Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
From repentance to restoration
Ezra 10: Now get up, Ezra. Take charge – we’re behind you.
The response to Ezra’s prayer of confession is nothing less than transformational. Even as he cries out to God in his brokenness, God speaks to the hearts of those who’ve been in charge as things among the Jews in Jerusalem unraveled. They humbly come to Ezra confessing their sins but also confessing their faith that “all is not lost” and that there’s “still hope for Israel.” Now, all they ask is for Ezra to take charge and help them find their way back to God. That’s just what Ezra does, and the short book that bears his name is concluded with the route to restoration he lays out. Ezra’s broken heart over the sins of the people, including his willingness to embrace their sin as his own, is an incomplete story without this. For me to convince people of their sin and to even join them in confessing that sin as “ours” is a wonderful start. Still, most people need help in moving from repentance to restoration. To assume this role is a great privilege and responsibility.
Take Away: It’s such a privilege to help people find their way to the Lord.
Back from the brink
1 Samuel 30: A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies!
The story of David’s rescue of the women and children of Ziklag is a companion to the events of the previous chapter in which David isn’t allowed to join the battle against Saul and the army of Israel. It takes him and his men three days to return to their base camp of Ziklag. When they arrive there all that’s left is smoldering ruins. Amalekite raiders have taken advantage of the fact that all warriors throughout the territory are massed at Aphek in preparation for a major battle. Ziklag and other area towns have been attacked and ransacked. The women and children have been carried away to be used as slaves or worse. David pursues them, driving his men to exhaustion. By the time he catches up to the Amalekites his forces are severely depleted with only 200 of the original 600 warriors still at his side. With God’s help, his band of 200 routs the much larger Amalekite force. They recover all the captives and a large bounty of goods taken, not only from Ziklag, but from the other towns as well. David insists that the spoils be equally shared with all, including those who were unable to fight. He also sends portions of the plunder to the towns of Judah, “A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies.” The coupled events of David being turned back from the battle at Aphek and his success against the Amalekites rescue David from the brink of personal destruction. In one case, he is stopped from becoming an enemy of Israel. In the other, he turns his trust back to God, and then acts in an honorable way in handling the plunder. Here we see God putting David back on track to lead Israel. Oh, the mighty hand of God, working through our stubbornness and human weakness. God works through a million and one circumstances to bring about his good purpose. It’s that way with David and it’s that way for us too.
Take Away: We don’t always recognize it, but quite often the Lord works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about good.
Judges 7: You have too large an army with you.
The Lord has such a sense of humor. Gideon’s been rounding up the troops to take on the mighty Midian army and he’s done a pretty good job of it. Now they’re on their way into battle, but first, God has some trimming to do. First, those who are afraid are invited to leave. Two thirds of the army decides this is a good time to go home. Then, as they get a drink of water, the few who show “battle sense” are kept while everyone else goes home. Gideon was reluctant enough to take on this fight. He must be beside himself as the Lord keeps whittling down his army. He’s now left with just 300 fighters. Of course, God has a purpose in all this. Even as we see the Lord’s disqualification of almost all of Gideon’s army, we see that the Lord is quite intentional here. If Gideon’s large force wins a victory they’ll take all the credit for it. The Lord wants not only to bring deliverance to Israel, but to restore them to himself as well. I believe proper preparation for things I attempt is wise and reasonable, but I also know that the ultimate Source in my life is, not my plans and resources, but my Lord. Sometimes, he has to whittle down my approach so, when it all works out, I’ll know who it is that gets the credit. And, as he does it, I think he’s smiling to himself.
Take Away: The Lord loves turning the tables and doing the impossible.
Numbers 5: Tell the People of Israel, When a man or woman commits any sin, the person has broken trust with God, is guilty, and must confess the sin.
The book of Numbers is about naming names. It also contains considerable practical instruction on how this nation of former slaves is going to function as a People of God. Reading Numbers is not always the most uplifting devotional reading one might do. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth reading here. Instead, we have to do a little prospecting to find the gold. This statement from Numbers 5 is a good example of that. Moses explains to the people the true nature of sin; that it is a breaking of trust with God. It isn’t a mistake and it isn’t human shortcoming. Rather, it’s behaving in a disloyal way toward God. Still, there’s hope rather than condemnation here. In spite of the guilt, there’s the possibility of restoration. First, the sinner must acknowledge his sin by confessing it. No excuses are allowed. The offender must meet the issue head on. Second, restitution is to be made. True to the nature of the book, a practical approach is outlined: restore the full amount of the offense plus 20 percent. The concept is even expanded to include just who is to receive the compensation in extenuating circumstances. As a person who lives under the New Covenant, I’m not bound by the letter of the Law. Still, though, the concepts here apply. To sin is to break trust with God. The first step to restoration is to acknowledge my failure. The second is to make things right. The specific steps to a remedy are different but the concept sounds a whole lot like the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: Confession and restitution lead to restoration.
