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 to remove 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.
2John: My dear congregation, I, your pastor, love you in very truth.
Compared to some books of the Bible, 2John isn’t much of a “book.” It’s more of an “email.” It’s just a few lines, written as a quick placeholder for a congregation by their pastor. He’ll fill in the material in person. He greets them by declaring his love for them. I can’t help but think, as I read this opening line, that’s it’s a beautiful thing when a pastor loves his or her congregation “in very truth.” Because of that love-based relationship John starts his note to them by encouraging them, telling them how happy he is with them. Anyone who thinks the pastor’s job is to “tell it like it is” and “set people straight” needs to spend some time here. John tells his church how much he loves them and how pleased he is with their faithfulness to Christ’s command that his followers love one another. It’s only after doing that that he moves on to warning them about some false teachers who are taking advantage of gullible Christians. He has more to say to them, but until he can be with them personally, he thinks this little “email” will do. The brevity of this letter speaks volumes about the friendly, loving relationship between this pastor and his congregation. I can’t help but think that sometimes saying less is saying more.
Take Away: Pastors need to love and appreciate the churches under their charge. Churches, on the other hand, need to love and appreciate pastors who lovingly care for them.
1John 5: The proof that we love God comes when we keep his commandments and they are not at all troublesome.
Before moving to other things John says a bit more about love in action. He’s already insisted that to be a follower of God requires more than words or even sincere desire. Again, “love,” to him is an “action” word rather than a “feelings” word. To love God is to love the Son and to love the Son is to love those he’s brought into the family of God. So what does it mean to love the children of God? Immediately, John takes us back to action. I love God’s people, not by feeling a certain way about them but, rather, by treating them in a certain way. John reminds me that God has given me some commandments concerning how I’m to treat my brothers and sisters. If I love God, I’ll keep those commandments and in doing so I’ll “love” those who are part of this great family of God. If I want proof of my love of God I’ll find it in how I treat his people. John adds that this isn’t that big a deal because this “love in action” that’s required of me isn’t all that troubling. I’m to love people as I love myself. That is, I’m to care about the needs of their lives, their comfort, and their security. Loving self isn’t about feeling a certain way about myself but is, rather, about the action I take on my own behalf. That’s exactly how I’m to love God’s people.
Take Away: To learn about your relationship with God, take a good look at your relationship to his people.
1John 4: That is the kind of love we are talking about.
Now I find myself at the heart of John’s letter. It’s here that I find the repeated declaration that “God is love.” The Apostle hammers his point home: God is love therefore to be in God is to be in love. If love doesn’t dominate my life then God doesn’t dominate me. If I don’t love people then God’s love is missing from my life and therefore God, himself, is missing. This “love business” demands some serious thought. What does it mean to love as God loves? If I’m not careful I wind up on the “emotions side” of love. I get the feeling that God is all about warm fuzzy feelings. Once there, I’m left with the idea that loving like God loves is to always “feel” a particular way about people whether they’re good or bad. However, I’ve taken the wrong fork in the road. John carefully describes what it means for God to be love. We know God is love, John says, because of what he does: he “sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” Love, then, isn’t how God feels about us. Rather it’s the action he takes in our behalf. The Lord doesn’t “so love the world that he” feels all warm and tingly toward us. Instead, he “so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son.” Love is, then, an action word. To love is to take action, even personally painful action, on the behalf of the one loved…even if that one is absolutely unlovable. If I love as God loves I too will take action. John reminds me that there’s no way I can do that unless the Lord lives in me. On the other hand, if the Lord lives in me, I can’t help but act in love.
Take Away: Love isn’t how I feel as much as it is what I do.
1John 3: For God is greater than our worried hearts.
