What to do when you face a giant
2Kings 19: Maybe God, your God, won’t let him get by with such talk.
Even though Hezekiah has tried to mend relations with Sennacherib king of Assyria it’s too late. Having whipped into shape several other countries that attempted to break away, Sennacherib returns his attention to Judah. A representative is sent, not to broker a deal, but to call for complete surrender. That representative is named Rabshaketh and, in an attempt to frighten the people of Jerusalem into rebellion against Hezekiah he not only insults Hezekiah and his small army, but he insults the God Hezekiah serves. This situation is filled with military, political, and historical elements but we read the story from a spiritual viewpoint. Earlier Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, yielded to Assyria and even installed a new altar at the Temple modeled on one used for idol worship in Damascus. When Hezekiah comes to power he not only refuses to pay tribute, but he gets rid of that altar and all the shrines and altars to the pagan gods. Even when he agrees to resume paying tribute to Sennacherib, his removal of the pagan altar is seen as a refusal to be the lap dog to Sennacherib. Because of that, the insults by Rabshaketh focus on God Jehovah. Now, Hezekiah faces absolute destruction from the giant Assyrian army. He turns to the man of God, Isaiah, asking for prayer and direction. He thinks that perhaps God will take up his cause, especially in light of the way Rabshaketh has insulted the Almighty. Facing the impossible, he turns to the One who specializes in doing the impossible. And, he isn’t disappointed.
Take Away: We don’t want to make enemies but to, instead, live in peace with all people. However, if we have to make enemies, let’s make them for the right reasons.
2Kings 4: “She said, “Everything’s fine.”
This is a surprisingly powerful story. Elisha the man of God promises a woman from the town of Shunem that she’s going to have a son. The child is born the following year. A few years later the little boy becomes suddenly ill and dies. His grieving mother seeks out Elisha. As she’s coming she encounters the servant of Elisha first. Clearly something’s wrong, but when Gehazi asks her how things are, her reply is “Everything’s fine.” It’s only when she gets to Elisha that she pours out her heart. Elisha goes to the lifeless child and performs a miracle, raising him back to life. While I see that this is another story intended to show me how powerfully God is working in the life of the prophet, I’m drawn to the Shunammite woman. If there’s ever an example of desperate faith it’s here. Her heart is broken as she lays her dead son on the bed. The only thought on her mind is to get to the man of God, the miracle worker who promised the son in the first place. She desperately wants to believe he can make things right, but looking into the face of such loss it’s nearly impossible. Knowing that, she realizes she has to get to Elisha as quickly as possible, and, instinctively, she knows that even saying the words, “my son is dead” will destroy the mustard seed of faith to which she clings. How is it that “it is well” in her life? It’s because she’s holding on to God with her last ounce of spiritual strength. This is miracle-working territory. Without a cross or an empty tomb she believed the impossible. God can do a lot with faith like that.
Take Away: All it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed to see miracles take place.
Better think twice before mocking bald men
2Kings 2: Elisha turned, took one look at them, and cursed them.
This story makes me uncomfortable. Some children mock Elisha, the man of God, so he curses them resulting in two bears coming out of the woods and killing 42 of them. What’s this all about anyway? Some Bible scholars I’ve read say that “children” is not the only meaning of the Hebrew word used. It can mean “servants” and can refer, not to 7-year-olds, but to young people and even young adults. However, reading that a group of 20-year-old servants mock Elisha and he curses them doesn’t do much to solve my discomfort with this incident. So what do I do with this passage? I think I have to just read it and go on, believing that there’s something happening here that I don’t get. I have to conclude that I’m missing some vital bit of information that would help me make sense of the passage. It isn’t unusual to have to deal with life issues that way. For instance, someone tells me that a person for whom I have great respect has done something totally out of character. I can’t defend what they’ve done but I can conclude that I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps, if I did, it would make sense to me. So, as I come to this passage I read something that doesn’t fit in with what I know about God: that “God is love,” holy and righteous. I can’t explain it, but instead of making me doubt God, it just reminds me that I don’t know the whole story about this or about another million or so issues of life.
Take Away: Sometimes I have to admit I don’t understand things and rely on the character of the Lord.
