When the church isn’t at church
2Kings 17: They don’t really worship God.
After defeating and exiling Israel the king of Assyria relocates other people from under his rule to the now empty land. At first, these settlers ignore Jehovah God, but it becomes apparent that the Almighty is not going to allow that. A priest is brought back to teach them how to worship God. However, they only add worshiping the God of the exiled people to their list of gods to worship. In fact, we’re told, they don’t really worship God at all. How do we know that? The writer proves his point by saying that they don’t take seriously what God says about how to live and what to believe. Apparently, just doing the right things in a worship service isn’t sufficient so far as God is concerned. He’s just as interested in how people live, how they relate to one another, and what they really believe as he is with whether or not they can put on a proper worship service. What I do outside of church is just as important to God as what I do inside the church.
Take Away: Worship is defined as much by what I do outside the church as what I do inside it.
Making it harder than it really is
2Kings 5: If the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it?
It’s one of our favorite stories from 2 Kings. Naaman is the General of the Army of Aram, a nation that has a long and contentious relationship with Israel. He’s a brave and capable warrior who’s well respected in his homeland. Yet there’s one terrible affliction that not only haunts him, but is probably killing him. Naaman has leprosy. When he hears that there’s a man of God in Israel who heals people of this terrible disease he travels there, prepared to pay handsomely to be cured. To his dismay, Elisha doesn’t even meet him in person, but instead sends a mere servant with what sounds like a silly command: take seven baths in the muddy Jordan to be healed. Furious and humiliated, he turns on his heel to leave, but an old family servant gives the great general the best advice of his life. If Elisha had told him to do some great thing (for instance, pay a king’s ransom) to be healed, he’s prepared to do that. Why not, then, do some simple thing like, “take a bath and be clean.” Naaman listens and the result is a miracle of God and a happy ending to the story. I think I need to pay careful attention to Naaman’s story in my dealings with God. I’m ready to do the great thing like following some demanding course of action or making some big sacrifice as I follow the Lord. While stuff like this is sometimes a part of being a disciple more often than not it’s much less spectacular. “If you want to be my disciple follow me,” the Lord says. I respond, “You’ve got it Lord – I’ll serve you to the ends of the earth, I’ll make great sacrifices for you, I’ll be an example of total surrender to God.” The Lord says, “Tell you what, if I want you to do that stuff, I’ll tell you. For now, how about just walking with me?”
Take Away: What little thing is the Lord calling you to do today?
Thumbs up for Jehoshaphat
1Kings 22: No detours, no dead ends — pleasing God with his life.
We first meet Jehoshaphat when he insists that a prophet of God be called in when a decision to go to war is being made. That alone speaks well of this King of Judah. Now we find his short biography in the closing paragraphs of 1 Kings. His father was King Asa who also receives high marks and now we are told that Jehoshaphat is a “chip off the old block.” He seeks to please God in all his life and he refuses to drift off the road the Lord laid out for him. When Jehoshaphat insists to Ahab that the Lord be consulted before he’ll commit to war, he’s simply making decisions in the way he always makes decisions. When I read that Jehoshaphat pleased God because he was single minded in obeying the Lord and when I see the example of this in the meeting with Ahab I’m challenged to listen carefully to, and obey fully, the guidance the Lord gives me in my life.
Take Away: Generally speaking, what a person does when the chips are down is a continuation of what they’re in the habit of doing in the first place.
Sitting on a barbwire fence
1Kings 18: How long are you going to sit on the fence?
No doubt, Elijah has everyone’s attention. The drought and resultant famine has seen to that. Now he calls for a meeting and a confrontation. Their divided loyalties have created a pitiful situation. Historically, they’ve worshipped Jehovah, but for generations now worship of Baal has grown like a cancer in their number. Now, it appears that Jehovah worship is going to be only seen in the history books as they align themselves with Baal. Yet, somehow, they’re having a hard time committing themselves to Baal. The recent drought has caused some doubts. Why couldn’t this fertility god answer their prayers for the rain necessary for them to grow crops? The result of their doubt is that they’re terrible followers of Jehovah God and not very good followers of Baal either. Elijah says it is time for a decision to follow the God who answers prayer, who has power in this world. Our nation has more in common with these ancient Jews than we might think. We too are on the fence. We sing “God bless America” and put “In God we trust” on our currency. We open sessions of Congress and the Supreme Court in prayer. At the same time, we ignore God’s Law and seek to isolate him from secular society. We tip our hat to God but really want to serve, not Baal, but ourselves, and in so doing, adopt a religion of materialism, secular humanism, and pleasure. Will God send an “Elijah” to challenge our nation? Does the Church even want that to happen?
Take Away: It’s rather unreasonable to sing “God bless America” while at the same time attempting to isolate him from all but a few corners of our lives.
The heart of the matter
1Kings 15: His heart was in the right place, in tune with God.
Both Israel and Judah are traveling down the same miserable road of spiritual failure. Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, messes up “royally” and God tells him he’s going to toss him out like the garbage. Rehoboam, son of wise Solomon and grandson of faithful David, also fails. He follows Jeroboam in selling out to the worship of the idol Asherah. Meanwhile the precious Temple is raided by Egyptian forces and much of its wealth carried off even as Judah and Israel make war with one another. After Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, rules for just three years, his grandson, Asa, comes to the throne. Finally there’s some good news. Asa picks up where his ancestor David left off some 60 years earlier. He isn’t quite the man David was, but he’s like David where it matters most: “his heart is in the right place.” As we learned way back when we saw David being anointed as king, God looks on the heart. Today, my relationship with the Lord isn’t performance based. I certainly want to be pleasing to the Lord in all I do, but that isn’t the bottom line. More than proper performance, God wants, in me, a heart that’s right. My prayer is for a heart that’s in tune with God.
