Last week I read a quotation from writer H.P. Lovecraft:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
Those are some DEEP words. I’ll be totally upfront with you – I’m one of those people who fear the unknown. And nothing brings about the unknown faster than change. It can be change in your job, change in your family, change in your social status, change in the government, or ANYWHERE else in life.
Change brings the unknown.
The unknown brings fear.
People who are know more than I do about psychology note that humans LOVE certainty.
Uncertainty registers as an error, gap, or tension in the brain: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty. Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This can diminish memory, undermine performance, and disengage people from the present.
Humanity has been wrestling with change and uncertainty since the dawn of time. From ancient philosophers, to Kansas, to Bill and Ted, the reality of change and the transitory nature of life has overwhelmed us.
This is a prevalent theme of the biblical book Ecclesiastes:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
When we’re faced with change, many of us will freeze. Change becomes overwhelming and breaks us. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes felt overwhelmed by the permanence of change. That word “meaningless” in the King James English is “vanity.” It literally means “transitory” or “impermanent.”
Life. Is. Change.
But change doesn’t have to break us. How can we bounce back in the face of overwhelming change? Here are a couple tips:
Acknowledge the change. One of he most important thing to do when change is happening is to acknowledge it. Running and hiding from your problems never solves them. It may delay them for a bit, but acknowledging them is the best way to move towards overcoming the difficulty.
Face your fears. Go through each fear brought up by the oncoming (or already present) change and write down what you would do if that fear came to pass. It’s about shifting perspective. The Apostle Paul wrote about shifting perspective:
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ~ For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Instead of focusing on the seen here and now, shift your gaze to that which has REAL permanence – God! Scripture declares that He NEVER changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The God who never changes is walking beside you through all of your changes. He is facing them with you, so focus on that instead of the change.
Seek support. Many of us don’t like asking for help. The Christian community was DESIGNED to be a source of support for the believer. We ought to be taking care of each other. You should know that I have your back, and I should know that you have mine. Change is less scary when you’re going through it with someone you know and trust!
Switch out fearful thoughts with positive ones. Getting back to hope, we can choose to focus on positive aspects of pending change. For example, one of the changes people fear the most is death. Paul takes the idea of passing into the next life and puts an incredibly positive spin on it:
1 Corinthians 15:50-52 ~ I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Make it a habit to focus on the positive things that change can bring.
You’re not going to be able to escape change. But it doesn’t have to break you. Realize that change is a normal (albeit stressful) part of life. But it IS a normal of life. Back to Ecclesiastes, the writer says in a very famous passage:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Change is gonna come. But it won’t break you.
I won’t quit. I have impact. Pain isn’t permanent. I will not break.
Going through the motions leaves one dry and empty with a cold religion. There is no intimacy with God. Authentic faith is about experiencing the power of the presence of God and His Spirit. You see, when we encounter Jesus our lives are changed. When we are changed, we are no longer captive to the things that used to keep us in bondage. Our great unknown today is a slave. But not just any slave, every slave. See, we are all slaves. Did you know that you are a slave? The only question is, “Who is your master?” We do not have only one slave in the story. The story is really all about spiritual power, hardness of hearts, and the ability of the gospel to change lives. This story is set up like a western showdown. It’s a showdown between different sets of slaves to see whose master is more powerful. Luke tells us the story in Acts 16:16-22:
16 And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain girl possessed with a python spirit met us, which gave her masters much business with her fortune telling:
The word python was originally used in Greek mythology for the snake that guarded the sacred place at Delphi, where divine prophecies were given. The python was killed by Apollo, the god of prophecy. The word was later used to describe fortune tellers who were thought to be inspired by the serpent called Python. Plutarch calls these people ventriloquists – their utterances are beyond their conscious control (they are only dummies, puppets). So she’s not really a fortune teller, so to speak. She’s a puppet through which a powerful demon speaks, telling people things about themselves that are true!
