Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Count the Cost of Your Solutions

Life in this physical existence is full of problems.  We are constantly searching for solutions.  Far too often our “solution” to a problem is either a problem itself or the seed for a future problem.  The “solution” looks wonderful from the perspective of “now” circumstances, but it fails miserably to address the real reason for the problem existing.

Samuel was a wonderful spiritual leader in Israel his entire life.  From his childhood he listened to God.  He never spoke for God until he listened to God—not to himself!  As Samuel’s life neared its end, Israel faced three immediate problems.  (1) Samuel was old.  Age passes the usefulness of experience.  (2) However, Samuel’s sons were wicked men.  They made lousy judges because they were nothing like their father.  Whereas Samuel powerfully led Israel in God’s direction, his sons sought dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:3).  (3) The nation needed leadership and guidance that made them secure.  The king’s principal work was to serve as his people’s judge.  God was the judge through the person He appointed.  The problem was not God.  The problem was having a person who listened to God.  Samuel did.  His sons did not.

As a nation, Israel was different.  Leadership in every other nation was provided by a physical king.  They had no physical king.  Their solution to their leadership dilemma: (1) be like everyone else.  (2) Appoint a physical king.

The primary problem with their solution was this: their leadership problem resulted from a lack of faith in God.  True, they were different.  Yet, in that difference was a real potential for good not available to any other nation.  Appointing a physical king was not a real solution!  At best it was an expensive, temporary “fix” that resulted in increased problems and eventual ruin.  Their solution was actually a new problem!
Samuel was deeply grieved by the nation’s request.  When Samuel brought the matter to God, God said, “They have not rejected you.  They have rejected Me as their king!  Give them what they want, but explain to them in plain terms the cost of their request.”

Samuel explained to the nation the oppressive physical burden supporting a king would place on everyone.  However, the people would not listen to him.  Their solution was THE solution, the ONLY solution!  A distressed Samuel again took the matter to God.  God’s response: “Give them what they want” (1 Samuel 8:22).

Words of caution to all of us: First, when we (1) put our words in God’s mouth to make Him say what we wish to hear, or (2) think our solution is so good that we can refuse to listen to God, we are in serious trouble.  Even when we do not think so, God (1) knows what we need, and (2) knows what He speaks about.

Always, in the church or in personal matters, we need to listen before we decide.  We need to make certain our solution is not a problem in disguise.  This is not an admonition to procrastinate [which is a problem, not a solution].  It is the encouragement to know God’s full thinking before we champion our solution.
The second caution: Never forget that God will let us do as we please.  It takes more than the prayer, “God, do not let us do something we should not do,” to avoid ungodly decisions.  The attitude of that prayer is excellent if we first listen to God’s guidance.

The realization that God will let His people do as they insist on doing is frightening!  A personal agenda has no place in God’s purposes!

It is okay to speak for yourself.  You are entitled to your opinion!  Just do not pretend to speak for God when you are speaking for you!  We cannot uphold God’s purposes unless we know and understand God’s purposes.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Someone Had To Be The First

In Joshua 24, Joshua gave his final address to Israel’s leaders. He began his address in God’s voice with a striking declaration. Israel’s earliest ancestors served idols. There was a time when Israel’s ancestors did not know the God Israel followed. He specifically mentioned Terah, Abraham’s father.

Someone has to be the beginning. It is never popular to be the beginning. Only in the distant future when people see the good fruit of your courage do they admire and praise your courage. By then the courageous one has long been dead. By then all his/her warts and flaws have been noted and examined numerous times. By then his/her loneliness, questions, and grief long have been history. By then no one ever considers the struggles surrounding his/her being the first. By then, he/she is a hero and not a human.

Too often we think of great heroes in scripture as being so outstanding and strong that they are not human. We place them high on a pedestal to collect dust while we occasionally admire them. We make such “super saints” out of them that we likely miss their most valuable lessons to us. The lessons: God works through (a) the small and (b) the weak. What is achieved is not the result of the “bigness” of the person but the result of the “bigness” of God. Divine grace exists as a part of God’s character because inevitable flaws created by the weakness of fear exists as a part of human character.

