Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Big Ten: What's the Big Deal

The Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-17
20 And God spoke all these words, saying, 
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 
3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 
13 “You shall not murder. 
14 “You shall not commit adultery. 
15 “You shall not steal. 
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” 

As I start a new sermon series, I want to set the stage. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt for generations. They cried out to God, and God rose up Moses to deliver them from slavery. God showed his power through the ten plagues and led Israel with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. God parted the Red Sea and all of Israel walked through on dry ground, but the mighty Egyptian army was drowned. Now we find the Israelite people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Exodus 19:16-20 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

Imagine the situation. God has miraculously led you out of slavery. Now you’re at the base of the mountain, covered by a thick cloud full of thunder and lightning. Smoke is everywhere. And Moses goes up to the top of the mountain, into the smoke, into the fire. You hear the tremendous thunder, so great that the entire mountain trembles. 

When Moses comes back, he brings the word of God. “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Before we get to the Ten Commandments themselves, we have to deal with this. The Ten Commandments are unlike any other laws; they are not man-made. They are laws given by God. Now, we sometimes do not like the laws. Sometimes it seems that human laws are arbitrary or even random. There are times when laws are even unfair. I’m sure there were unfair laws when Zambia was a British colony. The United States has its share of unfair laws as well, laws written and enforced by sinful humans.

But we see that the Ten Commandments come from Yahweh. Why is this important? Well, we can see that it means that the laws are not coming from some other god. And what do we know about God? God is the Creator of Heaven and Earth. God is omnipotent, which means all-powerful. God is omniscient, which means all-knowing. But there is more. God says, “I am Yahweh, your God.” This is a reminder that God is not some impersonal god “out there,” but Yahweh is a personal God. Yahweh is not merely the God of our forefathers or “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but He is “your God.” Do you see the difference? We have a God who is not only all powerful and all knowing, but also personal. So we must trust that God has our best interest in mind. 

Think of a child. By nature, most children are very curious. Imagine your baby is crawling toward the cooking fire. She is curious about it; it’s bright, it’s warm, and she sees you near it. Will you tell the baby “NO!” or will you just let the baby get burned? Of course you will tell her “No!” We will do that because, as parents, we love our children. Listen to what Jesus said about that: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? if you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)

The Ten Commandments are actually some of God’s good gifts to his children! In love, God is showing his children how to live in harmony with one another. We can see this in how God introduces the Ten Commandments. “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Yahweh is the God who brought his people out of Egyptian slavery. This is how much God loves us. God loves us enough to deliver his children from the hand of mighty Pharaoh. In this context, we can see how God has already worked, but we can also see that God will use his righteous laws to begin to deliver his people from another kind of slavery… slavery to sin.

So next week we will begin to look at the Ten Commandments — how God has made rules to protect us and to deliver us from slavery to sin.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Heroes? Samuel

1 Samuel 3:1-10
3:1 The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6 Again the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

When I was a boy, my father liked to sit in his easy chair in the evening and read the newspaper. When he was sitting there, you could try to say anything to him, and he wouldn’t hear. You could shout his name and he just wouldn’t hear.

Now, in today’s scripture, we were in a time when the Word of the LORD was rare. There were not many visions. I have a theory on why this was. There are often reasons why we do not hear from God. In this case, we have Eli. He was the high priest, the one who was supposed to mediate between God and his people, Israel, but he was blind. Physically as well as spiritually. Remember, he was the one who couldn’t differentiate between prayer and drunken mumbling.

The Word of the LORD was rare, as the high priest of the LORD did not listen to it. But notice that the scripture says that the Word was rare. It does not say that the LORD was silent. Even where the Word of the LORD is rare, God can still speak. And while Eli sat in his chair, blind and oblivious to the Word of the LORD, Samuel ministered or served before the LORD. Samuel didn’t serve Eli. Samuel served YAHWEH. This was the same position his mother, Hannah, had taken before YAHWEH. In my opinion, it was due to Samuel’s position before God that God chose to speak to Samuel.

Samuel had not been taught to listen to or to hear God’s voice. This is a real problem in our culture these days. Children brought up without knowing the LORD. We sometimes take for granted that we live in a Christian nation. We don’t give them any instruction or tips on how to listen to God’s voice, but we somehow think that our children will learn about God. We have a responsibility, as parents and as the church, to teach our children. It is all of our responsibility. 