When you encounter someone like this you know that you’re dealing with one of three options: it’s God, a fraud, or a demon. There is no other way around it. The Bible warns believers to stay away from that kind of hooka-booka nonsense. At any rate, this girl brought in a lot of business with her fortune telling. And for some reason she attaches herself to the preachers. We don’t know exactly why. Perhaps in her possessed state she realized she needed some help. Perhaps the spirit in her was trying to antagonize Paul and Silas.
17 She followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, “These men are servants of the most high God, that are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.”
There is a possibility that the spirit in the girl is trying to create confusion and trouble for Paul and Silas. In Jewish and Christian circles, the expression “most high God” means the one true God, the Almighty. It’s the Greek expression for the Old Testament’s El Elyon. Genesis14:18 reads ~ “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of El Elyon, of God Most High.” But that’s not necessarily how pagans understood the expression. In Philippi the term ‘the Highest God’ could have been misleading. It was a pagan title for Zeus. Could it be that, as people are drawing in to hear about Paul’s God, this python spirit is trying to distract them and prevent people from hearing about Yahweh, about Jesus?
It makes me think of Oprah Winfrey and her spiritual guru, Eckhart Tolle. He tries to claim that the spirituality he promotes is compatible with the Christian faith. It is all under the same big spiritual umbrella. All he is really doing is confusing people from hearing the real truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Eckhart Tolle says there are multiple paths to “God.” The Bible says there is one path.
There is also a power play going on here. In the ancient world, knowing someone’s name and knowing where they come from give you power over that person. Often times people would have a public name but keep their real name private among close friends and family. In standard exorcisms the exorcist has to identify and name the spirit being cast out. The act of naming gives you power over it. In the gospels we see Jesus run into several demons. The funny thing is that they try to exorcise Jesus! They use the standard exorcism language. They identify him by name and where he is from. “I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the most high God!” They knew his name, but they didn’t really know his true power or authority.
I get that same sort of feeling here in Acts 16. Here are Paul and Silas, out and about doing ministry, telling people about God and Jesus, and here comes this spirit who tries to exert authority over them. Remember, this passage is all about mastery and slavery. The spirit wants to show that he is in control. Thus we have a showdown. It’s a showdown between slaves. On one side, the girl, slave to the python spirit. On the other side, Paul and Silas, slaves to the most high God (even the spirit recognized this).
18 And she did this many days. But Paul, wearied, turned and said to the spirit, “I proclaim to you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he went out the same hour.
But this showdown is short-lived. You see, there’s really no contest. The evil spirit even foreshadows his own demise! Look again at the end of verse 17: “they are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.” And then Paul whips around and says, “Hey bub, I proclaim to you, in Jesus name, come out of her!” And the demon leaves. In the Greek the word is literally “goes out.” And gives us a funny little play on words in verse 19:
19 And when her masters saw go out the hope of their business, they caught Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace to the rulers,
Luke makes a humorous play on words: the leaving of the spirit (the python spirit went out) is the same leaving of the masters’ hope for business (hope went out). When Paul exorcised the demon he exorcised their source of income as well. They don’t care about anything else, just their cash flow. Never mind the miraculous exorcism that just took place. Never mind the state and well-being of the young girl. They saw their profits dry up and they became livid! Something similar happens later on when Paul is preaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-29). The unbelievers react violently when the gospel threatens their income. What becomes of the girl, we are not informed. You see, the story takes a turn here.
Paul and Silas were in a confrontation with a slave to the python spirit. Now they are in a confrontation with men who are slaves to the world. Sometimes the gospel of Jesus and the people who believe it are going to come into conflict with powers and enemies. Sometimes those powers will be spiritual, demons and darkness. Sometimes those powers will be people in authority or in a position over us. You might not be struggling with an actual demonic presence, but there are other presences, other temptations, you might struggle with serving when you ought to be serving Jesus Christ.
20 and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, 21 and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.“
Romans were forbidden by law to convert to Judaism. Any evangelism would be seen as contrary to that law. Paul and Silas are in a bind. They know that they shouldn’t legally be telling people about Jesus and preaching the people need to change. But they know that people DO need to change, and that people will be incomplete without Jesus in their lives. Paul and Silas, they chose to serve God no matter what the cost. So when these angry merchants bring Paul and Silas before the magistrates they don’t stand alone as men. They stand as servants of the most high God.
