What God wanted all along
Hebrews 8: God put the old plan on the shelf.
Prior to Christ, the old plan was the only plan. It included laws written on stone, rules and regulations. It was characterized by failure, repentance, and trying harder. It actually never had a chance of setting people right with God and had more to do with letting people who wanted to “do it themselves” find out just how dissatisfying that kind of religion is. All along, the Lord had a superior way in mind. That better way started, not with rules and regulations, but with the Lord taking charge of salvation. His plan all along was to change people’s hearts so that their religion would be less religion and more relationship. There were plenty of hints that this was coming. The revered prophets of old were much more relationship oriented than they were rules oriented. Jeremiah, who’s quoted in this passage, longed for a day when God’s Law would be written inside a person rather than written on stone tablets. Their greatest king, David, was remembered, not as a man of rules but, instead, as a man after God’s heart. The rules had their place, but now they’ve been replaced by grace through Jesus Christ. Now, the old way is a museum exhibit. The new way is life, itself.
Take Away: Through Christ’s death we have abundant life – something rule keeping could never accomplish.
God at work here
Romans 2: There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong.
Paul hasn’t spent his time locked up in some ivory tower thinking about hypothetical situations. Rather, more than anyone else, he’s gone out into the real world dealing with people from all walks of life and a variety of religious beliefs. We think that if we have a spirited exchange with a friend who’s a Catholic or a Pentecostal or a Baptist that we’ve been debating religion. Paul has encountered a variety of religious views that reveal our denominational differences to be as trivial as they really are. He’s worked with idol worshipers and with a wide variety of pagans. In all that, Paul has never backed away from his faith in Jesus Christ and he’s proclaimed that faith at considerable personal cost. Still, even in the most non-Christian settings he’s discovered in people the image of God. He’s seen in those who’ve never heard of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount an innate understanding of the concepts taught to God’s people by them. This, Paul says, is a proof of God’s hand in their lives and a reminder that their coming to Christ isn’t as distant a journey as one might think. On one hand, I don’t want to drift into the dangerous waters of universalism. Among other things, that diminishes the sacrifice our Lord made on the cross. On the other hand, I want to appreciate the good things I see in people who haven’t yet come to the Lord. On every human heart, follower of Jesus or not, a sign can be hung declaring “God at work here.”
Take Away: Before I ever think of God he thinks of me and before I ever respond to him, he’s already at work in my life.
Luke 13: That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace.
I find this phrase, “strangers to grace” a chilling one. Jesus says that a lot of people think that because they hang out in the right places and associate themselves with the right people that they have it made. When the curtain of history falls they think they’ll be just fine and they’ll have a place at the table. The trouble is that their level of “knowing” falls far short of the requirement. To know Jesus is vastly superior to knowing about Jesus. His disciples live in a personal relationship with him. They don’t just hang out in the vicinity but, instead, enjoy a spiritual intimacy with our Lord. I can’t think of anything worse than depending on “proximity religion” when a personal, cherished, living relationship is available. It’s only at that level, as I live as a friend of the Lord, that I enjoy being a “friend of grace.”
Take Away: I want to be well acquainted with God’s grace in my life.
The correct focus in worship
Haggai 1: The little you have brought…I’ve blown away.
The people being addressed in Haggai’s short story aren’t pagans who have turned their backs on God to worship another. They aren’t godless people at all. Despite their having ruins instead of a Temple they have worship services. As faithful Jews they bring sacrifices and observe the feasts and regulations of their religion. Yet, somehow, their worship experience is dissatisfying to them. As they leave these events they feel they’ve been faithful in keeping all that which is required of them but they remain empty inside. Haggai puts his finger on the problem. In reframing their religion to suit themselves they’ve blundered into a religion that the God they worship rejects. Failure to rebuild the Temple is the symptom of this larger problem. This situation speaks to me today and its tone isn’t soothing! How much of my religious life is founded on obligation and tradition and how much of it is about a living, vital relationship with God? While I’m busy being sure all the details of worship are taken care of have I forgotten that it isn’t me who’s in charge? What makes me think God will accept a self-centered worship effort from me in the first place? The thing is that as I picture the people of Haggai’s day walking out of a worship service feeling that somehow something is missing, I can identify with them. That, my friends, makes me very uncomfortable.
Take Away: Our religious lives are to be founded on a living, vital relationship with God.
Amos 4: But you never got hungry for me. You continued to ignore me.
The people Amos preaches to are religious people. They’re faithful to attend worship services, to make the correct sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. The casual observer might conclude that they’re just the sort of people God wants. However, that isn’t the case. Amos complains that all they’re doing is putting on a religious show. At the core of all their religious activities is, not God, but themselves. Even as Amos delivers his sermons the Lord is acting to bring a stop to it all. The fact is that God won’t be ignored! He, who created me, demands that I focus my life on him. That’s true in all of my life, and it’s especially true in my religious life. The issue of what I “like” or “don’t like” is, ultimately, unimportant. God isn’t looking at the show I put on. Instead, he’s looking at my heart. The issue in play in my worship activities is whether or not I hunger for him. I want to do church “right.” I want the worship services I attend to be well thought out and intentional. However, beyond all of that, I want the Lord to see that more than anything else, my worship activities are a reflection of my hunger for him and of my rejoicing in his presence. God won’t be ignored and a God-ignoring worship experience is a waste of time.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t looking so much at how we do church as he is looking at our hearts.
