No reboot necessary
Isaiah 1: If your sins are blood-red, they’ll be snow-white.
If I have the idea that the prophets are all about denunciation and condemnation I need to spend some time with this passage. Yes, God is fed up with their religious charades; their going-through-the-motions spirituality; their under-the-table shady deals. The Lord says he’s going to put a stop to it. However, it doesn’t have to be with defeat, misery, and destruction. “Let’s be reasonable about this,” the Almighty says, “we can fix this, and when I’m finished things will be better than before.” All it takes is their being sensible and cooperating with God. This isn’t about having a sword hanging over their necks. It’s about grace and mercy, not justice. It’s still true today. If God wants to do away with us it’s his right and it’s just what we deserve. However, rather than hitting the “delete button” on humanity he offers restoration. This passage is filled with sunlight and hope. Plus that, it’s a genuine offer from Heaven’s Throne to each of us. Come on; let’s be reasonable about this…God can fix things, making them right between us and Him. It’s too good an offer to refuse.
Take Away: Rather than a re-start of humanity the Lord wants to restore us. That’s grace.
Good theology from Johnny Cash
Ecclesiastes 10: Dead flies in perfume make it stink, and a little foolishness decomposes much wisdom.
The “dead flies” line always struck me as funny, especially when I first read it as a teen. At that time I didn’t take time to try to understand the meaning of it so I just smiled and moved on. A person can say and do a lot of wise things in their life, but one blunder can pretty much ruin it all. I’ve seen that happen with presidents and pastors; with CEO’s and secretaries. When my son got his first driver’s license I commented to him that many drivers only make one mistake in their lives, and it’s their last. Car wrecks can be unforgiving. It’s true of other life situations too. A man can be a good husband and father for 30 years and then get involved with someone for a brief fling that ruins all those years of faithfulness. While I’m a big believer in second chances and grace I also know that a few “dead flies” can ruin a lot of godly living. Johnny Cash wasn’t singing a hymn when he sang, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine…because you’re mine I walk the line” but his words do apply in that sense. I don’t want a few “dead flies” to ruin a lifetime of faithfulness.
Take Away: Watch out for “dead flies” in your life.
Psalm 84: “A Korah Psalm”
This is one of the Psalms written by the sons of Korah. Actually, there’s a lot of information on Korah and his descendants. These psalm writing “sons” are really descendants of the Levite named Korah who challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron way back in the book of Numbers. He dies at the hand of God in that rebellion, but it seems his descendants continue on and here we see that they’re among the Levites David assigns to be worship leaders. It’s good to remember that even though there’s spiritual failure in our past (or that of our family) that we still have opportunity to be well used by God. Great-great grandpa might have challenged God’s chosen leaders (or might have been a slave owner or been hung a horse thief) but that doesn’t make us of any less value in God’s sight. This kind of thinking sounds pretty old hat to me and my fellow Americans. We’re all individualists anyway and think it’s wonderful to be able to say, “I did it my way.” To people through most of history, the “my way” approach is unheard of. They see life from the group’s point of view and speak in terms of “our way.” That means that their culture sees grandpa’s failures as the failure of all those descended from him. In their way of thinking, the stigma of failure is passed down from generation to generation. Every time we glance at the top of a Psalm and see that it comes from Korah’s clan we’re seeing redemption at work! In more current terms, these psalms remind me that God forgives my past failure and is very willing to use me as a worker in his Kingdom today.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Telling it like it was
Psalm 78: He…commanded our parents to teach it to their children.
Asaph’s longest psalm tells the story of Israel’s failure and God’s faithfulness. In the opening part of the psalm he states that its purpose is to tell their story so that the next generation will learn to trust God. Honestly, from Israel’s point of view this isn’t a very flattering story. Each verse of the song describes a failure of Israel and how God responds with compassion to rescue them from some mess they’ve gotten themselves into. I don’t know about you, but when I’m telling the “next generation” about God I usually skip the “I failed” part and jump straight to the “God helped” part. Maybe that’s a mistake. It might be that I’m unintentionally saving face instead of teaching others to trust God more. Of course, there are things in all our pasts that must be told carefully and at the right time, but there’s likely a time for the telling. If I’m not careful I give the impression that I wised up and decided to give my heart to the Lord. In doing that, I make God into a concerned bystander in my story, wringing his hands, hoping I’ll turn it all around and then pleased that I’ve done so. It really isn’t that way. It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption. Yes, I have to cooperate with him, but he’s the one who ought to get all the credit. I need to be sure that “my story” is truly “God’s story.” A part of that is my, at the appropriate time and place, honestly admitting my failure. That gives God the glory and also gives hope to that one in the “next generation” who already has some spiritual failures of his or her own.
Take Away: It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption.
Some lessons are learned the hard way
Psalm 51: Going through the motions doesn’t please you.
