December 28th, 2018

Jet Ski Competition

Mark 4:9 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Observation: Jesus was teaching at the seashore. As the crowd grew, He moved His venue from the shore to a boat put out a short distance into the water. Presumably from there, both visibility and acoustics would be improved. At the conclusion of one of His parables, He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).

Application: Speaking to large crowds in Jesus’s day must have been daunting. Unless there was a high place to ascend, He would be visible to only a few. Another challenge was how to project sound without benefit of the woofers and microphones we rely upon today. Speaking from a boat would help overcome both problems, as His visibility would be increased and at the same time the water’s surface would help carry the sound of His voice. So in moving to a boat, Jesus seems to have done His part to communicate. Still, for the crowd to benefit from the experience, they had a responsibility as well.

It is not hard to imagine them sitting still, straining to hear the Master’s voice. The quiet lapping of gentle waves against the shore combined with the cry of overhead gulls to create an idyllic setting, interrupted only by the occasional passing of joy-seekers on jet skis. Primitive technology left Jesus few options: He could simply sit patiently as the scream of approaching engines increased and then resume His teaching once they receded. Sometimes, though, He might continue in His usual, maddeningly conversational voice even as laughing skiers roared by, His words completely lost to the straining ears of the crowd.

“Wait,” you say, “that’s not in the Bible! That’s not how it was!” Oh really? Then why did Jesus say in verse 9, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”? It seems He knew that His words would be easily drowned out by my pursuit of worldly priorities. Apparently the crowd at the seashore had the same problem I have today. Their diversions may not have been game shows, fast cars, and the Internet; perhaps instead they had bet on Sunday’s donkey races or were dreaming about the merchandise expected by camel caravan that afternoon.

It has always been hard to discipline myself to hear God. He is faithful to do His part, but He refuses to raise His voice in competition against my higher pursuits. Oh, He could, and when He returns as Judge and King He will indeed arrest my full attention. But for now, as for 2,000 years, He is simply my lover, hoping I in turn will love Him enough to turn aside from other pursuits to listen for His still, small voice.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You are teaching me how to hear You. It requires a conscious decision on my part, doesn’t it? It comes down to my focus being either on You, or on all this other “stuff” of life. I choose You.

December 27th, 2018

Pizza Delivery Faith

Numbers 14:24 “But because My servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows Me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendents will inherit it” (NIV).

Observation: Israel was poised on the edge of the Promised Land, and the spies had returned in agreement that the land was remarkably productive. All except Caleb and Joshua expressed fear of the land’s inhabitants. Caleb and Joshua did their best to rouse faith that God would enable them to defeat their enemies, but fear and lack of faith carried the day. God’s judgment was that the Israelites would have to stay in the desert for forty years, one year for each day the spies had spent in the land. However, He singled out Caleb as having a different spirit from the people; Caleb followed God wholeheartedly and God promised he would inherit the land he had explored.

Application: In this chapter faith received the promise of future blessing; fear was condemned to die in the desert. No Israelite who had been twenty or older upon leaving Egypt would survive to enter Canaan. Think of it! A couple million of Caleb’s friends, family, and countrymen would have to die before Caleb could receive his inheritance. Imagine standing at the edge of Houston, Los Angeles, or New York and hearing God say that the sea of humanity stretched before you must die before you can receive what God had promised.

What must have gone through his mind? What would go through mine? Would God’s declaration overwhelm me with grief for their loss? Would doubt creep in that He would really preserve only Joshua and me after a forty-year stench of death? Would I secretly hope that the clock might begin running right away so I could “get mine” as quickly as possible?
The Word doesn’t address Caleb’s thoughts at that moment, but I do see his heart forty-five years later in Joshua 14:7-14. The Israelites had finally entered the land, and Caleb received from Joshua the gift of the Hebron region in fulfillment of God’s promise.

Could I carry God’s promise for forty-five years without faith dimming? How about forty-five days? My prayers are filled with requests only He can fulfill, yet I leave the prayer room disappointed if answers don’t come by 8:30. In my expectation of His answers, I must remember that God operates outside time. If He has promised, He will deliver. My faith really ought to have a longer horizon than a pizza delivery guarantee. I’m the one who has set the clock running, knowing exactly when delivery will come. In measuring His faithfulness by my puny timelines, I pay an awful price, losing the ability to wait in expectant faithfulness.

