God and Treasure

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We hear a lot today about nations operating in the national interest. Sometimes, hopefully often, that is a good thing. Like keeping people safe and protecting them from aggression. There are times though, when ‘national interest’ is code for naked national self-centredness.

The book of Exodus was written after God delivered his people from a superpower which, to put it bluntly, was just operating in the national interest.

Ancient Egypt was a mighty nation, dominating the world stage at the time. And Pharaoh was using the people of Israel as cheap labour – the cheapest, actually, because they were slaves and had no choice in the matter.

So God’s people cried out. And the Lord heard their cry.

Pharaoh, however, ignored it. He made the people of Israel work even harder. Worked them to death.

Why?

Because Pharaoh valued production above people. Pharaoh would have fitted comfortably into some of today’s developing world labour markets. Places where the dollar matters most, where questions are never asked about the actual human cost of the item or the project.

Into this kind of ugliness came the Lord of life: Yahweh the Rescuer, the Saviour.

“The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:7–9, NIV)

The Lord hates it when any people are oppressed. Even more so when they are his people. So he led them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He led them across the Red Sea on dry ground. The Lord did this because of his covenant with Israel. He had promised to bless them, and make them a blessing. He had promised to make their descendants as numerous as they stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. God’s promises matter. He never goes back on his word.

So now, with the Red Sea sand still stuck between their toes, as they camped on the border, ready to enter the land of promise, God renewed his covenant with them:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”” (Exodus 19:4–6, NIV)

These verses show the kind of nation Israel was to be:

First, in contrast to Egypt, and other nations, Israel was not to be a nation driven by seeking treasure. They would find their comfort in being treasure. Yahweh’s treasure! They would not need to find their security or significance in things because Yahweh was their security. The fact that they were loved and saved and rescued by him was their significance.

Second, Yahweh called Israel to be a kingdom of priests. It sounds like an odd thing for a country to be. How can a nation have a priestly function?

Well, we know that a priest is someone who represents others in a religious context. A mediator. A go between.

So, Israel was to represent the nations to the Lord. They were to bring the needs of the nations around them to his throne of grace. In times of famine they were to pray. They were to act compassionately in times of disaster. They were to ask the Lord to be merciful and gracious to all the peoples around them.

But it wasn’t just bringing the nation’s needs to the Lord. They were also to bring the Lord and his will to the nations. They would proclaim the truth of God and invite other nations to accept him in faith and live under his covenant. As priests, then, they spoke on the nation’s behalf to God, and on God’s behalf to the nations.

Third, they were to be a holy nation. We tend to think holiness has to do with religious acts and places. In the Old Testament, holiness is not first and foremost religious acts and things. Holiness is a personal quality. To be holy is to be separate, to be distinct, to be set aside for a particular purpose.

So, thinking that through, how would this nation show their holiness? The answer is that they would reflecting the character of the Lord in their national and personal lives. This would happen as they followed the Lord’s commands as a nation and as individuals:

1. worship only God
2. worship no idols
3. use God’s name only with reverence
4. remember the Sabbath day, allowing for rest and worship
5. Honour your father and your mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall give false testimony or lie
10. You shall not covet what belongs to others

As God’s people did this, they would be displaying a life and values radically different from Egypt and every other nation on earth.

 

…a life and values radically different from every other nation on earth … this transformed life is one of the ways they would be a blessing

 

What was their motivation? Well, they did not obey in order to be loved and rescued. Yahweh already loved them and rescued them. They were already his special possession. The answer is that their obedience was all about gratitude and thanksgiving. It was not a requirement to earn love, but a response to the love the Lord had freely given. This changed and transformed life would be one of the ways they would be a blessing to the nations around them.

It was as if the Lord was saying, you have come out of a nation where people treasured wealth and power more than people…

You will not live for treasure or possessions. You will live because you are my treasured possession.

You are a Kingdom of priests: you will bring the nations needs to me, and you will bring my will to the nations.

You will be a holy nation. You will separate yourself from all the dehumanising values of oppression that you saw in Egypt. You will be different, distinct, to all that.

