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.”
No more business as usual
Ezekiel 7: They throw their money into the gutters.
The prophet tells us some of the things he does under God’s command to get the attention of people. Ezekiel isn’t an easy going guy; he’s a rugged, no-holds-barred kind of preacher who makes us think of Elijah or maybe John the Baptist. This prophet does weird stuff and then preaches hard, crushing sermons. In one sermon he describes the end of business as usual for those who’ve turned their backs on God. He says that the day’s coming when people will toss their money aside because it will be meaningless and useless. I’m reminded of the last power outage we had in our neighborhood. Somewhere a breaker had thrown and every household in our area was without electricity. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself when, for a fleeting moment, I thought, “Well, I can’t do my work; I guess I’ll watch some TV till the power comes back on!” It took me a nanosecond to realize how silly that thought was. Without electricity that nice TV was nothing but a big paperweight! Today, as I consider Ezekiel’s warning that the money they think is so important is going to be simply thrown away as so much rubbish I’m reminded that a day’s coming when all the “stuff” I tend to think matters will be just another piece of trash. I’ve got to keep that in mind and discipline myself to major on the majors while minoring on the minors of life!
Take Away: All the “stuff” we have will, ultimately, be worthless – so, invest in that which matters in the long run.
Who it is that America should be worshiping
Isaiah 2: Quit scraping and fawning over mere humans…can’t you see there’s nothing to them?
“American Idol” is a TV show that gets a lot of attention. I haven’t been a fan of the show. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Honestly, now that I know more what it is about my attitude toward it has softened a bit. It’s basically a modern version of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour (you can look it up if it’s a strange name to you!). Do you want to know why I never started watching “American Idol”? It’s the name of the show! As soon as I saw it the Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” sprang to mind. Really! As anyone would, I guessed the premise of the show, but the name left a sour taste in my mouth so I never bothered checking it out. Of course, Isaiah isn’t thinking about entertainers when he warns his fellow countrymen to stop “idolizing” people but if he had had access to 140 channels of TV I think he would have been pretty specific in warning us about our attitude concerning everyone from sports stars to singers to actors to politicians. I’m not against people being impressed by a golfer who can drop the ball within two feet of the hole from 150 yards out, but really, he or she is nothing to get excited about. The same people who will rise before daylight to get a prime spot for watching some golf star tee off don’t even bother to attend a worship service in hopes that the King of Kings will make an appearance. Now that’s having mixed up priorities.
Take Away: The warnings about idols should cause us to do a priority check.
My most precious gift
Proverbs 8: Don’t squander your precious life.
Proverbs eight and nine contain an imaginary conversation with “Lady Wisdom.” She offers us all kinds of advice as well as shares her lofty credentials. My favorite statement from her is “don’t squander your precious life.” Some things I think are valuable are like counterfeit money; not worth the paper it’s printed on. The day will come when someone will sift through all of my “valuables” deciding what’s worth passing on and what needs to go out to the curb to await a trip to the land fill. I’m pretty sure most of it will come up short. Sadly, we’re all prone to spend our lives chasing after things that prove to be worthless when all is said and done. Today, as I read these words I remember that life is precious indeed; an amazing and undeserved gift from God. Every breath is to be prized and great care should be taken to not waste it. I don’t want to live my life in pursuit of worthless things, spending my most valuable resource foolishly. On the other hand, I can use up my life in a quest of excellence. The question I must ask myself is, “How can I best live my life and spend this, my most precious gift?”
Take Away: How can I best live my life?
Looking at life “backwards”
Proverbs 4: Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions.
When the proverb writer advises us to ignore all the distractions of life he’s just stating common sense but, obviously, it’s something easier said than done. For instance, before I can focus on the goal I have to know what that goal is. Right off the voices of the snake oil huskers begin selling me their bill of goods. They tell me that whatever they’re selling is just the thing I should give my life to. Some of the offers contain just enough truth to sound right. I’m reminded of all the sports leagues that demand so much of a families’ time. There’s a great deal of good happening in such activities, but, honestly, they aren’t worth committing one’s life to and they sure don’t deserve the status they’re given in many families. So what is it that’s worthy of my focus? I think the answer can be found by looking at life “backwards.” When I’m at the end of my life, when they’re closing the lid on my coffin, what will matter? I say it’s my relationship with God. Of course, other things will matter: family, friends, and how I’ve impacted the world in my brief life. However, eternity is, well, forever. The goal of life has to be to prepare for forever. With that in mind, I can read this proverb and better identify not only what truly matters, but what needs to be kept in its proper place as well.
Take Away: How are you doing in preparing for forever?