“Cultivate God-confidence” (March 25)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 21-22; Psalm 47; 1 Corinthians, chapter 10

1 Corinthians 10:1-12 (TM) – Remember our history, friends, and be warned.  All our ancestors were led by the providential Cloud and taken miraculously through the Sea.  They went through the waters, in a baptism like ours, as Moses led them from enslaving death to salvation life.  They all ate and drank identical food and drink, meals provided daily by God.  They drank from the Rock, God’s fountain that stayed with them wherever they were.  And the Rock was Christ.  But just experiencing God’s wonder and grace didn’t seem to mean much – most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.

The same thing could happen to us.  We must be on guard so that we never get caught up in wanting our own way as they did. And we must not turn our religion into a circus as they did – ‘First the people partied, then they threw a dance.’ We must not be sexually promiscuous – they paid for that, remember, with 23,000 deaths in one day!  We must never try to get Christ to serve us instead of us serving him; they tried it, and God launched an epidemic of poisonous snakes. We must be careful not to stir up discontent; discontent destroyed them.

These are all warning markers – DANGER! – in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes.  Our positions in the story are parallel – they at the beginning, we at the end – and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were.  Don’t be so naïve and self-confident.  You’re not exempt.  You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else.  Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless.  Cultivate God-confidence.

Observations:I often talk about the importance of context in reading and understanding Scripture, and this is a prime example of that importance.  In the passage just preceding this one, Paul talked about the importance of “running to win the race,” “staying alert and in top condition.”  When we think about that challenge, it’s easy to see how people could get over-confident: “I’m spiritually fit: I spend time in the Word every day, I pray, I go to worship faithfully, I pay my tithe and give offerings on top of that.  What could happen to me?”  So Paul goes on to remind them of the example of the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors. (Remember that he was not writing to a primarily Jewish audience, so he is speaking in spiritual terms about ‘our history’ in verse 1.)

During this first part of the year, our Old Testament readings have been from the books of Moses, and now into Joshua, so we should be familiar with the stories to which Paul is referring here.  When the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, God did miraculous things for them, and then delivered them from Pharaoh in a mighty display of his power.  As they left Egypt, God did miracles time after time: opened the Red Sea before them, provided water from a rock, gave them manna and quail for food, and led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Yet in spite of all of these displays of God’s power and his great love and care for them, they still rebelled, still sought their own way, still refused to obey God’s commands.

Paul’s point is that, if we’re not careful, the same thing can happen to us.  I think every one of us should regularly remind ourselves of Paul’s warning in verses 11-12: These are all warning markers – DANGER! – in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes.  Our positions in the story are parallel – they at the beginning, we at the end – and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were.  Don’t be so naïve and self-confident.  You’re not exempt.  You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else.  Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless.  Cultivate God-confidence.

Application:    It’s important for us to hear that last phrase:  Cultivate God-confidence.  You see, if all we hear is forget about self-confidence,we can work ourselves to death ‘trying harder’ to make sure that we don’t fall.  But that’s just another form of self-confidence – the idea that we canwork ‘hard enough’ to make sure that we don’t fall.  But when we focus on cultivating God-confidence, the focus stays on God and what he has already done for us.  

We don’t ‘work hard’ to make sure we ‘make it’; we ‘work hard’ as an expression of love and gratitude for what God has already done for us, and to help others to discover what God can do for them!  Paul addresses this whole idea of what our efforts – our obedience – is all about later in chapter 10:  “Looking at it one way, you could say, ‘Anything goes.  Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.’  But the point is not to just get by.  We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help otherslive well” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, TM).

One other thing:  God focused my attention on this sentence:  “But just experiencing God’s wonder and grace didn’t seem to mean much – most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.”  We seem to be consumed with the idea of “experiencing God’s wonder and grace,” but if we’re not actively engaged with God – in a daily discipline of spending time with him and actively doing his will – the “wonder and grace” will soon become “old hat.”  Many people today seem to think that experiencing God’s “wonder and grace” is all the same, whether it’s in a worship service, a hike in the woods, time out on a boat, or any other similar activity. It’s not all the same; the point of experiencing God is not only to acknowledge his greatness, but also to acknowledge his sovereignty. That means that we don’t “do it our way”; we do it God’s way. It is our active engagement with God and his work in our world that keeps the wonder in our relationship with him, keeps us attuned each day to his amazing grace at work in our lives.

