Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From Bitterness to Betterment...

Do the trials in life make us bitter or better? It is a cliche of a question but a good one nevertheless.

I just finished reading through the OT book of Ruth and while fascinated (as always) at Ruth's story, I was struck this time by the story of her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi had left Bethlehem with her husband and two sons in order to live in Moab. There had been a famine in the land and her husband, Elimelech, had plans to sojourn in Moab for a couple of years and then return  when things were better in his homeland. Of the best laid plans of mice and men...

Elimelech died in Moab and left Naomi with her two sons. A temporary relocation turned into a few years and Naomi's sons took Moabite wives: Orpah and Ruth. After living in Moab for about 10 years, Naomi's two sons died and Naomi was left without her husband or her sons.

Naomi decides to return to Judah. The two daughters-in-law accompanied her but she urged them, since they were young and Moabites, to return to their parents' homes and find Moabite husbands. The one returns but Ruth stays with Naomi and we have that famous passage of commitment in Ruth 1:16-17. The majority of the rest of the book is Ruth's story.

However, I want to take an opportunity to talk about Naomi. She was blessed with a husband and sons. Her name meant "pleasant" and here life was pleasant until tragedy struck. By the time she returned to her homeland she had lost everything especially for a woman at that time. The neighbors were excited to see her return home but when they saw her and her downcast demeanor, they remarked, "Can this be Naomi ("pleasant")? To which Naomi replies, "Don't call me Naomi. Call me Mara ("bitter")...for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty..."

In my estimate, here is a person who had every right to become what she saw as her lot in life. She had gone from a happy wife/mother to a childless widow. She understood that even her very life was in the balance in that now there was no one to provide for her, to take up her cause or to perpetuate the family line. A truly bitter lot.

However, she did have a daughter-in-law who cherished her, who stood beside her in her bitterness. And while Naomi could have allowed her life to continue down a bitter path, she chose to try and stay positive and find a way to be redeemed. That is the story of her and Ruth, her daughter-in-law.

What I find interesting is that in all the bitterness, we find Naomi at the end of the story redeemed and giving praise to God. She is pictured with a grandson, Obed, sitting in her lap and her having the honor and privilege of caring for him in her remaining years. The neighbor women, who once said, 'Can this be Naomi?', exclaimed...

"Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him...A son has been born to Naomi..."

Naomi did not remain bitter. She remained faithful. And God rewarded that faithfulness through a precious daughter, Ruth, and an even more precious grandson, Obed. Obed went on to become the father of Jesse who became the father of a young shepherd turned king named David...

Bitter or better? What does your and my trials in life lead us to?

Monday, January 28, 2013

When You Get What You Want...

Finishing the book of Judges, I am always a bit depressed by how it ends. There are great stories of heroic faith (Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Samson) but also great stories of epic failure (Abimelech, Dan's idolatry, the war against Benjamin). Israel has come through the Exodus, divided and in part conquered the promised land, but the great leaders like Moses and Joshua have passed away and now there is this constant ebb and flow of forgetting Yahweh God, rebelling, being punished and temporarily turning back to Him. When it is all said and done, the account of the era of the Judges of Israel ends with this verse...

"In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted." (Judges 21:25)

We as human beings, if we are persistent enough, usually wind up getting what we wanted. Or should I correct myself and say that we get what we think we want. 

Israel had been called and set apart as God's chosen people. They were blessed above all other nations. They had received God's Law (torhaw) and His special favor to be His light unto the nations. He was to be their supreme King and Ruler. They were to walk in a covenant relationship with Him showing the way to other nations.

But they kept choosing their own way over God's. They followed worthless idols instead of the God who delivered them from bondage and became worthless themselves. They bowed down to the gods of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivitews and Jebusites instead of the One True Yahweh. They basically said to God, "We choose our own way. We know better than You. We will do what we want."

I have found that in our lives, God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, allows us to choose our own ways. No matter how painful it is to Him that His children reject His ways, He allows us to decide, choose and pursue our own courses. He lays out before us life and death, blessings and curses, His way and the world's way; but in the end, He gives us the right and responsibility to choose. 

So sad too few of us choose His way and His ways. Even those of us who have pledged to "love the Lord God with all our hearts" are susceptible to falling into the carnal trap of choosing our own ways when the choices get real. 

Would it be said of us as a people or even of me as a person that this was someone who truly chose the Way of God. Wouldn't it be honoring to our King to have said of us that we were people who walked after the heart of God and not only followed but delighted in His laws, His ways? 

One of my greatest fears is that God will let me do what I want, what is right in my own eyes and I will miss His way, His plan and His purpose for my life. I desire that the last statement about me will not be, "he did whatever he wanted" but rather "he did what His God wanted."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Always Room for Mercy...

