Keeping first things first
1Kings 5: What’s important is that you live the way I’ve set out for you and do what I tell you.
Solomon has an aggressive agenda. He’s already built palaces, cataloged information about plants and animals, and amassed an impressive and well-equipped army. His reputation has spread across the face of the earth and he’s forged alliances with other nations. Now, he turns his attention to the building of the Temple. You might say that everything else he’s done has been practice for this, his most memorable accomplishment. As construction gets underway Solomon hears a word from the Lord. He’s reminded that living in daily obedience to God is even more important than constructing buildings to the glory of God. For Solomon, and for all those who call on the Name of the Lord, this is a vital concept. It’s so easy to confuse the things we do for the Lord with being in a right relationship with the Lord. More than sacrifices, more than building projects, more than well-organized church programs God desires that I concentrate on having a genuine connection to himself. All the rest is to flow out of that relationship. It’s a vital matter of priorities and, as it’s important in this passage for Solomon it’s important for me.
Take Away: We must be careful we don’t confuse the things we do in the Name of the Lord with our living in a genuine relationship with the Lord.
Getting out what we put in
2 Samuel 24: I’m not going to offer God, my God, sacrifices that are no sacrifice.
The final story in 2 Samuel is difficult, if not impossible, to understand. It seems that David, fearful that God wouldn’t supply an army strong enough to protect Israel, decides to do a national census. The result is that the Lord moves to punish David and Israel. The king is given three choices of punishment and David picks three days of epidemic sweeping the land because he’d rather be directly in the hands of God than be punished through the actions of his enemies as is proposed in the other two alternatives. This story doesn’t work for me very well. Offhand, it sounds as though an epidemic came and someone connected it to David’s lack of faith in taking the census. However, it’s right here in the Bible, so I’ll take it at face value, while, at the same time, keep in mind that there’s certainly more going on here than I see when simply reading the story. However, what happens next is easy to understand and challenging to me in my relationship with God. The plague is sweeping across the land and thousands are dying. David is told to build an altar in a specific place. If he does so, and offers sacrifices there, the plague will stop. David goes to the owner of the land and asks to purchase it. The man, Araunah, offers to give it to him but David replies that he isn’t going to offer to God that which costs him nothing. The price is set, the purchase made, the altar built, and the sacrifice is made, thus ending the plague. While I struggle with this story, I’m reminded of the tendency to offer God that which costs us nothing. We attend church when it’s convenient, we pray when we think we have the time, and in general, we practice a low impact religion. David’s example is one we need. We get out of our relationship with God what we put into it.
Take Away: I’m going to give the Lord my best because I want to get all I can from living in a quality relationship with him.
Listening, obedience, relationship
1 Samuel 15: Do you think all God wants are sacrifices — empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him!
Saul’s a failure in the eyes of God. His large army and military victories don’t impress the Lord. Now Saul blames the soldiers; something that doesn’t wash with the Almighty. Then, he says he’s going to sacrifice the animals in a worship service. Pitiful! Samuel has a word from the Lord for Saul. God isn’t interested in how many sacrifices Saul might make. Instead, he’s interested in obedience. Saul said “no” to God, now God’s saying “no” to him. Saul will continue in power for some time to come, but, in reality, his leadership has come to a whimpering end. Oswald Chambers says that the greatest hindrance to our relationship to the Lord is the service we do for him. “Look at all I’m doing for God” we declare, “Surely he can’t ask more of me than that.” He can and he does. Listening, obedience, and relationship: these things define God’s intentions for me. The Lord doesn’t put out a call for volunteer martyrs. He simply calls us to hear and obey. If that means sacrifice, fine. Otherwise, I listen to his voice and live my life in a relationship with him.
Take Away: We’re called to a daily, genuine relationship with the Lord – that’s what satisfies both us and him.
It makes sense
Joshua 8: There wasn’t a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua didn’t read to the entire congregation.
