2013 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
On being my brother’s keeper
Genesis 4: How should I know? Am I his babysitter?
An interesting thing about the Lord’s exchange with Cain is that they both know the answer to the question that’s asked. Obviously, the Lord knows what has happened. Of course, Cain knows where Abel is, after all, he’s his murderer. Cain’s response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has become one of many famous one liners from the Bible. This murderer not only pretends he doesn’t know about Abel, but that, even if he does know, it isn’t his responsibility to take care of him. On a very specific level, I agree with Cain’s statement. As creatures with free will we’re not responsible for what others do. As a pastor of several years of experience, I’ve heard plenty of excuses from people who place the blame for their failure on someone, anyone, else. Because of that, I agree with Cain on at least one level. However, Cain’s suggestion that he operates solo and isn’t accountable for his brother’s whereabouts is a pitiful failure on his part. Even (and that’s a mighty big “even” in this situation) – even had he not killed his brother, and had poor Abel just wandered off in search of one of his sheep and gotten lost, in God’s eyes, Cain has a certain amount of responsibility for him. Our lives are connected at many points and the Lord expects our behavior to reflect this. Many years down the road, Jesus will help me understand this better in the parable of the Good Samaritan and even better when he takes personal responsibility for my lost condition.
Take away: I’m not responsible for what others do of their own free will, but I am accountable before God to show compassion to them.
Continuing the story
Hebrews 11: Their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole.
This chapter of the Bible is called the “faith chapter” because of its almost poetic description of the power of faith. Now, it’s not just faith in faith. The focus of this powerful faith is clearly identified as “trust in God.” If I place my faith elsewhere, no matter now sincere that faith might be; it will be an act of foolishness that will take me down the path of disappointment and maybe even destruction. The heroes of faith described in this passage didn’t believe in belief. Rather they believed in, and trusted in, God. These people weren’t disappointed as the Lord came through for them in wonderful ways. The writer takes us on a faith tour, stopping before each exhibit just long enough to remind us of their victorious stories. Before we’re ready, he tells us time is up and we get just a glance down the hall of “current events” where we see people making great sacrifices for their faith, believing whatever it is they’re facing is worth the reward they’re earning. As we prepare to move on, our host says something quite surprising. As wonderful as their examples of faith is, it’s incomplete. We’re not on this tour just to look back. Rather, we’re here to be inspired to join in; to add our stories to theirs. Their looking-forward-to-God’s-better-plan-faith is to be balanced and completed by our embracing-the-better-plan-that’s-now-available-faith. As we live in this new salvation plan we prove the validity of their faith years ago. They carried the torch of faith as far as they could; now it’s been passed on to us. What an honor, what a privilege, and what a responsibility is ours.
Take Away: We don’t just remember great faith of years gone by – we embrace it and advance it to our day and age.
The social ministry of the church
1Timothy 5: Take care of widows who are destitute.
It’s a different culture and time so I need to be careful to find principles rather than try to apply specifics to passages like this. Paul instructs Timothy, first of all, to differentiate between younger widows, widows with family, and, what he calls “legitimate widows.” He thinks it’s best for younger widows to marry and get on with life. Families of widows are to take care of their own and not expect the church to do their job for them. However, the destitute widow, without means or family, is the responsibility of the church. Again, I need to look for principles here and not get mired down in specifics. For instance, family responsibility trumps church responsibility. Also, if my need can be handled through “more conventional” means, I’m to follow that route first. The church, I understand, has responsibilities to care for its people but it’s not to be the first solution. Paul gives Timothy a written policy to be followed here. If it’s followed, the energies and resources of the church won’t be hijacked by concerns that are best addressed elsewhere. On one hand, then, I have a fairly straightforward principle here. On the other hand, I have to admit that the practical application is quite challenging.
Take Away: The church has a role to play in social issues, but it generally isn’t the primary support organization.
Romans 10: Grand prossessions of people telling all the good things of God!
Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah all through this passage. In his day, Isaiah extolled the value of messengers who went from place to place proclaiming the message of hope to their generation. That, he says, is a beautiful thing. Paul is sorry that the people of Israel of his day aren’t the “message-proclaimers.” They’ve had every opportunity to play that role but instead insist on doing things their own way. They’re the losers in that. Now, I read this scenario and think about my own generation. Like the messengers of Isaiah’s day, the Church has Good News. We should be happily “telling all the good things of God.” All too often though, like the people of Israel of Paul’s day, we’ve retreated to our church buildings and busied ourselves with committees and programs, hanging our shingle outside inviting those want to know more to come on in. Beyond that, we’ve divided up into different camps, drawing lines and building walls. We’d rather argue over finer points of the Bible than go next door to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. Isaiah reminds us that it’s a beautiful thing when God’s people take the Good News to those who need it so desperately. Paul, though, reminds us that it’s possible for those with the Good News to fumble and fail. Does this kind of thinking alarm us? It should.
Take Away: Who do I know who needs the Good News?
Just one of the shepherds
Amos 1: The Message of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa.
