Transformation complete…

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Judges 8:10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna (kings of Midian) 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.

If you’ve been following along in the book of Judges with me you know that God sent Gideon – and a mere 300 warriors – to take on the Midianites who numbered 120,00 warriors. That’s right 300 vs. 120,000! Nuts! Insane! No way! But the 300 were victorious because God “threw all the army into a panic”. And when that happened the Midianites started attacking one another. I mean, that’s the only way such a thing is possible because 300 warriors is nowhere near enough to attack an army of 120,000.

What’s particularly interesting to me in this passage is the change in Gideon himself. His earlier fear and doubt and caution and hesitation are gone. Confident of God’s presence with him, Gideon is eager to pursue the kings of Midian and does so without delay. Gideon’s transformation is complete. He has become what the angel of the Lord called him in the very beginning – a “mighty warrior”.

It is true. With God all things are possible. Who is the Lord calling you to be today? Where does fear and doubt hold you back? What would it look like for you to take a step of faith today and watch for evidence that the Lord is with you? Lord by your grace give us courage to be whom you have called us to be. Amen.

God chooses whom God chooses…

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Judges 7:1 Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod…. 2 The LORD said to Gideon, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’ 3 Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’ ” Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. 4 Then the LORD said to Gideon, “The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there. When I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; and when I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” 5 So he brought the troops down to the water; and the LORD said to Gideon, “All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side.” 6 The number of those that lapped was three hundred; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. 7 Then the LORD said to Gideon, “With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes.” 8 So he took the jars of the troops from their hands, and their trumpets; and he sent all the rest of Israel back to their own tents, but retained the three hundred. The camp of Midian was below him in the valley. 9 That same night the LORD said to him, “Get up, attack the camp; for I have given it into your hand. 10 But if you fear to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah; 11 and you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp.”

It’s crazy to think God’s people under Gideon defeated the Midianites with only 300 warriors, but there it is. What I find interesting is that God asked Gideon to send home all those who were “fearful and trembling”, yet v.10 reveals that Gideon himself was fearful. If you read verses 12-14 of this chapter you will see that Gideon took God up on his offer of v.10 and only then did he attack.

In fact he attacked with NO SWORDS, only trumpets and jars of fire.

As I wrote in my last blog post, Gideon is not exactly a profile in courage through this story, but he is nonetheless God’s chosen leader to defeat the Midian army. It reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect to be used by God. This story isn’t so much about Gideon, but about God working through Gideon. God’s power was enough for Gideon. It’s enough for me. And you.

Heavenly Father keep our eyes on you, for with you all things are possible. Amen.

An unlikely hero… Gideon

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Judges 6:11 Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13 Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15 He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 16 The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”

I love the story of Gideon. There is so much here and in the rest of his story. There are three things Gideon has a hard time believing in our passage for today. First, there is the name “mighty warrior” given by the angel. Gideon is hiding in the winepress fearful of the Midianites – not exactly a profile in courage. Doesn’t matter. It’s fun to read Gideon’s story and see him live into this new identity the Lord has given him. Before it’s all over everything the angel says about him will come to pass.

Secondly, Gideon has a hard time believing that the Lord is with him and his people. Why? Because they’re being harshly oppressed by the Midianites. Gideon has heard of the mighty acts God did in freeing his ancestors from slavery in Egypt so that’s what he expects. Again, we will see later that God is indeed with him and his people.

Finally, there is the declaration of v.16 above. “…you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them”. If you read the rest of this chapter in Judges you will read the description of the Midianites. They are so numerous they are like a swarm of locusts covering the ground in the land of Gideon’s people. To strike down every one of these invaders is beyond belief. But that’s what happens in the end.

I’m encouraged here because Gideon is far from perfect yet he is definitely chosen by God. I suppose this is so that God, rather than Gideon, will ultimately get the glory for freeing his people.

Lord help me to look into the hearts of people rather than their exterior, for this is what you do in selecting people to do your will. Give me grace to serve you like Gideon. Amen.

