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All in the family
Numbers 12: God overheard their talk.
On the surface it’s a family squabble. Moses’ brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, don’t like his wife. This isn’t especially earthshaking. There are many in-laws who don’t get along. In this case, though, Moses’ brother and sister go public with their family dispute, apparently undermining his leadership by pointing out that Moses is married to a non-Israelite. It’s here that we find this chilling sentence: “God overheard their talk.” Actually, this passage usually brings a smile to my face. The statement that Moses is the most humble man on the face of the earth is quite funny when we think of the tradition that Moses is the author of Numbers. Supposedly we have him describing himself here as the most humble man on earth! In spite of the smile, however, this is quite a serious passage. God doesn’t like it when people undermine the leadership he’s put in place. The issue here isn’t about disagreeing with leaders, questioning some decision they’ve made. Instead, it’s about undermining God-given authority. In this case, God doesn’t like what he hears and acts to shore up his chosen leader’s status by diminishing theirs. Surely there are times when church leaders need correction but if they need to be taken down a peg or two, we’d better be careful about our place in it.
Take Away: A God called leader remains human and prone to error but he or she also deserves respect as one set apart by the Lord.
The disposition of the believer
1Peter 3: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.
The original readers of this letter are under pressure, suffering for their faith. Not only that but they’re in the first generation of Christianity. In this passage Peter describes the general disposition of a believer. Christians are to be agreeable, sympathetic people. We’re to be known for our compassion on others and our humility concerning ourselves. We’re not to advance the cause of Christianity by force and people aren’t to have to worry about watching their “P’s & Q’s” when they’re around us. Even non-Christians are to feel comfortable and it should go without saying that we’re to treat one another in kind, agreeable ways. Sad to say, some believers haven’t gotten this memo. They think that they’re doing God a favor by forcing their moral code down people’s throats. They think they’re being good soldiers in his army by creating lots of collateral damage on fellow believers with whom they have a few differences of opinion. The question I need to ask myself is how do I score on this “agreeable, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, humble” test? Peter, it seems, can almost hear people’s self-justification at this point, so he adds: “That goes for all of you, no exceptions.” He continues, “That’s your job, to bless.” Of course, my non-Christian friends are to know that I believe there’s a superior way for them to live. At the same time, they’re to conclude an encounter with me feeling that they’ve been blessed and not cursed.
Take Away: Do people think of time with us as a blessing or a curse?
In over my head
Ephesians 3: So here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head.
It was hidden in plain view. Throughout the ages the Lord God has intended to save all people. Some considered to be insiders are no more “inside” than those assumed to be outside the saving work of God. It was always there, easy enough to see, but missed by most. Now, the secret is out and throughout the Gentile world people are responding to the way made clear by the work of Jesus, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul is amazed to find himself in the middle of things. He, more than most anyone, had been blind to God’s intention, at one point actively fighting against it. In fact, Paul has been twice surprised: first, by the fact that all along God intended to save all who will come and second, by the fact that he, Paul, has a role to play in the revelation of this plan. The Apostle considers himself to be, of all people, an especially unlikely candidate. Still he finds himself uniquely equipped for the work, with words and ministry flowing out of his life. He knows that the Source of all this isn’t in him at all, but, rather, is the result of God’s doing through him what he could never do otherwise. Paul’s experience is, of course, extraordinary and a person who wants to lay claim on any similarities had better tread carefully. Still, it’s important for preachers and teachers and professors to get their heads around this. On one hand, believing God has chosen us and uses us in surprising ways lends us a sense of spiritual authority and self-assurance in our service of the Lord. On the other hand, knowing that none of it actually comes from us grounds us in real humility. Otherwise, we end up thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and the possibility of our ministry being used of God is greatly diluted.
Take Away: When God calls and uses a person that person must never lose sight of the fact that their usefulness is the Lord’s doing and not theirs.
Peter, stop arguing!
John 13: Why can’t I follow now?
It’s Thursday night before Jesus is arrested. He and his disciples are in the Upper Room and Jesus is in the role of servant, washing their feet. He comes to Peter, but Peter resists, declaring “You’re not going to wash my feet – ever!” Jesus, though, persists telling Peter that if he won’t allow this that he’ll have no part in what Jesus has come to do. Peter decides to give in, but if that’s how it is, he has a better idea. He wants Jesus to wash his hands and head as well. Once again, our Lord holds steady, explaining that it’s foot washing that Peter needs and it’s foot washing that he’s going to get. Then, the meal ended, Jesus tenderly commands his disciples to love one another. This, he says, will be their primary, distinguishing characteristic. As Jesus is stating these words, Peter’s focus is on what Jesus said earlier. He ignores the teaching concerning mutual love and wants to know where Jesus is going. The Lord patiently responds, telling Peter that someday he’ll follow but not right now. Peter is having none of that. “Why later? Why not now?” he demands. Then he adds, “I’ll lay down my life for you.” At this point, Jesus has had enough of Peter’s approach. Even as he declares his allegiance to the Lord his responses are always that he knows better than Jesus. At this point Jesus tells him that big time failure is coming to him, and soon. I don’t know whether to smile at Peter’s “Lord, I love you but I know better than you” approach or if I should wince and remember the times I’ve blundered ahead of the Lord thinking I knew what to do without asking him. How often do my actions betray the truth that I think I know better than God?
