19. A Right Approach

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  19. A Right Approach

Psa 4:5    Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord.

Context: So often with the psalms (and I suppose with so much other Scripture) you have to catch the flow of the verses to better understand where you are. David, we have seen, cried out for relief in his difficult circumstances (v.1) but the Lord called for us to look at the bigger picture of the state of the nation in which those circumstances flowed (v.2). David’s response within that is to declare his faith role that opens up the relationship with the Lord that brings the confidence that the Lord hears him when he cries out to Him (v.3). Then we saw that verse 4 was a call to hold a right perspective in respect of wrongs, to be angry but not allow it to become something out of control but simply something that highlights the wrong to be presented to the Lord (v.4).

Imperfect life: There is underlying all of this a constant awareness of living in a Fallen World where sin abounds, people do wrong, and the walk of the children of God is to be a walk of righteousness, but that is not always as easy as we might like it to be. We get it wrong, we stumble, we occasionally give way to temptation, we fail and have to repent, pick ourselves up and start again. How easy those words flow, how glib we can be, so what grounds do we have to be able to utter them?

Approaching God: Have you ever wondered why Leviticus exists with all its talk about sacrifices and offerings?  Pages of talk about sacrificing animals or birds? It’s all about how the Israelites were to maintain a right attitude, a right perspective, in respect of God, how they could come back into a right place after failure. There were fellowship offerings that could be used as expressions of their desire for a good relationship with the Lord; there were sin and guilt offerings to deal with failure – and don’t we as frail human beings get it wrong sometimes! Here they were called to be a holy people, the people of God and yet they are still very ordinary human beings and human beings never get it entirely right. It’s not even a case of not living up to God’s standards, it also about not living up to our own standards, or maybe the expectations of the community around us. So if we get it wrong in their eyes or even our own eyes, how can we (they) possibly have a relationship with a holy God?

The work of Sacrifice: The answer had to be to simply do what He said when you sinned. The sacrificial law was there and was taught: you offered a particular sacrifice in the manner laid down. In one sense it was simply your obedience to the Law of Moses, given by God, that put you right. At a deeper level it was the awareness that another life was taken (of an animal or bird) instead of yours to pay the price of justice in respect of your sin and your guilt. So there was an obedience factor and an atonement factor and perhaps also there was a deterrent fact; when you saw the life ebbing out of an animal at your hands, the severity of the punishment would speak of the seriousness in the eyes of God (it has to be Him for sin so often blinds our eyes so we don’t realise how serious it is) of what you had done, and that experience would hopefully ensure you would not repeat it.

The act of the righteous: And so we come back to David, very conscious of the fallen nature of himself and mankind around him, of the fact that they stood before a holy God who has just spoken about their shortcomings. It doesn’t matter what the sin, how minor or how serious, the path of righteousness is the path of the sacrificial law. For the Israelite that was the path of righteousness, acknowledgement of failure, of sin, and then a response in accord with the Law of Moses found in Leviticus. So the sacrifice of the righteous is first obedience in attitude and then the offering as the expression of that obedience.

Trust in God: For them – and us – there is always the human desire to try and work ourselves out of a place of guilt and shame, we always try and justify ourselves and if we can’t explain away our sin, we try and make up for it and compensate for our failure by doing something ‘good’.  Some over-zealous and misguided believers of the past (and maybe a few in the present) used to beat themselves or wear sacking as a form of penance, but all such things are acts of ‘self’ and are nothing to do with the faith that the Bible speaks of.

So when David says, “and trust in the Lord,” that is not just a reference to a general way of living but is a specific command in respect of our attitude towards how our sin is to be dealt with. No, we are not to be complacent and just shrug it off, saying, “Well everybody sins, so what.” No, God is concerned that in the big picture justice is done, justice is appeased. Justice is that demand that wrongs are properly dealt with, paid for, that unfairness becomes fair, that injustice becomes just. We all have this instinct and although it may not come out until we personally suffer at the hands of another, it is there.

