26. Why this history

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 26 :  Why this History

(Focus: Deut 9:4-6)

Deut 9:4 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.

When God calls us or blesses us, there is a temptation to think we have some merit that has caused Him to do it. I have concluded after many years of thinking about this, that the only reason the Lord saves us (apart, obviously, from His love) is because He sees what He can do for us and with us; He sees that we are people who will surrender to Him and in our place of surrender, He can take us and lead us and use us and bless us and change us more in to the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. Your only merit is your ability to surrender! The apostle Paul wrote, He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him,” (1 Cor 1:28,29)  and then, For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7) i.e. God chose you because you were weak and you are what you are because of all that He has given you. We have absolutely no grounds for boasting!

Previously Moses had said to Israel, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery.” (Deut 7:7,8)  No Israel, you are what you are, and chosen by God, NOT because you were big and powerful because in fact you are a small nation. It was God’s love and His desire to express good-will towards a nation that He chose you and, perhaps in the light of what we have read in the New Testament, because they had been weak and desperate as slaves.

Thus now Moses seeks to put their call into perspective again. Don’t say the Lord is doing this because we are a righteous people because, in fact, he will conclude this paragraph with “for you are a stiff-necked people.” Oh no, it will be despite you that you will go in and triumph!  No, the primary reason that is now given for what is taking place is because God is going to deal with a bunch of very wicked nations and bring judgment on them and end their national status by either driving them out of the land or utterly destroying them – and He’s going to use Israel to achieve that. In fact, as we’ve noted before, it goes right back to Abraham etc., (the oath he swore to your forefathers), to promises that the Lord made to bring blessing to them, their families and their future people, and part of that included dealing with a very ungodly, unrighteous, occult-driven, pagan, idol-worshipping part of the world! (see Gen 15:12-16)

Moses presses the point: “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you.” (9:5). One commentary declares, “Just how sinful many Canaanite religious practices were is now known from archaeological artifacts and from their own epic literature, discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their “worship” was polytheistic and included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution and divination.” That was the ‘wickedness’ of the inhabitants of Canaan. It had got to such a point that it was in danger of polluting the earth and so the time had come for the Lord to deal with it. That was part of the package that involved Israel! They were to be the instrument that dealt with this people.

If we hadn’t been sure about the reference just now to “the oath that he swore to your forefathers”, Moses explains it further: “to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (9:5) As we noted just now, this was a promise that their families would inherit this land and at the same time bring judgment on a people who were sinking deeper and deeper into sin which was reaching its peak at this time. It is now time for them to be dealt with.

So, he concludes, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” This is not all about you and about how good you are, for indeed, history has shown how you are a rebellious and stubborn people who have a knack of getting it wrong!  The history of the people of Israel, in a nutshell, simply reveals that sinful mankind can’t get it right even when God talks to them and gives them guidance – it needs something much more to deliver the human race from its Sin; it needs the work of Jesus on the Cross and the Holy Spirit’s empowering and changing power today. Nothing less than this means we keep on in our foolish and sinful ways!

 

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16. To Jonah

“God turned up” Meditations: 16 :  To Jonah

Jonah 1:1-3 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish.

Jonah has always appeared a bit of a joke figure to me. I’m sorry, but that’s just how he’s seemed. I mean, God turns up and tells him to go somewhere and hold an evangelistic campaign, and he goes off in the opposite direction.  He “ran away from the Lord.” Now it’s pretty clear that Jonah never read Psalm 139 or if he did he never took in what it said: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psa 139:7-10)  Here’s a primary lesson that is worked out in Jonah – you can’t run away from God!

But perhaps the biggest question that might arise in our minds when we first come across a book like Jonah, is why did God choose Jonah when He knew he would be such an unwilling vessel. I mean the same was true of Moses! So why does God choose such characters? There may be a couple of answers.

The first one actually is very obvious. God doesn’t look on the individual as they are now; He sees what they can become and what they can eventually achieve. We look at ourselves and simply work on the limited resources that we consider we have and completely forget that when God turns up and is there for us, suddenly our resources are completely unlimited!  We look at ourselves and think we haven’t got the strength, stamina or courage to say boo to a goose, but God looks at us and, as the psalmist said, He knows us through and through and He knows that there is more in us (and especially with His help) than we realise. The truth is that both Jonah and Moses achieved the end goal! They may have objected bitterly, but they both got there in the end.

I think a second reason might be to do with what Paul alluded to when he wrote, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor 1:27-29). I confess I would really like to feel strong and wise, but much of the time I feel weak and foolish. If that’s how you feel, you’re the sort of person God wants to take and use. We’re just pitted jars of clay: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7) He is glorious and He delights in revealing Himself through vessels of clay!

