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Joshua 9: The men of Israel looked them over and accepted the evidence. But they didn’t ask God about it.
Word of the impressive victories of the Israelite army has spread far and wide. Waves of fear sweep across Canaan when the powerful armies of the kings west of the Jordan fall. Now, with Jericho and Ai both destroyed the region is in the grip of dismay. Some are gearing up for war but one group desperately tries a different approach. The people of Gibeon send emissaries to the Israelites. They’re made up to look as though they’ve been on a long journey but actually they’re local. They tell Joshua’s people that they’ve heard of the might of God and their exploits and that, from a distance, they want to make a peace treaty with them. Apparently, the Israelites are somewhat flattered that their fame has spread far and wide, so, without giving it much thought, they seal the deal with Gibeon. To the surprise of the Israelites, they find that they’ve made a deal with one of the groups they’re supposed to purge from Canaan! What a blunder on the side of the Israelites and what resourcefulness on the side of Gibeon! The problem, of course, for Israel is that, while they were examining the dried, moldy bread from the saddlebags of the emissaries they forgot to “ask God about it.” They relied on their own wisdom rather than on the guidance of the Lord. I’d like to be very critical of the Israelites at this point, but I’d better tread carefully here. How many times have I, in my so called wisdom, checked out all the facts, made up a “pros and cons” list, researched the issue and moved on it. Only after the fact I may have tossed an “and, by the way Lord, please bless what I’m about to do” prayer. As I see Israel making an un-prayed over deal with Gibeon I’m sorry to say I see myself all too often doing the same sort of thing.
Take Away: You’ll never be sorry you prayed first.
Numbers 27: Give us an inheritance among our father’s relatives.
In preparation for entry into the Promised Land a census has been taken and the method for division of the land is made public. A group of sisters, all daughters of the late Zelophehad appear before Moses to seek justice. The division of land is by families and it’s sons who are to inherit from their fathers. These women explain that their father died without any sons and because of that his descendants are being left out of the plans for property ownership in Canaan. Moses takes the issue to the Lord and the Lord agrees. The plan is rewritten to take into account men who die with no sons to inherit their property. This is a historical decision that elevates the status of women in Israel. I find the circumstances quite interesting. What would have happened had these women not come forward with their petition? My guess is that their unique situation would have been overlooked. As individuals, they would have been okay because when they married they would have shared in their husband’s inheritance. Because of their bold request, though, the Lord listened, agreed, and responded. This then, becomes an example of prayer having a direct influence on the Lord. He willingly listens to us and allows us to have influence in what he does in this world. Had they not stepped forward things would have been okay; but because they did, things happened as they desired. To think that the Almighty welcomes my petitions, considers them, and is willing to respond to them amazes me. This is quite a powerful lesson to find buried here between the report of the census and more instructions concerning burnt offerings in the book of Numbers!
Take Away: As surprising as it is, the Lord welcomes my petitions and is willing to consider them and to grant them.
Walking with the Lord
Exodus 33: If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now.
Following the golden calf incident the Lord tells Moses he’s going to change his relationship with the Israelites. Instead of being personally present, guiding them to the Promised Land, the Lord is going to assign that job to an angel. These Israelites, the Lord says, are a hard-headed people and they might just push too hard against God and be destroyed because of it. In response, Moses has another meeting with the Lord as the Pillar of Cloud descends on the Tabernacle. As Abraham interceded for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah centuries earlier, Moses begins to deal with the Almighty. He reminds the Lord that it was the Lord, himself, who called him from tending sheep to lead these people. He doesn’t want to settle for an angel. Instead, he wants the presence of the Lord, himself, on his life and on the lives of the Israelites. In desperate insistence, Moses declares, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now….are you traveling with us or not?” In the face of this intercession the Lord relents. It won’t be an angel who travels with the Israelites; it will be the Lord, himself. I have some theological issues with this whole exchange. After all, isn’t the Lord everywhere, all the time? Still, I’m drawn to this exchange between Moses and the Lord. As wonderful as an angelic visitation might be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the very presence of the Lord in my life. As Moses indicates, he doesn’t want to take a single step without the Lord. As I rise in the morning and enter into my day I want to do so in the spirit of Moses: I don’t want to say a word, to do a deed, to walk a step without the Lord in my life.
Take Away: I want to live in constant fellowship with the Lord, every step of the way.
Genesis 24: Go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.
It’s not certain, but the servant given the task of getting a wife for Isaac is likely Eliezer, the servant named earlier by Abraham as his possible heir. It’s this good man that Abraham sends on a very important mission. The reason we aren’t absolutely certain that it’s Eliezer being spoken of in this passage is that he’s unnamed in the narrative. Even when he introduces himself to Rebekah’s family, he identifies himself as “the servant of Abraham.” I consider Eliezer to be one of the most admirable little-known people of the Bible. Here’s a man who’s dedicated to Abraham, who knows how to pray, and is entrusted with the most delicate of tasks. He humbly accepts the mission and then believes the Lord will help him accomplish it. I pray that the Lord will see me as a sort of Eliezer in his Kingdom. I’ll gladly let other more capable people have the starring roles in accomplishing the Lord’s purposes in this world if he’ll use me to quietly go about serving him in ways for which I’m best suited. Once in a while, I’ll feel especially honored if he trusts me to do some especially sensitive task.
Take away: It’s an honor to be used of God to do things that go largely unnoticed.
Genesis 18: Abraham stood in God’s path, blocking the way.
