2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
The Golden Ephod
Judges 8: Gideon made the gold into a sacred ephod and put it on display in his hometown.
Gideon and his army have won a great series of victories and now he returns home to a hero’s welcome. When the people want to honor him he asks for some of the gold earrings that were taken from the slain enemy. One has to read between the lines a bit but it seems Gideon’s intentions are good. He takes that gold and uses it in making a priestly garment called an “ephod.” In the history of the Israelites the ephod was worn by the high priest. It appears that this ephod isn’t intended to be worn; after all, it weighs around 100 pounds. Instead, it’s put on display as a reminder of all the Lord has done for them through Gideon. If this understanding is accurate this fancy “reminder” isn’t all that bad. However, it isn’t long before this object of remembrance becomes an object of worship. In fact, Gideon, himself, leads the way in bowing down before the Golden Ephod. How easy it is for us to elevate things to supreme importance while overlooking that which really matters. We church people debate music styles or building plans and worry about who will clean up after the potluck dinner (none of which are bad in themselves) while forgetting why we came to church in the first place. All the while, God is calling out to us, “Here I am, over here.” We miss his call for attention because we’re busy buffing our Golden Ephod.
Take Away: Ultimately, it’s all about the Lord and our relationship with him.
2014 – Sweet Creek Hike – Mapleton, OR
It’s a big deal
Deuteronomy 32: This is no small matter; it’s your life.
After the sermon comes a special in song. No, really. Moses finishes preaching and then teaches them a song that sums up all he’s said. It’s a song of God’s grace and faithfulness to them even in the face of disastrous failure on their part. After the song Moses tells them to take the words of both his preaching and the song he has taught them to heart. These aren’t the ramblings of a very old man. Rather, these concepts are life and death for them. I’m reminded today that most things in life are just “small matters.” In spite of the fact that I try to make them into big deals the fact is that they don’t amount to a hill of beans in the long run. However, there are big deals in life; things that last forever. Such things matter even across the scope of history. I must identify both the small and the big matters and deal with them accordingly.
Take Away: Treat big deals as big deals and little deals as little deals and don’t mix up the two.
2013 – Smoky Mountains and vicinity – Blue Ridge Parkway
The high price of stew these days
Genesis 25: My stew for your rights as the firstborn.
The unalike twins, Jacob and Esau, have never gotten along, sharing no common interests aside from their both being keenly interested in their own interests! Jacob hangs around the house, preferring the comforts of home to the adventures of the outdoors. Esau lives for the hunt and might be called a “man’s man.” On this occasion Esau’s hunting expedition has been unfruitful and he returns home empty handed and with an empty stomach. Meanwhile, Jacob has cooked some red stew which happens to be Esau’s favorite. When his brother demands a meal, Jacob plays “let’s make a deal” with him. Esau can have his stew if he’ll give his birthright to him. This is a big deal. Their father is wealthy and being the first born gives Esau the rights to the vast majority of that wealth. Esau, though, is interested in one thing: his empty stomach. Without hesitation he makes what is a very good deal for Jacob and a very bad deal for himself. I think we’re living in the age of Esau. Our entire society is focused on living for today. People trade away their sexual purity for a passing feel-good fling. Government spends money it doesn’t have, strapping our descendants with huge debt, to avoid a downturn in the economy and some disgruntled voters. Comfort and pleasure rule the day and like Esau we trade our birthright for a bowl of soup. Anytime I fail to recognize the larger values of life and focus on my current wants I’m in danger of joining Esau in his folly.
Take away: A life without proper priorities is bound to be a wasted life.
Ultimately only one thing matters
2Timothy 4: But you – keep your eye on what you’re doing.
The Apostle has been around and he knows the score. He’s had people he counted on let him down. Some couldn’t help it. Sickness and other circumstances beyond their control have thrown a monkey wrench into their commitment to him. Others could help it but failed anyway, getting caught up in some religious fad or simply finding the going too hard. Timothy needs to be aware of all this. At times, people who should know better will want him to ease up on proclaiming the “take up your cross daily” aspect of the gospel message. Something else will catch their eye and they’ll want him to focus on that instead. Paul, who knows what he’s talking about urges this young pastor to “keep your eye on what you’re doing.” More than being a pastor who wants to get along with people, he’s “God’s servant.” Ultimately, what the congregation thinks is secondary to what God thinks. Even as Paul looks forward to receiving the Lord’s approval he wants Timothy, and all of us, to keep this ultimate truth in mind. From my point of view, I want to please those who call me “pastor.” I don’t want to disappoint them or to bore them with sermons that are somewhat less than timely. However, in the end, there’s only one word of approval that matters. I know you know that this is true for pastors and for everyone else too.
Take Away: We have only one Master and pleasing him is, ultimately, the only thing that really matters.
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.
The heart of it all
Colossians 1: We preach Christ.
The Apostle sits in a jail as he writes this letter to the Christians in the city of Colossi, located in what is now the nation of Turkey. He wants his readers to stand firm for Jesus over the long haul, not in some grim, miserable, “unto death” sort of a way, but with joy and confidence and strength. In fact, Paul wants them to be absolutely focused on Jesus and not allow themselves to journey down “dead-end alleys.” They’re to be so in love with Jesus, so impressed with him, that they can’t imagine anything but living in him and for him. Actually, all Paul wants for them is what he has for himself. He’s bought into Jesus, “hook, line, and sinker.” In his mind Jesus towers above all else; always has – always will. He tells them, and us, that the world exists only by Jesus. He’s “supreme,” “God’s original purpose,” and gives everything in creation “its proper place.” When Paul preaches, he has only one subject: Jesus. When his ministry is finished, the result, he hopes, will be many mature, settled followers of Jesus. How important this message is today. We’re pulled this way and that. Decisions are demanded of us. The circumstances of life threaten to erode our souls. At the end of the day – at the end of life – what’s going to matter? In Paul’s words I find the answer: “Christ! No more, no less.”