22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.
You may know how this story ends. Paul and Silas get thrown in prison. But not just the minimum security “D” block. No, they get put into the inner prison, the pit, maximum security. This is a time to get glum. This is a time to be negative. But not these guys. Tertullian was a church leader foundational in helping establish Christian theology. He introduced the word “Trinity” to Christian vocabulary. He once said, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” Did they feel like worshiping? Probably not. They were likely tired, aching, and scared. Yet they worshiped anyway.
As they’re praying and singing to God through the night, a massive earthquake comes and the doors fall down and the chains fall off! There is no hint that Paul and Silas are praying for release, though the other prisoners might have felt the earthquake was an answer to prayer! What the slaves to the world tried to do to Paul and Silas God disarms in the blink of an eye.
When the jailer finds the doors and chains destroyed he’s about to kill himself. Better suicide than public humiliation, beating, or possible death at the hands of the Roman authorities. But Paul stops him saying, “Wait, we’re all here.” And the jailer calls for a light (this is the deep dungeon, remember?) and asks Paul and Silas, “What do I have to do to be saved?” What exactly the jailer meant by his question of salvation is difficult to say. He may have heard the possessed girl earlier in the week that these men had come to proclaim the way of salvation….
And Paul and Silas tell him the only thing that matters – salvation comes through Jesus Christ. In the power encounter with the girl, the slaves of God overcome the slave of evil spirits. In the power encounter with the merchants and magistrates, the slaves of God overcome the slaves of the world. And now, in the dark of the prison, the slave to the Roman authorities, the jailer, asks what it takes to switch sides and be a slave of the most high God.
Friends, if there is anything that God would have us understand through this story it’s this: slaves of the most high God are really free. The girl, slave to the python spirit, is finally set free after an encounter with the most high God. Paul and Silas are literally set free from their chains! Even the jailer, bound to the Roman authorities and about to take his own life, finds the freedom offered by being a slave to Jesus Christ. Slaves to evil spirits, the things of the world, or the people of this world are really in bondage. 1 Corinthians 7:22-23 says:
“For the slave who has been called in the Lord is the Lord’s free person. In the same way, the free person who has been called is Christ’s slave. You were bought for a price. [So] stop becoming slaves of people.”
I am sure that we all know people who are bound up, trapped in lives, behaviors, and attitudes that enslave them. Even people in the church are in bondage when we should be experiencing freedom as slaves of the most high God. What would our Master have us do as His slaves? If we walk in the power of the presence of God’s holy spirit, how does that change our everyday lives? When we have a power encounter with Jesus Christ, we will be changed.
You may be a slave to lust and pornography. You may be a slave to gossip and slander. You may be a slave to anger or mastered by your short temper. You may wrestle with the spirit of complacency. Or maybe you are a slave to a critical and judgmental spirit. How would our Master have us act and live? There is a reason why we aren’t experiencing the freedom that comes with being a slave to the most high God? Have you asked Him? Have you hit your knees, acknowledged your slavery, and said, “God, I want to switch sides. I want to be slave to you alone and nothing else”? It’s time to get serious about who you serve.
New Year’s Day is tomorrow! How many of you have made New Year’s Resolutions? The REAL question is:
How many of you have already blown New Year’s resolutions?
I have read that in America 25% of us blow or discard our resolutions by the end of the first day. Change can be so difficult that even people who want to change will most likely fall back into old patterns and not make change permanent.
One reason permanent change is so hard is because we continue to hang around people who knew us before the change – we maintain old relationships and patterns of life that don’t want to allow or recognize change in us! It’s often easier to change who you are when you make a clean break and get a fresh start. No one knows your old mistakes or the way you used to be. You get a chance to make brand new mistakes!
