All posts by David Balzer

Acts 9:1-31: Worst Case Scenario!

Today’s ANZAC Day. When we remember with thanks the sacrifice made by those in our Armed Services. Although, from what I hear, the TRAINING and SELECTION PROCESS can be almost as hard as the REALITY of war. I’ve heard both David H. and Andrew H. describe the selection process for the Navy Clearance Divers, and the Army SAS. And some of the tasks sound almost IMPOSSIBLE. Enduring and achieving the most difficult missions you can imagine, on little very sleep, rest or food.

Apparently, it’s the theory of “Worst Case Scenario”. If you’ve been through the WORST CASE SCENARIO, EVERYTHING ELSE looks easy by comparison. If you can survive the SELECTION PROCESS, and the TRAINING. Then you know that whatever else turns up, you can handle it.

The passage we’re looking at today has got a perfect example of a WORST CASE SCENARIO. We’ve got JESUS… up against his NUMBER ONE FOE. We’ve got the power of the gospel – up against the MOST UNLIKELY PERSON IN THE WORLD to ever become a Christian.

You might think you’ve got a friend at work who’s an impossible case. Or an atheistic lecturer at Uni. Or perhaps a family member who ridicules you constantly. Or a school friend, who you just can’t imagine EVER becoming a Christian. It may be that you’re here today, and YOU’RE not a Christian. And for whatever reason, you can’t imagine YOURSELF ever becoming a Christian. Well, let me tell you, however unlikely you think it happening, it’s NOTHING – compared to the guy we’re looking at here. And what we’ll see by the end of the chapter/ is that if power of the gospel can change THIS GUY/ then it can change ANYONE.

His name’s Saul. And we’ve met him before. This is the young man we saw at the end of chapter 7, cheering them on as they stone Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is the guy saying, here, let me look after your coat so you can THROW HARDER. Right at the start of chapter 8 it says Saul is there WATCHING WITH APPROVAL. And a few verses later, he’s GRADUATED from holding the coats. Now he’s leading a house to house search; verse 3 in chapter 8, hunting for Christians. Doing his best to stamp out this new religion that threatened everything he stood for.

And by the time we get to chapter 9, he’s taking it A STEP FURTHER. Still breathing out murderous threats. He’s heard there might be some Christians in DAMASCUS. 300 kilometres to the North. So, v2, he goes to the High Priest, gets letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus. They say, “Please co-operate with my friend Saul here as he arrests, and beats, and chains up these people who follow the heretic Jesus.” And he sets out on the road north. Full of ZEAL. Ready for action. Mr WORST CASE SCENARIO.

But, v3, Saul, the HUNTER, is about to become the HUNTED. He’s about to have a life-changing experience. So big, it’s got a couple of EXPRESSIONS named after it – he SAW THE LIGHT, and had a DAMASCUS ROAD EXPERIENCE. V3.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

He doesn’t know who it is. And when he asks the question. The answer comes back, v5. “I’m JESUS, whom you are persecuting.” The same Jesus Saul was ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED was safely dead and buried. The same Jesus Saul thought was blaspheming God by claiming to be EQUAL with God. Except, rather than being under God’s JUDGMENT. HE’s been VINDICATED. He’s BEATEN death. He’s standing there, ALIVE and POWERFUL.

But that’s not the ONLY surprise for Saul. The NEXT, was this Jesus was siding with Saul’s victims. That as he persecuted defenceless Christians, he was actually TREADING ON THE TOES OF THE KING OF THE UNIVERSE. “You hurt my FOLLOWERS, you’re hurting ME!” I mean, that’s quite a mistake, isn’t it? It’s like a bully trying to beat up a little kid; and he doesn’t realise the little kid’s got a VERY BIG BROTHER. “You take on my kid brother, and you’re taking on ME!!!” Which completely swings the balance in favour of Jesus’ followers. And this powerful big brother gives Saul a command, v6. “Now get up – and go into the city. And you’ll be told what to do.” Who’s the boss NOW?

The other people with Saul, they’ve heard the noise, but they don’t know what’s happening. And, v8, when Saul opens his eyes, he’s LITERALLY been blinded by the light. So they lead him by the hand the few miles into Damascus, dazed and confused. It’s not quite the entrance he’d imagined. He’d pictured he’d arrive Mr Worst Case Scenario with letters of introduction in his pocket, LICENSED TO KILL. Determined to CRUSH CHRISTIANITY. Riding into town with his crew. Christians running and hiding. And him leading them out of town in chains. But instead. He’s led into Damascus – blind and helpless.

And for the next three days, he’s stuck in his room, not eating or drinking. I’m guessing, re-evaluating his whole life. And spending a good bit of time reading the Scriptures and praying. And re-assembling it all, this time around JESUS. And perhaps thinking about all his mistakes, and confessing his sin. Jesus – removing his SPIRITUAL blindness.

What a change. What a turn around! What a CONVERSION! But God’s got a way of doing that to people. Especially PROUD people. WORST-CASE SCENARIO people. Upsetting their plans. Turning their world on its head.

Over the last year or so we’ve heard from people in our church who God’s done something similar with. People like Peter Christopher, accomplished and successful, but headed down an empty path. Or David Lim, proud and upstanding, but unforgiven and distant from the God who made him. Or Jack and Kiki Huang, ambitious, intelligent and motivated to succeed, but ignorant of a Saviour who died for them and set them free from guilt and judgment. Or Jake Shadwick, intelligent and moral, but unable to deal with the guilt of his sinful nature. Or Leanne Hall, at her rock bottom, helpless, enslaved to addictions, despairing.

But all of these people, and lots more sitting here today, experienced a Damascus Road experience. When they saw the light. When Jesus revealed himself to them. For some it took a DAY, for others it took A YEAR. But they met Jesus. And he humbled them, and forgave their sin, and gave them a fresh start. And TRANSFORMED them. Completely turned them around. God has a way of doing that to people.

Perhaps you haven’t had the sort of experience that SAUL had. But the RESULT can be the same for you! Perhaps you’re NOT a Christian. But you’ve had this GROWING AWARENESS OF WHO JESUS IS. Maybe over months, or perhaps YEARS. You’ve seen what people are like who follow him. You’ve heard and read about him in the Bible. And you’re coming to understand what he’s like. That he LOVES you. That he’s DIED for you. That he deserves to be the boss of YOUR LIFE, just like he’s boss of the world. Perhaps you’ve done ALL OF THAT. But you’ve never actually made the decision to FOLLOW him.

Today would be a great day to DO that. To bow your knee to King Jesus. To pledge your allegiance to him. To admit your sin. Your mistakes. And to vow to serve him. Or maybe you want to spend some more time thinking about it. Why not join our Christianity Explored course starting in a few weeks. Seven Monday nights, investigating what the Bible says about life with Jesus.

Back to the story. Next, v10, we’re introduced to another character. Ananias – a Christian in Damascus. Perhaps only a couple of streets away from where Saul is staying. And Jesus has a message for HIM TOO. He tells him, in a vision, to do the LAST thing in the world he feels like doing. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the time when people say they feel God’s spoken to them, it seems like the thing they say God’s telling them to do is the thing THEY MOST FEEL LIKE DOING. But this is different. Ananias hears the voice of Jesus very clearly. And you can see what he says in verse 11. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He’s praying. And he’s expecting you, because he’s had a vision too, to tell him you’re coming.”

And Ananias knows EXACTLY who Saul is. V13, he’s heard what he’s done to Christians in Jerusalem. He’s heard he’s coming to Damascus to make trouble. And the LAST THING Ananias wants to do is to face up to Saul. Will he be obedient? Last thing he WANTS to do. But he GOES ANYWAY. Because in verse 15, Jesus tells him the plan. He’s got a job for Saul to do; and it’s important. He says

GO! Because this man is my CHOSEN INSTRUMENT to CARRY MY NAME before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. And I’ll show him how much he has to SUFFER for my name.”

