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Numbers 16: Earth opened its mouth and in one gulp swallowed them down.
In spite of the awesome encounters with the Almighty and his daily provision for them, and in spite of the progress that’s been made in the construction of the Tent of Worship as well as the organization of the hundreds of thousands of people, serious opposition is building in the camp. Many resent Moses’ assumption of authority and doubt his ability to lead them forward. Resentment and doubt fester and some step forward to seize the moment. They rally a collation to challenge Moses. Not once, but twice the entire nation is moments away from eradication due to the wrath of the Almighty. Moses calls for a contest of sorts. Representatives of both sides will come to burn incense before the Lord. God will choose who will lead his people. The contest is a brief one. No one can doubt the Lord’s answer as the earth opens to swallow up the rebels. The 250 who are offering incense to the Lord are struck dead by lightning. If that isn’t enough, the next day many throughout the camp complain, blaming Moses for all the death the previous day and the Lord responds by sending a plague that kills 14,700 people. Clearly, the Lord is intent on establishing, once and for all, Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Just as clear, is the realization that to this very day God expects his plans to be followed. Without doubt, I’m aware of the grace, mercy, patience and love the Lord has for us. I need to also be aware that none of this means the Lord will just go along with me when I challenge his purposes in the world. The result my rebellion may not be as dramatic as it was among these ancient Israelites but it will be just as serious. Challenging God is always serious business.
Take Away: Never doubt it: the Lord expects us to be obedient to his will.
There’s bad news
Leviticus 26: But if you refuse to obey me
While I’d like to linger on the blessing side of Leviticus 26 I have to move on to the curse side of the chapter. God tells them, “If you obey…good things will come. If you disobey…the results will be unthinkable.” The list is filled with everything from disease to famine to war to cannibalism. While these horrible things are framed as divine retribution the last part of this terrible section makes it clear that all these things will come “because of their sins, their sins compounded by their ancestors’ sins.” With that clarification in mind I see that this passage isn’t about God getting them if they don’t behave but, instead, is a clear word of warning that people reap what they sow. I’m not saying that the Lord has nothing to do with some of the promised terrible things, just that if they remove themselves from his blessings this, in general, is what the real world looks like. Apart from the Lord’s provision and protection they’ll find the world to be a harsh, unforgiving place. As one generation after another shrugs off their connection to the Almighty they will fall deeper and deeper into a pit of despair and desperation. God doesn’t have to send bad things into people’s lives because we live in a world where bad things sometimes happen. While it’s beyond the scope of this short devotional, the truth is that bad things come into the lives of both the righteous and the unrighteous. However in this passage the Lord warns his people that if they reject his presence and grace, severing the special connection they have with him the result will be what’s described in this passage.
Take Away: The world is a dangerous place, especially for those who live outside the grace and mercy of the Lord.
Leviticus 10: Distinguish between the holy and the common, between the ritually clean and unclean.
It starts with another “fire” issue. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu have failed to follow the Lord’s instructions concerning fire used in worship. The result is fire from Above! The fire of the wrath of God kills them. Things have calmed down a bit, and Moses warns everyone to not take the things of God lightly. Holy things must be treated as such; with reverence. If it’s possible to treat uncommon things as common and thus bring condemnation, it is just as possible to treat common things as uncommon. Our society specializes in that. Things that should be treated with absolute reverence are tossed aside as though they’re worthless. Silly things that are either simply common or worse are held up as shining objects of worship. My society does that with sports, entertainment, and so-called success. To treat the holy as common is sin that brings death. The same can be said of treating common things as holy.
Take Away: Priorities are critically important in all of life.
The stubbornness of Pharaoh
Exodus 9: But for one reason only I’ve kept you on your feet…
Things continue to go downhill for mighty Egypt. Dead animals and a plague of miserable boils have struck the land. As Goliath will stager before falling many years in the future, Egypt is near the end. All the wealth and power Joseph brought to Egypt is draining away. One has to believe that the people of Egypt and even the advisors of the king are practically begging him to end this by surrendering to the demand from God that the people of Israel be set free. As Moses promises yet another massive display of God’s power, he explains the absurd stubbornness of Pharaoh. This is God’s doing. Pharaoh hasn’t given in because he can’t give in. After centuries of seeming silence God is making himself known once again. When he’s finished with Pharaoh the whole world will know about the God of the Israelites. On one hand I squirm a bit in my spirit as I see Pharaoh stripped of his free will, suffering the consequences of his earlier stubbornness. On the other hand, though, I’m reminded that it’s the Almighty who’s doing it. Who has a right to question what the Creator of all things does? Pharaoh’s life is going to bring glory to God, not only throughout the world of his day, but throughout history as well. As I read about the plagues I’m reminded that every life will, sooner or later, bring glory to God.
Take Away: Ultimately, God is sovereign and ultimately, every life will yield to that truth.
Road to ruin
Genesis 19: God was so merciful to them!
