10. Choices & Consequences

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 10.  Choices and Consequences 

Mt 7:24,26  Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock….. everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

The parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock (for it is a parable, a story rather than mere word comparisons of the analogies we have seen so far) is probably the most famous story that any child who has been to Sunday School will have learnt – and perhaps even sung about. The story is about making choices and the consequences that follow and in that, it is just like the analogy that Jesus spoke about a few verses earlier – going through the narrow gate of obedience brings life, compared to going through the wide gate which leads to destruction. That too was about choices and the consequences that follow. That cannot be emphasised enough in respect of this present parable and as such it goes to the very heart of everything about the Christian faith – which is all about making choices, and the consequences that follow.

The starting point though, of this very comprehensive little parable, is the nature of two men – a wise man and a foolish man, and they are shown to be what they are by the choices they make and the consequences that follow. It is a mystery why people are like they are. Some argue genetics, others argue upbringing, but the reality is that we each have free will and although there may be either hereditary or training (or lack of it) that suggest to us certain paths to take, we each have free will and sufficient intellect (at least for the vast majority) to decide which path we want to take. Very often the path follows very shallow or brief thinking, but the ability is there, even though we may not use it to its fullest extent.

Before we go any further, it is perhaps worth checking this as a broader scriptural teaching. Solomon wrote, He who sows wickedness reaps trouble.” (Prov 22;8) and “he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Prov 11:18) which, combined may be the reason for the apostle Paul’s teaching: “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7,8) It is the same teaching as we find here, although here we are left thinking a little more about the nature of the ‘destruction’.

There is nothing unusual about this matter of making choices for it appears in many ways in life. Economics is sometimes defined as the ‘science’ of making choices as to how to use scarce resources. Sometime politics is said to be how to make choices for the best running of society. Psychology is about how all behaviour is or is not a matter of choice. When it comes to spiritual choices they prove to be the most significant of all because they not only affect the present but also the eternal future.

So we have two men, a wise man and a foolish man and in Jesus’ story they both decide to build a house. One builds his house on rock and the other on sand. This is not rocket science, this is stuff that any child can understand. But then a storm comes along with torrential rain, and the obvious happens. The rain just runs off the rock but washes away the sand and so the second house collapses. It is a patently obvious story.

Now what is it all about? Jesus makes it very plain for he prefaces both halves of the story with the explanation: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (v.24 and “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (v.26) It’s all about listening to Jesus and then making a choice – whether to obey his instructions, or not.

But Jesus doesn’t just say building on rock is smart and building on sand is stupid, he spells out why it is – because we live in a world where storms come and the foundations are tested. Ah! This is at the heart of this story – the foundations, rock and sand as we’ve already seen. One can withstand storms and one cannot. Obeying me, says Jesus, means you can withstand the storms of life. Disregarding my teaching means the storms of life will bring you down. So two things to be further considered: what are ‘the storms of life’ and what is the teaching of Jesus?

Well ‘storms of life’ occur because we live in a fallen world and they can be things that just naturally randomly happen because the world is not working as it was when God first made because of the effect of sin, even on the physical world (which few of us understand). They can be literal storms, floods, hurricanes etc., things that cause physical damage and may destroy our homes or our businesses. But they may also be things that are caused by the sinfulness of mankind and so we may bring them on ourselves because of our own folly, or others may seek to bring them on us. In the month I write this the world has known cyber attacks which in the UK means dozens of hospitals were shut down putting lives at risk and causing immense inconvenience. The sinfulness of mankind. We have also in the UK a terrorist bomb killing and maiming dozens, specifically targeted at young people and children. The sinfulness of mankind. Even more we have had three random terrorist running amok in London killing people with knives. The sinfulness of mankind.  Because we live in this fallen world, we can get caught up in the outworkings of such things – ‘natural’ or man-made. These ‘storms of life’ can include physical illnesses or infirmities, mental breakdowns, relational breakdowns and so on. They can all be things that threaten to bring us down in misery or collapse. How do we cope with such things?