There’s something else we perhaps take for granted in this encounter with God and it is hidden within those simple opening words of this little book: The word of the LORD came to Jonah.” I have to suggest that Jonah already was a man who had a relationship with the Lord and who also heard from God – and knew that he heard from God. That later distinction is important because, as I’ve often said in these meditations, I am sure many of us hear God but don’t realise it is Him speaking.

No, Jonah heard the message and knew it was from God which is why Jonah upped stakes and hot-footed it in the opposite direction. He wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t heard God. We much prefer to just stay where we are minding our own business. But Jonah suddenly remembered somewhere else he needed to be and so caught a boat in the opposite direction. If you have never been aware of the Lord speaking to you, it is unlikely that He is suddenly going to call you to go on some hair-raising mission for Him. He builds up to stuff usually, and He speaks again and again to encourage you. Oh yes, Jonah knew the Lord!

But there is another big issue here to be considered. It is of God who brings nasty stuff into our lives to get His way, because that is what happens in this story. On his boat on the way to Tarshish, Jonah suddenly finds they are being buffeted by a major storm that threatens to sink the ship. He knows this is God getting his attention. It’s an amazing story because, grumpy little prophet he may be, he’s more concerned for the ship and the crew than he is for his own life – and perhaps he knows deep down that somehow – just somehow – God will turn up again to save him. And He does in the form of a big fish! What a taxi!

If God knows it just needs a little turning of the screw to get you under way and into the right place for blessing – He’s not averse to turning the screw! He’s more concerned to bless you in the long-term – and others as well. He won’t abandon you in it and His grace will still always be there for you, but He’ll still use difficult circumstances to get you to your potential! And when you get there don’t, like Jonah, grumble about it, just realise the wonder of what He has achieved.

5. To Moses

“God turned up” Meditations: 5 :  To Moses

Ex 3:1-3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.”

I don’t know if you have realised something very important about God and the way He works? Paul saw it: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor 1:27-29) This is exactly the opposite to the way the world works. That is seen day in, day out as people go for interviews and present CV’s that are boosted up to make them look better than the next person. The strongest and the brainiest and the most beautiful is who we choose – but not God; He chooses the weak, the lowly and the despised, and then moves through them to do incredible things.

That, I suggest, is why He chose Moses.  Moses is an absolute failure.  By strange circumstances he had been brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, a privileged place where he would have received a very superior upbringing. Yet he was still an Israelite and so, when he was forty he was out and about in the country and saw his biological people being mistreated as slaves.  He stepped in to help and a man was dead.  To cut a long story short the word got out and Pharaoh felt very angry about it and so Moses fled.  Eventually he ended up in the desert of Midian, possible a couple of hundred miles away, and there he ends up working as a shepherd for a priest in Midian.  For forty years he looks after sheep on the backside of the desert, a nobody, a failure. How are the mighty fallen!  One minute a Prince of Egypt, the next a scruffy shepherd in the desert.  Year followed year and the past becomes a blurred memory.  He is now a nobody, going nowhere, just living out his life.  He’s eighty years old.  He can’t have much longer to go.  No future left, and then God turned up!

So there he is minding his own business in the quiet of the desert and suddenly he sees a nearby bush on fire, except it is not being burned up. It is God getting his attention. So why should the Lord get his attention in this way? Perhaps because He knows that Moses is a nowhere man with such low self-esteem that it will need something quite spectacular to get his attention. There may be other reasons, but we just aren’t told. Moses goes over to the bush and we are told that an angel of the Lord speaks to him from the midst of the flames. There ensues the longest conversation with the Lord recorded in the Bible, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is the most remarkable thing about all this?  It’s as I’ve hinted at above, that God chooses a nobody, a failure, a shepherd with no future.  Jesus taught it: “blessed are the poor in spirit for there is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3).  You probably can’t get any poorer in spirit that Moses!  Are you feeling pretty low, weak, inadequate, a failure? Hmmmm!   Sounds like you could be near the top of the list for a visit from the Lord!  He’s looking for people like you.

You think you’re rubbish?  So did Moses.  In a hasty moment he’d thrown away a comfortable, affluent life.  Yes, he’d had the best of intentions but that didn’t stop him getting it wrong.  There is a sense that it doesn’t mater how we’ve got it wrong in the past.  If we are truly sorry about it and are willing to put ourselves totally in God’s hands, we can still have a future that is meaningful and fruitful.  If you are feeling strong and self-confident – oh dear! Don’t get me wrong, God doesn’t demand idiots, just willingness to acknowledge that without Him we’re nothing.  The apostle Paul was arguably (next to Jesus of course) one of the best brains in the New Testament, but it wasn’t that that made him great.  No, it was his willingness to submit to the Lord and let Him do what He will with him.  Do you need a crisis to realise your weakness?  How much better to just acknowledge your weakness to the Lord, and give yourself over to Him?

