Story or real?
Job 1: God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead.”
I’ve heard some say that the fact that God gives permission for Job to be tested brings comfort to them. They tie it in to Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.” I see what they see in this. In the midst of the pain and suffering there’s some consolation in remembering that God is allowing this and he wouldn’t allow it if he didn’t know I can take it. However, this also troubles me. To think that the Lord grants permission for a life to be devastated (not to mention the very lives of Job’s children) is hard to take. I think this is why some people have decided that this is a parable-like story rather than a historical one. If this is fiction based on fact I can relax and focus on learning the lessons I can learn here. If, though, this is the real deal then I find myself struggling. If you think I am about to come up with some profound answer I fear you’re going to be disappointed. Beyond that, if you decide to skip ahead of me and read how the story of Job ends to find an answer there, well, you won’t find it there either.
Take Away: Sometimes we just have to trust the Lord, especially when we have more questions than answers.
I’ve got a secret
Mark 4: We’re not keeping secrets, we’re telling them.
The theme here is parable telling. Mark tells us some of Jesus’ stories and then remarks that Jesus is “never without a story.” The reason for this approach, according to Jesus, is that he’s in the “secret revealing” business. No hidden, mystic religion of riddles here. Jesus’ purpose is to open wide the doors to the Kingdom of God. People who never understood before now get a crystal clear picture of God at work. Now we understand how the gospel takes root in some lives but not in others. We see what happens when the gospel does take root, starting small but becoming a huge, transforming force in life. And, we see God’s purpose in all this. Those who receive the gospel are to let the light of that gospel shine in their lives. We aren’t to be “keepers of the flame.” Instead, we’re “givers of the flame.” We don’t take the gospel into our lives and hide it. Instead, it’s to be the noticeable thing about us. So, how’s it going? Do people see the light of the gospel in my life? If I’m one of those who has received the gospel and if it has taken root and become the number one thing in my life, is it what others see in me? At the very core of my life, I’m to be a “secret teller” letting others in on the best news in the world. If not, maybe it’s because I’m not the kind of “soil” I think I am!
Take Away: Some secrets are best told.
Really, it’s God’s business and not mine
Matthew 20: Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Jesus tells the story of a man who hires day laborers. Early in the morning he hires a group, promising them a certain wage. As the day goes on, he continues to add workers with some only working the last hour of the day. When the workers are paid, all receive the amount promised the workers who first hired on and have worked all day long. Some of them complain that since they worked longer and harder that they should be paid more. The answer is that they’re being paid exactly what was agreed when they were hired and it’s no business of theirs what the boss does with his own money. This, I think, is a picture of God’s grace to us. I understand that no one is deserving of God’s blessings, but obviously, some are more deserving than others. However, the Lord wants to bless each and every one. At the Judgment there will be some who gave their lives to Jesus while they were young and then served the Lord many years. Others will be there who barely made it in, maybe due to a death bed conversion. The grace of God will be extended to all who were willing to receive it. After all, it’s his grace and he can do with it whatever he wants.
Take Away: The very definition of grace includes the concept that it’s given to the undeserving.
Teaching on teaching
Matthew 13: Are you starting to get a handle on all this?
In this chapter Matthew gives us several examples of Jesus teaching. We hear about the sower and the seed, a series of stories about how, in the Judgment, the division of the human race will take place and stories that illustrate the growth of the Kingdom of God. Of course, each story is true and helps us better understand spiritual reality. However, the overall purpose of the stories is to teach the disciples how to teach kingdom truths. Jesus explains that the reason he tells stories is to “create readiness.” If he begins his teachings at the high school level, all those who are at the elementary level are left out. Therefore, he starts with stories that pry open some new small comprehension that wasn’t there before. As he concludes this “teaching on teaching” Jesus asks his disciples if they get it. I think “getting it” doesn’t necessarily mean that we Sunday preachers are supposed to always build our sermons around stories (although it’s not a bad idea). Instead, “getting it” means that we remember to start our preaching at the level of our listeners. Seasoned students of the Word tend to forget that things we take for granted are new territory for others. We also like “church words” and freely sprinkle them into our sermons. On one hand, we don’t want to show disrespect for people by talking down to them. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so “above and beyond” that the average person is untouched by truths that could transform their lives.
Take Away: We need to minister to people at their level of understanding.
Identifying with the right person
Hosea 3: From now on you’re living with me.
I guess it’s just human nature but when I read the parables of Jesus my first inclination is to identify with “good guy” in the story. I see myself as the “tax collector” who prays for mercy, the servant who invests his talent, and the woman who finds the lost coin. It’s only when I’m willing to see myself from the less than stellar point of view that the parable can truly instruct me and help me become the person God would have me be. Since Hosea’s story is a living parable, who am I in this story? I know that the primary focus is on God and the ancient Israelites, but if I read this story devotionally who am I? It has to be Gomer. She’s a pitiful figure in the story. Her origins are unknown to us, but she’s both a victim and a trespasser. Even when she’s given a second chance at life she blows it, making a bigger mess than she had in the first place. She’s stubborn and deeply flawed and, seemingly not worth redemption. Hosea, though, loves her so much that he can’t do what common sense dictates. He waded into the filth and got her the first time, and, when she betrays him and returns to it, he wades in again. As I read this I’m not to say, “Yes, I’m like Hosea, and I’ll be gracious and kind and forgiving” (although, I’m supposed to be all of these things). Instead, I’m to say, “I’ve been like Gomer. In spite of God’s goodness to me I’ve been hard-headed and hard-hearted. God has not only rescued me, but he’s waded out into sin to bring me back when I’ve failed.” If I refuse to identify with Gomer in this story it will never have the impact on my life it’s intended to have.
Take Away: The parables work best when I rightly identify myself in them.
The living parable
Hosea 1: This is God’s Message to Hosea.
Having just spent time in the Old Testament book of Daniel it takes some reorientation to turn the page and find myself in the book of Hosea. Here I see that it will be 200 years before Daniel has his adventures in distant Babylonia. I find myself back in the day of Isaiah and his warnings of future destruction and here I find God at work, reaching out to a rebellious people in an effort to restore them to him and spare them from what’s coming otherwise. Also, as I reach the book of Hosea I find I’m now in the final segment of the Old Testament in the writings of those called the “minor prophets.” Of course, it isn’t their message that’s “minor.” It’s just that their books are shorter and more focused. All the books of the Minor Prophets together contain less material than, say, the book of Ezekiel. Hosea’s prophecy is called a “living parable.” As will Ezekiel in years to come, Hosea is called to live out his message. His prophecy is also a love story. The love he demonstrates for us is not some silly, “love ya’ man” or a shallow, “baby, I need your lovin'” kind of love. Hosea demonstrates for us the depth and power of God’s love for us.
Take Away: The Lord loves us with a powerful, persisting love.