Sitting on a barbwire fence
1Kings 18: How long are you going to sit on the fence?
No doubt, Elijah has everyone’s attention. The drought and resultant famine has seen to that. Now he calls for a meeting and a confrontation. Their divided loyalties have created a pitiful situation. Historically, they’ve worshipped Jehovah, but for generations now worship of Baal has grown like a cancer in their number. Now, it appears that Jehovah worship is going to be only seen in the history books as they align themselves with Baal. Yet, somehow, they’re having a hard time committing themselves to Baal. The recent drought has caused some doubts. Why couldn’t this fertility god answer their prayers for the rain necessary for them to grow crops? The result of their doubt is that they’re terrible followers of Jehovah God and not very good followers of Baal either. Elijah says it is time for a decision to follow the God who answers prayer, who has power in this world. Our nation has more in common with these ancient Jews than we might think. We too are on the fence. We sing “God bless America” and put “In God we trust” on our currency. We open sessions of Congress and the Supreme Court in prayer. At the same time, we ignore God’s Law and seek to isolate him from secular society. We tip our hat to God but really want to serve, not Baal, but ourselves, and in so doing, adopt a religion of materialism, secular humanism, and pleasure. Will God send an “Elijah” to challenge our nation? Does the Church even want that to happen?
Take Away: It’s rather unreasonable to sing “God bless America” while at the same time attempting to isolate him from all but a few corners of our lives.
Sometimes I just don’t get it
2 Samuel 12: The son born to you will die.
I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful, but I really dislike this passage. I struggle with the result of David’s sin being the death of this innocent child. I wish I had some nifty, easy-to-swallow answer that fits neatly into my understanding of God, but I don’t. I can just barely reach out and grasp the concept that God is the Giver of Life and that he can take that gift by his own sovereignty. That doesn’t really solve my problem with this passage although it causes me to acknowledge that God is God and that this is all under his authority. David prays and fasts that his son might be spared, asking God to show him mercy. He knows that God is merciful, so there’s hope that it might just happen. But it doesn’t and the child dies. If you think I’m about to come up with some devotional gem here, well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have nothing. That doesn’t stop me from believing that “God is love” and that he’s a compassionate and merciful God. All I can do is confess my failure to understand and go on trusting in the good character of the Lord. Frankly, this isn’t as isolated a situation as I would like it to be. Still, I go on trusting in those situations too.
Take Away: Even when we don’t understand we can trust. Actually, that’s a definition of faith.
Hurry up, Lord!
1 Samuel 13: So I took things into my own hands.
As we leave Samuel’s sermon in chapter 12 and move to chapter 13 there’s a leap of several years. In fact, the first words of the next chapter tell us that Saul has now reigned for many years. Apparently, he’s doing a good job. For decades there have been no stories of failure. Life continues, securely and peacefully. Also, we see that Samuel is doing what he said he would do and is faithfully praying for them and providing spiritual guidance. Saul handles the day to day running of the country and Samuel’s the spiritual leader. Then historic things begin to happen. Saul’s son, Jonathan, attacks the Philistines at Gibeah and there’s war. Outnumbered, Saul’s army flees and things are unraveling for Israel. The call goes out to Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice. God’s help is needed here! As Saul waits on Samuel his men are deserting, slipping away one after another. Finally, Saul decides he can wait no longer. Crossing the line that has existed between his authority and Samuel’s he offers his own sacrifice. Of course, it’s all a test. Will Saul follow God’s plan for how Israel is to function or will he abandon God’s approach when it seems necessary? His failure’s obvious. I can be pretty hard on Saul if I want to. God has been with him, always on his side, now he’s messed up (royally!). The trouble is that I have to admit that I can identify with Saul here. How good am I at waiting for God to move when I’m under pressure? Do I tend to take matters into my own hands? This is a spectacular failure for Saul. Is it anything less when I fail in the same way?
Take Away: Waiting for God to move may be our greatest test of faith.