Take Away: I want to always do the right thing, but even more, I want to always be the right person in the eyes of the Lord.
Obedience is required
1Kings 11: He hasn’t lived the way I have shown him, hasn’t done what I have wanted, and hasn’t followed directions or obeyed orders….
This epitaph of Solomon’s life gives me insight into what it is that God wants. He wants me to live as he’s shown me to live, to do what he wants me to do, and to follow his directions and obey his commands. If I build impressive church structures and amass great wealth yet fail at these key points God will not only be disappointed in me, he’ll take action against me. Sometimes we act as though all this “obey God” business is kind of theoretical; not literal, but something that happens only in an ideal world. We really think that we can pretty much do what we want and tip our hat to God once in a while and he’ll be satisfied with that. In this passage I see that no matter how much I do in the Name of the Lord I never get beyond the requirement of simply living the way he has shown me to live. If I ignore that, then all the “Temples” I might build are meaningless in his eyes.
Take Away: If we think we’re so valuable to the Lord that we don’t have to obey him – well, we’d better think again.
Close only counts in horseshoes
1Kings 11: Solomon faithlessly disobeyed God’s orders.
Solomon has accomplished much in God’s name. He’s built the lavish Temple, made Israel a world force, and stabilized the nation. He’s amassed knowledge and written proverbs filled with good common sense. But, because of his lack of self-control in relation to the opposite sex he becomes a miserable failure before God. My society seems to think God keeps a sort of balance sheet on our lives. Therefore, the goal is to do more good things than bad things. If a person attains that goal, they’ll make it to heaven. Solomon’s story teaches us better. His failure isn’t that he destroys the Temple or begins writing bad proverbs. Instead, it’s that he disobeys God. One act of disobedience destroys a lifetime of obedience. We all stand in need of God’s grace, and if we make it to heaven it will be because of that grace. Still, God requires obedience. A lifetime of accomplishment can’t atone for even one act of disobedience.
Take Away: It’s worth repeating: a lifetime of accomplishment can’t atone for even one act of disobedience.
Keeping first things first
1Kings 5: What’s important is that you live the way I’ve set out for you and do what I tell you.
Solomon has an aggressive agenda. He’s already built palaces, cataloged information about plants and animals, and amassed an impressive and well-equipped army. His reputation has spread across the face of the earth and he’s forged alliances with other nations. Now, he turns his attention to the building of the Temple. You might say that everything else he’s done has been practice for this, his most memorable accomplishment. As construction gets underway Solomon hears a word from the Lord. He’s reminded that living in daily obedience to God is even more important than constructing buildings to the glory of God. For Solomon, and for all those who call on the Name of the Lord, this is a vital concept. It’s so easy to confuse the things we do for the Lord with being in a right relationship with the Lord. More than sacrifices, more than building projects, more than well-organized church programs God desires that I concentrate on having a genuine connection to himself. All the rest is to flow out of that relationship. It’s a vital matter of priorities and, as it’s important in this passage for Solomon it’s important for me.
Take Away: We must be careful we don’t confuse the things we do in the Name of the Lord with our living in a genuine relationship with the Lord.
1 Samuel 31: Saul…died…that day.
He came to a pitiful end. Saul, as a young man, was chosen by God, himself, to lead Israel. His very stature dominates a room. Even strong warriors were willing to follow his leadership. This capable man could bring order, peace, and safety to those under his command. But he’s also a deeply flawed man who could hear the direction of God and then ignore it to do what seems best to him at the time. Also, he’s an empty man. When he rejects God’s authority in his life God rejects him. From that day onward, life drains out of Saul, leaving him just a shell of what he could have been. Now, pursued by his enemies and fleeing in defeat, he meets his end on Mount Gilboa, wounded and then falling on his own sword. Saul’s story is one of unfulfilled possibilities. He had every reason to go down in history as Israel’s first and greatest king. Instead, he dies without God and without hope. He arrives here because of his own decisions. His epitaph simply reads, “A disappointment.”
Take Away: It all starts with our simply obeying the voice of the Lord in our lives.
Listening, obedience, relationship
1 Samuel 15: Do you think all God wants are sacrifices — empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him!
Saul’s a failure in the eyes of God. His large army and military victories don’t impress the Lord. Now Saul blames the soldiers; something that doesn’t wash with the Almighty. Then, he says he’s going to sacrifice the animals in a worship service. Pitiful! Samuel has a word from the Lord for Saul. God isn’t interested in how many sacrifices Saul might make. Instead, he’s interested in obedience. Saul said “no” to God, now God’s saying “no” to him. Saul will continue in power for some time to come, but, in reality, his leadership has come to a whimpering end. Oswald Chambers says that the greatest hindrance to our relationship to the Lord is the service we do for him. “Look at all I’m doing for God” we declare, “Surely he can’t ask more of me than that.” He can and he does. Listening, obedience, and relationship: these things define God’s intentions for me. The Lord doesn’t put out a call for volunteer martyrs. He simply calls us to hear and obey. If that means sacrifice, fine. Otherwise, I listen to his voice and live my life in a relationship with him.
Take Away: We’re called to a daily, genuine relationship with the Lord – that’s what satisfies both us and him.