Prayer: O Lord, make me like Caleb. Forgive me for the times I have grown weary in waiting. I trust Your promises, and ask You to change my perspective as I wait. I choose today to take my eyes off the clock and even off the calendar, to simply wait on You.

December 26th, 2018

Penalty Box

Numbers 12:15 “So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back” (NIV).

Observation: Miriam had exposed a petulant jealous streak by speaking against Moses, saying, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” (Num. 12:2). Angered, God struck Miriam with leprosy. Moses immediately interceded for her, but God required that she bear her uncleanness by being put outside the camp for seven days, a very public rebuke.

Application: The Lord has a deft touch indeed as he reveals my heart condition through a simple story several thousand years old. Miriam was beloved of God; she also led the nation in exuberant celebration after their Red Sea deliverance from Pharaoh’s army (see Ex. 15:20-21). The prophet Micah would later remind of God’s having “sent Moses to lead [the nation], also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4, NIV). She was honored, famous, and secure in God’s love.

Yet Miriam, like me, was apparently still capable of blurting things she would regret, words that revealed an area of her heart not yet fully yielded to God. The resulting discipline, while due to her sin, was nonetheless motivated by God’s love for her and for those around her. As long as she was in the penalty box, forward progress waited. It is in the goodness of God, not meanness, that the time finally comes for Him to address heart issues I would prefer to leave buried. In my headlong rush to achieve something, to become something, my loving Abba will design a penalty box just my size: a major illness, a business reversal, a relational train wreck, or some other creative invention.

There comes a time when God determines that this thing is to be addressed now, no longer to be hidden from view, covered by pretense. He calls “time out,” and like Miriam, I find that forward progress stops while He works on my heart. I must see this not as the harsh punishment of an angry God, but as a necessary course correction by the lover of my soul. He is much more committed to my intimacy with Him than He is to the outer accoutrements I have given my life to pursue. After all, He Himself volunteered for the shame of the Cross; He would appear to have been a failure in his earthly ministry. Should I think myself above the suffering to which He submitted? Love put Miriam outside the camp. And it is His passionate love for me that has caused me to join her there.

Prayer: O Lord, when I see You through the paradigm of a lovesick bridegroom rather than as a cranky, harsh, disapproving authority, the hard things in life take on new meaning. Thank You for loving me enough to crush me when it is needed. I gladly submit to Your work in my heart.

December 25th, 2018

Some Assembly Required

1 John 1:1-4 “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.”

Observation: John’s writing overflows with love for the Lord and concern for our spiritual well-being. In these first four verses, words tumble over one another in lavish yearning to draw us into relationship with Christ Jesus and through Christ, into fellowship with both the Father and with fellow believers.

Application: The entire book of First John may be profitably read on any day, but perhaps no day is more appropriate than on Christmas morn. As Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Christ, John reminds us that the life of Christ, representing the Father, became manifest in our midst. John’s ecstatic celebration of this reality invites us to enter into His eternal life not only for our own benefit but because as John says, “so that our joy may be complete.” What a lovely thought: that the only thing that could possibly be lacking in John’s life, or in the lives of other believers, would be for you and me to participate fully ourselves in the life of Christ.

Any of us as believers can surely understand John’s heart cry. Having found something as unspeakably good as eternal life in Christ, what could possibly be incomplete about our lives except that some we love are not joined with us in that life? Still on the outside, still in ignorance and darkness, their condition fills us with yearning that they would one day join us.

I smile inwardly this morning at the universal Christmas phrase, “some assembly required.” Indeed, isn’t that what John is talking about? Christ has seen the finished product. He well understands that each of us starts out as a gift filled with potential. As Christ begins to open us, He first discards the cardboard and packing materials and then lovingly begins to assemble all the parts, always mindful of the intended finished result. Sometimes we resist His assembly; we each have come with pieces broken in transit. Yet He persists. His vision is that we would all be made perfect, that His joy might be made complete.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I am so very thankful that You have come to set the pattern, and that Your commitment is to never give up on me till I have a seat at the wedding banquet. Thank You, thank You.

