Beginnings and conclusions
Proverbs 20: A bonanza at the beginning is no guarantee of blessing at the end.
Last year we had a new restaurant open in our community. It seemed the whole town decided to try it out. The place was packed out and it looked as though the owners had a real winner on their hands. However, things didn’t work out that way. After that first couple of weeks things really dropped off for them. Finally, the doors closed. The promising start didn’t guarantee a continued success. I’ve seen that happen in people’s spiritual lives too. At the beginning I think that they’re going to be a productive, consistent disciple of Christ. But it simply doesn’t work out. The promise of their lives gets derailed and, in the end not only are we disappointed, but so are they. The tragedy here is that such failure never has to happen. That restaurant might have been doomed from the start. It might be that anyone who knows about such things could have predicted that it won’t work out. However, when it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success. Sometimes it seems that the one who simply decides for Christ and just starts living for him has a better chance of seeing it through than the one who makes a big splash at the beginning. That’s not only the lesson in this proverb, but Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed makes the same point.
Take Away: When it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success.
Helping God be God
Psalm 73: I nearly missed it…I was looking the other way, looking up to the people.
Asaph is one of David’s choir directors and the writer of eleven of the psalms. The Bible also mentions the “sons of Asaph.” These are probably people who are disciples of this talented worship leader. Asaph and David are kindred spirits and the themes of their psalms are similar. In this song Asaph declares the goodness of God and talks about how the Lord patiently led him even when he was “totally ignorant” of what was going on. It’s the opening part of this psalm, though, that gets my attention today. He declares the goodness of God but then confesses that he nearly missed seeing that goodness. Why? He was too busy looking at people to see God. Asaph’s attention was drawn to the seeming success of others, then, as he considered their success he saw that some were wicked people and he began to question God as to how it could be that wicked people enjoy such success. The truth is that I can fail to see God because I’m enamored with the success of others. I can also fail to see him because I am too busy telling him what I think he should do. In trying to help God out I place myself in danger of losing sight of him altogether. I need to remember who God is and that he can handle the inconsistencies of life. My main job is to keep my eyes on him and live in obedience to him. It’s not my job to point out things I think he may have overlooked.
Take Away: Always remember that the Lord can handle the seeming inconsistencies of life – we can leave such things in his hands and keep our eyes on him.
With God’s help anything is possible
Nehemiah 2: The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly inspects the walls of the city. Well, it might be better said that he inspects the ruins of the city walls. They were demolished decades earlier. He meets with city leaders and proposes that the next big project be rebuilding those walls and gains their enthusiastic support. As word of this project spreads, we meet Nehemiah’s three adversaries: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men are leaders of the area’s non-Jewish residents and they oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. There’s likely a power struggle here. At first, the returning Jews brought welcome capital and man power to the area, but now they threaten to become its dominant residents once again. Nehemiah’s reply to them is that in spite of the overwhelming task before them and even in spite of the opposition of these three men that he’s assured of success. The reason is that he is doing God’s work and that God, Himself, will bring them success. As I hear this declaration of faith from a man standing in the rubble of a city I’m impressed with his absolute trust in God. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” situation; this is real work in the most unlikely of circumstances and with real and powerful opposition. Nehemiah doesn’t think he can rebuild the wall because he’s going to try real hard or because he’s going to outsmart his enemies. He’s going to do it because God’s there to help them. There’s a good lesson here for me in all I attempt to do in the name of the Lord.
Take Away: If it’s up to me the chances of success are nominal. If I’m doing God’s work God’s way, the chances of success are 100 percent.
Pride goes before a fall
2 Chronicles 26: Arrogant and proud, he fell.
Uzziah is just a teen when he becomes king of Judah. By and large, he does a good job as king and his long reign is a good one for his nation. From the beginning he seeks God. The Lord is pleased with him and blesses his life with successful building projects and a strong army. Then, when it seems Uzziah will be one of the rare kings who have nothing but positive things on their record something ugly happens. His successes go to Uzziah’s head. We don’t know the full story but Uzziah decides, like Saul did many generations earlier, to take over the worship activities. He takes the one role in the nation that’s denied him – going into the Temple and acting as priest of God. The legitimate priests, descendants of Aaron, try to stop Uzziah, but he ignores them. With the holy censor in hand, he refuses to hear the objections of the priests. Then, God objects, and when he objects, he can’t be ignored. The dreaded disease of leprosy breaks out on Uzziah’s hand as he holds the censor. This is God’s judgment. It’s too bad isn’t it. Uzziah comes so far and does so many things right. His downfall comes, not as a result of some big temptation or some great threat. Instead, it’s brought about by his success. When things are going right and it’s clear that God is blessing us we need to remember Uzziah. Here we see a lesson in how success can lead to failure.