Jesus the king… sort of…

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Luke 19:11 As (the disciples) were listening to (Jesus teaching), (Jesus) went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

This is getting toward the end of the gospel of Luke. Jesus and his disciples are on their final journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will meet his fate. What jumps out at me this morning in this verse are the words “they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”.

As you know the disciples expected Jesus to assume the throne of Israel much like the kings of old had – kings like David and Solomon. This verse suggests they also thought this was going to happen very quickly once they arrived in Jerusalem, which was the capital city. I can imagine their excited anticipation when they finally arrived! But then they saw Jesus apprehended by the authorities and die on a cross. Hopes… dashed.

God had a better plan.

You know the rest of the story. Jesus died but was raised three days later. And now, through Jesus, salvation and eternal life are available to the entire world not just Israel. It’s an outcome far superior to what the disciples had in mind and believers all over the world are grateful.

As this pandemic situation drags on I’m wondering if some elements of this are part of God’s plans. I don’t mean the fact that millions of people are infected with coronavirus and hundreds of thousands dead around the world. That is a categorial catastrophe. But I AM wondering if perhaps this dire situation might help bring people together. It hasn’t thus far, but perhaps it will. When things get bad enough we have no choice but to set aside our differences. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

Lord your ways are not our ways. Give us grace to find where you are at work, even in the darkest of days. Amen.

Zacchaeus…

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Luke 19:1 (Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus presents us with an interesting contrast with the rich young ruler in chapter 18 who, when challenged to sell his belongings and follow Jesus, would not do it. The young ruler was “righteous” in that he had kept the commandments of the Lord since his youth. I expect he didn’t perceive the need for himself to go the extra step of selling his possessions – so he didn’t.

Zacchaeus on the other hand appears to have no problem letting go of his wealth. In fact he offers to give away a large chunk of his wealth without even being asked, which seems strange for a “chief tax collector” who has likely committed himself to accumulating wealth his entire life. Why the difference between the two?

My guess is that Zacchaeus would never have thought of himself of righteous. I mean, the only way you became wealthy as a tax collector was if you collected from the people more than was necessary to fulfill his commitment to Rome. People resented getting squeezed for more than they actually owed and so despised tax collectors in general. They were people who plundered their fellow Jews on behalf of Rome.

V.9 “Today salvation has come to this house…”

Zacchaeus, keenly aware of his own sinfulness and need of grace, accepts Jesus. The righteous ruler does not. It’s another example of the wrong kind of people being received into the kingdom of God ahead of the right kind of people. The first will be last and the last will be first.

Lord Jesus, count me among the sinners in desperate need of your grace and mercy. Without you I have no hope in this life. Receive me into your kingdom. Amen.

Coming to grips with truth…

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Luke 18:31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

Again Jesus tells his disciples what will happen to him once they arrive in Jerusalem. And again his disciples don’t comprehend what he’s saying. What draws my attention in this passage is v. 34:

34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

It’s not that the disciples were stupid. They just couldn’t receive this important but difficult truth because it so completely contradicted their expectations of Jesus as an earthly king and ruler.

As this pandemic drags on and on there are some difficult truths I’m having to face. Masks and distancing are likely with us for some time to come. It’s not going away in a month or two as many of us believed in March. As a pastor I’m hopeful the church I lead might be able to have Christmas Eve services at the church, but it’s very much up in the air at this point.

My two daughters are returning to their respective colleges in a week or two. At least for now, it appears some of their activity will be on campus. I pray they don’t get sick or bring the virus home. My wife is a public school teacher who is teaching from home for now. It’s rough. How long will this continue?

I miss friends and family. A lot. I miss “normal”. I fear this may be the new normal. Lord give me grace to confront the truth and to rest in you. No matter what. Amen.

Is “stuff” getting in my way?

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Luke 18:18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

In Jesus’ day it was assumed that a wealthy person was one who had been rewarded by God for their goodness and righteousness. So it’s shocking to hear Jesus say it’s hard for such people to enter the kingdom of God. Why is that? It’s not that God has a problem with people of means, but rather it’s hard for such people to let go of their “stuff” to pursue life with God on a deeper level.