December 24th, 2018

Remembering Passover

Numbers 9:4-5 “So Moses told the Israelites to celebrate the Passover, and they did so in the Desert of Sinai at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. The Israelites did everything just as the LORD commanded Moses” (NIV).

Observation: A year had passed since the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt when God’s people had hidden behind the blood of sacrificed lambs, safe from the persistent advance of the death that invaded every unprotected home in the land. At the first annual commemoration of that singular event, each Hebrew family would remember how God had cut off the advancing army of Egypt, making it possible for the Israelites to emerge in freedom.

Application: Passover. The most profoundly important moment in Israel’s history. This was not one of those ceremonies done just in the privacy of the Holy of Holies; it was carried out in tens of thousands of Hebrew tents spread in tribal clusters across the desert. It was not a ceremony conducted only by specially consecrated priests and Levites; it was done in families by dads and moms whose bodies still bore the scars of Egyptian enslavement—parents who lovingly gazed at children around the Passover table and with tears in their eyes recounted what it meant to be free.

The sacrifice that night was intensely personal, individual. Twilight’s air must have filled with the bleating of thousands of lambs, followed by the pleasing aroma of their roasting carcasses ascending to God. Each father was reminded to leave none of it until morning and forbidden to break any of its bones. Foreshadowing the sacrifice of the Lamb of God at a Passover still generations in the future, I should notice that nothing of Jesus was left until morning; His body was removed the previous twilight. He suffered no broken bones despite the Roman tradition of breaking weight-bearing legs to hasten death.

But this Lamb, my personal Passover, volunteered for death. His life was given, not taken. His blood was shed once for all. No longer must each home be filled with the aroma of fresh sacrifice. Or must it? Isn’t the point of my identification with Him the idea that I, too, would enter into His death? This isn’t just a once-and-for-all kind of thing on my part, but moment by moment. There was such power in the blood of the first Passover lamb that it could deflect even God. So it is with the blood of Christ. I must remember Him today. I must connect in the midst of today’s busyness with His awesome love for me.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as I shut out the noise of life today, I weep over Your sacrifice for me. It is not only something historic, but it’s now, very personal and intimate. Thank You for Your great love.

December 23rd, 2018

Sky Awake . . . I Up Now

Numbers 7:19-23 “The offering…was one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, and one silver sprinkling bowl weighing seventy shekels…each filled with fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering; one gold dish weighing
ten shekels, filled with incense, one young bull, one ram and one male lamb
a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and two oxen, five rams, five male goats and five male lambs a year old to be sacrificed as a fellowship offering” (NIV).

Observation: The tabernacle had been set up, its utensils unpacked and properly placed. Moses had consecrated everything, and it was now time to celebrate. For twelve days, a leader from each of the tribes was to bring offerings for the dedication pageantry.

Application: The odd thing about this passage is not its detail; by now both the Hebrews and I should expect that God was able to precisely communicate His requirements for an acceptable sacrifice. I should also expect that the people would have learned to obey; in fact, “Learn or Burn” might have been the subtitle for His training manual.

The odd thing about this passage, and the thing that makes this chapter the
longest of the first five books of the Bible, is that it is repeated verbatim twelve times. Why was this necessary? Why not just list the requirements once and then say that each tribe brought the same thing in turn?

I think about my exposure to the developing speech patterns of a small child: repetition is key. My eyes may want to roll with the certainty of what’s coming, but repetition helps imprint understanding into an impressionable brain. “Sky asleep, Grandpa; time for bed.” “Sky awake, Grandpa; I up now.”

Within such repetition to the Hebrews, another message is confirmed: there
will be no competition before God for the best or the biggest offering. No
tribe needed to bring more than required, and none dared bring less. In the
sameness for the Hebrews is the security of acceptance. God loves and accepts me for one thing only: that I am in Christ. When He sees Christ’s blood applied to my sin, I am as fully accepted as I will ever be. No further striving is required, no competitive giving, no sacrifice of my own devising draws me one iota closer to the Father than the sacrifice He has already given. My life in Him, then, can be simplicity itself: Sky asleep; time for bed. Sky awake; I up now.

Prayer: Lord, it is Your sacrifice, not mine, that makes me acceptable.
Your life given once for many, has opened heaven’s gates to all who accept
Your work on the cross. Thank You, Lord.