In the Bible Paul writes:
But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:7-21)
Paul had everything going for him from a human point of view – he was THE guy and had it all. But nothing he could DO could make him right in God’s eyes. Paul had to change his perspective – to reframe the things he thought were important. He goes on to say:
My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead. Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)
Christians are given a new goal – to know Christ and to be conformed to him. And, just as Paul had to change his orientation, we need to change ours. Fixating on the past prevents us from focusing on the now or moving forward into tomorrow. Turn around – refuse to go back. It means we know where we’ve come from but focus instead on where we are headed (it’s like Lot’s wife yearning for the old life when God was trying to move them forward).
There’s an old legend about the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés. While many history books gloss over the dark elements, the nitty-gritty was something like this. While on a mission in the New World, some of his men were loyal to the Governor of Cuba and conspired to seize a ship and escape to Cuba. Cortés moved swiftly to squash their plans. Two ringleaders were condemned to be hanged; two were lashed, and one had his foot mutilated. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to scuttle his ships, on the pretext that they were no longer seaworthy. There is a popular misconception that the ships were burned rather than sunk. With all of his ships scuttled, except for one small ship with which to send his representatives and booty to the King of Spain, Cortés effectively stranded the expedition in Mexico.
Dark, yes. But it’s the kind of mentality we need to have when we think about moving on in our own lives. We’ve come to a new point with God. Why would we even consider going back?! Deliberate living requires that we model the behavior of the Apostles and take steps to live out a godly life. We can shake free from last year’s crud.
One of my favorite songs is the worship anthem “I Am Free.” It proclaims the idea that, in Christ, we are free from everything that use to have a hold on us.
2018 is here. Admit that it’s time for a change. Go ahead and make resolutions that take you from where you are to where you should be going. Be intentional about making steps towards the coming future. No matter what, refuse to let anything pull you back. Walk in the freedom and newness that comes from a life following Jesus. Burn those ships.
You see, it all started when some of the good religious folk took issue that Jesus’ followers were not following the rules for ritual washing up – getting clean.
The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
They are calling out Jesus and his followers for being rule-breakers.
You would expect good, decent people to apologize when religious leaders chastise them. But not Jesus. He uses the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and tells them:
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men”
Then he follows up by talking about being clean vs. unclean.
There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Pay close attention here. Jesus is actually telling a joke. When the English says, “into his stomach and is expelled” the translators are trying to put it nicely, but what Jesus is literally saying is that food goes “into the belly and then out into the toilet” – and THAT’S when it really gets “unclean”.
What a joker!
But the point of what Jesus is trying to say is this – we need to make sure that we’re not making up our own rules for people to follow. God cares less about human rules than he cares about human hearts.
In our own culture we develop rules about all sorts of things. We don’t make them up to be mean. Usually the rules are there because we believe they help us follow God better or be better Christians.
We come up with dress codes for what a “proper Christian” should or shouldn’t wear.
We come up with language codes for what a “proper Christian” should or shouldn’t say.
We come up with geographic codes for where a “proper Christian” should or shouldn’t go.
You get the idea?
The problem comes when we start insisting that people follow our rules if they want to be “real Christians” – and then we call into question the salvation of anyone who doesn’t abide by our rules.
Jesus would have a big problem with that.
He’d tell rule-makers today the same thing he told them thousands of years ago: “Take your rules and flush ’em down the crapper.”
God cares more about your heart than the rules you follow.
This is not license to behave poorly. God still desires us to act in ways that reflect his character. But sometimes good Christians will have different ideas about proper behavior. In those times when there is no clear-cut guidance from the Bible, we need to cut each other some slack and be gracious, allowing for differences.
And maybe, just maybe, we can start looking at the people’s hearts rather than the rules they break.
By now you all know that I enjoy the occasional hashtag game on social media. Recently someone brought this one to my attention: #RuinAChildrensBook. The premise is to take a beloved book and, by altering one or two words in the title, significantly change the meaning of the book. As a book lover who is married to a book lover and raising three little book lovers, this was right up my alley.
It’s amazing how changing one or two words can radically alter meaning. Words are incredibly potent. It should be a reminder to all of us to be careful about the words we use when we’re talking to others and about others.
With our words we can build people up.
With our words we can tear people down.