Abraham was an incredible man. His faith in God exceeds the faith of many (if not all of us). Yet, Abraham was a man who knew fear and made mistakes just as we do. God was able to make great use of him because of his great faith, not his great achievements. In the same manner, God’s use of us is dependent on our faith in Him, not our achievements.

There is so much to be wondered concerning Abraham. Wonder how he felt the first time God spoke to him? Wonder if he immediately understood what was happening? Wonder when and where that moment occurred? To deepen your sense of wonder, realize Abraham was no more accustomed to having God speak verbally to him than you are. Yet, he had the faith to listen seriously rather than find a reason to dismiss the event and occasion.

Can you begin to imagine how much faith he had? When God told him to leave his extended family and depend on the God who spoke to him, he did it. When God told him that a nation would descend from him, he believed it—though he did not even have a son at that moment. When God told him Canaan would belong to his descendants, he believed it. Because there was an Abraham, there was a Moses, and a Samuel, and a David, and an Elijah, and a Daniel, and a Nehemiah.

Yes, it was God’s intent to send a Jesus so all families of the earth could be blessed. Yet, it had to begin with God finding a man who trusted Him. God could do marvelous things through a man who trusted him.

God can still do marvelous things through a person who trusts Him. Are you such a person?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Joy Turned to Sorrow

The gateway to Canaan fell! The vulnerability of the territory to become Israel’s land increased! Before Jericho fell, the area trembled at the thought of war with Israel [not because of the strength of Israel’s army, but because of the way God acted on Israel’s behalf] (Joshua 2:9-11). After Jericho fell to Israel, the terror of the people who lived in Canaan intensified (Joshua 6:27).

Among God’s instruction concerning Jericho was this: everything captured in that city is under ban (Joshua 6:17-21, 24; 7:1). In ancient Israel the ban usually meant more than one thing: (1) no Israelite was to take anything from the destroyed city for personal benefit; (2) all living things in the city were to be killed; (3) anything taken from the fallen city [usually metal objects] was to be devoted to God by placing them in the tabernacle. The ban was a flexible instrument used in some form to honor God. It was a way to dedicate a victory to God as the power behind the victory, to honor God in the defeat of an enemy, and to declare dependence on God. It also was a means of funding the work of the Holy Site of national worship [ancient Israel’s form of national worship was expensive to maintain]. Thus, in ancient Israel, the fall of an important idolatrous city accomplished two things through a ban: (1) it did not have an adverse spiritual influence on Israel by encouraging idolatry, and (2) it honored God as the power enabling the blessing of victory.

The concept of the ban was not restricted to the conquest of Jericho. In ancient sources outside Old Testament records, it is known to exist in other ancient cultures also. It was seen in ancient Israel on several occasions even generations later. For example, one of the reasons God rejected King Saul was his failure to observe God’s ban when conquering the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).

Jericho was an important city that guarded Canaan against invaders coming from the “other side” of the Jordan River near a convenient crossing. Ai, compared to Jericho, was a small city. While both had strategic significance, Ai likely did not have the symbolic significance of Jericho. While both were significant cities, it was true that if Israel could defeat Jericho, defeating Ai should be simple.

However, a warrior named Achan broke God’s ban in Jericho and angered God. When Achan saw a beautiful mantle, two hundred pieces of silver, and a gold bar, greed caused him to forget God’s instructions. He took those objects and buried them in his tent.

Joshua was told Ai would be easily defeated. The whole Israelite army was not needed. So Joshua sent only 3000 men to capture Ai. However, those men fled from the defenders of Ai, and a few were killed.

The defeat caused Joshua to be extremely distraught. After a time of grief before the ark of the Lord, he asked God, “Why did You let us cross the Jordan River to be destroyed? We should never have crossed the river!” (Joshua 7:7) His concern was that the people living in Canaan would lose their fear of Israel and become bold. In Joshua’s mind, it was this fear, not God, that was the key to Israel’s victory. God told Joshua and those that mourned with him, “Get up! The problem is not the defeat, but the fact there is sin among you.”

God said the man who defied His ban and all that belonged to him should be destroyed (Joshua 7:15). He was, and as a result his family and his livestock were killed, and his possessions were destroyed. A stoning, burning, and burial under a mound of stones were all a part of Achan’s destruction. Before his execution, Joshua referred to him as the one who brought trouble to Israel.

