Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Really Bad Attitude

It was one of my favorite songs as a child, probably because of the upbeat tempo and choreography--little feet marching in place or trotting like a horse. Arms soaring up and down. All while my brother and I belted out the words: "I may never march in the infantry, ride in the Calvary, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o'er the enemy. But I'm in the Lord's army."

While many of my family members have served and are presently serving in our country's military, I have never been able to put that on my resume. American military service is a level of sacrifice I've never felt a calling or compulsion to give. Yet, when it comes to my service in Christ's army? Well, that's a different story.

Serving under a general, a king, or a God--they all require sacrifice. And yet, while the sacrifice may be compulsory rather than voluntary, one's attitude while fulfilling his duty is always of his choosing.

Consider the prophet Jonah. I've always found him interesting because for a prophet of the Lord, this sure seemed like a guy with so huge an attitude problem that God couldn't use him.

But use him God did. One day, He gave Jonah his commission: "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me" (Jon. 1:1).

Jonah received his orders. And he refused. What did he care about the souls of pagans who didn't bear the heritage of being known as God's chosen people?

A ship, a storm, a crew throwing him overboard into the depths of the sea, a few days in the belly of a great fish, and according to some scholars, perhaps even death--finally Jonah submitted to God's command: "But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD" (2:9)

When his orders came--unaltered--a second time, Jonah obeyed: "So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (3:3-4).

Commentator Matthew Henry says, "By this it appears that God was perfectly reconciled to Jonah." He argues, "he did not retire into an inn, to refresh himself after his journey, but opened his commission immediately, according to his instructions."* But I don't buy it.

If he had a bad attitude concerning his service, Jonah wouldn't have stopped to rest or eat because he wanted to complete his commission as quickly as possible so he could get away from these non-Jewish people whose salvation he really didn't care about in the first place.

A piece of evidence to support this view may be found in verses three and four above. One interpretation of them is that in a city so large, it would take three days to walk around it and reach all the people with news of God's pending judgment. Instead, the prophet seems to make a beeline "one day's walk" through the center of the city. This way, he fulfills the letter of his commission, but not the spirit of it.

Another piece of evidence to support this view is Jonah's response when the people repent and God relents his judgment. Jonah's reaction speaks of a continued attitude problem: "But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.He prayed to the LORD and said, 'Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life'"(4:1-3).

The book of Jonah ends with the prophet's last words speaking of his being "angry, even to death" (4:9). Instead of rejoicing that all the people in this vast city had another attempt to seek God for their salvation, Jonah is angry, so angry that he asks God to kill him.

This attitude doesn't sound like someone who is "perfectly reconciled" with God. Instead, it sounds like someone who completed his commission because he was compelled to do so, not because his heart was in it...and now he's angry about the outcome.

The sad thing? Jonah missed the blessing. He missed the joy of being part of something God was doing. He missed the joy of being a part of God's mercy. All because of his attitude.

As Christians, God may give us many commissions, some of which we won't really want to do but will feel compelled to do anyway. It's at those times that we have a choice. We can run from God. We can obey but with a wrong attitude. Or we can obey with our actions and heart.

Only with the last option can we truly receive all the blessings given us for being a part of God's work.

*Matthew Henry Commentary Online.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading By Halves

What happens when we expect something that isn't? When reality collides with our vision of how things should be? Are we simply blinded by our expectations so that we just ignore the differences? Or if our eyes are opened, do we allow our disappointment to rule over us to the point where we attempt to mold what is into what we think it should be?

It seems I have spent a lifetime where my expectations have repeatedly been shattered by the light of truth...and I must admit am shamefully slow to adapt.

Even life as a Christian--I seem to continually expect God to do one thing through me, and He has something completely different in mind. If I seek the blessing, He may send a trial. If I seek glory through me for Him, He will teach me invisible submission. If I seek healing, He shows me how to live no matter the circumstances.

His word comforts me, though. It shows me I am not the only one having difficulty reconciling who He is with whom I expect Him to be.

In Jesus' final days, His chosen people, His disciples, His chosen inner circle--they all stubbornly, blindly held steadfast to who they thought Jesus should be.

The people of Israel in general expected to be saved by a military leader, one who would deliver them politically from the clutches of Rome. They made this clear when Jesus entered Jerusalem shortly before His death. Throwing their cloaks on the ground as Jesus rode by, the crowd shouted "Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel" (John 12:13). In this verse, Strong's shows that "Hosanna" means "Save us." However, the people were making a political rather than a religious statement, begging Jesus to "Save us from the oppression of Rome!"

When it became obvious Jesus was not the political messiah they longed for, that His agenda and time line did not align with theirs, they turned on Him and loudly demanded His death. In a sense, they allowed themselves to be blinded by their expectations of what Messiah would be.

They clung to verses like those in Isaiah 9 that said "There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore" (v.7). And they ignored those verses like those from Isaiah 53 that say "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering....But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (v. 3,5).

Only remembering and understanding half the prophecy, they allowed their disappointment to turn into hurt, deadly anger, dangerous emotions that led a once excited, hopeful crowd to murderous thoughts and demands.