Prayer:  Father, help me each day to stay amazed at your grace and the ways that it is at work in our world.  Help me to cultivate God-confidence, and not to fall into the trap of thinking that I can handle things on my own.  Thank you for reminding me that I don’t have to handle things on my own; you simply call me to join you in your work each day.  Help me to recognize where you are leading me, and what you have for me today – then help me to do it, for your glory.  Amen.


Running Hard (March 24)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 18-20; 1 Corinthians, chapter 9

1 Corinthians 9:14-27 (TM) – You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race.  Everyone runs; one wins.  Run to win.  All good athletes train hard.  They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades.  You’re after one that’s gold eternally.

I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line.  I’m giving it everything I’ve got.  No sloppy living for me!  I’m staying alert and in top condition.  I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else about it and then missing out myself.

Observations: This passage is one of those cases where the metaphor is good as far as it goes, but if we take it too far, it breaks down.  I hope it’s obvious how that’s true.  Paul begins with the illustration of athletes running a race.  He then says, Everyone runs; one wins.  In our case – in the case of running the race of Kingdom life – everyonewho finishes the race wins!  We’re not in competition with each other, so that if you make it, I don’t; in fact, we’re supposed to be helping each other to run the race well! God wants all of us to win!

But we can’t throw away the other things that Paul says in these verses, because they’re true.  All of us should run to win.  All of us should train hard – spending time in the Word, in prayer, in service to the Kingdom, and sharing our faith with others.  That’s how we will receive the medal that’s gold eternally. When I say that God wants all of us to win, that doesn’t mean that he expects less than our best. Running to win means giving God our best, every day – and, just like physical training, if we fall down, or miss some days, we get right back at it and do our best.

I used to enjoy running (well, jogging, to be honest; my speed never approached anything that could reasonably be called ‘running’). On two different occasions, I ran in a race that goes around the entire perimeter of Mackinac Island.  From a human perspective, I didn’t “win” either of those races (let’s just say that I wasn’t last).  But I received a “finisher’s medal” for both of those races.  In that sense, the running community gets it right: everyone who runs wins!

The second time that I ran that race, the finisher’s medal had a big ‘8’ inside a circle (‘8’ for the 8 miles around the island).  The tradition on the island is that everyone who runs the race wears their finisher’s medal the rest of the day in celebration of their accomplishment.  So, as we were back at our hotel, I got into the elevator wearing my finisher’s medal. Another family was there – a mom and dad, two teenaged kids, and grandma.  As we got onto the elevator, “Grandma” asked me, “Did you run in that marathon on the island today?”  Wanting to be polite, I didn’t correct her about the ‘marathon’; I simply smiled and said, “Yes, ma’am, I ran in the race today.”  She said, “And you finished in 8thplace!  That’s wonderful!”  At that her grandkids started snickering; so did we.  I had to say, “Ma’am, the only way that I would have finished in 8thplace is if there were only 8 people running.  But I finished, and that’s why I have this medal!”

Application:    Paul says, I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line.  I’m giving it everything I’ve got.  No sloppy living for me!  I’m staying alert and in top condition.   That’s good advice for all of us!  It’s easy to get lazy, or preoccupied with other things, and lose our discipline in our spiritual training.  We need to run hard for the finish line!

As I get older, it becomes more and more work to stay in shape, and to lose weight.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t need to do it!  I need to do the work, exercising and watching what I eat, in order to be in good physical condition.  The same is true for us spiritually.  We need to do our spiritual exercises, and ‘watch what we eat’ (what we’re listening to, what we’re reading, what we’re watching) in order to stay spiritually connected to God. That’s how we run hard for the finish line– no matter how far off that finish line may be!

Prayer:  Father, thank you for the reminder that running this race requires daily attention and daily discipline.  Give me the strength to continue to run; give me the wisdom to know how to ‘train’; and give me the desire to ‘run hard for the finish line.’ Help me to call others to join me in the race, and to help those who are running along with me, so we all finish well and receive the ‘prize.’  Amen.

