Looking back and being blessed all over again
1Thessalonians 2: We wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.
Before Paul turns his attention to the primary topic of the letter he has some reminiscing to do. He well remembers arriving in Thessalonica. At that time he was a rather beaten up apostle, having just gone through the Philippian jail experience we read about in Acts 16. Some of his enemies, in fact, followed him to Thessalonica as well, resulting in a riot. Still, many believed his message and, in spite of his obvious weaknesses, they became dear friends of Paul. This relationship, he tells them, is cherished and warms his heart even as he writes them this short letter. Looking back on those events, even though there was some pain and rejection in them, fills him with thanksgiving. He remembers how he gave them his heart and to this day he has no regrets about it whatsoever. There’s something powerful about relationships like this. For one thing, they hold. Paul has moved on in his ministry but something of him has stayed with his dear friends in Thessalonica. Now, when they have questions about the Second Coming of Christ they turn to him for answers. When he hears from them, he experiences some old blessings made new. I don’t think I should live in the past, dwelling on the “good old days.” Still, there’s a time for looking back and remembering people, events, friendships, and blessings from days gone by. I can’t live in the past but it doesn’t hurt to visit there once in a while.
Take Away: Precious memories sweeten our lives today.
The church calendar of events
Zechariah 7: You’re interested in religion, I’m interested in you.
For seventy years the people of Israel have observed an annual day of mourning in remembrance of the fall of Jerusalem. Now, God’s promise of restoration has been fulfilled and many have returned to their homeland. A delegation of Jews arrives to ask whether or not that day of mourning should be continued. A committee is formed to make a decision and Zechariah has a word from the Lord for them. The Almighty says that the annual observance wasn’t for his sake but for theirs. If they want to look to the past, they need to look to the unchanging message of God’s messengers through the years. When all’s said and done, the Lord tells them, its people and not God who get all worked up over religious traditions. His concern is for people and not about annual fasts and feasts. That, my friends, is a terrific reminder for church folks. Having annual events isn’t a bad thing but it’s not the main thing. God cares about people. The Lord’s all for it if a yearly homecoming celebration helps us minister to people. If it’s an inward-focused, remembering-the-good-old-days event, well, the Lord sees it as a waste of time. How we go about doing church matters to God, but his concerns are often considerably different than are ours.
Take Away: The Lord cares about people a lot more than he cares about our church calendars.
Legacy of faithfulness
Zechariah 1: But the Message…isn’t dead and buried.
Zechariah remembers the stories of the old time prophets of his history. They were spiritual giants like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These mighty men proclaimed God’s message with, admittedly, limited contemporary success. The people of their day ignored their message and faced the consequences. Now, all that is in the distant past and the people God claimed as his own are back in their home country, reestablishing their lives there. Zechariah has a new word from the Lord. Well, the word is new, but the message is old. The Lord still calls people to an obedient walk with himself. He still invites those who will to live in his fellowship and to participate in his holiness. The messengers might have changed, but the purpose of God remains. It’s humbling to realize that, as a pastor, I have a role in this process today. I know that someday my voice will be silenced (hopefully, not for a few decades yet) and hope that when the kids (these days, that’s anyone less than thirty) look back on my ministry that they’ll remember me as one who was faithful in proclaiming the timeless truths of God.
Take Away: As people look back on our lives let them remember us as those who were faithful to God’s call on our lives.
Do it again, Lord
Habakkuk 3: Do among us what you did among them.
The prophet of God has the heart of a psalmist. As I started reading Habakkuk and saw his reverent complaint to God I was reminded of the Psalms of complaint in which the writer pours his heart out before the Lord. Now, as Habakkuk experiences God in a fresh way, his words remind me of the Psalms again. He pens a psalm of his own in which he recounts God’s past deliverance and looks to a day of restoration. His opening lines: “Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them” is the prayer of many of God’s people through the ages. In this case, Habakkuk is specifically thinking of the deliverance of his ancestors from Egyptian bondage. However, through the centuries, many have looked back to great movements of God: revivals, healings, and other times of special blessing and prayed this prayer. In my life there have been times of extraordinary blessing, some so private and precious that I seldom speak of them. However, I mention them to the Lord, thanking him for what he did and marveling at his grace to me and, in the spirit of Habakkuk, ask the Lord to “do it again.” It’s unhealthy to spend our lives talking about the “good old days” but we should allow those times of special blessing to remind us of what God can do and to encourage us to seek his best for in our lives in this day and in these circumstances.
Take Away: There are times when we do well to revisit past blessings and allow those blessings to encourage us to expect renewed blessings of God in our lives.
Make a pile of stones
Joshua 4: In the days to come, when your children ask their fathers, “What are these stones doing here?” tell your children this: “Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry ground.”
Out in the middle of the Jordan River, way down at the bottom, there are stones. That’s what the people of Israel discover as God opens the way through the river. As the thousands cross over, twelve men are given the assignment of each taking one of those stones and piling them on the bank of the river as a memorial of this momentous event. Then, in future generations, when children ask about the pile of stones, the story will be told. It is the story of God’s deliverance; of how God makes a way when there is no way. It’s a story of God’s grace, patience, and mercy. It’s the story of his unfailing love. Here’s a tip right from God’s Word: build some memorials in your life. Take the kids to the old church, point to the place at the altar and tell them what happened there. Read to them the scripture that got your attention and tell them why. Show them your pile of stones from the Jordan riverbed and in so doing pass your story along to the next generation. Someday, your great-grandchildren, who never met you, will hear their grandpa talk about how his dad came to Christ. Thus, God’s grace will minister through your life from beyond your years on earth.
Take Away: Tell your story to those who are the most precious to you.
Call to remember
Deuteronomy 1: How can I carry, all by myself, your troubles and burdens and quarrels?
The book of Deuteronomy is made up of a sermon or series of sermons by Moses, the man of God. In fact, the name of the book can be understood to mean “talks” or “words.” The occasion is the conclusion of his leadership (and life) and the pending entrance of God’s people into the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. Moses wants to remind them of their history so that they will take their story with them into the new land. He also wants them to remember the mistakes of the past so that they won’t repeat them. Most importantly, he wants them to remember the gracious faithfulness of God who has been with them and will continue to be their God. It shouldn’t surprise us that this book has a lot of repeat material in it. After all, Moses is preaching to remind them of these things. Still, I see a somewhat different emphasis in this sermon as old stories are retold. In the passage that draws my attention today Moses remembers how he organized the leadership. It was his father-in-law who first suggested a division of leadership. Then, later on, it appears the plan had not been carried through and God reminded Moses of this approach. Now Moses remembers how overwhelmed he was as a solo leader. Alone, he couldn’t carry their burdens. This makes perfect sense. A leader who tries to do it all will do a poor job of all of it. It may make that leader feel important, even indispensable, but in the long run, his or her leadership will be a failed effort. The solution is to select the right people to help, to empower them, to continue to enhance their abilities, to keep them connected to the primary leadership, and to always remember that the Lord is our ultimate Leader. At 120 years of age and after 40 years of leadership we can be pretty sure Moses knows what he’s talking about.
Take Away: Leadership doesn’t mean doing everything.