Before It Happens: “Preparing for Coming Days of Judgment” – Joel 1

What does your Bible look like inside? On careful inspection, if we checked the Bibles of many people who are active in the local church in America (I am speaking of those who study of God’s Word at least in their church services), we may observe a pattern others have noted before us. The text of many Jesus followers is well worn. Some parts are underlined and have scribbles in the margins. Some are filled with colored markings and symbols in an unintentional “code’ that no one but the owner and the Spirit of God may fully perceive. Yet, even in these cases, often there is a pristine portion of their Bible – a section somewhere between the books of Song of Solomon and the opening of Matthew – that appears cleaner. This section is often in near mint condition, with gilded edges still gleaming, despite the condition of the rest of the Bible in which they are found. Perhaps it is because there is so little preaching, as many pastors have openly admitted they struggle with how to bring the Hebrew prophets into the modern pulpit.

Part of the reason may be that we don’t understand the true function of the prophets and their writings. We may read their words and they strike us as vengeful or angry (with all that “God will bring fire and judgment” talk) – and that doesn’t match our understanding of God’s loving character and His general way of doing things. Some believers have made up their mind that the God of Israel was somehow transformed to a warmer and nicer version of Himself when Jesus came (as recorded in the record of the Gospels). Frankly, that is nonsense. God doesn’t change and doesn’t need to change. Perhaps the real issue is, that we haven’t taken enough time to carefully consider Who our God is, and make a true attempt to understand the truth of what the prophets provide as spokesmen of His grace. They weren’t angry – they were giving sharp warnings because people were haplessly but swiftly approaching a perilous cliff in their nation. The fact is that when you are trying to stop a tragedy, your words may often sound shrill and impatient. As we open to the beginning of the recorded words of the Prophet Joel for this lesson, I trust the Spirit of God will make clear this truth…

Key Principle: God’s prophetic warnings are a function of His grace. Those who snub warning eventually suffer judgment by their own choice.

If you are patient, that truth will show itself from our text. Before we begin to investigate the text, I want to remind you of how we got where we are in our churches regarding prophecy and its part of our Scripture diet. Honestly, there are several problems that naturally arise in the modern church when trying to preach or teach the prophets. In fact, I asked some friends who serve in pastoral roles why we don’t do more with the prophets from the pulpit, and they offered some helpful observations.

Honestly, it is hard to make the message of God’s eventual judgment all that helpful and practical to the struggling Christian. Today’s church is bent on practical life preaching and God-help strategies. I am not commenting on that truth here – just observing it. One pastor explained why he has largely skipped speaking on and teaching from the prophets. He noted (my paraphrase):
Sometimes I preach from a specific prophecy (say, concerning the coming of Messiah) and trace the promise to the eventual fulfillment in God’s story. To bring home some sort of personal application, I try to remind the congregation that prophecy shows the veracity of God’s Word and the faithfulness of God’s character.

My point is: You can trust God. He speaks; then He does exactly what He said He would do. Occasionally it is good, but it isn’t a very deep observation of the text.

He said, “I read over my notes, and if the text of my message seems dry in the study, I am sometimes honestly tempted to “spice up the story” and make it appear more relevant by offering some of my own thoughts on possible connections and even, on occasion (I admit) speculative end-times scenarios to help hearers see relevance for their lives today – because being relevant has become very prized in pulpit communication. This is a constant danger, because I want people to stay with me in the presentation and not sleep off the sermon! Because of these dangers, I spend less time preaching the prophets. When I DO, I tend to tell a story about the writer’s life and make parallels between a follower of God long ago and the hearers today. That helped me feel like I wasn’t skipping the prophets, but I mostly AM skipping them. I am not really explaining the message of the books themselves, and the congregation doesn’t appreciably grow in their knowledge of those books of the Bible.

I suspect that anyone who teaches the Bible has at least a little sympathy for what that pastor authentically shared of his own experience.

I mention the lack of time spent in these sections, and the three different natural bends of teachers of the Word to encourage you as we move forward. This study will require something of you in patience. That isn’t a veiled warning of a “boredom zone” ahead, it is rather a recognition that we are on unfamiliar ground in many circles today. You may be a student of prophecy, but most people aren’t today. We need to deliberately stretch ourselves. We need to speak the whole counsel of God’s Word. Some of the parts of Scripture have easy individual application and offer deep encouragement. Prophetic portions offer something very different. Without the words of the prophets, some of the lofty view of the Awesome Majesty of the Heavens would be barely touched, and a powerful and resounding call for us to tremble at His voice would barely be heard.

Prophets help us do more than satisfy ourselves that God knows where everything is going. They challenge us to bow before the One True Judge.

They call us to examine whether our outer practices are incongruent with our inner beliefs. They bring back a sense of the power and splendor of the God we serve.

There are examples of all the styles of preaching in the Word, if you look for them. When Paul stood on Mars Hill before philosophers, he carefully reasoned for the faith. When Jesus spoke of the Galilee hillsides, He pulled the minds of the people into the simplest imagery of daily life. When the Apostle Peter rose to defend God’s work in the men on the Day of Pentecost he launched into a full-throated support of the prophetic power of God before the crowd – and three thousand responded.
What the prophets of old offer is something more than mere learning about God. Think of the long, thin finger of Nathan the prophet stuck into the face of David as he uttered the words, “You are the man.” The value of the prophetic word is that it can be like an arrow to the heart in a way that few other portions can.

I am deliberately beginning slowly to introduce the prophets, because our next studies will have some unusual qualities as we work the text from a book of the Minor Prophets. Take a few moments with me to open our Bibles to the book of the Prophet Joel. The book is after Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and is the twenty-ninth book of thirty-nine in the common collection of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we turn for this prophet’s record, think with me about the painful process observed by a prophet of God, as they tell of the end times.

We must recognize that God made us emotional beings, and we gravitate toward positive emotion – but that isn’t the only kind we need to be able to reckon with.

We need to look at the painful parts of judgment to understand the glory of grace and rescue of redemption. As we open our reading, stand in front of a field that was stripped by the voracious appetite of locusts.

Joel offered his opening words in three parts:

• He called people to see what was happening as unique.
• He called specific kinds of people to respond to the scene.
• He called people to recognize the urgency of their time.

As you read his words, some will notice (because of their edition of the Bible) the way they are placed indented in paragraphs. The translator wanted you to know the words are lyrics. They were poetry. They were the record of a sad song written by a broken-hearted man who could barely believe what his eyes were seeing.

Look at the beginning of the three parts of his message from the first chapter…

First, he called the people to attention by telling them they have never seen anything like what was happening in front of them.

Joel 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2 Hear this, O elders, And listen, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this happened in your days Or in your fathers’ days? 3 Tell your sons about it, And let your sons tell their sons, And their sons the next generation.

If there was a word for what he was trying to say concerning the scene he was about to explain, it was: “Unbelievable!” He told the people and the elders who led them to stop moving and look at the picture God showed him. He went on to describe the scene.

Joel 1:4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.

Whether this was a vision in the realm of the spirit or an actual event on the landscape is not known. Whether the locusts were insects of a field or the imagery of an invading human army is not known. Whether this already happened or was about to take place is not known.

What is clear and certain is this: The man was overwhelmed by the scene of massive devastation – and he wanted them to see how obvious the marks of it were.

Some of us know exactly what he felt. We cannot believe that in a mere five years, our country has deliberately overhauled the most basic unit of mankind – the family. We have made perilous moves swiftly, based on the flimsiest testing of where that will lead our society. We are no longer drifting, we are swiftly moving with a furious current toward a rejection of one thing after another connected to Judeo-Christian practice. Left-over images of biblical texts on court rooms across the country are stark reminders of the violent lurching to the left.

In the Book of Joel, most scholars note that an invasion was approaching that would eventually devastate Judah – and this was a call to prepare and repent in hopes that God may withhold or reduce the judgment. Perhaps the locust invasion was a dramatic way for God to warn them of another kind of invasion just over their horizon view. Like the prophecy – the locusts were a symbolic warning given in GRACE.

Joel’s essential question was, “Have you ever known any invasion this severe?” (1:2)

That should have given them pause, instead of letting their eyes adjust to the dark setting. In fact, one of the common commands of the Law was for Israel to constantly rehearse her history before her children (cp. Dt. 4 and 6) in order to help them avoid the hand of God’s judgment.

The second part of the opening prophecy was separated into calls of specific kinds of people to face what was coming in God’s judgment.

• God’s first call was for those who were dull-minded as one would be with wine overindulgence to awaken (1:5).

Joel 1:5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.

The call came for Israel’s dullard drunkards to awake from their lulled, compromised and sinful state. They were to open their eyes to see that judgment was at hand.

One of the ways people deal with staying in a wrong state and not facing God is DIVERSION – they simply focus on something else.

There is a natural tendency in some of us when we are facing hard times to attempt to ignore the coming results or divert our attention to something that will help us cope with the pain of what we see. In fact, we have noted before the term for “turning off the mind” is called ‘AMUSEMENT’ and it has become for many a consuming passion.

This is a danger of a Christian population that focused more on how the church can meet their needs than how it can honor God’s call. We can end up with sermons that make us feel good about things when the actual call of God is to see how perilous they are becoming. ALL our teaching isn’t warning – but let’s admit that in some places the idea of warning NEVER rises to the pulpit.

• His second call was to those who were planning in ignorance of the impending doom.

Joel 1:8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.

Israel was to drape herself in the clothing of sadness and brokenness. The point was that while some could divert, amuse, or dull their minds, others made plans for celebrations and paid no attention to the impending troubles because they were unaware of them. They were the CLUELESS. When peril came, the power of judgment crushed them like the waves of mourning as their dreams were dashed against the rocks of reality.

We live in a time when people call, year after year, for every problem to be solved by their government – even when the truth is their government is up to its neck in debt. Freedoms are casually surrendered as we ask one new administrator after another to step in a help us solve some difficulty or injustice. It isn’t bad to have someone test the food in the packages we will consume or make sure the tires on the airplanes in which we travel have been made to certain specifications.

Government isn’t bad – it’s necessary. The problem is it neither CAN nor SHOULD be called on to feed, clothe and care for us in every situation. When we reward people for lack of preparation for difficulty, we discourage the next group from even trying to sacrifice and prepare.

Joel’s imagery of the bride, dressed and waiting for a groom that will not come because he has died – reminds us there is a process of mourning a severe loss that we are impatient in our culture to understand – but it has a purpose in the fallen world. We weren’t designed to face death, but God added “waves of grief” as a means of regaining equilibrium.

His point was this: Loss is most powerful in people who never truly considered it could happen to them.

The issue with the people was one of thorough forgetfulness that led them to clueless insensitivity. At one time, they knew evil, in principle, would be judged. By then, they knew their nation had plunged into evil. Yet they didn’t connect the problem with the result. They simply made plans for the next celebration and hoped for more years of good harvest – hoping against hope that things would go well.

The people hardest hit in the downturn of a market are those who have forgotten to consider the possibility.

The deepest despair comes from those who have honestly forgotten the risks of living in a broken world. In short, Israel was about to be walloped and some had never considered the possibility that God was actually going to judge as He repeatedly warned.

This is the danger of a church who has taught a generation of Christians that God’s chief interest is in their health, wealth, and happiness. They never considered the possibility the things that have happened to Iraqi or Syrian Christians could happen to them as well. Troubles, brutal martyrdom, and a tested faith are things they believe belong to another time and place.

• God’s third call was to priests and ministers (1:9) to lament the cutting off of the provisions for the spiritual life of the nation.

Joel 1:9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The field is ruined, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails.

While some were DULL and others were CLUELESS, those who oversaw the spiritual life of the nation should have been able to see without blur that things were heading in a bad direction. Joel beckoned SPIRITUAL LEADERS (those with an “elder” view” of the community) to step up and recognize the signs. A community elder is one who acts as a father or patriarch over more than his own biological family – but becomes a protector and provider for that greater community.

Let’s say it this way: When you serve God by serving His people, you think differently about the effects of sin on the society.

Those who sit in the counseling room, work at equipping of Jesus followers, and craft instruction for God’s people from His Word, are often “early adopters” of the message of the effects of bad decisions. There are some in our society who STILL don’t connect the dots between our decisions and their outcome as a people.

When we opened “no fault divorce,” we removed both legal roadblocks and public stigma to the decoupling of a marriage. Today, people are even insulted if you use terms like a “failed marriage” because they feel that is judgmental toward their situation – as if one of the natural options of people coming to the altar and declaring their commitment was an escape hatch.

Here is what I know. In the history of marriage, there have always been troubled people and difficult pairings. The profound difference in our time is that it is easy to get out of the problem without working it out – and the world around you will help you deflect any sense of responsibility for that event. Out of compassion for people in difficult marriages, we legislated our way into the mess of meaninglessness at the altar. The children torn up by these broken homes now fill our schools as a broken and bitter reminder that we made it easy on one person often by devastating another. They live together, because they don’t see the point of the commitment we call marriage, and we shouldn’t wonder why.

When our courts decided the people needed protection from the state invading their privacy so much that a woman had the unrestrained right to end the life in her womb, many didn’t connect that decision to the brutishness that has now become part of the modern American voice.

• They didn’t recognize with equal fervor the child within her to be also that of her partner – his rights were effectively muzzled in that termination of life.
• They didn’t calculate the loss of 57 million Americans in a single generation to the economy.
• They didn’t think through how human life itself, no longer sacrosanct, would diminish clarity of honored values of our society.

In a new way, motherhood was separated from fatherhood, and unborn children became throwaway dolls, removed in bags and treated like refuse. We no longer argue about if it is human life, but argue today whether we have a right to have tax dollars rid me of an inconvenient child in the womb. Politicians call for this without pausing to observe how far we have fallen from the image of tenderness that was once associated with the womb.

Some claim our pulpits shouldn’t address things like divorce, so called “same sex marriage” or abortion. They look at those social issues as merely political and judicial. They don’t get it – because they don’t understand the elder view. Those of us who know God’s Word and teach it, carry a special wound in the society for the self-mutilation that comes from our collective mutiny against God. We deal with the broken-hearted children, and we try to train those whose thinking has been so skewed that “right” and “wrong” are no longer clear.

The Bible is unequivocal and clear – morality is not a social construct.

Man didn’t crawl out of primordial ooze, invent a God, and then promptly NOT follow Him so they could invent guilt. That doesn’t make sense because it didn’t happen. Men didn’t invent God. He created us. Exacting design doesn’t flow haplessly from random happenings. You know it, and so does every observant person who isn’t bent on doing life according to their own rules.

Closer to home, we need to remember our own history in days like these as well. Our country simply wasn’t founded without a profound connection between a specific faith view of the world and human responsibility. It isn’t by happenstance that our Congress had a chaplain and our buildings were built across the land with Bible verses etched into them. The Bible men and women were sworn into office with wasn’t just a décor statement. We come from a long and detailed history of men who knew that our rights and responsibilities were based on the fact that all of us have the same Creator. They wrote carefully that none of us is more important than the other because they reckoned that we all will eventually kneel to the same God. That story may be ignored in our halls of learning, but our history is literary and stubbornly stained on parchments with ink. The only hope of those who desire to mute the voices of our fathers is to fill the heads of the young with nonsense and hope they don’t grow up and get wise by doing things like reading the documents for themselves.

• A fourth call was for farmers to recognize the shame of losing everything in an act of God’s disfavor (1:11).

Joel 1:11 Be ashamed, O farmers…

The FARMERS were presented as those who knew deep disappointment. Perhaps no one truly understands the sense of hopefulness for the crops like the farmer; conversely, no one feels the depth of the disappointment in the stripping of the land. People attached to the land become more sensitive to their impact on it. They who worked the land and saw it destroyed weren’t to be MAD, as though God has abandoned them – but ASHAMED as if THEY had abandoned God.

When we see judgment clearly, it will not be a mark against God, but a mark against us. Our modern jails aren’t a statement about our contemporary judges as much as they are statement about our growing contention to live inside the boundaries of the law.

• A fifth call was for the vinedressers to wail (1:11) for the loss of the vines, fig trees and other fruit trees. They were to see their joy withered as the trees melted away (1:12).

Joel 1:11b “…Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.

VINE DRESSERS were a subset of farmers who acted more as attendants. They didn’t plant the vines as much as tend them. They were to grapes what daycare workers are to children. People who tend and care for the fruit cultivation have a very specific “parenting” view of the vines and trees they attend.

The third (last) part of Joel’s opening urgently called people to stop acting like the time was far off and get serious with God right away.

The call starts with the clergy and warns on them to get serious before they expect the nation to get on board.

Joel 1:13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

God’s worship leaders were told to change what they are wearing, and put on the symbols of mourning so all could see them. They were told to pay attention to the provisions of God being diverted from the temple. They were called to publicly call the people to fasting, public repentance, and mourning. The warning of judgment connected to public acceptance of egregious errors started with God’s leaders. Also note that God didn’t just tell them to “get sad” and look somber before the masses. He gave them their message: God will not let what we are doing go on forever – His day is coming. He isn’t playing around, and He is right on schedule to do what He promised.

Judgment cannot be avoided by ignoring it.

Joel 1:15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

God intended the people to notice the time of judgment was getting close:

• First, they were to see their prosperity evaporating.

Joel 1:16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes…

• Second, they were to notice the sobriety of those who studied God’s Word and taught them from it.

Joel 1:16b “…Gladness and joy from the house of our God

They were to reckon the natural disruptions in the earth as part of the tremors of coming judgment.

Joel 1:17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle wander aimlessly because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.

They weren’t supposed to call for a new legislature so much as drop to their knees. They weren’t supposed to look for help from the king as much as from the King of all Kings!

Joel 1:19 To You, O Lord, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You; for the water brooks are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

It wasn’t enough for the temple to keep the schedule as usual. The people were to be awakened to the voice of the Lord concerning the days ahead. They should be clear, pronounced and deliberate. God said:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion …

Why? Were they to be depressed while the world was rejoicing? The point was they were to show the warning before the world around them connected the dots between their sinful violations and God’s coming of judgment.

God’s leaders were, and are, to make clear the hour is late and the warning is becoming more and more obvious.

God’s prophetic warnings aren’t as much a function of His judgment as they are of His grace.

He didn’t tell us what was coming because He savors judgment, but in order that we might step out individually and stand with Him against the normative trend of our day. When God called believers to be HOLY as He is HOLY – the call was to be distinct as He is not like any other.