Sadly, the disciples who knew Jesus best weren't much better--even they were blinded by what they expected, not hearing and understanding what Jesus' action plan really was, even when He spoke seemingly clearly to them of His death.

Scripture says, "Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You. But He turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's'" (Matt. 16:21-23).

It makes me shake my head to think that Peter--one of the three closest to Jesus--was conflicted between "man's" expectations and "God's interests."

Perhaps even Judas' betraying Jesus for a bag of silver was his attempt to force Jesus to claim His Kingship, to be the military ruler who would save Jerusalem and His people through a show of power, not through peace and self-sacrifice.

Bible commentator Matthew Henry writes, "The disciples' prejudices were so strong, that they would not understand these things literally. They were so intent upon the prophecies which spake of Christ's glory, that they overlooked those which spake of his sufferings. People run into mistakes, because they read their Bibles by halves, and are only for the smooth things. We are backward to learn the proper lessons from the sufferings, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, as the disciples were to what he told them as to those events; and for the same reason; self love, and a desire of worldly objects, close our understandings."

How many times are we so intent on looking for God's glory our lives that we fail to remember that to be like Christ, we must suffer as well?

Closer to home, how many times am I guilty of reading the Bible by halves so I don't have to worry about the issues that bother me, confuse me, seemingly conflict with other Scripture, and leave me scratching my head with more questions than answers?

God forbid we allow our expectations to control our understanding of who God is...or that we read for only the "smooth things" His word can show.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Where Are My Keys?

Mounted on the wall by the back door is a set of hooks for catching keys. I must be using the wrong kind of bait, though, because those hooks come up empty more often than not.

At least once a week, I fly in the house to turn off the alarm and something distracts me--a phone call, a screaming child, an impatient request for a snack. Mindlessly, I put the keys down on the kitchen cabinet, desk, washer, or stack of diapers. A few minutes later, I usually notice the hook is empty, and there begins the search.

It's scary to think that mere minutes have passed, but I already can't remember what I just did. But, that is human nature--we are forgetful beings. I remember my mother saying if women really remembered the actual pain of childbirth, they'd never have another baby. Thankfully, pain is dulled in the memory...but so are many other things.

One issue I have struggled with forever is remembering who God is and what He has done for me. In those times when I feel low, I only remember the trials, the bitter lot. I forget His blessings, His faithfulness.

It seems the Old Testament character, Naomi, had the same problem. Scripture says she, her husband, and two sons left Judah because of famine and went to reside in the land of Moab for ten years. While there, her husband and two sons died.

With only her two daughters-in-law left, she decided to return home to Judah "for she had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD had visited His people in giving them food" (Ruth 1:6). Obviously, God had already sent rain to break the famine, blessing His people...blessing her as well by providing favorable circumstances for her to come home.

Did Naomi see this blessing? No. Understandably, she only saw her present pain.

When she returned to Bethlehem, "all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, 'Is this Naomi?'" (v. 19). It seems God had also once blessed her with friendship, and those friends remained true, expressing their concern for her well-being.

Naomi's reply, though, indicates she remembers no past blessings: "She said to them, 'Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?'"(v. 20-21, my italics).

Here, Naomi focuses on her bitter circumstances, but she unconsciously speaks of a way out of this all-consuming pain--remembrance of what God has done for her in the past, remembrance that at one point in her life, God had blessed her to the point where she could say she was "full."

Throughout the book of Ruth, it seems Naomi does not remember God's past blessings, His faithfulness until she sees evidence of blessings once again her life. And even then, Scripture doesn't show her praising God in remembrance, but, rather, her friends doing so: "Then the women said to Naomi, 'Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age'" (Ruth 4:14-15).

I don't want this to be my story. I don't want to forget God's faithfulness and His previous blessings during my entire trip through the valley. Even in my pain, I want to remember, to have hope.

Jesus told His disciples, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26).

This is my hope, your hope--that in the valley of despair, the Holy Spirit will bring to our remembrance God's word. God's faithfulness. God's voice spoken to us through the Scriptures.

But for the Spirit to do that, He must have something to "re-mind" us of in the first place. To be reminded of His word, we must put it in our minds to start with.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Little More Pleasant

Hymns or choruses? Drums and a bass or a piano and organ? Praise team or choir? Pulpit or nothing separating the pastor from the people? Clapping and hands in the air or a reverent silence?

Those are a few of the debates that surround the topic of "modern worship." I cannot claim to know the ultimate answer about any of them. And frankly, they are not debates in which I want to involve myself. So, please know that's not the point of this posting.

But there is one concept about worship that God did reveal to me through His Word, strangely enough, in a passage about idol worship.

In the book of Hosea, one of God's primary charges against Israel is adultery, playing the harlot by worshiping other gods. In the midst of describing God's anger over the idolatry, the prophet offers this criticism: "They offer sacrifices on the tops of the mountains And burn incense on the hills, Under oak, poplar and terebinth, Because their shade is pleasant" (Hos. 4:13, my italics).

I was surprised by this critique--that the people of Israel chose to worship in places where worship was easy, was pleasant.

My first thought was that I like air conditioned buildings with plush seats that don't make my bottom fall asleep. I find that environment pleasant. So, did that mean my worship wasn't measuring up?