There’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that the Israelites have just won their second major victory. The bad news is that because of Achan’s sin, that victory was preceded by their first defeat. In spite of the clear statement of the Law Achan’s greed led to the deaths of several. Now, Achan, and those close to him, have paid for his sin with his own lives and the humiliation dealt the army of Israel has been erased by the total destruction of Ai. Joshua wisely calls for a time out. The people gather at the twin Mounts of Ebal and Gerisim and Joshua has half the people turn their backs on one of the mountains and the other half turn their backs on its twin. Then Joshua gives them a refresher course on God’s Law. The blessing of the Law is represented by Gerisim and the curse of the Law is represented by Ebal. Clearly, Joshua wants the people to remember that what they’re doing in Canaan isn’t all about combat and conquest. If they don’t remain firmly connected to the Lord God their future is bleak. Their only hope is to remain on the “blessing” side of things. This isn’t magic. In fact, it’s quite practical. Life works better for those who live in a consistent relationship with God than it does for those who reject him and live by some other standard. I realize that there’s more in play here, but I can’t help but note that the bottom line is based on plain good sense.
Take Away: There’s a way of life that is blessed by the Lord.
Living as a people of God
Deuteronomy 6: The next time your child asks you, “What do these requirements and regulations and rules that GOD, our God, has commanded mean?”
The people of God are different than other peoples. However, their difference isn’t just for the sake of difference. Rather, their uniqueness means something. They’re a unique people because they have a unique relationship with God. While there’s no question that God is worthy of worship, there’s more to it than worship. There’s a connection between them and their God and that connection impacts everything about them. Obviously, that includes moral behavior but it also impacts what they eat, how they cut their hair, and how they dress. Even their calendar is built around their relationship with God. It’s because of how their relationship with God saturates their lives that their own children and people from the outside are perplexed and ask questions. Moses tells them how to answer those questions: “We live this way because of God. He has rescued us from our past and he has impacted everything about us. Our lives are all about him. Everything about us is about the Lord God.” This sweeping relationship between God and people was unique in their world and it’s unique in my world too. For others, God (or the gods) has his place and when we enter his territory he is to be acknowledged. Otherwise, we won’t bother him if he doesn’t bother us. For a follower of God-Jehovah though, that approach never works. Our lives are connected to him at every level. We live as we live because of that relationship. This is the message we pass on to our children. In fact, it’s the message we have for all who observe and question our approach to living.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t distant and observing. Instead, he’s present and involved.
Inherited blessings and personal decisions
Deuteronomy 5: God didn’t just make this covenant with our parents; he made it also with us, with all of us who are alive right now.
Some things are generational. That is, they’re passed along from parents to their children. Some of the promises of God are like that. Such promises are made to a people, a nation. Because of that it could be said that the children inherit the promise from their parents. Some generational issues are not exactly the property of the children in the way those big promises are, but because of human nature, they almost seem to be. Parents have an influence on their children. If that influence is godly the result is very likely a positive one. On the other hand, if that influence is negative, it’s very possible that things will begin to unravel more and more with each passing generation. However, it doesn’t need to be that way. The reason is that God remains active from one age to the next. Moses tells his listeners that the relationship God had with their parents, a relationship that was broken by their disobedience, is now offered to them. They won’t say, “We’re God’s people because our parents were God’s people.” Instead, they’ll be his people because God has called them and they’ve responded to that invitation. It’s a wonderful thing when parents pass their faith along to their children. It is even better when the children actively respond making that relationship to God their very own.
Take Away: A person who had godly parents is blessed, indeed. Still, that person has the responsibility of claiming that blessing – that relationship- as their very own.
There’s good news
Leviticus 26: I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood…I’ll stroll through your streets.
There’s a bit more to Leviticus but this section is really the grand finale. Chapter 26 is the “blessing and the curse” chapter. Here, God says, “If you do this…then I’ll do that. If you do that…then I’ll do this.” To me the finest part of the blessing is God’s promise to move into their neighborhood and stroll through their streets with them. This is the Creator promising to be fully engaged with his Creation. They wouldn’t go to visit God down at the Tent of Meeting, and he wouldn’t just make special appearances at big events like the Passover observance. This is the promise of continued fellowship with their Creator in all the affairs of life. Amazingly, God wants to walk with us even before we’re aware of him and certainly in spite of the truth that we’re not worthy of such a relationship. What we see promised here is fulfilled to a great extent in Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. It’s further fulfilled when I receive the fullness of God, the Holy Spirit into my life. It will be gloriously completed when I experience the last pages of the book of Revelation. Lord, make yourself at home in my life now, and then.
Take Away: The Lord invites me to an intimate, daily relationship with himself – what an honor!