It’s sort of a neat twist, isn’t it? This Saul who was such a determined Jew; who was so determined to defend God’s honour, and get rid of Christianity; Jesus is going to turn him into Christianity’s number one MISSIONARY. And to the GENTILES. NON-JEWS, like us.

But not only THAT. This Saul, who caused so much suffering AGAINST those who followed Jesus. Will HIMSELF suffer much FOR the name of Jesus. Who says God hasn’t got a sense of humour?

So Ananias, I guess in fear and trembling, heads up to Straight Street, knocks on the door. And Saul’s been expecting him. He puts his hands on Saul; and Saul’s sight’s restored. And in verse 17 and 18, he receives the Holy Spirit, and he’s baptised. And, rather than a persecutor of Jesus, he’s become a FOLLOWER of Jesus.

And look at the wonderful way Ananias addresses Saul. “BROTHER Saul”. Two guys from completely different worlds. A day ago one would have happily stomped all over the other. But when they both meet Jesus. They become BROTHERS. That’s the wonderful things about Christians. You can meet someone from a completely different background. Looks different. Speaks a different language. Expresses their faith in a different way to you. But when you work out they’re Christian, there’s a BOND. A connection. They’re a BROTHER. Or a SISTER. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me so that you may see again.”

Is Jesus calling YOU to be an Ananias? Is there a scary boundary for you to cross? A WORST-CASE SCENARIO out there for YOU to speak to? A family member? Neighbour? Workmate? Best friend?

Some of you know Tim Wilson. He’s a Prison Chaplain at Parklea Prison. A place with PLENTY of Worst-case scenarios. There’s a wing of the worst sorts of sexual offenders. Who can’t mix with the rest of the prisoners, or they’ll be KILLED. Tim feels Jesus is calling him to be an ANANIAS to those SAULS. And he’s doing it because if God can change SAUL, then he can change ANYONE.

Sadly, ONE of the problems Tim faces is connecting new believers into churches when they leave prison. Because churches are SUSPICIOUS. UNCERTAIN whether to TRUST this new believer. Which is what happens with SAUL, TOO.

It starts OFF alright. Probably Ananias tells the local Christians what happens. And Saul spends a few days with them. But, before long, v20, he’s preaching to the Jews in Damascus. Down at the Synagogue, not preaching AGAINST Christians like he was before. But preaching to them, v20, that JESUS REALLY IS THE SON OF GOD.

Saul’s absolutely CONVINCED of that. I mean, why WOULDN’T he be, after what’s happened. And so his first instinct is to get around and tell people HOW WRONG HE’S BEEN. And people are absolutely dumbfounded, v21. “Isn’t this the same guy who raised havoc in Jerusalem among the Christians?”

And the trouble is, v 22, Saul’s doing it SO WELL. And again and again, he PROVES that Jesus is the Christ. The one the scriptures had been pointing to for so long. And so, eventually, in verse 23, the Jews decide to kill him. Traitor. But he’s smuggled out of Damascus in a basket, and heads back to Jerusalem.

Poor guy. He’s not even welcome THERE. The JEWS don’t want to know him. And the CHRISTIANS don’t EITHER. Have a look at v26. And I guess you can understand how they feel.

“When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join THE DISCIPLES – but they were afraid of him, not really believing he WAS a disciple.”

They think, Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe he’s trying to infiltrate so he can kill us. Paul’s caught in the middle. BOTH sides BOO him. Like someone wearing a Bronco’s jersey at a Parramatta/ Penrith game.

But there’s one person who believes in him. BARNABAS. Which is actually his NICKNAME. His REAL name is Joseph. We’ve come across this guy already. Back in Ch 4 v36. In the very early days of the church.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), {37} sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Generous, encouraging, considerate, forgiving, trusting Barnabas. But MORE than that. Firm and courageous TOO. Perhaps he hears Saul preaching. Or perhaps he’s heard the news from Damascus. But he takes Saul to the apostles, and explains what’s happened. how the Lord’s spoken to him on the road, how he’s preached in Damascus.

We need more Barnabas’s in church. Just like we need more Ananias’s. We need soft-hearted, brave people willing to cross the barrier that scares them. That’s outside their comfort zone. We need sons of encouragement who see the GOOD in people. People who have the FAITH to see that God can change ANYONE. Who are prepared to FORGIVE because God’s forgiven THEM.

And so, v28, Saul stays with them. And moves around Jerusalem, we’re told, SPEAKING BOLDLY in the name of the Lord Jesus, debating with the Grecian Jews. And as usual, THEY TRY TO KILL HIM. So the brothers take him down to Caesarea on the coast, and they put him in a boat to Tarsus. Back to his home town. To safety. And something like eight years pass. And we don’t hear from Saul again until Acts chapter 13.

Now I just want to finish up with a few observations. Things to notice. And the first one is, if you’d been one of the Christians back then, you’d be dumbfounded by what’s happened, wouldn’t you? And absolutely in AWE of the power of the risen Jesus Christ. You’d have a sense that you were part of something BIG. Because even your WORST CASE SCENARIO, even your worst nightmare – Saul of Tarsus turning up on your doorstep to arrest you – you’ve just seen, it’s all under control. The RISEN CHRIST can handle it. And he STANDS BESIDE you as you endure it.

Which has to be a re-assurance for those Christians in North Korea. Or Afghanistan. Or Somalia. Or Libya. Persecuted. Arrested. Beaten. Even killed. All because they follow Jesus. But this Jesus they follow/ can even deal with SAUL. And so in spite of appearances, what they need to do is KEEP TRUSTING THAT THE RISEN CHRIST CAN HANDLE IT. He can bring victory out of the most complete failures. He can bring conversions about in the most unlikely people. He can work ALL things for good.

And it’s an encouragement to those of us who know WORST CASE SCENARIOS. People you think are the MOST UNLIKELY to ever become Christians. The TOO HARD list. Too worldly. Too immoral. Too rich. Too content. Too academic. Too far gone. Someone you think, NEVER A MILLION YEARS would that person SUBMIT TO CHRIST.

Saul was like that. He turns up back in Jerusalem as a Christian, and they say, There’s NO WAY IN THE WORLD it could happen. Saul’s the guy who PERSECUTES CHRISTIANS. Now he IS ONE. Which is a reminder, isn’t it, that it’s NEVER TOO HARD FOR GOD. Let that encourage you.

Let that encourage you to KEEP PRAYING for the people you might have given up on. Whether it’s your husband, or your neighbour, or your brother who used to come to church as a teenager, or your son or daughter, or your workmate or your neighbour. Never say never. Because Jesus specializes in Worst Case scenarios. If SAUL can become a Christian, so can anyone else. Because the Risen Christ specializes in worst case scenarios.

Which is, interestingly, what Saul HIMSELF thinks. Let me leave you with Saul’s own words. Saul becomes PAUL. And becomes the greatest missionary of all time. And he writes these words to his young friend Timothy. 1 Timothy 1v15. He says

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I AM THE WORST. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, THE WORST OF SINNERS – the worst case scenario – Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would BELIEVE ON HIM… and receive eternal life.

And then notice how he finishes. Amazed at the grace God’s shown him. And we should say AMEN

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.

(And all God’s people said) Amen.

3 John: Walk the talk

When it comes to the church, there’s nothing the media loves more than A HYPOCRITE. Someone who SAYS ONE thing, but then gets caught doing something DIFFERENT. Someone who TALKS about love, but treats people with anything BUT love. Or who talks about HONESTY, then gets caught in financial fraud. Or who talks about MORALITY and FAITHFULNESS, but then has an affair.

Christians need to be people who LIVE what they believe. Who’s lives SUPPORT their doctrine. People who WALK their TALK.

We say what a difference Jesus can make in our lives. But the reality is/ for many Christians/ there’s not much DIFFERENCE at ALL.

Do people NOTICE you’re a Christian by the way you speak, how you behave, how you treat people? By the way you live your life? Or are you more of a secret agent Christian – BLENDING IN with those around you, ready to make a surprise announcement some time in the future?

