Living with our decisions
Matthew 19: Moses provided for divorce as a concession to your hardheartedness, but it is not part of God’s original plan.
The religious leaders want to know Jesus’ views on marriage and divorce and the answer he gives is stricter than they think it should be. He declares that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and that their union is to be both physical and spiritual. No one has the authority to rip apart that union. Jesus, speaking in the manner of a rabbi and with the authority of the Son of God, adds that in the case of adultery he allows (but, note, he doesn’t “require”) an exception to this permanent man/woman union. The leaders, then, want to know why Moses includes a broader divorce procedure in the Law. Is Jesus claiming authority beyond that of Moses? His answer is eye-opening. Moses, Jesus says, finds it necessary to provide for the destruction of a marriage because of people’s hard hearts. God didn’t plan for this to be necessary, but Moses sees the need and God allows it. This interpretation is fascinating. On one level, I’m interested in this situation in which God doesn’t get his way and in which he allows Moses to adjust things. If God has his own way there will never be a divorce. However, since people have hard hearts the Lord allows the Law to accommodate it. This is an interesting application of the Lord’s commitment to our free-will. The other thing that gets my attention is the strong possibility that I can, because of my hardheartedness insist on something that the Lord reluctantly allows, leaving me in a permanent sub-par situation. I’m glad we serve a God of Second Chances and I know that in him, life is good. Still, I see that the Lord won’t stop me from doing that which will bring a lifetime of pain, or at the very best, a lifetime of knowing that if not for my stubbornness things could be better for me than what they are. I’m thankful for the grace of God, but I’m also aware that I have a real responsibility to live carefully and to remain in harmony with the Lord each step of the way.
Take Away: Even though the Lord will allow it, I must be careful to not overrule God’s will in my life.
God, golf, and grace
Zechariah 10: They’ll get a fresh start, as if nothing had ever happened.
I’m not a golf historian, so I may not have the story right, but I understand that in days of old a golfer who had not had the opportunity to warm up on the driving range was allowed to declare his first shot off the tee to be a “mulligan.” That meant it was going to be a practice shot and wouldn’t count. The “mulligan” morphed into an after-the-fact point of grace, first, for the opening shot only and then to any one tee shot during the round. I’ve even played golf with some folks who took however many “mulligans” they wanted. My response has always been, “You can take as many second shots as you want as long as you don’t brag about your score!” I’m reminded that out in real life we don’t get many mulligans. Once in a while we do, for instance, when the traffic cop lets us off with a warning. However, if my poor driving has resulted in a car wreck the clock can’t be turned back and there’s no mulligan for me. God’s man Zechariah has good news for Israel. The Lord’s going to give them another chance. He’s going to gather this scattered nation from all the places where it’s landed and give it a fresh start. We serve a God who graciously gives nations and individuals second chances. When I confess my sin and failure and return to the Lord, I find that he delights in forgiving me and restoring me to his family. In golf, the mulligan is just an unofficial part of a game. With God, it’s the real deal and it happens only because of his grace.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Do it again, Lord
Habakkuk 3: Do among us what you did among them.
The prophet of God has the heart of a psalmist. As I started reading Habakkuk and saw his reverent complaint to God I was reminded of the Psalms of complaint in which the writer pours his heart out before the Lord. Now, as Habakkuk experiences God in a fresh way, his words remind me of the Psalms again. He pens a psalm of his own in which he recounts God’s past deliverance and looks to a day of restoration. His opening lines: “Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them” is the prayer of many of God’s people through the ages. In this case, Habakkuk is specifically thinking of the deliverance of his ancestors from Egyptian bondage. However, through the centuries, many have looked back to great movements of God: revivals, healings, and other times of special blessing and prayed this prayer. In my life there have been times of extraordinary blessing, some so private and precious that I seldom speak of them. However, I mention them to the Lord, thanking him for what he did and marveling at his grace to me and, in the spirit of Habakkuk, ask the Lord to “do it again.” It’s unhealthy to spend our lives talking about the “good old days” but we should allow those times of special blessing to remind us of what God can do and to encourage us to seek his best for in our lives in this day and in these circumstances.
Take Away: There are times when we do well to revisit past blessings and allow those blessings to encourage us to expect renewed blessings of God in our lives.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
About as low as you can go
Jonah 2: My prayer got through to you.
When he’s thrown into the stormy sea he’s sure he’s a gonner. Then this huge fish shows up, mouth open wide, and Jonah thinks this is certainly the end. Now, in the darkness, trying to get the sea weed off of his face he realizes he’s still alive. This isn’t Star Trek and he didn’t go “boldly” but Jonah finds himself “where no man has gone before.” In this predicament Jonah wonders if prayers from the inside of a fish at the bottom of the sea can possibly reach heaven. Since he has no other choice he begins to cry out to the God he fled. Years earlier the suffering Job heard the Lord promise that he visited the “springs of the sea.” Now Jonah becomes the first human being to put that statement to a literal test. Later he reports, “My prayer got through….” Now, I’ve never been deep under water in the belly of a fish. I tried scuba once but I stayed pretty close to the surface so I’ll just have to take Jonah’s testimony at face value. However, I’ve been in some situations in which I felt distant from God and I wondered if my prayers could ever get through – but they did! In this passage I find hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from God and have messed up so many times that they’re gonners. Today I see that the Lord hears prayers, even from the depths of the sea.
Take Away: There’s hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from the Lord that there’s no hope for them.