If you blend well in the company of lost men and women – something is wrong with your distinctiveness.

If people note the difference in you and it makes them uncomfortable, you may be the warning sign they most need to turn before they plunge into the broken road ahead. Don’t forget…

Those who close their ears to the pronouncement will eventually suffer God’s judgment by their own choice.

If you took the time to read the last three chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you would surely note four powerful truths that emerge from looking closely at the final judgment scene called the “Great White Throne” Judgment. You would note:

• THE IDENTITY OF THE JUDGE: the offended Son of God
• THE ABSENCE OF AN ADVOCATE: sinners stand fearfully alone
• THE FINALITY OF THE VERDICT: no appeal is possible
• THE SEVERITY OF THE SENTENCE: Eternal separation from God into torment becomes real for countless people

Looking over the edge into that prophecy of the future, we have a responsibility to articulate the warning to those who do not know Christ as their Savior – and will only know Him as their judge. It need not happen. The peril is both clear and obvious.

The warning is a function of God’s GRACE.

• When you work hard for a day’s pay- we call that a wage.
• When you compete well for a trophy – we call that a prize.
• When you achieve recognition for a high level of service – we call that an award.

When you didn’t work for it, didn’t compete for it, didn’t accomplish it and never could even if you tried – we call that a gift of grace. Come to Him today, receive His forgiveness, and avert standing in judgment for your sin.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2)

Stand Your Ground: “A Day with the Master Artist” – Mark 4:1-5:20

In Mark 1-3 Jesus demonstrated a successful stance against the constant attacks of the enemy. I believe it won’t surprise you to know that if you keep reading the Gospel account, Jesus continued to be attacked and continues to achieve victory. Spiritual warfare is real. It is happening now just as it was then. Standing your ground is, in part, an issue of identifying the enemy’s strategy and practicing for the day he turns the darts on you. Yet, that isn’t ALL there is to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. The story continued…

In the account we call Mark’s Gospel, most of us believe we are reading the organization of the earthly work of Jesus that was originally preached by the Apostle Peter and then carefully recorded and spread to the churches by a leader in the younger generation than the Apostles, one named John Mark. He was a contemporary of Timothy, and a follower of Paul and the other original missionary groups. Mark emphasized the WORK of Jesus, and if you follow his account closely you will see how the Master accomplished His mission, and (by example) how God works in our lives to shape us to be like Jesus.

I have a confession to make as we begin: I cannot sculpt, nor can I use modeling clay to make anything anyone else would call “art” but I love to watch it being done. It is fascinating to see an artist take some lumps of refined earth and make them into something beautiful. If we can, I would like you to observe an artist making clay into the representation of a young woman.

(During video) If you watch closely, you will notice that in order to make the bust of this young woman the artist worked in three deliberate steps:

• First, she started with a rounded base approximating the head and added to that base some lumps that built up the underlying structure.

• Second, the artist pressed in or cut away any additional material that was not desired. That “extra” would have marred the face and shape – so it was taken away.

• Third, the artist carefully and gently smoothed the surface, healing any tiny breach while filling over any wrinkle. By this step the artist allowed the material to take its final shape.

This isn’t an art seminar, but I want you to consider something – this is the same way God adds to our life truth as He models us to be like Jesus. He puts us into situations where we can gain truth from Him, then scrapes across our life with troubles to remove the excess. Finally, if we allow Him to do it, He shapes us with His own artistic hand. Let me show you an example from Mark 4 and 5. Remember the underlying truth…

Key Principle: Believers are shaped by three important works from the Master: Divine instruction (adding), daily problems (scraping) and God’s dramatic re-shaping power.

The day recorded by Mark started with a sermon, brought the disciples to fear for their safety, and ended with a shocking display of raw power… It was a day to remember…

First, let’s look at the teaching of Jesus that added truth to the disciple’s lives (4:1-34).

God doesn’t just call us and then start using us to give out His message. We are like the round clay with very little shape when we come to Him. He adds truth that helps us look more like the Master, and people who know us see the change in us as the truth is put on our lives. Let me show you an example in Jesus adding to the disciples long ago…

We are using the account that Mark collected of the teachings of Jesus to set up the day’s events. Remember, Jesus didn’t only say things once, and sometimes He repeated an illustration but changed its meaning – that was the way of teaching familiar to the crowds of that time. The text opened:

Mark 4:1 He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down, and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching…

Let’s make a quick note of three things:

• First, Jesus was already well-known and popular at the time of these teachings. This wasn’t His first sermon, and people knew His style and liked it very much.

• Second, let’s stipulate this was the dry season (because the rainy season was too cold and wet for a large crowd) and that it was early morning (since you can fry an egg on a rock in that area by mid-day in the dry season).

• Third, Jesus used a teaching method called a “mashal” or parable. This brought the truth of Heaven into bite-sized earthy chunks.

Five Truths

As we get into the meat of the teaching, Jesus taught five truths to His disciples.

Truth #1: The hearer is responsible for hearing.

Here is the first, a simple parable about a man throwing seed on the ground:

Mark 4:3 “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing: Some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In this teaching, Jesus referred to agriculture on terraces. The ground on the terrace covered a slope of bedrock. The edge had (and still has) a rocky wall filled with weeds and thorny bushes whose roots hold the wall fast. There is often a path through the center of the terrace used as a walkway by those passing through. The good seed would normally be cast between olive trees and yield varying amounts, depending on where the seed fell. Keep reading for a moment:

Mark 4:10 As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.” 13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?

Note the fact that when they got alone, they quizzed Jesus on WHY He was teaching in parables instead of plain speaking.

To understand His response, you must realize one of the most basic tendencies of a disciple is to leave following Jesus and work at figuring out Jesus.

Many of us are tempted to spend time counseling Jesus on how He should be running things. This was true at the beginning as well. The disciples didn’t fully appreciate Jesus’ choices for packaging the truths He put in front of them. Perhaps they fancied crowd-pleasing tidbits and tempting promises. That wouldn’t be unusual for a large crowd of this sort… but Jesus wanted to show them the people that don’t stick aren’t entirely the problem of presenter nor of the presentation – the recipient bore some responsibility to receive the truth openly.

Don’t forget that when you communicate God’s Word to people. Some won’t receive it, and it ISN’T your fault. They have to want to hear what God said in His Word.

It is worth noting that Jesus’ primary concern wasn’t to make His preaching as easy as it could have been. He expected something from the hearer – a heart open to Him! Let’s be clear: People have to surrender and engage, not pick through the words for self-serving promises.

The truth is we will accomplish more of our mission with 100 surrendered and engaged Jesus-followers than we ever could with 10,000 disengaged spectators or 1000 mildly-engaged fair weather friends.

Jesus made clear He wanted the crowd to follow, but only if they were willing to hear what He truly had to say and engage it in their lives! Don’t forget – the soil didn’t HEAR if it DIDN’T BEAR fruit. Look at His explanation:

Mark 4:14 “The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word, which has been sown in them. 16 In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

In the lesson, Jesus observed there were different kinds of people that were listening to Him:

• Hard Hearts: There were those who were present when the Word was sown, but they did not take it in at all. They came because someone told them to be there and they were not interested enough to allow the Word to sink in.

• Troubled Temporaries: There were those who seemed to respond to the message of Jesus, but they didn’t add a life of surrender to Him. In Jesus’ explanation, when the pains and problems of life or persecution rose, they didn’t think the message was worth sacrifice– so they bailed out.

• Choked Christians: Some follow, but they get distracted by demanding work in their child-rearing age and challenging golf tournaments in their retirement. They never seem to get around to making an impact with the message. They always meant to, they just didn’t do it.

• Harvest Christians: There are those who followed, surrendered and became fruitful in life.

In the end, Jesus said, “You are responsible for listening to the truth and letting it change your behavior.”

That is convicting, and piles on truth, but that wasn’t the whole sermon. That was just Jesus’ opening illustration! Mark continued:

Mark 4:21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In essence, Jesus told them an essential truth: the real and the fake would all eventually show themselves. No one can truly hide from God. He knows who is honestly surrendered and actually following. He knows who is not!

As a form, religion allows the unrighteous to act out in ways that temporarily cover their emptiness.

Yet, here is the truth: A relationship with an all-knowing God precludes faking it to the finish line. It is a really dumb idea to think we can trick God into thinking we have surrendered our life to Him when we haven’t.

Truth #2: When you truly grasp the truth, it changes you. If you didn’t change – the truth slipped past you.

Honestly, the end goal Jesus gave us isn’t to get people into the church to hear the truth but to get the truth into the church and send changed people into the world. Our prime turf of engagement isn’t under a steeple but in the town square. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t getting the mission Jesus sent us to fulfill. Mark continued:

Mark 4:24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Truth #3: The primary assignment of a Jesus isn’t to run around trying to measure the life and faith of other people (but we will be tempted to do it!).

In most every religious group, some feel called to run around and decide the faithfulness of others and offer a grade to ones that measure up and those who do not seem to meet their standard. Jesus wanted His followers to be introspective, but not obnoxious about the inspection of others. We must remember that when we create a standard of judgment, it is only valuable if we are truly living by it ourselves! The account went on:

Mark 4:26 And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

By way of reassurance, Jesus offered a word of deep encouragement to the disciples.

Truth # 4: Followers don’t need to understand how everything God does truly works (but they will often want to and claim to!).

He told them that the Kingdom was able to grow and become effective without the need for them to really know all the progressions involved because the process was as natural as vegetation growth. What a word for any of us who have dear ones that live far away from us – God can reach them and grow in them the Word planted long ago! We don’t have to understand WHO God will use or HOW; we just need to understand He is able. Jesus continued:

Mark 4:30 And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.” 33 With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

Truth #5: God often works to meet different ends than we are watching.

While the weed that was planted in the garden appears to have been a waste, it was really successful from the standpoint of the need of the birds! We have to recognize that Kingdom growth meets God’s ends, not always ours. Therefore we need to be humble. We may not be qualified to judge well what Jesus is doing in those around us.

That was a long day of teaching! Jesus added five truths to His followers and built up the base from which they could be formed to look like Him. The additions are the only way to form us to be more like Jesus. There is something else…

Second, look at the scraping that came with the troubles Jesus took His disciples through (4:35-41).

Scraping involves shrinking. It involves painful struggle. It isn’t pleasant, but it shapes us. Mark recorded and example:

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening came, He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. 37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. 38 Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” 39 And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. 40 And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”

Great teachers give students an opportunity to learn the truth by LEARNING ACTIVITIES. In this case, Jesus placed the disciples in an awkward and needy position to move their eyes from judging the current crowds to looking beyond the small world of their ministry to a lost world that struggled all around them in the grip of the evil one. He snapped them to attention by:

• Taking them where they felt unsure

• Giving them a problem while appearing unconcerned

• Letting them draw conclusions about His love: “Master don’t you care?”

• Solving their problem and amazing them

The point of the exercise was to get the men ready! God always has a point for our suffering, though we don’t often know what it is.

Why do “bad things” happen to “good people”? I can think of five reasons without really working very hard at it:

1) Sometimes it is the result of MY SIN.

Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

2) Sometimes it is because I live with choices of other sinners.

Romans 3:10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE...”

3) Sometimes it is because I live in a fallen world.

Romans 8:19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

4) Sometimes it is so that God can test me – that I may see who I am and who I am not.

Dt. 8:2 You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.

5) Sometimes it is so that God can prepare me to comfort others.

2 Cor. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

The disciples in this story were being prepared for a great lesson – that God has work going on well outside the places they considered. God is at work in a battle against both a brutal and vicious enemy, and a fallen world that does not work the way He created it to work. It is fallen and struggles against what God intended.

If only the disciples had recalled the work of God in the Exodus, they would have understood exactly what God was doing. He was giving them the rocking boat because that is what they NEEDED to get ready for what was coming.

More often than not, troubles come into our lives to set us up for the place God wants us to be effective if we will learn from our pain. The scraping of the artist pulls the extra from our shape and makes us more like our Master’s image.

Third, the artist transforms the work by smoothing the surface, allowing us to understand His re-shaping work (5:1-20).

In the case of Mark’s account, the disciples needed to see the transforming power of the Master to understand what He was doing IN THEM. Mark wrote:

Mark 5:1 They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. 2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, 3 and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones. 6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; 7 and shouting with a loud voice, he said, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore Yo u by God, do not torment me!” 8 For He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. 12 The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” 13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. 14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the “legion”; and they became frightened. 16 Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. 17 And they began to implore Him to leave their region. 18 As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. 19 And He did not let him, but He said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

The elements of the story present the “Perfect Storm” – a nightmare from the Jewish perspective:

• They went to an unclean area filled with pagans after dark (5:1).
• They were met by a demon-empowered man who was living in the constant defilement of tombs (5:2).
• He was uncontrollable with broken chains hanging from him (5:3-4).
• He was gashed and bleeding (5:5).
• He ran abruptly toward them (5:6).
• Demons spoke from his throat (5:7-8).
• Pigs were eating along the nearby slope (5:11).
• The healed man wanted to come home with them (5:18)!

The storm on the sea prepared the men to follow Jesus into the storm on the land – a struggle against barriers of fear to fight the enemy openly. Jesus was able to defeat the enemy’s minions, and the men saw the transforming power of Jesus.

In the end, these stories returned to the fight of Jesus in spiritual warfare against His enemy.

Step back and put the three pieces together:

• Jesus taught and added truth to them.

• Trouble scraped and extracted self-assurance from them.

• Transformation showed God’s ability to re-make people.

After I have followed Jesus for a long time, it is easy to forget how powerful, magnificent and life-changing time with Him truly is! Many of us have found ourselves secretly questioning what God is doing in our lives. We don’t like pain and we don’t want trouble. We are focused on the wrong things… Remember:

Believers are shaped by three important experiences: God’s instruction, life’s problems, and God’s shaping power.

Don’t kick against any of them – they are making you into what God intends you to be!

Second Chances: “The Move to Hope” – Ezra 10

Read the magazines and blogs on ministry today, and you will get a steady dose of two ideas: First, the church has not shown enough love to the world in the way we have reflected Jesus to them; and second, the western world is increasingly offended by our reflection of absolutes in the realm of morality– so we need to navigate sharing them with more care.

The best modern writers “thread a needle” to suggest we shouldn’t “abandon” any of our core beliefs, but we need to be more nuanced about how and when we share them. On first inspection, many in the church in America seem much more concerned with sensitivity than boldness, (both of which are Biblically demanded) but they seem more concerned with subtle influence of behavior than overt zeal communicated from a life powerfully transformed. That should be a matter of some concern for those who are paying close attention. We can so easily tilt too far in one direction.

The trend to sensitivity isn’t all bad, in fact there is much wisdom in it. I need to be reminded to be tactful and careful all the time! We must be prepared to present Jesus in a way that people can hear what we are saying, to be sure. We naturally shy away from the rude and overly blunt for good reason. Yet, there are times when I honestly question if that sentiment is an accurate portrayal of Jesus and the early church at all. I study the Bible. I study it a lot. I have read Jesus’ self-statements and His methods of ministry as revealed in the Gospels. I have walked the paths of the Apostle Paul and read every word of every letter carefully. Here is what I didn’t see: neither Jesus nor Paul seemed to project a greater concern about the possible offensiveness of their presentation to men than they did about the urgency for lost men’s souls and the need to clearly present critical the truths about God. The early church seemed to celebrate zeal and boldness for Jesus in the face of rising persecution. There appears to be a “disconnect” between the Holy Record and the modern authors.

Whatever happened to the call for ZEAL and the celebration of courage?

I took some time to read more carefully several authors in an attempt to understand what they were seeing that I simply wasn’t. What I found were several lines of argument – mostly framed by the notion that egregious violations from anecdotal Christian history should make us more careful about what we say and how we say it. Their line seems to be something like this: People who claimed Jesus in the past have sometimes been unbelievably unloving in their presentation of Him. That seemed true, so I took some time to ponder that as I reflected on a passage that is very tough to read if all the is true can be found in “syrupy compassion” (Ezra 10)…and the resulting study is today’s lesson.

God’s Word teaches that we must be compassionate, but we cannot make the world’s acceptance our chief goal.

We represent God as expressed in His Word. Where that Word conflicts with our modern, ever-shifting and easily wounded sensitivities, we must still speak clearly. We cannot be driven off message by those who ask us to modify God’s Word to be less offensive to them. A message that presents men and women as broken and lost in sin was never, and will never be, truly popular.

Let us be very clear: Compromise of a believer’s call to stand for the revealed truths of God’s Word for the sake of displaying compassion to the world is wrong, for it places the world’s affirmation above loyalty to our Creator.

In the short run, it may make our faith more palatable to rebels, but it won’t please the God that called us to and for Himself. It won’t represent Him as He truly is. In fact, the lessening of the standards of God’s revealed will can never produce a people more sensitive to God – only people more sensitive to being accepted by a lost world. That isn’t our goal. An ambassador is much more concerned with accurately relating the message of the one who sent him than of being welcomed by his audience. Believers have to keep that in mind. We want to be winsome, but acceptance by the world cannot and must not be our exclusive concern. We want to connect emotionally with lost people because it is dark where they are – but we don’t want to offer them a blanket of comfort to dwell in darkness.

I mention all this because our passage is about a time when God commanded something He never did before, and has never articulated since. This is a “one off” deal, where God made clear that when His intentions were not followed, and people compromised on what He told them to do – the only right way “back” was to take drastic action. Remember our principle from the first part of this message…

Key Principle: There is a process to leading people from disobedience into a right standard.

How do we redirect people when they have done something God said MUST NEVER be done?

The scene was one of disobedient Israelites that inter-married with local tribes-people, violating God’s command to remain distinct from such a practice. They were to define marriage “for them” only inside of the tribes of Israel. It didn’t matter what the world did; that was their God-placed limitation. Ezra came to the land, and the intermarriage was shared with him. He fell on his face before God and wept for the magnitude of the violation, and the hubris of leaders who accepted it. Last time we walked through the heavy-hearted response. We ended with the “refocus” on HOPE.

First, Ezra refocused confession toward HOPE (10:1-2)

The beginning is confession of sin – clear, broken and concise…

Ezra 10:1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.

Talk about a place where “spin” wasn’t happening – I love the fact the verses show Ezra talking straight about the violation. He cried for chapter nine, but now it was time to be decisive.