This call presented Israel with their identity. They would be totally unique as compared with all the nations around them. The Lord’s work in them was to be a total reorientation of life. A radical alteration how they were to engage the world around them.

This call was to shape the national ethos of God’s people. In my next post I’ll pose the question of how that is relevant tot God’s people today.

– Dave

Retreat day – Guilderton

I am sitting at a picnic table on Stephen’s Cresc in Guilderton, WA, looking over the Moore River.

It has taken me 90 mins to drive here, and before I do any of the things I have in mind for today, I just want to sit and listen in the quiet.

The descending call of a Whistling Kite, the gentle cooing of some Spotted Doves, interrupted by angry staccato bursts of some unidentified Honeyeaters.

Across the small waterway – just another little inlet on the Moore River estuary, a couple of men engage in animated conversation. I can’t tell what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter. Seven kayaks ply their way across the inlet.

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A pair of ringnecks burst past in a flash of fluoro green and yellow. A Red Wattle Bird calls. A congregation of White Tailed Black Cockatoos scriyaws their morning choir practise, while a Wedge Tailed Eagle slides in large lazy circles, magnificently indifferent to smaller birds’ attempts to pester him out of their territory.

The sun is on my neck.

The wind is at my back. It blows away the business of recent weeks.

God is close. His world is beautiful.

Our Church Council is working through Greg Ogden’s Leadership Essentials, and recently I was challenged to reinstate monthly prayer and process retreat days. This is the first of those days for a long time.

God is with you – whatever is happening

A middle aged man grieves the loss of his father. Confused and confronted by some family reactions, he prays for peace among his siblings so they can honour their father’s life.

Two young people are prepare to marry. Their ‘right now’ a juggle of plans for a wedding breakfast, settling a guest list, a honeymoon, and their day to day lives.

A middle aged man sits in the morning traffic, mind blank with the yawning sameness of his daily commute. His mind flickers between being free from the grind, the financial reality of a mortgage, the boss’s expectations, and uncomfortable relational realities at home.

A young woman plans a community event, desktop stacked with schedules, memos, invoices. Under pressure. Phone rings. Plans change. Again.

Another walks home, weary from an early start. Thinks about her lack of love, and ponders shallow friendships. She doesn’t like to think about it, or where her life is headed. Or whether.

Some people say that God is only with us when we’re doing the right thing, when our lives are heading in the right direction, when we’re honouring him with right living and acceptable behaviour.

Others will say that God is really only present when were doing spiritual stuff. When we in ‘quiet time’. We read our Bible regularly, we use the right version, we pray in a humble spirit, we worship in spirit and truth, witness regularly.

Ask them, and they won’t have an answer for the people in the grind of life, except that faith is probably not strong enough, and that it’s no surprise they are doing it so tough.

The God of grace is not impressed with the musings of the comfortable, who believe their responses somehow make him present. Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

When the people of Israel gathered on the promised land’s fenceline, the Lord reminded them that if they were faithful to him they would be blessed in the field. He would protect them fro the enemy. Their sons and daughters would be strong, healthy. Their harvests plentiful.

Best of all: The Lord will dwell with them. He would be with them. He would be their God, and they would be his people.

Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

Later, when the Lord points out the implications of any future disobedience – and they are awful, horrible things – he never says ‘and I will not be with you, I will forsake you and leave you alone forever.’ Whatever happens, and whatever path his people would tread, whether faithful or rebellious, God would still be with them. Yes, he would despise their behaviour and hate its outcomes. But he would still be with them because of his covenant. His promise to be their God would never fail, because he is faithful, even when they were faithless.

Whatever is happening in your life today: whether it brings a cheer, or whether you are overcome with pain and grief, God is with you.

He knows your life is broken. And he gently whispers that his plan is to heal, and mend, and make right. He is with you. Trust him.

Upon a Hill

Three men shared death upon a hill,
But only one man dies;
The other two—
A thief and God himself—
Made rendezvous.

