2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
There, but for the grace of God….
Judges 9: Just then some woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and crushed his skull.
Not all the inhumanity of Israel’s “dark ages” of Judges comes from the belligerent peoples surrounding them. A lot of the bleakness comes from within. Gideon apparently makes himself into a sheik and fathers lots of children. When he dies there’s a power struggle that’s won by Abimelech, the son of Gideon and one of his maidservants. Abimelech seals the deal by murdering his seventy brothers. However, he’s better at murder than he is at leading and within three years there’s mounting opposition to his rule. Abimelech acts to quash the rebellion and arrives at Thebez, a town known for its fortified tower. As this wicked leader prepares burn alive those who have taken refuge there a woman drops part of a millstone on his head, thus bringing an end to the short and evil leadership of Abimelech. This is an ugly, if somewhat interesting story of a bad man who does bad things and then dies in a violent, unexpected way. No doubt, the detail of his inglorious death is told to us that we might see the judgment of God on Abimelech. In the larger view, I’m reminded that when God is removed from their lives just how much these descendants of Abraham look like the other heathen of that land. When I look around my community and see people doing stupid, self-destructive things to themselves and one another; when I see them blindly pursuing worthless things; and when I see them stubbornly traveling down the wrong road I’m wise to remember that without the Lord in my life that could easily be me. One response then, is to be thankful for what the Lord’s doing in my life. It’s not about me – it’s all about him. Another response is that, rather than feeling superior, I’m to be compassionate to them. These are people who are like me. They just don’t yet know the Life Changer I know.
Take Away: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
2014 – Looking out over Canyonlands NP from Dead Horse Point State Park, UT
The Ten Commandments
Exodus 20: I am God, your God.
And so it begins. This God who spoke to Moses through the burning bush, this God who brought the plagues to Egypt in securing their freedom, this God who delivered them at the Red Sea now describes how they’re to live. He didn’t bring them up out of Egypt so they could do their own thing, living as they pleased. The Lord God brought them out of slavery to be his own people. Their relationship to their God is going to be very different than the Egyptians relationship with their gods. The very first thing their Redeemer does is state Ten Commandments to them. These Commandments are just as focused on how a man treats his neighbor as how a man relates to his God. In this new relationship with the Almighty they’ll treat the Lord with absolute reverence, but they’ll also treat one another with respect, honesty, and fairness. One doesn’t have to be Jewish or Christian to recognize the brilliance of the Ten Commandments. In just a few words the foundation is laid for a God-fearing and just society. To this day there’s no finer expression of how society can function at its best. This gift from God to his people is every bit as impressive as was his parting the Red Sea for them.
Take Away: We can find no better set of rules for living than what we find in the Ten Commandments.
The blood of the martyrs
Revelation 6: I saw the souls of those killed because they had held firm in their witness to the Word of God.
The seals unveil future events, although readers though the centuries have been all over the place in their understanding of just what it is John is seeing. Perhaps the broad view is the best one. History is marching to a climax and as that climax draws near the world’s going to experience powerful and disturbing events. As the fifth seal is removed we see those martyred for their faithfulness to the Lord. In John’s day people are already suffering for their faith. John, himself, in fact, is exiled from the church. However, things are going to get worse. Many will die on the floor of the Coliseum in Rome. History, in fact, will see many faithful Christians die as martyrs. Sad to say, it continues to this day. John hears their voices as they cry out for justice. They’re told that the day of justice is coming. As I think about these who’ve followed Jesus even into death I feel small and insignificant. I confess that I’m hardly worthy to share the name “Christian” with them. I don’t want to forget that my heritage of faith has been a costly one. I don’t want to forget those who, even as I write these words, are paying a dear price for standing firm in their faith. At the same time, the promise of this passage speaks to my heart today. These have already been given “white robes” – honored in heaven. The day will come when the books will be balanced and justice will prevail. It doesn’t take my feeling any sense of vengeance at all for me to say, if God is just, then he’ll “avenge their murders.”
Take Away: The justice of the Lord demands that things be set right, and that day is, indeed, coming.
I’ll see you in court!
1Corinthians 6: Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it’s spiritually appropriate.