Ezra attempted to start the wave of complete repentance. He was not putting on a show for the people around him, but rather deliberately falling before the Lord and asking him for much needed mercy. A contrite heart draws others toward God, while a self-centered heart deflects glory from God. Ezra did not wait for others to follow, but lived his life before the Lord, and others saw it for what it was and were moved.

While most people wept bitterly, two leaders stepped forward, spoke with promise, and hope about the future. It wouldn’t help to wallow in guilt and despair if they could not offer the earnest expectation that people can change their behavior, and experience God’s grace. The call to repentance isn’t simply a call to an end of wrong behavior, but a call to a new shower of grace and an invigorated new walk with God.

Look at the two elements of it in verse two:

• First, there is the admission of guilt: “We have been unfaithful to defining our fences where God put them!”
• Second, there is a call to hope: “God can renew us!”

These two ideas are at the heart of our message to men and women walking in error. We do not explain away the “error” in complexity and compassion – we define right and wrong with the clarion ring of the God’s command. We don’t END with the violation – but with the path to God. The path to the Holy One always leads through humble admission and a request for undeserved favor.

Second, Ezra called on the people to openly commit to difficult CHANGE (10:3-12).

Guilt leads to wallowing in pain while godly sorrow leads to deliberate life change… Without change, hope is an illusion. Things don’t get better until people walk into God’s arms admitting they have been straying…

Ezra 10:3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act.

True leaders took up the matter before the country. It was the responsibility of the leadership, but the people needed to commit to stand behind them. It is worth noting that there are times when even the leader is so impacted by the weight of the decision, that paralysis sets in. Nothing motivates the heart of a leader more than followers encouraging him or her to stand for truth — and making a statement of loyalty to God’s purposes in the process.

The leader didn’t run ahead – he brought the people with him. He made sure the commitment was to God’s Word and not simply to him. Because a godly leader is not asking people to follow them apart from the restrictions of God’s Word, the leader can be bold and direct about expecting obedience. Ezra expected the people to make an open promise to do right — and any godly mature leader can do no less. We cannot sanction wrong out of compassion, nor can we make people feel good about denying God’s Word in their lives.

Ezra 10:5 Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.

He was not content to simply address the problem before the people; he continued to be brokenhearted about it. It is the responsibility of the leader to move people past the problem, but that does not mean the leader will not suffer personally the setbacks of facing the problem. Ezra was a man, and as such he was subject to the pain and sorrow that anyone who counsels people out of sin choices in their life can recognize.

Ezra 10:6 Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.

The people needed to be led to the point of decision and change. One of the expectations on them needed to be a specific time schedule. Left open-ended, people are inclined put off making difficult commitments forever. Ezra chose a three-day time frame, based on the counsel of the leaders about him. Travel time, and other considerations were no doubt discussed.

Ezra 10:7 They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. 9 So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.

Ezra clearly defined the expectation because people cannot follow an expectation they do not understand. It was his job to make clear the application of God’s rules. The people needed to face their wrong, and take the tough medicine required to right the wrong. Thankfully, the people agreed to do the tough thing.

Ezra 10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 “Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, “That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.

It is easy to read this without emotion, since the events were recorded twenty-five hundred years ago. Think about the scene. God’s command was violated, and the fence He originally called for needed to be set anew. That wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t optional either. We don’t get to be more compassionate than God, more understanding than the Almighty, more clear that the Absolute Light. He places the boundaries and we live within them.

Third, Ezra aced the internal tension and opposition (10:13-17).

There were some practical hurdles that needed to be considered (10:13-14). Ezra needed to listen carefully to the “push back” on the command.

Once everyone agreed that action needed to be taken, specific steps needed to be outlined in the work to make the appropriate responses. The people saw the greatness of the task in front of them, and decided that they would need more time to deal with the issue. This was not an attempt to deny fixing the problem, but a mere recognition that the process of overcoming the problem would be difficult.

Two Hurdles to Overcome

This “push back” was a potential land mine for Ezra. It is easy for the leader to misinterpret any question of clarification or problem presented as rebellion. It is important to recognize that there is a vast difference between opposition of the purpose and questions related to executing the goal. It’s important for us to allow people to explain the difficulties of completing the task, without implying that they are being disloyal or disobedient.

Ezra 10:13 But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter. 14 Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us.

A second problem arose that was equally difficult and just as potentially treacherous for Ezra. Inside the practical hurdles, some will be suspicious and insist the only plan is the original plan (10:15). A mature leader must know who stands in opposition, and when it is time to adjust the plan. I think we can understand why SOME would object to appearing to “loosen the standard” to allow more time. Some did in Ezra’s case – but not all…

Ezra 10:15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them.

I think it may be informative that these men included some from the list of Nehemiah 11, showing they apparently did not object to Ezra because he was moving to separate families – but because he wasn’t doing it QUICKLY ENOUGH. They were ON BOARD with the three day plan – but any extension looked like compromise to them.

Beloved, we who have been in the church for a long time need to be especially careful about this kind of attitude. When we see an issue as essential and agree on the prescription from the Word, it doesn’t mean the wrestling is over. We may understand the gravity of the sin, and want to see immediate action taken. That all sounds good. When practical considerations were considered, some compromise of the TIMING of the correction was immediately opposed. Why? Because it is appeared to be some kind of compromise; but it was not! Here is the danger: These men adopted a GUARDIAN SPIRIT over the flock – as though they alone knew what was best. They didn’t. Ezra knew what he was doing. God wasn’t un-pleased with his response to loosen the time frame. Ezra wasn’t compromising of truth, only timing. He was wise and kind all at the same time!

If the four men: Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbethai, had considered carefully all that Ezra already said and did before this easing of time – they could have trusted his intention not to be soft on sin, or allow the Word to be overlooked. After all, there was nothing in the narrative that suggested that Ezra didn’t see the sin clearly and the remedy clearly. They needed to trust their leader – and I believe they DID when the rest agreed to wait longer.

Fourth, the leaders made a careful inspection of compliance to the rule (10:16-44).

Someone once quipped, “You can expect what you inspect!” A specific process of investigation of families was engaged in order to decide whom the order applied to, and whether they were in fact following it. Part of facing opposition is taking people’s various positions and not mischaracterizing them or improperly grouping them with other views. We cannot expect people to understand exactly what they should do simply by offering edicts and commands. It is absolutely essential that God’s leaders be clear about God’s standards, then carefully but lovingly hold people accountable for their pledge to follow God – even when it is difficult.

Ezra 10:16 But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men who were heads of fathers’ households for each of their father’s households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. 17 They finished investigating all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. 10:18 Among the sons of the priests who had married foreign wives were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. 19They pledged to put away their wives, and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their offense. .. 44 All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children.

Before we leave this book and this problem, it is worth noting the final verse – and the emotional pain it represented. How tough it must have been to divide homes and impact children in this way! How “judgy” and “uncompassionate” that must have seemed to those who did not follow God. Even God’s followers would find that hard to swallow. That kind of reasoning isn’t “new” and “modern” – it is as old as the rebellion against God itself. Men think they know more than God. They think God doesn’t know what is best. That was at the heart of the first sin of Eve, and every sin of men and women since. We know better. We get the idea that God is “out of touch” or doesn’t really understand and care for my needs. It is wrong, but it is common thinking.

Seriously! God broke up families with children? That just seems mean!

The truth is that many people think they have a reason not to obey a command of God that seems too difficult or doesn’t seem to take into account their feelings.

We can only imagine that the division of these homes would’ve caused great pain to many people. We can hear the psychologists warning of how this will hurt the children for life, and how it would scar the land with broken people. NPR would have a field day with one expert after another who knew better than God what would be the best “for all concerned.”

There is nothing more arrogant than a man or woman who looks straight at the Creator and tells Him He doesn’t have the right to set the standards and should live with the fruits of our jumped fences.

Let’s be absolutely clear.

God had no desire to cause such pain — the pain should be placed on the bearer of the sin, not the bearer of the truth.

Because these families were united in a way that was utterly inappropriate, there was no way to alleviate their pain.

A recent case illustrates this point. A homosexual couple made their way into a local church, and subsequently came to Jesus as Savior. They were lovingly guided to divide their relationship because it did not conform to biblical standards. The church was not dividing something God put together, for God had never made the slightest hint that such a union was acceptable to Him. The fact that men declared such a marriage legal did not change the fact that the Scripture has spoken on this issue clearly. “What about the adopted children?” some immediately howled.

It didn’t occur to them how flawed their thinking was. They thought that by ignoring the biblical standards clearly outlined in the Scriptures, somehow things would work out BETTER. We need to guard our hearts against such poor thinking.

Turning from sin to God’s arms is where real hope should be focused. That’s the plan. There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.

• It doesn’t include ignoring the standard – but applying it.
• It doesn’t assume we are the judge of God’s standards – but the creature for whom they were made.
• It doesn’t sound like an angry weapon – but is given from a broken heart.

Second chances with God have always been about recognizing the truth of Who He is, who we are, and what life is truly about.

Grace pours out on the broken, not the arrogant. It is clear that the Bible beckons the prodigal’s return – while the modern university calls on us to see the prodigal’s life needs as the “new normal” while we move the moral fences to accept their way. We must see clearly: that is the rebel’s path and God has consistently called men and women to make the painful and difficult choice to do right after we have done wrong and grown accustomed to it.

How many times would you let someone make up the rules in YOUR marriage? Would you let them wander in and out of your bed between trysts? One woman remembers the days after making the tough choice to draw a line… Someone clipped this for me, and I am not sure where it originated, but the author was a woman named Melodie Miller. Listen to how hard it was for her to do what she needed to do to follow God…

“…Unfortunately, my children were at a young age when their father left our home, and they had to grapple with feelings of rejection and abandonment. The first few weeks were brutal. Comforting my children was exhausting and added to my own heartbreak. I held my 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, and 2-year-old son, Elijah, for hours while they cried. Elijah was deeply saddened by his father’s absence, but he was unable to express his feelings verbally. So in the middle of the night, he would wake up screaming. Other times, Elijah wandered around my bedroom crying, not knowing what to do with himself, only to finally collapse exhausted on the floor. Minutes later, he’d despairingly rise to begin the pattern again. Sometimes I’d hold him in a big bear hug. Other times I would sit on the floor and rock him with tears pouring down my face. ‘Mama’s here,’ I’d say. ‘I’ve got you. I love you. Stop crying, baby. Elijah, please stop. You’re OK. You’re safe. Mama’s here.’ To quiet him, I began singing to my son. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’

“Finally, I cried out to the Lord, begging him to comfort Elijah’s soul with the peace only Jesus can give. Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” So, I interceded for my broken-hearted children and asked the Lord to protect them from the sins of their father. Elijah’s sobbing went on for many nights. I continued to hold him, rock him, sing hymns and pray until he fell asleep. His anguish began to diminish. Finally, he slept soundly through the night. I learned some valuable lessons about God through that difficult time. I realized that God is: My Comforter: …God cares deeply and shares in my sorrows. God sees my trouble and knows about the anguish of my soul (Psalm 31:7). Just as I shared the pain for my boy’s broken heart, my heavenly Father felt the pain of mine. I need to remember to crawl into my Daddy’s lap when I feel helplessly alone.”

I got only a small portion of her story, but it is one I have heard countless times. He plays around, and she doesn’t want to show him the door, but that day comes. She grows distant and he discovers she is in an affair with a guy at work…. Sometimes the person who draws the line in the sand feels like THEY are the one breaking things…but that isn’t so. They are calling their partner back to what God designed for marriage – not the nonsense and games some people prefer to call a life together.

Ezra stepped in and stopped wrong by drawing a line in the sand, redefining the terms back to what God made them. Nothing gets fixed while God’s standards are set aside…

It’s all about Jesus: “Grasping the Details” – Colossians 3:1-9

I have a confession to make: I get impatient assembling complex things. I don’t have the problem when I am working over a long time to build a program or write some research – those are puzzles I seem to enjoy. Yet, when it comes to assembling something with dozens of tiny parts, I get frustrated easily. Part of the problem is that I don’t want to invest the time necessary to really do the job – there are other things on my mind. The other part of the problem stems from reading directions written by someone with only a vague knowledge of my language, using sentence structure of which I am not familiar. The combination of complex design, a multitude of parts and poorly written instructions make the job incredibly frustrating to me.

Here is what I know about a complicated assembly: the details matter. The manufacturer may give you some extra nuts and bolts in the package, but it is far more likely that you have forgotten step 126, and left a tiny part out. You will discover that after the full assembly doesn’t work as it should, and begin to undo all the steps back to 126.

Let’s just accept the fact that in everything that is complex, the details matter.

Why is that important? It is essential to recognize because a walk with God is a complex operation.

By the way, not every believer treats it that way. Some speak of the Christian life in passive terms – as if God overwhelms you and does it all for you. There are verses that demonstrate God is the One Who transforms us, but those aren’t the whole story. In fact, the many commands of Scripture make clear there is a part of the process I am personally responsible for as I become what Jesus intends me to be.

Let’s say it this way: No one slides into spiritual maturity. Though spiritual growth IS God at work in us, it is NOT strictly a passive endeavor. God promised to change my life from the inside out, but it is a “room by room” process. He demands that I consciously open the door to each “room” within for His inspection and His work of change.

If that is true, I need some clear and careful instruction on how to know what God wants access to inside of me, and how to allow Him to initiate change. Here is the truth found in the first part of Colossians 3…

Key Principle: To mature in my faith, I must attentively allow God to change my mind and my actions.

Since we know the details matter, let’s look closely at the two areas where God revealed He desires us to open the first doors.

Gain a new perspective: Change your mind.

God wants to begin with our thinking, and where we focus our view. In short, we are to set our focus on one specific chair in Heaven.

Colossians 3:1 Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Paul started with a simple word about what the Colossian believers were focused upon. Note the exacting detail of the description of where in Heaven a believer is supposed to fix their gaze – at His throne.

The point is that Paul called them to train their thinking to recognize they live to please the King!

The “seeking of things above” isn’t just “dreaming about Heaven” and getting warm and fuzzy. It isn’t dreams of little cupid-like angels floating from cloud to cloud. It isn’t anticipation of seeing our beloved great grandma once again and hugging her tightly. Paul’s call was clear: “Look at the place of Jesus seated on the throne.” If we have claimed His death as payment for our sin, and recognized His Resurrection as God’s acceptance of that payment, we must refocus our mind to deliberately surrender ourselves to the proper Prince of our heart’s throne. He rules Heaven, and He is supposed to rule us.

Just as Colossians 3:1 called believers to focus on the ruler of their life, Colossians 3:2-4 called them to persistently connect how Heaven later affects choices now.

This is a second step, and an essential detail of the practical side of the elusive nature of “letting Jesus control my life.”

Don’t skip past the verses. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Clearly our mind must be reset. The key to practicing the rule of Jesus in me is found in how I train my mind. God has promised help in re-tooling, but He left commands because we must give Him access to our thinking. Read the verses carefully and you will discover that Paul drove home a simple point.

To engage the transformation process I must train my thinking to get satisfaction when He is satisfied (3:2). Any desires that don’t meet with His approval must be “put to death” and subjugated to His desires (3:3) so that when Jesus comes I will stand with Him as part of His loyal host (3:4).

In short, I have to change WHO I live to please.

If I want to be a part of those who stand in the host of Heaven’s army, loyal and trusted among the companions of my Lord in the future, I have to change my thought life. If I make my daily choices based on my own feelings and live to please ME, then I am not fit to call myself one of HIS.

In practical terms, every believer would do well to begin each day acknowledging the ownership of His Lord. He or she will want to frequently ask for direction, purchase any item with His nod of approval, and constantly speak with a keen awareness that the Master is listening.

When I train myself to realize the nearness of God, I walk in harmony with God.
I truly believe what Bonhoeffer observed long ago: “When the enemy moves in to tempt us, he does not get us to HATE God, but to FORGET God.” If that is true, frequently recalling His presence and seeking His approval for choices will help me steer away from disobedience and forgetfulness. A walk with Jesus starts with mindfulness of Jesus.

The simple truth is that how we think directly sets up how we behave. Let me illustrate:

When VICTOR SERIBRIAKOFF was only fifteen years of age, his teacher told him he would never finish school and that he should drop out and learn a trade. Victor believed the counsel, took the advice and for 17 years he became a handyman. He was told he had little academic aptitude, so for seventeen years he lived in that role. At about age 32 an amazing transformation took place in his life. A detailed skill evaluation revealed that he appeared to be a genius with an IQ of about 161. Almost from that moment, he began acting like a genius. Since that time, he became author of a number of works, secured a series of patents on products he invented and became a successful businessman selling his knowledge and inventions. Perhaps the most significant event for the former drop out was his election as Chairman of the International Mensa Society. The society has only one membership qualification – an IQ exceeding 140.” Victor changed when he believed he was different – and you will too.

When you recognize daily that Jesus is in charge, your choices will begin to change. Perhaps you need more! How can I practice placing Jesus in charge? What a good question! The truth is, once you KNOW you need to do that, you will need to allow God to renew something else inside. You will need to open the door to some old ways of thinking and allow God to hit the “reset button” on them.

Crush old defaults: Change your assumptions.

We do what we do because we think what we think. What we believe deeply is what we live daily – and those daily practices show where our heart truly is. Look at three assumptions that God must reset in you to allow the maturing process to take hold.

Assumption #1: I should be led by my heart. This is a tremendous lie the enemy has seated so deeply within our culture that we now allow our feelings to overturn any other belief system. In modern America we determine truth by our feelings. The truth is that I must shut down unquestioned control of my behavior based on my fallen hungers. Paul wrote it this way:

Colossians 3:5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.

Stop assuming that because you want it, you should have it. We could say it this way: I need to get a new diet – I don’t have to live by the old rules. These things are building to the day of God’s interruption and judgment (3:6). We USED to live in them, but transformation means they are drying up inside us (3:7).

Let’s be clear about the Spirit’s work and my choices. The transformation by God in every area of my life directly corresponds to the rooms inside I willingly open to Him. He can change anything, but chooses to change nothing unless I offer it to Him first.

• If I refuse to offer to God the access to my relationships – God will not transform them.

• If I refuse to hold out to Him an addiction – God will not empower me to push it out of my life.

Whatever I don’t offer to God I keep for myself – and I won’t grow properly in that area.

