Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Please stand for the reading of God’s Word
Nehemiah 8: He read it…from early dawn until noon…and all the people listened.
With the Temple rebuilt and the walls providing security to the city a special gathering is scheduled. Ezra the priest stands on a specially constructed platform to read the Word of God. For three hours he reads as the people stand in honor of the Sacred Word. As Ezra reads, something powerful is happening in the lives of his listeners. In some church traditions time is set aside every service for the reading of and hearing of the Word. This isn’t the same as listening to a sermon, even if it’s well preached and faithful to the meaning of the passage being considered. This is hearing the Word simply as the Word and letting God minister his grace through it. There is, I believe, a place for the reading and hearing of Scripture in every church. We might have to shorten the singing a bit (or just lengthen the service) to make more room for Scripture. Most of us church folks claim to be “people of the Word.” Perhaps we should practice what we preach and give the reading of and listening to God’s Word a more prominent place in our services.
Take Away: The Word of the Lord is powerful – life changing – and we need to spend a significant amount of time letting it be drawn deeply into our lives.
The boy-king gets an A+
2Kings 23: The world would never again see a king like Josiah.
When Josiah becomes boy-king of Judah the Temple is not only a place for sacrifices to Jehovah God, but is used for worship of Baal, Ashtoreth, and other pagan gods as well. The country is filled with shrines and altars, some dating back for centuries. Near Jerusalem stands an iron furnace that is used for child sacrifices. Clearly, the spiritual condition of Judah was pitiful, as the commandments of God have been ignored for generations. Josiah’s discovery of the Law of God shocks him to action. What he does isn’t some cosmetic religious reform. This is all out transformation. Josiah uses the Book as an instruction manual on how to live and worship. He follows it to a letter. For instance, the Book of the Covenant describes observing the Passover, something that hasn’t been done for centuries. Josiah reads the Book and follows the directions, reestablishing this observance. The result is that God is pleased with him, giving him an “A+.” Because of his faithfulness an entire generation is changed. Today, Josiah inspires us to take God seriously and to swim against the tide of popular culture. Josiah’s story gives us hope of transforming our society.
Take Away: When the Lord is given a chance, wonderful, life-changing things happen.
God taking us seriously
2Kings 22: I’m taking you seriously.
The clock is about to run out on Judah as the nation has drifted farther and farther from God. When the boy-king Josiah comes to power things have eroded to the point that even the priests at the Temple don’t know God’s Word to them. As Josiah grows up he wants to do the right thing even though he’s unsure of what the right thing is. Out of respect for God, he decides to renovate the Temple and it’s while that work is being done that Scripture is found. The message is not a pleasant, comforting one. Instead, its words declare the covenant made between God and Josiah’s ancestors. That covenant contains words of blessing but also states, in graphic terms, what will happen if they break that covenant. As Josiah hears these words the seriousness of the situation dawns upon him. He and his people are clearly candidates for the “curse” part of the covenant. He’s heartbroken and he’s frightened. He sends word to a woman of God asking for her intercession. The message she receives from God is both positive and negative. It’s negative in its confirmation that all the curses of the covenant will come true. Simply put, God will keep his word. It’s positive in that God is taking Josiah’s repentance and commitment to the Almighty seriously. Once again the curse is put on hold. As a result, Josiah will rule in peace throughout his life. Even as the Lord takes Josiah seriously he takes me seriously. That doesn’t mean my saying “I’m sorry” will stop events that are already in motion from happening. It does mean that the Lord’s willing to hear and forgive when I call out to him.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
The ultimate Prophet
Deuteronomy 18: God, your God, is going to raise up a prophet for you…a prophet like me.
It’s the nature of things for people to want a “word from the Lord.” Even when all the other aspects of religion are established and operating we want to hear from the Lord. In this passage Moses addresses this. The priests are doing their jobs and the Levites are in place but Moses knows that without the “prophetic voice” that the people will be tempted to turn to the occult in an effort to touch something, someone, beyond themselves. In addressing this issue, and as a true prophet himself, Moses speaks beyond his own knowledge. He understands that the Lord is promising to send someone who will speak with prophetic authority, but he doesn’t know just how great and complete that Voice will be. Out of their number God will anoint the ultimate prophet. In fact, this prophet will be the very Word of God. Throughout their history, these Hebrew people will hear the message of many prophets, but the ultimate prophet, the One who will proclaim God’s message with absolute authority, is none other than Jesus, the Son of God.
Take Away: In Jesus we not only hear the Word of God, but we meet the Word of God in the flesh.
Bible studies and prayer meetings
John 5: These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you.
It all starts when Jesus heals a lame man with the order to pick up his bed roll and walk. The wonderful miracle is lost on the religious leaders because it takes place on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle, they insist, what’s this about telling people to carry things on the Sabbath? Pitiful, isn’t it. When these leaders angrily challenge Jesus he does nothing to calm them down. Rather, he identifies himself with his Heavenly Father and claims his support and direction in all he does. How in the world do they think they can win an argument with the man who just worked a miracle? Jesus moves on to point out that they, Bible scholars that they are, know all about what the Scriptures say about the Messiah. He tells them it’s time to get their heads out of their Bibles and look in the eye the one testified about by those very Scriptures. Silly religious leaders! They’ve given their lives to knowing God’s Word and have now missed the Living Word of God standing right in front of them. How could they ever think that Bible study is better than fellowship with the Lord who is right there with them? I’m glad we Christians today know better. We’d rather spend five minutes in the literal presence of the Lord than an hour of debating some obscure term from the Bible. Right? I know, I know, there’s a place for both. Still, I can’t help but note that Bible studies are generally better attended than prayer meetings.
