What God expects of us
Micah 6: He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do.
This passage is one of the gems of the Old Testament. Micah asks the rhetorical question: “How can I…show proper respect to the high God?” He wonders if bigger offerings will do it: lots of rams and barrels of oil. He wonders if following the practice of the pagans and offering his child as a sacrifice will satisfy the Lord. Having asked the question he then states the answer. God has already made his desires for the human race abundantly clear. Micah says, “It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.” Micah’s insight into God’s purposes for people is breathtaking. Some have called this the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament. I do well to take this dusty old statement of God’s purpose for humanity and use it as a guide to my life. How am I doing on the “fair and just, compassionate and love” standard set here? Do I have a handle on not taking myself too seriously while taking God very seriously? There’s nothing in the Bible any more “contemporary” than this statement.
Take Away: Am I living up to the standard of the Lord?
God’s man isn’t much like God
Jonah 4: Jonah was furious.
The heart of the book of Jonah isn’t the first part with the oft-repeated big fish story. Instead, it’s the last part. It’s here that we find the motor that drives the story. When the reluctant prophet gives in and goes to Nineveh he does so in fear, not that he’ll fail, but that he’ll succeed. Jonah is nationalistic to the core and he’d like nothing better than for the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, to be destroyed. Still, with all his failings, Jonah knows a thing or two about God. The priests and other religious leaders of his country may promote a doctrine of Israel having a corner on the Almighty, but Jonah understands that God has compassion on all people. Israel may be the chosen people but that means God wants to use them to bless all the nations on earth, not that God loves them and hates all others. When Jonah runs from God, refusing to go to Nineveh he does so because he understands these things. He understands them, but he doesn’t agree with them. Now that his mission to Nineveh is a success Jonah’s angry with the Lord, not only for sparing his enemies when they repent, but for using him to bring it to pass. In spite of his unique understanding of God, Jonah isn’t much like God at all.
Take Away: God is love.
The power of love
Song of Songs 4: You looked at me, and I fell in love. One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!
Previously I mentioned that some Christians have made this book into an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. As I said then, I’m not all that convinced, although passages like this do remind me of scriptures like Ephesians 4 where I’m told that: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…and to present her to himself as a radiant church… holy and blameless.” That passage describes Christ’s passionate love for the Church, a love that takes him to the cross. In the portion of Song of Songs that’s before me today, the man describes the power of his love for the woman. In Ephesians I see the power of Christ’s love for the Church. Whether or not Song of Songs is intended to connect me to Christ and his love for us, I’m reminded in this passage of the power of love and the sacrifice one who loves is willing to make for his beloved.
Take Away: “Love” is, ultimately, an action word…real love takes action on behalf of the one who is loved.
Don’t just fall in love with being in love
Song of Songs 2: Don’t excite love, don’t stir it up, until the time is ripe — and you’re ready.
The woman, who co-stars in the opera, is speaking to her “sisters in Jerusalem” and she has some good advice for them. She tells them to wait for the right time and for the right person to be sent into their lives before falling in love. Sometimes young women are more in love with the idea of being in love than they are actually in love. They get emotionally involved with someone who has a very different agenda than they do and the result is, at best, disappointment and a feeling of having been used and cheapened. Song of Songs is a celebration of human love and sexuality — and the two are very much linked. The woman who is loved by the King says, “The real thing is worth waiting for — don’t sell out too soon.” Young women across the ages have faced the temptation to do otherwise but to do so is to accept a cheap imitation that won’t last. In Song of Songs, the opera about love, we’re told: “wait, you’ll be glad you did!”
Take Away: The real thing is worth waiting for — don’t sell out too soon.
God, enjoying life with me
Ecclesiastes 9: God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
I know that a common view of God is that he’s against our enjoying life and that his favorite word is “no!” That is very mistaken. It’s true that God has a lot of “no’s” for us. Then again, a loving father has a lot of “no’s” for his children too. When his toddler picks something up off the floor and is about to put it in his mouth his mom and dad say, in chorus: “No!” Their desire is not to ruin his life, but to protect him from something that might be downright hazardous to his health. Even so, the Lord has some prohibitions for us and every one of them is for our benefit. The other side of the coin is wonderfully positive. When I enjoy some new discovery, or take pleasure in one of God’s many gifts to me; when I laugh out loud as one of my precious grandchildren comes up with a terrific one liner — at that moment God laughs with me. The writer of Ecclesiastes struggles with the meaning of life and is trying to understand just what it is that will bring real satisfaction. However, he has this one just right: “God takes pleasure in your pleasure!”
Take Away: All the joys of life come from our Heavenly Father who takes pleasure in our pleasure.
