Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Junior High Pranksters and Suffering Heroes

Suggested Reading: Genesis 39:7-23

When I was in junior high, our theater teacher invited the cast of the most recent play over to his house for a cast party. Several of us were standing around in the front yard talking when a couple of guys decided it would be fun if they moved the teacher's car down the street. I warned them not to, told them it was stupid and, even once they had the door open and were pushing it down the block I was urging them to put it back before something unexpected happened. Sure enough, a few moments later they realized that the steering wheel was locked, the car was picking up speed, and the open door was heading right for a massive brick mailbox. All the pranksters panicked.

I ran for the car, reached it right before it hit the mail box, stuck a foot in and pressed the break, and got pinned between the door and the brick mailbox. I managed to save the door but it did get a little bent. But even though I had argued against moving the car and had managed to keep the door from being completely popped off when the pranksters themselves panicked, the following week I got a bill in the mail for damages to the car. It didn't seem right. I could have walked away when the pranksters began instead of trying to talk them out of it. I could have gone to the back yard when the car started picking up speed instead of saving it. In either case I would have avoided the bill in the mail. But for doing what seemed to a junior high kid to be the right thing I ended up getting lumped in with the bad guys.

Joseph knew even more about that than I did. When Potiphar's wife propositioned him, Joseph did the right thing. When she let all the servants have the day off so she could seduce Joseph in secret, Joseph ran away so fast that he left his cloak in the grasping hands of the temptress. She kept the cloak with her until her husband came home. Then she told him her story. “That Hebrew slave you’ve brought into our house tried to come in and fool around with me” she said. “But when I screamed, he ran outside, leaving his cloak with me!” (Genesis 39:16-18, HCSB). As a result, Joseph ended up in prison, forgotten for years. The frustrating thing for Joseph must have been knowing that if he had become her lover she probably would have protected him instead of turning on him.  But Joseph did the right thing and he suffered for it.

We live in a fallen, sinful world where it doesn't always pay to do the right thing, at least at the time. Doing the right thing means that we will sometimes be taken advantage of, be fought against with nasty, vicious attacks, and suffer when we could easily have walked away and remained unscathed. We must be under no illusions that doing the right thing will make our lives easier or safer. If we only choose to do the right thing because it will make our lives easier, our integrity will falter when life gets tough. We must be committed to doing the right thing whether it is safe or not, whether we prosper or suffer for it. Our motivation for doing the right thing is pleasing God, maintaining our relationship with God, and demonstrating we are children of God. Any motivation based on how things work out for us will eventually cause us to walk away from our integrity when we should be standing firm.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Typhoons and Temptresses

Suggested Reading: Genesis 39:1-10

In Karate Kid, Part II, Daniel and Mr. Miyagi go to Okinawa to visit Mr. Miyagi's dying father. Almost immediately upon arriving they both find themselves confronted by angry rivals seeking to demonstrate how much better they are than the heroes of the movie. Near the climax of the film, in the middle of a typhoon, Daniel's rival, Chozen, refuses to go help a little girl caught in the storm. Instead, Daniel has to save her. Upon seeing Chozen's cowardice and his refusal to help the little girl, his mentor Sato tells him, "Now, to me, you are dead." Chozen had wronged the little girl and her family by not helping but, worse, he had dishonored Sato by being a coward. Sato took Chozen's failure to help the little girl as a sin against himself.

As odd as that interchange may seem to most Americans, a similar kind of honor can been seen throughout scripture. In Genesis 39, Joseph, whose brothers had sold him into slavery, had worked his way up through the ranks at his owner's home and Potiphar had placed him in charge of everything. Potiphar's wife took notice of Joseph and repeatedly tried to seduce him. Joseph's response to her is found in Genesis 39:8-9: Look, my master does not concern himself with anything in his house, and he has put all that he owns under my authority. No one in this house is greater than I am. He was withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. So how could I do such a great evil and sin against God? (HCSB).

For Joseph, while sleeping with his master's wife would be wrong because of his relationship with her husband, Joseph spoke of the situation as a sin against God, not his master. Joseph would not have denied that sleeping with this woman was a sin against her husband, but he understood something deeper and more important: maintaining our integrity must be seen first, and foremost, in terms of our relationship with God.  If we are only concerned about not hurting people or not sinning against people, there may be times we think we can get away with something because no one will never find out. We can cheat on our spouse on a business trip because we are 300 miles away and she will never find out. We can fudge our mileage when listing our tax deductions because no one will be able to prove us wrong. But that thinking only works if our focus is on the people involved. When we turn to consider God, who holds us accountable whether people know or not, and who sees every hidden act and desire of our hearts, we must view our behavior in a different light.