This Psalm probably ranks in the top four or five best known psalms and it comes from the worst event of David’s life. He’s sinned against God in his affair with Bathsheba and then tried to cover it up by engineering the death of her husband. His evil plan never has a chance. All the time God is watching as the whole ugly thing unfolds. God sends his man, Nathan, to confront David and when he repents he writes this psalm as his prayer of confession. Its theme is “God’s loving grace.” David pleads for mercy and forgiveness and asks for a changed heart. There’s no, “I’ll try harder” in his cry to God. He realizes that his greatest need isn’t better performance but that he be made new from the inside out. I think the most powerful insight of the psalm is David’s realization that God isn’t nearly as interested in performance as he is in motivation. The Lord isn’t as interested in our behaving in some proscribed way as he is interested in our hearts. When the heart is right, performance (within human limitations) will follow. Otherwise, performance becomes for us, not a source of righteousness, but a source of pride.
Take Away: A changed heart results in changed behavior.
The difference between imperfection and unrighteousness
Job 25: Even the stars aren’t perfect in God’s eyes.
The final statement from one of Job’s three friends (although the fourth speaker, Elihu, is still to come), is a short one and it causes us to wonder if maybe Job has argued them to a standstill. However, Bildad does take us down a bit different track. He argues that only God is truly perfect, and next to him, everything else comes up short. Even the stars of the sky are lacking in God’s eyes. Since that’s true (according to Bildad) God is justified in bringing calamity on anybody, including Job. After all, we’re all less than insects when compared to God. That’s his argument, but it isn’t a very good one. Job replies that he maintains his integrity even in the midst of what he sees as an unjust trial. His argument isn’t that he’s perfect. Rather, it’s that he’s just. Job understands something that many modern Christians fail to grasp. There’s a difference between imperfection and unrighteousness. God looks, not on our performance, but on our intent. My humanity guarantees that I’ll have a sub-par performance. However, by God’s grace, I can live for God and maintain my integrity before him even in the worst of times. Samuel learned this truth before anointing David King of Israel: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Job may be struggling with several theological concepts, but he has this one down pat.
Take Away: By the grace of the Lord it is, indeed, possible to have a pure heart in his sight.
The most important thing
Job 9: I don’t understand what’s going on.
Job’s reply to Bildad’s lecture about how bad people have bad things happen to them and good people enjoy good things is not to disagree. He says, “So what’s new? I know all this.” Again, (and I know I can quit harping on this) Job’s complaint is that he’s done nothing to deserve all this and that somehow there’s been a mistake in heaven. However, Job is a clear thinker. He understands that the only way a man can be right with God is by God’s mercy. He trusts in God, but he understands that it’s only by grace and mercy that he has a standing before the Lord. The impressive thing about Job, however, isn’t that he has a firm grasp on spiritual truths that won’t be fully revealed until Jesus explains them. The impressive thing is that even when he feels he’s being treated unjustly by God, even when he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and even as he cries out for a fair hearing on this whole matter, he stands firm in his faith. In all this, we’re reminded that faith trumps even knowledge. That’s not only vital for Job, but it’s vital for me too.
Take Away: Faith trumps even knowledge.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
The End…well, not quite
2 Chronicles 36: …he wanted to give them every chance possible. But they wouldn’t listen.
The intended audience of the Chronicles is the descendants of those in the story that’s told here. The original readers live in exile, hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. These people have never seen the City of David and are in danger of becoming disconnected from their rich heritage. However, there’s more. These books tell why they are where they are. The passage before us gives the final word. God had warned their ancestors again and again that if they continued down the road they were traveling it would end in destruction. The mercy and grace of God in reaching out to them was disregarded. His repeated overtures to them were rejected and because of that rebellion God gave up on them and all was lost. Now both Israel and Judah are gone and the holy city of Jerusalem is destroyed. The End. However, the Chronicles author can’t let it end like that. After writing the obituary of Judah he ties the old story to their current lives. The God who gave up on their ancestors is now reaching out to them. There’s the possibility of rebuilding the Temple they’ve read about in this story. The God of Second Chances is still at work even in their lives. This story tells us a lot about the descendants of Abraham but it tells us even more about God.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Better late than never
2 Chronicles 33: As he prayed, God was touched.
Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, made some mistakes, but his leadership of Judah was, by and large, pleasing to God and to his people. Now it’s Manasseh’s turn. He messes up – “royally!” Under his leadership the descendants of Abraham turn back to the idol worship of the past. He even brings disgusting idols right into the Temple his father had so carefully restored. It’s as Manasseh’s doing these stupid things that we find a chilling statement. The Scripture reports: “And God was angry.” Tell you what; if you’re doing your own thing and ignoring God you really don’t want to hear these words! The result is that God allows Assyria to accomplish what they were kept from accomplishing before. Jerusalem falls before this regional power. Manasseh, himself, is led off like a farm animal to distant Babylon, likely destined for execution. To Manasseh it seems that this just might be a good time to pray! Well, to be honest about it, it is way past time for him to pray; but pray he does. He falls on his knees and cries out to God, repenting “totally” of his sins. If one thing you really don’t want to hear about yourself is that “God is angry” the sweetest sound that can fall upon the ear is what we read here: “As he prayed, God was touched.” Manasseh shouldn’t have messed up in the first place. His life would have been vastly better had he been true to the God of his father. However, once he messed up, the next best thing was to pray a prayer of absolute, from-the-heart repentance. Such prayers always touch the heart of God. It’s true for Manasseh. It’s true for you and me.
Take Away: Better to not mess up in the first place, but if you’ve messed up it’s time to pray like you’ve never prayed before.