When God says “yes”
1 Samuel 1: Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried — inconsolably.
As I begin reading the books of Samuel the first thing I hear is the prayer of a broken hearted woman named Hannah. Young women across the ages have longed for children and that desire is especially true in this age, 3000 years ago. In her society much of Hannah’s worth as a human being is dependent on her ability to have offspring. Even her good husband’s efforts to make her feel better about herself fail. On a trip to Shiloh everything comes to a head. In her misery Hannah pours out her heart to God at this place of worship. The Lord hears her prayer and answers, bringing not only relief to this good woman, but the beginning of restoration to Israel which has fallen far from God. I wish I understood why God hears and responds to Hannah’s prayer and not similar prayers prayed by people just as good and just as miserable as she. I know that God cares for hurting people and provides strength and comfort for them, and, sometimes he says “yes.” The rest of the time, we do the only thing we know to do: we trust him with that which we don’t understand.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the times when the answer is “yes” – trust him in the times when the answer isn’t the one we want.
God keeps his promises
Joshua 21: Not one word failed from all the good words God spoke to the house of Israel. Everything came out right.
The battles are over, the land divided, and the special cities designated. It’s a time now for reflection. Soon Joshua will call the people together and preach a “conclusive” sermon of his own, even as Moses did decades earlier. Here’s the thing: God has kept all the promises he made to them. Today, I operate under certain promises: “believe and be saved,” “I am with you to the end of the age,” “I will come back and take you to be with me.” Sometimes just the receiving of God’s promises takes an effort on my part. Beyond that it almost always calls for my patience and trust as I wait to realize it in my life. The great phrase before me today is this: “Everything came out right.” With that in mind I stay the course. God has made promises and everything will, indeed, come out right.
Take Away: Receiving God’s promises almost always takes patience.
What can an old man do?
Joshua 14: So give me this hill country that God promised me.
With the battles ending, the country is being divided up among the people of Israel. An old friend comes to the leader, Joshua, with an insistent request. Caleb was a mature 40 years old when he was named one of the 12 to scout out the Promised Land. Now of the 12, only he and Joshua are left, with Caleb at 85 years of age. All of his contemporaries are dead and he’s in the twilight of life. But he doesn’t come to Joshua to reminisce about the good old days. A generation ago, when the people were revolting against God this man stood firmly for God. The Lord was pleased with Caleb and promised that a portion of Canaan would be his. Now, Caleb is reminding Joshua of that. For over 40 years Caleb has remembered that land and now he wants it as his inheritance. The thing is this section of Canaan is still unconquered. In fact, there’s a fortress there. What is an 85-year-old man going to do in the face of such opposition? Caleb says, “Just give it to me and see what I am going to do!” You have to like old Caleb! This guy trusts God to keep his word, and not just in some vague theoretical sense. He trusts God in a blood and dirt, “let’s get to it” kind of way. Tell you what, I want to be more like that — more ready to take God at his word and start claiming that which he’s promised me.
Take Away: The Lord can do amazing things through a person who takes him at his word.
Sometimes God is a stranger to me
Joshua 11: It was God’s idea that they all would stubbornly fight the Israelites so he could put them under the holy curse without mercy.
It’s bloody with lots of death and destruction. Individual tribes and cities and also coalitions of previous enemies resist the onslaught of Joshua’s army. Now victory has come and war is over. I know that the book of Joshua gives a “marching to victory” view of the Canaan Conquest while Judges paints a less pretty picture, but frankly, even the positive view of Joshua makes me cringe. All the slaughter of entire peoples: men, women, and children — even, in some cases, animals. The Scriptures explain that it isn’t that God wants to give Canaan to the Israelites so he helps them exterminate those who live there. Rather, it’s that those who live there are so degenerate, so unholy, that God doesn’t want them or anything about them to contaminate the people he’s chosen. Still, I struggle with this because it seems so distant from “God is love.” I confess that sometimes God is a stranger to me. Still, that which is wrong humanly speaking isn’t necessarily wrong for the Creator. The “Giver of Life” has full authority to be the “Taker of Life.” Sometimes devotional lessons are hard to come by in passages like this, but here’s what I get today: there is an “other-ness,” a sobering, even a fear-generating side of the Lord. I love him and I trust his character but I definitely don’t always understand who he is and why he does what he does. I am glad God Almighty doesn’t need me to be his defender.
Take Away: Sometimes we simply have to trust and believe even as we struggle to understand.