2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
Judges 20: How did this outrageous evil happen?
The final story in the book of Judges is about as dark and evil as it can get. It concerns a man and his concubine. The story contains deviant sexual behavior, rape, and murder. The result is a civil war in which the tribe of Benjamin is practically wiped out. One question asked during the story should ring in our ears: “How did this outrageous evil happen?” How did the descendants of Abraham, this miraculously freed nation of slaves, these recipients of the Ten Commandments, these people chosen to be God’s very own come to this? The answer is “self and sin.” Their faith hasn’t been passed on to their children. Their heroes become more and more flawed. God is forgotten and their society begins to unravel. The writer of Judges concludes in the famous epitaph of the book: “At that time there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing.” That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. I’d better not read this with a detached sense of superiority. I live in a society in which “doing whatever one feels like doing” is the norm. We want a convenient God who does our bidding, but leaves us alone the rest of the time. When Israel tries that the result is disaster. Do we really think we can get away with it?
Take Away: Whether we’re talking about an individual or a nation, it’s foolish to attempt to live apart from God.
2014 – Grand Canyon, AZ
There, but for the grace of God….
Judges 9: Just then some woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and crushed his skull.
Not all the inhumanity of Israel’s “dark ages” of Judges comes from the belligerent peoples surrounding them. A lot of the bleakness comes from within. Gideon apparently makes himself into a sheik and fathers lots of children. When he dies there’s a power struggle that’s won by Abimelech, the son of Gideon and one of his maidservants. Abimelech seals the deal by murdering his seventy brothers. However, he’s better at murder than he is at leading and within three years there’s mounting opposition to his rule. Abimelech acts to quash the rebellion and arrives at Thebez, a town known for its fortified tower. As this wicked leader prepares burn alive those who have taken refuge there a woman drops part of a millstone on his head, thus bringing an end to the short and evil leadership of Abimelech. This is an ugly, if somewhat interesting story of a bad man who does bad things and then dies in a violent, unexpected way. No doubt, the detail of his inglorious death is told to us that we might see the judgment of God on Abimelech. In the larger view, I’m reminded that when God is removed from their lives just how much these descendants of Abraham look like the other heathen of that land. When I look around my community and see people doing stupid, self-destructive things to themselves and one another; when I see them blindly pursuing worthless things; and when I see them stubbornly traveling down the wrong road I’m wise to remember that without the Lord in my life that could easily be me. One response then, is to be thankful for what the Lord’s doing in my life. It’s not about me – it’s all about him. Another response is that, rather than feeling superior, I’m to be compassionate to them. These are people who are like me. They just don’t yet know the Life Changer I know.
Take Away: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
2014 – Oregon 101 – along the southern coast
Achan lied and men died.
Joshua 7: Israel has sinned: they’ve broken the covenant I commanded them.
Jericho’s defeated and destroyed. Now their attention’s on a much smaller, less fortified place, Ai. An armed force of 3000 is sent to do battle at Ai, more than enough to win an easy victory. However, it doesn’t work that way. The people of Ai rise up and rout the larger Israelite force. How could that happen? They not only have superior numbers, but God is on their side. Right? Wrong! They go to Ai without God and are defeated there. Dismayed by what’s happened on his watch Joshua goes to the Lord. He’s told that there’s sin in the camp. As long as there’s sin there’ll be no help from God. You see, sin is always serious in the eyes of the Lord. Beyond that, my sin impacts others in unexpected ways. Achan thinks that God won’t notice and that his intentional disobedience of the Lord’s command will have no consequences. Instead, because of his sin, God withdraws his blessing and over 30 men die. In our western culture, we like to think it’s every man for himself. Had an American written this story, Achan, and maybe family, would have died for his sin in tragic poetic justice. Everyone else would have gone on with “business as usual.” Here we see a different picture. “Achan lied and men died.” Is it possible that some churches struggle because there’s hidden sin in the camp? And why stop at the church? What does this story say to me as an American? A country where babies by the millions are aborted, where immorality is the accepted mode of behavior? Am I really free to stand back from that and be dismayed, expecting the judgment of God to only fall on “them?”
Take Away: Our lives are interconnected, what I do impacts others, maybe many others.
2014 – Mt Rainier National Park
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.
2013 – David Crockett State Park, Lawrenceburg, TN
Time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Genesis 42: Now we’re paying for what we did to our brother.
As a famine crushes the region only Egypt, under Joseph’s rule, prospers. Soon, those from the surrounding nations are coming to Egypt, ready to pay any price for grain. In time, aged Jacob sends his sons to Egypt and for the first time in the over 20 years since they sold him into slavery the brothers come face to face with the one they terribly mistreated. When they don’t recognize him, Joseph uses his authority to find out what kind of men his brothers have become. If one of them is put in jeopardy, will they abandon him as they abandoned Joseph long ago? With Simeon held back, the others are free to go. As I hear the conversation they have I’m taken with the enduring and debilitating power of guilt. They say to one another: “Now we’re paying for what we did to Joseph.” The truth of the matter is that all these years they’ve been paying for their terrible deed and dark secret. These are men haunted by their past and I have the idea that through the years they’ve thought or said these words every time some unexpected difficulty rose. People think they’re getting away with something just because no one knows but that’s never true. Not only is it untrue on the big stage, at the Judgment Day level; it’s also true in day-to-day living. In this case it’s a wound that time will not heal and the only resolution is to confess and take appropriate action to make things right.