Like bullets from a gun, when words leave our mouths there is no taking them back. Even the most sincere apology cannot undo the hurt we might cause with some poorly chosen words.
So think before you speak. Ask yourself if the words you are choosing will bring life or death.
That may be a little extreme. I don’t actually feel a gag reflex to puke. But that’s the emotion (and it’s a REALLY strong emotion) I feel reading about your upcoming tour “The Life You Want.”
It’s not that I have a problem with empowering people. I think it’s a good thing to help motivate people to be the best they can be. Even the Apostle Paul (he wrote bunch of stuff in the Bible) once wrote:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
Here’s the difference between a your empowerment and what Paul is talking about: you want people to get better to live a better life for THEIR glory. You even say, “Take your glory and run!” Um…what? Paul wants people to get better and live a changed life for CHRIST’S glory.
You are ME-CENTERED.
Christianity is CHRIST-CENTERED.
This tour is just another in a long line of scams on humanity. It plays to our instinctual drive to be successful. But success isn’t the goal of humanity. And, contrary to what you, Joel Osteen, and others teach, success is NOT possible for everyone.
The Bible (that’s the book that Christians from era to era and culture to culture agree is the revelation of God to humanity) makes it quite clear that sometimes bad things will happen even to the best of people.
Jesus (he’s the ONE the Christian faith recognizes as God-incarnate, the Messiah and Savior of humanity) said:
I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you WILL have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
It’s not about “The Life You Want.” The Bible notes:
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. (Ecclesiastes 5:15)
There’s so much more than living your best life now (that sounds so familiar – it would make a catchy book title). Our best life now means nothing because this life ends. What really matters is living life now with eternal focus. That means we take the focus off of us and put in on Christ and his kingdom.
It saddens me that many Christians will be sucked in to your scheme. Many will be fooled into thinking that you have the ticket to a happy and fulfilling life. Your pseudo-spirituality will sucker a lot of shallow people who don’t realize that Christian faith is exclusive to Jesus; that life will have ups and downs; that good and faithful people will sometimes live hard and crappy lives and die broke.
Yeah, you make me sick.
So until I’m blue in the face I’m going to tell Christians that this is hogwash. My hope is that there are enough of us willing to spread the message that your message stinks.
Help me out here – finish this expression: “Those who do not learn from history…”
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it? It means that the wise person sees what others have done and decides not to go the same route or make the same mistakes. The person who can look back and learn from the past has a better chance of making better decisions tomorrow. And if you don’t learn from the past, you will keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again!
There are times that we have seen our political and military leaders behaving this way ~ not learning from the mistakes of others, trying the same thing other people tried but expecting different outcomes. Back in the 1950’s the French had a little problem with a country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. They could not get the locals in line and they could not overcome the native guerillas. 10 years later America goes marching in thinking we can do better. We did not really learn from the French mistakes. We made some of the exact same mistakes – mistakes that cost people their lives. It was complete idiocy.
There are also personal moments of idiocy. God gave me a wife to help keep track of all of the moments I act like an idiot. If we don’t learn from what happened in the past then we’re going to be doing the same stupid things people before us did. If we don’t learn from the past then we’re going to making the same bad choices we’ve always made.
In the OT you have the law, you have the prophets, you have wisdom and poetry writing, and then you have books like Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, Kings, and Chronicles. These books are usually referred to as the histories. Part of what the histories are there for is to provide an example of how to and how not to live. This is especially true in the book of Judges. In Judges, everything in Israel turns on its commitment to Yahweh and living life according to Yahweh’s ethics.
Yahweh’s ethics? What the heck are those? That phrase refers to living life the way God wants his people to live. Are you worshiping God only, or are there other things influencing your spirituality? Are you taking care of people who need assistance; the widows, the orphans, showing hospitality to strangers or to the poor? You see, part of being one of God’s people is a directive to look outside ourselves and to take care of others. Finally, participating in a Yahwistic ethic means asking, “Are you maintaining a high standard of personal integrity?”