So what is Jesus’ teaching? Repent, turn away from your self-centred and godless life and turn to God. Receive what Jesus has done for you on the Cross so that your sins may be forgiven, you may be adopted into God’s family and receive the power of His Holy Spirit into your life as a new power source. Sometimes we call that power source ‘grace’, His ability imparted to us to enable us to cope with whatever comes along and to rise above it. THIS is why Christians can survive while their neighbours subside into a heap of misery, this is why when there are national catastrophes it is so often Christians who rise up and provide solace, care, concern and help.

It is not because they are good in themselves, but because they become the instruments of God who wants to bring these things, help to people who are suffering. Why doesn’t God stop these things, people often say? Because you demand independence and so He respects you enough to give it to you, and so He won’t leap in to counter every wrong thought, or wrong deed that unleashes harm – but He is there the moment you turn to Him and seek Him. He doesn’t want harm to come to you, but He respects the choices you make – to build on rock or sand and, if you built on sand, He will be there if you cry out to Him when your life fell around your ears – but how sad that it has to come to that sometimes!

Addendum: Three further thoughts

  1. Not merely hearing but putting into practice. I wonder how many churches go this far?
  2. Bad choices: Jesus can redeem the less than perfect choices we sometimes make!
  3. Storms of life: these happen because it is a fallen world and not the fault of the second builder – the focus is on not making poor choices and not on laying guilt for the storms of life than come – God may allow them but they can ‘just happen’

88. Moses’ Downfall

Meditations in Exodus: 88.  Moses’ Downfall

Num 20:10  Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?”

We need to identify first of all just when this all happened. In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.” (20:1) Now no year is mentioned, just a reference to “the first month” but in verses 22 to 29 of this chapter, warning of Aaron’s impending death is given. In Num 33:38 we read in respect of Aaron, “he died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.” (Num 33:38) We have clearly jumped some thirty eight years forward. Israel have obviously done their wandering and the older generation has died off.  There is no record of the things that happened in that thirty eight year gap because it was a time of shame. At the beginning of this chapter Miriam dies and at the end of it Aaron dies (Num 20:27-29). In between, Moses future is determined by an event that had similarities to what had occurred some thirty eight years earlier (Ex 17:1-7).

So thirty eight years have passed and now we are told,  “there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron.” (Num 20:2) There is a real sense of deja-vu here: “They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num 20:3-5) The only thing is that this is the NEXT generation. The previous generations have virtually all now died.

Moses falls down before the Lord and God’s glory appears to them (v.6). The Lord tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock and the Lord will bring water out of it, enough for everyone (v.7,8).  It is at this point that things go slightly differently from the time many years before: “So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.” Num 20:9-11)

Note Moses’ language: “you rebels” and “must we bring water out”. And then he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it. Yes, water comes out, but that’s not the point. The point is that Moses is supposed to be the Lord’s representative and only do what the Lord tells him to do. Clearly Moses is utterly frustrated by the Israelites. It may be all the worse for him because thirty eight years have passed and the next generation are getting ready to enter the Land and then the same thing happens all over again! He has not handled it well. So we find, “the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (v.12) Psa 106 records, “they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips.” (Psa 106:33)

A great deal is yet to happen, as is spelled out in the remaining 16 chapters of Numbers (which we will only summarise) and indeed the entire book of Deuteronomy is to be written by Moses yet, but eventually we read of his death on his own on Mount Nebo, overlooking the land in Deut 34:1-8.

So how can we sum up this? Moses overstepped the mark on this occasion and for that he was not allowed to enter the Land. Why? Perhaps to show to Israel that even someone as great as Moses is answerable to the Lord and has to be held to account. Yes, the reality was that he was now 120 years old when he died and had spent the first forty years of his life as an Egyptian Prince, the second forty years of his life as a Midianite shepherd, and then the final forty years of his life as the shepherd of Israel. That last role had involved delivering them out of Egypt, taking them to Sinai, then up to the Promised Land,  but then just looking after them for nearly forty years in the wilderness before finally taking them up the east side of the Dead Sea until they were ready to cross the Jordan near Jericho to enter and take the Land. There on the plains of Moab he gave Israel a reminder of all that had happened over these past forty years, and then gave them detailed instructions about entering and living in the Land, which we now have as the book of Deuteronomy.