Take Away: A part of following Jesus is admitting that he’s smarter than we are.
Not thinking too highly of ourselves
Nahum 1: A report on the problem of Nineveh.
Nahum gets the job Jonah wanted. Around 100 years earlier God sent Jonah to preach condemnation to Nineveh, but in hopes that they would repent and be spared. Jonah would have been happy to preach the message of God’s judgment if that was all there was to it. Now, two generations later Nahum is given that message. “The problem of Nineveh” is that the Assyrian empire is the superpower of the region. The tiny nation of Judah is in fearful awe of that empire and behind every move they make is the question, “Will this be okay with the powers that be in the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh?” Nahum’s call from God is to reorient the priorities of Judah. He’s to tell his people that God is still God and that Nineveh will be held to the same standards as the other nations of the world. The prophet goes to work proclaiming his message. In the first part of his sermon he reminds them that, as mighty as Assyria might be, the Lord is the “All-mighty.” God’s a patient God, but, in the end, he’s also Judge of the world. To him, Assyria is just another nation and they’re about to be called to account for their abuse of power. My nation is on the Assyrian side of things. We’re the superpower and, to borrow an old saying, “when America sneezes the whole world gets a bad cold.” As I read from the little Book of Nahum I’m reminded that in God’s eyes we’re not as big a deal as we think we are.
Take Away: It’s important for us as individuals and as a nation to remember that the Lord is the “All-Mighty.”
Speaking the truth in humility
Isaiah 65: There are still plenty of good apples left.
Even as Isaiah reports that the Lord’s running out of patience with the stubborn resistance of many, he reminds us that God’s very aware of those who live obedient, faithful lives. The nation of Israel is about to go through a culling. Many will face the wrath of God but others will be preserved by his grace. Frankly, from the devotional side of things I’m not sure what to do with passages like this. Am I to be somewhat frightened and spend a few moments doing a personal spiritual inventory? Am I to take on Isaiah’s role and start warning those “sinners” that the clock on God’s mercy is running out? I guess the answer is somewhere in the middle. I never arrive at the place where I’m above consideration of my own spiritual condition. Just a quick of reading the gospels reminds me that it’s spiritual pride that’s the downfall of the religious people of Jesus’ day. On the other hand, if I’m going to be effective in both warning and inviting the “outsiders” to come to the Lord I must do so in a sense of humility. Otherwise, I’ll drive them away from both myself and their Savior.
Take Away: Always deal with lost people with a strong sense of personal humility.
Listening in prayer
Ecclesiastes 5: Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear.
Some folks think God wants to hear us pray in the language of the King James Bible: “Almighty God, Thou Who art from everlasting to everlasting….” To them, prayer is a rather formal event that ought to be filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Sometimes, as I’m reminded here, I’m better off to pray without words at all and let God be in charge of what happens next. It does make sense. God is always the “first mover.” After all, the Bible doesn’t start off with “In the beginning man…”! So, rather than coming to prayer in what might be called “automatic mode,” in which every prayer is pretty much a copy of the one before, or with a sense of formality, I want to come to him humbly and honestly; not saying what I think he wants to hear, but in a genuine desire to hear from him. If I let him lead the way my prayer time will be more satisfying to both the Lord and to me. Prayer is just as much a matter of listening as it is a matter of talking.
Take Away: Being still before the Lord is a legitimate approach to prayer.
Proverbs 15: First you learn humility, then you experience glory.
Humility has to be learned because we’re all born thinking the world revolves around us. Unless I learn humility I spend my life, not necessarily thinking I’m better than others, but thinking that everything that happens should happen the way I want it to. For me to be humble is for me to realize that I’m not the center of the universe and that the world has no obligation to please me. Beyond that, to be humble is for me to come to the realization the most satisfying life is not all about my getting my own way about things, but is, instead, found as I live with others in mind. Jesus said that I’m to “love my neighbor as myself.” The result of such a life, according to the wise man of the Proverbs, is “glory.” That is, others will be irresistibly drawn to me and my life will influence them in positive ways. Not only that, but God will be pleased with me for patterning my life after that of his own Son who humbly lived and died for others. This proverb reminds me that the route to glory isn’t by my taking power and trying to shape the world to suit me. Instead, it’s achieved by loving others and placing their needs at a level equal to my own.
Take Away: Contrary to what we may think, humble people are some of the most influential people there are.