God has always had a people
Esther 1: This is the story of something that happened in the time of Xerxes.
Throughout history there’s been more than one attempt to destroy the people of God. It seems that the enemies of God’s think that if they get rid of his people they’ll get rid of him too. That’s mistaken in two ways. God is God, and killing his followers won’t kill Him, in fact, it will only make him angry. Second, God always has a people. Even when evil has the upper hand, by God’s mercy, there will be at least a remnant that will survive and extend his story to the next generation. In the story of Esther, we see God intervene and spare all his people. To this day, the Jews celebrate this event which is called “Purim.” One of the main characters in the story is Xerxes who rules Persia 465 years before Christ is born. Included in his vast kingdom is the exiled people of God. In spite of the pitiful picture of Xerxes in Scripture, he is, at least early in his career, a pretty successful king winning major battles and taking even more territory. Late in his reign history pictures him pretty much as he is said to be in the book of Esther: self-centered, drunken, and foolish.
Take Away: It’s such a privilege to be counted as one of God’s people.
From generation to generation
Ezra 1: Who among you belongs to his people?
Nebuchadnezzar, it turns out, is the last strong king of Babylon and his destruction of Jerusalem comes near the end of his reign. Before long a new world power rises to swallow Babylon. Cyrus has united the Medes and the Persians, creating a powerful and ambitious kingdom. While it’s probably true that Babylon would have fallen under its own weight anyway, the Persians speed things up to dominate the entire region. For the scattered people of Israel, it appears to simply be a change from one conqueror to another. However, this point of view fails to take the hand of the Almighty into account. This new ruler doesn’t have the negative emotional baggage toward these people that Nebuchadnezzar had. He saw them as a stubborn and rebellious people. Cyrus, on the other hand, wants their God to look on him favorably. A series of events causes him to authorize the rebuilding of the Temple that was destroyed before he was ever born. Because of that he offers these second and third generation exiles permission to return to Jerusalem for that purpose. Many of the Hebrews are satisfied to stay where they were, after all this is the land of their birth. However, some, possibly influenced by the writings in the Chronicles are willing to embark on this challenging adventure. As I work through this material I’m reminded that God is the God of History. From generation to generation he continues to work. People are born, live, and then die, passing from the pages of history. However, God always “is.” There are countless individual stories to be told but through it all, there is just One God.
Take Away: There are many stories to be told, but only one God lives and reigns through them all.
1 Chronicles 1: Abraham’s family tree developed along these lines.
The books called 1st and 2nd Chronicles cover the same period of history that is covered in 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings. However, these books were written around 100 years after the others. Because of that we see a different perspective here. Not only are there different details, as happens any time two or more people tell about the same events, but the emphasis is different too. The books of the Chronicles are written for people whose ancestors were exiled from Israel and Judah two or more generations earlier. These people are in danger of being swallowed up by other cultures to the point that they’re forgetting that they’re “children of Abraham.” The writer (maybe Ezra) wants to reconnect them to their roots and to their God. He sets out to tell them their own story; where they came from and why they’re where they now are. With that in mind, he starts off with genealogy: page after page of names. He wants his readers to find their place in the story. Today, most of us skip through these pages of names. The writer, though, wants his original readers to see their own family record, and in connecting with their ancestry to reconnect their lives to the story of God. To some extent we all need to do some spiritual genealogical work once in a while. It’s to our benefit to remember how we’ve arrived at our current place among the people of God. I’m not just talking about that precious Sunday School teacher who showed an interest in us, but even looking farther back to those who served God and passed the faith along to our “spiritual ancestors.”
Take Away: While we can’t spend all our time looking back it’s not a bad idea to consider our spiritual genealogy once in a while.
Call to remember
Deuteronomy 1: How can I carry, all by myself, your troubles and burdens and quarrels?