God, making himself vulnerable
Hosea 14: O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
In his amazing love God calls out to his wayward people. To return to him is to their benefit. Otherwise, it’ll take tough love to turn them around and even as these words are spoken a “tornado” of judgment is coming their way. That’s a message I’m used to seeing in the prophets. There’s another message here and even though it’s seen in other places, it’s especially clear in the book of Hosea. If these sinning people return to God it will be to their benefit, but it will also be to his. As Hosea’s love reached out to his unfaithful wife so does God’s love reach out to a sinning humanity. It seems impossible, but I, as insignificant as I am, have the ability to both hurt and please the Maker of the universe. The reason for that is that he loves me with a love I cannot fully understand. God has allowed himself to be vulnerable in opening his heart to me and to all humanity. Today, the person who’s rejected God; who’s lived as an enemy of his; who, in my opinion, is practically beyond redemption, remains within the reach of God’s love. The Lord won’t force you to return but he reaches out to you in love even through the words of this little-read devotional.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
It isn’t over till it’s over
Hosea 12: What are you waiting for? Return to your God!
Hosea is unique in the Old Testament in his understanding of God. The opening “living parable” of his enduring love of his unfaithful wife flavors the entire book. Now, it isn’t all romantic love. There’s some strong medicine here, what could be called “tough love.” Still, it’s love. The Almighty is so in love with these people that he can’t let them go. The God who could wipe them out in a second instead calls to them and reasons with them and, yes, uses some tough love in dealing with them. In this passage the Lord illustrates his intentions by appealing to history. He reminds them that Jacob started out as a “heel” who even tried to manipulate his Creator. The Lord says that, in the end, he won and Jacob was changed into a new person. Now, this same God turns his attention to the current sorry state of things. He tells this rebellious nation that he loves them too much to cast them away. He says that in his love, he won’t give up and he won’t give in. They might as well surrender to it now because, ultimately, he’ll win. Today, I’m reminded that God doesn’t give up on people and I shouldn’t give up on them either. The person who seems the most lost; who has burned his bridges and declared his abandonment of the Lord is still on God’s radar screen. Really, it isn’t over till God says it’s over!
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t give up on people and I shouldn’t give up on them either.
Hosea 11: I am God and not a human…I’m here — in your very midst.
As I begin reading this chapter I brace myself for more of the same: that God’s people have had every opportunity to serve him but have utterly failed and are now being kicked out. I think that’s what I’m going to see, but I’m wrong. Instead, I see a picture of God’s love for the sinner; a love so powerful that even when Israel appears to have sinned away the day of grace that God can’t give up on them. The Lord’s in anguish over their rejection and says, “How can I give up on you? How can I turn you loose?” It’s a dramatic vision of God’s love. In fact, it’s here I find myself face-to-face with love beyond human capacity. Even as I read these words of love and mercy I find myself wondering how God can go so far in his forgiveness and how he can love in such an overwhelming way. It’s then that I find the answer. God loves with intensity beyond what I can comprehend because of who he is. He’s God and not man. Here’s love in the superlative; super-human love. I thank God that today I am a recipient of that love.
Take Away: God is love.
Identifying with the right person
Hosea 3: From now on you’re living with me.
I guess it’s just human nature but when I read the parables of Jesus my first inclination is to identify with “good guy” in the story. I see myself as the “tax collector” who prays for mercy, the servant who invests his talent, and the woman who finds the lost coin. It’s only when I’m willing to see myself from the less than stellar point of view that the parable can truly instruct me and help me become the person God would have me be. Since Hosea’s story is a living parable, who am I in this story? I know that the primary focus is on God and the ancient Israelites, but if I read this story devotionally who am I? It has to be Gomer. She’s a pitiful figure in the story. Her origins are unknown to us, but she’s both a victim and a trespasser. Even when she’s given a second chance at life she blows it, making a bigger mess than she had in the first place. She’s stubborn and deeply flawed and, seemingly not worth redemption. Hosea, though, loves her so much that he can’t do what common sense dictates. He waded into the filth and got her the first time, and, when she betrays him and returns to it, he wades in again. As I read this I’m not to say, “Yes, I’m like Hosea, and I’ll be gracious and kind and forgiving” (although, I’m supposed to be all of these things). Instead, I’m to say, “I’ve been like Gomer. In spite of God’s goodness to me I’ve been hard-headed and hard-hearted. God has not only rescued me, but he’s waded out into sin to bring me back when I’ve failed.” If I refuse to identify with Gomer in this story it will never have the impact on my life it’s intended to have.
Take Away: The parables work best when I rightly identify myself in them.
Sacrificing, stubborn love
Hosea 3: Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people.
Gomer has messed up big time. She’s left the man and children who love her. Her story will end with her in bondage physically, emotionally, and legally if not for Hosea. Under the Lord’s direction, he moves to rescue her from the stupid mess that binds her. Hosea acts under God’s command but he also acts out of love. In spite of Gomer’s rejection of him he can’t move past his love for her. She’s brought disgrace to Hosea, possibly making him a laughingstock in the community. She’s broken his heart and turned away from his love without even a word of apology. Still, Hosea can’t let go. This is no simple picture of romantic love. Here I see love that demands sacrifice. I see a stubborn love that persists even when the object of that love is unworthy. God says he loves his people like this. On one hand, he can’t ignore their sin and rebellion. On the other, he can’t just walk away. Because God is who he is, he loves. This is the hope of every human being. I’m fallen, unlovely, and condemned. My only hope is God’s love: his sacrificing, stubborn love. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
Take Away: Because the Lord is who he is, he loves.