Hard choices…

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10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night. 12 Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, and Samuel was told, “Saul went to Carmel, where he set up a monument for himself, and on returning he passed on down to Gilgal.” 13 When Samuel came to Saul, Saul said to him, “May you be blessed by the Lord; I have carried out the command of the Lord.” 14 But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the cattle, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.” 16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He replied, “Speak.” 17 Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18 And the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19 Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” 20 Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21 But from the spoil the people took sheep and cattle, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.” 22 And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.” 

Poor Saul. It wasn’t his idea to leave some of the “spoil” alive rather than put everything to death. V.21 tells us some of his fellow Israelites decided to take some of the choice animals to sacrifice to the Lord. Normally this might be just fine, except in this case God had commanded that everything be destroyed. Saul was caught between the command of God and the desires of his warriors who, in defeating the Amalekites, would have expected to enjoy the spoils of war. Saul could either disappoint God or disappoint his own people. He chose the former and was dismissed by God from being king. In his place would rise a young man named David, the one who would battle Goliath.

One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to disappoint your own people – but that’s part of the job. Leadership is hard. We can only hope that when we disappoint, we do so for the right reasons. Lord I ask your blessing today on all leaders, especially the leaders in the church around the world. Give us grace to choose wisely, and forgive us when we fail to do so. Amen.

Leaving justice to God…

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Psalm 109: 17 (King David’s accuser) loved to curse; let curses come on him. He did not like blessing; may it be far from him. 18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat, may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones. 19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself, like a belt that he wears every day.” 20 May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life. 

Man, David is upset. Someone really did him wrong, so he wants God to set things right – to punish and humiliate his former friend. As a king it would have been easy for David to take matters into his own hands and have his accuser put in prison or even perhaps put to death. But David doesn’t do that. Instead he asks the Lord to set things right, leaving it to God to determine the appropriate punishment. There is great wisdom in that.

There have been times in my life when I was sure someone had done me wrong, only to find out later I was misinformed. It was actually someone else. Or there were some extenuating circumstances I wasn’t aware of. Or I’ve come to find out the fault (at least in part) was actually mine, not theirs. In any case, my immediate reaction had been harsh and I’ve had to apologize. This is one of the potential pitfalls of the “ready, fire, aim” people like myself. We are prone to act now and think later. If you read the bible you will get the impression, as I have, that King David was this sort of person – act now, ask questions later.

So when I read this psalm I read poetic words describing harsh judgment, well deserved. But I also see wisdom in David, entrusting to God the consequences for the offender’s actions. David knows he is prone to act, or even over-react, in haste – but not God. God knows the ins and outs of what’s happened and will mete out justice accordingly. And because David trusts God, David can find peace.

Lord give us hearts to trust you to administer justice when we might be tempted to take matters into our own hands. Amen.

The Word became flesh and lived among us

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John 1:14 (NRSV): 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word of God is the power of God that was spoken at creation to bring about the heavens and the earth and everything in them. That same power came in the form of flesh and blood through Jesus himself. And as believers in Jesus, children of God by faith, the Holy Spirit gives us ability to reflect God’s grace and truth to the world around us.

Heavenly Father, give us grace to reflect your Son Jesus to others. Amen.

When God’s ways don’t seem to make sense…

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Psalm 106: 34 They (the Israelites) did not destroy the peoples (who inhabited the Promised Land), as the Lord commanded them, 35 but they mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. 36 They served their idols, which became a snare to them. 37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; 38 they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. 

I’ve often heard company executives say that the most valuable resource they have is their people. As the senior leader of a local church I would tend to agree, though I would put the power of the Holy Spirit as first and people second. Nevertheless, without our people we are not the church.

So I imagine what it must have been like to be among the Israelites when they were warring against the native peoples of the Promised Land which God had given to them. Early on God told the leaders of Israel to put to death all of the people they encountered – man, woman, and child. Why? Because these people were not worshippers of Yahweh and would lead Israel astray with their idolatrous ways. God’s command was brutal, but it made sense. We’re told in our passage that Israel did NOT do what God had commanded, but kept some of the native peoples alive. The passage also tells us some of what happened as a result of Israel’s disobedience. It ended badly.

The bible tells us that God’s ways are not our ways. Our passage for today is one example of this. So this morning I’m asking the Lord for faith to trust his ways when they don’t make sense to me. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

The pressure to pick a side…

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Luke 23:13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” 18 Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!”

In the Apostle’s Creed we say that Jesus was, “crucified under Pontius Pilate” which is true. Pilate had the authority to choose a less severe punishment for Jesus but, afraid of the Jewish crowds (which far outnumbered the Roman soldiers in his charge), Pilate relented and ordered Jesus crucified.

Pilate had a chance to do the right thing, but ultimately caved to public pressure.

There are times when doing the right thing will bring criticism. Reminds me of the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” I am not immune to the opinions of others or pressure to conform. There’s a lot of pressure to conform these days. US culture has been described as “tribal” in that one is either conservative or progressive. There have been a number of times when people have asked me to pick a side. For the most part I have resisted. I am neither conservative nor progressive but am a Christian serving in the name of Jesus. If I choose a political side I become an adversary of the other and my capacity to shepherd a diverse congregation is compromised.

In part, Jesus was crucified because he refused to take a side. He would neither side with the Roman or Jewish authorities. Within the Jewish community he refused to side with either the Pharisees or Sadducees. Jesus aligned himself with the Kingdom of God, choosing grace and mercy rather than condemnation. And he was killed for it.

Lord Jesus there is great pressure for us to pick a side. Give us grace to resist. Amen.