By the times of the judges, Israel has been failing miserably at right living! The book of Judges is a sad book that highlights the decline of the nation because they have turned their backs on their true king – Yahweh. The end of Judges (17:6) sums up perfectly the state of decline:
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
Look at Jephthah. He’s an interesting guy, who has had the deck stacked against him from the very start. Have you ever felt that people or life (or even God) has something against you and that you can’t get a leg up no matter what you do? Have you been in a situation that doesn’t go your way and, even though it’s not your fault, there’s nothing you can do?
Jephthah is the firstborn son of a childless man. The only problem is that his mother was a prostitute. So later on, when his father has other sons from his legitimate wife, the legitimate sons give Jephthah the boot, telling him, “No half-breed is going to share in our inheritance. You’re not a full part of this family. Get out of here!” That’s painful stuff, being rejected by family, forced to live as an outsider. But what man rejects, God can use!
So Jephthah bolts; he heads for the hills. God has a funny way of preparing Jephthah for use, though. While he is away, he draws all sorts of worthless scallywags to him and they become land pirates. They raid other towns and form a band of pirates and thieves. It like Sons of Anarchy: Bible Edition.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Israel has turned away from God and served everything else under the sun except God. Isn’t that the way we are? We also go through cycles of drawing close to God. Then we slip and go through a period of drifting away. We have our own sin cycles, and we need to recognize when we’re in one so we can call out to God and say, “Hey, I need your help!” This time, though, God looks at the Israelites and says, “Okay, have it your way. I’m done with you.” And the Philistines and Ammonites invade and rule in Israel for almost 2 decades.
The people finally have enough and say, “God, we made a mistake. We should never have left you! We have sinned against you.” And God says, “When other people attacked you, didn’t I rescue you? Haven’t I always come to your aid? Haven’t I always been there for you? But you turn away from me and ignore me. You act as though I haven’t been here for you. So go ask your other gods to rescue you now. Let them get you out of the mess you’re in.” And Israel says again, “We have sinned. Do with us what you think fit, just rescue us today!” And take a look at 10:16
He couldn’t stand their griping any more.
We so often have an image of God as a loving father who is patient and quick to welcome us back with open arms. Well, that is one aspect of God’s character. But it is not the only aspect. God gets frustrated and angry when believers continually do dumb things when they should know better!
Those of you who have kids or spent any time with kids, has their behavior ever aggravated you? Angered you? Frustrated you? Do you love your kids any less when they behave like that? No, but that doesn’t take away the aggravation. This is the image we see of God in this story. The idiotic behavior of believers makes God say, “You know what…? Deal with it. I am not going to do this right now.” This really isn’t something new. People doing stupid things and turning away from God when they KNOW what they should be doing seems to get on God’s nerves.
The same thing happened in Exodus 33:3. This is right after the “Golden Calf Incident of ’76.” Oh, yeah, remember that? God’s people have grown inpatient waiting for God and Moses so they make their own sacred cow. This is right when God is about to send Israel into the Promised Land. God has enough and says this: “Go on to the land where milk and honey flow. I shall not go with you myself—you are a headstrong people—or I might exterminate you on the way.”
Clearly God gets frustrated by human behavior, and every once in a while he has to say, “I’m out. I won’t be part of this.” On the surface God’s behavior can seem harsh, even indecisive. I’m here, I’m not. I’m here, I’m not. But I don’t think God is being too harsh. I think he’s being realistic. Often times we won’t get in gear until we risk losing something dear and important to us. You know what I’m talking about. You know there are areas of your life that you refuse to change and will never change until you’re faced with a big enough consequence. And then see how fast you can change! This was the Israelites. God said, “I don’t want to deal with this – how many times do I need to come to your rescue?” So they toss out all of the idols and vow to serve God only – then comes the hunt for the savior/warrior.
And someone says, “Hey remember our half-brother we told to take a hike? He’s become a pretty successful commander leading raids. He’d probably be a good choice to lead our people into a fight against the Ammonites!” And they go and they ask Jephthah, “Jeph, please come be our military commander!” You’ve seen how nice people are when they want something from you? But don’t go pointing fingers too quickly. We’re all like that sometimes.