December 22nd, 2018

Grunt Work

Numbers 4:15, 20 “After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy furnishings and all the holy articles, and when the camp is ready to move, the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. The Kohathites must not go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die” (NIV).

Observation: God was giving instruction to prepare the contents of the Holy of Holies for moving from one camp to another. There were precise steps to be followed for the dividing curtains, the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of the Presence, and such smaller articles as dishes, lampstands, and the gold altar. These were to be wrapped in skins of sea cows, covered variously with cloths of blue, scarlet, or purple, then spread over with more sea cow skins; definitely not a job for two men and a truck.

Application: What a job! These were a nomadic people, so it’s not hard to imagine the scope of the task in conducting repeated moves. In Exodus 3:4 I am reminded that Aaron’s two oldest priestly sons had fallen dead after making an unauthorized offering. So when God warned the Kohathites not to look at or even touch the holy articles on pain of death, they surely took His admonition seriously. But how fair was that?

The Kohathite clan from the tribe of Levi numbered 2,750 men who were between 30 and 50, the required age to do this work (Exodus 4:35-36). Does it seem fair that a clan many thousand strong should be expected to labor in such blind obedience? Imagine the ignominy of being assigned to carry around items you had no hand in packing, and which you could neither touch nor view: the grunt work of the Gospel. Born into Levi’s tribe, anointed for service to God, this clan was nonetheless assigned an anonymity against which most of us would rebel.

Seriously now, when I dream about making a significant kingdom impact, doesn’t the mind incline toward more glamorous roles? A foreign missionary preaching to thousands; a doctor to the poor; a pregnancy center volunteer…aren’t these the kinds of roles I would rather imagine behind God’s grooming of me? But the Kohathites were expected to spend their most productive years without ever laying eyes on the ministry tools they were destined to lug around the Sinai. And woe to any who stole so much as a glance at the treasured objects.

What is it about my heart that causes me to imagine that I ought to have more important roles? In whose eyes are they more important? For all their anonymity, Scripture records exactly how many Kohathite men there were. God knows every one of them intimately. And He knows me.

Prayer: O Lord, how unlike a Kohathite I have been. Forgive me for not gladly accepting Your assignment. Have Your way with me, Lord.

December 21st, 2018

Precipice of Decision

Acts 24:25 “When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (NIV)

Observation: Paul had been arrested and sent to the provincial capital of Caesarea to defend himself against false charges of initiating a temple riot. The high priest and his lawyer came to testify against Paul, who rebutted each of the charges. Felix, who had been Roman Governor of the region for a number of years and would have thus been acquainted with the Christian sect, heard Paul’s case. Scripture says that as Felix listened to Paul testify of Christ and of such tenets of the faith as righteousness, self-control, and coming judgment, he became fearful and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”

Application: “When I find it convenient….” Think how effective Paul must have been in his testimony of Jesus Christ. He had specifically stated that he believed “everything that agrees with the Law and…the Prophets” (Acts 24:14), so he was certainly no revolutionary. On the other hand, the claims of Christ concerning such things as righteousness, self-control and the coming judgment were profoundly revolutionary because they strike to the heart of my standing before God.

Felix, while not a believer, was nonetheless under conviction of truth, and discovered that his own heart testified against him. So he did what I must do when confronted by the claims of Christ: he made his choice. He sent truth away and embraced instead the accusing mob.

I who love Christ may find it astonishing that any could refuse His magnificent gift, but the sad reality is that I have friends and family who have done exactly that. Carried to the precipice of decision by the Holy Spirit, they chose poorly and died in their sin. I am left to mourn their fate, their stupidity, their pride that motivated their descent into darkness. But there are two questions that need never burden my heart: Was God fair, and did I do enough?

God is above all else the just One. The Bible is clear that, like Felix, none will perish without the individual opportunity to respond to the claims of Christ. The yawing maw of hell will receive only those who have chosen to go there. Did I do enough? What a deceptive question! I am called to live in such a way that my life matches His words, but I must never confuse my personal walk, which is to be motivated for His pleasure, with responsibility for another’s decision. My words and life do indeed testify, but no one in the reigning honesty of hell will ever be able to accuse my immature testimony as the reason for their eternal anguish.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, there is such freedom in remembering what part is Yours, and what is mine. Cause me to live my life in ways pleasing to You; that will be more than enough.