“Stay Where You Were Called to Be” (March 22)

Scripture:        Joshua chapters 12-14; 1 Corinthians, chapter 7

1 Corinthians 7:17, 23-24 (TM) – And don’t be wishing you were somewhere else or with someone else.  Where you are right now is God’s place for you.  Live and obey and love and believe right there. God, not your marital status, defines your life.  Don’t think I’m harder on you than on the others.  I give this same counsel in all the churches…All of you, slave and free both, were once held hostage in a sinful society.  Then a huge sum was paid out for your ransom.  So please don’t, out of old habit, slip back into being or doing what everyone else tells you.  Friends, stay where you were called to be.  God is there.  Hold the high ground with him at your side.

Observations:  Right in the middle of a big discussion about marriage and sex, Paul drops this:  Don’t be wishing you were somewhere else or with someone else.  Where you are right now is God’s place for you.  Live and obey and love and believe right there.  God, not your marital status, defines your life.  That same principle goes for every other aspect of our lives, too:  God, not your employment status, defines your life.  God, not your housing situation, defines your life.  God, not your bank balance, defines your life.  God, not the clothes you wear, the car you drive, or the way you look, defines your life.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD DEFINES YOUR LIFE!

And that means that everything elseis secondary to your relationship with God.  Frankly, I think we’ve lost sight of this in our comfortable, modern, Western view of Christianity.  We’ve come to view Christ and the Church as “add-ons” to our lives: things that make us feel good about ourselves, and if for some reason they don’tmake us feel good about ourselves, we change what we believe rather than examine why we feel that way.

That’s why there is such an epidemic in the Church today of Christians who don’t read the Bible, who don’t accept the Bible as God’s truth for us.  We convince ourselves that the Bible is old, outdated, and no longer applies to this modern world that we inhabit.  But people still are the same as people have always been: “God saw that human evil was out of control.  People thought evil, imagined evil – evil, evil, evil from morning to night” (Genesis 6:5, TM).  

Don’t slip back into being or doing what everyone else tells you.  Friends, stay where you were called to be.  God is there.  Hold the high ground with him at your side.  We’re surrounded by people who want to tell us what we should do, who we should be.  Listen to God.  The world wants to “squeeze us into its mold” (Romans 12:2, Phillips); as The Messagetells us in Romans 12:2, “Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Application:    Just a few days ago, a shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, went to two mosques and killed at least 50 people and wounded at least 50 others, all while live-streaming the attack on Facebook.  That is evil.  That kind of hatred and violence and evil is not restricted to one culture, one ethnic group, one race, or one religious group:  “God saw that human evil was out of control.  People thought evil, imagined evil – evil, evil, evil from morning to night.”  The answer to that kind of evil is not to “fight fire with fire”; the answer to that kind of evil is love – the kind of love that Jesus showed to us, the kind of love that he calls us to show to others.  Wherever we are, whatever situations we face, we need to remember that our relationship with God defines us – and God is there.  Hold the high ground with him at your side. We need to hear Paul’s charge: “Stay where you were called to be!”

Prayer:  Father, thank you for the reminder that our relationship with you defines us.  That’s true even for people who don’t believe in you – they are defined by their rejection of you, whether they admit it or not.  Help us to recognize their need for you, and the fact that they won’t be forced into faith; they need to see through us what it looks like to live a life defined by our relationship with you.  Help me to be content in you – not to ‘wish I were somewhere else or with someone else.’ Remind me that I am where I am, I am who I am, because of what you have done and are doing in me.  Help me to be content to “stay where I was called to be.” Help me to live in ways that bring glory and honor to you. Amen.

Stop the Abuse! (All of It!) (March 21)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 9-11; 1 Corinthians, chapter 6

1 Corinthians 6:9-13 (TM) – Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live?  Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his Kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s Kingdom.  A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list.  Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.

Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it’s spiritually appropriate. If I went around doing whatever I thought I could get by with, I’d be a slave to my whims.  You know the old saying, “First you eat to live, and then you live to eat”?  Well, it may be true that the body is only a temporary thing, but that’s no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex.  Since the Master honors you with a body, honor him with your body!

Observations: I was drawn to this passage today because it is a reminder of the way that we tend to compartmentalize and prioritize our faith.  I’ve grown up in and stayed in the Church of the Nazarene.  Our “tribe” emphasizes the importance of personal holiness, of honoring God with our bodies and our actions in many different ways.  However, tribes like ours have often paid less attention to our responsibilities as stewards of God’s creation – not to say that we don’t think it is important, but we haven’t always treated it as though it were asimportant.  This passage reminds us that in God’s eyes, there is no such priority.  We are to honor God with our bodies, as Paul says in verse 13; we are also to honor God in the way we approach and care for his creation.  Paul puts those who use and abuse each other, those who use and abuse sex, and those who use and abuse the earth and everything in itin the same category:  they don’t qualify as citizens in God’s Kingdom.