Oh, you say, but I’m no use, God couldn’t use me; I couldn’t do the great things that Moses did!  Why not; it wasn’t Moses doing the great things; it was the Lord through Him.  All Moses had to do was do as God said and then the miracles happened.  Time after time, as he led the Children of Israel, he came to the end of himself and fell on his face before the Lord, seeking Him to turn up (see Num 14:5, 16:4,22,45) and act.  Oh no, it’s not about how strong I am, but about how strong He is.  Of course at the burning bush Moses didn’t realise that.  He just thought he was a nobody with no future.  In fact he had another forty years of service to go!  And you?

16. Evil Men

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.16

Psa 10:13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?

There is a mystery in many people’s minds, a mystery about evil and specifically about evil in people. Why are people like they are? Why do dictators do the terrible things they do? Why do men and women murder, why do men rape, why do fathers abuse children, why do people steal from other people? I once led a law class where the whole class were unanimous that we needed laws to protect the weak “because people are nasty”. What an indictment of the human race!

There are two possible aspects to this verse today – the reason why men act like this, and the reason God lets them act like this. First of all, what is the reason men act like this? Why do people do wrong and then deny the presence of God? Why does the wicked man think he will get away with it?

Well there are two parts to the answer to that. Looking at Scripture, we see that we have an adversary, Satan, who comes against us to tempt us to do wrong, and he does that by getting us to think wrongly. We did consider this the other day but we will look at it more deeply now. At the Fall we find the following sequence of events: He said to the woman, “Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden? (Gen 3:1) This was Satan challenging the truth in Eve’s mind as part of his endeavours to get her to go against God. That was followed by,You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen 3:4), his denial of the consequences of her actions. So we see he whispers into people’s minds that it’s all right to do this thing because who’s to say it’s wrong, and anyway, it will be all right. It is wrong and it won’t be all right – A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7) There are always consequences to our wrong doing.

Now there is a second reason men now do wrong. It isn’t only Satan; it is the fact that since the Fall, every man, woman and child has been tainted by this thing called Sin, this tendency towards self-centred godlessness which results in unrighteousness. Note that it is now a tendency within us. Once we become Christians we have a greater power within us, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to overcome the old tendency, the old nature. However until a person comes to Christ for salvation, that old nature prevails and Sin prevails in them. Godlessness is most natural; self-centredness is most natural, and unrighteousness is most natural. Now David didn’t have this understanding when he wrote this psalm, but we have all the revelation of the New Testament teaching so we should understand it and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see such things. Satan plus the old sinful nature means that evil is expressed in human beings.

But we said there is a second aspect to this verse – why God allows wicked men to act like this. This is so often the cry of lack of understanding, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” the ‘it’ being the wrong doing of evil people. Well actually when you think about it there is an easy answer to this one. The Bible indicates quite clearly that God has given us free will. It would be a nonsense if God told us to do things if we did not have the capacity not to do them. The fact that Eve and then Adam ‘fell’, were disobedient, is a clear example of this free will. A variety of other people in the Bible also clearly didn’t do what God told them to do. No, free will is a capacity that God has obviously given us. So when we cry, “Why doesn’t God do something?” we are in fact saying, “Why doesn’t God override this person’s free will?” and that’s where it gets difficult. Put simply, where should He stop? Obviously He should stop murderers and rapists and criminals, you might say. OK, but why stop with them for there are lots and lots of acts of wrongdoing that are not criminal acts? OK, you say, do away with all wrongdoing! Ah! Including in you? Including your wrong thoughts, wrong words and sometimes wrong acts? You want God to take away your free will and make you into a robot who can only do good, whose action will be severely curtailed, and whose human experience will be radically cut back? You want God to do that, because that is your only alternative?

As soon as we come to this point we see the awfulness of Sin and the awfulness of free will, but then we start seeing the wonder of salvation that wins sinful human beings to God’s side to be good. That’s what salvation does, but we have to have the other awful freedom first. Yes, God does act into this world and sometimes He does obviously move against evil men, and yes, men do reap the consequences of their actions, but in the meantime the terrible downside of free will is that man can be evil!