There are too many people like Diotrophes. And too few like Gaius. Too many who love to be first, and are more interested in building their OWN little kingdom. And too few who walk in the truth. Who walk the talk. Who live a life of integrity that backs up what they believe.

I’ve been in churches with both of them.

Let me tell you about my Gaius. We were guests in this church for a year. This lady and her husband had been involved in this church for decades. And they made us feel instantly at home. They organised a roster of people for us to visit for Sunday lunch. They went out of their way to show us warmth and hospitality and fellowship. Their interest and love just radiated.

My Gaius would phone us pretty regularly to see how we were doing. We had more phone calls like that/ in that ONE YEAR than in the previous TEN years at our home church!

In some churches the attitude seems to be to get as much work as possible out of the student minister. Because he’s being paid. But here it was different. They genuinely saw themselves as CO-WORKERS in the ministry. And as they invested time and money into US, they were involved in gospel work.

And it wasn’t just a short-term, one-off situation either! There was a HISTORY of hosting student ministers. Over twenty or so years. And as they reeled off the list of who’d been through the church, it was very encouraging to see how they still kept up with these families. And were interested and involved in what they were doing. Co-workers in the truth.

That’s my Gaius. What about my Diotrophes? Unfortunately I’ve met a few. So my portrait here is a compilation of all of them.

My Diotrophes occupies a position of authority in the Church. It might be Management Committee, or Leadership Team, or Choir master.

Diotrophes always has an area of responsibility. His little kingdom. And everything else that goes on in the church has to revolve around that. It might be maintaining the church grounds. Looking after the church’s equipment.

And no group is authorised to use the hall, or grassed area, or carpark, or carpet in the church, or special plates and cups, or photocopier, because it might get ruined.

Or it might be an area of ministry. And no one else is allowed to do anything. Or if they do, it has to be done exactly as Diotrophes decides. After all, this is HIS ministry.

And anyone who dares to suggest something that doesn’t fit into the mould is viewed as a threat. A troublemaker. A boat-rocker.

And so Diotrophes starts to wield his influence. Makes his opposition pretty clear. Maybe even walks out. He did that to me one Sunday.

Or he calls in the favours. Rallies the troops. Draws up the battle lines. Because it’s the ministry of the church that’s at stake! Well, at least HIS ministry.

Perhaps Diotrophes makes a few phone calls. And pretty soon the trouble-maker is black-banned. His phone stops ringing. The seats on either side of him in church are empty. He stands by himself at morning tea.

And it doesn’t take the trouble-maker long to get the message. He doesn’t stand for election again. Stops volunteering for things. He becomes less frequent at church. And pretty soon, he stops coming all together.

And Diotrophes breathes a sigh of relief. Because at last the church can get back to the way it USED TO BE. Back to the way HE likes things done.

(pause) When I think back to my Gaius, and my Diotrophes. I know which one I want to be LIKE. Which one I want to copy. John says, “Do not IMITATE what is EVIL but what is GOOD.”

My guess is most of YOU have known your OWN Gaius’s and Diotrophes. Because most churches have them. Who do YOU want to be like?

Let’s look in detail at THIS church. And at Gaius and Diotrophes. So that we can learn what to COPY. And what to steer well clear of.

1. Gaius

We find out about it from John’s letter to Gaius. We call it 3 John. There’s a FEW Johns. This is the APOSTLE John. The one who wrote John’s gospel. As well as REVELATION. And he wrote these three LETTERS as well.

1. Walking in the truth

It’s about 50 years after Jesus’ death. And John’s a pretty important leader in the Christian community. And somewhere in his travels, he’d come across Gaius. Perhaps even led him to Christ. And even though he’s a long way away, he’s only hearing good things about his progress. Look at verse 3.

(3 John 1:3-4 NIV)  It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your FAITHFULNESS TO THE TRUTH and how you CONTINUE TO WALK IN THE TRUTH. {4} I HAVE NO GREATER JOY than to hear that my children are WALKING IN THE TRUTH.

John’s overjoyed that Gaius is continuing as he left him. His life continues to be moulded by the truth of the gospel. By the demands of God’s word. It’s not just TALK. It’s WALK, TOO. A life that’s CONSISTENT with his testimony.

Occasionally I’ll bump into students I used to teach at school. And many of them used to be in the ISCF group I led. And you know the news I love to hear the most? News that brings tears to my eyes? Not who they married, or how many kids they’ve got. Or what degrees they’ve acquired. Or what career they’re pursuing.

I love to hear news that they’re CONTINUING STRONG IN THE LORD. Even that they’re involved in leadership as well. That they’re giving back some of what they learned. That’s the best news I can receive.

And John says “I have NO GREATER JOY than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

That’s the sort of work it’s worth investing your time and energy in. Is that the sort of legacy YOU’RE leaving behind? Is that the sort of significance you leave in your CHILDREN? In teaching Kids Church, or Yth Gp, or Scripture or Home Group? Neighbours and family and workmates?

Leaving behind people who are WALKING IN THE TRUTH?

That’s what John had done. Gaius still walking in the truth.

2. Hospitality

And he goes on to describe what that walking involves. At least in this case. The SPECIFICS of what he’s heard about Gaius. Verse 5. The second characteristic. Hospitality to the brothers.

(3 John 1:5-8 NIV)  Dear friend, you are faithful in WHAT YOU ARE DOING FOR THE BROTHERS, even though they are strangers to you. {6} They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. {7} It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. {8} We ought therefore to SHOW HOSPITALITY TO SUCH MEN so that we may work together for the truth.

The situation in those times/ was that travelling Christian teachers moved from town to town. They’d arrive. And spend some time teaching and evangelising. And the church would put them up. Meals and shelter.

The problem was that OTHER people decided to get in on the act too. Charlatans. Hoaxes. And they’d live off the good will of the Christians there. Feeding them all sorts of rubbish while they got fat on hospitality.

So what was the right thing to do? Provide hospitality. Or not? Do you take the safe option, and not provide for ANYONE? Or do you risk being taken for a ride, and help the ones you think are genuine?

John’s in NO DOUBTS about what the right option is. The brothers have told him about the warm hospitality they got from Gaius. These were genuine Christian teachers. And John COMMENDS Gaius for looking after them. Even though he’d never met them before.

Look at what John says. Gaius is being FAITHFUL. Verse 5. And LOVING.

And he’s confident Gaius will send them on their way fully stocked up. That he won’t just be generous while they’re there, but it will flow over into their NEXT journey.

John says that sort of generosity is WORTHY OF GOD (v6). Worthy of the God who is so generous to US. Who gives us every spiritual blessing in Christ. And who provides all we ever need.

To look after Christian workers GENEROUSLY is WORTHY of God. I’ve spoken to a missionary who received packages from churches at home. And they’d contain clothes for his family. Old clothes so horrible they were only good for rags. But the assumption was/ the missionaries would be grateful for them.

There’s the joke about the old church deacon who prayed for his minister, “God, blessed are the poor and humble. You keep him HUMBLE. We’ll keep him POOR.”

That’s NOT behaviour that’s WORTHY of God. God is a GENEROUS God. Who cares for his children. Who RICHLY blesses us with ALL that we need. He’s not mean-spirited. Or selfish. Or resentful.. And so the way we treat people should be the same. That’s what it means to send people on their way in a manner worthy of God.

(pause) The Williamsons – Andy and Rosemary – are heading back to Vanuatu in a few weeks. And they need financial support to get there. And they haven’t got there yet. There’s details up the back.

Or there’s the Woldhuis’s. John and Karine. They visited us earlier this year. Heading off to Ecuador in a month or two. And THEY need support.

To give generously to people like the Williamsons or the Woldhuis/ is one way to walk in a manner WORTHY OF GOD.

I’ve spoken to a couple of families who’ve consciously and seriously SAT DOWN. And BUDGETED what they can GIVE UP. So they can afford to give a maximum amount to these new missionary families. Things like no newspapers, no takeaway coffee, no bought lunches. That’s $10 a week. Before you know it that’s $500 a year. EASY!