While it is important that we avoid hurting people and that we honor people's trust, it is more important that we live a life of integrity before God. We must remember that we ultimately reflect the One who sees everything we do and think, even if no one else ever knows. Does what you do in secret bring God shame or reflect his glory?

Friday, April 9, 2021

Not Having a Child With Your Brother's Wife

Suggested Reading: Genesis 38:1-10

There is an odd story in the Old Testament that I have pondered since I was a child. The story is located in Genesis, during a section that tells us about Jacob's twelve sons and how they conducted themselves. Judah had two grown sons. One of them married but died without children. According to the Old Testament laws of levirite marriage, his brother, Onan, was supposed to marry the dead brother's wife and have a child with her that would then be considered the child of the dead brother. But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother (Genesis 38:9, NLT).

I've often wondered what the moral of the story was, what exactly was the rationale for Levirite marriage (the Old Testament does explain it to a degree), and how in the world a story about a man who refused to have a child for his brother applies to people who don't practice Levirite marriage. But this last time I read the passage, I noticed something I've never caught before. Something that was so obvious you almost don't consider it. Read that verse again. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother's wife... Now, if Onan wasn't going to have children for his brother, wouldn't it have been simpler to just not sleep with the woman?

But Onan was like most of us. He was willing to use the law for his own benefit (pleasure through his brother's wife) but he didn't want the law to apply when it demanded something he didn't want to give. How often do we insist on following the letter of the law in church business meetings or in local elections or in our community when it benefits us, only to turn around and take the law much less seriously when it requires something of us? We like a progressive tax code when we get money from it but when we have money taken from us, it's suddenly not so appealing. We think codes of conduct are great for those other people who need them because they have to behave the way we want. But when following those codes is inconvenient for us, the codes suddenly become just a suggestion. "No cutting in line" is the law of the land when it keeps us from having to wait longer but just a guideline when the rule makes us wait longer.

Do you use rules differently based on whether they benefit or hinder you? Are you legalistic when the rules keep other people in line but "under grace" when those same rules suddenly apply to you?  Being children of God means we live consistent, holy lives. Hypocrites only like rules when they benefit themselves. Let's avoid the hypocrisy.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

When Bad Apples Get Off Scott Free

Suggested Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Something that drives me crazy is the ability of one bad apple to ruin it for everybody else. One football player caught cheating can forfeit a season for the rest of the team which was playing by the rules. One Senator caught in an ethics scandal can cost his party the majority and change the balance of power. One lazy student can cost his project partners a decent grade. One person abusing the system can cause everyone to lose privileges. We see it happen over and over again. When one person does something wrong, everyone suffers for it.

We all hate it when we are the victims of the bad apple. Fortunately, God doesn't seem to do things that way, at least not on a large scale. In Matthew 13, Jesus was telling a parable about a farmer who planted his crops, only to discover that an enemy had snuck in during the night and planted weeds among the crops.

“‘An enemy has done this! ’ the farmer exclaimed.

“‘Should we pull out the weeds? ’ [the workers] asked.

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.'” (Matthew 13:28-30, NLT). 

When Jesus explains the parable, he makes it clear that the weeds are wicked people, the bad apples, but removing them would somehow be bad for the righteous, the wheat.

In life, there are certainly bad apples, people who would blow it for the rest of us if they chose. But God, for some reason, has decided that dealing with these wicked people right now would hurt us. So, God has left the wicked among us for the time being. When we see wicked people advancing and we wonder why God hasn't dealt with them yet, we must remember that God is letting the wicked remain as an act of grace for the righteous. That can be hard to wrap your mind around. But next time you see the wicked and you want to question why God has let them remain unharmed, remember that Jesus said it was for the sake of the righteous. Is it really worth the wicked getting what they deserve right now if it means the righteous will suffer?

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Hitchhikers, Floggings, and Captive Audiences

Suggested Reading: Matthew 10:11-20

When I was in college and living the single life, I noticed a pattern whenever I would make the three hour drive from college to my parents's house. Quite regularly, I would see someone on the side of the road who was asking for a ride. So I would stop, figure out where they were headed, get the best feel I could for how much danger I would be in, and give them a ride down the road. I discovered that these times gave me an excellent opportunity to share the Gospel with people. For one, they were something of a captive audience because they needed a ride and I had a car. But they were also willing to listen to what I had to say because they needed a ride and I had stopped for them.

Speaking about very different circumstances, Jesus told his disciples of some opportunities they would have to share the Gospel. But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me (Matthew 10:17-18, NLT).  In these circumstances, Jesus was telling his disciples that their trials and beatings would be opportunities to share the Gospel.