While I do not consider myself “rich”, I have come to understand a little about the reality of acquiring, maintaining, protecting, and even giving away material things. In my experience, the more “stuff” you have the more time and energy it often takes to manage it. And even though I probably spend more time per day investing in my relationship with the Lord than most people (I’m a pastor, after all) I still invest an inordinate amount of time each day keeping up with material things: finances, a home, vehicles, insurance, investments, and so on. It’s easy for my priorities to get out of whack. That’ just the honest truth.

So this morning I’m being challenged by our passage. How am I letting “stuff” get in the way of my relationship with the Lord? How about you?

Lord give us grace to put you first. Show us where our priorities are mixed up and bring us closer to you. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Lord give me a humble heart…

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Luke 18:9 (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke has gone out of his way to highlight Jesus’ teaching on those who are “justified” in God’s eyes. It’s not the religious people, but the humble – those who are keenly aware of their need of mercy before God. The Pharisee is counting on his acts of piety to justify him, but Jesus clearly teaches that he will be disappointed. It’s a massive challenge to the thinking of Jesus’ day.

In short, this story is a warning.

I don’t think of myself as proud, particularly in relationship to my faith or piety. I’m more likely to be aware of all my shortcomings – which are many. That said, this morning I’m asking the Lord to examine my heart and show me any areas where I might be thinking too highly of myself, or deserving of God’s favor/blessing.

Dear Lord, if I have any confidence connected to my faith life let it be confidence in your grace and mercy and my acute need for both. Amen.

The Kingdom… is now…

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Luke 17:20–21 (NRSV): 20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

It would seem that the Pharisees and Jesus were referring to two different things. The Jewish notion of the kingdom of God looked like a Jewish king restoring the Jewish monarchy and a prominent place among the nations of the ancient Middle East. No more Roman occupation. A decidedly earthly event occurring in the visible, natural realm.

Jesus, however, understood the kingdom of God differently. Jesus ushered in a supernatural kingdom, much of which remains unseen, yet was revealed in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Even John the Baptist was confused by Jesus as we see below:

Matthew 11:2–5 (NRSV): 2 When John heard in prison what (Jesus) was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

John the Baptist was waiting for Jesus to assume a throne, which never happened. Yet the kingdom of God worked powerfully through Jesus and later through the church.

Okay so that’s a lot of explanation but I’m getting to my point. Notice that Jesus said the kingdom of God is “among you”. In other words the kingdom wasn’t something they had to wait for but a reality present in the community of disciples.

One of the things I’m missing most right now is my church community. A question I hear regularly is whether a virtual community can constitute a legitimate church. I believe the answer is yes it can. In fact it may be that “virtual” churches become a “thing” as a result of our pandemic experience. We shall see.

That said I believe, that in Jesus’ day and ours, a chief way the kingdom of God comes is through the community of believers. It would seem there is something that gets activated in the kingdom of God when we gather. And I don’t believe a virtual experience will replace it.

A heart of gratitude…

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Luke 17:11–19 (NRSV): 11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Two things stand out to me in this passage. First, the one who returns to Jesus to offer thanks is a Samaritan. Samaritans were distant relations with the Jews, but we’re considered foreigners by the time of Jesus. As has occurred many times in Luke, it is the outsider or foreigner who responds in faith to Jesus.

The second thing that comes to mind is the lack of gratitude on the part of the nine who did not return to Jesus. It’s like they took their healing for granted in a way the Samaritan did not. Perhaps because they were Jews they felt entitled, but we really don’t know.

The truth is the Lord lavishes his blessings on me all the time and I’m afraid I’ve gotten used to it at some level. I wonder if I would be one who returned like the Samaritan or not. As it is, I’m afraid my level of gratitude comes nowhere close to the level of blessing I enjoy. That is challenging me this morning.

Lord I know I do not thank you enough. How could I? That said I want to do better in this area of my faith life. Give me grace to appreciate all the ways you care for me and those I love. Grow in me a heart of deep gratitude for all the ways you give me life. Amen.