February 8th, 2019

How Awl-ful

Exodus 21:6 “He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (NIV).

Observation: Moses had just received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. The people’s attention was riveted toward the mountain where God was manifest. They had seen lightning flashes, heard thunder and a heavenly trumpet, and the mountain began smoking. Responding to their fear, Moses told them not to be afraid; God was testing them, he said, but He would be with them and would keep them from sinning. Exodus 21 then begins by saying, “These are the laws you shall set before them,” and plunges into a litany of arcane rules about slavery.

Application: Imagine what it must have been like for the entire nation to witness God’s manifestations on the mountain. Their eyes must have widened in wonder, mouths agape, bodies quivering from fear. Had there ever been a more riveting moment in all of human history?

Now that God had their attention, how did He use it? By making them slog through obscure instruction about how slaves could win their freedom, and how to mark them if they choose to belong forever to master, wife, and children. Take them before the judge, then stand them against a doorpost and pierce their ears with an awl. Ouch! How “awl-ful.” But notice it is the servant’s choice to be pierced. If so motivated by love for his bride to be willing to go through the procedure, he voluntarily submitted to the process. Indeed, he asked for it. He knew in advance the required payment to have his bride forever.

See how in God’s earliest laws He foreshadows Christ and His sacrifice? For love of His bride, He would willingly be pierced. He would willingly go before the judge and be nailed to a cross as symbolized by the same doorpost on which Passover’s blood was smeared. For love of His bride, He would carry forever the marks of piercing in His side.

This is a God who so loves His children that He surrenders His divinity to become a man forever, then lays down even this life in search of voluntary lovers. He will paint other pictures later in the book to show His love for the Hebrews, and for me. But I ought to remember this first one; it contains the whole Gospel.

Prayer: O God, my soul groans with added understanding of Your immeasurable sacrifice for me. Remind me, Lord, each time I use the word “awful”; remind me of Your piercing

February 7th, 2019

Stuck in a Birth Canal

Exodus 14:13-14 “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still’” (NIV).

Observation: The Hebrews were terrified. Rushed from Egypt after a series of devastating plagues, they were trapped against the Red Sea after Pharaoh’s change of heart. In turn, the Hebrews accused both Moses and the Lord of bringing them to temporary freedom in the desert only to now die there. At that, Moses made his statement of surpassing faith: “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.”

Application: Temporary, partial freedom. What a frustrating, horrible thought, like being stuck part way through the birth canal having once had a vision of full delivery. Moses was a man of great faith. He conveyed complete confidence in what God told him He was going to do. The Lord had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to double back to camp nearer Egypt. Pharaoh would think they were wandering about in confusion, hemmed in by the desert. Then, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them” (see Exodus 14:1-4, NIV). Thus Moses’s confident encouragement to his Hebrew kinsmen sprang not from presumption, but from having heard God and from understanding divine strategy. It was He who ordered the Hebrews to appear confused and trapped. It was He who planned to harden Pharaoh’s heart once again, setting the Hebrews up for not just temporary freedom, but ultimate deliverance. God looked beyond a brief season of transition and crankiness to the result He had planned from the beginning. So must I. It was helpful that Moses heard God’s voice and obeyed; I am called to do no less.

God always has a strategy; He is never caught by surprise. What seems to me to be valleys of impenetrable darkness are to him simply passages to the light. Does He not promise to go before me and to serve as my rear guard? Does He not promise that His Word will light the darkest path? Hearing God is a conscious decision; every child of the King contains His Spirit, which is in constant, intimate contact with the Father. Not to listen is an option; having once heard, not to obey is yet another option, but these are poor choices, indeed. Strain if I must, but insist that I hear Him. Persistently press in. Knowledge of His strategy, once gained, will carry through the most impossible desert.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, in life’s darkest moments, when I have been tempted to wail in despair and sink into depression, Your constant encouragement has brought me through. Thank You for divine strategy for my life, Lord. Increase my glimmers of understanding, for You are the Source of all encouragement.

February 6th, 2019

Victimization Cancelled

Exodus 9:19: “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die” (NIV).

Observation: We find this passage in the midst of a series of plagues God brought against Pharaoh’s arrogance, that the Hebrews might gain release. Blood, gnats, and flies had invaded the land; a disease had killed multitudes of livestock; boils had afflicted every Egyptian; and now God warned of a coming hailstorm, “the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.” But then God gives a clear opportunity for escape: if the livestock and slaves would seek shelter, they would be spared. Some feared God and hid; others ignored the word of the Lord and left themselves fully exposed to destruction.