So when God speaks to Samuel, Samuel thinks it is Eli. Now, here’s the thing. When Samuel goes to Eli to ask what is going on, it’s only natural. But Eli can’t really help Samuel, because as a leader, you can’t lead someone farther than you’ve gone yourself. Eli couldn’t reveal the word of God because he didn’t know the word of God. He didn’t know God’s voice because he didn’t know God. 

This is the hard word for us. We’ve often left our children to figure out the voice of God on their own, because we ourselves don’t know how to listen for God’s voice. We are too busy listening to our own voices or listening to the voices on the television. 

God spoke to Samuel three times, and each time, he went to Eli, asking “did you call me?” Eli hadn’t. But even he finally figured out that if Samuel had been called, it must be the Lord. So he pointed Samuel toward God, instructing him to respond, “speak, for your servant is listening.” 

This particular passage begins and ends with serving the LORD. Notice that Samuel is first introduced as “ministering before the LORD.” To minister is to serve. And the passage ends with Samuel offering his service to God; “speak, for your servant is listening.” 

Knowing God’s voice is the first step, but we must listen to him. And listening to him is important, because it will give us the opportunity to follow. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Heroes? Eli

1 Samuel 1:12-18

I have grown up in an achievement-oriented society. We are known by what we accomplish. We want to be known as competent and strong. 

Last week we looked at the story of Hannah, and we met Eli, the high priest of Israel, who loved to sit in his chair at the entrance to the Tabernacle in Shiloh. We saw Eli in direct contrast to Hannah — she was a nobody, yet she knelt in the presence of Yahweh. Eli was the high priest, yet he had no real relationship with Yahweh! Eli would have been the competent and strong man; he was the high priest. 

But the contrast does not end here. Hannah dedicated her child to God, quite literally; he was raised in the Tabernacle. But look at Eli’s own sons — 1 Samuel 2:12 describes them this way: Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord. Worthless. Can you imagine? In 1 Samuel 1:16, Hannah pleads, “please don’t think I’m a worthless woman.” We remember that it was she who was in position before Yahweh, it was she who had great faith. It was she who left a legacy. But these sons of the priest… the term “worthless” here is connected with destruction. So the sons of Eli were utterly destructive. When I was in college, I lived across the hall from a guy we knew as the ultimate consumer. He consumed and never gave anything back to society. He took. He ate. He consumed. And this was the role of Eli’s sons.

And they had no idea about God. They even took the meat that was given in sacrifice to God. And therefore 1 Samuel 2:17 tells us this: Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt. 

While we recognize that each child will do what he or she will; as parents it is our job to bring them up right, to bring them up to know and love the Lord. Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6. How is it that Eli, the high priest, has sons who do not know the Lord? In the same way he neglected his duties as high priest, he has neglected his duty as their father. In fact, their contempt for the Lord’s offering was not their worst sin. 

1 Samuel 2:22 Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death. 

You have to realize how awful these sons of Eli were. These women serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting — these were most likely godly women who had come to clean or cook. They were indeed powerless, and this was their service to God, yet the evil sons of the priest were taking advantage of them. So Eli confronts his sons. Sort of. I can hear him whining. “why do you do such things?” 

But here, not only do we see Eli’s poor parenting, but we also can see his poor character. In 1 Samuel 2:25, he recognizes first that if someone sins against a fellow man, God can mediate. But the second part of that verse is where we find a problem. “If someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?

The problem here is that all sin is primarily against God, whether it is against our fellow man or not. Eli’s question, “who can intercede for him?” suggests that there is indeed no intercession. Is there any hope for a sinner? Eli seems to think “no, there’s no hope.” Here is the high priest, the one who is offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. And he is saying “there is no hope. There is no intercession.” 

Some of us have felt the weight of that hopelessness. We’ve said things, we’ve done things we should not have done, and we’ve left undone things we should have done. And Satan reminds us daily that we are unworthy of forgiveness or intercession. “If someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” 

But we know, from 1 Timothy 2:5 that “There is one God and one mediator between God and people, the man Jesus Christ.” I hear so often people will say something like, “I’ve been so bad; I don’t think God could ever forgive me.” I personally struggle with feeling the need to do something to overcome my own sins and shortcomings. But the reality is, none of us can do anything to make God love us more, and none of us will ever do anything to make God love us less. So, to answer Eli’s question, “If someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” Jesus is the answer. Jesus can, and will, and has! interceded for us!