Take Away: The distance from impressive success to dismal failure is shorter than we might think.
Thinking about leadership
1 Samuel 14: Wherever he turned, he came up with a victory. He became invincible!
Saul is a terrific military leader: brave, capable, and resourceful. My first instinct upon reading Samuel’s pronouncement of God’s rejection of Saul as king is to think that everything’s going to fall apart for him. It simply doesn’t happen. Saul builds a great army, extends his rule by taking more territory, and keeps the hated Philistines on the defense. For decades he successfully leads Israel. Whether I like it or not, sometimes godless people are very capable people. For instance, all it takes is watching the innovative, yet profane commercials during a Super Bowl to see that some of the brightest, most outstanding people in advertising are those who have anything but Christian values. So, as I read his story, I see that at on at least the public level, Saul has it all together. It’s at the private level that things are, indeed, falling apart. Without doubt, living for the Lord is the best way to live. Still, being a follower of Jesus doesn’t make one smarter or more capable. That ought to at least humble me and make me more dependent on the Lord. It may also make me think twice when I’m picking a professional to help me with my business or getting ready to pull the lever to vote in an important election.
Take Away: Some of the smartest, most capable people we know aren’t Christians – at least, not yet.
1 Samuel 9: He had a son, Saul, a most handsome young man…he literally stood head and shoulders above the crowd!
Since I know where this story’s headed I tend to brush past the way the Bible introduces Saul. Here’s a good man. In spite of his physical domination and naturally handsome good looks he’s humble. We meet him taking care of his father’s business, looking for some lost donkeys, but also concerned that his father might be worried about him. When it’s suggested that he visit the man of God, Samuel, and ask for help in locating the animals, he goes with offering in hand. When I read this introduction to Saul I’m impressed with him. He has the potential of being a terrific leader of Israel who’ll guide the people to a close, faithful walk with the Lord. As I begin reading the story of Saul I find no reason to expect failure on his part. Instead, everything’s in place for success at every level of his life. In choosing him, the Lord isn’t setting him up for failure. Instead, Saul’s being set up for success. That’s true, too, I think, in the lives of followers of Jesus. No one is saved to ultimately fail. In fact, success is guaranteed by the blood of Jesus. The only way my spiritual journey can end badly is if I sabotage it myself. Sorry to say we’re about to see an illustration of that from this capable young man.
Take Away: The Lord gives us everything we need to live for him and then live with him in eternity.
Not one size fits all
Revelation 3: The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.
The message of the Lord to each of the last three churches is far from uniform. Two of these churches are in trouble. The third is doing quite well. One of the two that is failing on the surface looks quite healthy. It’s a church that’s operating an aggressive program with lots of meetings and activities – a full calendar. The other church that’s failing believes in moderation. They feel they’re successful and have earned a respite. Sorry to say, that attitude has caused them to take a bit of a break from God too. The result is a stern warning from Jesus. The third church, though, has been through some tough times. Many have fallen away leaving a small, but dedicated group that’s been tested in painful ways. Through it all they kept the Word of the Lord with “passionate patience.” In other words, their love for the Lord has done nothing but increase even as they’ve patiently worked through some of the hardest days of their lives. The Lord’s pleased with them and promises to open doors for them and to vindicate them and to keep them safe. As I read about these three churches my takeaway today isn’t that it’s a bad thing for a church to have an aggressive program or for church and people to take a breather once in a while. I don’t come away thinking that to be small and poor is to be more spiritual. Frankly, I’ve been around a few groups that were small and poor and proud of it. What does come to mind is that there are challenges to be found in just about every situation. A busy, successful church needs to be careful not to mistake what it does for Jesus for a vital, living relationship with him. A church that has had some success needs to be careful to keep its priorities straight. To personalize this farther, I need to remember that it’s the same for individuals. The satisfied, fulfilled Christian life isn’t defined by past success or current business for the Lord. It’s all about living in a daily, connected relationship with him.
Take Away: My spiritual life isn’t defined by what I’ve done or am doing for the Lord. Rather, it’s all about my living in a current, abiding relationship with him.