Failure is not the last word…

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Luke 22:54 Then (the authorities arrested Jesus) and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. 55 When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” 59 Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter was bold in his proclamation of support and allegiance to Jesus only a short time before Jesus’ arrest described in today’s passage. But in the moment of truth Peter faltered to the point of repeatedly denying he’d ever known Jesus. The last verse here says it all.

Yet, despite this epic fail, Jesus didn’t hold it against Peter. Instead of cutting ties with Peter, Jesus actually sought Peter out and invited him back into the fold. Peter would become one of the pillars of the early church. Over time he was able to put this failure behind him. Jesus certainly forgave him. I wonder if Peter was able to forgive himself.

Failure is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to define us. With Jesus there is forgiveness and a second chance.

Lord Jesus you know my faults and failures, of which there are many. Thank you for the mercy and grace you extend to all who call on your name. Give us grace to also forgive ourselves for our failures and disappointments. Amen.

Flaws and all…

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Judges 14:1 Once Samson (a young man of Israel) went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. Then he came up, and told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.” “Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson. After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass of the lion. 

Samson saved Israel from the Philistines, but he was not a good Jew. First he asked to marry a Philistine woman when God had commanded Jews not marry outside their own people. Then instead of abiding by the objections of his parents he insisted on marrying a foreign woman anyway. Then he ate honey from the carcass of a dead lion, which would have been considered ritually “unclean”. Lastly he gave some of this honey to his parents making them (unknowingly) unclean.

This young man has some obvious character flaws, but God used him anyway. I have some character flaws too, some rough edges. Okay, LOTS of rough edges. Sometimes I get to thinking God cannot use me because I’m so far from where God wants me to be. Yet stories like this remind me that God can, and does, choose very imperfect people to accomplish his purposes on earth. There is hope! Thank you Lord for giving me a chance to do your will – flaws and all. Amen.

By your endurance you will gain your souls…

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Luke 21: 12 (Jesus said) “But before (the Son of Man returns), they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name… 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

When we read the New Testament we see that Jesus was correct. Persecution and betrayal awaited many of his followers. What gets my attention this morning is “they will put some of you to death” and then “not a hair on your head will perish”. Seems like a bit of a contradiction. Unless, of course, Jesus is talking about eternal life rather than mortal life. Jesus explains in v.19 “By your endurance you will gain your souls”.

I have a daughter Victoria (above) who is applying to P.A. (physician’s assistant) school. She thought she was done with her coursework, but recently found out that two classes she took online during Covid will not be accepted by the admissions department of her preferred school. She will have to retake the courses in person even though she got A’s in these courses online as an undergrad. Needless to say, she is not happy about this. It will set her back a year. She sees her friends in other disciplines starting their professional careers but she’s held up. It’s discouraging.

Of course, as a 56-year-old man I know one additional year of waiting to enter grad school will not ultimately be a big deal. But, like most young people, Victoria doesn’t have the benefit of perspective the way us older folks do. A one-year delay feels like a lifetime to her.

When I read our passage for today I get the sense Jesus is telling his disciples something similar. Yes, the experience in the short-term may be incredibly difficult, but something much greater awaits in the eternal life to come. The trials and struggles of today will fade away as we experience eternity with a holy, loving, faithful, glorious God. Lord let it be so. Amen.

It’s all spin…

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Judges 11:12 Then Jephthah (leader of the army of Israel) sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What is there between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” 13 The king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” 14 Once again Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites 15 and said to him: “Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, 16 but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh… 19 Israel then sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, ‘Let us pass through your land to our country.’ 20 But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people together, and encamped at Jahaz, and fought with Israel. 21 Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them.”

It’s interesting how we have two different interpretations of the same historical event. When Israel fled Egypt on their way to the Promised Land they had to pass through the land of the Amorites. Moses asked if Israel could pass in peace, but King Sihon of the Amorites said no. Yet, instead of going around the Amorites, God directed Israel to attack and take the lands by force, which they did.

The king of the Ammonites had one version of history (Israel stole their land) while Jephthah of Israel had another (The Ammonites brought it on themselves).

Two groups of people interpreted the same historical events very differently. This happens all the time in our day. I’m convinced that all current news outlets are essentially “spin”. It’s bias. It’s picking and choosing what information to accept or reject, what to highlight and what to ignore, in order to shape a narrative to fit our agenda. I honestly find myself wondering what to believe much of the time.

Lord give us ears to cut through the noise and hear your truth. Amen.

With God all things are possible…

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Judges 8:10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna (kings of Midian and enemies of Israel) were in Karkor with their army, about fifteen thousand men, all who were left of all the army of the people of the east; for one hundred twenty thousand men bearing arms had fallen. 11 So Gideon went up by the caravan route east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the army; for the army was off its guard. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna fled; and he pursued them and took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and threw all the army into a panic. 

We’re told the kings of Midian had a surviving army of 15,000 men after 120,000 of their men had already been killed. That’s a lot of dead soldiers! How many men did Gideon have in his army, fighting on behalf of Israel? 300. That’s not a typo. God sent Gideon with only 300 warriors to oppose the Midianite army of 135,000. How is it possible Gideon would be victorious? With God all things are possible.

I’ve been doing some teaching on the practice of Sabbath. For most busy people, the idea of setting aside one entire day each week for rest and renewal can sound about as likely as 300 men defeating 135,000 men in battle. If we work seven days per week and struggle to get everything done, how can we possibly cut that down to six days? Sounds crazy, and yet… With God all things are possible.

Some of you are facing overwhelming challenges right now. When you look at your situation it seems hopeless. I get it. I’ve been there many times. Here’s what I have to remember when faced with overwhelming odds. With God all things are possible. Lord help us to remember this important truth. Amen.