Past and Present: The good news is that you and I no longer have to offer sacrifices because Jesus’ death on the Cross acted as a once and for all sacrifice that covers all and any sin. (Heb 9:14,25-28, 10:10,14). The sacrificial system of the Law of Moses looked forward to the coming and work of Christ, although the people then did not realise that. The sacrifice brought was, as we’ve said, an act of obedience, this is God’s way laid down for how to deal with your failure, your sin.

Today the call to you and me is to believe what the Bible says, that Jesus has died for all our sins and so when we sin, we confess it and repent (1 Jn 1:9) and we are forgiven on the basis of what he has done. When we have sinned and the Holy Spirit has convicted us, the weight of the failure so often makes it difficult to believe that all it needs is our repentance and the work of the Cross deals with it, removes it and cleanses us of it. That is where the trust comes in. We have to trust that what we read is true – there is no other way – that God’s way of dealing with our wrongs was the Cross and we can do nothing to add to that. All we can do is believe it and ask for forgiveness on the basis of it – and then trust that forgiveness HAS been granted.

Yes, we live in a fallen world and we get it wrong and, yes, God is a holy God, but HE has decreed the way back from our sin that satisfies justice and we must simply accept that, give thanks and not try to add to it. Blow it?  Confess it, ask for forgiveness on the basis that Jesus has died to pay for that sin, believe it, trust God be at peace and go on living thankfully. It’s a new day ahead.

6. Living by Law

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 6 :  Living by Law

Acts  1:20    “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms…..

As we ponder on the behaviour of those we find in the book of Acts, we find ourselves considering things which, we noted in the previous meditation require us to walk a careful tightrope walk, because on one side there is almost truth and on the other side, if we are not careful, we go to another extreme of almost truth.

This is especially so in our reflections on Peter’s actions here in Acts 1. We considered in the previous meditation that this pre-Pentecost action differed from that seen later on in Antioch where the anointed and fully recognised prophets clearly heard from the Lord, and differed from Acts 12 where the church did not seek to replace James when he was killed by Herod. But there is another aspect of his actions that bears considering.

It is his reference to what we call the Old Testament Scriptures to justify what he thinks and feels. This is an especially difficult consideration because so much of our time we spend (rightly) teaching new Christians to read their Bibles and base their lives on the teaching found there, and especially that found in the New Testament. So am I suddenly going to reverse that teaching? Definitely not! However it does need to come with a warning. We have already implied this warning in our heading of this meditation: Living by Law.

Now if we may summarise the Christian’s position in respect of the Law briefly. The Ten Commandments still apply as general law applicable to any society. The remainder of the Law given at Sinai and afterwards was specifically for Israel as a nation living under God and much of it simply does not apply in modern largely, non-agricultural communities. The law of sacrifices has been fulfilled in Christ and, as there is no Temple today, could not be followed anyway. All that said, we have much teaching in the New Testament which is there to guide us and which should be followed by us. Yet there is a bigger issue. Living by Law is living by rules and means that we can, in fact, live without any reference to God (apart from His written word).

The bigger issue is that we are first and foremost called to live out a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, and that means direct communication, which from His side means leading and guiding by the Spirit and, from our side, means listening and obedience.  Now, yes, we have the Scriptures and we are to follow that teaching and therefore we do not need to constantly ask God what we should be doing and, in fact, often modern Christians spend much time asking God for guidance when the Scriptures are quite clear and are there to be followed.

Often He doesn’t want to hear us asking, He wants our obedience. It is that simple sometimes. But often it isn’t. We may find ourselves in difficulties when, like Peter, we pick out verses to confirm what we already have concluded in our minds. (That may be too unkind on Peter, forgive me if I’m wrong.) But there is that danger, the danger that we choose verses to back up what we want.

So how do we overcome this? Our starting point must be to come to a place where we are open to God’s will – whichever way it takes us. Second, we pray and ask the Lord to guide us into truth, into what His will is for us, and we seek to keep an open heart as to what that means. Third, we keep alert to His voice speaking to us. Now there is a great deal of difference between us scanning through the Bible looking for a verse to justify our desires, and reading the Bible and suddenly finding a verse leaping out at us. God does indeed speak to us in such a way sometimes.