Give attention to four lessons. (1) The key to success—in success or tragedy—is God [and certainly not greed in any form!]. (2) What we hide is never hidden from God. (3) Too often we fail to see the actual problem. (4) Our moral failures can affect or destroy a lot of lives who did not participate in our initial immoral act.

If life is not what you want or like, do not waste “now” because of what you fear in the future. If you do, you will not change the future, and you will waste “now.” As you choose a direction for your life, take care to focus on real problems, not fear problems.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Lord of Rules and Regulations

War was eminent!  The attack was so near one could feel the anxiety in the air!  Several ‘some ones’ would die!  Soon there would be widows lonely for their husbands and orphans wanting their father!

This was in an age before gun powder, shells, and bombs.  Thick, high walls around a city and strong, bolted gates composed a formidable defense system.  Joshua 6:1 said the city of Jericho was tightly shut up.  No one was allowed to go in or out of that city.  As long as the people of Jericho could keep Israel’s army “out there,” the people of Jericho could preserve their lives and defend their city.  As long as they could keep Israel’s army “out there,” they were in control of their destiny.

God told Joshua to do a very strange thing in Joshua 6.  It was the kind of instruction that could make Joshua respond by saying, “Lord, you could not possibly want us to do that because it violates Your rules and regulations.”  Presumably from the time of Exodus 20:8-11, Israel did nothing on the Sabbath.  From that occasion forward, God’s Ten Commandments, given with Moses as God’s spokesman, were the core of God’s Law in Israel.  Certainly the statement in Exodus 31:12-17 and the incident in Numbers 15:32-36 strongly suggest Israel kept the Sabbath even in the wilderness.

Yet, God’s instructions to Joshua concerning the first city in Canaan they were to conquer did not observe the Sabbath.  “For six (6) days, Joshua, you are to have Israel’s army march around the city once led by seven (7) priests carrying trumpets made of rams’ horns and priests carrying the ark of the Lord.  The priests with the trumpets are to blow them continuously, but the entire army is to march in silence.  On the seventh (7th) day, the army with the priests carrying trumpets and the ark are to march around the city six (6) times in silence.  On the seventh (7th) time, the priests are to blow their trumpets, the army shout, and Jericho’s wall will fall.”

If they marched for seven (7) consecutive days, they violated the Sabbath.  If the first day of the march was Sunday, their beginning of the week, the army of Israel fought and won a major battle on the Sabbath, or seventh (7th) day of the week.  Either way, the Sabbath was not observed as instructed in Exodus 20.  If gathering wood was a violation of the Sabbath, marching around Jericho’s walls in battle gear was surely a violation of the Sabbath!

The issue needs an accurate understanding.  Is God bigger than the Law He gave?  Or is God subject to the Law He gave?  Is God Himself the ultimate authority, or are the “rules and regulations” the ultimate authority?  If you are tempted to say that is an irrelevant point without any application to us of today, consider that God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace are in violation of “rules and regulations.”

We are all sinners!  None of us are worthy to be in God’s presence.  Though we all justly are condemned by our own mistakes and failures, God forgives.  In spite of our indefensible violation of the “rules and regulations,” God forgives because He is full of mercy and grace.  Our hope is not in the “rules and regulations” because that would place our hope in human perfection, an impossibility.  Our hope is in the God Who is bigger than justice, bigger than “rules and regulations.”

Generations later, God’s son declared, “…Something greater than the temple is here.  … For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6, 8).  Thank You, God!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rejoice Before The Lord!

The common tradition in Christian worship is to worship God in a somber, solemn manner. Praise is solemn (“Do you not understand the Lord is to be feared?”). Prayer is solemn (“To approach God with quietness is to show God dignity!”) Communion is solemn (“Do you not realize this is about death—not victory!”) Preachers who make people laugh do not take God’s word seriously! From Christian worship one might get the impression that God always has been offended by any worship approach that was less than solemn.

In Deuteronomy 16:9-12, Moses wrote worship instructions for the Feast of Weeks. It was to be celebrated seven weeks from the beginning of harvest. It was to be an occasion when they gave God freewill offerings of their harvest. It was one of the three assemblies of the year in which all the men of Israel were to gather in one place and worship God as a nation (Deuteronomy 16:16).

