A lesson from the bakery
Matthew 16: Keep a sharp eye out for Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.
I wonder what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There’s a clue just a few lines earlier. These people want Jesus to prove himself to them, probably by performing some miracle. Jesus dismisses them by saying that they’re going to get proof alright, the powerful proof of life out of death when, as Jonah returned from the deep, he, himself, will return from the grave. At that point Jesus turns his back on them and walks away. Later he warns his disciples to beware of their “yeast.” Those who bake bread know about yeast. A little is worked into the dough so it will rise, becoming soft and tasty. Jesus says that there’s “yeast” that can work its way into every part of our lives, bringing not good results, but bad. It’s the insistence on God doing things our way, having to prove himself to us before we’ll believe. In the encounters of the Pharisees and Sadducees with Jesus there’s always a tug of war concerning who’s in charge and what Jesus has to do to satisfy them. Jesus warns his disciples to not fall into that trap. Before we know it this approach will work its way into our lives. When God doesn’t do things our way and in our time, we’ll begin to doubt him and his goodness. Later in this same passage, Peter first declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Later on though, we see the yeast of the Pharisees when he argues against Jesus proceeding God’s way, thinking he knows better. If Peter, in basically the same conversation can go from a great statement of faith to one of “my way is better” I’d better take warning. This yeast can work its way into my life before I even know it.
Take Away: The idea that I always know just what God should do and how he should do it can sneak into my thinking and take root there.
Me, doing my part
Haggai 2: I own the silver, I own the gold.
Every Jew knows about the Temple. Even though it was destroyed decades ago they’ve heard stories of its glory. A few of the old people actually saw it when they were children. It could be that one reason the returned exiles have neglected the rebuilding of the Temple is because they don’t think they can do it justice and whatever they do will be a pale reflection of the great Temple of history. For one thing, they can’t furnish it in silver and gold as their ancestors did when they first built the Temple. Fearing that they can’t do a good enough job of rebuilding they haven’t started at all. Now, in Haggai’s second sermon, he tells the people they don’t have to worry about that. If they do what they can do God will do the rest. In this case, the Lord’s word is that he’ll provide the silver and gold if they just get started on the building. So what is it in my life that’s never been started because I know I lack the resources to complete it? Is my failure here not so much resource-based as it is faith-based? Years earlier the ancestors of Haggai’s congregation were told to march forward through the Red Sea. Even though they didn’t have the resources to dam up the waters, they obeyed. When they did what they could do, God did the rest. What might the Lord do in my life if I would simply do what I can do while trusting the One who owns the silver and gold of this world to do the rest?
Take Away: We do our part while trusting the Lord to do his.
Listening and honoring
Haggai 1: In listening to Haggai, they honored God.
The drought has everyone worried. If rain doesn’t come soon the resulting famine will bring misery and death. Not only that, but there’s a general dissatisfaction among the returned exiles. Even when they do things that ought to satisfy they’re left feeling empty. Then Haggai brings his sermon. He says that the reason for no rain is that God’s getting their attention. They’re living self-centered lives and have failed to honor him by rebuilding the Temple. He also says that the reason for their general dissatisfaction is that they’ve been looking for satisfaction in the wrong things. Only the Lord can satisfy their lives and they can experience him only by putting him first. At this point the people stand where their ancestors stood many times through the years. Will they listen to the message from God or will they harden their hearts and become more entrenched than ever in their refusal to honor him? Their answer is a resounding decision to obey the voice of the Lord. Where their ancestors failed they succeed. This watershed moment is rewarded with a further message from the Lord who declares, “I am with you!” I love what happens here. As I’ve read through the Prophets I’ve encountered one instance of rebellion after another. How refreshing it is to hear God’s prophet declare God’s message to God’s people and see them listen and obey. It’s almost as though the sun breaks through the clouds to shine down on the words I’m reading. The people of Haggai’s day messed up, but when God got their attention and declared his intentions they responded in humble obedience. Personally, I’d rather not mess up in the first place but when I do, I want their “listening and honoring” to be my inspiration.
Take Away: Better to do it the Lord’s way all along, but if not, it’s good to at least humbly accept his correction and move forward from there.
The hardest work of all
Jonah 1: He was sound asleep.