The simple truth about this transformation process is that I must ask God to empower me to force the desires of my past life to lose their power over me. The lost man has passions and lusts that drive them, but I must not (3:5). To be clear, Paul enumerated them (3:5b):

• Immoral practices: (porneia) defiled or unlawful use of sexual gift

• Impurity: (Akatharsia) ceremonial or moral impurity – living beyond the moral fences God set up

• Passion: (Pathos) used as one subject to – the idea of allowing something else to choose for me

• Evil Desire: (kakos epithumia) giving a “green light” to temptation in my mind. This is like “taking a moral mental vacation” and thinking about the forbidden.

• Greed (which is idolatry): (Pleonexia) an unending hunger for acquisition

If you look closely at the list above, oozing out of the words are the attitudes of selfishness. They are all about ego and fulfilling desires of the flesh. They are all rooted in lies.

• Sex won’t fulfill my God-given need for intimacy with others.

• Living “on the edge” may seem exciting, but it will be short-lived.

• Allowing passions to overtake me may sell well in a cheap thrill novel, but impulsive living leads to ruin in relationships and puts a stain on our reliability to others.

• An insatiable hunger for more will drive me to make both unhealthy and unholy decisions. Curbing inner desires is no different in substance than curbing bad eating habits. I must stop feeding on the wrong thing in the short term to realize health in the long term.

Assumption #2: My first answer is my best one. This is a lie we learned taking tests in school. It may work on an instinctive level when you study some academic pursuit, but it isn’t true when it comes to moral thinking – because my default settings didn’t begin in godliness. The truth is I must gain conscious control of my default reactions. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

God’s call to the believer is to stop assuming that because it feels natural, it is good. Here is the truth: If I don’t rein in my feelings they will continue to run my life as they did when I was lost. Jesus will be supplanted from the throne by how I feel today.

Like everyone on the planet, my unsaved life was run by how I felt. If I am going to pass into the process of spiritual maturity, I must deliberately change my attitudes about people and make sure my responses reflect that change (3:8). I must deliberately choose to set aside:

• Anger: (orgay) untempered agitation of the soul

• Wrath: (thumos) heat; uncontrolled outbursts of burning frustration

• Malice: (kakia) depraved speech and thinking

• Slander: (blasphemia) speech that injures another

• Abusive speech: (aischrologia) debased speech, obscenities

I smiled when I read about this new believer who shared how God was changing her attitudes:

She declared, “I’m so glad I got a relationship with God. I have an uncle I used to hate so much I vowed I’d never go to his funeral. But now, why, I’d be happy to go to it any time.

Assumption #3: The truth is often too hard to bear. There are many reasons we give ourselves to say something that is not true. The simple truth is that we must seek to shut down the inborn impulse to lie. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices.

Think of it this way: When my attitudes change, my words should change as well. People lie for many reasons. Some lie to gain status. Others lie to keep peace. We must stop assuming that because something we say could make us appear wiser or even if it would avoid possible conflict with people, it is right to say things that aren’t true.

Let’s be honest: No place are our attitudes so obvious as in our mouths.

Connect verse nine to verse eight for a moment.

When we let a matter burn within, a small amount of pressure will push out the feelings we have kept under wraps. These preserved and un-yielded bad attitudes inside, stirred up by outside influences of a fallen world (news, TV, etc.) will yield things I have to cover up. That’s where the lies become a part of my life.

May I suggest that we may need to withdraw from conversations with people who peddle in smut or gossip? I want to be a witness, but transformation focus requires that I understand who is being changed. If I am being pressed into the mold of the world, it is time to withdraw for a time of renewal and re-strengthening before I continue to reach out to that particular person or group.

To mature in my faith, I must attentively allow God to change my mind and my actions.

Sheila Crowe wrote: Dennis E. Mannering was teaching a class for adults, when he did the “unpardonable.” He gave the class homework! The assignment was to “go to someone you love within the next week and tell them you love them. It had to be someone you have never said those words to before or at least haven’t shared those words with for a long time.” Now that doesn’t sound like a very tough assignment, until you stop to realize that most of the men in that group were over 35 and were raised in the generation of men that were taught that expressing emotions is not “macho.” Showing feelings or crying (heaven forbid!) was just not done. So this was a very threatening assignment for some. At the beginning of our next class, Mannering asked if someone wanted to share what happened when they told someone they loved them. He fully expected one of the women to volunteer, as was usually the case, but on this evening one of the men raised his hand. He appeared quite moved and a bit shaken. As he unfolded out of his chair (all 6’2″ of him), he began by saying, “Dennis, I was quite angry with you last week when you gave us this assignment. I didn’t feel that I had anyone to say those words to- I had told everyone who needed to know that I loved them, and besides, who were you to tell me to do something that personal? But as I began driving home my conscience started talking to me. It was telling me that I knew exactly who I needed to say ’I love you’ to. You see, five years ago, my father and I had a vicious disagreement and really never resolved it since that time. We avoided seeing each other unless we absolutely had to at Christmas or other family gatherings. But even then, we hardly spoke to each other. So, last Tuesday by the time I got home I had convinced myself I was going to tell my father I loved him. It’s weird, but just making that decision seemed to lift a heavy load off my chest. When I got home, I rushed into the house to tell my wife what I was going to do. She was already in bed, but I woke her up anyway. When I told her, she didn’t just get out of bed, she catapulted out and hugged me, and for the first time in our married life she saw me cry. We stayed up half the night drinking coffee and talking. It was great! “The next morning I was up bright and early. I was so excited I could hardly sleep. I got to the office early and accomplished more in two hours than I had the whole day before. At 9:00 I called my dad to see if I could come over after work. When he answered the phone, I just said, ’Dad, can I come over after work tonight? I have something to tell you.’ My dad responded with a grumpy, ’Now what?’ I assured him it wouldn’t take long, so he finally agreed. At 5:30, I was at my parents’ house ringing the doorbell, praying that Dad would answer the door. I was afraid if Mom answered that I would chicken out and tell her instead. But as luck would have it, Dad did answer the door. I didn’t waste any time – I took one step in the door and said, ’Dad, I just came over to tell you that I love you.’ It was as if a transformation came over my dad. Before my eyes his face softened, the wrinkles seemed to disappear and he began to cry. He reached out and hugged me and said, ’I love you too, son, but I’ve never been able to say it.’ It was such a precious moment I didn’t want to move. Mom walked by with tears in her eyes. I just waved and blew her a kiss. Dad and I hugged for a moment longer and then I left. I hadn’t felt that great in a long time.” But that’s wasn’t his point or even my point. Two days after the visit, his dad, who had heart problems and didn’t tell him, had an attack and ended up in the hospital, unconscious. And the gentlemen didn’t know if his father would see tomorrow. But he had a peace just knowing that his dad knew he really loved him.

Here’s the point of transformation. In order to become what we are not in the flesh, we must open up to God and allow Him to empower us to change inside and out.

We are not working to be saved – we are opening doors to be transformed because we know Him.

His Spirit will do its work when we offer each part of life to Him.

Daily steps of conscious obedience aren’t “gutting out resolutions to live for God.” The whole thing is preceded by asking Him to lead in each part.

No one else can make you change. You and I must submit to the Person of Jesus and the process of empowering He gives. All the DNA of the butterfly is found in the caterpillar, and all the DNA of a God-honoring and transformed powerful believer is found in you and me. It is time we change our focus on WHO we are living for.

It’s all about Jesus: “Attacking the Center” – Colossians 2

There are times the problems of life seem to be dropping like bombs on us.

We are out of coffee. The stove breaks and we can’t make our breakfast eggs. No worry, we rush out the door and think, “I will take care of the stove later and stop at the market for more coffee.” As we unlock the car door, we see the interior light is very faint and was left on all night. You turn the key, and… you guessed it! The car won’t start. The battery is dead. That late night dash out to the car to get the cell phone that dropped on the floor cost you a live battery, because you forgot to shut the overhead dome light off. Now you are hungry and don’t have a way to work, and it isn’t 7:30 AM yet.

Life on a fallen planet in a body that doesn’t always work is by its very nature unpredictable and hassle-filled. Not every day is that way, but far too many are. As it works at home, so it works at the job. Problems may assail your company. They may press your community and certainly fall like rain on our massive government. The area many forget to recognize as problem susceptible is… their church. Even your local body of believers experiences a steady stream of challenges.

By the way, that isn’t new. Shortly after the birth of the church recorded in the Book of Acts, the church faced members that told lies, authorities that pressed them to shut down and people with opposing views that tried to silence them. The Apostle Paul knew all about those efforts, because he led them before he met Jesus. After he was trained by Jesus in the desert as a young believer, he returned to a church under siege. It wasn’t only challenged by temple authorities in Judaism, but by Roman officials of the government.

In Colossians 2, Paul addressed three tests the local church was facing. He wrote to them to encourage them, but also to make sure they understood how to navigate through the issues. All three of the stated challenges were presented in the letter as the problem stated and a solution offered. Though the problems varied some, the solution always seemed to be the same: recognize Jesus as He is. Colossians 2 challenged the believers to recognize one truth…

Key Principle: The key to staying on the path of our faith is keeping Jesus at the center of all we believe and do.

Three words appear in the text of Colossians 2 that set the outline for the three problems. Note 2:4, where the word “delude” appears. Now drop your eyes down in 2:8 and note the word “deceive.” Go even further down in the text to 2:18 and mark the word “defrauding.” Do you see them? Apparently, some of the people at Colossae were facing a faith that was being obscured (deluded), while others were being pressed by deception, and still others were being handed a faith that wasn’t real to replace the authentic one (defrauded). Take a few minutes to look at each situation that was captured in the text as a lesson to us.

Deluded Faith

First, consider the problem of deluded faith. Paul opened with the words:

Colossians 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. 5 For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.

The Apostle offered three specific concerns related to a possible delusion in Colossae:

First, Paul’s struggle was that he didn’t have a personal relationship with some of the people of the region (Colossians 2:1). It is hard to effectively pass what a relationship with Jesus looks like from a distance. Christianity is much more caught then taught.

Second, He heard that some had come to faith, but was concerned they didn’t have a complete understanding of Who Jesus truly is (Colossians 2:2-3). The most dangerous form of faith is the one that has severe knowledge gaps that get filled in by untrue ideas. In the case of the Savior, when His life and work aren’t completely grasped, it is easy to take the massive volume of information and insert other ideas that obscure the truth of why He came and what He accomplished. Let me offer three examples I have personally observed in my years of ministry:

• Jesus the Good Example. There can be no doubt that Jesus did things that modeled honesty, helpfulness, servanthood and integrity. Even the most severe critic of our faith seems careful enough when it comes to critiquing Jesus’ behavior as it was made clear in the Gospels. There are exceptions, but they are relatively rare. People who emphasize, “He went about doing good,” (Acts 10:38) tend to press the point that Jesus was a helper. They don’t emphasize the more offensive things He said to people who thought themselves to be leaders at the time. Jesus can sound, when you listen to these folks, like an ancient loafer-wearing Mister Rodgers, building a happy neighborhood of moral sock puppets.

• Jesus the Social Revolutionary. Akin to the “good example” group are those who use Jesus to back their agenda for social change. These folks emphasize the way Jesus made startling remarks that shook His day for truth. They tend to be short on details on how Jesus didn’t set up His own soup kitchens and community centers, but they picture Jesus as One Who came from Heaven to fix the neighborhood with activism and community participation.

• Jesus the bringer of Wealth and Prosperity. One of the groups that emerged in my lifetime were those who found TV a perfect medium to offer the hope of a happy filled wallet life in the name of Jesus. They posited that Jesus came to bring “abundant life” and that was meant as a promise to multiply our bank accounts.

All of these groups “preached Jesus” without really making clear what Jesus was really all about. They emphasized an agenda they had and used Jesus’ face like a celebrity endorsement. Paul may not have faced these groups, but he had his own version in his own time. The ones he faced caused him deep concern. Paul expressed he felt some were being pulled away by someone arguing against their walk with Jesus (Colossians 2:4-5). Note the term “persuasive argument.” This wasn’t simple questioning of the main ideas of the faith in Messiah; it was a deliberate and well-constructed argument against their faith designed to pull them from it.

Paul made the point in verse three that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus – not in other places. The basic delusion seemed to be that Jesus shouldn’t be the center of the faith. His work for us in salvation and His walk with us in daily life somehow lacked fullness as the basis for our faith. This can be simply called the “Jesus plus” delusion. It is the notion that you need something more than Jesus to be complete in your faith-walk before God. For some people it seems to be some gift you must pull from the hands of God. For others, it is some participation in a practice unique to their fellowship.

Paul wasn’t making a call to toss out the Bible and sit on a rock and wait to “experience Jesus” apart from the instructions of His Word. What he was saying was there was nothing that needed TO BE ADDED beyond belief in Jesus and His work to the essentials of our faith. In a sense: Deluded faith here is diluted faith.

For Paul, personal faith in Jesus and His completed work was enough. He made it clear when he answered a straightforward question: “How should they respond?” Paul took the people back to recognize anew the Jesus Who saved them:

Colossians 2:6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.

• Note from Colossians 2:6 that in order to be a part, one must receive Jesus (Colossians 2:6a). You don’t walk in Him until you have received Him.

• Second, watch carefully as Paul commanded them to show they were a part of Jesus by walking daily with Jesus (Colossians 2:6b). The Christian life isn’t simply a worldview, but it produces one. It isn’t simply a list of things we do, but we do end up living a list of chosen actions. It isn’t just a moral code, but it does yield one. The Christian life is the conscious act of knowing, loving and inviting Jesus daily into the course of our life, allowing Him to lead us through the day.

• Third, note that Paul made clear their walk with Jesus was based on deeply rooted truth that encourages us and keeps us stable (Colossians 2:7a). The Gospel doesn’t get re-invented based on issues of social change. Jesus saves people in every walk of life on every corner of the globe the same way.

• Finally, note that he called upon them to have their walk with Jesus characterized by following His instructions in the Word while gushing with gratitude for Him (Colossians 2:7b)!

Deluded faith is avoided by so filling ourselves with Him, there is little room for another to be poured into our life. When we celebrate Jesus and His work for us, we don’t seek another solution for our sin – because we recognize what we found. You stop looking for your keys when you find them. You stop looking for a way to God when you know Him.

Deceived Faith

Next, Paul mentioned deceived believers when he wrote:

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

The heart of the deception point seems to have related to the words “traditions of men” and “elementary principles of the world.” Don’t let those words slip by you or you will draw false conclusions about both the problem and the solution.

Some conclude the passage is speaking of the sacrificial system and its entry requirement, circumcision.

Some hold Paul was referring to the Torah, the Law of Israel. They connect the phrase being “under the Law” in Gal. 3 with “under the elementary principles of the world” in Galatians 4.

Others support the notion that Paul referred to demons which originated the false teachings which Paul refuted. The terms “the elementary principles” were sometimes used in extra-biblical literature to refer to the spirits and Paul later spoke of “the worship of angels” as part of the heresy associated with the “the elementary principles.”

When you step back and look at it, there seems to be a mixing of two things: some commentators don’t seem to keep a line between what God said and what men added to what God said. Be very careful about your criticisms, because the same can be said for MOST Christians that cannot separate between the Bible and the rules of their denomination or fellowship.

• Let me be very clear. Men didn’t command circumcision to access the place of atonement (Tabernacle or Temple) – God did.

• Men didn’t invent the Atonement Laws that required the killing of animals in the sacrificial system – God did.

• Lumping the Law into “traditions of men” is not correct.

The issue seems to be the rabbinic rulings that added to the Law, not the Law itself. After all, God didn’t say atonement sacrifices were permanent, even in Leviticus where they are instructed. The use of the term “forever” is quite limited in that book!

The fact is that atonement law offered animal blood to temporarily abate the wrath of God (turn Him away from holding sin to an account). Sacrifices were NOT mere “ritual” even though they were temporarily in place. The issue was this: Atonement Law was fully replaced by justification. To go back to the atonement sacrificial system (as offered by the temple authorities of the time) could only lead to slavery.

In Messiah, all foreshadows lost their significance and needed to be discarded.

Let me say it this way. You took a trip to Hollywood and wanted to walk along the areas where celebrities were celebrated. By a newsstand, there was a life-sized cardboard cutout of your favorite movie actor or actress. You rushed over to get a picture taken as you stand posed beside the cutout. While you are standing there, that very actor walked out of the shop and was standing there watching you get your picture taken. When you realized the actor was there, you abandoned the cutout for the actual human being. To walk away from the actor and go back to the cutout would have been ridiculous.

Paul wanted people to walk with Jesus, but abandon their sense of need for the atoning sacrifices that were a cardboard cutout of Him.

By Messiah’s death, He brought total justification to us (wiping clean our account before God without any act performed by us beyond the acceptance of His work). He offered a “once for all” offering that forever replaced the need for atonement sacrifices. However, it is demeaning to lump “Old Testament” and “ritual,” not to mention “traditions of men” together when referring to the Law God gave to Moses.

Rabbis that made the temporary into the permanent added to the Law given to Moses.

The term elementary principles actually meant “what belongs to a series.” In 2 Peter 3, the Apostle referred to the physical elements of the universe set for destruction by the Lord at the end of the age. In Hebrews 5:11, the author used the term for the “basic truths” of the oracles of God the people needed to hear. In Colossians, it appears to be “things added to God’s Word.” These things are enumerated later in the passage as:

• Various rules about what a Colossian could eat or drink (2:16a). God commanded Israel not to call some animals food, but it was the rabbinic courts that sought to add that restriction to Gentiles.

• Rules about how and when to celebrate various calendar festivals, including Sabbath (2:16b). Again, God instructed Jewish people to meet Him at appointed times, but never included the Gentile world under the command. Men added that.

• Rules about “giving things up” in self-discipline of rules made by men (in 2:18a, 21-23). God called on Israel to walk in holiness, but the specifications of HOW were largely written by men.

• Rites that included worship of angelic beings (2:18b). Some cults and practices of the first century called for mystical rites common to the Roman world. Men made those up.

• Regulations of the behavior of other believers based upon personal spiritual visions (2:19). Men claimed a vision and then told everyone else their word held the authority of God’s Word.

When you argue that something must be added to trusting the work of Jesus for salvation, the basic composition of saving faith changes.

• For some, it is the continual return to the “Mass” to be among the saved at death.

• For some, it is whether or not you were baptized after you were saved that guarantees eternal salvation.

• For some, it is whether or not a priest offered you “last rites” at the time of your passing that secures the way.

• For others, no one who exhibits any behavior that should drop away as one matures will be in Heaven.

• For one group, anyone who worships on a day not Saturday cannot claim to be one of God’s people.

