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.
Ezekiel 22: I looked for someone to…stand in the gap to protect this land.
The Lord’s on the lookout for people who’ll take a stand for righteousness. The reason he seeks such people is not so churches can build nicer buildings or even so that more people will attend their services. God knows it’s “repent or perish.” When a nation stubbornly disregards righteousness and persists in following a God-ignoring road that nation is in serious jeopardy. We’re not talking about such a nation getting a slap on the wrist for being “bad.” This is a life and death situation. The Lord says that when he sees a nation on this road he desperately seeks people who’ll stand up for what’s right. He doesn’t want to destroy that nation. Instead, he wants to redeem it and make its people into a people his very own. With that in mind, he looks everywhere for some key person in some key situation who’ll declare their loyalty to him and his ways. In Ezekiel’s day that person is never found. I may not be able to influence nations for righteousness, but maybe I can influence someone. With that in mind I step into the gap to stand for God even as I pray that that “big player” will step up to stand in the gap for my nation.
Take Away: “Here I am, send me.”
Trust and obey for there’s no other way
Ezekiel 3: …but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life.
As the prophet is commissioned he’s told that his job is to warn people. If they refuse his warning, then they’re responsible to God for that refusal. Ezekiel’s job is to issue God’s message. His salvation is contingent on his faithfulness in doing so. My first reaction to this passage is one of caution. I read this from a New Testament point of view and immediately respond that my hope of salvation isn’t in my performance but in my faith in the Savior, Jesus. Does that, in some way nullify this passage for me today? Upon reflection, I think not. Old or New Testament, preacher or listener, the requirement of God is the same: obedience. The Lord calls Ezekiel to preach his message and that’s what’s required of him. He’s called to obedience even as he calls his listeners to obedience. It’s the same for me. As I understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world I must obey his call to yield my life to him and follow him. Anything else is disobedience. So, Ezekiel obeyed by preaching God’s message. His listeners were to obey by forsaking their sin and worshiping the Lord. I obey by trusting in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and living in a relationship with him. People may refuse Ezekiel’s message, but he’ll be saved in his obedience in preaching it anyway.
Take Away: No matter where a person is on their spiritual journey, the Lord’s requirement is this: obey.