We’re always nice to people when we want something from them – we treat God the same way!
When you need something from God, what kind of reacquainting dance do you do? “Hey, God, I know it’s been a while, but if you could see fit to help out….”
Jephthah’s own family treats him this way calls them on it. “Aren’t you the guys who hated me and kicked me out? Why come to me when you are in trouble?” And they say, “But we are in trouble, that’s why we come to you now. Look, come fight for us. Be our military commander and also be the leader of the tribe.” You see, they’re getting desperate. They need help so they keep offering more and more in an attempt to win Jephthah over. And Jephthah says, “Lemme get this straight. I’ll come fight for you, AND you’ll restore my position within the tribe? I’ll be the head honcho?” And they say, “Yup, that’s what we’re asking.” So they shake hands and it’s a done deal.
Every scene of the story so far is an exercise in negotiation. The Israelites try to negotiate with God. The tribe leaders negotiate with Jephthah. Now it’s Jephthah’s turn as he takes the lead as commander of the clan. He tries to negotiate with the king of the Ammonites. He sends a message saying, “Friend! There should be no trouble between us. In fact, there should be peace. How about you go your way with what your god has given you, and we’ll go our way with what Yahweh has given us?” But the king of the Ammonites doesn’t pay any attention to the message. And the spirit of the Lord comes upon Jephthah as he prepares for battle, but the man cannot stop negotiating. He once again tries negotiating with God.
“If you give me victory over the Ammonites, then the first person to meet me from the door of my house when I return from battle will belong to Yahweh, and I will offer him up as a burnt offering.” He’s trying to bribe God! “God, give this to me and in return I’ll give you….” How many times have we seen this in movies or television. It’s become a joke to the secular world. Someone is on hard times and turns to God saying, “If you get me out of this I promise I’ll…” but help arrives in the middle or at the end of the prayer and they quickly turn to heaven and say, “Um…never mind.” Why do we think we can bribe God?
Can God be bought off? There is no price high ENOUGH to buy off my God. That’s good news for us, because when God says, “I’ll never leave you, I’ll never abandon you” it means that no enemy could get between God and us. It means no one can say, “God, if you turn your back on Tom, then I promise that I’ll give you such-and-such.”
God can’t be bought by you or anyone else.
Jephthah should have known that. But he thinks he needs to give God an appropriate offering for a personal victory, and his personal victory ends up as a very personal loss, for when he returns home victorious, the first person out of the door to greet him is his daughter, his only child. And he is torn up because he think that his vow to God requires him to sacrifice his child on the altar. It shows how little he REALLY knows God. His daughter also thinks that he is bound, and she attempts to protect her father’s honor. “Father, let me go mourn for two months, then do to me what you have promised God you would do.” And when she returns from mourning with her friends, he did with her as he had vowed. She had never married.
Think about this for a second. She is his only child. What is the significance of pointing out that she was a virgin and had never married? By making a stupid vow, by thinking he could buy off God, he ended up exterminating his own bloodline. Where is the honor in this? There is no honor here. Human sacrifice is a characteristic of foreign, pagan worship, not Yahweh worship. Israel has gone through cycles of turning away from God and turning towards other gods.
Have you ever noticed that when your start spending time around new friends that your vocabulary changes? You start using words and phrases that you’ve never used before. When we spend time away from God, we pick up habits and practices that are not characteristic of someone who is a true worshipper of God. For the Israelites, human sacrifice is not a characteristic of worshipping Yahweh. It is a pagan act of worship.
The story shows that Jephthah, Israel’s leader, sacrifices like a foreigner, even though the sacrifice of his daughter is offered to Yahweh. Israel’s return to God is incomplete, it isn’t total, because they are still acting like foreigners and attributing their behavior as worship to God.
We keep doing the same things we always do yet expect things to change because we are “worshiping God.” That’s insanity. That’s idiocy. It’s time to break with the old way of doing things and turn whole-heartedly towards God and his ways. This means in the way we sacrifice or worship. This means in the way we treat God and others. This means in our family relationships. This means at our jobs and with our friends.
