 15:5: “apart from me you can do nothing.”
Take Away: Every good thing I accomplish is because of the Lord’s presence in my life.
The Bible’s strong man
Judges 14: A young lion came at him, roaring. The Spirit of God came on him powerfully and he ripped it open barehanded.
Samson is the “strong man” of the Bible. When artists depict him, they always draw him as a muscle man. Frankly, I doubt it. Remember that his enemies try to discover the secret of his strength. If he’s built like a super hero they wouldn’t do that. I think he’s of average build and that the only physical characteristic that makes him stand out in a crowd is hair; hair, and lots of it: long, flowing hair on his head and on his face. This guy has never had a razor used on him. His nickname could be “Harry!” The key to his strength is tied into his faithfulness to God. And, in his case, the symbol of that faithfulness is uncut hair. Really, I don’t even see evidence that Samson is always strong. It’s when the “Spirit of God comes on him” that he’s strong. The rest of the time, he’s just an ordinary, hairy guy. Thinking devotionally here, I’m reminded that it’s when the Spirit of God moves in my life that I move into the realm of extraordinary possibilities. I may not be “more powerful than a locomotive” but, when the Spirit of God is directing and empowering, I can do whatever it is the Lord wants me to do.
Take Away: The Lord gives us whatever capability he needs for us to have to accomplish his purposes.
Stopping the sun
Joshua 10: The sun stopped in its tracks in mid sky; just sat there all day.
Because of the significant military victories of the Israelite army, word of their success has spread like wildfire through the area. These residents of Canaan are cruel, child sacrificing, warring peoples, but some unite in an effort to stop the advance of Joshua and his army. The battle that ensues is a momentous one. In one fight they’ll either gain a decisive advantage or be beaten back. It’s during this battle that Joshua asks for an unbelievable favor from God. He asks that the sun stand still so that they can continue to fight while they have the advantage. God answers and the sun stops in the sky as the battle rages. Of course, the impossibility of that actually happening is clearer to me than it is to Joshua, who doesn’t understand anything at all about the solar system. I’m no scientist, but I know that if the sun stood still that it would mean the earth quit rotating, and if the earth stopped turning…well, it would be the end of the world. Needless to say, I would never pray the prayer Joshua prayed — I’m too educated to do that. But here we have poor, ignorant Joshua asking for something that couldn’t possibly happen. What’s that? You say that the Bible says it did happen? Listen, I have no idea of how God could stop the sun in the sky without the entire solar system crashing. It’s such a big miracle that I, even with my limited knowledge, could never pray for it. Joshua doesn’t know that the earth is round and is spinning and is orbiting around the sun. All he knows is that he needs a miracle from God. And that, my friend, is the whole point. Sometimes I need to throw out all the facts and hold on to the only real Fact, God, Himself. I need to be careful that I’m not so “smart” that God can’t do for me what he wants to do. Take Away: God specializes in doing the impossible and he doesn’t need for me to explain to him what he can or can’t do.
The frightening side of God
Exodus 19: Warning! Don’t climb the mountain.
Of all the appearances of God on earth in the Bible the coming of the Almighty to Mount Sinai is the most impressive. Earlier, the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Now he appears to Israel in a burning mountain. There are thick clouds, thunder, earthquakes, and the sound of trumpet blasts. The people are warned to keep their distance or die. As I read this event I find myself wondering why God came in such a dramatic way. Centuries earlier, he came to the first man and woman for a quiet conversation in the cool of the day. Later on he wrestled with Jacob through the night. However, here at Sinai the appearance of the Lord is the most dramatic event to have ever happened on the face of the earth. I think the Lord’s making the point that he’s not a God to be trifled with. If he’s to make Israel into his own people they must grasp something of his holiness. They need to see him as more than a God who gives them free food each morning and who helps them win battles. Instead, they need to see the awful power of his holiness. This is a God to serve, to reverence, and to obey. Before Moses ever begins his unforgettable encounter with the Divine there are lessons to be learned. We Christians focus on an entirely different view of God. We see him as a meek Carpenter who loves us even to a cross. That, of course, is a correct view of the Lord. However, there’s more to him than that. Each of us must spend some reverent and fearful time at Sinai if we’re to begin understanding who God is.
Take Away: Mt. Sinai is a good place to take some “reverence lessons.”
Exodus 3: The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.