So God spoke to Samuel and prophesied to him. In 1 Samuel 3:11-14, we read the following: Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” 

And Samuel, who we will look at in more depth next week, grew up and prophesied in Yahweh’s name. But as for Eli, and as for Israel… Israel went to war with the Philistines, and the Philistines routed them, killing thousands. So Israel decided that the problem was they needed to bring the Ark of the Covenant to war with them — they saw it as a magic talisman, guaranteeing their victory. But the Philistines defeated them and stole the Ark of the Covenant as spoils of war and killed Eli’s sons. 

We take up the story in 1 Samuel 4:14-18 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years. 

What can we learn from Eli’s life? The big lesson I took from this is that to outsiders, Eli would have looked like he had it all. He was the Big Man. He was famous and rich. He had power and authority.

But looks are deceiving. In reality, he was morally bankrupt and was an impotent leader and father. Though he was the high priest, he did not even know Yahweh. Hannah was the hero of this story, a nobody. Our human nature says we have to be strong and powerful. But listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:10: For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 

God continually does what we do not expect. In 1 Corinthians 1:27, Paul tells the church in Corinth that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.We come to church and show how strong we are, how we have everything under control. But the reality is that God can and will use our weakness to glorify Himself, if only we will let Him!

Most of us want to be the Big Man. But Jesus shows us clearly that His Kingdom is different. In Mark 9:35, He says, “If anyone would be first be must be last of all and servant of all.” So, will you be like Eli? Big Man, sitting in his Big Man Chair? Or will you be like Jesus, who stepped down from Heaven to become a man, and he became the servant of all, serving even through death on a cross. This is the path God has given us to Christlikeness. Each of us can serve someone. Find someone to serve this week, and serve with gladness, as if you are serving the Lord!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Heroes: Hannah

1 Samuel 1:9-20

We have been looking at some characters from the Old Testament. Some are true heroes of the faith. Others have demonstrated how flawed and sinful humans are. In today’s text, we begin a new chapter in the story of God’s people. They have lived through the times of the judges, times where Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. But the book of 1 Samuel provides a transition to the times of the kings. The immediate context of what we read this morning is this: There was a man named Elkanah who had two wives. Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah was barren. In those days, it was customary for a husband to take a second wife if his first wife could not give him a son/heir. The second wife, Peninnah, had sons, and she tormented Hannah day and night. Hannah was greatly grieved. So at the point of this scripture, the entire family went to the Tabernacle in Shiloh for worship. 

Hannah goes to pray. When she goes, we meet Eli, the high priest. Here he sits, at the entrance to the Tabernacle, in his high-priest chair. This chair was a sign of great honor, as most people sat on the floor. 

Can you see the contrast between Hannah and Eli? He sits on the chair, showing his dignified position, his high social standing. He is the big man. It doesn’t seem like he’s even doing anything. Instead, he just sits there. We will get to Eli next week. In the meantime, let’s look at Hannah. Her name even means “grace” or “favor.” 

But Hannah is in great anguish. At this point, I’m sure she isn’t feeling that grace or favor. We have a phrase “ugly crying” meaning it’s not just a single tear rolling down a cheek, but the kind of crying where your makeup runs all down your face and your eyes are red and puffy. That’s what the Bible means when it says she was crying bitterly.

Surely Hannah is not the first anguished person who has come to pray to God, to pour out her heart to Him. But Eli thinks she is drunk. He does not recognize that she is praying.

Sometimes we elevate priests or pastors or prophets above lay people. We create a separate class for so-called professional Christians. Eli was the top of this class, the high priest of Israel. Hannah is a barren woman. She is a nobody. But I want to show you something. When Hannah prays, she doesn’t just pray “to” the LORD, but she prays “before” the Lord. Verse 12 shows us that Hannah continues to pray “before the LORD.” This is an important distinction. It shows that she is fully in the presence of the LORD, pouring her heart out to Him. There is a difference in simply praying to God and praying before the LORD. Actually, this is the first time that this kind of positional prayer has been mentioned in the Bible. Hannah, the nobody, is positioned before the LORD, while Eli, the high priest who should be “before the LORD” is sitting in a chair, enjoying his position as the Big Man.

Another contrast between Hannah and Eli is a little difficult to see in our translations of the Bible. When we read the word “LORD” that describes who Hannah prays to, the actual word is not lord. It is Yahweh, the Holy Name of God. She is calling God by his Holy Name. But notice that when Eli finally does bless her, he blesses her, saying, “May the God of Israel grant your request.” Not “My God.” Not “Jehovah Jireh, God is our Provider.” Not even “Our God” or “the God of Our Fathers.” Instead he invokes a generic and impersonal title “the God of Israel.” 

