Making it harder than it really is
2Kings 5: If the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it?
It’s one of our favorite stories from 2 Kings. Naaman is the General of the Army of Aram, a nation that has a long and contentious relationship with Israel. He’s a brave and capable warrior who’s well respected in his homeland. Yet there’s one terrible affliction that not only haunts him, but is probably killing him. Naaman has leprosy. When he hears that there’s a man of God in Israel who heals people of this terrible disease he travels there, prepared to pay handsomely to be cured. To his dismay, Elisha doesn’t even meet him in person, but instead sends a mere servant with what sounds like a silly command: take seven baths in the muddy Jordan to be healed. Furious and humiliated, he turns on his heel to leave, but an old family servant gives the great general the best advice of his life. If Elisha had told him to do some great thing (for instance, pay a king’s ransom) to be healed, he’s prepared to do that. Why not, then, do some simple thing like, “take a bath and be clean.” Naaman listens and the result is a miracle of God and a happy ending to the story. I think I need to pay careful attention to Naaman’s story in my dealings with God. I’m ready to do the great thing like following some demanding course of action or making some big sacrifice as I follow the Lord. While stuff like this is sometimes a part of being a disciple more often than not it’s much less spectacular. “If you want to be my disciple follow me,” the Lord says. I respond, “You’ve got it Lord – I’ll serve you to the ends of the earth, I’ll make great sacrifices for you, I’ll be an example of total surrender to God.” The Lord says, “Tell you what, if I want you to do that stuff, I’ll tell you. For now, how about just walking with me?”
Take Away: What little thing is the Lord calling you to do today?
There’s sin and then there’s Sin with a capital “S”
Numbers 15: The person…who sins defiantly, deliberately blaspheming God, must be cut off from his people.
This chapter of the book of Numbers returns to the subject of the resolution of sin. Sometimes, we’re told, people blunder into sin and don’t even know they’ve done wrong. In fact, the whole nation can mess up like that. Once the failure’s realized, they’re to confess it and then take steps to repair the crack in their relationship with God. As we’ve seen before that involves the death of a scarified animal and the application of its innocent blood. However, the Law clearly distinguishes between sins of error and intentional sin. Animal sacrifices offer no hope to someone who “deliberately despised God’s word” and “violated God’s command.” Such a person is no longer numbered among God’s people. This passage goes on to give an example of such intentional failure. In this case, the penalty is death. It’s easy to see that the Old Testament Law distinguishes between mistakes and intentional failure. Both are called “sin” but one is a hundred times more serious than the other. Sin with a lower case “s” receives an automatic portion of grace as one realizes the failure and moves to make things right. Sin with a capital “S” brings death. Now, having said all that, I’m glad the story doesn’t end here. Due to the fact that human beings are sinners by nature we’re all guilty of death dealing sin. We should all be taken out of the camp and executed for our intentional spiritual failure. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ there’s hope even here. Because of Jesus, Paul writes, we’re “not under law but under grace.” He also says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” What a wonderful difference the Son of God makes, dealing not only with sin but also with Sin with a capitol “S.”
Take Away: We’re recipients of grace and its grace that we need.
The power of enthusiasm
Exodus 35: Then they came back, every one whose heart was roused, whose spirit was freely responsive, bringing offerings to God for building the Tent of Meeting.
God gave Moses the plans for the Tabernacle and now Moses has passed them on to the people. A one-of-a-kind of worship center will be constructed. It will be portable but in spite of its portability it will be an elaborate structure, a place reflective of the God they worship. When Moses tells them what God requires it sparks excitement throughout the congregation. Now, without any pressure, the people freely give so that the Tent of Meeting can be constructed according to God’s plans. As I look at the people coming with their gifts, my attention is drawn to those “roused hearts.” Enthusiasm is a powerful emotion. As it does for them, it stirs me to action and makes me willing to make sacrifices. I want to have a “heart that is roused” when it comes to my relationship with God and his Church. There are many things that demand my attention and my support. Those things may or may not be worthy. However, doing God’s work is always worth the effort. Stir my heart, O God, that I might be “roused” to enthusiastic, sacrificial service of you.