The book of Deuteronomy is made up of a sermon or series of sermons by Moses, the man of God. In fact, the name of the book can be understood to mean “talks” or “words.” The occasion is the conclusion of his leadership (and life) and the pending entrance of God’s people into the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. Moses wants to remind them of their history so that they will take their story with them into the new land. He also wants them to remember the mistakes of the past so that they won’t repeat them. Most importantly, he wants them to remember the gracious faithfulness of God who has been with them and will continue to be their God. It shouldn’t surprise us that this book has a lot of repeat material in it. After all, Moses is preaching to remind them of these things. Still, I see a somewhat different emphasis in this sermon as old stories are retold. In the passage that draws my attention today Moses remembers how he organized the leadership. It was his father-in-law who first suggested a division of leadership. Then, later on, it appears the plan had not been carried through and God reminded Moses of this approach. Now Moses remembers how overwhelmed he was as a solo leader. Alone, he couldn’t carry their burdens. This makes perfect sense. A leader who tries to do it all will do a poor job of all of it. It may make that leader feel important, even indispensable, but in the long run, his or her leadership will be a failed effort. The solution is to select the right people to help, to empower them, to continue to enhance their abilities, to keep them connected to the primary leadership, and to always remember that the Lord is our ultimate Leader. At 120 years of age and after 40 years of leadership we can be pretty sure Moses knows what he’s talking about.
Take Away: Leadership doesn’t mean doing everything.
A theology book
Romans 1: I write this letter to all the Christians in Rome, God’s friends.
No one knows who it was who took the Gospel message to Rome. Some think Peter, but that’s due to a particular theological agenda that isn’t supported by the historical commentary of the book of Acts. I do have the idea that some who heard Peter’s great message on the Day of Pentecost were from Rome and were among the 3000 who became believers. Perhaps they returned home and established Christianity in Rome. If I understand the chronology right, as Paul writes this letter he’s about three years from the events recorded in the closing chapters of Acts that will bring him to Rome. In his other letters, he deals with specific concerns because he’s had personal contact with the churches. When he writes to the church at Rome he takes a different approach. The result is the finest book of theology ever written. I don’t know what the original readers thought of this letter but can only guess that they were as blown away by its depth and complexity as I am. Happily for me, I’m not committed to write a commentary on Romans, just some devotionals. Humanity, Paul says, has ignored God resulting in a sort of downward spiral into more and more outrageous and destructive sin. This book of theology describes how it is God has acted to remedy that situation.
Take Away: If you like to read theology you can do no better than to commit yourself to becoming an expert on the book of Romans.
The living parable
Hosea 1: This is God’s Message to Hosea.
Having just spent time in the Old Testament book of Daniel it takes some reorientation to turn the page and find myself in the book of Hosea. Here I see that it will be 200 years before Daniel has his adventures in distant Babylonia. I find myself back in the day of Isaiah and his warnings of future destruction and here I find God at work, reaching out to a rebellious people in an effort to restore them to him and spare them from what’s coming otherwise. Also, as I reach the book of Hosea I find I’m now in the final segment of the Old Testament in the writings of those called the “minor prophets.” Of course, it isn’t their message that’s “minor.” It’s just that their books are shorter and more focused. All the books of the Minor Prophets together contain less material than, say, the book of Ezekiel. Hosea’s prophecy is called a “living parable.” As will Ezekiel in years to come, Hosea is called to live out his message. His prophecy is also a love story. The love he demonstrates for us is not some silly, “love ya’ man” or a shallow, “baby, I need your lovin'” kind of love. Hosea demonstrates for us the depth and power of God’s love for us.
Take Away: The Lord loves us with a powerful, persisting love.
Living in the “right now”
Isaiah 43: Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
This passage was especially meaningful to me several years ago when I was going through a major change in my life. At the time, I was dealing with some “baggage” from the past even as I prepared to move forward. As I read this portion of Isaiah the Lord seemed to highlight these words. I needed to focus on what God was doing right then and move forward into that. This passage inspired me to look forward with confidence. The Lord was about to do a new thing and he was going to let me be a part of it. How about you? Is there something from your past that needs to be forgotten? If so, let the Lord help you to do that. The place to start is to refuse to keep thinking about it. “Don’t keep going over old history.” Every time it comes to mind, reject it. Then, replace those memories by concentrating on the “new thing” God is doing in you and through you. Live in what God is doing right now rather than in some past disappointment.
Take Away: Is there something from your past that needs to be forgotten?