Three crosses still
Are borne up Calvary’s Hill,
Where Sin still lifts them high:
Upon the one, sag broken men
Who, cursing, die;
Another upholds the praying thief,
Or those who penitent as he,
Shall find the Christ
Beside them on the tree

“Upon A Hill”, Miriam LeFevre Crouse

Forgiveness is God’s Nature (5)

I have never been able to understand those who say that the God we read about in the Old Testament is angry and vindictive, while the God we read about in the New Testament is loving and kind. The reality is that God has always been gracious and forgiving, and this flows right out of the core of his being.

Think of the account of Moses on Mt Sinai in Exodus 34. Moses had asked to see the glory of The Lord, and God agrees to pass by and allow Moses to see ‘his back’. There is much in this passage that is hard to grasp, but one thing that is very clear is the nature and character of The Lord. As God passes by he proclaims his own name to Moses: “The Lord, The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness and sin, yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Sure, punishment is mentioned. But the thing to note is what receives the emphasis. The first things mentioned are compassion, grace, slowness to anger, love, faithfulness, more love, and forgiveness. This provides the backdrop for any words about punishment: if God is going to be compassionate and gracious and loving, then he must call to account those who are not compassionate, gracious and loving. But that’s another post…

The main thing to see is how close forgiveness is to the heart of God. Right at core of his character is his desire to forgive.

Forgive is an interesting word. The Hebrew word is nāśā. It means to lift, to carry, to take up, to lift off. So, right at the core of God’s heart is his deep inclination to lift off the burden that weighs people down. God desires to lift off the weight of sin and guilt. He does not want to see people bent and broken by wrongdoing and the fall.

It reminds me of John Bunyan’s Christian, who makes his journey with a ridiculously huge burden strapped to his back. That burden is his own sin. Christian can’t get rid of it, no matter what he tries to do. But here’s the deal: God can get rid of it. And if we pay attention to what God says is at the core of his being, it’s clear that he wants to lift that burden: he forgives wickedness and sin.

In case you wondered whether this desire to forgive was at the heart of God, we see the same thing said about the Servant of The Lord in Isaiah 53 “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”. The ‘giveness’ of God is expressed in the giving of his Son, Jesus, who took up our pain and suffering, our transgressions and iniquities.

So these are core realities for God, for how he reveals himself, for how he sees himself, as well as the core mission of his son, Jesus Christ. God’s giveness is the foundation of his forgiveness. Our sin and guilt can be forgiven and forgotten because our wonderful God lifts it off us, and carries it away from us, in all he has done through Jesus his son.

When it comes to being forgiven, and being forgiving people, we have to start with the nature of God, with his core characteristics, and the clear reality of what he has done through Jesus. He is a deeply gracious God, and his desire is to forgive all your wrong and every sin.

Is this how you are used to thinking about God?

What does the fact that forgiveness is at the core of God’s heart mean to you?

Forgiveness is being honest with what happened (4)

Forgiveness is not only about being honest with people. It is also about being honest about what happened. We are not just blaming people, we are blaming them for what they have done. Smedes reminds us that talking about blame is risky. It sounds as if we’re laying all responsibility at the feet of the others and none at our own. But that’s not what it is about. When we talk blame, we are just saying that something has happened and someone has done it. We need to recognise that. Some of the blame may be laid at our own feet. We may have contributed to the situation, so we also need to be honest about our part in it all.

So something happened. Something was done. And people were hurt. If we want to do the work of forgiveness well, and if we want it to last, we need to name what has happened.

Was it something they said? An attitude expressed toward you, or someone close to you? Was it an act of passion? A crime? An assassination of character? Was it neglect, perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless hurtful? The more specific you can get, the more your work of forgiveness will benefit.

If we want to do the work of forgiveness well we need to name what has happened.

This is can be a little dangerous. Remembering what has been done can open the door to resentment and bitterness. Bitterness is a broad and easy road, and many are those who walk on it. It’s so easy to be nurse our pain. We turn it over, over and over again. But as we do, forgiveness and freedom move further away from us, and the poison of bitterness starts to work it’s way through our being until we are all but paralysed.