Take Away: I serve the Lord, not because I must, but because I may.
Giving up a free meal
1Corinthians 8: When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.
You’d think that today a discussion about eating meat that’s been offered to an idol can be safely skipped. However, to do so is a mistake. While the literal situation is foreign to me, the principle Paul teaches here is invaluable. In Corinth there’s lots of idol worship. Often people share a meal with their god, offering some to the idol and then having a party in the god’s honor with the rest of it. A Christian might receive a friendly invitation to the party. That’s where there’s a problem. Some Christians think it is fine to attend, that meat is meat and an idol is nothing anyway. Other Christians are just coming out of that idol worshiping culture. Not too long ago they were the ones dining with the idols and to them eating the idol’s meat is a step backwards into the old way of life. The church at Corinth has been debating this issue and now Paul weighs in on the subject. He tells them that the issue in play isn’t about meat and idols at all. Rather it’s about one Christians loving one another. Even if the more mature believer knows that idols are nothing but wood or stone he or she has the responsibility to love their fellow believer who’s still working through the issue. The principle, then, is that I’m to be willing to give up some of my “rights” for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I can’t resist adding here that if you know enough about this that you use this principle as a way to control me (“oh, you can’t do that because it’s against my convictions”) then you’re just trying to manipulate me. Thus, you become the one who’s guilty of disregarding this same principle. When all is said and done, I’m still left with the truth that I’m to love you enough to be willing to sacrifice a bit rather than cause you pain. If I fail here, I not only hurt you but I hurt the Lord we both serve.
Take Away: Love is the guiding principle of Christianity.
The carried cross
Luke 14: Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.
Jesus is now one of the most famous people in all of Israel. Everywhere he goes he’s accompanied by a large crowd. On this day, to everyone’s surprise he stops, turns, and addresses them all. There’s nothing gentle about what he says to them. If they want to really follow him and not just be tagalongs they have to let go of all else. Family ties have to be loosed. Claims to self-sovereignty have to be renounced. These are hard enough words, but then he adds, “If you won’t shoulder your own cross you can’t be my disciple.” These Jewish people absolutely hate the cross. It’s not only the instrument of cruel execution but it’s the symbol of their humiliation under Roman rule. The cross not only means death for the one who is so unfortunate as to be hung on it, but it’s also the means of grinding to dust the pride of the entire nation. Those who are following Jesus in hopes of seeing a miracle or at least getting a free meal need to rethink their discipleship. To this day the decision to follow Jesus should be a thoughtful one. Long after the memory of seeing a “miracle” fades and the meal has been digested the cross remains. The occupied cross becomes for Christians the symbol of God’s love for us. The empty cross becomes the symbol of resurrection and hope. The carried cross is the mark of our continued sacrifice and commitment to Jesus.
Take Away: Am I a tagalong or a genuine follower of Jesus? The answer is found in my willingness or unwillingness to take up the cross.
Broken body, shed blood
Mark 14: Take, this is my body.
They’ve eaten the Passover all their lives so they know the ritual well. Now, as they gather in the upper room Jesus takes his place as “father” and the meal begins. To their surprise, he doesn’t follow the well-known script and, instead, comes up with his own version, the now familiar words of the Communion ritual Christians have used for 2000 years now. The bread and wine become, in this new ritual, symbols of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord. These things, in turn, represent the New Covenant God has made with the human race. Under this covenant, salvation is dependent on faith in the Son of God who willingly gives himself for us. The Gospel of Mark moves quickly through the Last Supper and I immediately find myself at Gethsemane where Jesus wrestles with the reality of “broken body and shed blood.” Every time I receive Communion I’m taken back to the New Covenant and the sacrifice that seals it with blood. This ritual is rich with meaning but it all starts with broken body, shed blood.