Is that something YOU could do?

(pause) And look at the reasons John gives for supporting work like this. Verse 7.

(3 John 1:7-8 NIV)  It was FOR THE SAKE OF THE NAME that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. {8} We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.

Gospel workers aren’t doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for the sake of the name. For the sake of Jesus. The Lord Jesus Christ. His name sums up the whole message. He is Jesus – who will save his people. He is Christ, the Messiah, the suffering servant who would rule on David’s throne. He is Lord. Lord over life and death. Lord of creation. Lord of your life and mine.

It’s for the sake of THIS name that gospel workers go out. And that means our support isn’t just PERSONAL support. But for the support of THAT NAME. BECAUSE of that name. IN OBEDIENCE to that name.

We’re not giving to the Williamsons or the Woldhuis’s as if they’re a charity case. They’re not BEGGING for their bread. They’re presenting us with an opportunity to serve Jesus. An opportunity to walk in the truth.

3. work together for the truth

(pause) And when we support THEM/ we WORK TOGETHER FOR THE TRUTH. That’s a THIRD characteristic of Gaius.

You’re a CO-gospel worker when you work at your normal job/ and support other full-time gospel-workers.

There are no levels of Christian service. All Christians are CO-WORKERS IN THE GOSPEL when they work for the sake of the name, in the field where God’s put them, generously using the gifts God’s given them.

Is that you? Are you working for the sake of the name? Are you contentedly sowing away in the field where God has put you? Are you generously using the gifts God has given you?

That’s what Gaius was. We’re not told that he was an up-front evangelist, or a church leader, or even a bible study leader. But by being hospitable. Being faithful where God had put him. Being careful to use the gifts God had given him, John said he was walking in the truth.

Are you walking in the truth?

2. Diotrophes

Next we get to Diotrophes. Same church, but poles apart from Gaius. John’s already written him a letter. Because he’s been making trouble for a while. But Diotrophes didn’t take any notice. The letter went straight into the circular file.

So what does John say about Diotrophes? One little phrase is so descriptive. Verse 9. He “loves to be first”

Perhaps he loved to be the centre of attention. Or he loved to be the decision-maker. Or he loved to be the most gifted. Or he loved to build his empire at the expense of God’s kingdom. Or he loved to lift himself up, and put others down.

Whatever it was/ He LOVED TO BE FIRST. And look how that attitude was reflected in his behaviour. Verse 9

(3 John 1:9-10 NIV)  Diotrephes, who loves to be first, WILL HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH US. {10} So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, GOSSIPING MALICIOUSLY ABOUT US. Not satisfied with that, HE REFUSES TO WELCOME THE BROTHERS. He also STOPS THOSE WHO WANT TO DO SO and PUTS THEM OUT OF THE CHURCH.

A very sad portrait of a very sad little man. Five actions that showed how he was the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of Gaius.

1. While Gaius was one of John’s CHILDREN. Obeying and following his example. Gaius wanted nothing to do with John. He refused to accept his authority.

There are some Christians around who refuse to accept that God has placed ANYONE in leadership over them. Their view of Christianity is that it’s not a team sport, but an individual one. Or if it IS a team sport, that it’s a completely DEMOCRATIC one. Where all decisions should be reached by group consensus.

Yet, that’s not the way God’s designed the church. He HAS placed some in AUTHORITY over the church. To LEAD it. To discipline it. Yes, they are to do that as SERVANTS. Just like Jesus. But there is still authority there.

And Diotrophes refused to accept John’s authority.

2. Secondly, while Gaius WALKED IN THE TRUTH, Diotrophes did the opposite – he GOSSIPED MALICIOUSLY. Spread rumours and lies about John and the brothers.

Perhaps he thought he was doing it from good motives. Perhaps he was genuinely mistaken. Thought they were like the other imposters.

But dragging other people down. Discrediting them without evidence. Is not the way to walk in truth.

We are much too quick to spread information. Much too quick to share “prayer points”. Sometimes it IS necessary to tell God’s people about specific personal details. But it isn’t something you should ever do lightly. Without a serious examination of your motives. Why you’re REALLY telling other people.

3. Thirdly, while Gaius showed hospitality to the brothers, Diotrophes REFUSED TO ACCEPT THEM. No room at the Inn.

Imagine the message this sent to non-Christians. “These Christian evangelists are here. They’re preaching about LOVE and FORGIVENESS and COMMUNITY. And the church is supposed to be backing them up. But look at them. No one will even give them a bed for the night! They’re sleeping in the Pub! What sort of love is that!?”

The brothers were preaching about love WITH WORDS. Gaius was preaching about love with his DEEDS. Generous hospitality is an appropriate response to the gospel. Deeds matching up with words.

But Diotrophes was doing THE OPPOSITE.

How well do YOUR deeds match up with your words in this respect? Are you walking your talk?

4. Fourthly, while Gaius influenced others by demonstrating his love, Diotrophes influenced others NOT to demonstrate love. He stopped them showing hospitality.

He pulled strings, and applied pressure, to make sure no one would welcome the brothers. See it there in v10?

Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so.

Reducing others to his level. Spreading his mean-spiritedness, and vindictiveness, like a contagious disease.

5. And when they don’t agree with him, he goes one step further. Fifthly, he puts them out of the church. This guy obviously had some clout – some sort of leadership role – that meant he could remove people from membership. But instead of using his authority to SERVE, he used it to further his own agenda. To push his own barrow. He loved to be first. And he used his position to achieve that. Christian leadership should never look like that.

And so John finishes his two portraits. One of gentle and generous Gaius. And the other of dangerous and diabolical Diotrophes.

3. Who to follow

And while he goes on to give some more advice to gentle Gaius, it’s also advice to us. Because he tells us which example to follow. And what test to use when it comes to making up our mind about people. Look at v11.

(3 John 1:11 NIV)  Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who DOES WHAT IS GOOD is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

Imitate GOOD, not EVIL. Mimic it. Copy it. Watch carefully, then do the same.

Because anyone who DOES good, comes from God. The test of a true follower of Jesus. Of a TRUE teacher, rather than an impostor. Is whether they DO GOOD. Whether they WALK THEIR TALK. Do they say, “Do what I DO!”, or is it just, “Do what I SAY!”?

Because the false leader. The one you don’t want to follow. ISN’T consistent. He doesn’t walk his talk. And John says he hasn’t SEEN God. Truly known him. Hasn’t experienced the reality of God. Hasn’t understood the real implications of the gospel.

(pause) John calls us to walk our talk. He calls us to follow the example of good people. People like Gaius. Who walk in the truth. And whose hospitality is worthy of God.

Are you a Gaius, or a Diotrophes?

Micah 6-7: What does the Lord require of you?

Clear expectations and instructions are important.

Organisations, like churches or businesses, work hard to DEFINE THEIR VISION. (Where they want to finish. Their ideal future). Because if you don’t know what your TARGET is/ it’s very hard to HIT it.

And a good boss will make sure an employee has AN ACCURATE JOB DESCRIPTION. And she’ll give CLEAR FEEDBACK. Because it’s frustrating for EVERYONE if you don’t know what you’re supposed to DO in your job.

And a good SPORTS COACH will set clear expectations about what he wants his team to do. Skills will be explained, demonstrated, copied, observed, and corrected.

And a young couple preparing for marriage will practice COMMUNICATION techniques, so they can clearly share their hopes and preferences. So there’s less chance of confusion or guesswork or resentment.

Clear expectations and instructions are important.

If it’s important in THESE situations, HOW MUCH MORE IMPORTANT is it to know what GOD expects? To know how he wants us to live, and respond to him. (The One who MADE you, who holds your life in his hands. The One who’ll, one day, call you to account). Is there a more important question than the one in Micah chapter 6 verse 8? “And what does the LORD require of you?” I don’t think so! So I can’t think of anything better you could be do for the next twenty minutes or so than listening to how God answers that question.