Shopping for religion
Hosea 7: They turn…here, then there, like a weather vane.
“Welcome to WorshipMart, your one stop shop for religion. Please keep an eye out for our blue light specials, you may find a very nice accessory to your faith for a low price.” You head over to the New Age aisle. Maybe a new crystal will help you pray better. The Politically Correct section has some interesting items, some of that “what works for you may not work for me” might come in handy when dealing with some of the more narrow people you know. The Hedonism section makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable but you can’t resist some of the “it can’t be all that bad if it feels right.” And then you head over to the staples section. After all, when all else fails you might just want some help from God Almighty. At the checkout counter the salesperson asks if you found everything you wanted. You answer “yes” but you think, “I’ll probably be back in here before long, somehow this stuff doesn’t seem to last like it should.” As you check out, you can’t find the last item. That’s happened before. Everything else is there though; you’ll just have to make it without God. Anyway, your religion is no one’s business but your own. Right?
Take Away: He’ll either be Lord of all or he won’t be Lord at all.
Ezekiel 3: Get all these words that I’m giving you inside you.
Ezekiel’s vision is intended to prepare him for the ministry God has for him. At one point in his vision he’s given a scroll and told to eat it. He reports that it tastes like honey. When the Lord applies the vision he tells Ezekiel that he needs to fully digest the message he has for the exiles. God’s message needs to become part of him to the point that even if people disagree or simply refuse to listen to him that he’ll have absolute confidence in what he says. While I don’t enjoy arguing religion, I certainly enjoy talking about it. I love dealing with the finer points of the faith, especially the more difficult to understand passages. However, there are some things that ought not to be subject to debate. I’ve learned that there are a few, very few, absolute basics that need to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker. They’re to become as much a part of me as are my heart and lungs. It’s not that I refuse to discuss them, but that they are at the core of my existence. Without diving off into the deep end of the pool here, I think I can name them off the top of my head. First, God is. Second, Jesus is the Son of God who died for my sins and was resurrected to life. Third, as I trust in Jesus as my Savior I have the hope of eternal life in him. These truths not only “taste like honey,” they also make me who I am today and for eternity.
Take Away: Some things are debatable and a few, just a few, aren’t.
Taking it out of the church and into McDonald’s
Isaiah 48: But do you mean it? Do you live like it?
I don’t know how a pastor ought to look but apparently I don’t fit the part very well. Because of that through the years I’ve surprised people. I’ll be taking to a man about something, maybe a business deal, and his language will have words and phrases that Christians don’t use. Then, when he finds out I’m a pastor it all changes. I’ve even had people who started off using God’s name in some inappropriate way shift clear over to telling me how good God has been to them. Needless to say, I’m not impressed by such a sudden change of language. In this passage, the Lord’s complaint against Israel isn’t that they refuse to speak the language of God or that they’ve forsaken prayer. In fact, they say and do a lot of the right things. The problem is that none of it is backed up in their lives. They give God lip service and then turn back to their chosen life style. There’s a caution in this for all of us. It isn’t just a potty-mouthed used car salesman or a backslidden Israelite who should be concerned here. I talk the language of “Zion” a lot and that’s as it should be. However, when I’m not being “spiritual” what is it that I do and say? The measure of religion isn’t how loudly I sing in church. All that “religious stuff” has to translate into how I relate to people when I am standing in line at McDonald’s or driving in traffic during rush hour.
Take Away: What we say and do at church needs to be translated into what we say and do outside of church.
Taking our religion outside
Proverbs 21: Clean living before God and justice with our neighbors mean far more to God than religious performance.
I love the church and owe a great deal to it. I was raised in church and most of the big events of my life are associated with it. When properly defined, I believe “religious performance” matters. That is, I think church attendance and activities are important. However, the measure of my religion is more than how I spend an hour or two on Sunday mornings. It includes how I live the rest of the week. This proverb doesn’t diminish the importance of religious matters but it does underscore the importance of taking my faith out of the church and living it in the rest of my life. Aside from extraordinary circumstances religion without the church is destined to become shallow and self-focused. However, religion that stays in the church displeases God and self-deceptive.
Take Away: Religion is best practiced out in the real world, outside the church.
Living as one of God’s people
Exodus 22: Don’t be stingy as your wine vats fill up. Dedicate your firstborn sons to me.
If anyone thinks the Law given at Mount Sinai is all about the Ten Commandments or at least is filled with regulations concerning their religion they need to spend some time in the second half of the Book of Exodus. The regulations stated here are a mulligan stew of civil, personal, and religious rules and regulations. The Lord’s just as interested in telling them how to settle a property dispute as he is in telling them how to conduct a worship service. For instance, he tells them that as they prosper in the land he’s giving them that they’re to live generous lives. Then, in the very next sentence he tells them that they’re to dedicate their firstborn sons to him. For these people, there’s to be no difference between their “religious” lives and their “secular” lives. Instead, they’re to live their “whole lives” under the authority of God. Refraining from eating the meat of some dead animal they find in the field and making sacrifices only to the Lord God are both filed under the heading of “be holy.” A lesson for me in all this is that my life as a whole is to be lived under the authority of the Lord. I’m to live a generous, honest, compassionate life. Not only am I to dedicate my children to the Lord, but, as my “wine vats fill up” I’m to be a generous person, sharing the blessing the Lord has given me. The two, secular and religious, are really just one, living as one of God’s people.
Take Away: My entire life is to be lived as a person of God.