• For another group, only those who keep the festivals and feasts of the Lord truly understand what salvation means.

There are a ton of “Jesus plus” options out there. Paul’s admonition was simple. Keep Jesus at the center. He simply told them to stand in Jesus as the total answer.

Colossians 2:9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

He also told them to look at the judgment postings at the Judicial Dias.

Colossians 2:13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Because this refers to Roman customs, it may take some explanation…The illustration was from Roman law. Based on their writings, it seems Romans believed they were destined to bring law and order to the chaotic world. Virgil wrote in the Aeneid:

But you, Romans, remember your great arts; To govern the peoples with authority. To establish peace under the rule of law. To conquer the mighty, and show them mercy once they are conquered.

Because Paul was a Roman, he knew that if he was to make sense to Romans of his time, he had to make a legally structured argument.

Consider what he was saying as a Roman would have heard it.

In Rome there were juris prudentes (men wise in law who formed the judex), and advocati (men summoned to one’s side) and causidici (speakers of cases), who, argued the cases themselves for their clients (after C2 BCE).

In most cases, a magistrate defined the dispute, cited the law in question and referred the problem to a judex, a reputable authority in the community. The judex (with some advisors) listened to the arguments of the causidici, weighed the evidence and pronounced the sentence. Roman authorities posted the judicial notice on a board beside a platform known as the JUDICIAL DIAS where the words revealed how the judex settled their case.

Paul called on the people to go to the board and see what it said.

• He told them Jesus cancelled their debt.

• He wanted them to celebrate that Jesus took every charge against them away!

Then, without a breath, Paul changed the metaphor from the dias and called the people to another Roman image. This one found in a parade called a “Triumph.”

Colossians 2:15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

When Rome subdued a neighbor, it held a massive victory celebration – The Roman Triumph. In the city of Rome, the procession wound its way through a series of victory arches. In a procession, there was an order:

• State officials and Roman Senators usually preceded the parade, followed by trumpeters.
• The spoils of the war (i.e. The Menorah, local shields, etc.) were displayed.
• Pictures of the conquered land, models of ships destroyed, and citadels captured were set on floats and paraded.
• A white bull was usually publicly sacrificed.
• The captives walked behind in chains: enemy princes, generals and leaders to be executed.
• Roman Lictors: minor officials bearing fasces (bound rods) who cleared the way for the person(s) to be honored.
• Behind him were musicians, and priests carrying censers of perfume.
• Finally, the general was drawn in a chariot by 4 horses. He wore a purple tunic with gold palm leaves and over it a purple toga with gold stars. He led his family and some key soldiers of his army wearing their decorations and shouting “Lo triumph!”

Beside the triumph were a line of soldiers holding flowers and soldiers holding urns of burning incense. The aroma would be sweet to the victors, but signal death and enslavement to the captured.

Paul called the Colossians to walk the triumph of their Savior, and recognize His victory for them!

Defrauded Faith

Finally, Paul warned them they may have a defrauded faith. They may have WON, but been told they did not. He wrote:

Colossians 2:16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Paul wrote thirteen epistles (at least) and wasn’t afraid of telling people what God wanted them to do. He didn’t hate rules. He wasn’t calling people to a “free for all” walk with Jesus. What he WAS doing was making a point: the Gospel is settled. Jesus paid for your sin. Any call to follow Jesus plus was a call to get control of your life in the hands of some power-hungry group.

The key to staying on the path of our faith is keeping Jesus at the center of all we believe and do.

He was sixteen when he came to Jesus. He had some baggage in his life. His girlfriend was not a Jesus follower. His music selections left something to be desired in the purity department. His hair was too long and his mouth was often foul. When he came to Jesus, he wasn’t sure what was going to happen. At first, he started to read his Bible and pray. Soon, religious leaders told him he needed to get rid of his albums, cut his hair and join a Bible study group. By seventeen, even his family couldn’t recognize him. He was clean cut, well-spoken and… a Pharisaic legalist. He preached to everyone he saw. He picked on their clothing. He derided their immoral way. He offered condemnation with every sentence. The sweetness of grace and the message of Jesus were buried under a pile of religious requirements. A few years passed. He was cut out of the lives of virtually all of his former friends. Even his family dreaded having him at holiday seasons. Then something happened. On the job, he tried his tough words on a Jesus follower who was mature and happy in his walk with Jesus. At first, the young man’s words were harsh, but after a while in desperate need of friends, he settled down. The older and more mature believer pulled the young man to his office and sat him down privately. He gave him only one piece of advice – but it changed the young man’s path for the rest of his life. He told him, “Stop following a list and start inviting Jesus to walk with you every day. You were right to trust Him for your salvation. Trust Him for your daily walk. Read His word with thankfulness for what He has done. Ask Him to challenge you, rather than using His name to challenge others.”

I met that young man years later. He was one of the key men who helped to mold my life to follow Jesus. I am glad he listened and put Jesus at the center of all he wanted to do.

It’s all about Jesus: “Agent of Change” – Colossians 1

Did you ever wish as a kid you could grow up to be a “secret agent?” Some people seem to be caught up in the superhero phenomenon, but I always thought it would be cooler to be a “behind the scenes” kind of agent. You know the type: 007, The Man from Uncle or Maxwell Smart…well probably not so much Maxwell Smart – but you know the type. While I was living in the Near East, I kid you not, some of my family actually thought I may have had a job in such a field. I am not making that up! I thought my sheer lack of athleticism, combined with my middle-aged pudgy center would have given them a clue. You never saw anyone in a “James Bond” movie that looked like me, and there was a good reason for that!

I don’t know much about being an agent. I have read that businesses sometimes hire what they refer to as “change agents.” A change agent is a man or woman who helps their organization or business to improve business processes and teamwork. Apparently, they are leaders focused on change management. I have read about them, but it isn’t clear to me how they differ from other managers in an ever-changing world.

What I DO KNOW about agents is this: because of our salvation, we are led by the ultimate “Master Agent of change.” Our encounter with Jesus not only changed our destiny, it changed the path on which we walk right now. As we grow to maturity, we slowly learn in our Christian life how to cede control away from our cravings and inner instincts into the control of the One Who made us. The Spirit guides our steps as we invite Jesus to lead us daily.

Something else I know… change isn’t always popular. Alvin Toffler wrote: “Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.” Isn’t that right? Doesn’t change sometimes seem like an unwanted invader? It causes us to break out of the comfortable. I think it is fair to say that change is difficult for most people. Woodrow Wilson once quipped: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Much change is unwelcome. At the same time, consider the alternative. Harold Wilson reminds us of the opposing truth: “The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

With that in mind, let’s simply concede there is a great deal in life we cannot change.

• We cannot change our past.

• We cannot change the uncertainty and unfairness inherent in a fallen world.

• We cannot change many things that come our way.

The good news is we can change our attitude about what we encounter. We can ask the Lord to lead us through the day. We can focus our minds in ways that will help us to move forward in the face of troubles.

Let me offer you more good news from the opening of a writing of the Apostle Paul known as the “Letter to the Colossians.” Maturing in your faith will be a journey of change led by the Master Agent of change. Colossians 1 makes the lesson clear…

Key Principle: Mature believers learn to thank God for salvation (what Jesus did), wonder at the Savior (Who Jesus is) and experience His sanctifying power (how Jesus changes us).

If you are growing in Christ, these three ideas are a part of your life in greater and greater ways. To follow these ideas, let’s look at how Paul opened the letter…

Paul wrote to people who were already walking with Jesus.

This is a letter to believers, not to everyone in the world. He wrote:

Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

The term “saint” was widely used in the New Testament for those who walked daily with God. They weren’t perfect, but they were growing and walking in the faith of the Lord Jesus. Paul added in verse two they were also “faithful brethren.” Keep reading, and you will see that Paul began with positive words…

He began by sharing his personal celebration concerning them before God.

Colossians 1:3 We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel 6 which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, 8 and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit.

Clearly, Paul’s celebration focused on three primary ideas of celebration:

They evidenced faith and a loving spirit (Colossians 1:3-5) – and that was evidence that God was working among them. You may have noticed that many people in the world are stirred up about life. They are worried about the future, angry at the political climate and uncertain about the economic environment. Believers start life in the same worries, but grow to trust that God is at work in people on every level. That won’t mean everything will be good in the short term, but it does mean it will all end well.

Changes in them came when they received the Gospel and began bearing fruits of faith (Colossians 1:6). The Christian life is a growth. It is measurable, but at times slow. You can see it primarily through attitude and choice changes in the life of one who seeks to follow Jesus.

Paul made a notable mention of Epaphras who bore testimony of their actions to Paul and (at the same time) taught the people faithfully how to follow Jesus (Colossians 1:7). The teaching of Jesus and the modeling of life change is part of the discipleship process and Epaphras was busy helping with that progression.

Paul shared the heart of his prayer for them: the fruit he hoped to see.

Because the faith is modeled and gradually takes hold, Paul wanted the Colossians to see what he was hoping they would become. He wrote:

Colossians 1:9 For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.

Look at Paul’s hope for them:

First, Paul prayed for internal knowledge. He wanted them to become dominated by God’s will for them as a group (Colossians 1:9). He desired the Colossians to willingly submit to God’s Spirit as it directed them internally to a discernment of God’s directive will.

Second, Paul prayed the internal knowledge would show in external choices. They would take the will of God within and choose to live it without – taking care to please God in how they walked (Colossians 1:10).

Third, Paul asked God to stabilize them to the point they would be immoveable in the faith (Colossians 1:11). He longed to hear they showed the ability to remain under the pressure and yet fully trust God.

Fourth, he prayed fervently they would exhibit a thankful spirit in all circumstances for what God was doing in them (Colossians 1:12).

That’s a list we can all desire, isn’t it? Wouldn’t YOU like to say you truly understood where God was leading your life? Wouldn’t you like to see a pattern of choices in your daily walk that clearly showed your allegiance to God as He both helped you make the goals and then empowered you to attain them? Wouldn’t you love to be known as a steady and stable influence in the faith among your brothers and sisters in Jesus? Wouldn’t you LOVE to hear that people thought you were one of the most thankful people they knew? Paul’s desire for the Colossians looks like a laundry list of what most of us wish were true of us.

Paul had many of these character marks himself. Have you ever wondered, “How did he get them?” Fortunately, the text revealed the secrets…

The heart of thankfulness came from Paul’s clear understanding of three things: What Jesus did for all of us, Who Jesus truly is before all of us, and what Jesus was doing in His own life.

The same pattern will work for you. Follow Paul’s record for a moment…

First, there is the true record of what Jesus did. He became our Savior:

Colossians 1:13 For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Four acts are highlighted:

• He rescued us. We MUST remember the Gospel is not about adding a moral set of guidelines to our life – it is the rope that holds us from plummeting to an abyss. The casual understanding of lost-ness is the biggest problem we have in getting people serious about evangelism.

• He transferred us. We MUST consider that we no longer belong to the kingdom to which most around us swear full allegiance. They will fight and die on hills for values that are no longer ours. Jesus snatched us from the kingdom we once supported, and calls on us to walk in a way that shows our prime allegiance to Him.

• He purchased us. We MUST consider our sense of “freedom” to be our unfettered opportunity to serve Jesus with all within us. We were not bought to become free men. We were bought to change the house of our servitude. That offends American sensitivities, but is abundantly clear in the teaching of the New Testament. You were bought to be a servant of Jesus Christ, not yourself – your cravings, your desires, nor your wants.

• He bought for us forgiveness. The term is áphesis (from aphíēmi the word to “release, send away or forgive”) – this was the word for releasing someone from service to repay a debt. We MUST recognize the release. Jesus paid our debt, so we serve Him, but not the old life and the old obligations to the flesh. You CAN walk away.

What Jesus DID is remarkable, but pales in comparison to WHO Jesus is.

Second, there is a true record of Who Jesus is.

Our Redeemer began His work under the auspices of His Father.

He is the authorized inheritor with the Father’s full authority.

Colossians 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

Don’t get confused. The term “first born” in the text isn’t intended to say the Eternal Son of God was “born first.” The expression isn’t about Jesus being “created,” though in the Godhead He IS the only one Who experienced the process of physical birth!

The word had everything to do with RIGHTS and PRIVILEGES in the time of the Apostles. The FIRST BORN was the one who represented the Father in negotiations and contracts. He was the inheritor of all of his father’s estate. He held a position of greater authority than any other family member, any employee, any representative. Jesus is the EXACT REPRESENTATION of the Father (Hebrews 1:4). He is the image stamp. He looks, in every respect, like the Father. He said it this way: “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.” The term firstborn is a term about the right to fully represent the interests of His Father… and Jesus CAN.

He is the Agent of the Father’s will in Creation of all things.

Colossians 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

When Genesis 1:1 said, “God created the heavens and the earth,” the specific agent of that creation was our Savior. That would be like saying, “I built this machine” when you were saying your team did it. Jesus did the work at the behest of the Father. He is the agent of Creation, but He is more…

He is the mechanism of beginning and maintaining the cosmos.

Colossians 1:17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Jesus literally, chemically, biologically and physically holds the cosmos together.

He is the initiator of the “body of the called out” of the world who became the first fruits of new life.

Colossians 1:18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…

He was the first fruits of the Resurrection that guarantees our future (1 Corinthians 15). He is the Originator and the Supreme Head of those set free from sin.

He is the One Who will be recognized as Supreme in the end of all things.

Colossians 1:18b “…so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”

At the end of all things, every ruler will bow. Every leader will acknowledge His supremacy…

He was chosen by His Father to bring such reconciliation to us.

Colossians 1:19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

God placed Him in the role of Savior…

He is the One Who brought in some of the worst rebels and joined them to God in salvation.

Colossians 1:21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.

Three truths jump from these verses, and each offers a challenge:

The message of the church is not about the church but about the Savior. We are not a display case of our own goodness, but rather a dazzling display of God’s grace bestowed on the least deserving.

The message of the church is not about how we can accept you as you continue participation in evil deeds, but how encountering Jesus causes you to kill off the domination of fleshly desires that do not show you have been redeemed.

The message of the church is not about how a momentary commitment (an aisle walk) can save you when you refuse to have the Spirit do a work in retracing your choices of life.

Beyond the work of Jesus, Paul celebrated the PERSON of Jesus. Then he made the whole thing more personal…

Third, Paul rejoiced in what Jesus was doing in and through HIM:

It wasn’t comfort Paul experienced, but it was a sense of purpose. He wrote:

Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

He didn’t enjoy trouble, but he saw his life, his pain and his work as all purposeful to God. A million years from now, any cost your faith places on your life right now will still be worth it. Ask a mom of a toddler if the pain of childbirth was worth what she has. She will tell you! The pain had a purpose, and that is why it was bearable. So is your trouble in this life.

It wasn’t leadership and perks he experienced, but it was a call to servanthood and stewardship that thrilled him.

Colossians 1:25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Paul was given a message: Gentiles can come to faith without an earthy High Priest or a trip to Jerusalem’s Temple. It didn’t matter how many experts in the Law disagreed with him – he was given a message by God to deliver. It didn’t matter if he was popular because of what he shared – because he was a steward of what God told him.

So are you. It is also worth remembering…

It wasn’t a program of change Paul brought to people, but it was a Person Who would change them.

We preach Christ. We preach HIS change within men and women. Paul wrote:

Colossians 1:28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

Don’t misread this. You don’t get perfect so that you can meet Christ – you meet Christ and get completed IN Him to meet the Father.

He brings with Him a new hunger to walk differently. He shows you why the disciplines of this life are worth it in His service!

In the end, Paul made it clear…

Mature believers learn to thank God for salvation (what Jesus did), wonder at the Savior (Who Jesus is) and experience His sanctifying power (how Jesus changes us).

The pattern is set. Come to Jesus and thank Him He has made your new life possible. Gaze at Him in wonder that He would do this for you. Grab hold of his empowering as He leads you to grow in Him.

She was in her mid- twenties and had passed through her college experience when I first met her on a trip to Israel. Her aunt brought her because in college she learned the Bible was a tale of myths and there simply was no evidence for its words. Her aunt asked me on the second night of the trip to have a talk with her. We sat in the middle of a plaza by the sea at Netanya and she expressed a litany of complaints about the Bible. I listened and promised her that I would do my best to address each of the things she pointed out. Then I asked her a question: “Who do you think Jesus was?” I wanted to know if she ever stopped to consider what He claimed and what He did. I wanted her to answer how it was that in her own family several members close to her had been dramatically changed by Him. That opened the door to her heart, and Jesus was standing there waiting to go in. I wish I could share how much God has done in her life and her family from that day – but someday you’ll meet her in Heaven. She will be there with a smile and real confidence in her Savior.

Boot Camp: “Tragic Short Cuts” – Genesis 16

Did you ever take a short cut that ended in a mess? We all love shortcuts, because they make us feel like we are clever. The problem is the fastest way to do something isn’t always the best way to do it. Ask anyone who works at a barbecue stand and they will tell you that grilling hamburgers on the hottest setting won’t get burgers on the table more quickly; the practice will simply burn the meat into inedible hockey pucks. And while taking the shortcut under the rail overpass might work in your car, you shouldn’t try it with your tractor trailer (show picture of trailer stuck under bridge overpass).

Abraham lacked information about something going wrong in his life. We know he was anxious about it, because the record we read in the last lesson reminds us:

Genesis 15:3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

He believed God’s promise, but didn’t see God’s results. What to do? He decided to take the PART of the promise he understood and fill in the other part. What should he have done?

Key Principle: To avoid painful results, seek more information from God about your problem.

The apparent problem: God hadn’t delivered…yet.

Genesis 16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no [children]…

The apparent problem was a lack of child – the real problem was a lack of patience with God. Be aware that many of our problems are actually nothing more than masked impatience. We want comfort, peace and security NOW. If we don’t get it now, we assume God isn’t on duty doing what He has promised.

The truth is God didn’t promise comfort and He didn’t offer a time table for many things in our life. He offered Himself – and no one in the story seems to be seeking Him!

The apparent solution: Use the law.

Genesis 16:1b …and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar.

The apparent solution is to enact the legal mechanism of allowing conception through one in the household under the wife’s command – the real solution was to seek the Lord about the barrenness of the womb.

In the absence of seeking the Lord, there is always looking to other people. That is why prayer meetings often devolve into discussion groups with a few minutes of complimentary prayer. It is hard to seek the Lord, but easy to seek the counsel of others. Learning to seek Him is a necessary part of the maturing process for any believer.