What the LORD DOESN’T require of you (6)

Chapter 6 begins with a command to LISTEN. Because God’s about to speak. It’s the same way chapter ONE began, and the way chapter THREE began. Look there in v1. “Listen to what the LORD says.” God’s the PLAINTIFF in a courtroom scene. He’s bringing his complaint against his people, and he’s calling on the MOUNTAINS to back him up. To support him.

2 Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation;      listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people;      he is lodging a charge against Israel.

The mountains have witnessed God’s relationship with his people, right from the beginning. They’ve seen EVERYTHING. God begins his complaint in v3, firstly by examining HIS part in the relationship.

3 “My people, what have I done to you?      How have I burdened you? Answer me. 4 I brought you up out of Egypt      and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you,      also Aaron and Miriam.

In other words, “What did I do that was so terrible? I rescued you and redeemed you, and provided leaders for you. V5, I rescued you from the devious plans of King Balak. And I brought you safely across the Jordan River from Shittim into the Promised Land at Gilgal.”

And he finishes the history lesson at the end of v5, “that you may know the righteous acts (or “righteousness”) of the LORD. Most of the time when that word’s used, it’s about KEEPING A COVENANT. God’s RIGHTEOUS. He’s kept his side of the bargain. History bears witness to it. The mountains, there since the beginning, bear witness to it.

Two Wrong Answers

That’s the “terrible burden” God’s placed on his people. He’s setting the scene for his complaint about how badly his people have RESPONDED to that righteousness. (How undeserving he is of their faithlessness).

But before he can move on to the substance of his complaint, v6 and 7, one of the hearers interrupts him.

I’m imagining it’s A MAN. It’s one of the communication mistakes we identify in pre-marriage counselling. The wife wants to complain about her day. Her new husband BEGINS to listen, but then quickly interrupts with the SOLUTION. (What he’s going to do to FIX things.) But the wife normally doesn’t WANT a solution. She just wants him to LISTEN! Which is NOT what this person’s doing with God. Despite the command in v1to LISTEN. He jumps straight in with what he THINKS God wants him to do. (“With what shall I come before the LORD?”).

And it’s the FIRST of TWO WRONG ANSWERS. It’s NOT what God requires of us. God asks the question, “What did I do that was so terrible?” And then, v6, the hearer replies with a bunch of questions of his own.

With what shall I come before the Lord      and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,      with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,      with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,      the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

There’s an exasperated tone to the questions. As if he’s frustrated that he can’t please God, whatever he does. His FIRST question asks how he can please God. (What gift will satisfy him?) And then gives three answers, also in the form of questions. And they get, progressively, more and more ridiculous. Will a burnt offering work? A year old calf? No? Then what about THOUSANDS of rams? Or ten thousand rivers of oil? Ridiculous to even IMAGINE.

His THIRD question moves from the ridiculous to the absolute wicked. If God’s not satisfied by VOLUME. Then perhaps VALUE will do it. “What about offering my FIRSTBORN child for my transgression?” Even though God had specifically FORBIDDEN it! Of course God won’t be satisfied with THAT! God might have spoken with a bit of IRONY in v3 – “How have I burdened you?” But this is completely SARCASTIC.

It’s a WRONG ANSWER because it’s DEFLECTING BLAME. It’s not accepting responsibility. It’s thinking the problem’s with God. His standards are too high. He can’t be pleased. He’s unreasonable. We all make mistakes, why can’t God just OVERLOOK IT this one time?!

Or perhaps the thought is God’s being UNJUST. THIS GENERATION hasn’t done anything to deserve God’s anger. Why should THEY suffer defeat and exile because of the sin of their ancestors? God’s being UNFAIR. We’re not to blame! God’s to blame!

It’s like the person called out for bad behaviour. Losing his temper, for example. Rather than accept fault, and ask how he can repair the damage, he DEFLECTS BLAME. “It’s not my fault. He made me do it. She was asking for it. She knows just how to push my buttons.”

Or perhaps the attitude is GENUINE, rather than sarcastic. (He truly wants to do what’s right before God.) In which case, it’s wrong because it’s PROUD and SELF-RIGHTEOUS. It’s under-estimating the seriousness of sin. Or over-estimating our ability to satisfy God. It’s the morally upright person who thinks he’s acceptable to God because he’s nicer than other people, and doing his best.

It’s the anxious religious person, who builds up a portfolio of good works to impress God, and earn his entrance into heaven. But who’s constantly uncertain about whether he’s done enough.

It’s the older son in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. Who thinks because he’s SLAVED for his Father for years, he deserves lavish gifts and a party of his own.

(That’s ONE wrong answer. We’ll see ANOTHER in a few verses.)

Which brings us to v8 – our key verse for today. It seems to be Micah stepping in, and speaking up for God. “Stop asking ignorant questions! Stop trying to GUESS what God wants from you!” V8

 He has SHOWED you, O man, what is good.      And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy      and to walk humbly with your God.

A pretty famous verse. Deservedly. Summarising what God’s shown his people over generations. We’ll come back to it in a moment. It’s the RIGHT answer to the question. But let’s jump past it onto v9. Which begins with another command to LISTEN.

Micah’s reminding people that GOD’s the one with the microphone. Stop your interruptions. “Listen! The LORD is calling to the city.”

God hasn’t finished his complaint. In fact, he hasn’t even STARTED it. He’s only described how faithfully he’s kept HIS side of the contract. So, v10, we finally get to God’s complaint.

Am I still to forget, O wicked house,      your ill-gotten treasures      and the short ephah, which is accursed? 11 Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales,      with a bag of false weights? 12 Her rich men are violent;      her people are liars      and their tongues speak deceitfully.

The sorts of sins we saw back in chapters two and three. Injustice, dishonesty, violence. It’s the SECOND wrong answer to the question, “What does God require of you?”

God demands obedience. He demands people reflect his character and values. Living out justice, truth, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. And, instead, they DISOBEY. They walk in the OTHER DIRECTION. The OPPOSITE of justice, truth and mercy: INjustice, DIShonesty, and ABUSING the weak.

It’s the YOUNGER son in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Independently walking away from the Father. Ignoring his care and wisdom. BOTH sons in the story aren’t living in fellowship with their Father. They’re not doing what he requires of them.

Injustice, dishonesty and selfishness. We see it in INDIVIDUALS. And we see it in OUR SOCIETY AT LARGE. We see it corporate culture. We see it in how FIRST World countries treat the THIRD world. How the HAVES treat the HAVE NOTS. How we treat indigenous people. Or refugees. Or the disabled. Or the unborn. Or unsupported expectant mothers.

God SEES it, and God CARES about it, and God’s going to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Which he describes in v13 to 16.

13 Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,      to ruin you because of your sins. 14 You will eat but not be satisfied;      your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing,      because what you save I will give to the sword. 15 You will plant but not harvest;      you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves,      you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.

The punishment’s not what we expect. It’s not destruction and exile. It’s frustration. It’s desolation and despair. They dishonestly pursued their idols of comfort and riches. So God will make their idols WORTHLESS. They won’t SATISFY them.

They’ll work to produce plenty of food, but they’ll still be hungry. They’ll horde money and possessions, but it will all slip through their fingers, and they’ll be left with nothing. They’ll plant and harvest and manufacture. But at the end of all the work, there’ll be nothing left to show for it. They’re seeking satisfaction from things God never designed to SATISFY.

It’s what lots of people experience TODAY, who spend their lives pursuing riches, or promotions, or beauty, or fame, or pleasure, or excitement. And when they GET it, it doesn’t SATISFY them. It couldn’t deliver what it PROMISED. And they’re LOST. They need a better TREASURE. A better object of worship. A better goal in life. The answer, of course, they need Jesus!

And that takes us to the end of ch 6. And the end of God’s complaint.