Indeed I have even heard the Lord misquote Scripture to catch my attention. Many years ago we were contemplating taking a team to another part of the country to do two week’s evangelism and all holiday accommodation in that place was completely taken. Yet one day when I was walking to work in the City, I found this ‘verse’ drop into my mind from nowhere: “In my father’s house are many rooms. I have prepared a place for you.” Apparently being Scripture I particularly noted this thought and considered it was coming from the Lord. Being a young Christian at the time I pointed out to the Lord that it was a wrong quote. The right quote was “I go to prepare a place for you.” There seemed to be a pause and back came, “I have said what I have said.” As I reflected on that, I realised he was saying that the situation there was all in hand. On the strength of that, we told the team what we were doing and two of us went down twenty four hours earlier to this place where the local Tourist Board had told us there was absolutely no accommodation and a half an hour before the team arrived we had the final bit of accommodation for fifteen people! It was amazing.

Now the key element of that testimony is that God spoke and we obeyed. It was a situation – and we often find ourselves in such things – where Scripture on its own could not help us. We might have gone through Scripture picking out verses about God’s provision but that would not have helped us and our team to move with confidence and without worry. When James writes If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him,” (Jas 1:5)  he recognises that there will be many situations where we need to have the ‘how to’ guidance from God.

I can look back on life now, from a perspective of knowing the Lord for over forty five years, and can see there have been a multitude of occasions where I (we) needed guidance and picking out Scriptures would have been inadequate. To end on a light note, you may have heard the old story, and so it can be a reminder, of the man who was seeking guidance of the Lord and stuck his finger in the Bible and it alighted on, So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Mt 27:5). He took his finger out and stuck it in another page and beneath his finger he read, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). Don’t ‘cherry pick’ verses and don’t use promise boxes or any other form of ‘guidance’ that is open to abuse.

Learn to be motivated by the Holy Spirit. If it is a significant guidance, check it with mature leaders and if it is a ‘life redirection’ word then it is likely to come from the Lord at least three times in different ways. He knows and understands that we need reassurance. Rest in His love and let Him lead, and don’t be afraid to check it out with mature leaders.

10. Shutdown

Meditations in Malachi : 10. Shutdown

Mal 1:10  “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.

I was amazed when I first studied the Law – well no perplexed first, actually.   Why were those long dreary chapters at the beginning of Leviticus about different sorts of offerings, and why were there those tedious chapters in the latter part of Exodus about the Tabernacle and the priests? None of it seemed relevant to today, so why was it there, and then eventually I understood. This was the Lord recognising that His people would get it wrong so that they would feel guilty and then feel at a distance from the Lord, this was the Lord making a way back for such people. This was also the Lord making provision for those whose hearts might overflow with love for God who just wanted to bring Him a gift.

That was what all those laws were about, about regulating how those things might happen through the sacrifices. That was what the Tabernacle and then later theTemplewere about. They were places of focus on the Lord, places where the Lord initially made His presence known, places that He filled with His glory, places of fellowship with God and places of reconciliation with God and restoration of a relationship with the Lord. That was what the Temple was all about. It was for the people to come and do two things: offer sacrifices and pray (remember Jesus called it a house of prayer). The Tabernacle and then the Temple were all about relationship with the Lord which is why, when the Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587BC, it was so devastating for Israel. When Jeremiah spoke about restoration after seventy years, that seventy years was the period between the destruction of the Temple and the completion of its rebuilding, exactly seventy years!

But God isn’t fooled by play acting. That had been going on before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah parodied their reliance upon the presence of the Temple (Jer 7). Now the same thing was happening again. The apostle Paul prophesied about the last days: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God– having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:1-5) There is the same thing: there will be a form of religion (godliness) while all the time men and woman are living lives that are very different from God’s design for them.