Never blame God for your wrong doing and never demand He takes away free will of other people – or you! Free will is the staggering responsibility that God has bestowed upon mankind. It is, if you like, a sign of His respect for us. He gives us our lives to live as we will, with the potential to achieve wonderful things, but also to do terrible things. The choice is ours. He will be there to help us achieve the former, and His wrath will be there against the latter, but the choice is still ours. Choose wisely.

3. Poor in Spirit

MEDITATIONS IN THE BEATITUDES – 3

Mt 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

We live in a world that extols greatness, strength, power, beauty, cleverness. In various disciplines involving psychology we speak of building self-esteem. Indeed when writing on parenting skills we spend much time on the need to build the self-esteem of our children. We go on courses and build up our CV so that when we go for a new job we can say how good we are. We go through annual assessments that prove how we are not only doing our job but doing it better and better, and thus we seek for promotion. Everything about life in this world is about promoting self.

It is helpful to have this awareness of the world – and we do need reminding of it – particularly when we come to such fundamental teaching as found in our verse today. When I became a Christian I went to my nearest church and attended the Bible Study where, to my surprise, everyone seemed to say that this and the following verses were impossible and therefore weren’t for today! What they failed to realize is that it is impossible to experience this verse while holding on to the world’s values of pride and self-centredness. If this and the following verses come as a shock to us, it is because we have become so rooted in the way of the world, that we have lost true perspective.

These Beatitudes of Jesus are in a purposeful order. There is nothing haphazard about them, and this first one is absolutely foundational to the whole of becoming and being a Christian. It is absolutely critical! But please note that it doesn’t say, “Blessed are the Poor.” It is true that Luke, recording a similar set of teachings, says that (Lk 6:20) but Matthew picks up the emphasis – “in spirit”. There is no glorying in poverty in the Bible. In fact, part of God’s promises of blessings, as we noted yesterday, include the blessings of provision (Deut 28:4,5,11). The absence of such provisions were part of the curses on Israel (Deut 28:17,18,38-40). Oh no, this is not blessedness of material poverty, but blessedness of being poor in spirit.

This being poor in spirit, needs to be distinguished from simple poverty of spirit. Poverty of spirit is what the self-centred, godless person has, the person who says they have no knowledge of the spiritual world, no sense of God’s presence. This person has a poverty of spirit and seems to revel in it. The person who is poor in spirit is like that other person in that there is this absence of spirituality, but the big difference is that they are aware of it! Here is the crucial element – awareness.

The Old Testament gives us many examples: Moses – “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:11 ) and “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.(Ex 4:10). This was Moses’ attitude: who am I that I could do your bidding, I’m a nobody! Gideon: “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Jud 6:15 ). Similarly in Gideon – I’m a nobody!

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul rejected the things the world clings to, his pedigree (Phil 3:5), his abilities at work (3:6), all these things he considered rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ (3:8). In his first letter to the Corinthians he spelled out his ‘philosophy’: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things.” (1 Cor 1:27,28). No, you don’t get into God’s kingdom by being strong or worldly wise, you get in by realizing, like Paul, that all these things are worthless, they count for nothing before God, He is not impressed.

How do you get into heaven? By trying hard? By working harder? By being pious? By being religious? No, by recognizing your spiritual poverty, recognizing that you are weak and poor and need God’s help, recognizing that without Christ you can do nothing (Jn 15:5), without Christ you are lost. That is the condition for getting to heaven, that you recognize your need and recognize that it is only fulfilled in Christ. Note that it isn’t mere humility which can be a simple recognition of limitedness. This being ‘poor in spirit’ seen in the context of the whole Bible teaching, is a recognition that we need Christ for salvation. I can get into heaven no other way.

Finally note that when I come to God like this, He promises that He will provide a way (and has provided a way) for me to come into His eternal presence – and that starts the moment I come to Him like that. Eternal life starts the moment we come to God recognizing our need, and recognizing that God has provided the means of satisfying that need through Christ, through His death on the Cross and by the life of his Spirit. Here on earth we get glimpses of heaven as Jesus expresses himself. When we die on this earth, our eternal future is in that other dimension, in the presence of God, called heaven.

Not only do we need to realize that to become a Christian, but if we are to go on with God then we need to be reminded of it again and again. Like Moses and Gideon and Paul, I’m not up to the job, I’m not even up to the Christian life on my own, I constantly need Christ’s help day by day. When I recognize this and turn to him, then suddenly there is a new heavenly dimension to my life, suddenly the power and presence of God’s presence through Jesus, through his Spirit, breaks through in me and in my circumstances. That is how important this verse is. It points to the requirement for us both becoming a Christian and living life as a Christian. Our starting point is a point of recognition, of realization, of awareness. May it be so!