God is amazing. He is all about justice. Yet, He is all about mercy as well. I myself sometimes find it hard to do both at the same time: justice and mercy. And yet, we always find God in the Bible as perfectly both.

Usually, if I am to err, it tends to be on the side of justice, or should I say "judgement"? I would have made a good Pharisee. While I might not appear this way on the outside to my colleagues, I can have a judgmental (if not critical) heart and spirit. It seems to come easier than the mercy side.

But God is wholly (and Holy) both.

When He, through Joshua, divides out the allotments to the tribes of Israel, as each of the tribes received their portion, He also does an incredible thing. The land is given along with the laws of the land: how they are to live. The law is clear. It is justice. It is to be God's model for the nations who are to see Israel, how they live in relation to one another and to their God, and to come to know and fear the One, True God, Yahweh.

But in the midst of giving His laws of justice, God also provides an avenue of His mercy. He commands Joshua to set aside cities of refuge. Places that people can flee to when they in truth deserve swift community justice for an action they have taken. They were to be refuge cities in order that...

"...a person who kills someone unintentionally or accidentally may flee there. These will be your refuge from the avenger of blood. When someone flees to one of these cities, stands at the entrance of the city gate, and states his case before the elders of that city, they are to bring him into the city and give him a place to live among them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they must not hand the one who committed manslaughter over to him, for he killed his neighbor accidentally and did not hate him beforehand. He is to stay in that city until he stands trial before the assembly and until the deat of the high priest serving at that time..." (Joshua 20:3-6)

The person would still have to answer for their actions but would be provided a safe haven to state their case. They still could be found guilty and punished; but the fact of having a "refuge" showed that our just God is also a God of mercy.

Finally, it is interesting to note that there were six (6) cities of refuges. And while each of these cities were located inside the allotment areas of various tribes (Judah, Ephraim, Manasseh, Napthali, Reuben and Gad), every one of these cities were "priestly" cities or cities that were given to the Levites who had no particular geographical inheritance. In other words, the city of refuge was to be a city inhabited by the Levitical/priestly family who were also the upholders of the law. I find it interesting to note that the most law driven, justice minded family in the nation of Israel was also given the task of being the mercy bearers (through the appointment of their cities as cities of refuge).

Justice and mercy. They are two sides of the same coin. And for me, it means that there is always room for mercy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saved by Grace to Live by Grace...

When God gave the Law through Moses, He made sure they understood that there were laws regarding their relationship to Him as well as their fellow man. Much of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are devoted to rules not only governing how the Israelites were to relate to God Himself but their fellow Israelite as well as the non-Israelite.

In one particular passage, during God giving His expectations on cleanliness in the camp, treatment of slaves, reasonable loan interest, respecting a neighbor's crop and marriage/divorce laws, God lays down His expectations for the Israelites and how they care for people in need. (Deuteronomy 24:10-22).

He talks about just loans that help people and not burden them. (24:10-13)

He warns against oppression of the hired hand who is due his wages each day. (24:14-15)

He reminds them that each individual is responsible for his/her sin or shortcoming. (24:16-18)

Then he gives the "law" of the gleanings, whereby those who harvested their fields must leave the second harvest and the "gleanings" for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. This is not only for those mentioned in need but it is for the benefit of the landowner himself in that He says, "...so the Lord God may bless you in all the work of your hands."(24:19)

At the end of this passage, God tells them why they are to be generous and considerate of the poor and needy namely the, "foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow." He says...

"Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. Therefore, I am commanding you to do this." (Deuteronomy 24:22)

The truth is that all of us - rich or poor, wise or foolish, strong or weak - owe our lives and everything we have to God. We are all slaves to sin. We are born into it. However, by the merciful grace of God, we, who have placed our trust and lives in the hands of Jesus, have been made rich in His abundance. Everything we have has been given to us by our good and loving Father and in turn, we should be open handed with what we have - little or great - because He has been open handed with us.

God tells them to "remember". Remember that you were slaves.

Our status as "slaves" (to sin, to things, to anything that would take us away from God) should remind us that we should be totally dependent upon God. And that total dependency should create an eternal gratefulness motivating us to care for the needy.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Forbidden Sacrifices...

In the seventeenth chapter of Leviticus, the Lord speaks to Moses and tells him the type of sacrifices that are forbidden (Leviticus 17:1-9). While there are specifics, the "forbidden" sacrifices revolve around three major themes...

1. A sacrifice offered in the wrong place. God appointed a place, the entrance of the tent of meeting and in the presence of the priest, for sacrifices to be offered. The Israelites, maybe to save time or maybe because it was more convenient, were slaughtering their animals outside the camp, in open country, away from God's designated place and presence (in the form of the Mercy Seat).