Scripture does not provide any support or justification for the idea that caring for creation and caring for other people is any less important that caring for ourselves and living holy lives.  We have to remember that at the heart of our relationship with God the focus is on loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus taught, and lived, as though these two were interconnected.  John’s first epistle also makes clear that loving God and loving those around us are two sides of one coin.  

The reason we need to remember this is that if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves being drawn into all sorts of disputes and debates about whether this thing or that is “more important.”  Paul brings it down to the very basics when he says, “Since the Master honors you with a body, honor him with your body!”  What God has entrusted to us, we are called to care for and use in ways that bring honor to Him.  That’s true whether we’re talking about our own physical bodies, our families, our material resources, or creation in general.  If God allows me to have stewardship of a piece of property, I shouldn’t turn it into a garbage dump.  If God allows me to have stewardship of a body (and, of course, he has), I shouldn’t turn it into a “garbage dump” by the things I do or the way I live.  If God entrusts people to me to lead and encourage in their faith, I must not take advantage of that by the way that I treat them.

When Paul uses the phrases use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, anduse and abuse the earth and everything in it, that covers pretty much everything!  The words use and abuse go to our motivation, our very heart:  are we serving ourselves and pleasing ourselves at the expense of others and at the expense of God’s creation, or are we serving God and others, and pleasing and honoring God by the things we do? As the Church, it’s time for us to say, “Stop the abuse! (All of it!)”

Application:    The topic of “abuse” is very prevalent in our culture today.  We’ve seen and heard of different stories of abuse that has been perpetrated in and through the Church, and we must acknowledge the horror and the evil of that abuse.  The “Me Too” movement has served to make us aware of abuse that has been perpetrated by those in positions of power and authority, whether in government or industry.  We’ve seen the results of abuse of the environment, whether the dumping of toxic waste, the amount of trash that has been thrown into rivers and oceans, or other similar things.  All of these different kinds of abuse are a reminder that bad things happen when we reject God’s authority and God’s plan.  After all, “abuse” literally means “to use something in an inappropriate way” – in other words, in a way other than what God has intended.

God is reminding me today that we cannot just insulate ourselves in a cocoon and ignore what is going on around us – in the lives of other people, and in the very state of God’s creation.  But we also cannot make creation into a “god” in and of itself.  We cannot try to come up with “answers” for these issues that don’t account for God’s authority and God’s place in our lives. That means that we don’t think that mankind can solve these things without God, but it also means that we don’t act like what we do doesn’t matter at all.  We care for creation because God has created us, and he has entrusted it to us. In other words, we care for God’s creation as an expression of our love for God, not just because we love “nature.” In the same way, we care for other people because God has created them and loves them – not because we make them into “gods.”  We have to remember that God is the One who is responsible for all of it – for creation, and for each of us – and our actions are motivated by our love and gratitude for him.  As Paul says, our motivation should be sparked by our understanding that not long ago you were on that list[of the abusers who don’t qualify as citizens in God’s Kingdom], but that now you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit. When we recognize and remember what God has done for us, we should never drift back into our old lives, and we should never stand by and watch as we see all the kinds of abuse that Paul describes going on around us.

Prayer:  Father, I thank you for “cleaning me up and giving me a fresh start” through Jesus Christ.  Thank you, too, for the reminder that as your child, you call me to be a good steward and caretaker for all of your creation – people and “nature” alike. Help me today to live in ways that care for you, care for your creation, and care for those around me, in ways that bring honor and glory to you.  Amen.

Speaking Truth and Living Truth (March 20)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 7-8; Psalm 69; 1 Corinthians, chapter 5

1 Corinthians 5:9-13 (TM) – I wrote you in my earlier letter that you shouldn’t make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous.  I didn’t mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort. Or with crooks, whether blue- or white-collar.  Or with spiritual phonies, for that matter.  You’d have to leave the world entirely to do that!  But I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when a friend who claims to be a Christian is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory.  You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior.  I’m not responsible for what the outsidersdo, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers?  God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house.