The apparent understanding: God left the plan to us.

Genesis 16:2 So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing [children]. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. 4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived

The apparent understanding of God’s delay was that He wanted them to figure out another way to get His promise fulfilled – the real understanding should have been as simple as God sending an invitation to ask Him.

Look at the steps:

First, Sarai concluded (without asking God) their lack of conception was an intentional work of God designed to force them to step in to fix the situation.

God’s delay may have had many purposes, but she projected an understanding of God’s plan she didn’t have. Without any idea as to what God was doing, she figured out something that WOULD WORK that didn’t really require God to do anything extraordinary. In her practicality, she delayed the miracle she would experience. Often, when we get really good at finding answers, we get really bad at seeking God.

What Sarah proposed was the custom of the day even if it seems strange to us now. Remember, they had short life-spans (comparatively) and high infant mortality and natal mortality rates. Many women died giving birth just as many infants died. Customs were created to compensate. God didn’t cancel them until much later, in 1 Corinthians 7, where polygamy and multiple sexual partners were all forbidden.

Some of you may object to me sounding hard on Sarai. After all, perhaps she thought she was just being practical. A long time passed with no child and neither she nor her husband was getting younger. Why was the short cut a bad idea? Maybe it wasn’t. Without asking God why He was delaying the baby, they would never know.

Second, Abraham decided Sarai’s idea made sense, so he also sought nothing from the Lord.

God engaged Abe with promises. He wasn’t silent. Abe knew how to talk to God, but he leaned on the words of Sarai for the method of fulfillment of the words of his God. That is unwise. Sometimes it seems the more we learn to depend on people, the less we really seem to need God. Your pursuit of God needs to be personal. It doesn’t mean you cannot learn from others, it means you cannot substitute what others say for seeking God Himself.

As much as we desire to teach you to use the Scriptures well, it will take practice.

Did any of you ever have a coach show you how to throw a basketball into the hoop? The positioning of the elbow, the flexing of the wrist, and the gentle release off the finger tips are all part of the proper form. Yet, all the form instruction in the world cannot make up for practicing techniques that will show when the game gets tough.

To be clear, when we speak of “allowing God to work through us” we do not speak of something passive. It is a practiced proficiency. It is a communication skill initiated intentionally and developed over time and with careful repetition. It is the work of one who would spend much time asking God to direct steps and less time figuring out a way to make broken people behave and broken situations find immediate resolution.

One of the greatest lies Christians believe is that prayer is what you do when you can’t figure out what else to do.

That isn’t true at all. Prayer is what you do to allow God to put answers in place when you need them!

If we retreat to a counselor when we really need to pray, we get the best wisdom of a man or woman – but not necessarily the counsel of the All Knowing One. It doesn’t mean the counselor was deficient. It means God placed the problem in front of us in order that we would seek Him, and we are running from His desire. We have nothing to give God but ourselves – but that is what He seeks. Sometimes intractable problems are nothing less than an invitation of the Almighty to sit and chat for a while.

If you are honestly encountering this truth and you know that you really want God to just leave you alone and let you do what you want to do – at least be honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with the teaching – the issues are within you. No amount of Bible reading, Bible instruction or preaching will change that reality. You are wasting your time if you won’t bring your heart to God. You can learn volumes from the Bible and perform a moral service with your daily behavior, but Jesus will still say of you: “This people honors me with their lips, but there heart is far from Me.” Worship beckons us to bow, but only we can choose to hear the call and do it.

The apparent result: God’s blessed Abraham!?!

It seemed obvious that God offered a wonderful blessing to Abraham, and certainly any of us would consider a baby a blessing of the Lord no matter HOW it was conceived.

Genesis 16:4b …and when she saw that she had conceived,

Every child is God’s blessing, not only the ones a settled, stable, married couple conceives. Every child opens a new world of possibilities. Every great invention of mankind began with a baby’s birth. Some of those inventions came from children born into nearly impossible situations.

At the same time, we need to recognize that God put up fences for a reason. He delayed the baby, not because He forgot about His promise, nor because He lost the formula to create them in the womb – He did it for His own purpose. When we crash through the fences of God, we encounter unintended beasts that live behind those fences.

Abe welcomed Hagar into his bed and some of the results were predictable. The baby was the blessing part of that. At the same time, when Hagar realized she was pregnant, more than just her belly puffed up, so did her head. What Sarai tried to accomplish for a long time took her a mere evening. It may seem funny, but to Hagar, even fertility was a contest. The text went on:

Genesis 16:4b …her mistress was despised in her sight. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me.

Try as I may, I cannot understand how Sarai turned this into an argument with Abraham! At the risk of sounding obvious, though, I must confess to having a critical flaw – that of being a man.

Instead of pure blessing, what Abe got was a migraine. One gal was pregnant and the other was mad at him. This wasn’t going well at all! Keep reading the story, because it only gets worse.

Genesis 16:6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

Can you believe what Abraham did? To make his wife happy, Abe became passive rather than seeking a solution that honored the promised offspring. Don’t forget that! God promised him a child from his loins, and now he had one. If this was the long awaited child that God promised, he had no business treating a gift of God as something less than sacred.

That is part of the problem with fixing things ourselves.

When we don’t seek God about a problem, but rather ingeniously fix it ourselves, we aren’t as certain the “answer” isn’t just something we concocted.

We can end up missing the greatest part of God’s work because we think we “goofed” and went the wrong way. We won’t be sure. How can we?

The text followed Hagar into the desert:

Genesis 16:7 Now the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8 He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” 9 Then the angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” 10 Moreover, the angel of the LORD said to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” 11 The angel of the LORD said to her further, “Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. 12 He will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand [will be] against everyone, and everyone’s hand [will be] against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers.”

God interrupted the regularly scheduled program to bring an emergency message to Hagar in order that she treat the baby with special care, and keep the baby with Abraham for his infancy and young life. Without taking every aspect of these verses into consideration, think about the promises.

First, she was commanded to return home, no matter the condition of her treatment. She was also told to respect the authority of Sarai in the home. God didn’t just send her back; He commanded change in her.

Second, she was encouraged with the message that she would bear a son, and from that boy would come a great company of people. She was told to name him “God has heard” to remind the family that God knew what happened in the whole story.

Third, she was promised the boy would be like the desert onacker, a wild donkey of great worth, but difficult to domesticate. Despite the translation of verse twelve, the Hebrew made clear, “His hand would be in everyone’s hand, and everyone’s hand would be in his.” This appears to have been a promise the boy would be deeply tied to the economy of all the other people in the region.

Finally, the end of the story offered the ONLY PERSON in the account who took what God promised back to the feet of the Lord Himself. Hagar was the one person in the story who did the right thing! The text reads:

Genesis 16:13 Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. 15 So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

What a scene! Hagar dropped in worship and did what God instructed. What a difference in how the story unfolded if Abraham and Sarah had done so back in verse 2!!! The whole situation came about because of impatience with God’s time table and the feeling that someone needed to “right the wrong” they felt.

Hagar knew life would be bearable with the knowledge the Angel of the Lord was watching over her. She called God El Roi, which means: “the God who sees me.” Even a sassy servant who ran away was in His grasp learned God didn’t miss things or mess up things.

When we turn to Him and trust Him, the outcome is left in His hands – where it belongs.

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt God may have taken a vacation? Have you wondered why things happened that pummeled your life when (remarkably) it wasn’t your fault? May I remind you that God sees you too! He sees how overwhelmed you are caring for loved ones. He recognizes the challenges you have on your job. He understands how you feel when people treat you badly at school. He feels your pain when loneliness eats away at you. He sees, and He cares. He doesn’t want you to fix the world – He wants you to find Him in the situation.

James has a reminder for us when we are in this situation:

James 1:2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have [its] perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 [being] a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Did you notice what James revealed?

He told us that we WOULD encounter various trials – it wasn’t an IF, but a WHEN. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that God hasn’t exempted His children from the pains of a fallen world.

He cautioned us to consider or reckon such times with JOY – the resolute assurance that God has neither lost interest, nor the power to deal with my problems. He doesn’t call you to feign “happiness” but rather to exude JOY. The latter is a confidence in God and His abilities.

He made clear that trials can “dot the landscape” of our lives. The term “polka dot” comes from the word used of the number of trials. Life can and will occasionally get “bombed” by trials.

He explained that trials have a purpose – the tempering of the metal of our faith. They are necessary to complete our maturity and readiness of God’s use. To push against the trials is to push against His shaping work.

What can we do when we are in the midst of a spattering of troubles?

We can trust God’s generosity is answering our painful cries. We can call on Him. We can, with confidence in His engagement and His goodness, reach out to Him for clarity in the storm. If we doubt His goodness, we will not recognize His voice. If we disbelieve His power, we won’t grab His hand for rescue.

In short, to avoid painful results, seek more information from God about your problem.

Look at the situation as an invitation to sit with God. When you do, may I offer three little insights you may want to consider:

First, don’t try to figure out God – work at following Him. Your problem isn’t as big as your God. The real issue is you don’t know why He has you where He does. As long as you resist God’s direction, you may get deeper into the problem because you won’t go where He commands. Instead of conditionally following (i.e. “I will do this if you show me what it all means and where it all goes”) – decide that it is HIS WORK to get you safely into His arms. Concentrate on knowing His character as it is revealed in His Word, and work at your attitude of willingness to respond to His command.

Second, don’t try to work for God – learn to let Him work through you. Again, this isn’t passive. Look closely at the models both in Scripture and in life of people who have learned how to let God work without giving Him advice and trying to push Him around.

Third, don’t try to find the solution to your problem – try to discern His leading in the problem. In the end, since the problem is smaller than God, the real issue isn’t how to solve the situation, it is to understand what God wants you to do or be in that place. Many believers don’t learn what God wanted them to do in troubles, because they are focused on the troubles and not on God’s lesson.

Boot Camp: “Master Craftsman” – Genesis 15

We live in a great time, we really do. I can walk into a store and purchase a tool to help me complete almost any task. That was true a generation ago. What wasn’t true was the fact that I can now order something I cannot get access to locally and it will be shipped to my door in a few days – in some places it will be flown out on a little drone.

Though we live in a small town, we can have Chinese, Thai, Mexican or Italian food any day of the week. Our supermarkets contain items grown and shipped from around the world, sent fresh to our supermarket chain. We can go a little over an hour away and get on an airplane that is made of four million distinct parts derived from shops in 13 nations and use that assembled aircraft to travel to another continent within the same day. We can get in our car and drive over to the east coast of Florida and watch a satellite get launched into space. Our lives are remarkable!

One of the things travel can do is allow you to compare how different cultures accomplish tasks and build great edifices. Traveling to Europe, I find the buildings inspiring, but I have to admit that on occasion they have left me feeling a little empty when I compare the works I have seen to the “quick and easy” lifestyle we have developed here. I admit it; the old buildings (like the great cathedrals) make me yearn sometimes for a bit more craftsmanship here at home. All our “instantly ready” microwaved meals and instant fixes to our building project needs leaves me recognizing there really is little emphasis on skilled craftsman and the quality products they crafted for longevity. Our way has advantages, but it also has some real limitations…

I guess as long as I can visit those carefully hand crafted master works it really isn’t that big a deal, but the sense of the instant does take its toll on us. One of the ways is in our theology. In our day, I don’t believe we are set up to understand how God does things – because our lives are focused far more on immediate satisfaction than long term craftsmanship.

If we want to understand how things are put together, we need to recognize something: God is a Master Craftsman. He operates on a different schedule than we do. His level of exacting detail may appear to be a slow way to respond to things, but He works for eternity and does it “over the long haul.” God, like any skilled craftsman that takes after Him, simply refuses to RUSH. At the same time, what He builds lasts for as many generations as He chooses. In our lesson today from Genesis 15, we will clearly see an encouraging truth…

Key Principle: God may take His time keeping His promises, but we should have confidence in the fact that He always keeps them in every detail.

If you have been following our lessons through the life of Abraham, you know that chapter 15 unfolded after what happened when he got back from the fight to rescue his nephew Lot. He led a victory charge and brought the people and spoils of war back to Canaan from the raiders that had taken them away to Syria. A victory parade ensued, as did some conversations that seemed as much like high level negotiations as they did a celebration of victory. If you read chapter 14 carefully, there appeared to be some undercurrent tensions with the King of Sodom named Bera but there was welcome praise and encouragement from a priestly leader named Melchizedek. Abraham returned to his tent, cleaned the dust of travel and the blood of the fight from his sandals and got some rest.

After some time God showed up again to the Patriarch…

Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.”

Perhaps he was still pondering in his heart the words of King Bera and King Melchizedek from the celebration part of his recent victory, where each spoke to Abraham of reward. Maybe those words got him thinking about God’s blessings and promises. Neither king knew Abe was struggling in his heart with the very issue of reward, because God made a promise, but was slow on delivery.

Over the years, God had appeared to him a number of times. You can trace them in Genesis. I label each of them in my own study to remind me of their major features. Beginning in Genesis 12, trace them with me for a moment. God gave Abraham…

• An “Emptying” Promise: The first meeting was in Genesis 12:1-3, when God told Abram to move out to a country God would show him, and that God would make Abram a blessing to all nations. This set up Abraham’s great “trust exchange” where he was to give up what he knew for what God promised based solely on the Word of God. It was an “emptying promise” because he had to empty his life of his own stuff in order to gain what God wanted him to have.

Later, God appeared again. The next time it was:

• A “Defined” Promise: The second meeting (recorded in 12:7) revealed to Abram that he would receive all the land he could see for his descendants. He wasn’t only going to have a city; he would have a nation. It wouldn’t only be a piece of land for him; it was an inheritance for his many children yet to be born.

God appeared yet again. This time in another meeting recorded in 13:14, he received…

• An “Extended” Promise: After Abraham separated from Lot and showed incredible generosity, God promised Abraham the land allotment would be forever his for his family. That promise implied that his family would never be wiped out in war, and made plain the perpetual land ownership of that specific inheritance on the ground as God revealed to him earlier.

Afterward, God appeared again for a fourth meeting. In it, He offered Abraham what I call…

• A “Specified” Promise: God offered an additional promise to Abe: Your household will have great reward. Abram asked “How?” God replied, “Your seed will be many, and come from YOU!”

Go back to Genesis 15:2. Listen to Abe’s heart, as he pleads a case before a “Master Craftsman God.” Nothing appears to be happening in the baby department. Time is passing and he isn’t getting any younger, and neither is his wife. The fact remained that he had a promise of God, but no delivery on that promise yet. The “Master Craftsman of Heaven” was at work, meticulously designing the fulfillment to His promise. Abraham had to learn that God is an artist that doesn’t over promise. In His time, what He delivers is beyond anything we could imagine.

I suspect after the rush of the victory and the thrill of the homecoming parade were over, Abe found himself wondering about God’s earlier promises. The public affirmation brought to the surface a deep gnawing inside: He wanted God to make good on His powerful promises.

In many ways, his feeling matched the record of Zacharias in Luke 1, who had a similar and familiar story. Decades passed and Zach and Liz didn’t have the baby they longed for, just like Abe and Sarah many generations before.

The factor that was most bothersome to both of those Biblical families is this: God took His time delivering the answer to their deepest longings. Let that sink in… God isn’t in a hurry in your circumstance, but He will keep every promise He has made.

Look at Genesis 15 again as Abe openly revealed his angst:

Genesis 15:2 Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.”

There it is! Abe placed the pain of his impatience out in the open before God. He believed that God would keep His Word, but Abe wasn’t sure he understood how. Even more, I think there is reason to believe Abe wasn’t certain God understood how he felt about the slowly fulfilled promise. Remember, Abe didn’t have the benefit of a complete Bible to really understand God as He later revealed Himself.

The Patriarch’s words were few. He made clear that God had given him a great household, but no offspring from his loins. He made clear that he was preparing a servant to be his heir. God patiently listened and replied. “Nice plan, Abe. Wrong answer, but nice plan…”

The conversation is one of the most intimate displays of a caring God in the whole Bible. God reached deeply into Abe’s heart and gave him the promises he needed to pick up the shield of God and walk through life with it.

Genesis recorded:

Genesis 15:4 Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

• God told him Eliezer of Damascus would not and should not be his heir, but he would rather come from his own loins (Genesis 15:4). It is worth mentioning this wasn’t the only time Abe would take the promises of God, see a gap in them, and make his own plan to fill in the blank spaces. It was a reasonable thing to do, but it wasn’t the way the Master Craftsman wanted the thing built. Craftsmen often don’t work for efficiency as much as eloquence in the build. Long after the “need” was met, we see that God’s way of meeting it took care of issues we never anticipated at the time. We are anxious, but God is incredibly thorough!

• God offered an object lesson in the stars and told him clearly his house would be great in number (Genesis 15:5). The stars weren’t only many in numbers, but diverse in appearance and beautiful to behold. Abe didn’t miss the lesson.

Presented with the knowledge that God had a plan to build a huge household for and from Abe, the Patriarch bowed before God in recognition that he truly believed what he heard.

The text revealed:

Genesis 15:6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

The term “believed” (awman) was a form of the word that came from the building trade. It appears to have originally meant “to build upon” or “to set to give stability.” It is a foundational term sometimes used of doorposts. Abraham’s belief in what God said showed when he built his life upon it. That single act was counted as righteousness, and the record of it echoes throughout Scripture…

As we have studied together, it is clear God had his hand on Abraham’s life for a long time before this event, but something dramatic happened at this point in the narrative. This wasn’t the first encounter with God, but something was different this time. God saw something in Abraham’s heart, and Abraham saw something in God’s heart. Hebrew writers of old recalled Abraham’s choice in places like Nehemiah 9:8 and Psalm 106:31.

In the New Testament, the event was seen as pivotal and gained much attention. We can see this in Romans 4, where Paul built his argument on that act. Paul’s argument with those in Rome was essentially this:

The temple authorities are claiming you need to enlist in the Atonement Law of Sacrifice even if you have a walk with Jesus. They claim the actions of the Law are what make God satisfied concerning your sin. Yet, Abraham’s story runs contrary to their assertion:

• He is our fleshly father; we are his heirs (4:1).
• He wasn’t made complete in his walk with God by things he did, but by his personal belief in what God said (4:2-5).

Paul remarked:

Romans 4:3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…

Paul pressed the idea that circumcision (as entry eligibility for participation in the atonement sacrificial system) wasn’t a part of the satisfaction of God in Abraham – only his belief was required.