Take Away: I want the compass of my life to always point to Jesus.
The heart of the matter
1Corinthians 15: It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection.
Even a casual journey through this book of the Bible convinces us that the church at Corinth is a troubled church. Paul has received word of all that’s happening there and in this letter he takes on the most outrageous problems and promises to deal with other issues in person. Apparently, he’s saved his biggest concern for last. Some in the church are beginning to doubt the Resurrection. He warns his readers stay away from such talk and launches into a reasoned defense of this core doctrine of Christianity. At the heart of it is simply this: if there’s no resurrection, Jesus isn’t resurrected and if Jesus isn’t resurrected we’re still in our sins. Resurrection is, for believers, vitally important. Our hope of salvation is in it and our hope for eternity rests on it. All the other problems at Corinth are minor in comparison to their wavering on this key point of faith. The Apostle says he wouldn’t be out on the front lines taking the hits if he didn’t believe in the resurrection. The resurrection defeats sin in our lives today and, in the end, it defeats our final enemy, Death. I’m thankful for this reminder today. Life tends to wrap us up in an ever tightening grip. Even “being a Christian” gets loaded down with non-central stuff like committee meetings and various activities that are fine but not central. A reminder like this refocuses our priorities, taking us back to that which really matters.
Take Away: Christianity without the Resurrection is something other than Christianity.
Luke 10: Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.
When their friend Jesus arrives everyone at Martha’s house is excited. They love Jesus and they can’t think of anything better than spending some quality time with him. Mary is quite literal about that. She stays in the room where Jesus is, hanging on his every word. Martha, though, feels a sense of responsibility to make her guest comfortable. In fact, she’s frustrated with her sister for not pitching in and helping with the meal Martha’s preparing in honor of Jesus and his disciples. It’s as she busies herself with these practical matters that frustration grows to the point that having Jesus there becomes secondary to her feeling of aggravation. I can just imagine it: many people, including Mary, are in the living room listening to Jesus when the door bursts open and there stands Martha. Without meaning to, she interrupts Jesus, demanding that he order Mary to help her. Our Lord responds to her with an ever so gentle rebuke. I’m so glad that his rebuke is a gentle one because I identify with Martha. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no cook and I’m certainly not known for having the gift of hospitality. However, I do sometimes get so focused on the nuts and bolts of things that I miss the big picture. Maybe you’re like that too. Maybe you can’t give yourself fully to the worship service because the guy running the video keeps getting the words out of sync. Maybe you spot cobwebs under a pew or notice that one light bulb in the chandler is still burned out. If you tend to focus on stuff like that you have to join me in appreciating the fact that the rebuke Jesus gives to Martha is, at least, a mild one.
Take Away: Sometimes it takes a bit of self-discipline to focus on Jesus rather than some of the minor distractions of life.
Matthew 15: I hurt for these people.
I don’t think the stories of the response of Jesus to the Pharisees and his response to the hungry people out in the wilderness are necessarily intentionally placed as they are, but they do provide an interesting study in contrasts. For three days Jesus has ministered to people in a “deserted place.” Near the conclusion, the physical hunger of the people is obvious to Jesus, who has had his own intense hunger experience at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus remarks to the disciples that he hurts for them and then performs the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. Earlier, though, Jesus has an encounter with the Pharisees and religion scholars who travel all the way from Jerusalem to check out his ministry. They immediately complain that the disciples don’t properly follow the rules concerning religious practice that they’ve set up. Jesus, in just a few words, puts them in their place and the disciples are somewhat concerned that Jesus has upset these powerful people. In this case, Jesus just shrugs his shoulders and says in so many words that what these people say or think doesn’t matter. Here’s our Lord dealing with different sets of people. Some, he says aren’t worth our time. Their words and opinions will be “pulled up by their roots” so we might as well just “forget them.” Others though are people who are hurting. They may not be important in the eyes of society, but they matter to God and should matter to us. In Jesus’ day, his priorities are upside down as far as the world is concerned. They still are. I’m a follower of Jesus and I want my priorities to reflect that. God help me to brush off that which isn’t worth a hill of beans and to figure out what really matters.
Take Away: Some things that others worry about aren’t worth our time and effort. Some things no one else worries about are.
The challenge of living in the level ground days
Malachi 1: Worship of God is no longer a priority.
Anyone who’s gone through significant weight loss will tell you that the hard part of a diet isn’t the “cut-back-on-the-calories” weight loss phase. Instead, it’s the maintenance phase. At that time, the individual moves from trying to lose weight to living a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t result in regaining the weight that was lost. The problem is that there are constant temptations to give in a little here and a little there. Once one starts down that road the end result is a return to the former state of things. The people Malachi speaks to are at a cross roads. They’re secure and comfortable. The work of rebuilding the Temple was finished by their parents and grandparents. Now, it falls on them to live a spiritually healthy lifestyle as an every day people of God. Frankly, they aren’t doing a very good job of it. When they bring an animal to offer to the Lord, they’ve fallen into the habit of bringing one that they don’t want anyway. Worship, in general, is drifting to a lower and lower priority in their lives. They aren’t back at the stage of their idol-worshiping, baby-sacrificing ancestors, but, without even recognizing it, they’re gradually drifting away from God. It doesn’t take a big effort to connect the dots from this to my own life. I don’t hope a crisis will come to my life to remind me of my priorities, but, here on the level ground of life, I want to live a healthy, day-to-day spiritual lifestyle.
Take Away: Living for the Lord on the common days of life has challenges of its own.