Three Right Answers

But let’s jump back to consider Micah’s answer in v8. We’ve seen TWO WRONG ANSWERS. (Proud legalism and wilful disobedience). Let’s look at THREE RIGHT ANSWERS. (What WILL please God?)  He has SHOWED you, O man, what is good

It’s not a MYSTERY. We don’t have to GUESS. He’s SHOWED you through the history of his dealings with his people. Through his law, and through his prophets. For US, in New Testament times, that’s even TRUER. Because in Jesus we see GOD HIMSELF. As Hebrews 1:2 says, in these last days he’s spoken to us BY HIS SON. The radiance of his glory, the exact representation of his being. Jesus is God’s clear communication of both WHAT HE’s LIKE, and WHAT HE EXPECTS OF US. He LIVES IT, and he COMMAND it. And Jesus’ answer is the same as Micah’s answer. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy      and to walk humbly with your God.

What GOOD RESPONSE does God require to his righteous covenant actions? It’s not IMPOSSIBLE, like pouring out ten thousand rivers of oil. It’s not IMMORAL like sacrificing your first-born child. But it’s also a lot more COMPREHENSIVE AND WIDE-RANGING than simply offering a sacrifice. (Than doing your religious duty. Than attending Sunday morning worship services, or chanting five ‘Our Father’s and three ‘Hail Mary’s).

First, ACT JUSTLY. Or to DO JUSTICE. The OPPOSITE of the Jews with their dishonest scales and ill-gotten treasures. Treat people FAIRLY. Don’t play favourites, based on wealth or influence. Treat the cleaner the same way you treat the company CEO.

Second right answer: LOVE MERCY. Don’t just DO mercy, LOVE mercy. It’s more than just ACTION. It’s ATTITUDE. Mercy translates the Hebrew word HESED. Or LOVING-KINDNESS. Covenant FAITHFULNESS. It’s what God shows us. So LOVE it. Internalise it. Make it part of YOUR way of doing things. Be Reliable. Truthful. Trustworthy.

And sprinkle it with MERCY. With gentleness and grace and compassion and patience. Be drawn to the lowest and the weakest, rather than the attractive and useful. HESED – MERCY – is about love AND truth. Heat AND light.

And THIRD right answer: walk humbly with your God. In Hebrew, it’s literally, “And in humility, walk towards your God”. Two answers to do with how you treat OTHERS, and ONE to do with how you treat God. Your life’s ATTITUDE is to be humility. And your life’s DIRECTION is to be GODWARD.

Humility recognises that your obedience has no merit about it. But everything comes by God’s grace. And so you’re thankful and joyful, as you walk towards him. Seeking to please him. Not self-righteous PRIDE like the cynical questioner in v6-7. Or the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And not walking rebelliously AWAY from God, like Jerusalem society in v9-12. Or the YOUNGER son in Jesus’ parable. But walking humbly towards your God.

For example

But what does that LOOK LIKE? Especially when times are TOUGH? As we move into chapter 7. we see what it looks like to walk humbly before God / IN THE LIFE OF MICAH.

Verses 1 to 6, he despairs at the sin around him. Like a fruit picker, looking for a harvest but the trees are EMPTY. There’s not a righteous person to be found in the whole land. V3, the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful decide the rules.

But rather than descend to their level, look at Micah’s response in v7.  But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,      I wait for God my Savior;      my God will hear me.

Walking humbly after your God begins with HOPE. Waiting expectantly for God to answer and act. And the REST of chapter 7 is the FRUIT of that hope. Circumstances might be hopeless. And your enemies might be sniggering. But God knows what he’s doing and I TRUST him. V8, Micah speaks to the enemies of Jerusalem.

8 Do not gloat over me, my enemy!      Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness,      the Lord will be my light. 9 Because I have sinned against him,      I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case      and establishes my right. He WILL bring me out into the light;      I will see his righteousness.

Micah’s humility means he recognises his SIN. But it drives him TO God, not AWAY from him. Even if God’s bringing punishment. He still trusts God’s GOODNESS. “He’ll deal RIGHTLY with me. His MERCY will triumph over his JUSTICE.”

And, if you jump down to v18, you can see WHY Micah’s so hopeful. And why his humble walking after God won’t be disappointed. It’s not because Micah’s LOVELY or LOVEABLE. It’s all because of God’s LOVE. He knows God’s CHARACTER.

Who wouldn’t want to please a God like this? Who wouldn’t want to walk humbly after a God like this?

Who is a God like you,      who pardons sin and forgives the transgression      of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever      but delight to show mercy. 19 You will again have compassion on us;      you will tread our sins underfoot      and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. 20 You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.

Which would be a great place to stop. But I can’t help myself. I’ll finish with Jesus’ words from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, backing up Micah’s words about the compassionate and forgiving heart of God for repentant, humbled sinners.

Luke 15:20-24 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

What does the Lord require of you? To act JUSTLY and to love MERCY and to walk HUMBLY with your God.

Micah 3-5: No pain, no gain

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing WORTHWHILE is gained without SACRIFICE.” The Australian version certainly isn’t as fancy, but at least it’s shorter! “No pain, no gain”. In other words, good, beneficial things often only come as a result of struggles or difficulties.

It’s a principle that has all sorts of applications in life. Removing splinters, or stitching a wound. Or training for a sporting event. Getting fit. Studying for an exam. Establishing a successful business. Learning to skateboard. Physiotherapy after an operation. Each of them has pain, or a struggle or a difficulty you have to bear/ before you can enjoy the pleasure, or the achievement. In fact, the pain is NECESSARY to achieving the GAIN.

Or here’s one we find in today’s passage from Micah. A woman suffering the pains of labour and childbirth before the joy of a new baby. There’s no way around it. The joy of a new baby comes BECAUSE of the pain of labour. The pain has a purpose. As more than one midwife said to Caron over the course of four deliveries, “Yes, it hurts! But it’s POSITIVE pain. Because you’ll get a baby at the end! Focus on that!” (Though I’m not sure how helpful Caron found it at the time!)

And Micah uses the same picture of LABOUR PAINS to illustrate what Jerusalem will go through with the pain of her invasion, destruction and exile. Did you notice it? There in Ch 4 v9.

9Why do you now cry aloud–      have you no king? Has your counselor perished,      that pain seizes you LIKE THAT OF A WOMAN IN LABOR? 10Writhe in agony, O Daughter of Zion,      LIKE A WOMAN IN LABOR, for now you must leave the city      to camp in the open field. You will go to Babylon;
Remember the situation Micah’s talking about? God’s patience has finally run out at the sin of his people. First – Israel in the north. Assyria will make the capital city, Samaria, a pile of rubble. And second, Judah, and her capital Jerusalem, is FACING THE SAME FATE. We saw in chapter 2 how God hated their greed and injustice – the rich abusing the poor.

There’s more of the same in chapter 3, where Micah zooms in on the HAVES. On those with the responsibility to look after the people. Like ch 3 v9

9 Hear this, you leaders of the house of Jacob      you rulers of the house of Israel,  who despise justice      and distort all that is right 10 who build Zion with bloodshed,       and Jerusalem with wickedness. 11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,      her priests teach for a price,      and her prophets tell fortunes for money. 12 Yet they lean upon the Lord and say,      “Is not the Lord among us?      No disaster will come upon us.”

And so Micah gives the warning at the end of ch 3. V12.

Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.

That’s the context of Ch 4 v9, where Micah describes the pain of Jerusalem’s destruction LIKE A WOMAN IN LABOUR.

So how can the destruction of a city/ be like LABOUR PAINS? Where’s the GAIN at the end of the PAIN? Look again at what Micah says. Firstly, v9.

9Why do you now cry aloud–      HAVE YOU NO KING? HAS YOUR COUNSELOR PERISHED,      that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labor?

Micah’s reminding their situation isn’t hopeless. GOD is their king. GOD is their counsellor and guide. He’s got a plan he’s working out. And his plan is/ there’ll be GAIN at the end of the PAIN. Look at v10. (There’ll be the pain of exile to Babylon). But look at how the verse FINISHES.

(You will go to Babylon)      there you will be RESCUED. There the Lord will REDEEM you       out of the hand of your enemies.

That’s the GAIN at the end of the PAIN.