Even so, Hannah shows great faith. As soon as she receives an answer from Eli, she was no longer sad. She immediately got up and ate, which shows a contrast with verse 7, where she was so grieved she could not even eat.

This faith reminds me of my friend Evan. Evan is a young man with Down Syndrome. Some years back, we were celebrating Easter Sunday with an early service at sun rise. Evan came in, looking miserable. I asked him how he was, and he said, “Pastor Brian, I’m sick. You need to pray for me.” So I stopped what I was doing and prayed for him. Then he left. Later, we had our regular Easter service, and here comes Evan. I asked him, “How are you feeling?” He looked at me as though I had asked a really stupid question. I clarified to him, “You were feeling sick this morning.” Again, he looked at me like I had grown a second head. He responded, “I’m fine. You prayed.”

Evan understood completely. I prayed for him. Of course, God answered the prayer! No question! Why would I even ask? This is one of the reasons why I love Evan so much. He has such a trusting faith and it teaches me.

This is the kind of faith Hannah has. The priest blessed her in the name of God. God said it, it will happen. END OF STORY. Hannah believed and behaved as if God had already answered. She ate again. She worshiped God. Then they went home, and, in due time she had a baby boy, Samuel.

And in two weeks we will look at who Samuel was — God’s prophet who would anoint kings to lead God’s people, including King David. And we know that David’s most famous descendent would be our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This was an ordinary woman living an ordinary, if not miserable, life, and God used her — including her great faith — as an important link in God’s salvation.

If an incident in a woman’s ordinary family life could be such a significant step in the eternal plan of a saving God, each day can be just significant for us to accomplish God’s plan and purpose.

Heroes? Ruth

Ruth 1:1-17

Who is a hero? We can think of many people who have been heroes in our lives. Usually athletes, freedom fighters, politicians, musicians, talented evangelists… But today’s hero was none of these. She wasn’t rich or famous. She wasn’t politically connected. She wasn’t even a leader. Our hero is a poor widow from an enemy nation.

We read the beginning of the Book of Ruth, but here is a summary of what happens next. At the beginning of the book Ruth is living in her home nation, Moab. These were traditionally Israel’s enemies. Ruth’s husband died without giving her a child, and so she lives with her widowed mother-in-law.

She could have simply given up. But she did not. There are probably some among us who have gone through significant struggles, much as Ruth did. She suffered loss. She moved far away from her people. She could have defined herself by her failures and her struggles. But she did not allow her past to dictate her future. 

God created you with a purpose, and no matter what is in your past, God will empower you to move forward toward that purpose.

Ruth also shows tremendous faith. She believed God had a purpose for her. Her mother-in-law led her to a field owned by a relative, where she could pick up leftover grain. Who can survive just on leftover grain… but Ruth had faith that God would provide. Now, this does not mean that Ruth just sat at home watching TV, just waiting for manna to come from heaven. She worked hard in Boaz’ field, from morning to night.

Some of you are struggling, especially financially. You have  faith that God will provide… but in the meantime, you are working. This is part of the purpose of our Work 4 a Living Centre; to teach working with excellence. To teach work ethic and worldview. How was she able to continue to work like this every day? Because she had great character. She was a person of integrity. She showed respect to her mother-in-law. She worked hard in the field. She showed integrity in her relationship with Boaz. She was a woman of character.

Sometimes it can be easy to let character slip. We have all seen women and men who at one time were people of godly character, but now they are mostly concerned with being the Big Man or the Big Woman. They consistently tear others down. When reports are read, they are the ones criticizing for no reason. They are the ones who talk a big game but are not working for the Kingdom. Be like Ruth, not like these women.

It can be easy to let character slip when things are difficult. Someone presents you with an opportunity for fast money… only it is not ethical or legal. What will you do? Can you believe that God will provide? 

Ruth believed that God would provide for her, and He did. Not only did he provide the means for her to work — the field where she gleaned the leftovers, but God provided her with a husband, and, in time, with a child. Here is the thing: redemption is always possible. Some people say “I could never…” or “God would never…” and fill in the blank with something they don’t believe God could do. But God took a poor, hurting outcast and healed her, provided for her, and brought her a great love with Boaz. And no matter where you come from or what you've been through, God has a plan for you that far surpasses all of that.

The great thing about Ruth’s story is what happened “after the story.” God established a legacy through Ruth. She made the decision to follow Naomi even after her husband died. To follow her to a foreign land. But God brought her to Boaz, and together they conceived a child. Listen to the last two verses of the book of Ruth: Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

So Ruth was the great grandmother of the second Israelite king, King David. But that’s not all. For much, much later, some 1200-1300 years later, another child would be born in the same lineage… Jesus, the Savior of the world. Ruth, a Moabite, was made part of the lineage of Christ.