Hopefully everyone (including males, females, and servants) could gather on this occasion. It was to be a happy occasion when everyone rejoiced before the Lord. They were to rejoice for two reasons: (1) God blessed them in harvest! (2) God delivered them from slavery!

Why do we assume that any tribute to God must be a solemn occasion? From the origins of worship in Israel, God was not offended by the joy of His people. Instead, He was honored that His people found reason for joy in Him. God’s blessings call for celebration! Celebration calls for expressions of joy! Only the person who credits himself or herself for God’s blessings finds no reason to rejoice before the Lord.

After the first baptisms into Christ, Jewish Christians were together daily expressing gladness and sincerity (or simplicity) of heart. To suggest that people who knew for generations how to “rejoice before the Lord,” who expressed gladness daily were solemn in all worship gatherings is quite a stretch! If ever there was a generation who had reason to rejoice before the Lord, they were it! They knew forgiveness as it had never been known before! They existed in the assurance of resurrection! That is the knowledge of joy!

The hope of the gospel (good news) is NOT found in this statement: “Are you miserable as a sinner? Come to Christ and we will show how to live a life of greater misery!” Instead, it IS found in this understanding: “In Christ, your sin is a solved problem and your forgiveness is continuing (1 John 1:5-10)! In Christ, Your resurrection is certain! Rejoice in the Lord! Be happy, and express your joy to God!

Are you in Christ? Do you find joy in that? Is it a joy the opposition of ungodliness cannot destroy? Have you expressed your happiness to God?

If you are a Christian, let your joy be evident — even to God!

With God, Tragedy Is Opportunity!

Moses was dead! The man that God commissioned to lead Israel out of Egypt was dead. The man who confronted the Egyptian ruler with the plagues was dead. The man God used to part the sea was dead. The man through whom God worked to provide manna, meat, and water was dead. The man through whom God gave the Law was dead. The man who received God’s pattern for the tabernacle was dead. The man whose face was bright because he was in God’s presence was dead. The man who communicated with God as did no one else was dead. The man who rescued Israel numerous times when they angered God was dead. The man who was the only leader Israel had ever known was dead.

What a “tough act” to follow! No one would ever be as distinct a leader as was Moses! No one would ever have the opportunity to do for God the things Moses did. Being Israel’s first leader provided Moses a unique blend of circumstances and opportunities. There would never be another Moses — just like with Americans there could never be another George Washington. Moses cast too big a shadow to be filled by anyone else.

Now Joshua was to take his place. While we might think, “What an incredible opportunity,” he might think, “What an impossible challenge!” Joshua had endured battles before under Moses’ leadership. However, his leadership would be different. Under Moses there had been battles. Under Joshua, there was to be an era filled with the war of conquest. In war there is death. In time, death gets old. War may begin as a glorious sacrifice, but prolonged war brings the unacceptable expense of unnecessary dying.

God gave Joshua incredible challenges and promises. Both are found in Joshua 1:1-9. The challenges: be strong and courageous.
The promises:
(1) I will give this entire area to Israel just as I promised their forefathers.
(2) I will be with you just like I was with Moses.
(3) No one can defeat you because I am with you.
(4) Follow my Law and do exactly as I direct.

Some things stand out in this scripture. First, God intended to give Israel more than Israel’s faith in God allowed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Appreciation and Dependence

We are big in our understanding of appreciation. We, as people in most ages and cultures, associate the expression of appreciation with gifts. We are not big in our understanding of dependence. In the American society, dependence is virtually a social taboo. We hate to have our driver’s license denied or our car keys taken from us. Most of us despise the thought of living in a nursing home – never mind how nice the place is. When we get to an age or health condition that we must have assistance to continue living at home, we appreciate dependable people who check on us or serve us, but we despise our need to depend on someone else. We commonly delay living with someone else [even a loved family member] as long as possible.

Israel was to appreciate God and what He did for them. They began their new year by remembering God’s deliverance when He removed them from slavery (Deuteronomy 16:1, 2). That memorial feast [the Passover meal] was followed by a week in which they suspended the ordinary use of leaven bread and ate unleavened bread. By eating such bread for a week, they remembered the suddenness of their departure from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3-8).