Application: This is a fascinating interregnum in an otherwise inexorable progression toward the ultimate destruction of Egypt and its ruling elite. I am generally familiar with the story of plagues. One after the other, they increase in severity until ultimately the lives of the firstborn of every house would be taken; no family in Egypt would escape. Wailing and mourning would fill the land.

Yet, the day before shards of hail would kill all in its path, God provided a way of escape for those who heeded the warning. Of course, every plague had been foretold; none were a surprise to Pharaoh. But this plague’s warning was different; it came with specific instruction as to how life could be preserved even under a federal covering which itself remains obstinate and unbending. In previous and successive plagues the average Egyptian’s safety depended upon their leader’s response, but not this time. God struck at the heart of a “victim” mentality and made clear each individual’s responsibility for his or her heart response to affliction.

The child of an alcoholic who himself becomes a drinker; the abused child who becomes an abuser, the abandoned child who grows into adulthood devoid of the capacity for enduring emotional commitment—the argument for all these is completely undercut by today’s passage. Yes, God hates those who would harm one of His little ones; yes, they should wish to be thrown into the sea rather than face His wrath. But I remain without excuse before God for my heart response to whatever hurts have come. While I have indeed been victimized to some extent by life’s oppressions, I cannot nurse a victim mentality and still expect to escape judgment. In His compassion, God gives a way of escape. He is not only my place of refuge, but He is also a healing stream, eager to wash over and cleanse every broken one among His flock.

Prayer: Lord, thank You for freedom from hurts of the past and present. Thank You for being the God who heals.

February 5th, 2019

Pile Drivers and Paper Cuts

Exodus 5:22-23: “Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people? Is this why You sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all” (NIV).

Observation: Moses and Aaron had made their first appeal to Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. It was a modest request for three days’ journey into the desert so they could worship according to their custom without heathen Egyptians looking on. But even in this relatively modest request, Pharaoh was unyielding. He further responded by making the Hebrews’ work assignment even more difficult: their quota of mud bricks would be maintained but now they would have to gather their own straw, as well. Pharaoh clearly laid blame for this increased work at Moses’s feet. This caused Hebrew foremen to turn to Moses in fury, saying, “May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hands to kill us” (Ex. 5:21, NIV).

Application: That part about Moses’s making them a stench was probably hyperbole; slaves whose job was to stomp mud and straw into bricks were probably a stench anyway. But other than that, the angry Hebrews had it about right: the pressure on them did indeed increase. After generations of backbreaking affliction, deliverance was at hand. Moses was on the scene, stirring things up as a prelude to God’s rescue of His own.

Soon enough God would release wave after wave of plagues upon the Egyptians, but notice that His pressure was first applied to His own. Upon reflection, I may see myself in the lives of the Hebrews. Burdened by difficulties, oppressed by circumstances I seemingly cannot change, I cry out to God only to find that pain deepens. It’s as though God has everything from pile drivers to paper cuts within His arsenal, and He applies them liberally to me. I would prefer that He mount His white horse and ride to my rescue at the first hint of difficulty, but He seems to have another strategy in mind. It is as though He wants me, when deliverance finally comes, to be aware of the fullness of my difficult circumstance.

God does not, it seems, deliver from mere discomfort or inconvenience. Although the Hebrews’ lives had indeed been oppressively difficult, God engineered another ratcheting up of pressure before He would visit an even more severe process against their enemies. His willingness to leave me in the furnace of affliction a bit longer is painful for the moment, but it is also surety of His full deliverance to come. He does indeed have a white horse at the ready.

Prayer: Father, Your plans for me are good—plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans to give me hope, and a future. I choose to trust You today, based upon Your word.

February 4th, 2019

Finishing Well

Genesis 49:33 “When Jacob had finished charging his sons, he drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”

Observation: Genesis 48 and 49 record the deathbed scene of a man still fully engaged. He first blessed Joseph’s two sons, adopting them as his own, which is how Manasseh and Ephraim came to head two of Israel’s twelve tribes. He then spoke a prophetic word over each of his sons, identifying each son’s future with his past character in bursts of unerring accuracy. He spoke his last will and testament, bequeathing a particular ridge of land to Joseph, and then concluded with detailed instructions as to the disposition of his remains in the family plot back in Canaan. Having done all, he drew his feet into the bed and died.

