The sweetest invitation
Matthew 11: Come to me.
There’s no sweeter invitation than what we hear from the Lord: “Come to me.” This invitation is directed to people who are weary and beaten down by life. It’s for people who’ve tried to find satisfaction in sometimes self-destructive ways and, in the end, realize that all they have is a handful of sand. Specifically, this invitation is for people who’ve tried religion and been hurt, maybe even abused, there. To all who are hurting, disappointed, tired, and empty Jesus says, “Come to me.” It’s not about church rituals and rules; although such things have been found by many to be helpful. It’s not about turning over a new leaf, making a New Year’s resolution, or simply trying harder; although there’s room here for self-improvement. Beyond all that, though, is Jesus. I respond to his sweet invitation by giving up my own claims to righteousness and reordering all other relationships to something less than number one. In response to this invitation to “come” I turn my attention to Jesus and lay all else, including myself, at his feet. From that point on, I walk with him and learn from him, how to really live.
Take Away: Jesus is the only one who can truly make this offer, and he does make it to all who will come.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
Yes, that’s good enough for me!
Micah 7: You’ll sink our sins to the bottom of the ocean.
“Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone…buried in the deepest sea, yes, that’s good enough for me.” You have to have been around the church awhile to recognize the words to the children’s chorus I sang back in the “good old days.” At the time, if I thought about such things at all, I got the message of the song: when God forgives my sins, they are “gone, gone, gone.” However, the mercy being described here isn’t childlike at all. Micah talks to adults who are committing adult-level sins. The result of those sins will be not a slap on the wrist, but national destruction with pain and death everywhere. It doesn’t have to be that way. Micah tells his people that mercy is a specialty of God and that the Lord much prefers granting mercy and forgetting sins to destroying those who live in rebellion against him. Micah assures his listeners that the Lord anxiously waits to forgive and forget; to show mercy and compassion on them. I sang the chorus as a child but as an adult I realize what an amazing offer it is. There’s hope for a new start with God in this passage: “praise God, my sins are gone!”
Take Away: Mercy is a specialty of the Lord.
Why Jonah Runs
Jonah 4: I knew you were sheer grace and mercy.
Jonah runs because he understands what God’s all about and because his heart doesn’t beat with God’s heart. He knows that in spite of the message of condemnation and destruction the Lord gives him to preach that the very reason he’s sent to Nineveh is that God doesn’t want to destroy that city at all. Here are the things Jonah knows about God: his attitude toward lost people is one of grace; he delights in being merciful, he’s not easily angered; and he’s rich in love toward the lost. Jonah also knows that when it comes to judgment God always stands ready to change his mind. Since Jonah knows these things about God and since he’s so out of sync with God, he’d rather be dead than be instrumental in God’s extending mercy to his enemies. Also, Jonah knows that many of his countrymen agree with him. Once people find out that Jonah went to Nineveh to warn them and that he’s instrumental in God’s deciding not to destroy them his life won’t be worth a plug nickel. It’s a miserable thing to be filled with hate and to be used as an instrument of God’s love. I see here that God loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them. If he has to use a hard-hearted prophet and a big fish to do it, then that’s what he’ll do. If I’m going to be a partner with God in what he’s doing in this world, I’m going to have to allow him to love people with that kind of abandon through me.
Take Away: The Lord loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them.
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 God of whatever happens
Jonah 3: God…did change his mind about them.
What an interesting statement! God intends to do one thing, but then, in response to what they do, he changes his mind and does something else. This view of God challenges our thinking about who he is and how he works in this world. The Lord’s willing to be influenced by what we say and do. Of course, in this case, this is what he wanted to have happen. Had God only wanted to destroy them we’d have no story of Jonah and the big fish. Instead, we’d have another Sodom and Gomorrah story about fire and brimstone wiping out a sinful city. The reluctant prophet is sent on this mission exactly because God wants their lives to change. This is a classic Old Testament prophet situation. The prophet says, “If you do this, God’s going to do that…if you do that, God’s going to do this.” The Lord’s message to Nineveh is that, because of their sin, destruction is coming. However, even though it’s unspoken, they’re also being given a choice. If sin is bringing destruction, repentance will bring life. When the people of Nineveh make the right choice God is happy to change his mind. This kind of thinking opens up all kinds of possibilities for us. When I pray, asking for God’s intervention in some matter, I’m not just going through a spiritual discipline. Rather, I’m actually being allowed to influence God! My standing in this world is much more than my traveling some predetermined path to some predetermined conclusion. I’m a partner with God who’s allowing me to work with him in changing the world. Here’s a view of a God who’s never at a loss; who always knows what he’ll do in response to what I do of my own free will. Such a view doesn’t make God less. Instead, it makes him more. He’s God whatever happens.