Observations: As I read this passage today, I couldn’t help but think of all of the turmoil within the Church today (not my local church, but the “big ‘C’ Church”).  Paul is talking about a situation with individuals in the church at Corinth: “one of your men is sleeping with his stepmother.”  Paul leaves no doubt that this conduct is wrong: “Shouldn’t this break your hearts? Shouldn’t it bring you to your knees in tears?  Shouldn’t this person and his conduct be confronted and dealt with?”

These are rhetorical questions, which means that Paul is not really ‘asking’ them; he’s strongly implying to them that the only acceptable answer to these questions is “YES!”  It shouldbreak our hearts when we see evil and disobedience within the Church.  It shouldcause us to go to our knees? It should be confronted and dealt with.

That’s a difficult road to start down, because we will inevitably be confronted with Jesus’ admonition against judging.  We’ll be challenged, as Jesus was, about who gave us the authority to do this.  I always tell people that it’s not “judging” for us to say what God’s Word says.  God’s Word says murder is wrong; it’s not “judging” for us to say that murder is wrong.  God’s Word says that adultery is wrong; it’s not judging for us to say that adultery is wrong.  As long as we are grounded in the clear authority of Scripture (not just our interpretations of it), we’re not “judging” if we tell other Christians when their behavior is contrary to God’s Word.

That’s never an easy thing to do, and we should never do it with a sense of satisfaction or superiority.  But we also can’t shy away from it just because it’s not easy.  Notice what Paul says in the verses I’ve quoted above: You can’t just go along with this[any of the inappropriate behavior he lists], treating it as acceptable behavior.  I’m not responsible for what the outsidersdo, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers?  Yes; yes, we do.

That’s always been God’s way of doing things.  Notice in Joshua 7, one of our other readings for today, that God held the whole community of Israel responsible for the sin of one man.  Achan had secretly taken some of the plunder from Jericho – which the people had been forbidden to do – and had hidden it in his tent.  There’s no indication that anyone else even knew about it, but God’s statement to Joshua after the defeat at Ai was that “Israelhas sinned.”  And when it became known, Israelhad to deal with it.

We read a story like Achan’s story, and we immediately start to think of it as “unfair” – because the whole community suffered because of his sin, and because his entire family was put to death with him.  One problem with that reaction is that we don’t know what how God handled Achan and his family.  We look at death as the worst possible thing, but in God’s Kingdom, that’s not the case.  I’ve remarked many times before that when Jesus said, “Why do you fear those who can kill the body but cannot touch your soul?” he was teaching us that physical death is not the worst thing we can face.  But the story of Achan and our passage from 1 Corinthians 5 remind us that God expects us to take seriously our responsibilities to each other – and he holds us accountable for each other.  

The other problem with that “unfair” reaction is that it ignores the fact that God expects us to be connected with each other enough to know what’s going on, to be able to see when someone starts getting off track. Maybe no one in Israel knew that Achan had taken the plunder – but they probably should have known. Someone in his family should have noticed. God called the people up by tribes, then clans, then families; I think that’s a reminder of the different levels of accountability and connection within the Body that God wants us to recognize, and embrace. Our responsibility increases as the degree of connection increases; I’m more responsible for people within my congregation than for other Nazarene people and churches; I’m more responsible for Nazarenes than I am for members of other “tribes.” But I can’t just step back and say “it’s not my problem” when God is telling me that it is.

That brings me to the title for today: “Speaking Truth and Living Truth.” If we’re not living truth, what we say will not be readily received. If I’m really living in community with people, serving them and demonstrating my love for them, they will more readily receive it when I speak God’s truth. Any time God calls us to speak, we should speak with the humility of those who recognize their own failings, their own need for God’s mercy and grace. The truth of our lives will speak to people long before we open our mouths!

Application:    Whether we’re talking about individual relationships within the body, or the larger relation of groups of believers within the “big ‘C’ Church,” God expects us to take seriously our obligation to hold each other accountable.  If we don’t – if we act like disobedience and rejection of Scripture are less important than “getting along” – we’re doing exactly what the Corinthian church did.  I don’t believe God wants us going around looking for things to raise with people, but when something is right in front of us, we need to consider whether God has placed us where we are so somebodywill say something.

Prayer:  Father, I confess that it is much easier to just keep quiet than to speak.  It’s much easier to let things slide instead of raising them, but “easier” doesn’t help to lead people back to the way of life.  Whenever you call me to speak correctively, help me to do so with an attitude of humility and grace, that will draw people to you instead of pushing them further away.  Help me to speak truth, but help me even more to livetruth, in order that you may be glorified.  Amen.