I can’t imagine a more shocking description of how Abraham begins his intercession for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah than this statement. I’ve read this passage countless times and never realized what it meant for Abraham to, in the language of the NIV, “Stand before the Lord.” The Almighty has graced Abraham with a unique visitation. The Lord has made a wonderful promise to him. Now, he’s honored him by giving him advance knowledge of what he’s about to do. As the Lord prepares to depart on this mission, Abraham stands before him, ready to plead for mercy in one of the best known prayers of intercession in the Bible. It’s pretty clear that the Lord welcomes Abraham’s involvement in this. For one thing, had the Lord not told Abraham what’s about to happen, he would have found out about it after the fact like everyone else. For another, when Abraham stands in God’s path it’s akin to my going out to the interstate and “standing in the path” of a Mac truck. The only way Abraham survives this shocking event is that the Lord allows it. As I look for an application to my life from this passage I don’t want to go overboard here. I need to remember that Abraham’s pleading a case and not insisting that things go his way. Still, it’s enlightening for me to realize that the Lord sometimes welcomes me into the conversation about what he’s doing in the world. It seems to me that this is the key is the Lord’s informing Abraham of his intention. In that, I get the feeling that Abraham’s being given permission to respond from his own perspective. When the Lord gives me a burden, or even a unique insight into something, I can take that as being granted permission to respond in prayer from my own perspective and maybe to even “stand in God’s path” in a reverent and respectful way as Abraham did.
Take away: As amazing as it is, sometimes God welcomes me into a conversation concerning his intentions.
Something new: prayer!
Genesis 4: That’s when men and women began praying and worshiping in the name of God.
Things are really messed up. The human race is fallen. The Garden is gone. The first murder has taken place. It’s all falling apart. This “free will” thing isn’t working out very well. Eve has another son and names him Seth. Seth has a son and names him Enosh. Then a wonderful thing happens: people start praying and worshiping. I wonder how that came about. Is Seth so thankful for the gift of a son that he decides to start worshiping God? Is it Enosh who has a hunger for God and introduces praying and worshiping? I don’t know the answer but I do see here a change for the better; one that brought hope to a hopeless situation. So what does it take in my life? Does it take tragedy…or some great blessing? Does it take someone else finding the way and showing it to me? What does it take to turn me from a life being lived for self to one being lived in fellowship with God?
Take away: Prayer and worship is an “important discovery” for every person to make.
When’s the best time to pray?
Revelation 8: Smoke billowed up from the incense-laced prayers of the holy ones.
The seventh seal marks, not the end, but the beginning of a series of judgments about the fall on the earth. Things are about to get bad, with huge events coming to earth, each announced by the blast of a trumpet. The sober nature of these events is underscored as a foreboding silence falls in heaven. Before that first trumpet blast John sees an angel carrying a gold censer. The scene in heaven is one of worship at the Temple and the angel with the censor is in the role of priest. The offering, made with incense, is the prayers of God’s people. Even as the judgment of God is about to be poured out on the earth, the prayers of his people are heard. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this passage and Bible scholars are pressed to the limit to explain all the symbolism. I don’t claim to have any deep insight into the meaning here. However, I do note that before bad things ever start happening that God’s people are praying and that he’s listening to their prayers. While I doubt that the purpose of this passage is to encourage prayer I do see here an example of the importance of it. Of course we should pray when “something like a huge mountain…is flung into the sea” of our lives. However, it’s a good idea to already do some praying before such earth shaking events (literally in this case) start happening. God’s people need to pray before, during, and after unwelcome life events.
Take Away: Prayer matters.
The most powerful force on earth
James 5: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
One righteous person praying is the most powerful force on earth. It’s true you know. Prayer is the most powerful and most underutilized force available to us. Righteous praying influences the God who’s already inclined to bless us. I think I believe this but tend to not act as though I believe it. Prayer’s more an “add on” to what matters to me. I sometimes do the best I can do and then toss in a prayer for good measure. In doing it that way I do it exactly backwards. What I need to learn to do is pray first and then add my efforts to it. James’ example of a powerful pray-er is Elijah. This righteous man prays for rain, and then, when he sees the first evidence that his prayer is being answered, takes action, preparing for that answer to come. His template, then, is: pray first, then, stop praying and start acting as though that prayer is being answered. I really do believe that Elijah is correct in this but all too often I don’t act like it.
Take Away: Pray first and then act.
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
1Timothy 2: The first thing I want you to do is pray.
So, Paul, that seasoned Apostle, missionary, and pastor has some advice for his young pastor friend Timothy. Everyone, pastor-types and regular church folks, leans forward to listen to what he has to say. What’s of first importance? What is Timothy to believe in first of all? Paul zeros in on prayer. For this young pastor the lynchpin of his ministry isn’t preaching well-constructed, well-delivered sermons. It’s not church administration or solid doctrine or even visitation. He’s to be a man of prayer — an expert at it. Paul wants him to pray for people he knows and for people he doesn’t know. He’s to pray for their salvation and, if they have authority, to pray that they’ll rule successfully, maintaining peace in the land. Paul sets for Timothy an example and now Timothy is to set an example for his congregation at Ephesus. As a result, the men and the women in his congregation will focus on prayer. Let’s take these instructions to heart. Let’s “pray every way we know how.” Let’s remember that prayer “is at the bottom” of everything we do. Who knows what might happen as God’s called ministers and their congregations give themselves to fervent, persistent, faith-filled prayer!
Take Away: Prayer is to be our number one agenda item.