The people of Malachi’s day were declaring that they were godly because they were performing religious acts and then comes this terrible word of judgment through Malachi: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”   Shut down all this religious nonsense, is what the Lord is saying, for that is actually what it is – religious nonsense!  Did God want His people to perform religious acts in the Temple with no meaning behind them? No! God’s intent had been to provide channels for blessing Israel, for making ways back to Him and for legitimizing their gifts to Him. The Temple was for prayer and worship and reconciliation and those things, to be genuine, have to come out of wholeheartedness.

The Lord is concerned more what goes on inside a person than the things they do outwardly. Outward acts can be pure pretense. In medical terms, sometimes people come out in a skin rash and it is a sign of tension or stress within. It is the reality of the inner life that God is concerned with, not the charades that people put on. Who are they kidding? Do they think they will make God think well of them? Does “going to church on a Sunday morning” make God feel good about us? No, it should be an expression of the love we have for Him on the inside.

Around the world, often the churches with the greatest reality are those in countries where the church is persecuted and driven underground. When those people gather together under threat of arrest, there is a reality and a depth of love not found in the West. How tragic it is that our love is only proved real when it is challenged! When will we come to our senses and call out to the Lord for a reality of relationship? Will the Lord have to shut our churches down before that has to happen? May it not be so!

33. Established Religion

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 33 :  Established Religion

(Focus: Deut 12:1-7)

Deut 12:1,4 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess–as long as you live in the land. ….. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.

There is something very specific about the instructions that Moses now gives, something that we have seen again and again but not made much note of. It is that the laws that he is sharing are for this nation in THIS specific land. The rest of the world may be doing something quite different but in THIS land this is how Israel are to live. It is this thing about them being a unique nation in the world, and they are unique because of their relationship with the Lord and because of the guide rules (the Law) that He has given them to follow as they establish their life as a nation in this particular piece of land.

Note also the use of the words, “decrees and laws”. A decree is simply a royal declaration of intent. For instance we have said that a “blessing” is God’s decree of good and a “curse” is God’s decree of bad. When God ‘decrees’ something it is a statement of His sovereign will, which WILL then happen. A law is simply a rule that is to be followed. So God decrees His will and expresses it in the form of individual rules or laws that Israel are to follow. All of the blessings and curses of chapter 28 are examples of decrees.

Note also that the call is for them to “be careful to follow” all these decrees and laws “as long as you live in the land”. These are for the whole of their existence. They are not just for the first couple of years; they are for all time that they are this nation in this land. Then comes the specific things that Moses has in mind and in this part of his speaking: it is all about their worship or their religion (I am using ‘religion’ here to denote the way they express their faith and their obedience to God) when they go into the land. First of all it is about establishing it: Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.” (v.2,3)

We saw this exact same command in chapter 7 which was followed by the reason for it: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (7:6) Part of that is similar to what we have above when Moses speaks of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess.” It is a reminder that they are what they are and where they are because of the Lord. They belong to Him and owe their existence there to Him, and they are to stick to him and not succumb to the worship practice of the occultic, pagan, idol worshippers in the land. To ensure they do that they are to remove every sign of their religious practices from the land the moment they enter it.

Moses sums it up: “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.” This is both a summary of God’s intent and a preamble to what is about to come. They are not to follow the practices of the people of this land in any way. Now comes a specific way that their worship is going to be very different: “But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go.” (v.5). This is going to be where the Tabernacle is going to be set up. The big difference is that they are only going to have ONE place of worship whereas the occupiers of the land worshipped all over the place, making their own religion.

No, with God, it is going to be clearly established that they will go to the Tabernacle and “there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you.” (v.6,7) In the book of Leviticus Moses has enumerated all the laws regarding how to bring sacrifices and offerings and hold feasts to the Lord.

These are the very basic ‘ground rules’ for their worship of the Lord. Worship was expressed formally first, not as singing (although David later established that) but as bringing offerings as a tangible expression of their love for God, or sacrifices as a tangible expression of their penitence when they had done wrong. A number of times a year they would gather to worship the Lord in the form of celebrations of the Lord’s goodness. These were the ‘feasts’. These ways would be at the heart of their worship. It is clearly prescribed activity to be the expression of their hearts. No longer do we have such offerings and sacrifices for Jesus has become THE sacrifice and no longer are they needed, but today our hearts are still to be the arbiter of our worship. If it is not heart worship, it is not worship. That bears thinking about!