Rules and regs
Leviticus 1: God called Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
I know I’ll hear no contrary opinion when I say that the Book of Leviticus isn’t the most read book of the Bible. It’s about sacrifices and offerings and dedicating children and skin diseases. The most direct application of the rules and regulations of Leviticus pertain to the work of the Levites (those who served at the Tabernacle) and not very much to us. The instructions given touch on almost all aspects of how these Israelites of thousands of years ago were to live. In fact, it’s the “almost all” character of these regulations that opens the fuller meaning of Leviticus to us. God is coming down off the mountain to dwell among them. He’s going to inhabit the Tabernacle but that’s not all there is to it. He’s involving himself in every aspect of their lives. Of course, that includes the sacrificial system but it also includes how they’ll handle the messy part of their humanity. It includes their religious feasts and festivals but it also includes how they conduct their business affairs. I may read the prohibition against priests shaving their heads and see it as a quaint old historical fact, but when I put the whole scope of Leviticus into play I see God’s connection to every part of their lives, including how they cut their hair. I never doubt that God’s interested in how I go about worshipping him, and I’m familiar enough with the Ten Commandments to know that he insists on righteous living. However, Leviticus reminds me that the Lord’s also interested in the “non-religious” and “no-moral-aspect” parts of my life too. That doesn’t mean he intends to dictate how I handle the mundane details of my life, but it does mean he’s interested in such things and that he sees beyond the surface to the deeper meaning of things I may take for granted.
Take Away: The Lord wants to participate in all my life.
Come out, come out, wherever you are
Genesis 3: God called to the Man: “Where are you?”
I’m created for fellowship with God. Somehow, in ways beyond my comprehension, God desires a relationship with me. God, you see, is all about relationships. In the Creation he seeks relationships so much that he creates beings with free will. Only such creatures can genuinely connect with him. In the Garden Adam and Eve enjoy the fellowship with God, functioning as they’re created to function. When they sin, they break that fellowship and distance themselves from God. What will he do? Will he press the “reset” button on Creation and give it another try? No, instead, we see the Almighty’s commitment to us. According to the Apostle Paul, that commitment was made before the first act of Creation. Adam and Eve don’t have to sin. They’re created to live forever and to enjoy constant fellowship with their Maker. However, before the very first “Let there be light” words are spoken the Lord has considered the possibly that if he makes beings with free will that that they might just reject him. What will he do if that happens? Out in pre-creation eternity the Lord decided that, no matter what happens, he’ll remain committed to his Creation. Before the first moment of time, he has a plan to “seek and to save that which was lost.” When we hear him calling “Where are you?” we’re witnessing the very first step in that plan to restore the broken relationship that now exists between God and humanity. It’s the first step, and in the distant future, we see a cross.
Take away: God wants more than obedience from me…more, he wants to be in a relationship with me.
Not one size fits all
Revelation 3: The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.
The message of the Lord to each of the last three churches is far from uniform. Two of these churches are in trouble. The third is doing quite well. One of the two that is failing on the surface looks quite healthy. It’s a church that’s operating an aggressive program with lots of meetings and activities – a full calendar. The other church that’s failing believes in moderation. They feel they’re successful and have earned a respite. Sorry to say, that attitude has caused them to take a bit of a break from God too. The result is a stern warning from Jesus. The third church, though, has been through some tough times. Many have fallen away leaving a small, but dedicated group that’s been tested in painful ways. Through it all they kept the Word of the Lord with “passionate patience.” In other words, their love for the Lord has done nothing but increase even as they’ve patiently worked through some of the hardest days of their lives. The Lord’s pleased with them and promises to open doors for them and to vindicate them and to keep them safe. As I read about these three churches my takeaway today isn’t that it’s a bad thing for a church to have an aggressive program or for church and people to take a breather once in a while. I don’t come away thinking that to be small and poor is to be more spiritual. Frankly, I’ve been around a few groups that were small and poor and proud of it. What does come to mind is that there are challenges to be found in just about every situation. A busy, successful church needs to be careful not to mistake what it does for Jesus for a vital, living relationship with him. A church that has had some success needs to be careful to keep its priorities straight. To personalize this farther, I need to remember that it’s the same for individuals. The satisfied, fulfilled Christian life isn’t defined by past success or current business for the Lord. It’s all about living in a daily, connected relationship with him.
Take Away: My spiritual life isn’t defined by what I’ve done or am doing for the Lord. Rather, it’s all about my living in a current, abiding relationship with him.