Take Away: As his people we’re partners with the Lord who allows us to work with him in changing the world.
The grace that goes before
Jonah 1: Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.
They make their living on the water but the sailors have never seen a storm like this. This storm, they fearfully conclude, has supernatural power. These sailors have no knowledge of God but when Jonah tells them that the God he serves is the Maker of the sea it scares them to death. Jonah bravely accepts his responsibility in all this and tells them to save themselves by throwing him overboard. These idol worshipping, superstitious, and desperate men won’t do it. One has to wonder why Jonah needs to be “thrown” at all. He can abandon ship with or without their help. However, I’ll leave that for another day, and focus in on these pagan sailors. Even though Jonah tells them that tossing him into the sea will save their lives, they row all the harder, trying to escape the storm. One of John Wesley’s doctrines is called “prevenient grace.” The “pre” part of the word is the clue to its meaning. It might be called “the grace that goes before.” That is, before I ever think of God he’s already working in my life. Human beings are created in God’s image and, even though that image is soiled and stained, it remains. It’s prevenient grace that enables a sinner to show God-like compassion on others. It’s prevenient grace that enables us to respond to God’s love as he offers us a relationship with himself. In this case, we see prevenient grace at work in the lives of these heathen sailors who risk their own lives in an attempt to save a person who confesses that their predicament is his fault.
Take Away: Before we ever think of the Lord he’s already working in our lives.
God, making himself vulnerable
Hosea 14: O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
In his amazing love God calls out to his wayward people. To return to him is to their benefit. Otherwise, it’ll take tough love to turn them around and even as these words are spoken a “tornado” of judgment is coming their way. That’s a message I’m used to seeing in the prophets. There’s another message here and even though it’s seen in other places, it’s especially clear in the book of Hosea. If these sinning people return to God it will be to their benefit, but it will also be to his. As Hosea’s love reached out to his unfaithful wife so does God’s love reach out to a sinning humanity. It seems impossible, but I, as insignificant as I am, have the ability to both hurt and please the Maker of the universe. The reason for that is that he loves me with a love I cannot fully understand. God has allowed himself to be vulnerable in opening his heart to me and to all humanity. Today, the person who’s rejected God; who’s lived as an enemy of his; who, in my opinion, is practically beyond redemption, remains within the reach of God’s love. The Lord won’t force you to return but he reaches out to you in love even through the words of this little-read devotional.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
A love that never gives up
Hosea 2: Then I’ll marry you for good – forever!
The book of Hosea is a book of extremes. There’s nothing mundane or middle of the road here as everything is at one end or the other end of the spectrum. Here we see powerful love and painful betrayal. We see the beauty of tender, marital sex and we also see the brutal, cheapening side of sex in the market place. In one place we see the anger of God as he declares the coming destruction as a result of their sin but we also see God’s mercy as he promises restoration. There’s nothing in Hosea that lends itself to a relaxing late night read before sleep. This book is an emotional rollercoaster. God’s people have betrayed him and, because of that betrayal he’s rejected them, kicking them out. Israel has committed spiritual adultery against God and God has issued a decree of divorce against them. Then as we’re emotionally ready to close the book on this relationship the tone of the Lord changes. He’s kicked them out and declared his anger with them and judgment on them. Just as I get my mind around that the landscape suddenly changes. The Lord declares his intentions to clean them up, to romance them again and ultimately to reinstate his marriage to them. The sweep of all this is stunning and I realize I’m reading about a love that never gives up. God is truly the God of Second Chances.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
These preacher’s kids had it hard
Hosea 2: Rename your brothers “God’s Somebody.”
I’m not a preacher’s kid, but I raised one! Hopefully, my son doesn’t feel that growing up in a parsonage was all that bad. However, I’ve heard some horror stories from “PK’s.” I’ve concluded that while some of those stories are true, some are simply basic “growing up” stories that could be applied to just about any family. However, Hosea’s kids have some no-questions-asked horror stories. For one thing, their dad gives them strange names intended to preach a sermon. Two of the three, in particular, get terrible names: a daughter named “No-Mercy” and a son who gets the awful name of “Nobody.” I bet those kids needed therapy! Every time the girl is called it’s to be a sermon warning that unless the nation repents God will show them “no mercy.” When the boy is named it’s intended to declare that this “chosen people” is on the verge of being kicked out and becoming “nobody” in the sight of God. There’s a ray of sunshine near the end of the first chapter and continuing into the second. As a person might look across the hot and deadly desert to the distant cool mountains, Hosea looks down the road to a day of restoration. One thing he sees is a day for new names. When the discipline of God has done its work, children, and the whole nation, will be worthy of new names like “God’s Somebody” and “All Mercy.”
Take Away: I’m glad I live on the “all mercy” side of this story.