But no. To find the answer required going back in time toward the beginning of Israel's history after Solomon died.

When Solomon's son, Rehoboam, inherited Israel, he ruled the entire united kingdom, but that soon was pared down to just two of the twelve tribes. The remaining ten tribes revolted and crowned Jeroboam King of Israel because they weren't so happy with Solomon's heavy yoke or his son who planned to continue acting just like dad.

God promised Jeroboam rule of these ten tribes down through the generations if he would only obey Him. But Jeroboam was scared of losing it all "just" by trusting God's word and, instead, sought to make his own destiny.

As Scripture says, "Jeroboam said in his heart, 'Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah'" (1 Kin. 12:26-27).

Mainly, Jeroboam was fearful of God's requirements for worship, which included sacrifices only at the temple in Jerusalem. His fear was that when the people went up to worship several times a year for the required feasts, they would dethrone him and reunite with Rehoboam.

In his unbelief, he made it easy for the people by setting up two golden calves at two alternate places for sacrifice to God at Bethel and Dan.

Looking at the map, Jerusalem was quite a long distance to travel for those located in the northern tribes, especially in the days of dusty dirt roads, exhausting foot travel, and dangerous marauding thieves and wild animals lurking about.

Jeroboam even said as much: "and he said to them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (1 Kin. 12:28).

And that was the beginning of the end for Jeroboam and for his people who quickly realized those alternative sites for sacrifice were more "pleasant" than a hard journey to Jerusalem.

They turned worship into a man-centered event rather than a God-centered event, one where they were more concerned about themselves than about what God commanded.

Somehow, the Israelites failed to understand that the actual trip to Jerusalem was part of the worship. They failed to understand that worship wasn't about merely sacrificing an animal or two, but was about personal sacrifice.

I may not be able to sacrifice as much as that weary pilgrim did long ago, the woman who put one foot after another as she walked in obedience up to the God-ordained temple to offer her sacrifices. But worship still must be a sacrifice for me.

Yes, I can worship in my car, in my back yard, in front of a TV where I can watch and participate in a streaming worship service.

But there's no sacrifice in that, no personal cost to me.

Attending church each Sunday? Anyone who has tried to awaken early; dress herself and three children in frills, clip-on ties, and freshly shined shoes; and feed a household of malcontents who really need more sleep...anyone who has accomplished this and made it to worship service on time knows corporate worship is a sacrifice. I give up sleep, one of only two days a week I have with my husband, a day I could catch up on house and school work--all because this is part of my worship, the sacrifice of my time, my energies to God.

The debates I mentioned at the beginning of this piece--they're not really the big issue. Our hearts aimed at sacrifice...that's the key to worshipping a holy God.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Curse of Moving Boundaries

In the corners of our land, concrete markers sink deep into the earth, marking where our grass ends and the neighbor's begins. Over time, though, the markers can disappear at the hands of mischievous children or simply the destructive nature of time, blurring the lines between ours and theirs.

With the advent of public records, this destruction of a physical boundary marker isn't too serious. A visit to our local office and payment to a surveyor would quickly restore tangible proof of ownership. Yet, in Bible times, that wasn't the case.

Then, boundary markers were the way to determine who owned what piece of Canaan. If you wanted to steal your neighbor's land? Just sneak out in the middle of the night and move that big rock.

Because of the ease of this theft, Scripture abounds with curses levied against anyone daring to move boundaries. One verse exclaims, "You shall not move your neighbor's boundary mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess" (Deut. 19:14). Another says, "Cursed is he who moves his neighbor's boundary mark.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'"(Deut 27:17).

Later, when God is warning Israel of its pending destruction, He criticizes His people once again for moving boundaries again: "The princes of Judah have become like those who move a boundary; On them I will pour out My wrath like water" (Hos. 5:10).

This time, though, God isn't just speaking of moving physical boundaries. As John MacArthur states, "Worse, Judah's leaders were moving spiritual lines established by God" (The MacArthur Bible Commentary 976).

In Hosea's time, the people were guilty of violating all ten of the commandments and many of Moses' laws, which were put in place to protect the people. For example, Israel wasn't to intermarry with the surrounding pagan cultures, but they did anyway. The result? False idols were brought into the land, causing the people's hearts to stray from God. Before long, Israel had ducked under most of God's boundaries and was swimming in the dangerous deep end, far away from God's protective hands.

This one hits close to home--how many times a day do I try to move a spiritual boundary with God? I may not give a great big shove, but sometimes, I put my back against that marker, trying to make it budge just a little.

We become like the Pharisees referred to in the Sermon on the Mount--moving God's boundaries around to suit our keep from having to repent of our sin.

Jesus calls anger "murder," but we try to push back that boundary, saying to ourselves that at least we didn't act on our anger (Matt 5:22). Jesus says we should love my neighbors and pray for our enemy...and again, we push back that boundary with the logic that this man is neither a neighbor nor an enemy.

Father, forgive us for not appreciating the spiritual boundaries you have set before us to live by are for our protection and good as you seek to make us holy. Through your Spirit, convict us that this is sin so we can be in a right relationship with you.