December 20th, 2018

A Useful Test

Leviticus 26:5, 10 “Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will be eating all the food you want…You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you have to move it out to make room for the new” (NIV).

Observation: Leviticus 26 is the first place to extensively describe contrasts between those who walk in obedience and those who do not. It begins with God saying that if his people would follow His decrees, He would send rain in its season causing the ground to yield its crops and the trees to produce fruit. As if to drive home the idea of a never-ending provision, He said the harvests would be so plentiful that they’d have to move out the old to make room for the new; one harvest would extend to the next, and they would never know hunger.

Application: Think of it: a supply so abundant I would never go hungry! A God-given buffet stretching as far as the eye can see, through every season of need. In this passage, the idea of His provision is that I will find myself living under His constant, generous outpouring, like being surrounded by snowflakes in an unending blizzard.

Do I really believe that? Was it good for the Hebrews but holds no application to my life today? If I say I believe His promise, does my lifestyle put the lie to my words? It is one thing for the poor of the earth to trust in such promises. They have no opportunity to step into my shoes, accumulating for themselves great stores of capital from which to live. The poor have little choice but to rely on a daily provision—manna falling from heaven or an agency handout.

But I who am rich ought to consider if, by laying up more wealth than needed for my daily supply, I have begun inching toward a role of self-provision that God intended for Himself. Have I crossed a line from being God-dependent, to the cultish view that I will become a god myself?

Here is a useful little test. Settle into a quiet place and imagine that all your capital assets have suddenly been taken away: 401(k), life insurance, nice home, well-paying job. Understand that you are now utterly dependent upon God for all daily provision. What passes through mind and heart in that moment? Is it terror and fear, or is there a deep assurance that He will keep all His promises? Does the mind begin to nervously consider whether I have kept my end of the bargain, keeping the first commandment first in all things? Am I glad to throw myself upon Him for every need?

Prayer: Father, this useful test has helped to reveal the focus of my own confidence. Forgive me, Lord, for saying I trust You, yet living another way. Make me into a delighted dependent of Your outpouring.

December 19th, 2018

How Could God Have Gotten It So Wrong?

Leviticus 25:23 “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (NIV).

Observation: God here reiterated His ownership of everything. Knowing that a Year of Jubilee would occur on a fixed, fifty-year schedule became part of the basis for calculating a property’s purchase price. Carrying this even further, a poor man who sold property retained the right to redeem the property at any time (Lev. 25:25). If he remained poor and couldn’t come up with the price of redemption, at least in the Year of Jubilee he knew he would get the land back.

Application: What an astonishing concept, this Year of Jubilee, as it is in such profound conflict with our modern way of approaching life and possessions. I buy land “permanently.” I work hard to buy houses I’m so committed to keeping that I will even joke that “they’ll have to carry me out of here on a stretcher.” I give my life to accumulating capital, whether in the form of real estate, retirement plans, businesses, or whatever. There could hardly be a more profound difference between God’s financial system in Leviticus, and the way I, and most everyone I know, live our lives today. I wonder, how could God have gotten it so wrong?

What He seems to be presenting is the idea of a profound difference between capital and income. All capital, He says, is His. Land could be purchased temporarily but always with the price discounted for the number of years left until the next Jubilee. At some level, God’s approach seems sensible to me. I understand that death is the great leveler; I hold things temporarily in the sense that there are no U-Hauls hitched to hearses. But what if I could take it with me? Would I? Well, sure. I worked hard for my stuff. I deserve it, and besides, isn’t there always the possibility that the place Jesus has prepared for me may not be in the neighborhood I merit?

One of the most profound privileges of watching my wife’s slow descent into paralysis and death was to realize we were both losing interest in things formerly important: her ability to drive, to dream together about vacations, wearing “just-right” makeup and physical adornment. Political victories, favorite TV programs, all the accoutrements of life gradually extinguished as we contemplated her coming Jubilee, her time of returning to her creator and original owner. And I constantly wondered: How much of God had we missed by living as though He had gotten it all wrong in Leviticus?

Prayer: Father, You have been so constant, so unchanging in Your efforts to get me to live as though You owned it all. Forgive me for living so casually in the midst of Your clear principles. Thank You for finally breaking through my hard heart to make the First Commandment first.