An old wrestling injury
Genesis 32: He deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Jacob has a lifetime of taking advantage of people and Esau is the one who has lost the most to him. Hearing that Esau’s coming with a band of 400 men Jacob fears for his life and the lives of all those with him. He shrewdly prepares for the encounter, sending wave after wave of gifts to his brother and instructs his servants to identify Jacob to Esau as “your servant.” Having done all he can do, Jacob retreats to a place where he can be alone. As he considers his life he finds himself in a wrestling match with a man. Now, all his life, Jacob has struggled with people. His very name means “heel grasper” and he’s lived down to that name, tripping up others to his own advantage. However, this unknown opponent can’t be beat and they struggle through the night. Finally, his opponent reaches out and throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. At that, the wrestling match is over because Jacob can fight no longer. Still, he holds on, refusing to let go. Now, it may be that Jacob knows what’s going on from the beginning or at least through the night he realizes that this battle is of a supernatural nature. As he clings to his opponent he insists on a blessing. In forcing Jacob to say his name his opponent is making him admit that his whole life has been about “heel grasping” – cheating and taking unfair advantage of others. Once Jacob does that he receives the blessing he requests. His days of “heel grasping” are over. From now on, he’ll be known as “Israel” — a man who knows how to get hold of God and hang on. While I understand that Jacob has wrestled with the Lord through that night, I think he was really wrestling with himself. Finally, the Lord had to bring real pain to him to cause him to realize he can never win unless he confesses to himself and to God who he is. What does it take for us to admit our sin and failure? Restoration starts with confession.
Take away: Sometimes the best victory possible for us is admitting our failures and yielding in defeat.
Wandering in the wilderness
Ephesians 2: You’re no longer wandering exiles.
We know the story of how under the leadership of Moses the children of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. In this passage, Paul describes the Gentiles as also wandering out in the wilderness, separated from God. Now, thanks to Jesus, the way into the Promised Land, the “kingdom of faith,” has been provided. Everyone is invited, both Jews and Gentiles, to make the crossing into that place of peace, at home with God. The reason, of course, that the children of Israel even make that long detour in the first place is that they didn’t trust God. Having rejected him, they turned away to the misery of the desert. For the Gentiles, the situation’s a bit different. Because of Jesus they’re experiencing their first opportunity to come to God and they’re taking full advantage of it, coming in by the thousands and tens of thousands. For those who respond, the wandering days are ended and the days of spiritual abundance have begun. On a personal level I’ve seen more than one respond to what Jesus has done. They’re rewarded with new, everlasting life for their decision. Sad to say, I’ve seen a few who have opted for the wilderness instead. Decisions have been made, priorities have been set, and they’ve followed the road out into the desert. Happily, God is the God of Second Chances. At some point, I hope and pray that they’ll find themselves once again at the point of decision. I sincerely pray that at that time their wandering days will end.
Take Away: Jesus provides us all the way to God.
Not a warm and fuzzy conclusion
2Corinthians 13: I want to get on with it, and not have to spend time on reprimands.
The final portion of this second letter to the church at Corinth isn’t just a warm, friendly closing. Paul writes with apostolic authority to the church there. He lays it on the line, telling them that he’s soon to make his third trip their city and that he’s already warned them that if habitual sinners don’t clean up their act that in the name of Jesus he’ll clean up the church there. He tells those who’ve been demanding proof that he speaks for the Lord that, unless things improve, they’ll get more proof than they want. This is pretty strong stuff and it’s not just a bluff. Some years earlier, for instance, on the island of Paphos a sorcerer named Elymas opposed Paul’s preaching of the gospel. The Apostle turned to him, and without laying a hand on him struck him blind. When Paul tells those who oppose his gospel at Corinth that if they don’t straighten up they’ll get plenty of reason to believe he speaks with the authority of the Lord he’s not just making a lot of noise. However, that isn’t how Paul wants it to be. His job is to bring people to the Lord so he can make them complete, not to strike people blind or worse. Paul’s approach here reminds me that spiritual things are serious and need to be handled carefully. It’s dangerous to be flip and irreverent. It may seem that people get away with stuff like that, but Paul warns them (and us) that it’s possible to go too far for too long and that to do so has real consequences. At the same time I’m reminded that that’s not what Christian leadership is all about. Paul has shown a great deal of patience in this situation. He’s prayed and pleaded and appealed to them as a father dealing with loved children. He’d much rather help broken people find restoration in Christ and, in fact, the only reason he warns them as he does in this case is that his mission of reconciliation is being threatened by some insiders who oppose this ministry.
Take Away: Be carefully reverent about the things of God.
You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
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.