I love the story of Moses’ encounter with the Lord. He’s spent 40 years living apart from his own people, tending sheep. The idea of running into God out there in the wilderness must be the farthest thing from his mind. He sees smoke on the horizon and goes to investigate. As he gets closer he sees that it’s just a lonely bush that’s ablaze. The thing is, the fire isn’t consuming the bush and has a source of fuel that Moses can’t see. He’s about to find out that the bush is ablaze with the presence of the Lord. I doubt that Moses thought about it, but that bush is doing the very opposite of what he did. When he was younger he burned with compassion for his enslaved kin. However, these years in the wilderness have quenched that fire. Unlike the bush that keeps on burning, he settled for a life in exile, leaving his fellow Hebrews in slavery in Egypt. When I act on my own, doing what I think is a good idea, I tend to run out of energy. After all, I’m drawing on my talents and abilities and it doesn’t take long for me to run dry. However, when I live in the Lord and allow his Holy Spirit to be my Guide and my Source, well, I’ve tapped into the Power Source that’s never exhausted. Lord, let the fire of your Presence burn in my heart today.
Take Away: If I’m going to be used of God I need to allow him to be my power source, otherwise I’m bound to fail.
2Corinthians 1: And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.
Since his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul has gone though some hard times. His words remind me of some of the Psalms of complaint when David thought it was all over for him. In words similar to what David used, Paul describes how he was crushed and sure that he was at the end. In his despair he realized he was out of options and that there was nothing he could do to save himself. At that low point, he remembered his greatest Resource. When he came to the end of himself he found himself at just the beginning of God. Throwing himself on the mercy of God is the smartest thing he ever did. After all, Paul reminds us, this is the God who even raises the dead. The Lord was equal to the challenge and, for Paul, the sun rose once again in his life, giving him a new lease on life. This journey to death’s door and back, Paul says, has turned out to be a positive event in his life. These days he’s quicker to stop struggling and to start trusting in God to bring about a rescue in his life. This is a lesson I need to learn anew. I serve a God who loves me and who has the power to, when necessary, raise the dead. I may not like it when life brings me my share of uncertainty and even pain. At the same time, I can remember that the same God who has brought me through difficult times in the past can “rescue me as many times as I need rescuing.”
Take Away: In an uncertain world the Lord remains my steadfast certainty.
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
Luke 5: As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.
This statement about the prayer habit of Jesus sticks out like a sore thumb in this passage. It feels as if it was just tossed in after the fact, maybe written while Luke was thinking of what to next tell us about the ministry of Jesus. We’ve just heard Jesus preach while sitting in Simon’s boat and then watched as, under the command of Jesus, Simon and partners have caught a huge haul of fish. Now Jesus is healing a man with leprosy and soon he’ll be surrounded by people seeking healing and with Pharisees seeking arguments. Right in the middle of all this action is this one liner about Jesus slipping away for prayer. Obviously, this is more than random filler from Luke. He wants me to connect the mighty acts of Jesus with his secret prayer life. As his teaches and heals God’s power flows out of him. In his secret prayer life God’s power is replenished in him. This is no chance thought of Luke’s. Rather, he’s providing me with insight into the power source of our Lord. Another devotional thought here is that in spite of the fact that Jesus is a busy man he makes time for prayer. When the last needy person has been satisfied and these new disciples find themselves and Jesus finally alone they expect to enjoy some quality time with their Lord, or at least some down time before it all starts again in the morning. James and John look around and realize Jesus isn’t there. “Where’s Jesus?” they ask. “He’s down by the lake,” Peter answers, adding, “He said something about needing some time alone.” This is to become a daily pattern that the disciples will come to expect. If it’s good for Jesus it’s good for me too.
Take Away: There’s always time, and the necessity, for prayer.
Zechariah 4: You can’t force these things. They only come about through my Spirit.
This statement to governor Zerubbabel is part of one of the most famous portions of Zechariah’s writings. Zerubbabel has already accomplished great things in leading the exiles back to Jerusalem. Now, in response to the urgings of Haggai and Zechariah he’s ready to shoulder the task of rebuilding the Temple. His heart, and the hearts of his people, is in the right place. God is pleased with them. The Lord’s words to the good man and his people are wonderfully encouraging: the Temple will be rebuilt not because of some extraordinary human effort, but by the power of God’s Spirit. This doesn’t mean that the governor and people can sit back and do nothing while a Temple rises from the ashes of destruction, but it does mean that the power for this project is coming from God. The Lord is with them, not only approving of their actions but empowering them as well. With that in mind I see here that my efforts to accomplish things in the Name of the Lord aren’t limited by my own initiative, skills, or intelligence. Every program of the church should be eligible for the label: “God powered.” If that isn’t an encouraging word I don’t know what is.
Take Away: What we accomplish in the Name of the Lord we accomplish by the power of the Lord.