Application: Don’t we love stories with good endings? This one seems particularly good because of its orderliness. Nothing messy left for others to clean up. No detail left unattended. He knew his end was at hand and addressed each of his loved ones in clear-eyed honesty with no sentimental, mushy pabulum of emotion. Sons who merited affirmation were affirmed; those who had been profligate or rebellious were honestly called out. And, having finished all, he simply lay down and died.

What will it take for me to finish well? Shall only those who have lived a perfect life enjoy such an end? On the surface, the striking thing about Jacob’s death is its perfect timing. Can anyone know when he or she will die? Apparently so. Jacob evidently did. And Moses knew, when he gazed across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Certainly every death-row criminal has a dread sense of certainty as the red-circled day approaches.

So while I might envy Jacob’s tidiness of timing, the more remarkable thing about the story is that, simply, he was ready. Not ready for a specific date, but heart-ready. He finished well, this man who had illicitly connived against his brother and deceived his father. Later the deceiver was deceived into marrying the wrong woman, then spent years surrounded by sons who lied to him about Joseph’s death. Yet he finished well. Somewhere along the way, perhaps when wrestling with the angel, Jacob was finally broken. He yielded to God’s purposes in his life.

My own story must take the same turn if I am to finish well. My history need not impede my future. The hardships of my individual life story need not deter God’s completely remaking me from the inside out. Whether I know in advance the end of my days or am taken by surprise is not the point. But to end well, in Him, is everything.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, my story cannot be my excuse, can it? Thank You for pressing in to bring change where needed. I gladly yield to You, Lord.

February 3rd, 2019

Famine of the Heart

Genesis 47:25 “’You have saved our lives,’ they said. ‘May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh’” (NIV).

Observation: Joseph was governor of Egypt, in charge of all grain distribution, as famine grew more severe. In payment for grain, Joseph collected all the money to be found in Egypt (Ex. 47:14) yet still the famine continued. Still needy, the people sold Pharaoh their livestock for food until no private ownership of animals remained anywhere in the country (v. 17). Finally, the people offered their land and themselves as slaves to Pharaoh in exchange for personal sustenance and for seed for a new crop when the famine ended (v. 19). Then, in utter poverty and dependency, they said, “You have saved our lives. May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”

Application: I should first see the natural progression here. When famine began, people had some cash reserves that they gladly spent to save their lives, gaining for themselves a measure of temporary relief. Then, since famine continued but with life savings spent, Joseph suggested they give more substantial assets to sustain life. Flocks and herds represented part of their capital endowment—assets that produced renewable benefit such as eggs, milk, cheese, skins for clothing, and offspring for butcher. But again, their relief was only temporary. At last, with nothing left with which to stave off death, it occurred that they might give themselves and their land to Pharaoh, not to just sustain life for another year, but to acquire seed for future life.

As the story unfolds, does Joseph seem a hard taskmaster, requiring their all in return for life? Does the thought occur that if he were a godly man, or even just a nice man, he would have simply given the king’s food to the needy at no cost?

I must see myself in this story. I am one of those needy ones. I have found myself in a famine of the heart, desperate for life-giving, lasting nourishment. Shall I value something that cost me nothing? The life my King is so eager to bestow has cost Him everything; should I not be required to follow His example in complete surrender?

O to be in the same place as Joseph’s subjects, who gave no hint of resentment. They willingly surrendered their fancy camels with on-board navigation, their time-share tents, their entertainment campfires. But rather than resentment, I hear gratitude: “You have saved our lives. May we find favor in your eyes. We will serve you, love you, forever.” They found themselves utterly dependent upon the resources of the king. Nothing less will give me more than temporary relief. Nothing less will satisfy Him.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, through Joseph’s wise stewardship You have shown all I gain by giving up all I have. O my God! What an awesome exchange!

February 2nd, 2019

Nose Rings

Genesis 44:1 “Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.’ And he did as Joseph said.”