I really dislike the story of the destruction of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s almost nothing uplifting in it. Years earlier, Lot and his family had taken up residence in the vicinity of Sodom. Now, in spite of its reputation for sexual wickedness, we find him at home there. When the messengers of God warn him to take his family and flee he doesn’t want to go. His wife can’t bear leaving and his daughters have a warped view of morality. Even when he’s convinced to run he can’t bring himself to leave the area and, even though he later changes his mind about it, strikes a bargain to move to a smaller town in the area. I squirm a bit as I read all this and then, even though I’ve read the story many times, I want to turn my head as the fire and brimstone falls in judgment. I come away from this passage thinking I’d better be careful about the choices I make…that they may have more impact on me and those I love than I realize. I’m also reminded that I must never underestimate the seriousness of sin. As does Abraham, once in a while I need to glance out over the plain and see the smoke rising from the destruction and remember that Judgment is real and sure and serious. And, as I see Lot and his family being ushered away prior to that Judgment, I had better be reminded of God’s mercy. That was their only hope and it’s also my only hope.
Take away: I’d better be careful about the choices I make.
Genesis 3: God put a mark on Cain to protect him.
The murderer has been confronted and has confessed. The sentence is banishment to a hostile world. From now on he’ll be an outsider, apart from the family (it’s not a nation yet) God claims as his own. Cain is crushed by this sentence and already feels the icy grip of loneliness on his life. Not only that, but he knows he’s getting off with a sentence lighter than he deserves. He senses that the proper penalty for murder is death. In addition, he realizes that other people know it too. God may be banishing him, but he imagines other men hunting him down and taking his life that justice might be done. What the Lord does in response is, at the same time, one of the great mysteries of the Bible and also one of many great acts of mercy. Cain’s marked in some way that says to all he encounters “This man is under God’s protection, leave him alone.” I have no idea of what that mark is, in fact, I can’t imagine how it works. However, I do know it’s a mark of mercy and I have a very good idea of what mercy looks like. It looks like the Lord forgiving me of my sins rather than condemning me as I deserve. It looks like hope instead of fear. It looks like Jesus on the cross of Calvary.
Take away: Thank God for the “mark of mercy!”
When God’s had enough
Revelation 18: The Strong God who judges her has had enough.
The actual God has had enough. It takes a lot to arrive at this place. A lot of God’s grace has to be rejected. A lot of his patience has to be wasted. As we’re reminded by the writer of Hebrews, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” All heaven cheers this act of Judgment, not because of vengeance, but because of righteousness. For a righteous, pure, holy God to be who he is, ultimately, the end of all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must come. It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities to turn around. I can say with confidence that there’s been at least 2000 years. At some point the patience of God will be exhausted. I want to be standing on the right side of things when God has “had enough.”
Take Away: For the Lord to be righteous, pure, and holy, sooner or later all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must be defeated.
Muddling my way through, holding fast
Revelation 16: Keep watch! I come unannounced, like a thief. You’re blessed if, awake and dressed, you’re ready for me.
The seven bowls of God’s wrath bring untold misery to the earth. Some of the miseries remind us of what happened in the limited region of Egypt during the ten plagues. In this case, though, the suffering is worldwide. When God’s attention specifically turns to the Beast and his unholy trinity they rally the nations of the earth to fight back. Armageddon is at hand. There’s so much here that I don’t understand that I’m ashamed of myself. Here I am in the book called “Revelation” and I’m constantly reminded that I’m missing whatever it is I’m supposed to grasp. Still, once in a while I’m graciously given something to which I can cling. Even if I don’t get it, I’m advised to “Keep watch!” and to be “ready.” Jesus said the same thing during his earthly ministry and now he repeats it. Even as I muddle through these pictures of judgment filled with symbolism that I’m missing more than understanding, I’m encouraged to simply hang in there. I may not understand Armageddon but I understand what it means to stand fast in my relationship with the Lord. Ultimately, it’s that that matters much more than my poor grasp on the precise meaning of passages like this.
Take Away: Even when you don’t understand what’s going on stand fast in the faith. Ultimately, that’s what matters the most anyway.
Revelation 15: One of the Four Animals handed the Seven Angels seven gold bowls, brimming with the wrath of God.
The revelator hears a song performed by a huge number of overcomers. It’s a song of praise and worship. It’s also a song of fear and judgment. “God is holy,” they proclaim, “all nations will come and worship you, because they see your judgments are right.” That song ushers in the final set of the Lord’s judgments on the earth. Angels are given the task of delivering those judgments. They’re given gold bowls, filled to the brim with the wrath of God. Any view of God that ignores his blazing hatred of sin is an incomplete view. He’s merciful and kind and loving and has overflowing grace. He wants nothing more than to save people and his goal is to save every human being. That’s all proven at Calvary. Some though, refuse his offer of salvation, an offer that cost him everything. Now, as time draws to an end we find ourselves face to face with the wrath of God. How dare people spit on his mercy? How dare they treat the crucifixion with distain? Now, in this vision, we’re given a preview of the wrath of God. John sees smoke from God’s glory and power pouring out of the heavenly Temple. It’s a fearful thing to be even this close to the wrath of God.
Take Away: Any view of the Lord that fails to take into account his hatred of sin is an incomplete view.