2. A sacrifice offered in the wrong way. The Israelites, again for various reasons, were slaughtering the animals themselves. God appointed the priests to carry out the sacrifice of live animals, not receive the dead carcass. They were to have received the living sacrifice, acceptable without blemish. Then the priest would carry out the act, sprinkle the blood on the Lord's altar and burn the fat as a pleasing aroma.

3. A sacrifice offered to the wrong god. When the Israelites were offering sacrifices in the open places, away from the tent of meeting, they were also falling into the temptation of offering their sacrifice to other gods besides the One True God. The Bible says they prostituted themselves to goat-demons and turning their backs on the God who had recently delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

It is probably not the same, but I see myself (usually in self-pity) as making "sacrifices" for God. I 'sacrifice' my time with my family to carry out the ministry that I see so vital. I 'sacrifice' my health because I'm often too busy to slow down, eat properly, exercise and get the rest I need. I 'sacrifice' my relationship with others because I am moving so fast from meeting to meeting, task to task, to actually stop and be present with people along the way. However, when I step back and look at these 'sacrifices' for God, I wonder...

Are the things I consider as my 'sacrifice' as misguided as the Israelites being admonished in Leviticus 17? Am I sacrificing in the wrong way, in the wrong place, to the wrong god? I'm sure the Israelites who sacrificed in the open places started out with good intentions: to sacrifice to their God, Yaweh. However, somewhere along the way, they lost sight of what was a good and acceptable sacrifice.

I wonder if sometimes we lose sight of the good and acceptable sacrifice. While I consider countless hours at the job, thousands of emails per week, working, speaking, feverishly panting to cover all the bases, am I missing the mark on what God requires as a true and acceptable sacrifice?

The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing and perfect will of God." (Romans 12:1-2)

I pray to be a living sacrifice daily, holy and pleasing to God. May I forsake the forbidden...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pleading with God...

Moses, even though he was one of the humblest men to ever walk the face of the earth and a seemingly timid person at that, was also, at times, amazingly bold. At one such instance, he pleaded and even begged with God on behalf of the Israelite nation for God to stay with them...even at the possible expense of his very own life.

The Israelites had been miraculously saved from their bondage in Egypt. They had arrived in the wilderness, marching to a land that God had promised them and witnessed the great and might hand of God in the parting of the waters and the destruction of Pharaoh's army.

At this point, God gives them promises and warnings (Exodus 23) and literally lays down their marching orders. In one passage, Moses tells the people all the commands of the Lord and the people respond with a single voice saying, "We will do everything that the Lord has commanded."

However, just a few short chapters later, when Moses and Joshua are delayed from coming down from the mountain of God, the people, led by Aaron, get together and fashion a golden calf. Everything that they had recently promised to do and the following of God's ordinances were quickly scuttled. They quickly changed their fear and obedience of the Lord for the false worship of an idol. The Bible says that they, "sat down to eat and drink and then got up to play."

Moses returns to the camp in fury. He smashes the stone tablets received from God on behalf of the people. He calls out Aaron who makes a feeble excuse. He challenges the Levites to exact God's cleansing on the camp and 3,000 men fall dead to the Levites' swords.

But God's wrath is even greater. He says that for their act of disobedience, He will not go with them because they are a stiff-necked people. He is holy and His holiness could not be associated with their sinfulness otherwise He might destroy them along the way.

The people mourned when they heard this. The came to Moses and asked him to plead with God not to abandon them. Moses takes up their cause and in essence God's cause and goes to meet Him outside the camp. He goes to plead with God to reconsider and he lays his life and his reputation on the line on behalf of the people and, more importantly, on behalf of the glory of God.

Moses pleads with God,...

"Now consider that this nation is Your people...If your presence does not go...don't make us go up from here. How will it be known that I and Your people have found favor in Your sight unless You go with us? I and Your people will be distinguished by this from all the other people on the face of the earth." Exodus 33:13-16)

Moses boldly pleads with God..."Go with us". And his argument is less for the sake of the Israelites and more for the sake of God's Name and Glory among the nations.

God responds, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest..." (Exodus 33:14)

I am not sure that I could plead with God like Moses did. Call it fear, call it lack of conviction, call it whatever you want. I am intimidated at thinking about what he did in this passage.

To boldly challenge God's decision in anything is beyond my scope of understanding. I do understand that this all had to eventually do with God's glory being made known and that God's glory must take priority over everything. This includes my personal comfort or safety. It also includes anything that I or your hold dear.

In the very next verse (Exodus 33:19), Moses asks a favor of God. He says, "Please, let me see Your glory..."

To plead with God on behalf of others and more importantly on behalf of His Name and then to ask to see His glory?

These are some deep, deep thoughts...

Friday, January 4, 2013

What's That In Your Hand?...