 

44. Right Worship

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 44 :  Right Worship

Eccles 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Before we think much about this verse we first need to confront a major change between the times of the Old and New Covenants. In Solomon’s day he had the Temple to go to for meeting with God. He had just built it, and it became the central focus for worship in the land. The Temple was ‘the house of God’. But now of course that Temple and subsequent temples have been destroyed and there is no temple in Jerusalem. More than that, the teaching of the New Testament is that WE are the temple of the Lord (see 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21) so contrary to much popular thought our church buildings are NOT the house of God – we are.

Solomon’s warning was to be careful when you went into the Temple. Unlike, say a modern cathedral the temple wasn’t a place for beautiful singing and inspiring liturgy, it was a place for offering incense and sacrifices and both were forms of worship, although the latter also involved a coming to put things right between God and man. Far more than modern religious buildings, the Temple was primarily a place where lives were put right with God through sacrifices and by affirming love for God by burning incense.

Now in the light of the description that I have just given Solomon’s exhortation to go in to listen, seems rather strange. In what follows Solomon is going to consider speaking before God and particularly uttering vows before God (which would have been accompanied by a sacrifice). We’ll consider this more in the meditations to come, but the problem with vows is that they are so often given in order to try to persuade God to perform in some way. An example of this is the silly vow that Jephthah made in Judges: And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judg 11:30,31) This ended with him foolishly sacrificing his daughter which was not what God wanted. Jephthah was so unsure of God’s love and God’s good intentions for Israel, that he felt he had to ‘bribe’ God with his blatant, over-zealous commitment.

But this is the thing, we don’t need to bribe God, we don’t need to ‘get Him on our side’; He already is!   When we find individuals praying in the Bible so often they rehearse the truth before they ask for whatever it is.  A good example of this is the apostles praying in Acts 4:24-31 where they declare what God has said, then what has happened and put it in the context of the divine will and then, and only then, asked for God to move. In those cases they are declaring the truth as an act of faith. That is a very different thing from trying to get God on your side.

No, says Solomon, rather than going in to the Temple and uttering meaningless words and offering meaningless sacrifices, you would do far better to go in and simply listen.  Listen? Yes. Have you ever been into a church building or cathedral in the absence of people and just listened in the silence? As you look in awe you sense something of the greatness of God. As the Israelite would have gone into the great Temple they would have seen the altars for offering incense and sacrifices and seen the great curtain at the end behind which was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where God was said to reside. There in the near presence of the Almighty, if the individual would just stand still and listen in silence, they would know the truth. They were sinners in the presence of a Holy God and they had to make sure they put their lives right with Him.

I wonder sometimes how much modern Sunday Services come under the same corrective words of Solomon. In so many ‘churches’ we know exactly what is going to happen, in general terms at least. We know there is going to be singing and there will be prayers uttered and the Bible read and expounded. It is all very predictable and unfortunately predictability so often linked with familiarity which, the saying goes, breeds contempt. Solomon’s ‘sacrifice of fools’ simply means doing something because it is expected, not because you are inspired to do it or need to do it. How many of our actions on a Sunday morning are born out of loving desire for God? How many are born out of a need to put things right with God? How many are born out of an awesome sense of reverence? Even in so-called ‘free churches’ the predictability is just the same.

Put aside Sunday mornings which aren’t very good at doing this anyway, how often do we sit still and listen to the Lord? Oh, we say, I pray and read my Bible. Yes, but how often do we sit still and just let Him speak to us?  Living in this noisy and hectic world today, it is not easy to sit quietly and let God speak to us. If you are like me, our minds are full of things to do, places to go, people to see. There are worries and concerns and all these things are like a background noise that makes it difficult to listen to the Lord. Then when He does speak, we wonder was it Him or was I making it up. Time and experience are primary learning ingredients here. You’ve just got to do it and learn to discern His voice. Do we prefer to pour out shopping-list prayers or listen to God? I know which is easier, but it’s not the best.