If you commit your life to God and your calling is firm in Him, there is no limit to what God can do through you. Leave a legacy to your family and those all around you — a legacy of faith. 

It wasn't an easy life for Ruth. She grew up in a wicked nation. She suffered the loss of her husband. She followed Naomi to a foreign land and lived in poverty. All very difficult circumstances to say the least. However, God was at work the whole time. It was a long and difficult journey, but it ended with redemption. Ruth started out empty, but she ended full!

This can be your story as well. Keep your faith in Christ. Keep working for Him. Remember that godly character matters. And you, too, can leave a lasting legacy.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Heroes? Samson

Judges 13:1-5
Again the Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord handed them over to the Philistines, who oppressed them for forty years. 

In those days a man named Manoah from the tribe of Dan lived in the town of Zorah. His wife was unable to become pregnant, and they had no children. The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah’s wife and said, “Even though you have been unable to have children, you will soon become pregnant and give birth to a son. So be careful; you must not drink wine or any other alcoholic drink nor eat any forbidden food. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and his hair must never be cut. For he will be dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. He will begin to rescue Israel from the Philistines.” 

Many of us know the story of Samson. It falls within the pre-king history of the people of Israel, during the time of the judges. You remember the pattern that the people fell into: when they had a good leader, things were good and they had peace, but as soon as the leader died, they turned away from God and sinned. Then God would allow them to be overpowered by their enemies. Then finally they would cry out to the Lord, who would send deliverance in the form of another leader.

We see in Judges 13 the story of the birth of Samson. Many of you already know about Samson and his great strength. You might also know about his relationship with Delilah. But what you may not know is the rest of the story. I want to read Judges 13:1-3.

One day when Samson was in Timnah, one of the Philistine women caught his eye. When he returned home, he told his father and mother, “A young Philistine woman in Timnah caught my eye. I want to marry her. Get her for me.”

His father and mother objected. “Isn’t there even one woman in our tribe or among all the Israelites you could marry?” they asked. “Why must you go to the pagan Philistines to find a wife?”
But Samson told his father, “Get her for me! She looks good to me.”

Delilah was not Samson’s first conquest. He first went after a Philistine woman named Timnah. Proverbs 25:28 tells us that, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” In his relationships, Samson demonstrated that he had no self-control. He saw, he wanted, he got. He never listened to anyone’s counsel when it came to women.

Samson also ignored God’s command to stay apart from the Philistines —this wasn’t about the fact that they were foreigners; it was about the fact that they worshiped foreign gods! Timnah and Delilah had this in common; they did not worship God. Samson also violated his Nazirite vows by spending his time at drunken parties. Eating honey he found in a lion’s carcass was also against his Nazirite vows.

The issue is not with Samson’s specific sins. The issue is that Samson paralleled Israel. Just as Samson was tempted by foreign women, Israel was tempted by foreign gods. Just as Samson failed to live a holy life, so did Israel. It can be easy to point fingers at people who commit certain sins, but the reality is, all sin separates us from God.

Many of you know that Samson experienced the consequences of his unfaithful life. Delilah tricked him into telling the secret of his strength, and when he did, the Philistines shaved his hair. He was mocked, blinded and shackled and made to grind grain in the prison mill.

Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice, and they said, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.” And when the people saw him, they praised their god. For they said, “Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.” And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, that he may entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he entertained them. They made him stand between the pillars. And Samson said to the young man who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about 3,000 men and women, who looked on while Samson entertained. 

Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had judged Israel twenty years.  (Judges 16:23–31)

What does this all have to do with us?

We might think of Samson and his Nazirite vow as someone unusual, held to a higher standard, but God calls every Christian to live a holy life — 1 Peter 1:16 references Leviticus 11:44 where God tells his people, “Be holy, because I am holy.” Samson took a Nazirite vow. The word Nazirite means “to be separated” — which has the same meaning of the word “holy” or “sanctified.”

Samson did not live a holy, separated, or sanctified life. There are many people who live most of their lives for the Lord, but they fail to set apart their relationships. They go to church. They volunteer, even lead. But their lives are riddled with sin. Some are abusive. Gender-based violence is even a problem in our churches here in Zambia, as Christian husbands fail to live holy lives at home. Some young men are so desperate for a woman’s love and affection or so inflamed by lust that they will do anything to get this woman. In Samson’s case, he ignored the counsel of God and his parents. He had no self-control. He had no self-discipline.