When God calls Moses to return to Egypt to lead His people out of their bondage, Moses needs quite a bit of convincing that he is the man for the job. It is not a false humility that gives pause to Moses. It is more like a real, deep-seated fear. I think it is less of a fear of Pharaoh or anything back in Egypt and more of a fear of Moses knowing who he really is and his obvious shortcomings as a person and a leader.

In the midst of the calling, when Moses needs reassurance that he truly is God's chosen for the task, God asks Moses a simple question...

"What is that in your hand?"

To which a confused Moses replies, "A staff".

Moses was a shepherd. A staff was a necessary, useful tool of the trade. No self-respecting shepherd was ever found without his. So what did "a staff" have to do with leading a nation out of slavery?

1. God can use anything to accomplish His will. The power and the miracles, which would occur later, were not in the staff. They were in God. However, God can take the mundane, everyday thing in our hand and turn it into something wondrous for His glory.

2. God can use anything in our hand for His glory if we will commit it to Him. Most of us would consider ourselves lacking in resources that really could make a difference in the world. All of us have played the game, "if I had a million dollars I would..." However, God doesn't ask us to do thing with what we don't have. He simply asks us to consecrate what de do have in our hands to His will and His way. He can do the amazing with a willing heart and open hand.

3. God always seems to use the simple to confound the complex. A shepherds staff, really only a stick. God is going to cause great miracles with it. He is going to use it in the plagues. He is going to use it to part the sea. He is going to use it to lead His people from Egypt to the land He has promised them. A simple stick in God's economy is greater than the mightiest sword or army.

4. God's ways are not ours and they are always infinitely better. Who would have chosen a murderer in exile with an old stick to confront the mightiest nation on earth? Who would have chosen a man who couldn't put two comprehensible words together in public to speak for a nation? Who would have chosen the man who begged and begged not to be chosen? Only God.

5. God calls us and accepts us with whatever we have in our hands. The secret is that He doesn't want the stuff we can bring to Him (talents, resources, abilities, etc.). He has all of those things that He needs. What He really wants is you and me - our hearts - fully committed and devoted to Him.

So, in this new year, when you are fretting and thinking what the future holds or when you are confronted by an immense vision that causes you to shake in your boots, I have a simple question for you to repeat to yourself...

"What is that in your hand?"...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Faith in this new year...

It is the first of the year and I am starting all over again in my daily Bible readings. As usual, I plan to read at least two times through the Bible this year. While this is only a part of my spiritual disciplines (add prayer, meditation, devotional readings, etc.), it is one that probably look forward to most.

Today, I finished the story of Joseph and his brothers. I was encouraged by the story to have the faith of Joseph.

It is interesting that we don't really think about Joseph when we think about the heroes of faith. Even the author of Hebrews, while he mentions Joseph in the Chapter 11 role call, doesn't really single out Joseph much for his faith. The writer says of faith, that it "is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen..." And then he goes on to expound by numerous examples: Abraham, Moses, etc. Joseph's faith is almost an afterthought to the others listed.

However, I find Joseph's faith to be powerful and a challenge for my life. Joseph, beloved son of his father, was scorned by his brothers and sold into slavery. He was unjustly accused and imprisoned. He was faithful through it all but literally forgotten by those he showed kindness to. He has all kinds of reason to be bitter and resentful not just at people but at God. Joseph, if he had been like me, might have said, "God, I have faithfully served You but You continue to abandon me. Woe is me!"

We see Joseph's heart and his faith in God when he if finally reunited with his brothers. You know the story. They come to Egypt to get food. They make two trips and he finally reveals himself to them and shows the true measure of his faith. Instead of using it as an opportunity to take vengeance, he shows his faith in God by saying to his brothers...

"I am Joseph, your brother, the one you sold into Egypt. And now don't be worried or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life...Therefore, it was not you who sent me here but God." (Genesis 45:4-5; 8)

And later, after his father passes away, he reassures his brothers the same thing by saying, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result - the survival of many people." (Genesis 50:19-20)

I want that kind of faith. The kind of faith that looks at the worst circumstances in life and still says that God is in total control. The kind of faith that knows that God is infinitely bigger than anything that will happen to you or me. The kind of faith that says, no matter what comes, blessed be the Name of the Lord. The kind of faith that sees reality in God, His purpose and His plans, and not in my small slice of life.

A.W. Tozer says, "Our trouble is that we have established bad thought habits. We habitually think of the visible world as real and doubt the reality of any other."

Francis Chan says, "On the average day, we live caught up in ourselves. On the average day we don't consider God very much. On the average day, we forget that our life truly is a vapor."

I pray that this year I will truly live in the reality of what is assured through God and His Word. I pray that I will live in the conviction of things unseen.

I would like to have the faith exhibited by Joseph in this new year...