He asked:

Romans 4:9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

We see another version of that argument again in Galatians 3:6, where Paul again pressed the importance of Abraham’s belief as the point God accepted him.

Galatians 3:6 Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, [saying], “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.

Be careful not to misread that. Paul wasn’t saying that people who believe replace Israel as the sons of Abraham. In chapter 10 and 11 he will make the point there is a future for the physical children of Abraham. Here he adds people who have faith in Jesus to the blessed children of Abraham, in the sense that we have one heritage found in God. What is crystal clear is the notion that a man or woman can be made right with God by faith alone. The atonement once required has been fully replaced in Messiah by justification.

The key point from Paul’s teaching of the Gospel concerning Abraham was this: Though the atonement system (the offering of sacrifices in the tabernacle and later the temple made accessible to the circumcised) was necessary for a time, it wasn’t the ONLY way God ever worked. In fact, it wasn’t the basis of God’s acceptance. It was built UPON something more basic: belief. Lots of good animals died in the temple without effect if the person offering them didn’t believe.

The eternal formula for acquiring a right standing with God is and always was this: Lost men and women are saved by grace through faith. The grace is unmerited favor – every person given access to an intimate and eternal walk with God is given it without deserving it. The Fall in the Garden of Eden was a total mutiny. All salvation is by grace.

At the same time, God’s unmerited favor is accessed only by faith. The term means, “seeing it the way God says it is and not as my eye would see it without His revealed truth.”

For Abraham, belief that God would do exactly what He promised was the signal fire of belief in him. For people after the Atonement Law was in place, belief that God would abate His wrath and turn back toward them because they offered their heart to Him and an offering on the altar as a symbol of that brought intimacy with God. It was temporary, but effective.

In Jesus, belief that God sent His sinless and eternal Son to die in our place in payment for our mutiny is required to bring us into a forever relationship with God. Jesus’ death paid for my sin. Jesus’ resurrection proved the payment was accepted. My belief activates the transaction in my life. If I accept God’s testimony that what Jesus did is all that is required, I will be justified – not by my works, but by belief alone. Abraham proved that was possible without any work of any kind. Salvation happens in the heart and is based on belief in God’s truths as they are presented.

From another direction, the Apostle James made another truth clear from the record of that act in James 2:23. The problem was that first century preaching of salvation apart from atonement law gave people excuses to simply SAY they believed in Jesus, but live as they chose.

James responded:

James 2:14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for [their] body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, [being] by itself.

Referring to Abraham taking Isaac to the altar to be slain at the word of God he wrote:

James 2:22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

The argument isn’t contradictory, but complementary.

James didn’t argue that belief wasn’t the underlying factor (which was Paul’s point) but rather that it was clearly evidenced in behavior. Belief without heart response is dead theory. The appearance of works in response to God without belief is dead work.

To end the passage, God told Abraham to bring sacrificial animals, kill them and lay them out (Genesis 15:9-10). In order to keep the place suitable for God to work, Abraham drove away any vultures that were attracted to the carcasses. Working until nightfall, Abraham became tired and fell asleep. God added a depth to that rest and spoke to Abraham (Genesis 15:11-12). When God spoke, He explained that He would keep His promises.

Don’t skip the detail before God spoke. Abraham spent the afternoon waiting for God’s answer, and it didn’t come. He wanted to hear from God, but ended up chasing nasty birds. Why is that detail there? Because it is part of the POINT of the whole lesson. God wasn’t in a hurry. He was working behind the scenes. He already had selected the time and place He would reveal the fulfillment of His plan to Abe. Remember the truth we are studying?

God may take His time keeping His promises, but we should have confidence in the fact that He always keeps them in every detail.

While God was holding off on giving Abraham a son, He was preparing to give him whole nations. He was building the history book of mankind in advance. The story of Abraham isn’t yesterday’s news – it is the story of the Middle East TODAY. It will continue to dominate the news until the last moment of human history when time surrenders to eternity.

In other words, Abe saw his immediate inner desires while God saw the whole human program. Abe’s needs were much more modest than God’s answers! God’s view was bigger. It always is.

She loved God and she loved her husband. Though there was once passion in their marriage, she couldn’t honestly say that her husband loved her anymore. She couldn’t say he had any love for God. She saw his heart move away from her and she sobbed before God. He left. Her life collapsed. She sorted through the wreckage of past joys and even the pictures of old happiness served only to break her heart, again and again. She couldn’t go on. Quietly, she laid out her case to God. She was a good wife. She sought Jesus daily. Why wouldn’t He help her? She pleaded, but the words seemed to sink into the ceiling and go no further. She honestly felt abandoned by God… but she was wrong.

He left her and committed awful deeds. Swallowed in selfishness and greed, he broke the law and was caught. Now he sat in jail. Each letter he received from her convinced him that no one else in the world cared what happened to him. As he read the words of her tear-stained letters, he saw, for the very first time, who he really was – and what he gave up when he walked out on her. God used her brokenness to touch something inside him. God used his defeat to break his pride. The combination was powerful. Her testimony reached him, and her Jesus changed him.

It wasn’t instant. It wasn’t painless. It wasn’t fast. It DID produce a believing home that is now filled with joy. It produced two children that have godly parents. They don’t yet know the story of how their parents were constructed by a Master Craftsman to be a beautiful cathedral to Jesus. Someday they will hear the whole story!

Boot Camp: “Gearing Up for a Crisis” – Genesis 14 (Part Two)

One of the most frustrating parts of life is that we encounter people who seem somewhat clueless as to taking responsibility for their own choices, and facing the risks of their own behavior. In our day, we can easily be surrounded by people who want adult choices, but don’t feel responsible to make adult decisions. Let me offer some examples that may hit close to people you know or perhaps work with in our community…

Joe lives life fast and loose. He doesn’t have insurance on his property, because he thinks it is a “colossal waste of money.” He eats what he wants when he wants it. He buys what he likes and thinks a savings account is only for rich people. He isn’t interested in a retirement account because he would rather spend his money as he earns it. After all, how does he know he’ll be around long enough to spend what he puts aside? If he isn’t, the whole idea of saving it was just a waste. Joe fell one day from a little ladder outside his house. It wasn’t a big fall, but it was enough for Joe to have to get a bone set, and a surgery on some ligament damage. Out of work for a short time, Joe was incensed with his mortgage company for insisting he pay the bill. His electric got shut off. He steamed over the fact these “greedy companies don’t have any conscience about his pain.” He doesn’t connect the life he has lived for decades with his recent encounter of pain and loss. He thinks companies are the problem – not his choices.

Charlotte grew up in a Christian home, but some of her choices show she didn’t really follow what she was taught. She made critical compromises in moral areas that ended up costing her a great deal. On the street for a time, her family came to “bail her out” multiple times – but those stories didn’t end in change of her behavior. She kept expressing that she “needed help” because she wouldn’t take the steps necessary to solve her issues. She kept concluding that she was a victim, rather than recognizing her choices were pushing her in the opposite direction that she wanted to go.

Irresponsible people like these aren’t new to society. In our last lesson, we slowed down our march through Genesis and took a little time to contemplate the CAUSE of the battle of Lot and Abraham, and observe how wrong choices led to real problems. In this lesson, I want to look more closely at the people who are highlighted in the story of the “Battle of the Jordan River plain” and its aftermath in Genesis 14. As we do, note the people and their various attitudes. You will find Joe and Charlotte tucked into the story. You will also find a wonderful new friend for Abraham named Melchizedek. You will also learn an enduring truth:

Key Principle: Maturity is about recognizing stewardship and taking responsibility.

In fact, Abraham had three kinds of people in his life that are carefully highlighted in the story. Bear in mind he wasn’t always reflected as a good guy without flaws in this mini-series, but in this episode of his life he shined in a tale of faithfulness surrounded by three different kinds of people. Let me introduce the players in the story:

• First, there was a man we will refer to as the “Godless Entitled Chief.” Bera, the king of Sodom, who knew his choices led his life to failure, still felt he should get “his piece of the pie” from the hard-fought victory of Abraham. He even attempted to make himself look somewhat generous when he requested what was earned by someone else’s labors.

• Second, there was the believer who made bad choices, only to become a “Clueless Taker.” Lot was raised as a God-follower, but repeatedly refused a circumspect life and dwelt among the world’s worst characters. That brought him a solid stream of troubles. As a result, he became the “Bail-out Believer” who sapped time, resources, and energy from Abraham. That would have been fine, but he never seemed to stand on his own in maturity. You may know believing friends who thinks the Christians around them should take care of the bill created by their choices.

• Thankfully, there is a third man in the story. He is a God-follower, and he is a mature believer. We will call him our “Godly Encourager,” Melchizedek, a God-follower and encourager of Abraham.

Let’s get into the text and look carefully at the story.

The Crisis

First, let’s read about the crisis that introduced the men into the narrative. Drop your eyes into the story of a war…

Genesis 14:5 In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham and the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, 6 and the Horites in their Mount Seir, as far as El-paran, which is by the wilderness. 7 Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and conquered all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, who lived in Hazazon-tamar.

The text drew the lines around the adversaries. Chedorlaomer raided the deserts of wilderness tribes in what is today Israel, Jordan and eastern Egypt (the Sinai). Because the areas may be unfamiliar to you, let me share that he subdued the “tribes of Rephaim” in what will later be the “hill country of Judah” west of Jerusalem, along with the “Zuzim,” the “Ham,” the “Emim,” the “Horites,” and the “Amalekite tribes” in several different deserts, or what the Bible calls “the wilderness” areas. These tribes were used to a nomadic life, and even their “cities” were often massive tent encampments.

That background was supplied so that Moses could record the staging of the “Battle of the Jordan Plain” in Genesis 14:8-9.

Genesis 14:8 And the king of Sodom and the king of Gomorrah and the king of Admah and the king of Zeboiim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) came out; and they arrayed for battle against them in the valley of Siddim, 9 against Chedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goiim and Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.

Essentially, five tribal chieftains including Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Bela (or Zoar) joined forces against the raiders from the Mesopotamian plains far east of them. The four raiding tribes were clear invaders: Chedarlaomer of Elam, Tidal of Goiim, Amraphel of Shinar and Arioch of Ellasar. They were muscling in on an expanded set of trade routes and gaining the allegiance of many tribesmen to build a desert network of caravan routes. Cities in league near the Dead Sea were a problem for the Mesopotamians. Some of the cities of that region were among the oldest in the world, like Jericho. Sodom and Gomorrah appear to be the largest of those cities.

From an archaeological standpoint, there is a debate about where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were (since they were destroyed). Some archaeologists look for remains of a city – but that presupposes the ruins survived after the destruction of the places.

East of the Dead Sea is a site from the “Early Bronze Age” (Patriarchal Period) called Bab edh-Dhra. There was a small city of about 1,000 individuals that lived in an area that has been partially excavated. The remarkable feature of Bab edh-Dhra is the number of graves found near the site. While the city was apparently small, an estimated 20,000 tombs are located beside the site. These family tombs would have held approximately half a million people and over 3 million pottery vessels. Some of us think that represented cities that were eliminated in Genesis.

What Went Wrong in the Fight?

Genesis takes us back to the scene and describes what the home team army failed to do.

Genesis 14:10 Now the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell into them. But those who survived fled to the hill country.

Though the defenders of the plain were on “home turf,” it seems that Chedarlaomer and his allies routed the local tribal warriors of the plain, because they seemed unable to maneuver well in the sinkholes and tar pits of the Jordan Valley near their own cities. I suspect they got trapped in pockets and split up by the superior force.

It is a bit ironic that the men of Sodom ended up trapped in a slime pit on home turf.

The plains tribes were demoralized and shaken, so they broke off their defense and fled into what would later be known as the “wilderness of Judah” leaving their home encampments, wives and children undefended. The battle won, Chedarlaomer and his raiders snatched all that they could and started to journey north toward Galilee, Golan, Syria, and eventually home. Genesis told the story this way:

Genesis 14:11 Then they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food supply, and departed. 12 They also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom. 13 Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram.

Sodom and Gomorrah were abandoned, their people captured by Chedarlaomer and their army probably returning slowly in shambles as people trickled back to the region. Among the captive from the cities of the plain being carted north was Lot, nephew of Abram. Uncle Abe got word at his plight when a man who evaded capture visited the encampment of Abe, near Hebron.

The Counterattack

Moses continued the record of the story:

Genesis 14:14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. 16 He brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people.

There are a number of insightful comments offered in these verses.

First, we can clearly see that Abe grew considerably after his encounter in Egypt years before. In chapter 12, Abram acted like a coward when he came into Egypt and didn’t protect his wife. He thought of himself in earlier times. In this account, it appears things had changed. Abe grew. He stood up because he possessed something the world around him did not have: He grasped the promises of God and walked in God’s plan for his life.

Second, it is important to note that Abraham used the prosperity God gave him to grow his sense of responsibility. Things seemed progressively less important with each story after Egypt, and people seemed more important.

At the same time, I think it is the END of the text of Genesis 14 that reveals its true importance. As Genesis 14 closed, contrasting world views are highlighted in the people Abraham met.

The Homecoming

In verses 17 through 24, we see a record of two different leaders talking to Abram. First, Melchizedek, the king of Salem (likely Jerusalem) came out to meet Abram. Next, Bera, the king of Sodom made a request of Abe. All the while, quietly standing by was Abe’s nephew Lot.

Listen to their contrasting voices. For reasons that will become obvious, I want to take them out of order…

First, look at the meeting with the King of Sodom:

Genesis 14:21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” 22 Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share.”

Sodom’s king commanded a wicked people in the wake of a failed war. The city would be a mere memory had it not been for Abraham. Clearly the king’s strategies hadn’t been working, and this was a time when he should have shown humility. I ask you honestly, “Do his words sound humble?” He said two things:

First, he said: “Give the people to me.”

Second, he said: “Take the goods for yourself.”

Sodom’s failed chief, in essence, offered to “share” the spoils from the battle with Abraham, but offered no praise or blessing to Abram. It is clear by Abe’s response that on the scene and in the time, Abe thought anything he “shared” would significantly compromise the way the story was recalled later. Lest we come to believe Bera somehow was humbled, remember by Genesis 19 God will completely destroy his city. John Calvin perceptively remarked that Abram knew others would falsely accuse him of using the “rescue of Lot” as a pretense to get personal gain. Abe understood that is what Bera would have done if the situation were reversed.

Next, listen to the record of his meeting with Melchizedek, king of Salem:

Genesis 14:17 Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” He gave him a tenth of all.

What a different tone to this king over Bera of Sodom! As he brought out bread and wine of celebration, he acted the part of a priest. It was clear that he responded to the situation of Abraham’s victory with praise to God. Melchizedek’s words of praise were directed at God for Abraham. He was the kind of encourager every believer needs in life – the kind that points us back to God while celebrating our progress with us!

The king of Salem pressed Abe to see that God was at work on his behalf. He didn’t try to rob him of the victory, but rather pointed out the source of his blessing. In the parade, it is good to get the gentle reminder that we accomplish by the Lord’s hand.

While the response to the king of Sodom would have felt like paying a tax, the response to the king of Salem felt like celebrating God’s goodness.

Don’t forget that Lot was also there.

His poor choices led him to be a part of the problem. Abe could have been hurt or killed because of the life choices of Lot. At the very least, he was diverted from his life tasks because of them.

Do you see the three people Abraham encountered?

• One was a believer who made choices that were irresponsible and ungodly – and needed Abe and his men to come to the rescue and use God’s resources to bail them out.

• One was a non-believer who projected his value system on Abe, and acted entitled to share in the good result when his life strategies caused the problems to begin with.

• One was a fellow worshiper who led Abe to conclude that victory came because God was active at work on his behalf.

Let’s say it another way:

In his life, he had an immature “taker,” who sapped his energy without any sense that is what he was doing. He made choices and didn’t pay the end by himself. He didn’t seem to connect the dots between his choices and the number of people he drew into harm’s way.

In his life, he had an entitled voice from the fallen world around him. This man didn’t connect his failed strategies and terrible life choices to his losses, but rather expected Abe to include him in the victory celebration and charged a tax to absorb some of the victory. There was no praise in his voice. There was no real desire to bless Abe. There was a demand for part of the pie and a concession that Abe could keep the secured possessions. Ironically, Bera didn’t give Abe anything Abe didn’t already have – he was artfully acting as those he should get benefit from Abe’s victory.

Finally, there was an encouraging voice of a fellow follower of God. He didn’t direct his thinking to Abe, but to the God over all of them. He drew Abe into a celebration of praise. From that, Abe gave a tithe. It wasn’t forced upon him, and no “deals” were made with Melchizedek. It was a response to being led into praise.

The point is simple: Mature believers aren’t trying to find ways in relationships to get things. They aren’t “clueless” about grabbing the fruit of another’s labor, and they don’t walk around entitled. In fact, their focus isn’t primarily on the events – but on the God Who is in control.

Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself – it is thinking of yourself LESS. Mature believers DO praise progress, but they understand it is in the context of God’s goodness and God’s provision. We win when He opens that door. We gain because He allows it to be so. They do not sing the song of pride, but of gratitude.

Here is my simple question: Who are you most like in the story?

Are you trying to follow the Lord, but you keep finding yourself unable to make it without the constant bail out of others? Let me challenge you: Your life choices must change for you to change your outcomes. If you don’t like what you’re reaping, you have to change what you are sowing. Open your heart and your ears to those who are helping you. What can you change about your life to remove the constant sense of drain you put on others?

Are you living life without recognizing how God provides all you possess? Do you feel entitled to a good life, even when your choices are largely self-serving? Have you considered how good God has been to you in providing by the work of others what you have? Do you think of yourself and how you deserve what you have or do you focus more on how God provides undeserved blessing to you? Let me challenge you: If you don’t see God at work, it may be because you don’t truly know Him at all.

Are you the encouraging voice of a friend that helps focus others on God at work in their lives? Does your counsel lift? Does your countenance show one who lives in praise of a good God? Let me challenge you: If God has been good, shouldn’t you declare Him so?

Did you ever hook a trailer to the back of your automobile and then need to back up? As you are trying to decide which way the trailer will go when you turn in a certain direction, you move slowly and keep doubling back on yourself. You pull forward again and turn the opposite way. Eventually, you see the trailer begin to go as you need it to go. What if you decided that no matter what you did, the trailer was being feisty and causing your trouble? What if you thought, “This is a bad trailer. I am stuck with a trailer that has no sense. What can I do?” If you kept pressing the gas while it was turned in the wrong direction, it would go to the wrong place, and likely harm other people or property.

