How God’s people live
Leviticus 5: …the moment he does realize his guilt he is held responsible.
So how do a people of God live? How do they conduct business, relate to one another, and worship? That’s the challenge that’s met in Leviticus. There’s a lot of “sin” language here. “If a man sins by…then he must….” Living justly, making things right, even being holy are the goals of Leviticus. Today I read, “If anyone sins by breaking any of the commandments of God which must not be broken, but without being aware of it at the time, the moment he does realize his guilt he is held responsible.” So much of this book of rules and regulations seems out of touch. They’re part of the Old Covenant and therefore subject to modification by the superior New Covenant. Still, there are principles that can be applied anywhere and anytime. This is one of them. Responsibility is linked to knowledge. It’s when I realize that I’ve come up short that I’m responsible for making things right. There’s grace in this – that is, God isn’t waiting for me to mess up so he can come down on me like a load of bricks (if so, I sure wouldn’t be writing these words right now). There’s also responsibility here – once I do know, I can’t retreat to, “I didn’t know.” If possible, I must make it right. I must acknowledge my failure and repent of it. To do otherwise is to presume on God’s grace and to bring condemnation upon myself.
Take Away: To know is to be responsible.
I didn’t mean to
Leviticus 4: If the whole congregation sins unintentionally…they become guilty even though no one is aware of it.
A group of children are playing in the yard when one accidentally knocks another to the ground. Soon there’s lots of crying, some because of pain and mostly because of anger. Mom comes to see what’s wrong. Billy says, “Johnny knocked me down!” Johnny responds, “I didn’t mean to.” Mom tells Johnny to apologize to his friend because, intentionally or not, he has wronged him. In this passage, as the law is given every contingency is covered, including unintentional sins. God tells them that when they fail at some point, even if they don’t know it at the time, that they’re to take action to make things right. In this instance, he isn’t talking about making restitution to a neighbor who’s been intentionally wronged. Instead, the Lord’s talking about making things right with himself. Like Johnny, we tend to stiffen and declare that we didn’t do it on purpose. Our theologians might debate about the level of guilt and work through the definition of sin but they all agree that, intentional or not, failure is an affront to God. Jesus, when he teaches his disciples to pray, instructs them to ask for forgiveness even as they forgive others. When I realize I’ve failed the Lord my response isn’t to be a declaration of innocence. Rather, it’s to be an honest confession and an effort to make things right. For these ancient Israelites that meant they needed to make an absolution-offering. For me, it may only require my sincere confession of failure and apology to the Lord. One thing that won’t work is for me to stiffen up and declare that it wasn’t on purpose.
Take Away: The proper response to a realization of failure is to confess and repent.
God is the God of Second Chances
2Corinthians 2: Getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church.
This is likely a reference to the situation described in the first letter. Apparently, one of the members of the congregation at Corinth was living in an immoral relationship with his stepmother. Now, Paul has received word that the church took action on this. There has been, first: discipline, and then, second: repentance, and now, forgiveness. Paul tells them that that’s good enough for him. He stands by their handling of things and now counsels them to add a double portion of love for the one who had been involved in the immorality. Otherwise, he cautions, the enemy of their souls will use the situation to work against them, doing more harm than good. It seems to me that the church generally errs on the extremes of issues like this. Sometimes, we’re so open minded that we just go with the flow. People behave in immoral ways and “we just love them anyway” never getting around to pointing out that their behavior will destroy their lives and damn their souls. In other situations, the church is so intent on “telling it like it is” that we drive away the very people for whom Christ died. We think we’re being spiritual, but really we’re just being hateful. In the middle there’s loving people enough to tell them the truth in such a way that they know we love them. God is a God of Second Chances and the church should be a Church of Second Chances.
Take Away: We need the help of the Lord to find the middle ground when dealing with sinners who are loved by Christ.
Living in an immoral society
1Corinthians 5: Shouldn’t this break your hearts?
The members of the church at Corinth came out of, and still live in, an immoral, corrupt society. Well, come to think of it, “came out of” is too strong a phrase. When the immorality of their society comes knocking at the church door, they make little effort to keep it out. One of the church members, Paul is told, is involved in sexual immorality. There’s also rude behavior, drunkenness, greed, and dishonesty. In other words, the insiders are acting a whole lot like the outsiders. How does this happen? I think the Christians at Corinth, being around such behavior every day, are dangerously comfortable with sin. When it appears in their number, rather than be horrified by it, they brush it off. Before the dentist does some drilling, the patient receives an injection that numbs the area. Otherwise, the work would cause great pain. In Corinth, the Christians have been “numbed” by their constant association with sin. Rather than be horrified by its appearance in their number they shrug it off. What a warning for us! The same immorality that’s rampant in Corinth is rampant in our society. Every day we wade through this cesspool. If we aren’t careful and if we don’t stay very close to Christ we’re desensitized to its awfulness. Oh Lord, as we encounter sin out in the world, help us to see it for what it is. When we see it in the church, let it break our hearts. If we find it in our hearts, let it drive us to our knees in repentance.
Take Away: Jesus prayed that we’d be in the world but not of it.
What do we do now?
Acts 2: Get out of this sick and stupid culture!