One of the bones Paul has to pick with the Corinthians is that some of them have taken fellow Christians to court. He’s shocked, disgusted, and angered that Christians would drag their disagreements to court to be judged by non-believers. For one thing, it undermines the influence of the gospel. For another, it surrenders God’s way in favor of man’s way. Paul labels this action as “stupid.” This, he declares, isn’t the way Christians are to behave. Someone might respond that it’s the only way they can get justice. The Apostle says that being wronged is better than wounding the cause of Christ. It’s on this point that he makes his most powerful argument on this topic: an action might be legal but that doesn’t make it appropriate for God’s people. Out in the world filing a lawsuit might be considered business as usual, but among God’s people doing such a thing is inappropriate. I think it’s sad that Christians ever part ways. We’re supposed to be branded by our love for one another. If it happens though, we aren’t to handle things the world’s way. As Paul points out, surely there’s someone in the body of Christ that both sides respect. Surely they can turn to them for help in straightening things out. If not, sometimes it’s better to take the short end of the stick and trust God with the long term results. I feel compelled to add here that there are times when Christians are dragged into court against their will, or must seek justice in their dealings with non-believers. At such times we have every right to defend ourselves and seek justice in every legal way possible. In fact, Paul does that in the book of Acts. Even then, though, he concludes that his current legal problems are being used of God to advance his Kingdom. Again, though, just because something’s legal that doesn’t mean that, for the believer, its right.
Take Away: God’s people follow a higher way.
Standing alone if necessary
Zephaniah 2: Seek God, all you quietly disciplined people.
The nation the prophet addresses is filled with sinful, guilty people. However, there’s another, much smaller group. Zephaniah knows that there’s a minority that has humbled themselves before the Lord. They’ve been meek when chastised by God and have quietly accepted his discipline. They’ve been an oasis of justice in an unjust land. Now, Zephaniah says, the Lord is about to bring an end to all the rebellion. God’s man advises those who have swam against the tide to focus their attention on the Lord and center their lives on doing the right thing even if they’re alone in doing it. In this day, I can’t force everyone to do the right thing but that doesn’t stop me from righteous living. I want to influence everyone I can for Christ, but whether or not I’m successful in that, I can commit myself to walk in the ways of the Lord. Zephaniah is certain that the “Day of God’s anger” is coming but he’s also convinced that there is a way of living that prepares us for that sure day.
Take Away: As Joshua of old says: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Amos 5: You talk about God…being your best friend.
I was talking to a car salesperson about a car. He was a friendly guy, a bit rough around the edges, using a few words I don’t have in my vocabulary. Then, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was the pastor of a church. Guess what happened? Suddenly, he was a very faithful Christian man. He told me about his church and his pastor and some words disappeared from the conversation. Amos complains about people who claim God as their best friend but live very different lives than what the Lord demands. The big issue to Amos is how the poor are treated. He says that in his society “justice is a lost cause” and people are “kicking the poor when they’re down.” God’s man says that won’t cut it. I can’t expect to get away with giving the Almighty lip service while ignoring his directions on how I’m to live. Amos says, “You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, being your best friend. Well, live like it, and maybe it will happen.” By, the way, I bought my car elsewhere.
Take Away: Live like it.
Three cheers for Ahikam
Jeremiah 26: Ahikam son of Shaphan stepped forward and took his side.
All’s not well at the Temple. God’s man, Jeremiah, already has a reputation for preaching gloom and doom messages and he’s at it again. This time he disrupts events at the Temple by telling the worshipers there that the Lord’s going to destroy both the Temple and them. It’s an understatement to say that they don’t like it. Jeremiah finds himself the center of a riot. Soon officials show up and they conduct court right on the spot. Simply put, Jeremiah’s life isn’t worth a nickel. It’s then that a respected man, Ahikam son of Shaphan, steps up. He reminds the people of another gloom and doom prophet, Micah, who during the reign of Hezekiah preached such messages. He also had many enemies but he wasn’t killed. It’s not that they’re above that sort of thing. Another prophet, Uriah, was hunted down and murdered because people didn’t like his message. On this day, though, Ahikam’s defense wins Jeremiah his freedom. Ahikam is an important man and on this day he brings his considerable weight to bear to save Jeremiah’s life. His stepping in isn’t likely the prudent thing to do, after all this is a mob we’re talking about. However, he has power and he uses it to do the right thing whether or not it’s popular to do so. Sometimes we have to spend some of our leadership simply because it’s the right thing to do. Position and authority are just fine, but only if they’re used for the right purposes. I’m not an important person like Ahikam, but I do have some influence in some limited circumstances. Am I spending it on things that really matter?
Take Away: Position and authority and leadership skills are to be used in positive ways – not just to get our own way about things.
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.