Some people live that way. They feel the trailer is defective – it isn’t about their turns. They don’t re-work their method, because it is the “situation” that dominates their life and they are a victim of it. They don’t get better because they don’t own the problem. They aren’t the driver of the life God entrusted to them.

If you don’t become a steward, you will frame life as a victim of circumstance – but that isn’t what God told us to do. We are told to drive our own life toward Him. Drive! Make the turns and change what you are doing based on where the trailer goes.

You can be a help or a hindrance to others. You can bring praise or problem to them. In most situations, it comes down to taking responsibility for our life choices and where they lead. Maturity is about recognizing stewardship and taking responsibility.

Boot Camp: “Gearing Up for a Crisis”- Genesis 14 (Part One)

Whether you are ready or not, at some point, a crisis will lunge its way into your life like an undetected snake hiding in your boot. It will hit you in a way you could never imagine beforehand and either hurt you deeply, or (at the very least) it will rock your stability. It can be a health crisis, a financial crisis, an emotional crisis, or even a spiritual crisis. If I have learned anything in life it is this: crises will come.

Another thing I have learned is that it is never possible to be fully ready for a crisis. You can prepare yourself (and you should), but when you are stricken, it will invariably be in an area you didn’t foresee with a strength you couldn’t imagine. I am not trying to scare you, but anyone who has lived a little will tell you what I am saying is true.

In recent months, my family has been reeling from changes that can best be explained as aging issues with my dear mom and dad. It isn’t that we didn’t know they were getting older; it is that we didn’t know what that would look like, and how it would affect both them and us. I admit to being taken entirely by surprise at the range of feeling in the sweeping changes… and my situation is by no means as bad as it could be.

On the other hand, one of our students was sitting in church last Sunday, not knowing that by this week he would have left school and be back in Ohio with his family. This week his mom was diagnosed with a brain cancer that is aggressive, and given a number of months to live. Kevin walked blindly into a crisis. His family is in a crisis. There is simply no way at his age he could have fully prepared for this. There was no way for him to see it coming. Yet, our lesson today suggests there are things he and his family can do that will make the crisis bearable – but don’t take it that following God would have insulated him from the experience. Job, Moses, Paul – any of them would tell you that following God is no guarantee for crisis free living.

Our passage for this lesson unfolds an unexpected crisis. There are two players who directly faced it: Abraham and Lot. I want to break the lesson in two, and talk today about Lot’s experience MORE than about Abraham’s, following up in the next lesson with Abe’s perspective. The basic storyline of Genesis 14 is a simple one. If I were writing about this episode in the mini-series that is the life of Abraham for an ancient version of TV GUIDE, I might say it this way:

Lot’s choice for a place to live dropped him into the heart of a long-standing conflict that erupted into war. Caught and led captive by an enemy of his region, he is rescued by Abraham and Abe’s tribal warriors. As Lot is repatriated back to Canaan, Abraham meets face to face with two Canaan chieftains – the King of Salem and the King of Sodom.”

In essence, the story demonstrated how a bad choice led to a bad situation that required a rescue. In the wake of the rescue, there are two short, but “telling” engagements, that highlight two ways of thinking – one from a believing prince, another from a lost and wicked one.

Step back for a moment and consider the old saying: “The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battlefield.” If that is true, we should expect a level of crisis. War is about surprising the opposition. To be clear, then, the believer isn’t supposed to fit comfortably into this life without any struggle if we were born again into a war. Neither are we supposed to capitulate to those driven by fallen values. In the end, we can’t fully be ready, but the Lord has offered us a model of how to navigate the troubles in the stories of those long ago. In this story there is a secret Abraham modeled and Lot missed:

Key Principle: The secrets to effectively confronting evil are circumspect living and a carefully maintained walk with God.

The secret is NOT perfection, because that is unattainable. The secrets modeled by Abraham were un-extraordinary and un-profound preparation. Abraham placed himself in a position where evil was not saturating his life, but conversely he learned to seek, hear, and learn from God. When the struggle came, he was ready to face it on the terms of his daily walk. He didn’t seek crisis, but he was ready to answer the needs. That is our next lesson. For this one, I want to look at Lot who modeled NEITHER secret. He jumped into the soup of evil, and found himself in captivity.

Let me offer a snapshot that explains his mistake, because it is an easy one to make. In Genesis 14:1-4 the text unfolds a league of cities that rebelled against a stronger chieftain that was not on the scene in verse four. The cities paid a tribute to the chief, and after many years decided to rebel. The chief came to prove to the cities that was a mistake in Genesis 14:5-13. Chedorlaomer cleaned up the rebel cities and took people hostage. In the wake of the rebellion, there was carnage, burned camps and an escaping army. The last part of that section made clear the crisis that dropped into Lot and Abraham’s life:

Genesis 14:12 They also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom. 13 Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram.

It is worth noting that this is the Bible’s earliest record of a specific regional war. Abraham went to save his nephew in response, but don’t neglect that he had a treaty with the defeated tribes to defend them. How did he get that? I suspect there is MORE to Lot’s involvement than is written at the end of 14:13, where it simply explains that Abram was an “ally.” I have no doubt there were many other wars in that time, but this is the first mention in the text of Genesis of such an event.

In the text, both Lot and Abraham faced trouble – but Lot’s troubles clearly came because of earlier choices. Isn’t that true of many of our problems?

People come in for financial assistance and tell us how they got hurt on the job, and they are now financially unable to care for their mortgage. What they don’t say (because they don’t see it) is they made MANY choices before the situation they feel victimized by now. They were overspending while they were working and have no savings. They didn’t take the optional insurances that would help in this situation. They simply didn’t look around and spot where trouble COULD come from. They lived life without a prepared circumspect view. This is not unusual.

In fact, the problem is that some believers live as if they shouldn’t prepare for anything. They believe that way of living somehow lacks faith. They maintain the view that it is possible to live successfully in the world system without the need to stick out or get ready – and I think neither will work. I honestly encounter people who believe that at their heart, most people will be reasonable when it comes to moral choices. They believe the world has few snares and many pleasures that are simply free benefits. They live life with no sense that danger may be ahead. They honestly seem unaware of the power of the enemy until they are caught.

That is the story of Lot.

To understand the setting of Genesis 14, you have to recall his blind but incredibly optimistic choice that set up his eventual captivity. Remember the story? In a time when the shepherds of Lot’s flocks were in conflict with the shepherds of Abraham’s flock (ostensibly because of limited turf) Abraham let Lot choose where he wanted to live and agreed to subdivide the land God had promised him. Lot’s choice was recorded in Genesis 13:10:

“Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar.”

The choice of a place to live was a big one. As for all of us, such a choice isn’t only about the landscape, but about the moral and political environment.

The travel channel doesn’t seem to capture that idea. The other day I saw in a hotel room a show that was all about the virtues of a family from the US getting an unbelievable deal on a home in Libya. The next show followed some British ex-pats who lived in Marrakesh, Morocco. Both shows touted what a great place these families had chosen to “beat the rat race” of western society and live more simply. Both celebrated the beauty of a home that could be purchased at a fraction of the price. Both made the point that “family” was so important to them, so they made the bold move to leave their home and build a new life in a new place. Neither of them addressed how it would affect their children to be raised in an environment like the one they were promoting. Neither show referenced how living in a Muslim village would affect their daughters. Neither show seemed to acknowledge that such a “bold move” would inevitably cause them to confront other issues about their lives.

Because I raised my children in a different culture and lived long enough to see the results of that, perhaps I was more sensitive to that danger. In the end, Lot made his choice apparently without connecting any future dots.

Look at the phrase in the beginning of Genesis 13:10 and it becomes clear that Lot chose his future based on what looked like it would fulfill his desires and meet his needs – like many of us did. The problem is, as a believer, the choice wasn’t to be made that way at all. He never sought the Lord in the text, but apparently thought the Lord would just endorse his plans for the future. Have you ever done that? Have you ever asked God for His direction only after the contract was signed?

The short back story here is that poor choices by Lot led his family into a dangerous conflict he didn’t recognize. His choice set the stage about him that was physically perilous, morally hazardous and unhealthy in the extreme.

Let me lay something out in front of you for a moment. Would you drop your eyes to the middle of the text of Genesis 14? Listen as I read verse twelve:

Genesis 14:12 They also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom.

I couldn’t help but notice at the end of the verse how there was a slight difference between where Lot ended up and where he first located. It caught my eye. I had to flip back and look, and there it was in the middle of Genesis 13:

Genesis 13:12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom.

Did you see those words? The EDGE of Lot’s initial choice was the city of Sodom. In time, his home was parked right in the middle of town. What began as bordering Sodom ended up as living in Sodom. Can you sympathize with Lot? If you have any experience with Sodom, you know how that happened…

Have you or someone you know well ever been “sucked into Sodom?”

Maybe we should ask, “What is the problem with living in SODOM? Perhaps it doesn’t sound so bad. In the Bible, Sodom is a shorthand script for a morally degenerate environment.

• Sodom presents the values of WORLDLINESS.
• Sodom offers the enticement of a fallen world.
• Sodom is the best men can do when they apply WORLDLY wisdom.
• Sodom was touted as a HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT of freedom from rules that dragged men down.
• Sodom was SELF-WILL on open display.

Today, it looks like a parade in Key West, or a walk on the Vegas strip. The colors and energy of enticement distract you from thinking about where choices lead. Sodom is about NOW, not later. Sodom is about FEELING A RUSH, not paying the freight.

It has been centuries, and still we must ask the question to the long gone nephew Lot… “What are you doing living in Sodom?”

Perhaps you think me too harsh. Maybe you have found the enlightened ability to rationalize Sodom. Spend time counseling people paying for their past Sodom and I suspect you would change your tune.

But rationalizing Sodom doesn’t let us really think about the bill we will owe.

It is caught by a vision of the lights and the sounds of freedom. Let me see if any of these arguments hit close to where you are thinking, or have thought.

Most people didn’t get kidnapped into Sodom (Lot included), they walk in. As a warning to you, here is a thought we should consider when we see the “Welcome to the Good Life of Sodom” sign:

You and I are not as strong as we think we are. Many a “Lot” or “Lottess” have made the intentional decision to encounter Sodom thinking: “I know better. I was raised better! I will not be sucked into the temptations that Sodom offers. May I say aloud? “This was (and is) a foolish mistake!” Perhaps the simple application of 1 Corinthians 10:11-13 is in order:

1 Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

Listen to the words Paul wrote carefully. He doesn’t say that you can BEAR the temptation. He makes the point that God provides an escape before you hit the breaking point. If you don’t use the door to exit, you will be defeated. Hear me: hang in there in your strength and you will be sucked downward! In the Word, the constant call to the believer amid temptation is the same – FLEE. Get out of there.

For some, it isn’t that they believe they will be strong. It is the simple matter that they haven’t concluded that Sodom was really “all that bad” after all. I mean, “Every place has an issue!”

The problem is that Sodom is MORE CORRUPT than you may have ever imagined! Its costs are “all in” and it leaves nothing in its wake.

Unless he was comatose shortly after his move, Lot had to know of the openly recognized dangers in Sodom, but he seemed blind to how pervasive the evil had become and how powerful its attraction would be in his life and that of his family members. Remember, as you keep reading Genesis, God’s vote was that Sodom was suited to destruction. This takeover in war was likely the “last call” for the city to repent. Not long after, God said their “turnaround time” was over. Sodom was so immersed in a fallen world view the inhabitants erased all memory of true morality. They “made up their own rules” and then taxed away to pay for the social programs that tried unsuccessfully to address the unintentional consequences of their policies. Imagine a place like that! (I know you can’t!).

Paul described in Romans 1 what God called a “reprobate” mind. The willful divorce from God in the thinking of man, the pulling down of the very Creator from His rightful place of worship, marks the senseless descent from truth into the abyss of immoral ungodliness. In the end, they defiled their bedrooms in the celebration of the god of boundary-less pleasures.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Lot didn’t think he was strong enough to resist. Maybe Lot believed the old adage: “I know how far I can go.” I am convinced that many a believer has no clue of the true object of temptation. You aren’t tempted as a way for the enemy to find a way to ultimately PLEASE YOU. You are tempted, both in your flesh, and by the dangling of the world’s fallen thinking backed by the enemy’s encouragement, for the singular purpose to TRAP you.

Temptation CAPTURES the tempted. It SNARES. It ENTICES. That is its nature.

A few months ago I had a cat coming by to eat the food in my chicken pen. She didn’t harm the chickens and I didn’t like the idea of harming the cat, so I let it go on and tossed balls at her to scare her if I thought she took too much. A few weeks later, word got out. I believe her kittens came out of the bushes and they joined in. On any given morning I had more cats I was feeding than chickens. I got a “safe trap” from the animal control. I put an open can of cat food in the trap. In an hour, the trap had its first kitten. I took the trap to let the kitten go into the wilderness away from houses. I came back. In another hour, I had kitten two to relocate. In another hour, kitten three was in the trap. The remarkable thing is that each of the kittens saw the other taken away. Entering the trap was never a successful way to be fulfilled because it was designed to be a TRAP.

Think of what the Bible warned about sinful enticement:

Proverbs 1:10 My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. 11 If they say, “Come with us …13 We will find all kinds of precious wealth, we will fill our houses with spoil; 14 throw in your lot with us, we shall all have one purse…” 15 My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path.

Did not James 1:14-15 warn us:

James 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

When will we stop the rationalizing that ensnares us? When will we stop saying, “I’ll just be there a short time, I won’t stay long!” Does anyone ever thoughtfully plan to shipwreck their life and testimony? Isn’t it always because we chose to “nibble” before we got trapped? Still another rationalizer from the School of Lot will cry, “I’ll never know if I’m a strong enough unless I try.” What a dumb strategy. That’s like trying to decide how far you can fall by jumping from a variety of cliff heights!

Here is the truth: If you come to believe there is a better alternative to facing temptation than the one instructed by God, your arrogance is showing.

Fleeing, as God clearly instructs, is HIS way to win. If you have another plan, your knowledge (which you must believe is greater than God’s knowledge) will fail you. It just will. How about the great rationalization from the Lot school of outreach: “Wait! I’m going to be a missionary!” Some think: “I will place myself in that situation to reach people.” The “courses” at the “Lot School of Outreach” include such classes as:

Missionary dating: I will date them and show them what a Christian really is…
Clubbing for outreach: My testimony will shine louder than the lights and they will all notice Jesus in me as they down their drinks and look for a hookup.
• Or perhaps the ever-popular course: “Entangling your business with unbelievers as an effective evangelism strategy.”

Then there is my personal favorite: The course called “Missionary Marriage” where you marry a mate so you can reach them for Jesus!

Let’s be absolutely clear: When you assemble life apart from the Creator’s instructions, you will have two results. You will have leftover parts and things won’t work as you plan them.

When your motive is really to find fulfillment in a plan that God doesn’t endorse, you will find that you never influence Sodom as much as Sodom influences you!

That is why God instructed:

2 Corinthians 6: 14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?

That is why God commanded:

2 Timothy 2:22 Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

That is why God warned:

1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.

Did you notice that Peter couldn’t have been more clear. Don’t buy the bullets for the weapons the enemy uses to shoot at you. Making decisions to find fulfillment in this life apart from God’s path is a surefire way to pummel the part of you that truly desires to walk in obedience to God into silence and captivity. The two sides of you, the old man and the spiritually alive are tangled in a vicious war.

Quickly go back to Genesis 14:4. Consider the background to the story as a simple cautionary tale:

Genesis 14:4 Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but the thirteenth year they rebelled.

Consider this: Lot moved into the place when a war was slowly coming to a boil. Should we not see there are dangers in Sodom that we may not perceive when we decide to become comfortable living there? It appears that Lot was unaware of the coming conflict. That is why circumspect living is commanded by God – it helps you assess danger before you wake up in a battle you cannot win.

It is probably worth remembering here that reality will NEVER match Satan’s advertising about your compromised choices!

I have to believe from later stories that Lot wasn’t completely oblivious to the dangers of Sodom. To live there, it seems to me he had to suppress his conscience.

When rationalization takes hold, the conscience is pushed to the back of your heart.

The most remarkable part of the story to me was that AFTER Abraham rescued his family, Lot RETURNED to Sodom! After Abraham exposed the evil of the thinking of the ruler of Sodom, Lot STILL took his family and went back to settle in for a stay.

In the next lesson, I want to look more closely at the battle and its aftermath. For now, it is enough to contemplate the CAUSE of the battle, and observe which man was ready when it came.

The secrets to effectively confronting evil are circumspect living and a carefully maintained walk with God.

Dave Jackson in Leadership Magazine:

Our train rolled into Kansas City at 1 a.m. Dim lights came on to help the new passengers find seats. Many of us who had been riding home through the night had spread out to occupy two seats apiece. An attractive woman made her way down the aisle with her bags. She was looking from side to side, hoping for someone to move. I turned toward the window and watched her in the reflection. “May I sit here?” she asked. “Sure.” I looked up and smiled as I moved over. She threw her things into the rack above and sat down. Near the back of the car, only one of my colleagues had managed to keep his extra space. Lucky guy. “My name’s Kathy. What’s yours?” I told her, and we talked quietly for a while. She was on her way to visit her mother after some rough spats with her husband. I was eager to get home and see my wife and family after an exhausting church leadership conference. Soon we had both slipped off to sleep. At some later stop, I awoke to find Kathy cuddled next to me. “You don’t mind if I lean my head on your shoulder, do you?” she said sleepily. “Uh, no. I guess not.” She was just tired … wasn’t she? And besides, I had a wonderful wife and a great marriage and would be home before noon. I looked around to see if anyone was noticing. She cuddled closer. I wondered what she really wanted–or would allow. At first I couldn’t believe what I was thinking. But then it was her fault. She knew exactly what she was doing. I might as well enjoy it. After all, what could happen on a train full of people? Nothing, nothing really … except what Jesus warned about happening in the heart. Finally, I excused myself so I could go back and talk with my friend–the “lucky” one with the empty seat beside him. Or maybe I was the lucky one since that extra space was still available. I only knew I didn’t need to stay where I had been. Perhaps it wasn’t luck at all.

Maybe that was the “way of escape” that 1 Corinthians 10:13 talks about, which God had provided from the beginning.

One of the great secrets to effectively confronting evil are circumspect living and a carefully maintained walk with God.