Whose Side Are You On? (March 19)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 3-6; 1 Corinthians, chapter 4

Joshua 5:13-15 (TM) – And then this, while Joshua was there near Jericho: He looked up and saw right in front of him a man standing, holding his drawn sword.  Joshua stepped up to him and said, “Whose side are you on – ours or our enemies’?”

He said, “Neither.  I’m the commander of God’s army.  I’ve just arrived.”  Joshua fell, face to the ground, and worshiped.  He asked, “What orders does my Master have for his servant?”

God’s army commander ordered Joshua: “Take your sandals off your feet.  The place you are standing is holy.”  Joshua did it.

Observations: The story of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6 is a familiar one: the people marched around the city once each day for six days; then, on the seventh day, they marched around it seven times.  At the end of the seventh lap around the city, the priests blew their horns, the people shouted, and the walls fell.  The Israelites went in and put the whole place to the sword, except for Rahab and her family (see Joshua chapter 2 for the background on Rahab).

It’s an amazing story – the kind of story that skeptics would say didn’t really happen.  But if we really believe that God can do miracles, why would we not believe that this miracle could happen?  Is there anything about causing walls to fall down that is so hard that God couldn’t do it?  It’s always interesting to me to hear people who say that they believe in God, and maybe even believe in some miracles, but they draw the line at a particular kind of miracle.  Why?  If we believe that God is all-powerful, that he has the ability to act in miraculous ways in our world, then why would we accept any limits on that power?

More interesting to me than the story of the walls falling is this encounter between Joshua and “the commander of God’s army.”  It seems that there was nothing about the appearance of this “commander” that caused Joshua to think that he was “special.” The passage says that Joshua looked up and saw right in front of him a man standing, holding his drawn sword.  No mention of any aura about him, no glow, no hovering in the air – nothing to attract Joshua’s attention other than the drawn sword.  Given the fact that Joshua was preparing to lead the people into battle, the appearance of a man with a drawn sword would obviously be important to Joshua!  And knowing what we know about Joshua, if the man looked like an angel or some other heavenly being, we would expect Joshua to be very respectful.  But he steps right up to the man and asks him, “Whose side are you on – ours or our enemies?

It’s a logical question; when we’re engaged in a conflict, we think of things that way.  “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”  We see that polarization played out in literally dozens of different issues every day in our society, because our focus has changed.  We used to be focused on what was best; now, we’re more concerned about what is best for me. For most people, it’s not about what is “best”; it’s about “whose side are you on?”  And if you’re not on “my” side, then you’re “the enemy.”

That’s why the answer of the “commander” is so interesting, and so important: “Neither.  I’m the commander of God’s army.”  I’m sure that Joshua thought that “his” side was the “right” side, so for him the question was clear: “Whose side are you on?”  But when he heard that the “man” was “the commander of God’s army,” his focus changed.  It was no longer whether the man was on Joshua’s side; it was now all about God’s side.  That’s why Joshua bowed down and worshiped, and then asked, “What orders does my Master have for his servant?”  Joshua recognized that with God in control, the only thing he needed to focus on was doing what God wanted him to do.  

Application:    God is reminding me today that in the midst of all of the conflict and debate and division in our culture – and even in the Church – what is important is whether we are on God’sside, not whether he is on our side. Abraham Lincoln once said something like this: “I’m not worried so much about whether God is on our side.  I’m worried that we are on God’s side, because his side is always the right side.”  If we’re not careful, we can get that flipped around, and think that everything that welike or want must be the “right” side. God wants us to stay focused on listening to him, on doing what he tells us to do, and trusting that he will keep us on the “right” side.

I think it’s important, too, to consider what “the commander” said to Joshua: “Take your sandals off your feet. The place you are standing is holy.” I’m guessing that Joshua was expecting some big set of battle plans, some grand strategy for conquering Jericho. That would come, in time, but the first thing was simple:  take off your shoes.  How ready are we to do the simple thing, the menial thing?  Are we ready to obey God in the simplest task, or are we “holding out” for God to give us something “big” to do – something that we think is “appropriate” for us?  Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 4 today (and in the earlier chapters) addresses this same subject:  “Don’t imagine us leaders to be something we aren’t.  We are servants of Christ, not his masters” (1 Corinthians 4:1, TM).  If the apostle was a servant, then those who followed him must be servants as well.  Jesus said the same thing to his disciples: “a servant is not greater than his master, nor a student greater than his teacher.”  God is reminding me today that anywhere I encounter his presence is holy ground, and I need to do the basic things to honor him each day.