A couple of interesting things to note. Firstly, did you notice who the enemy is? It’s Babylon. Who are not even on the scene in 730BC, when Micah’s prophesying. It’s ASSYRIA who are storming the borders. Samaria hasn’t been defeated yet. That’s 722BC. Babylon won’t rise for another hundred years.

So, SECONDLY, what that means is that Micah’s warning actually proved effective! Micah WARNED Judah judgement was coming. But it didn’t fall for over 100 years. Because Jeremiah 26:18 tells us that King Hezekiah LISTENED to Micah’s warning, and sought to follow God, and God RELENTED and didn’t bring the evil he’d warned them about.

But even though God’s SLOW to anger, he knows that his patience will, again, run out. It lasts through the end of the Assyrian empire. Until Babylon rises to power. And then, 140 years later, defeats Jerusalem, and the Jews ARE exiled to Babylon. Just like Micah predicts.

So that’s the BAD NEWS. (The PAIN of judgment, defeat and exile.) But what’s the GOOD NEWS? The GAIN of what God will do AFTER THE PAIN? Micah sprinkles it generously through chapters 4 and 5.

Let’s begin FIRST with Ch 4 v11. (in v10 God’s promised that he’ll rescue his people from Babylon after their exile – off in the future).

But that’s LATER. V11 jumps back to THE PRESENT.

“But NOW, many nations are gathered against you.”

Assyria, among others, is eyeing off Judah. (That’s the PAIN). But, v12, they don’t know God’s plans. He’ll judge THEM, TOO. In fact, v13, Israel will somehow be God’s instrument in bringing that justice against the nations. (That’s the “GAIN”).

(Into chapter 5). (Off into the FUTURE again) V1, Armies would lay siege to Jerusalem, and even strike Israel’s king – probably Babylon who blinded King David’s descendant, Zedekiah, before he was led off to exile. (Pain)

But v2, here’s the GAIN. (A promise for the future). God will raise up a ruler from Bethlehem, King David’s town. Just like he promised David. A descendant for the throne. And, v4, he’ll shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, and they’ll dwell securely, and live in peace. (Gain).

But before that “GAIN”, v3, there’s PAIN. Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth. In other words, until the time of the exile is over.

It’s likely Micah and the people expected some IMMEDIATE fulfilment – an earthly Davidic descendant to rule an earthly kingdom soon after the exile. But no one can identify a likely historical figure.

The BEST match, of course, is JESUS. 500 years into the future. When the wise men turn up in Jerusalem looking for the new king who’s been born, V2 is quoted by the Bible experts to King Herod. They say the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

And his origins really ARE from of old (v2). And he really DOES shepherd his flock in God’s strength (v4), and his flock really DO dwell securely. And his reputation really HAS reached to the ends of the earth.

It’s the ultimate GOOD that God works out after the PAIN of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile.

(The REST of chapter 5 seems to jump back to the immediate future for Micah. How Judah will deal with Assyria. And there are GOOD things God works through THAT, TOO.)

In the last days

But what I want to do is jump back to the start of chapter four. And even GREATER good things that come after the pain of exile. As we do, we actually seem to jump FORWARD in time. Notice how chapter four begins, “in the last days”. This will be the final reality. God’s LAST WORD. There’s nothing else that comes AFTER it.

Chapter 3 finishes with the image of Zion plowed like a field. V12. Jerusalem a heap of rubble. And the temple hill, a heap of dirt overgrown with thickets. (The PAIN of defeat.) But look at the contrast with ch 4 v1.

1 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established      as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills,      and peoples will stream to it.

First of all, some time in the future, God will RESTORE the temple mount. God will raise it – not PHYSICALLY – but IN SIGNIFICANCE. The most important high place and temple around.

Because, secondly, it will be a magnet for the nations. And v2, they’ll come to find out about the one, true God.

2 Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,      to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways,      so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion,      the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Notice that they’re not just LEARNING about God’s ways. They’re OBEYING them – walking in his paths.

And, look at v3, there’ll be justice and peace. God will judge them fairly. Which is an improvement on Judah’s leaders BEFORE the exile! GOD as their leader, judge and teacher.

3 He will judge between many peoples      and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares      and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,      nor will they train for war anymore. 4 Every man will sit under his own vine      and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,      for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

There’ll be UNITY, without UNIFORMITY. National distinctives remain, but there’ll be world-wide PEACE between nations. And you won’t need a sword, or spear, anymore. You can turn them all into farming equipment.

And how’s this for a picture of rest and contentment, v4?! Every man sits under his own vine and fig tree.

And just in case you think it’s uncertain, or unrealistic. Look at the last line of v4. “For the LORD Almighty has spoken!” God always keeps his word! You can TRUST IT!

(Jump over v5 – we’ll come back to it in a moment) Then verses 6-8 give a few more details. God will gather, not just THE NATIONS, but the LAME, the EXILES, a REMNANT – a faithful portion of Israel. (Those he’s protected through the exile). And God will rule over them in Mount Zion FOREVER.

It’s a wonderful picture. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve got QUESTIONS: When will this be? Is it for some time in history? (Because it never happened like that for Israel! And they’re still waiting!) Or is it about ETERNITY – OUTSIDE of history?

And is the description LITERAL, or SYMBOLIC? In what sense does Jesus fulfil this picture? Does he REPLACE the physical temple as the focus for people to gather around?

Or should we be looking for the re-establishment of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem? (That’s certainly the way MANY Christians interpret it, especially in America.)

And what’s the PURPOSE of this promise? Why announce it, if it’s far off in the future? What difference did it make for Micah’s hearers? And what difference should it make for us today?

And if that’s the certain glorious future, why do we have to GO THROUGH ALL THE DIFFICULTIES TO GET THERE? Why does God WAIT until the last days? Why not just jump straight to the GLORY? Why the labour pains before the birth?

For what it’s worth, here’s my view. It’s describing ETERNITY. When God brings THIS world to an end, and brings a NEW heaven and a NEW earth into existence. And the New Testament talks about it in more details. When we, TOO, are given eternal, glorious resurrection bodies. And sin is defeated. And there’s no more suffering. No more PAIN, only GAIN.

Is it literal or symbolic? Yes! I think eternity will be just like BITS of this. EARTHLY, and paradise, and united and peaceful.

But since Micah prophesied these words, JESUS HAS COME, and FULFILLED them. HE is the temple, where God and man meet. The One the nations stream to. And God’s merciful sacrifice who satisfies his justice for our sin. And he’s the PRIEST, who represents us to God, and God to us. And he’s the TEACHER. The One who IS the Word of God, guiding and teaching the nations. And he’s the one God’s appointed to be the Judge of all by raising him from the dead.

He’s the descendant of King David, the shepherd who gathers his sheep. The One who every knee will bow before. And who every tongue, in every language, will confess is LORD.

And what’s the POINT? What practical difference should it make for how we live today? Have a look at v5 that we jumped over before. I think it’s best to take it as A RESPONSE from the people who hear the description of God’s glorious future.

V4 finishes the prophecy about the last days with “For the LORD Almighty has spoken”. And the people respond

All the nations may walk      in the name of THEIR gods; WE will walk in the name of the Lord      our God for ever and ever.

In other words, from NOW, as we hear the promise, until the day God brings it to pass, we’ll walk in the name of the LORD. We’ll show we trust God’s promises for the future, even in the midst of the labour pains, by living God’s way. Obeying him even when it seems like foolishness. Hoping expectantly that GAIN will come after the PAIN.

In that sense, this picture of eternity works like that midwife, who encourages the mother going through labour pains. “Focus on the GOAL. Forget the pain. Soon you’ll have a beautiful baby to hold.”

But it also does SOMETHING ELSE. It doesn’t just give us hope for a DIFFERENT life. It SHAPES THE LIFE WE LIVE NOW. It guides and fuels and inspires us to make the characteristics of God’s ETERNAL kingdom/ a PRESENT REALITY. Justice and compassion and peace and mercy. With God at the centre of it all.