The other side of the coin is that sometimes our resistance to naming what happened stems from a fear of owning up to what we have done. At other times it is because the hurt is so deep, and what happened was so ugly that we are just happy not to have to talk about it. So, keeping it general and non specific is form of defence mechanism.

More often than not, what we are trying to protect ourselves from is our own guilt. Like a husband who has cheated on his wife might say ‘sorry for how it all ended up’. What does that really mean? Couldn’t his grieving wife say the same? Even their counsellor could say ‘sorry for how it all ended up.’ That’s a coward’s way to say sorry. That guy needs to be honest about what he has done. As long as he refuses to own up to his actions, his wife’s grief is trivialised, her pain is ignored, and his wrong still has his heart bound.

Being honest about what has happened makes good practical sense. More than that, God agrees. When Nathan the prophet confronted David about Bathsheba, he was more than angry about how it all ended up (2 Sam 12). When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well (John 4), his probing question made her uncomfortable, for sure. But if he hadn’t gone there, she would not have known the reality of her need. And without that, she would not have been able to revive the healing and restoration Jesus gave to her.

Because forgiveness has its root in God’s giveness, it is about giving something. We give someone who has hurt us a new start, we give ourselves a break, and – if we can talk about it like that – we give God an opportunity for his better way to come to expression. But we need to be honest: honest with people, and honest about what has happened.

In the next few posts, I want to look at some of the things the New Testament says about forgiveness. We’ll be working towards what actually happens when we forgive, and some of the consequences when we don’t.

Have you ever found it hard to get specific about what has happened? Was that because of something you had done, or because of something someone else did to you? Is there someone you need to talk to about this?

PS. Thanks for sharing this journey with me. Your comments are encouraging, and your questions are challenging. Keep it up!

Forgiveness is being honest with people

Forgiveness, by its very nature, always involves people. It is people who get hurt. It is people who do the hurting. Forgiveness is always relational.

There are some terrible things that have happened to people, but they don’t need to be forgiven. In January 2011 an intense storm cell hovered over the Queensland city of Toowoomba. On any other day, Toowoomba hardly has a creek to its name, but that day it flooded so badly that cars were washed down the main street. The waters rushed down the range, and obliterated several small towns in the valley below. Lives were lost and livelihoods were dashed. Who was to blame? Who did this? No one did it. It was no one’s fault. No one was to blame. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, if there’s no one to blame, there’s nothing to forgive (The Art of Forgiving, p.77).

Forgiveness is only relevant when others are involved. In some ways this makes sense. It may be easy to remember hurts that others have done to us. At other times, who those ‘others’ are will sometimes catch us off guard. We’re not always ready to admit that sometimes the hurt has come from our own actions. So sometimes we have to forgive ourselves. On other occasions, hurt comes from a group of people. Truth is, forgiving is always messy. And you can be sure the more people are involved, the messier it gets.

people are always in the mix

So, when it comes to forgiveness, people are always in the mix. Real people. Real lives. Real pain and real grief. It’s easy to lose sight of this, and it’s often convenient to avoid it. It’s easier, if we have hurt someone, to just think about ‘issues’ and ‘events’ and ‘what went wrong’. When we avoid the people in the equation, though, we dehumanise the pain. This is sin on three counts:

We sin against them, because we are not willing to see their hurt, or recognise our part in it.

We sin against ourselves: when we refuse to see the pain we have brought to others we deny ourselves the grace of being forgiven.

And we sin against God. It’s not just that he wants us to forgive. It’s more that his plan in Jesus is to raise us to a new life and a better way. God wants our lives, through Jesus, to express his better grace. He deeply wants his ‘giveness‘ to come to expression in our lives. Paul says as much when he writes “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:32ff)

We have to be honest about the impact of our actions on people, and their impact on us. If we fail to see the people in the equation, sin, wrongdoing, and guilt will have its way with us. And guilt is such a tireless tormentor.

Which is easier, to just focus on the issues, or to recognise the people involved and the pain they are going through? Which is better?