They further commemorated God’s deliverance by giving God the firstborn male born to their livestock (Deuteronomy 15:19, 20). When it was time to give God this sacrifice, they would not give Him the undesirable (the lame, the blind, or the defective). All sacrifices to God came from the best. They were not to give God an animal that they would consider an expression of contempt if it were given to them. God was to be honored in their sacrificial acts!

Why? In an agricultural society and culture that often counted wealth in livestock, why sacrifice one of your best lambs on Passover or give an often needed firstborn male animal in sacrifice? Many who were struggling might justify not giving such valuable gifts by the reality of the fact that they struggled.

People who genuinely belong to God always have differed (1) to people who are rule keepers, (2) to people who serve God only when they find it convenient, or (3) to people who do not know God or chose to ignore God. The difference always has been found in two attitudes, not one.

First, in a true awareness of what God did for them, they were grateful. And they wished to show their gratitude! They gave the valuable to God because they appreciated God!

Second, with genuine insight, such people knew they depended on God. They gave in the trust of dependence! They were comfortable being dependent! They trusted God to care for them! In the tradition of Abraham, they were blessed to be a blessing.

Christians have their own memorial given by Jesus Christ himself. It is called communion. As they remember with joy that God freed them from the slavery of sin by allowing Jesus to die for them, they feel both appreciation and dependence. They appreciate God sending His son to die for us. They appreciate God acting to redeem us while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:8-11; 8:1). They depend on God to resurrect them just as He resurrected Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14).

If you belong to God through Christ, show your gratitude and express your dependence. If belonging to God through Christ has not yet occurred in your life, find your reasons for being grateful and indebted.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ancient Teamwork

Life is filled with complications! When you are an adolescent, life and the world is a super simple consideration in most determinations. A matter is either right or wrong. Everything with simplicity can be classified as right or wrong. “A” criteria is right, and “B” criteria is wrong. Thus determining right and wrong is simply a matter of applying the correct criteria—which just happens to be “my” criteria.

As a person enters into his or her twenties, a gray area begins to emerge. Usually it emerges when a person’s experience presents him or her with a complication that defies his or her simple criteria of right and wrong. The situation involves some right values and some wrong values. Suddenly, there emerges a deep consciousness of a right, a wrong, and a neither right or wrong—a condition in which both good and bad values are present.

As one grows older, the gray area typically increases. Increasingly with age there are matters that are easily decided [the primary values obviously are either right or wrong] and matters that involve situations too complex to decide easily.

The issue is rarely a matter of what to do when matters are obviously right or wrong, good or bad [unless personalities or emotions “cloud the issue”]. The issue is what should be done when a matter is too complex to decide. It is in those moments that the wisdom of a team is needed. That is when personal ego must not overshadow wisdom. That is when wisdom is found in a team approach rather than a strong willed or charismatic individual.

Any system of justice creates numerous opportunities for injustice. There are always “loop holes” in a justice system. Life situations are too complex to be oversimplified by regulations. Justice is a difficult state of affairs to reach when people seek vindication for unjust behaviors.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7 is quite clear about the fact that idolatrous influences were not to be tolerated in Israel. However, Deuteronomy 17:8-13 readily and quickly admitted that there were cases too difficult for the justice system in ancient Israel. If a situation was obvious, that ancient justice system should render a verdict without calling on the religious community. However, if the matter was too complex for the justice system, then the religious community was called upon to inquire of God what should be done. In that event, God’s verdict was to be respected and implemented. The wise course of action was determined by Israel’s courts and religious leadership.

Today Christians surrender to the compassionate God Who send His son to die for us, Who is delighted to forgive. Frequently seeing human behavior in simplistic terms with no gray results in neither God’s justice nor His compassion. The challenge of the Christian is found not God’s justice, but in God’s compassion.

Leave justice in God’s hand. God will take care of the rebellious and the cooperative (Romans 14:12 and 1 Peter 4:5). He knows hearts and motives. We do not. We can be moved by His compassion. We have seen and experienced His compassion. Compassion is within our capability. Read Ephesians 4:31, 32 lately?