Take Away: My hope of salvation is bound in what is remembered each time I receive communion.
How to get a better preacher for your church
Malachi 1: You say “I’m bored – this doesn’t do anything for me.”
The people of Malachi’s day have lost the edge off of their religion. Worship services are a burden rather than a blessing. For them, righteous living is more about “have to” than “want to.” What should be the most satisfying part of life has become just another burden for them to bear. Malachi tells them why it’s like this: they’ve settled for a cheap religion. When they bring an animal to the Lord they don’t pick the finest they have. Instead, they pick one that’s probably going to die anyway. Even when they brag that they’re going to make some significant offering, at the last minute they just can’t bring themselves to do it and settle for a mere token offering instead. The result, according to Malachi, is a dull, boring religion. The less they put into their relationship with God the less they get out of it. Here’s the real kicker: God isn’t satisfied with their religion either. He says, “If this is how it’s going to be just lock the Temple doors.” Apparently, the Lord isn’t into playing church. I don’t think this concept gives us preachers a license to preach dull, sloppy, poorly prepared sermons or for singers and others to sleep walk through church. However, from years of experience I can affirm that the people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them. Why not give it a try? Get up early enough to pray for the services and for yourself, arrive ahead of time, focus on the Lord, and give 100% to worship. Who knows? You might have a better preacher at your church than you think you do!
Take Away: The people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them.
A given life
Isaiah 66: But there is something I’m looking for: a person simple and plain, reverently responsive to what I say.
I don’t know much about the wise men in the Christmas story, but I do know that they come to Jesus. The gifts they bring are, I understand, expensive ones. Beyond those material things, though, the important thing is that they bring themselves. In this passage Isaiah reminds me that God made it all and he owns it all. He’s not depending on me to bring him gold, frankincense, and myrrh or anything else for that matter. He is, though, counting on me to bring him my reverent obedience. I believe a person ought to practice their faith in Christ in practical ways, including being a good steward of all that has been placed in his or her hands. However, the offering I give is simply an outflow of a given life. That’s a gift that’s guaranteed to please the Lord.
Take Away: Our offerings are an outflow of our given lives.
God’s plan: my hope
Isaiah 53: We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
No one has to convince Isaiah that his people are sinners. There’s ample evidence of that. Also, no one has to convince him that sin brings death; it’s everywhere. What he needs help with is a way back out of this mess. They’re lost to the point of having no hope of returning. The way back has to be provided by God, Himself. So how can a righteous God redeem an unrighteous people? The answer is in this powerful chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. The horrible sins of his nation will be gathered up and put on the shoulders of the holy Suffering Servant. Their sins will become his sins and as the meek lamb being sacrificed in their rituals symbolically dies for their sins, he’ll literally give his all to restore them to God. God’s plan: my hope. The message of salvation was desperately needed by those of Isaiah’s day and it’s just as necessary today. The wonderful thing is that it’s all true. In spite of my sin, my rebellion, and my “wandering off” God is providing a way back through Jesus Christ.
Take Away: God’s plan: my hope.
The power of love
Song of Songs 4: You looked at me, and I fell in love. One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!
Previously I mentioned that some Christians have made this book into an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. As I said then, I’m not all that convinced, although passages like this do remind me of scriptures like Ephesians 4 where I’m told that: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…and to present her to himself as a radiant church… holy and blameless.” That passage describes Christ’s passionate love for the Church, a love that takes him to the cross. In the portion of Song of Songs that’s before me today, the man describes the power of his love for the woman. In Ephesians I see the power of Christ’s love for the Church. Whether or not Song of Songs is intended to connect me to Christ and his love for us, I’m reminded in this passage of the power of love and the sacrifice one who loves is willing to make for his beloved.
Take Away: “Love” is, ultimately, an action word…real love takes action on behalf of the one who is loved.