Take away: Some things never heal until they’re exposed to the light.
2013 – Watkins Glen State Park, NY
Those mysterious sons of God
Genesis 6: The sons of God noticed that the daughters of men were beautiful.
What’s going on here? Who on earth (or beyond this earth) are these sons of God? Do we have some angels coming to earth and being attracted to our women? Now that would make for some juicy sermon material! Alas, I don’t think it will work. We don’t find any evidence in the Bible of angels being called “sons of God.” Still, the writer of Genesis says that the result of the union of these mysterious sons of God and the daughters of men is a race of giants: big, aggressive, and conquering. I think the best way to work on this passage is to read it backwards. That is, the result of all this is that God concludes that “human evil is out of control.” The rebellion that started with Adam and Eve has gotten progressively worse to the point that humanity is focused on evil all the time. A branch of the human race has sprung up that threatens God’s plan to redeem human beings. The part about sons of God is how the writer introduces this accelerating fall of humanity. Now, having put it into perspective, the identity of these sons of God isn’t quite as important as it was. It’s just the set up describing why God is about to take drastic action against humanity. It may be that the writer is simply giving us a poetic view of how a race of “mighty men” who have no fear of God came dominate the earth. I do have a theory that I’ll share with you, but its pure speculation. I think the sons of God are the descendants of Seth. It’s through him that the Son of God will trace his lineage. It’s Seth’s offspring who are listed as living those extremely long lives in the previous chapter. I also think the “daughters of men” are the offspring of Cain. That murderer was driven out and is no longer counted as one of God’s people. Just because Cain and his descendants are considered to be outsiders doesn’t mean they fade to nothing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They’re building cities, developing the arts, and bringing the world into the Bronze Age. You might say that humanity has forked into two distinct groups: those who worship God (sons of God) and those who advance humanity apart from God. When the God-worshipers start intermarrying with these humanists the Lord decides he must act aggressively to save humanity. At least that’s my take on it all.
Take away: God will act aggressively to redeem humanity…that’s true in broad terms, but also at the personal level as well.
2010 – Goose Island State Park, TX
Sin, murder, and grace
Genesis 4: Sin is lying in wait for you…you’ve got to master it.
The first children are born to the human race, two boys. These boys become men and these men are worshipers of God. One is a dirt farmer and the other raises livestock. These two worshipers of God bring sacrifices to the Lord. To Cain’s dismay God likes his brother’s offering better than his own. I’ve heard a few sermons on the reason why. In fact, I’ve attempted to deal with the topic myself. Some people think it’s the lack of blood in Cain’s offering. Others pounce on the “firstborn” aspect of Abel’s offering and the writer of the book of Hebrews focuses in on the faith aspect of it. Deciding why one offering is more acceptable than the other is a hard call. After all, Cain brought from what he had, just as Abel did. Of course, we know that this passage isn’t here to elevate one type of offering over the other. This account is about sin, murder, and grace. When Cain’s angry with God about his brother’s offering the Lord warns him that he’s skating on thin ice. Being disappointed with God, apparently, isn’t sin in itself; but such an attitude attracts sin. The Lord speaks to Cain like a father talking to his son, warning him that it’s a dangerous road he’s traveling. This situation has potential for Cain to be humbled. If he responds to the Lord by asking for an explanation concerning why his offering is inferior to Abel’s we won’t have the mystery concerning it. Instead, Cain proves God right by doing the wrong thing. At this point, the score is Sin: one, Cain: nothing.
Take away: Some things that aren’t quite sin, can, if I’m not careful, open that door.
Victory in Jesus
1John 2: He solved the sin problem for good.
An old preacher’s line is when asked the topic of his or her sermon is to reply “I’ve decided to preach about sin…I’m going to take a stand against it.” In this passage we find John doing just that. He tells his readers that he’s writing “to guide you out of sin.” Then, if a believer falls back into sin, he points us to the remedy, our “Priest-Friend” Jesus. Beyond that, as I consider the broader problem of sin, I’m told that Jesus has already dealt with sin at that level too. Sin, which breaks our relationship with our Heavenly Father, has been decisively dealt with through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “He solved the sin problem for good.” When sin is an issue in my life there’s a remedy and his name is Jesus. From this passage I learn, then, that Christians can live in victory over intentional spiritual failure. I learn that if that failure comes anyway that Christ’s victory can yet be mine. I learn that, even as I’m dismayed by rampant, destructive sin in the world that there’s hope, a way out through the Lord. Because of him I’m set free from the domination of sin. That opens the way to abundant life. For every person who struggles with some old sinful habit; for everyone who sometimes feels the tug of some especially powerful temptation; for everyone who wants to live freely in Christ – for everyone – this is a wonderful, hope-filled Word from the Lord.
Take Away: At the cross Jesus defeated sin and death once and for all.
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.
The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.