Remember that you do not have to be perfect to accomplish God’s will. God calls us to be open, available, humble, and growing in spiritual maturity as evidenced by the Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We are CHRISTIANS. We are not just Christians during church services. We are not just Christians when we are surrounded by our church mates. We are not just Christians when things are going according to plan and are very convenient for us. The life of a Christian is a life of overcoming. It is NOT a life of conforming. Any dead fish can swim down a river, but it takes a live and strong fish to go against the current. In the same way that it takes an active, zealous, and faithful Christian to go against the influence of this world and eventually be part of God’s Kingdom.

 If we are going to live holy sanctified lives, we must ask ourselves these questions:
“When am I going to decide and give 100% of all my mind, heart, and strength to God?”

“What are the things that easily ensnare me and prevent me from surrendering my life to Him?”

“Whose counsel am I listening to?”

“How can I practice self-discipline? What areas in my life need discipline?”

When you’ve asked these questions, then it’s time to put into practice those answers that God gives you!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Heroes? Deborah

Judges 4:1-5

Today is Lay Activities Special Day. Ever since God began choosing people, his Kingdom has always been all about the lay people, the regular people. There were always leaders of the people, but it is God who causes the ordinary people of God to become great. We humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

After Moses died, Joshua became the leader of Israel. They began their conquest into the Promised Land, including the famous battle of Jericho where God brought the walls down. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. (Judges 2:7)

But after Joshua and his generation died, things went downhill fast. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. (Judges 2:10-13) Because of their disobedience, God allowed their enemies to overrun them — in fact, the scripture says that the Lord’s hand was against them to defeat them!

So every time this happened, God would raise up a warrior leader (otherwise known as judge who would rule over the people and save them out of the hands of their enemies. But as soon as the judge died, the people became even worse than their ancestors. This happened again and again and again. 

One of my favorite judges was Ehud, the left-handed assassin, who killed the king of Moab and led Israel to eighty years of peace. But after Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did what was evil in the Lord’s sight.

So God hands them over to a Canaanite king. Finally, after twenty years of oppression the Israelites cry out to the Lord for help, and the Lord raised up for them a judge. This judge was different from all of the others because previous judges were all warrior-leaders, but Deborah was a prophet. In other words, Deborah did not just lead the armies, Deborah spoke for God. 

It was through Deborah that God delivered his people from the hands of their enemies. Now, in this period of history, women were not on the same level as men. You can even see this by the fact that Deborah is introduced as related to her husband — a woman received her worth from her father, her husband, or her son. But Deborah’s true worth comes from God and from her role as a prophet.

The story of Deborah is rather interesting — she had a word from God for the military leader who didn’t want to do what she told him to do unless she came along. She told him, “OK, but now a woman is going to do your job for you.” This can be a word for any of us; when God tells us to do something, God will give us everything we need to complete the job. God will equip us in every way to be obedient to him.

But the sad fact is, as long as Israel has a good leader, the people generally do what’s right. Then as soon as that leader dies, the people immediately turn to evil. In the Book of Judges, we see multiple times this phrase: In those days Israel had no king. Everyone did as they saw fit. (Judges 17:6; 19:1; 21:25) In those days the nations saw their king as the one God would pass blessings down to. He was then responsible to distribute those blessings to the people. God never worked that way, and we’ll see that even from the first days of Israel’s monarchy, this concept was abused. God didn’t work that way because he chose all of his people to be a kingdom of priests. All of God’s people were blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations! But it didn’t work. Because while they are being watched, the Israelites behave decently.

But as soon as that ruler dies, they do what’s evil. Integrity is doing what’s right when nobody is looking. If we always do what’s right, we would never even have to worry about corruption. But as humans, we sin and fall short. Again and again. And when we disobey, God uses many various means of discipline. But nobody can force us to realize the truth: that our sin, our issues, our problems, they all stem from our behaviors. And our behaviors stem from our values. We do what we prize. We follow what is important to us. But our values come from our beliefs. And our beliefs come from our unique belief systems, coming from our family, our tribe, our culture. 

So the fact was, Deborah came and as God’s prophet and judge, she led God’s people into peace. But in reality, until their belief system changed, until their view of God and themselves changed, there will be nothing different. This is why Paul writes in Romans 12: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. At the end of Judges 5, after Deborah led the people to throw off the yoke of oppression, Israel had peace for forty years. But they had not been transformed. Their minds had not been renewed. So Judges 6 begins this way: The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…