Aside from the few words of introduction found in the opening of his writings, we know nothing of Amos. He isn’t a member of the royal family or priesthood and he doesn’t have any famous relatives. He describes himself as “one of the shepherds” of an unimportant town. Amos numbers himself with the poor and unprivileged people of his society. That standing flavors his entire ministry. When he speaks of poor people being mistreated he does so as one who has experienced that mistreatment. In about 40 years Israel will fall, rejected by God and defeated by her enemies. One of the reasons for that fall is that God’s people have separated themselves from the compassion of God to their poor. The book of Amos is an important book for people of all periods of history because, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have among you.” How does God expect a prosperous nation to treat its poor? How does he expect we who live in comfortable, secure homes to treat those in our community who live in want? Finally, what if we fail at this point? Amos gives us a first-hand response to these questions.
Take Away: As a people of the Lord we can never separate ourselves from his compassion on the poor.
Hosea 10: Sow righteousness, reap love.
The prophet says things aren’t going to work out for Israel. Generations earlier, when the Lord delivered them from Egyptian slavery, he had plans for them. They were going to be a force for righteousness on earth. The Lord likens them to a strong farm animal that’s hitched up to the plow and can powerfully prepare the ground for planting. This isn’t a put down. In this culture any farmer who has such an animal is proud of it and cares for it. The Lord says he saw such potential in that nation of slaves. These people could change the earth for good as they spread righteousness everywhere. Again, though, it isn’t going to work out. Instead of planting righteousness and love, they spread wickedness, evil, and lies. Not only do they fail to live up to their promise, they also have the audacity to work against God’s purpose rather than for it. I’m reminded today that the Lord is well aware of my potential. He knows what’s likely beyond me and he knows what I can do if I put my mind to it. Of course, I never want to be guilty of taking God’s gifts and using them to work against him but I don’t even want to disappoint him. I may not have the capability to change the world but surely I can help sow a little righteousness in the lives of those around me.
Take Away: The Lord knows what we can do in the work of his kingdom – and he expects us to do it by his grace.
Accepting fault, doing something about it
Ezekiel 18: The soul that sins is the soul that dies.
A common saying in Ezekiel’s day is that “the parents ate green apples and the children got a stomachache.” That saying describes the current plight of the people of Judah. Their nation has been defeated and many have been exiled far from home. They blame it all on their parents and consider themselves to be victims of the failure of others. Ezekiel says that isn’t so. While it’s true that their ancestors failed God, the current generation has plenty of failure of its own. Ezekiel wants them to understand that when a wicked person turns from his or her wicked ways that God is gracious and rich in forgiveness. God, he tells them, doesn’t hold a grudge. On the other hand, if a righteous person abandons that righteousness he or she stands guilty before God. Past righteousness doesn’t make a person immune from current failure and judgment. The bottom line is that the Lord will “judge each of you according to the way you live.” The spiritual principle here is that it’s our current relationship with God that really matters. Ezekiel’s advice is still good today. He says since it’s “right now” that counts, those who are living apart from God and blaming their parents (or someone else) for it need to “turn around…make a clean break” and “live!”
Take Away: It’s our current relationship with the Lord that really matters.
Dare to discipline
Proverbs 13: A refusal to correct is a refusal to love.
I love being around my grandkids. There’s nothing better than spending time with these little ones. However, believe it or not, even my own precious grandchildren aren’t always perfect! I’m sure they come closer to perfect than any grandchildren who’ve ever lived, but still, there are a few little things that have to be kept in check. That’s what their dad and mom, along with maybe a little help from their grandparents, are supposed to do. Parents need to provide loving discipline to their children. I’m not trying to debate the value of a particular type of discipline here, but as I read the words “a refusal to correct is a refusal to love” I’m taken by the common sense truth being stated. Parents who love don’t just throw up their hands and let the kids do “whatever.” Loving parents step up to the plate even when they’re worn out from the day. Even then, they expend the energy to take their children in hand, insisting that they behave themselves within the limits of their capability. The disciplining part of parenting isn’t the fun part, but it’s one of the loving parts. As the wise man says, “love your children by disciplining them.”
Take Away: Children are a gift of the Lord, but that gift does come with responsibilities attached.
Springtime always comes
1 Chronicles 20: That spring, the time when kings usually go off to war….
It’s a rather off handed statement, said as though it’s a truism that every reader will accept without a further thought. It’s springtime and the king is off to war. From here, we move forward to a few accounts of the victories won by David and his army, including more battles with big guys similar to Goliath. Apparently, the writer thinks that we’ll all agree that there’s a time for national leaders to lead their nations into war. David lives in an imperfect day in which some nations are belligerent against other nations. If he relaxes, enjoying the success the Lord has given him, the enemies of Israel will move to wipe them off the face of the map. Therefore, when the weather is right, David’s army gears up for war, knowing that if they don’t they’ll be erased by those who wish them dead. That’s a long time ago and the world has changed, right? You know that aside from the fact that armies no longer wait till spring to do battle that the world remains a dangerous place. I know I can’t take a passing phrase from 1 Chronicles to develop a philosophy of international relationships, but I do think that this is an example of a national leader doing what’s necessary to keep his nation safe and secure. As a people of God we hate war; especially the pain and suffering it brings to the innocent. It would be better if “springtime” never came, but we know it will and because of that we regrettably conclude that a primary responsibility of national leaders is to prepare for war and, while all that is possible to avoid war, to respond when necessary.
Take Away: We need to pray for our national leaders.