Observation: During their first grain-buying trip to Egypt, Joseph had recognized his brothers and had created circumstances intended to result in a future reunion of the family. He demanded the brothers’ return with their youngest brother Benjamin, and held Simeon in prison as ransom (Gen. 42:19–24). The brothers had then made a second trip to Egypt, this time with Benjamin in tow. This time Joseph instructs his trusted steward to set up an even more terrifying scenario: the men would not only find their grain payments in the mouth of each sack, but the governor’s silver cup would be discovered in the sack belonging to the son most beloved by the father.

Application: Joseph designed a plan to get his brothers’ full attention. With the appearance that each of the men had robbed a generous governor of Egypt, their first thought was of their utter innocence. But further reflection reminded them of the sin they had committed years earlier against Joseph and their father, and they began to see their present fear as the deserved result. Joseph had a strategy for reuniting the family in a place of safety and plenty, but he first wanted to test their hearts to see if they were repentant. His plot succeeded perfectly, revealing him to be thoughtful, strategic, and patient. He well understood the family’s greatest vulnerability: the prospect of harm coming to Benjamin and the overwhelming grief such loss would bring to their aged father. Their point of vulnerability is exactly where Joseph struck, and is a perfect illustration of how God works in my life today.

He longs for me to be reconciled to Him, so He surveys my life and instructs His steward (the Holy Spirit) to apply pressure at exactly the point where it will do the most good. In His surgical precision, there is not a moment of wasted effort. Just as a ring through the tender nose of even the meanest bull leads to meek compliance, so He purposes to win my submission by touching my area of greatest vulnerability, that tenderest place in my heart. He knows precisely what He is doing: thoughtfully, strategically, patiently drawing me into a place of His safety and provision.

Prayer: O Lord, that’s why it hurts so much, isn’t it? You are working on the tenderest place in my heart, that place where wounding has occurred and the raw sores, once uncovered, are so sensitive to the touch. I trust You, Lord, to bring healing that only You can bring to those exposed places I’ve tried so hard to keep hidden. Have Your way, Lord.

February 1st, 2019

Vessels of Hope

Genesis 42:9 “Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them.”

Observation: Famine had spread throughout Canaan, so Jacob sent his ten oldest sons to Egypt to purchase grain. The brothers’ quest brought them before Egypt’s governor, whom they failed to recognize as their supposedly dead brother, Joseph. Bowing low in humility, they sought his permission to purchase the needed grain. In the act of bowing, Joseph suddenly remembered dreams God had given him years earlier, and realized their fulfillment was at hand.

Application: Joseph had been a teen when his dreams had occurred. In one, the brothers worked together in a field when his sheaf suddenly stood upright while their eleven sheaves bowed low before his. In another, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed before Joseph. His brothers were infuriated by the presumption of Joseph’s dreams, but his father “kept them in mind” (see Gen. 37:5-11).

Despite the passage of many years serving Potiphar, being imprisoned, and ultimately governing Egypt, Joseph had no doubt pondered the dreams from time to time, but until his startling flashback, he must have wondered how he had missed their meaning so completely. How could they ever be fulfilled now, with his family presuming him long dead while Joseph had moved on as Egypt’s governor? Had the dreams even been real, or merely the result of bad pizza? There had been no family contact for many years; Joseph had never come home on spring break, and the use of Christmas newsletters was not yet widespread. But isn’t it interesting that two people remembered the dreams: the dreamer himself, and his father?

When God gives a promise, regardless of the vehicle, it must necessarily be hidden away ‘til its time of fulfillment. Dreams, visions, prophetic words: these are like vessels of hope I cling to, hope that God will do as He said, hope of future promises well met in Him. Time’s passage may dim dreams’ remembrance; they become fuzzy around the edges, yet their substance remains. Mary hid in her heart prophetic things spoken over the child in her womb; no doubt her mind was flooded with instantly clear recall as she watched Him hang on a cross a lifetime later.

It is good that I remember His promises, but it is far better that He remember. After all, such promises are His, like a sweet kiss of His favor bestowed upon a heart longing for intimacy. A generation may pass, but the Father remembers His promises; at just the right moment, so shall I.

Prayer: Father God, You have spoken many things to my heart in years past, promises of a future lived well in You for me and my family. Thank You for never forgetting. Renew my remembrance today, Lord; renew hope.

January 31st, 2019

Timing Is the Hard Part

Genesis 30:2 “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” (NIV).