Commentators often disagree on dating the time of Moses life and so also of his death, but it is possible (if not probable) that from the time of striking the rock to dying on Mount Nebo was only about a year or so. If that is so, then his final year was a very active and very fruitful time. One hundred and twenty is a good age to die and he was more active in guiding Israel through the territories up the east of the Dead Sea and instructing Israel that most people would be in their sixties! No way does he let this restriction imposed on him by the Lord limit his ongoing service as the Shepherd of Israel.

In fact, I find this quite a challenge. If the Lord told me He was disciplining me and so all my hopes and aspirations were to be cut short (as happens when we find ourselves with a terminal illness) how will I feel about the months left to me? Would I sulk (I hope not) or would I seek to be as fruitful as Moses was? (I hope so). Part of our reply would also depend on how we coped with our own failure, if it had been like Moses and our shortened lifespan was a disciplinary act of God.

Indeed, how we learn to live with our failures is a big part of many of our lives. When we have blown it (and I have on more than one occasion) will we sink into a self-centred morass of gloom and doom, or will we receive the grace of God and get up and say, “Lord, please yet do what you need to with me, but please continue to use me.” We can yet be fruitful for that is always the Lord’s intent for us, even after He has had to pick us up and set us going again after some failure.

I think one of the greatest examples of this that I have observed in my lifetime was the life of Charles (Chuck) Colson, indicted and imprisoned for his part in the Watergate Affair when working for President Nixon. Through this he came to the Lord and went on to found Prison Fellowship  and was greatly used in a teaching ministry. His failure was able to be used by the Lord to bring a new son to glory. Failure was not the end, and it was clearly not so for Moses. May it not be so for you and me.

31. Perfect

We pick up and now continue the series on God in the Psalms

God in the Psalms No.31 – God who is Perfect

Psa 18:30 As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.

We have previously considered God who is good and God whose words are flawless, but because we so often struggle with this concept we consider it more widely with this verse now.  Why do we struggle with the idea that God is perfect? Because we often don’t understand what is going on in life and we can’t see the whole picture and so we wonder why God doesn’t turn up and do something.  Perhaps it’s also because we have had negative experiences in life, especially when we are young, and those experiences act like a stain or scar on our lives and the hurt of them distorts our thinking and makes us question God’s goodness. This questioning is not unusual.

Gideon did it: “But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about(Judges 6:13) He looked at their circumstances and concluded that God could not be with them. Abraham struggled similarly: Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Gen 17:17) and this after he had previously believed and been declared righteous (Gen 15:6), and later his wife similarly struggled, Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him…..Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the LORD said to Abraham, “…..anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son. (Gen 18:10-14).  When confronted with what seems impossible, we wonder and question, but God is perfect and when God says something He means it!

This idea of God being perfect comes out many times in Scripture:He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (Deut 32:4) God is entirely dependable (a rock) because everything He does is utterly good. The law of the LORD is perfect” (Psa 19:7). All of God’s decrees are perfect.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Perfect here means complete, whole, lacking in nothing. Whereas we may look at our own lives or the lives of people around us and see that they lack a lot (strength, grace, wisdom, humility, love, gentleness, peace – the list goes on and on!) NOTHING is missing from God.  Think of any good characteristic and He has it.  When John wrote, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn 4:18) the perfect love he was referring to was God.

But our verse above speaks of the way of the Lord.  The Lord’s way refers to the way God thinks, moves, acts, lives and works. It’s all about the way He expresses Himself and interacts with us. This is why this is so important. It’s not only that He himself is perfect but it’s about how He relates to us. We may not understand what is happening, either because it is too complex for us to work out, or because we can’t see the whole picture, but our call is simply to trust Him, that because He IS perfect, He is working the best for us in it. We may not be able to see that fully until we get to heaven, but for now we have to learn to accept this amazing truth. It will transform us!