Nothing more needs be said
Zechariah 4: So, big mountain, who do you think you are?
Zachariah’s well known vision and message continues with a wonderfully encouraging word to governor Zerubbabel. The task before him is a daunting one and there’s real opposition. Zerubbabel is tasked with following in the footsteps of one of the most famous kings of Israel, King Solomon, who built the first Temple. During Solomon’s reign, Israel was a powerful and respected nation. Now, Zerubbabel leads a relatively small number of returned exiles in a land that has hostile elements. In the language of this passage he faces a “mountain” of obstacles to his completion of this, the greatest project of his life. However, even though there’s much to stop him, there is even more to assure his success. The “even more” is God. The Lord’s pleased with his commitment to this task and the Lord’s going to see to it that he succeeds. My friend, once those words are said there’s nothing more to say and the only thing left to do is to do it. Through the centuries God’s people have discovered this passage, and many others like it, and have been both challenged and encouraged to do mighty deeds in the name of the Lord. Not only that, ordinary people like me have applied this “big mountain, who do you think you are?” approach to dealing with the ordinary, everyday circumstances of life. As Paul writes to the Church at Rome, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Take Away: God’s Spirit, in me, makes the impossible possible.
The secret to satisfaction
Haggai 1: Take a good, hard look at your life.
The work of the Temple was put on hold years earlier because people felt they needed to concentrate on the necessities of life. They built homes and cleared land for planting crops. They built walls to protect them in what had become a dangerous land. Meanwhile, the Temple was left in ruins. Now, as they face a devastating drought, God’s man tells them it’s time to take a hard look at their lives. All their building and planting is meaningless without God. Even with plates full of food and warm clothing to wear they’ve faced an inner dissatisfaction with life. Their neglect of the Temple is a symptom of something even more important. Beyond the building, they’ve left the God of the building out on the periphery of their lives. Without him life is empty and meaningless. Their mistake is both colossal and common. The worship of God is not a luxury to be put on hold till “important” things are cared for. In fact, worship is a core necessity and without God, nothing ever satisfies. We can’t be too hard on the people of Haggai’s day because we too tend to view worship as something that can be pushed aside as we pursue things we deem to be more important. The issue isn’t that God’s unhappy with us and will find a way to get back at us for ignoring him. Instead, it’s that when we leave God out, we’re ignoring the central need of our lives. In the case before us, that’s evidenced by their failure to rebuild the Temple. In our case, it might be that we don’t show a proper interest in the worship of God. When we fail here, we find that all other successes in life taste like failures. When we succeed here, we find that everything else in life finds its proper place.
Take Away: Without the Lord life is empty and meaningless.
God at work here
Isaiah 45: I’m the one who armed you for this work.
Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrows Babylon and pretty much conquers his world. In modern terms, his name is in every newscast and many powerful people rise each morning and go to bed each night wondering what Cyrus is going to do next. Isaiah, the prophet of God, also talks about Cyrus. However, Isaiah isn’t worried about what this powerful conqueror might do next. In fact, Isaiah has an entirely different take on Cyrus. Isaiah says that even though Cyrus doesn’t even know the name of the true God that God knows about Cyrus and is using this king to do what he wants done. Whether Cyrus knows it or not, he’s on a mission from God. It isn’t his cleverness or wisdom that gives him success. Rather, it’s the hand of God working through him. Beyond that, what cleverness and wisdom Cyrus does have was given to him by God in the first place. And, while Israel and Cyrus don’t know it, the things that he’s accomplishing by his military might are for the good of Israel. Talk about devotionally rich material; this is it! On the big stage of the world, even when I don’t see it, God’s at work. That isn’t to say that God is always orchestrating elections, etc. However, I’m reminded that God has a purpose in mind for this world and he’s working at just the right level, whatever that level might be, to move things toward that purpose. In smaller ways, I also remember that, even when I can’t see it, God patiently works through people and circumstances with his goals in mind. Or (and I said there’s lots of devotional material here), I can place myself on the other side of things. When I try something that’s surprisingly successful I need to remember that, like Cyrus, my success may not be as much mine as it’s God’s. He may be “clearing the way” ahead of me because he’s doing something bigger than I know. However, unlike Cyrus, who the Lord speaks to saying, “You don’t even know me” I do know him. Today, I remember that sometimes the Lord honors me by using me as a partner in what he’s doing in this world.
Take Away: The Lord patiently works through people and circumstances with his goals in mind.