Take Away: It’s better, if one must decide between the two, to know Jesus than to know the Bible. Happily, we don’t have to decide.
No shallow water here
John 1: The Word was God.
Intentionally paralleling the opening words of Genesis John begins his gospel with poetry. In the first words of the Bible I’m told that God “spoke” the world into existence. “God said…and there was.” Now, I’m told that in recent days God has spoken again. This time, not creating a new world but, rather, creating salvation. This time, God has spoken in a man and that man is the Word of God. Everything I need to know about salvation, everything necessary for salvation is accomplished in the living Word of God. The One John introduces here is more than just a man speaking God’s words. He is, in man, God, himself. This, my friend, is a huge concept that can’t be explained in one short devotional paragraph. It can, though, be summed up in a sentence: “the Word was God.”
Take Away: To know Jesus is to know God. To know Jesus is to know Salvation.
A good word from the Lord
Ezekiel 29: I’ll give you, Ezekiel, bold and confident words to speak.
A turnaround is coming. For some time now Israel had heard nothing but condemnation from God’s prophet, Ezekiel. According to him things are going to get worse before they get better. Now, we see that things will, indeed, get better. The same man who’s condemned their sin and the sins of the nations associated with them is going to be given a different word from the Lord. His words will bring hope and deliverance. His messages will reconnect them with God, himself. What powerful words they’re going to be! These aren’t the empty promises of a politician. This is God’s man speaking God’s word to them. When the Lord gets involved words take on an additional element of power. As a preacher I’m both encouraged and challenged here. I’m encouraged that, as old fashioned as it might seem, that God can communicate to people through a weak vessel like me and that as I preach God can “stir up fresh hope” and usher in “deliverance” in people’s lives. I’m challenged to live close enough to the Lord that he can direct me in that endeavor; to trust him and cooperate with him in what he wants to say to those who are listening.
Take Away: Words directed by the Lord are powerful and can be life changing.
Ezekiel 3: Get all these words that I’m giving you inside you.
Ezekiel’s vision is intended to prepare him for the ministry God has for him. At one point in his vision he’s given a scroll and told to eat it. He reports that it tastes like honey. When the Lord applies the vision he tells Ezekiel that he needs to fully digest the message he has for the exiles. God’s message needs to become part of him to the point that even if people disagree or simply refuse to listen to him that he’ll have absolute confidence in what he says. While I don’t enjoy arguing religion, I certainly enjoy talking about it. I love dealing with the finer points of the faith, especially the more difficult to understand passages. However, there are some things that ought not to be subject to debate. I’ve learned that there are a few, very few, absolute basics that need to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker. They’re to become as much a part of me as are my heart and lungs. It’s not that I refuse to discuss them, but that they are at the core of my existence. Without diving off into the deep end of the pool here, I think I can name them off the top of my head. First, God is. Second, Jesus is the Son of God who died for my sins and was resurrected to life. Third, as I trust in Jesus as my Savior I have the hope of eternal life in him. These truths not only “taste like honey,” they also make me who I am today and for eternity.
Take Away: Some things are debatable and a few, just a few, aren’t.
How inspiration works
Jeremiah 36: There were also generous additions, but the same kind of thing.
Babylon isn’t the only threat to Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. Egypt also invades and conquers the nation. Jehoiakim is made king of Judah by the Egyptian conquerors. It’s during his years in power that the Lord tells Jeremiah to write down a recap of all the prophecies that have been made concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah obeys, dictating his messages to Baruch, who serves as his secretary. The prophet sends Baruch down to the Temple to read it all to the people and the message creates uproar. Before long, Baruch, scroll in hand, finds himself before king Jehoiakim. The king, though, isn’t impressed with Jeremiah’s message. As Baruch reads, the king takes a small knife and trims away each column as it’s heard. He then, in an act of rejection, throws what has been cut off into the fire. When Baruch returns to Jeremiah and tells him what’s happened, Jeremiah starts all over again, dictating another message from God, this one more elaborate than the first. Obviously, there’s a lot here, but I find myself thinking about how God brought about the Sacred Writings that make up our Bibles. In this case, God doesn’t dictate a message to Jeremiah to dictate to Baruch. Instead, the Lord just tells Jeremiah to write down a summary of all the prophecies he’s given concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah goes to work, dictating to Baruch who faithfully writes down what he hears. The real kicker to me is that when this process is done a second time, we’re told that Jeremiah adds some stuff to it. In other words, there isn’t just one way for this scroll to be written. The Lord wants Jeremiah to tell the story, and I have no doubt that the Lord helps Jeremiah remember many specifics. However, for the second round, Jeremiah wants to add some stuff. It isn’t that he’s making things up; he just remembers more and decides to include it. We have here a pretty neat example of how the Scriptures were given to us. The Lord doesn’t dictate word for word (that is, unless it says he did). Instead, he says, “write about this event or tell the message you received from me.” From there, the writer’s free to frame things in his own words and even from his own perspective. Because of that we hear from the Scriptures not only the “big message” of God’s intentions, but also the “little message” of how the writer views the world. If you think about it, that’s a pretty good example of how God works in this world: partnering with humanity and even accepting some of our limitations.
Take Away: The Lord wants us to partner with him in what he’s doing in the world.