Prayer:Father, the prayer which Jesus taught us includes the phrase, “Hallowed be your name.” Your name is holy; every time I call you by name, every time I come into your presence, I’m standing on holy ground. Help me to recognize the holy nature of each encounter with you.  And, because Jesus calls us to see him in “the least of these brothers of mine,” help me to recognize the holy nature of every encounter I have with someone else.  Help me today to recognize the holy nature of this day, and to honor you with my faithful obedience and service.  Help me to serve faithfully on your “side” today, and every day. Amen.

“Don’t Fool Yourself” (March 18)

Scripture:        Joshua, chapters 1-2; Psalm 37; 1 Corinthians, chapter 3

1 Corinthians 3:18-23 (TM) – Don’t fool yourself.  Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.  Be God’s fool – that’s the path to true wisdom. What the world calls smart, God calls stupid.  It’s written in Scripture, ‘He exposes the chicanery of the chic.  The Master sees through the smoke screens of the know-it-alls.’

I don’t want to hear any of you bragging about yourself or anyone else.  Everything is already yours as a gift – Paul, Apollos, Peter, the world, life, death, the present, the future – all of it is yours, and you are privileged to be in union with Christ, who is in union with God.

Observations: I mentioned yesterday that I get e-mails regularly for seminars and materials that promise to help me to be a better preacher.  I think it’s important to be as good as I can be, but I also think it’s important to not be deceived into thinking that my delivery is what makes the message powerful. It is the message that is powerful; I just need to present it in ways that allow it to connect with those who hear it.

Today’s passage impacts me in the same vein, because I also get e-mails regularly about how to use social media to reach people, and ways to make our website more powerful, and how to learn all sorts of things with regard to technology.  I also read regularly that we need to understand popular culture, and be able to talk about the latest TV shows, books, movies, and music in order to “relate” to people.  Again, I’m not suggesting that it’s unimportant to relate to people, but I think we need to remember that we relate to people on the most basic level of all:  we were created to be in relationship with God, and our lives are incomplete when that relationship is missing.  That’s why our stories of how God reached us, how our relationship with God impacts our lives and fulfills us, are so important – because deep down, people realize that there is something missing in their lives until they find that fulfillment in God.

So Paul tells us (in the powerful words of The Message), “Don’t fool yourself.  Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.” That brings to mind the whole debate about “contemporary vs traditional” worship, which is just one of the areas where we fuss with each other within the Church.  What we view as “contemporary” is fleeting; what we view as “traditional” was once “the latest thing.”  When we get caught up in trying to be “current” – or when we doggedly hold on to what we view as “traditional” – we miss the point entirely.  As Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 3, “Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation!  Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid:  Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15, TM)  When we remember that – that it is Jesus that is the foundation, not our social media strategy, not our traditional music, not our website, not the translation of Scripture that we use, not anything else – we will do the work God has called us to do, and do it his way.

Application:    Focusing on our methods – on being up-to-date with the times– runs the risk of making the focus on us, and our efforts.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do our absolute best in sharing the truth of the Gospel; we absolutely should.  But we need to remember that all of us – no matter how “effective” or “successful” we may appear (or consider ourselves to be) – are just servants in the Kingdom.  I like the way The Messagerenders Paul’s discussion about planting and watering:  “I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow.  It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.  Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages.  What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving.”  God is reminding me to stay focused on him, on doing what he calls me to do, and not to get distracted by the latest fads or fixations of the world.  Jesus is the foundation; that will never change.  God calls me to build on that foundation, and do the best job I can.  All of us are called to build on that foundation, incorporating what has already been built while adding to it and improving it to make it the best it can be.

Prayer:  Father, I praise you for the goodness of the foundation of Jesus Christ, on which you have called us to build our lives.  Help me to build my life well, and to build the life of Christ into the lives of others as you give me the opportunity to do that.  Help me each day to faithfully hear and obey the things that you set before me, and to do them in ways that bring glory to you.  May your Kingdom come and your will be done in greater measure today, as we obey you and do your will.  Amen.