We don’t know anything about Jonah’s background. It may be that he’s been a prophet for years, faithfully preaching God’s messages to his people. On the other hand, this may be Jonah’s first encounter with God. He may have been an average fellow just minding his own business who heard the Voice of God. Either way, the mission he’s given isn’t one he wants. Nineveh is the capital of the hated and feared Assyrian empire. There’s nothing Jonah or any of his fellow countrymen would like better than to see Nineveh destroyed. Just a few pages over in our Bibles we find ourselves in the book of Nahum. That short book of the Bible is all about God’s promised destruction of this same city. Now, that’s the sermon Jonah wants to preach. Instead, God calls him to call them to repent that they might be spared. Jonah doesn’t want the job so he flees Israel and, he supposes, the presence of the Lord by hopping a boat headed in the opposite direction. Once aboard, he heads for the deepest, most out-of-the-way spot he can find and falls fast asleep. I’ve only been out on rough seas one time so my experience is very limited. Still, I can say with confidence that such a time and place isn’t a good one for a nap. In fact, the only possibility of falling into a sound sleep in that circumstance is exhaustion. I think Jonah has wrestled with his call to preach to Israel’s enemies to the point that he’s not slept for days and is operating on the ragged edge of collapse. People think that doing what God wants is too hard or that it won’t satisfy their lives. To their chagrin they discover that refusing God is even harder and that whatever they do instead fails to satisfy. Running from God is hard work.
Take Away: Disobeying the Lord is hard work.
Picking a wife
Hosea 1: He picked Gomer daughter of Diblaim.
Somewhere in my sermon files I have a sermon on the “beautiful, vivacious, Gomer.” Aside from this being the name of Hosea’s bride the only other Gomer I know of is the TV character and he’s about as plain a guy and you’ll ever find. I can’t help but wonder how Hosea went about obeying God’s command. Did he head down to the red light district and pick a wife? Did he already know Gomer from their childhoods and, maybe remembered a childhood crush he had on her? This situation almost begs for more information. Frankly, I doubt that Gomer is a lovely lady at all. Instead, I think she’s hard and brittle and jaded and rebellious. The reason I think that is not because I think all women who sell their bodies are like that. I think many are victims for whom one bad choice has led to another. Rather, see Gomer thus because in this “living parable” she represents the rebellious people of Israel. I don’t think that Hosea goes out and picks the prettiest of the lot. Instead, I think he picks the person whose most like Israel: hard, brittle, jaded, and in rebellion against their loving God. Obviously, such a marriage is doomed from the start. However, in spite of this oil and water marriage, Hosea finds himself bound to his wife by an irresistible, undeniable love. The reason for this is that, in this living parable Gomer represents Israel; Hosea represents God.
Take Away: The Lord is bound to us in love, but not because we’re irresistibly loveable.
Who is this really?
Hosea 1: The first time God spoke to Hosea…
The book of Hosea contains no preface aside from the opening sentence or two. There’s no wading into this pool. Instead, we immediately jump off into the deep end! The thing is it appears it’s that way for Hosea too. Here’s a godly man, minding his own business suddenly hearing from God. Having grown up in the ’60’s I loved Bill Cosby’s “Noah.” Cosby imagines Noah hearing from the Lord and then asking “who is this really?” If, out of nowhere, being told to build an ark was a strange command imagine what it’s like for Hosea when his first message from God is to go, find a prostitute, and marry her! “Who is this really?” wouldn’t have been an unreasonable question. However, Hosea recognizes the Voice of God and he responds, not as Bill Cosby might imagine, but in immediate, humble obedience. God speaks, Hosea obeys. We’ve hardly begun reading this book and before us is the line “Hosea did it.” If I push everything back for a moment, before plunging on into the story, I can’t help but marvel at Hosea’s ability to hear, recognize, and then obey the Voice of God even though what he’s heard seems highly unreasonable. Today, I can’t help but be impressed by that.
Take Away: We all need lessons from people like Hosea and Noah in learning to hear and recognize the voice of the Lord.
God trusting us to trust him
Daniel 3: The God we serve can rescue us…but even if he doesn’t….