It’s the Day of Pentecost. Those in the Upper Room have received the Promise of the Father. The power of the Holy Spirit flows out of them and they proclaim the Good News of Jesus with authority they’ve never had before and in languages they’ve never spoken before. Thousands come running to see what’s happening and Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon. Good people hear this message and are alarmed that the Messiah has come, been executed, and has risen from the grave. Is it too late for them? Has the long awaited Messiah come and they missed the boat? Pleading, they ask, “So now what do we do?” Peter’s answer is this: “Change your life…turn to God…be baptized…receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” A corrupt, Christ-denying culture has brought them to the brink of disaster. Their only hope, Peter says with Spirit-filled confidence, is to “get out of this sick and stupid culture.” This message of both warning and hope is still the one people need to hear today. Our culture of self and materialism is destroying our souls. We’re on the brink of eternal disaster. Our hope is in the resurrected Savior of the world. The message of God to this generation is the same as the one Peter gave to his so long ago: “Repent, turn to God, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit.”
Take Away: There’s a way through to God and that Way is named Jesus
A ruined dinner party
Luke 7: I forgive your sins.
It’s intended to be a formal dinner in the home of a community leader. However, some of the formality is waved off. After all, Simon thinks Jesus ought to be impressed and humbled that a common person like Jesus is even invited to the home of a Pharisee. Then, to Simon’s surprise this disgusting woman has managed to slip into the room. Some servant will pay the price for that! She ruins Simon’s nice dinner party. Not only is he scandalized that such a person would dare enter his very house, but she’s dominating the moment. With all this foolishness going on how can he properly impress his guests? Jesus is obviously uncomfortable with her groveling at his feet, but he’s clearly moved by her sorrow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t know her story? Its then that Jesus speaks first as a teacher and then as a Savior. This woman is overwhelmed by her sins. Simon has missed the point because he doesn’t see himself as a sinner. Jesus then turns his attention to this poor, grieving woman and says the greatest words she’s ever heard: “I forgive your sins.” Simon hears blasphemy, she hears salvation. In this story, do I best identify with Simon or with this miserable sinner?
Take Away: We tend to see ourselves as the “good people” in Gospel stories, maybe, though, we’re supposed to recognize ourselves as those who aren’t so good.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
There’s a great day coming
Zechariah 12: I’ll pour a spirit of grace and prayer over them.
The prophet with a name similar to Zechariah is best known for his “Judgment Day” sermons. Zephaniah’s three chapters focus on that topic. Now Zechariah turns his prophetic gaze to “that day” (which is paraphrased in the Message “the Big Day”). Jerusalem, that city of peace, is going to be ground zero for a battle to end all battles. When it appears there’s no hope, God will take over its defense. He’ll not only destroy the attackers, but he’ll move on the hearts of his people, pouring a “spirit of grace and prayer” over them. In a moment of clarity, they’ll realize their Messiah came centuries earlier. They’ll weep as they realize that they rejected him. They’ll mourn as they remember how his life was taken, a spear thrust to the side being the final act of violence done to his body. This national act of repentance will result in God’s “washing away their sins.” As history winds down Israel will be restored as God’s chosen people. We Christians, according to the New Testament, have a place in all this. Paul says we’re like a branch from a wild olive tree that is grafted into the cultured one that has been lovingly cared for by the husbandman. Because of that, I have a stake in this promise and like Zechariah and Zephaniah I anticipate “the Big Day” promised in this passage.
Take Away: There’s a Great Day coming, a Great Day coming by and bye.
We don’t clean house to punish dust
Zephaniah 3: I’ll leave a core of people among you.
The prophet first turns his attention to other nations surrounding Judah. They’re not the chosen people, but they’ve refused the light they’ve been given. Because of that, the Day of Judgment that is such a driving force in Zephaniah’s preaching is coming to them too. When I read of Judgment in the Old Testament I sometimes come away thinking of God as punishing those who reject him. However, this passage takes me in a different direction. Zephaniah says that when God’s finished, he’ll leave a core of people who “will not do wrong.” If a person cleans house, wiping everything clean, they aren’t punishing the dust. Instead, they’re just cleaning things up like they ought to be. Through his prophets, the Lord cautions, warns, and pleads with people to repent and align themselves with his purpose for their lives. In the end, the Judgment that falls on those who refuse this patient call of the Lord is the result of their own refusal to connect to their Creator. I know that there’s a place to think about an angry God but I’m reminded today that a God who loves righteousness is bound by his own nature to take action when his creatures reject his righteousness. When the Lord’s finished, things will be drastically different and one of those changes will be that we’ll see core of previously unnoticed people still standing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Take Away: A God who loves righteous must, ultimately, deal decisively with sin.
Why Nahum preaches to the wrong congregation
Nahum 3: You’re past the point of no return.
One hundred years earlier the reluctant prophet Jonah had been ordered to go and preach destruction in Nineveh. The result was repentance and God changing his mind about destroying them. Nahum isn’t instructed to go to Nineveh but he’s given a similar message of destruction. His sermons appear to be directed to Nineveh but his audience is Judah. One reason for these anti-Nineveh sermons being preached in Judah is that the people of God are more concerned about what Assyria and its capitol Nineveh is doing than they are with trusting the Lord. They need to be reminded that, even though they see Assyria as a mountain of power that God sees it as just another anthill. The second reason for this seeming “preaching to the wrong crowd” is what’s said in this verse. In Jonah’s day the Lord hoped to spare Nineveh. They were great sinners even then, but, according to the Lord, they were more ignorant than rebellious. Because of that, the Lord was more than willing to change his mind and spare them if they would but turn to him in repentance. Here in Nahum’s day that has changed. He preaches about a nation that has pushed God too far and, for them, judgment has come. Nahum preaches sermons against Nineveh for the sake of Judah. He doesn’t preach them in Nineveh because it’s too late for them to repent. I guess the lesson for today is that as long as God speaks to our hearts, even if what he says is guilt producing condemnation, there’s still hope for us. It’s when we no longer hear from him that it’s too late. Isaiah put it this way: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6 )
Take Away: As long as God speaks to our hearts there’s still hope.