Observation: Jacob had set off on the task of siring twelve sons, each of whom would become head of one of the tribes of Israel. Although Rachel was the favored wife, it was through her sister, Leah, that the first four were born as Rachel fumed through her barrenness. In desperate jealousy, Rachel cried to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die,” (Gen. 30:1, NIV) which elicited Jacob’s angry response: “Am I in the place of God?”

Application: When this question appears in the midst of the story of God’s founding of the nation of Israel, it is hard to imagine the words coming from Jacob’s lips. Perhaps at long last he has learned to ask the right question.

As a young man Jacob had extorted the birthright of his older brother Esau through the price of one savory meal. Later, Jacob and his mother had connived to trick the dying Isaac into granting Jacob the generational blessing that should have been Esau’s. There is apparently nothing in Jacob to suggest he would later know how to hear God’s voice or harbor the inclination to wait on His timing. Nevertheless, Jacob had landed where God intended. After all, before the birth of twins Esau and Jacob, the Lord had said to Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb; . . . one people will be stronger than the other; and the older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23, NIV).

God cares not only that I get the thing right, but that I get the timing and method right as well. It is sin to determine my destiny apart from God, but it is equally wrong when, having heard from Him as to my future, I then seize its fulfillment in my own timing, my own way, my own strength. Timing can be tricky. The man who, for example, says he wants to spend his retirement fund down to zero the day he dies illustrates the problem. He understands the purpose of the money, but knowing the day to calendar its depletion reminds me of the Grey Lines guide showing his patrons the Chicago alley where a murdered mobster was found with 27 cents in his pocket, whereupon one of the patrons remarked, “What great timing!”

When God has spoken to me about a thing, does it remain His if its fulfillment comes in my timing, by my schemes? He has authored a good and perfect plan for me. How great will be my joy when the fruit of my life is His in every way. I must press in, wait on Him, then press in some more.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You that the plans You have for me are to prosper me, and not to harm me, plans to give me hope, and a future. Cause me to seek You with all my heart, Lord, that the fruit of my life will be pleasing to You in every way.

January 30th, 2019

Substitution

Genesis 27:13 “His mother said to him, ‘My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say’” (NIV).

Observation: Isaac had grown old, feeble, and blind. Knowing death was near, he told his oldest son Esau that he would grant him the traditional eldest’s blessing as soon as Esau returned with a savory meal of wild game for Isaac to eat. When Esau departed, eavesdropping Rebekah called her favorite son Jacob and counseled him to deceive her husband so Jacob might receive Esau’s blessing. Jacob was reluctant, not for integrity’s sake, but fearing instead that he might be discovered and thus cursed rather than blessed. But his mother said, “My son, let the curse fall on me.”

Application: Isaac’s was a household of broken hearts and interpersonal conflict. Esau had years earlier shown himself to be godless by trading his birthright for one bellyful of food. Isaac and Rebekah each had their favorite son, thus laying the groundwork for deception at the end of Isaac’s life. Blessing and birthright always accompanied birth order; they were granted to the firstborn without regard to character or merit. The firstborn was to be blessed. He was the one to receive the family’s wealth, the one to carry the blessing of covenant into the future.

Rebekah’s cunning statement arrests me in my tracks: “Let the curse fall on me.” Rebekah, loving her son, was prepared to take Jacob’s deserved wrath upon herself if it came to that. Have I not sat by the bedside of a suffering loved one and said, “If I could take your pain, your illness upon myself, I would; I would bear this for you if I could”? In Rebekah’s statement is the anguished cry of every wife, every husband, every mother and father desperate to grant relief by any means possible, including a substitutionary transference onto themselves of a loved one’s fever and cold sweats.

In Rebekah’s statement I hear a faint echo of a moment in time when heaven no longer remained silent, when God Himself said, “Let your curse fall on Me.” And this Father has the power, the authority to pull it off; the substitutionary transference will indeed be complete. God went to the cross, taking upon Himself my deserved punishment, my curse. Where Rebekah and I are powerless to bring relief, my heavenly Father has all power to settle things once and for all. His substitution for me does what I am helpless to do on my own. What a stunning offer: not one too good to be true, but one that is good precisely because it is true. His sacrifice contains both blessing and birthright. Once accepted, I become His firstborn, made available without regard for my merit.

Prayer: Father God, what an amazing thing it is to consider what You have done for me. Thank You for taking my curse upon Yourself. How I love You!