It’s time to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them or doing things the way outsiders do them and start doing things the way God wants us to do them. Don’t act like outsiders act and think that you are a true worshiper of God! If we don’t do things differently, nothing will change. We will never go deeper. So take a minute. Pause before the Lord. Ask God to show you what you have allowed to remain in your life as a foreigner that does not fit the picture of a true worshipper of God.
Are we willing to focus on God alone and let everything else fall by the wayside?
Will we give up negotiating with God and simply life the life he wants us to live?
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a guy who blogs about Christianity and spirituality. To be honest, he has some very angry and bitter feelings towards Christianity, so most of his writing is why churches, pastors, and Christians in general are doing it wrong. Instead of being like Jesus we’re too focused on preaching at people. Jesus listened and served. He said, “Jesus was called the good shepherd, and shepherds are not preachers.”
While I agree that there are many “preachy” Christians out there who care more about the sound of their voice than the people to whom they speak, this man has really missed the totality of Jesus. Yes, Jesus cared about people. He listened to people. He served people.
Jesus was a really nice guy.
That’s where a lot of people stop.
But Jesus was so much more than that. He cared. In fact, he cared enough to tell people that it was time to change. He was a good man who served others, but he was a preacher as well. Yes, Jesus was called a shepherd. People also called him Rabbi (teacher) because he was known for his speaking.
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
In the famous story where Jesus prevents an angry crowd from stoning a sinful woman, Jesus doesn’t just come to her rescue – he sends her away saying:
“Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
It seems Jesus was a pretty balanced guy. He believed in serving people. He believed in meeting people where they were and loving them as they were. But that’s only one side, and a one-sided Jesus is an incomplete Jesus.
He also called people to repentance. He called people to change. He called people to faith. A complete picture of Jesus must include BOTH his actions as a servant-leader and his words as a preacher and teacher.
It is this complete Jesus that ministers to us in our brokenness – we are loved as we are and for who we are. But it is this complete Jesus that loves us too much to let us stay the same – he calls us to move on and leave behind our old ways.
Anything less and you’ve only got half the picture. And those who live with half a Jesus focus too much on love and service on one side or repentance and change on the other. Both extremes are inadequate to the rich character of Christ.
One of my favorite uses of Google is as a dictionary. I simply type: “define __________ ” and fill in the blank with whatever word I want defined. Today I typed: define integrity. This is what I got:
the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
It’s about honesty. I would add that integrity means that quality of character that acts according to principles even when no one else is watching. Integrity is being consistent in our moral behavior. Just because I can get away with something does not mean that I should do it. Integrity says, “I know that I shouldn’t be doing this, so even though I could, I won’t.”
This week a lot of people had the opportunity to display integrity. Many failed. It seems that there was a system glitch that oversaw the EBT debit cards (food stamps) in Louisiana. For a brief time the cards had no limit—none. When people found out many flooded Wal-Mart and other supermarkets. Some people went to check out with multiple shopping carts filled to overflowing with groceries!
Let’s be honest – the people who took advantage of the glitch did nothing legally wrong. They were using the cards that had been given them. The glitch was not their doing (in a funny sidenote, Wal-Mart is blaming Xerox and Xerox turned around and is blaming Wal-Mart!).
While there was nothing illegal going on there was most certainly an issue of honesty and integrity. Just because a glitch allows you to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Every one of those people knew better. But when the restraints were removed there was no personal integrity to say, “Wow, what a funny glitch! I’m not gonna be a free-rider and take advantage of this.”
The Bible talks about integrity:
The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me. 9 Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous—you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God! (Psalm 7:7-9)
Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways. (Proverbs 28:6)
This post is not at all about poverty or social justice. I’m not opposed to the “haves” making sure that the “have nots” receive help. But this story does illustrate a human problem – when we think we can get away with something we will often do things we KNOW to be wrong.
Our issues may not be with food stamps. But we have other hidden issues that we wrestle with when we think no one is watching, when we feel like we can do it without consequence or repercussion.
Instead, let’s strive to be people of integrity. Let us live up to a quality of character that acts according to God’s principles even when no one else is watching.