Running out of wood can be a good thing
Proverbs 26: When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
As a pastor I have a pretty strong influence on what happens at church. There is, I suppose, always the chance that someone will attempt to take control of a church service but that’s unlikely. I have the main say concerning the order of worship and, of course, what is said in the sermon. However, what happens “out there” during the week is out of my control. Because of that, all the efforts on Sunday to create a loving, supportive family of God can be derailed if that same crowd spends the week fanning the flames of division. Knowing this is humbling to me and it reminds me that I’m not nearly as influential in my own church as I think I am. However, it also reminds me that my greatest resource is not my leadership ability. Instead, my greatest Resource is the One I serve. It’s my desire that the Lord will help me to love people even when they’re behaving in ways that cause pain. I want to personally set an example of how a sanctified Christian conducts himself, to help people who tend to gossip understand that there’s an underlying spiritual issue, and to pray that the Lord will exhaust their supply of “wood” sooner and not later that the church might be united in love for Christ and one another.
Take Away: Some issues will simply die out and go away if we stop fanning the flames.
Dare to discipline
Proverbs 13: A refusal to correct is a refusal to love.
I love being around my grandkids. There’s nothing better than spending time with these little ones. However, believe it or not, even my own precious grandchildren aren’t always perfect! I’m sure they come closer to perfect than any grandchildren who’ve ever lived, but still, there are a few little things that have to be kept in check. That’s what their dad and mom, along with maybe a little help from their grandparents, are supposed to do. Parents need to provide loving discipline to their children. I’m not trying to debate the value of a particular type of discipline here, but as I read the words “a refusal to correct is a refusal to love” I’m taken by the common sense truth being stated. Parents who love don’t just throw up their hands and let the kids do “whatever.” Loving parents step up to the plate even when they’re worn out from the day. Even then, they expend the energy to take their children in hand, insisting that they behave themselves within the limits of their capability. The disciplining part of parenting isn’t the fun part, but it’s one of the loving parts. As the wise man says, “love your children by disciplining them.”
Take Away: Children are a gift of the Lord, but that gift does come with responsibilities attached.
A candle shining in the darkness
Ruth 1: It was back in the days when judges led Israel.
The stories in Judges get darker and darker, with the final one, the one about the Levite’s concubine, being the worst of all. It’s not only a story of civil war but one which also highlights just how terribly women in general are treated in this distant day. Then I turn the page and find myself reading a beautiful, gentle love story. Even in the midst of diminishing worship of God and the resulting lowering of morality in general, I find that God is still working in the lives of those who will walk with him. I see that some people aren’t absorbed by the common culture. Instead, some are noble and kind and generous even when, because of that, they are totally out of step with their society. This is a wonderful reminder to me as I reflect on my own culture — a culture that seems committed on removing God from all public life; a culture that “calls the darkness ‘light’ and calls the light ‘darkness.’ There’s still the possibility of purity and Christian gentleness, even in my culture. Not only is it possible, but a small, unnoticed act might just impact the world in ways I can never imagine.
Take Away: Even in the midst of a corrupt culture we can live clean, beautiful lives in Christ.
The path to the good life
Deuteronomy 10: …live a good life.
These days, “health and wealth” preaching is pretty popular. “Have enough faith, pray hard enough,” even, “Give me some money” and as a result you’ll drive a nice car, live in a big house, and never be sick. Moses, though, has his own take on “health and wealth.” In this passage he carefully lists the route to the “good life.” It’s all centered on doing what God expects. What does he expect?
1. “Live in his presence in holy reverence”
2. “Follow the road he sets out for you”
3. “Love…and serve” him “with everything you have in you”
4. “Obey the commandments and regulations of God”
It’s not about me taking advantage of some spiritual principle for my benefit or my tapping into some hidden potential within myself. It has nothing to do with driving off the spirit of poverty or illness. It sure isn’t about me manipulating God to get him to do nice things for me. When I align myself with God’s expectations my life is a good life. That goodness, by the way, may not be seen in temporary things like health or wealth but, instead, in my living a truly blessed life, pleasing to God. The path to the good life is summed up in four words: live, follow, love, and obey.
Take Away: Many spiritual “secrets” are hidden in plain sight.
Deuteronomy 6: Attention, Israel! GOD, our God! GOD the one and only! Love GOD, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!
Even elaborate systems of thought can be distilled down to basic concepts. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 is not all there is to God’s intentions for us, but it’s the center point for all else, the foundation upon which all else is laid. God is one. He exists. All that we can hope for and all that we can ever expect to know starts here: God is God. And, God desires our love. He wants us to love him without reservation; with absolute abandon. This isn’t all that we should know about God’s desire for us, but it starts here. Everything else: the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Beatitudes of the New Testament, the story of Creation of Genesis to the promise of restoration of John’s Revelation…all of it starts here. God is and our relationship with this “I Am” is founded on love.
Take Away: The route to building something that lasts is to start with a solid foundation.