I love this story! The pagan king orders the three Hebrew men to worship his statue; it’s either worship or die in the furnace. Their response is one for the ages: “The God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace…but even if he doesn’t…we still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” Now, that’s trusting faith! I’ve never been where they are and I hope I never am. However, if such a day comes I pray that I’ll have the same backbone they did. At a much less intense level, I’m taken by their “even if he doesn’t” statement. They knew what God “could” do but they weren’t sure of what he “would” do. If they’re given a choice, they’ll vote for divine rescue, but, obviously they aren’t the ones choosing. If they have to, they’ll go with option two: obedience even to death. I, too, believe the Lord knows how to rescue his people. However, there are times when it seems God has something bigger going on and my predicament isn’t at the core of what’s happening. At times like that the Lord trusts me to trust him. So, “even if he doesn’t” do what I want, I declare my allegiance to him and then hold fast to it.
Take Away: The great test of faith isn’t believing for a miracle. Rather, it’s believing when the miracle never comes.
Winning in little ways first
Daniel 1: Daniel determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food.
The hardest time for me to stay on a diet is when I’m on vacation. There are so many nice places to eat, we’re out of our routine, and there’s the strange notion that “what happens on vacation stays on vacation.” One “off diet” meal leads to another and I end up bringing home, not just pleasant memories and photos of all the places we saw, but a few extra pounds too. Of course, Daniel and his companions aren’t on vacation. They’ve been taken against their will to a distant land with little hope of returning home. Even if they could go back, things are very different than when they left. Still, they’re in very pleasant surroundings. They’re part of the household of the most powerful king on earth and they’re being groomed to serve in the royal court. Their rations aren’t bread and water but, instead, are the richest of foods and the finest of wines. The thing is that their religion has strict dietary rules. That pork chop might look quite tasty, but it’s forbidden to them by their God. If we struggle with our diets just because we’re a few hundred miles from home, think of their struggle. The Temple, Jerusalem, and their family ties are all in their past. Do the rules even apply anymore? If they do just go along with what is being asked of them where will it take them next? Does saying “yes” here mean they’ll be expected to say “yes” somewhere else, like, for instance, the worship of an idol? Daniel decides to draw the line right where he is. He’s a follower of God and God has given him some dietary rules. He’ll be respectful, but he’ll hold steady at this minor point. If he never starts down the path away from God he’ll never end up where that path leads. I don’t know if this passage will help me stay on my diet or not, but it certainly can help me remember that spiritual failure doesn’t start with my rejecting God in some big way. Rather, it starts with little things. If I win there, I’m much more likely to conquer the “biggie” when it shows up.
Take Away: If we never start down the path away from God we’ll never end up where that path leads.
The death of Ezekiel’s wife
Ezekiel 24: Get dressed as usual and go about your work — none of the usual funeral rituals.
The final part of Ezekiel 24 is one of the most painful passages one can read. The Lord tells his prophet that his wife is about to die but as an object lesson for the people he’s not to publicly mourn her death. By the time of this event Ezekiel is well known for his messages of God’s anger with his people. He’s also known for “acting out” some event as an object lesson. When his wife dies and Ezekiel just goes on with his preaching everyone knows there’s an object lesson in it. They gather round this broken man and ask him why he isn’t mourning the loss of the love of his life. It’s then that he warns them that even as his beloved has been taken from him their beloved city and Temple are going to be taken and, even as he’s not gone through a mourning process their enemies won’t give them even a moment to mourn the loss of it all. I can hardly imagine what it was like for Ezekiel that day as God’s message had to take precedence over his personal loss. Earlier in his ministry the Lord promised to stiffen Ezekiel that he could face all the rejection that was coming, so maybe that’s in play here. Another thing I can hardly imagine is how God could love these hard people so much as to keep reaching out to them, calling them to himself in such drastic ways. Finally, I don’t think Ezekiel’s situation can be viewed as typical of God’s servants. On one hand, I’m reminded of what it means to be surrendered to the Lord; that it can take us to places we never would go otherwise. On the other hand, I remember that this is a very unique situation in the Bible and can’t be viewed as how the Lord usually deals with us. Of course, the Lord asks noting of Ezekiel that he doesn’t require of himself. Even as God’s Only Begotten Son dies on the cross, he’ll have to turn his back on him.
Take Away: The Lord loves lost people so much that he’ll act in extreme ways to redeem them.