In both sets of circumstances, the Gospel would find fertile soil, and for much the same reason: people wanted to listen to what you said. In my case, people wanted to listen because I met a need they had. In the example Jesus gave, people wanted to listen in order to investigate charges and mete out justice. But in both cases, people would listen and ponder the Gospel as it was presented to them.

Hopefully, you won't have to go to jail, but you will experience circumstances where people, for one reason or another, will be very interested in what you have to say. Watch for those opportunities when people are willing to listen. Create those opportunities by giving people reason to listen to you. And, whatever your circumstances, remember that God will reach out to people through you if you allow God to do so. Don't let those moments when people are receptive to you slip away.

Whenever people are listening to you or watching you, use the opportunity to point them toward Jesus. Who knows? That hitchhiker or judge may be ready to hear exactly what you have to say

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Flipping the Switch on Selective Memories

Suggested Reading: Luke 24:1-10

One of the mysteries of the Easter story for me has always been the selective memory of the disciples who followed Jesus during his ministry. Almost since the beginning of his ministry Jesus had been dropping hints that he was going to die and rise again. In the weeks leading up to the Cross those hints became concrete descriptions of the suffering he would endure and even a solid prediction that the chief priests would hand him over to the Romans to be executed. While giving these predictions, Jesus repeatedly said that he would die and be raised after three days. Jesus had even given instructions for where to meet him when he rose from the grave.

When Jesus was arrested and condemned to death, you would think that Jesus' disciples would understand everything was going according to plan. But they didn't. They ran and hid, terrified, while the women who had followed him mourned and wept. When Jesus finally died, the women gathered spices to treat his body for burial. But on that Sunday morning after the crucifixion, when the women went to visit the tomb, they encountered two men who addressed their search for Jesus' body. They announced, "He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:  ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again. ’” Then they remembered his words (Luke 24:6-8, NIV1984).

Sometimes I wonder why God allowed all of the disciples and the women who followed Jesus to forget for his words for a time, why God didn't comfort them with those promises of resurrection before Jesus rose. I can't answer that, but I can imagine the joy that must have flooded their hearts when the angels flipped that switch and turned on their memories, when everything suddenly clicked into place. The sorrow before that moment must have been overwhelming but would have made the joy that followed even more overwhelming.

Sometimes, in the midst of loss, we can easily forget the promises of God. When the pain and sorrow of life are crashing in on us, remembering God's promises is not something that comes naturally to us. Often, we don't remember those promises until they've already been fulfilled. But when you face sorrow and heartache, don't forget God's promises forever. Cling to them. Wrap yourself up in God's promises. Remember, weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning
(Psalm 30:5, NIV1984).

Monday, April 5, 2021

And Now, a Special Musical Episode of Your Life

Suggested Reading: Ephesians 5:8-20

I have always thought that those "special musical" episodes of television shows were just corny. The one exception was an episode of The Flash titled, "Duet," which featured a crossover with Supergirl.  Our heroes, trapped in a imaginary musical, had to follow the plot to completion with a good deal of singing along the way. Then, once everyone was safe and back to normal, we got to see the Flash's secret identity, Barry, sing a romantic proposal to his girlfriend, Iris. It was, somehow, one of the least corny musical episodes of a television show that I have seen in a while.

That special musical episode of Flash reminds us that, in some ways, we are to have our own special musical episodes in real life.  Ephesians 5:19 reads, "Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs."  As I read the verse, I pictured myself walking up to my wife and singing a conversation to her (not too hard to picture considering that I am weird enough to actually do this on occasion). Then I pictured her singing right back to me and I couldn't help but laugh, thinking not only how funny that would be but how much fun it would be.

Music involves more than just lyrics and melodies, it involves emotions and the analytical portions of our brains without any effort whatsoever. And our favorite songs, the ones we remember and can sing along with (or sing in the shower) are the ones whose words mean something to us, that connect with us.  The words of our favorite hymns and praise songs are those that have either revealed something of the nature of God to us or affirmed our own feelings towards God. They are the kinds of songs that leave us thinking and get stuck in the back of our minds throughout the week, and Paul encourages us to speak to one another with them.

Speak to one another with the truths that have affected and encouraged you. Speak to one another with  lyrics that have caused you to meditate on Christ and God's Word. Allow music to well up in your hearts and carry you throughout the day, and pass that music along. Make music to the Lord from your heart and worship God even as you move from task to task at work or in school. Allow the lyrics you sing to connect you in spirit with the countless others who have sung the same songs through the years and across the world. 

Sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day. 
Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvelous deeds among all peoples. 
For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise…

(Psalm 96:1-4, NIV)

Junior High Pranksters and Suffering Heroes

Suggested Reading: Genesis 39:7-23 When I was in junior high, our theater teacher invited the cast of the most recent play over to his ho...