John moves to his favorite topic: love. Frankly, he sees love as a cure-all, good for what ails us. Are we at odds with our brothers and sisters? Love will fix it. Are we struggling in understanding God’s purpose for us and in grasping what Jesus has done for us? The key is love. When we see countless wrongs in the world and wonder what should be done about them John says the key component in our response is, you guessed it: love. The test of love proves or disproves our relationship to this God who is love. As his love is allowed into my life — as it’s allowed to influence how I feel about, well, everything, its then that I know I’m where God wants me. For many of us our greatest challenge is loving self. I, more than anyone else, know my faults and failures. It may be that I’ve been verbally abused and have come to believe that what was said to me and about me is true. Possibly, deep in my psyche is the belief that if anyone really knew me they’d see so many flaws that they’d never love me. John tells me that that’s simply untrue. The One who knows me best, who “knows more about us than we do ourselves” loves me with a powerful, sacrificial love. He thinks I’m worth loving, worth dying for. As I accept his love for me, and his evaluation of me my relationship with myself changes. Once again, even as I struggle with my own self-esteem, the answer is love.
Thessalonians 3: But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better.
When Paul first came to Thessalonica he told them about Jesus. He told them what Jesus taught and did. He told them about the resurrection and the promise of the Second Coming. He also warned them that living for Jesus isn’t always a walk in the park. Actually, Paul’s beaten and bruised body, a result of things getting rather rough in nearby Philippi, was proof of that. They entered the Christian life with their eyes wide open. Now, years down the road, Paul has received word that his friends in Thessalonica are going through some hardship of their own. Paul lays awake at night praying for them; that they’ll make it through. Ultimately, he sends his son in the faith, Timothy, to them with a message of encouragement. The great Apostle wants to give them all the tools necessary to live for Jesus and remain ready for him to come again. Well, Timothy has completed the trip and his report on Thessalonica is better than Paul ever imagined. Timothy hasn’t found a cowed, shrinking group of believers just hanging on trying to stumble over the finish line at Christ’s return. These believers may not be enjoying the hardship that has come, but they’ve never been more in love with Jesus. Their faith has not only survived, it has thrived. Paul is relieved and thrilled. Isn’t it good to remember that the people of God don’t have to live small, pitiful, just-making-it-through lives? We aren’t always going to have an easy journey, but in Christ, we can enjoy his strength; and in that strength, we can be constant overcomers.
Take Away: The way may not always be easy; but it’s a blessed way.
Colossians 3: Dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you.
For many people the phrase “dressing like a Christian” dredges up a lot of old guilt and maybe resentment. We were raised in church traditions that stressed externals and the weight of that emphasis fell especially on the girls and young women. Looking back, I feel somewhat charitable toward those who stressed such things. I think, by and large, their hearts were in the right place. After all, they wanted to live holy, clean lives and our personal holiness ought to be evident even in the clothing we choose to wear. However, the years have pretty much proven that traveling that road leads to the city of legalism which is quite distant from the city of love and grace. In this passage we’re told that there’s a wardrobe that’s appropriate for God’s people but it has nothing to do with how much or little skin is shown. God’s people are to be characterized — “clothed in” — “compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.” We’re to be known as “even-tempered, content…quick to forgive.” The absolute necessity for all followers of Jesus, Paul says, is the “basic, all-purpose garment” of love. He emphasizes love by saying, “don’t leave home without it.” So, there I have it. My Christianity isn’t seen in what I wear, but it is seen as these positive characteristics are on display in my life. It was easier to focus on “covering up” but such an emphasis totally misses what it really means to dress like a Christian.
Take Away: Christ should be seen in our lives, not so much by what we wear, but by the display of Christ-like characteristics.
So what does a thoughtful, genuine Christian life look like? What examples are good ones for me to study and then apply to my life? Paul says the place to start is by looking upward. As a child of God I study his behavior, doing all I can to make true the proverb, “like Father like son.” If I want to see those attributes “with skin on them” I look to Jesus. Whatever I see in Jesus, I attempt to copy into my life. And what do I see? I see extravagant love. Out of love my Lord gives of himself without reservation. He doesn’t use God for his own purposes. Rather, he reflects the loving compassion of the Father in all he does. The Apostle says that I get chances to live like that. Opportunities to love selflessly come my way and I need to make the most of those opportunities. Some folks miss that boat and rather than filling their lives with Christ-like love they let other things dominate their lives. I understand the problem. Everyday a thousand voices cry out to me. Like carnival front men they invite me to try their game. If I’m not careful, I wander off into their diversion. Today, I’m reminded that love is the thing. When all is said and done in my life, the big deal will be love. Have I loved God with all my heart and soul and mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself? This passage reminds me to “make the most out of every chance I get.”