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.
The secret to satisfaction
Haggai 1: Take a good, hard look at your life.
The work of the Temple was put on hold years earlier because people felt they needed to concentrate on the necessities of life. They built homes and cleared land for planting crops. They built walls to protect them in what had become a dangerous land. Meanwhile, the Temple was left in ruins. Now, as they face a devastating drought, God’s man tells them it’s time to take a hard look at their lives. All their building and planting is meaningless without God. Even with plates full of food and warm clothing to wear they’ve faced an inner dissatisfaction with life. Their neglect of the Temple is a symptom of something even more important. Beyond the building, they’ve left the God of the building out on the periphery of their lives. Without him life is empty and meaningless. Their mistake is both colossal and common. The worship of God is not a luxury to be put on hold till “important” things are cared for. In fact, worship is a core necessity and without God, nothing ever satisfies. We can’t be too hard on the people of Haggai’s day because we too tend to view worship as something that can be pushed aside as we pursue things we deem to be more important. The issue isn’t that God’s unhappy with us and will find a way to get back at us for ignoring him. Instead, it’s that when we leave God out, we’re ignoring the central need of our lives. In the case before us, that’s evidenced by their failure to rebuild the Temple. In our case, it might be that we don’t show a proper interest in the worship of God. When we fail here, we find that all other successes in life taste like failures. When we succeed here, we find that everything else in life finds its proper place.
Take Away: Without the Lord life is empty and meaningless.
Haggai 1: The people procrastinate.
The land of Judah reels from a drought: no rain means no crops means no food. It’s a serious situation. Governor Zerubbabel feels a shred of hope as he sees prophet Haggai coming to meet him. Maybe the prophet has prevailed upon the Lord to send some rain. However, Haggai disappoints the governor. He’s heard from the Lord God and what he’s heard isn’t about rain. God’s man says that God’s displeased with them because they’ve settled in to their homeland but haven’t yet rebuilt the Temple. The Lord’s complaint is that they’ve found time to make their homes comfortable but they haven’t found time to repair the Temple which lies in ruins. Now, this charge of God doesn’t come the first day they arrive in Jerusalem. It’s likely that Haggai arrived with that first group of 50,000 people who returned from exile around 16 years earlier. At that time there was considerable emphasis on rebuilding the Temple. However, other needs were pressing so the Temple project was suspended as the city of Jerusalem was secured, permanent homes were constructed, and agricultural concerns were addressed. Along the way people got used to seeing the Temple as it was. Now, a serious drought threatens their welfare. Haggai says the lack of rain is God’s doing. The Lord’s getting their attention. There was a time for them to deal with the necessities of life but when the time came for them to take care of the Temple they put it off. This little book of our Old Testament is all about priorities. Apparently, the Lord didn’t mind their focusing on dealing with housing and food needed for survival. However, their place of worship was also a necessity and the Lord expected that matter to become a priority to them when the time was right. Today, I’m reminded that the priorities of my life are in constant flux. What I need to do at 8:00 in the morning gives way to what needs to be done at 11:00. Like a river, life flows along. Because of that, I have to keep up with the current priorities of my life.
Take Away: We have to keep up with the current priorities of our lives.
Not thinking too highly of ourselves
Nahum 1: A report on the problem of Nineveh.
Nahum gets the job Jonah wanted. Around 100 years earlier God sent Jonah to preach condemnation to Nineveh, but in hopes that they would repent and be spared. Jonah would have been happy to preach the message of God’s judgment if that was all there was to it. Now, two generations later Nahum is given that message. “The problem of Nineveh” is that the Assyrian empire is the superpower of the region. The tiny nation of Judah is in fearful awe of that empire and behind every move they make is the question, “Will this be okay with the powers that be in the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh?” Nahum’s call from God is to reorient the priorities of Judah. He’s to tell his people that God is still God and that Nineveh will be held to the same standards as the other nations of the world. The prophet goes to work proclaiming his message. In the first part of his sermon he reminds them that, as mighty as Assyria might be, the Lord is the “All-mighty.” God’s a patient God, but, in the end, he’s also Judge of the world. To him, Assyria is just another nation and they’re about to be called to account for their abuse of power. My nation is on the Assyrian side of things. We’re the superpower and, to borrow an old saying, “when America sneezes the whole world gets a bad cold.” As I read from the little Book of Nahum I’m reminded that in God’s eyes we’re not as big a deal as we think we are.
Take Away: It’s important for us as individuals and as a nation to remember that the Lord is the “All-Mighty.”