That’s the FUTURE, but it’s also our AGENDA for THE PRESENT. It’s anticipatory. Aspirational. Visionary. It’s a target to be aiming for.

And as the church DOES that, the world begins to catch a glimpse of, and a HUNGER for, GOD and his kingdom.

But here’s one final question to think about: If the future’s so good, why doesn’t God just jump straight to it? Why not avoid the LABOUR and go straight to the DELIVERY? Why not skip the PAIN, and get straight to the GAIN?

For ISRAEL, Micah’s taught us the EXILE was necessary to REFINE and SHAPE his people. To gather a faithful remnant, who FOLLOW him. To humble a people who’d TURN TO HIM. That was the GAIN at the end of the PAIN.

And he’s doing the same thing in the world TODAY. The same thing IN YOUR life. And MY life. The difficulties. The injustices. The suffering. The discipline. It HUMBLES us. And makes us groan and long for eternity. And makes us depend on God. And grows us like Jesus. And teaches us patience.

NO PAIN, NO GAIN is a general principle in life. But it’s also a SPIRITUAL one. And it’s one God uses to prepare you for his glorious eternity. Listen to these wonderful promises:

Romans 5:3: We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, HOPE. NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the GLORY that will be revealed in us. NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to BE CONFORMED TO THE LIKENESS OF HIS SON. NO PAIN, NO GAIN

And here’s ONE MORE. Hebrews 12:7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, IT PRODUCES A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE for those who have been trained by it. (Say it with me, NO PAIN, NO GAIN)

How do I respond to the labour pains of God’s discipline? In humility and trust, I work out justice, mercy and godliness, inspired by the vision of God’s glorious future kingdom

As Micah 4:5 says All the nations may walk       in the name of THEIR gods;  WE will walk in the name of the Lord       our God for ever and ever. Amen.

Micah 1-2: Incurable sin

A sobering milestone was passed, without much notice, on January 14 this year. Two million deaths worldwide from COVID-19. And around 15000 people continue to die every day from COVID.

In other news, there’s widespread FAMINE across much of Africa due to conflict, climate change, natural disasters and COVID. A UNICEF report this week said that MORE THAN 10 MILLION CHILDREN across central Africa will suffer severe malnutrition this year.

It’s statistics like these that cause lots of people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to ask questions like, “Does God SEE? Does God CARE? Is God doing anything ABOUT it?”

It’s tempting when we see the sin and the injustice and the suffering all around us. And even, as we EXPERIENCE IT OURSELVES. To ask the question, What’s God DOING? We know with our HEADS that God’s in charge of everything. We TRUST that to be true. But, most of the time, it doesn’t LOOK LIKE IT. It LOOKS like God DOESN’T see, and he DOESN’T care. And he’s NOT doing anything about it! We’re ANXIOUS, and UNCERTAIN, and WEARY.

What we need to do is listen to the prophet Micah. His message in these first couple of chapters is that God SEES all the sin and suffering. But that’s not all – he CARES about it. But that’s not all – he’s DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Micah lived at a chaotic time in world history. It was around 730BC. Assyria was the world super power, and it was THREATENING. It had already conquered the Arameans, and the Philistines. And Israel was next in line. And both the SOUTHERN kingdom of Judah and the NORTHERN kingdom of ISRAEL were paying heavy tribute.

Micah lived and prophesied in the SOUTHERN kingdom of Judah. And his message is about what God was going to do to the NORTHERN kingdom. To ISRAEL. How he was going to punish, using Assyria. But not only that. JUDAH was in God’s sights TOO.

Listen up, everyone, he says in v2. God’s got a MESSAGE against you. But don’t just LISTEN. V3, LOOK! Pay attention! God’s COMING. From his dwelling place in heaven. He’s coming TO GET INVOLVED. To get his hands dirty. You thought he didn’t SEE. Or didn’t CARE. But he DOES. He’s been PATIENT with you, and SLOW to anger. But not any more. He’s going to DO something.

And, v4, when he does, the mountains will MELT, and the valleys will SPLIT APART. He’ll come like a nuclear bomb exploding!

And what’s CAUSED this? V5, Jacob’s transgression. In other words, the sin of the nation of Israel. And the big ugly boil at the centre of it is THE CAPITAL CITY, SAMARIA. In v7 Micah identifies their IDOLATRY as what’s so offensive to God. Worshipping and honouring other gods. Even down to temple prostitutes.

And so, v6, God’s going to make Samaria A HEAP OF RUBBLE. And, v7, all its riches burned and destroyed.

That’s Micah’s message.

But there’s no DELIGHT in it. No joy that Judah’s neighbour and brother is suffering. V8, Micah’s response is TO WEEP AND WAIL. To go barefoot and naked. Howling like a jackal and moaning like an owl. It might all be metaphor, but he might also have done it LITERALLY! Walked around town in HYSTERICS!

Why? Because of the inescapable certainty of the coming judgment. V9. “For her wound is incurable”. The prognosis is it’s TERMINAL.

Do you MOURN LIKE MICAH at the sin in society around you? Does its blindness, ignorance, and hopelessness draw out compassion and care from you? Do you DESPAIR at injustice, and greed, and racism, and oppression? Or do you JUDGE? Or gloat? Do you dismiss them with self-righteous harshness? Or maybe just IGNORE – which is even WORSE?

Unfortunately, that’s often the reputation the Christian church has. And often with some justification. To our shame. May our love for our neighbour produce A GODLY SORROW for their situation, like that of Micah!

(Back to Micah, despairing at the fate of Israel). But it’s even WORSE. It’s not just ISRAEL. The sickness is CONTAGIOUS. V9, it’s COME TO JUDAH. “It has reached the very gate of my people, even to JERUSALEM ITSELF,” says Micah.

And then, from v10-16, Micah wants the rest of Judah to JOIN IN WITH HIS DESPAIR. He names a number of towns in Judah, and describes the suffering that’s coming for them.

We miss all the cleverness in English. But in Hebrew, he’s using puns on what the names MEAN, or SOUND LIKE, to describe what will happen there. So, v10, In Beth Ophrah – HOUSE OF DUST – as a sign of mourning, you’ll ROLL in dust. Or, v11, Beth Ezel – house of TAKING AWAY – you’re PROTECTION will be taken away. (there are more in V12-15)

Why will all this happen? V12, because disaster has come from the LORD, Not just over THERE, in ISRAEL. It’s HERE. EVEN TO THE GATE OF JERUSALEM. V15, A CONQUEROR. And v16, mourn because you’ll GO INTO EXILE.

So what’s JUDAH done wrong? Why’s God decided to come down from heaven and bring judgment? (Into chapter 2) Because there’s something rotten at the core of Jewish society. V1.

1 Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. 2 They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.

The HAVES are plotting to take advantage of the HAVE NOTS. They lie awake at night making plans. Not about how they can make the world a better place. How they can relieve suffering. Or bring to pass God’s plans of justice and peace and plenty. No! They plot about how they can take from those who have LESS than them, so they can have EVEN MORE.

Why do they do it? Not because they NEED fields and houses. Simply because they CAN. They have the POWER to.

Sound familiar? It’s nothing specific to Israel, is it? It’s been the same in most societies since the dawn of time. Whoever has the power USES it for personal gain.

  • Kings and dictators amass power and wealth for their own use.
  • Countries that invade others do it because THEY CAN.
  • Every military coup, or uprising by the people, brings down ONE autocratic abuser, and replaces them with a new system they promise will be DIFFERENT. But before long ANOTHER tyrant takes their place. And begins their OWN plan of taking from the HAVE NOTS.

Doesn’t matter what the system is, LEFT or RIGHT, kingdom or republic, capitalism or communism. The problem’s not the SYSTEM, the problem is the sin of the human heart.

(Interestingly, if you go through world history and look for the exceptions, it’s CHRISTIAN countries that are unique. Those influenced by JESUS, the SERVANT king, who came to serve. Good leaders are those who SERVE, rather than EXPOIT, those UNDER them. Whether kings or politicians. It’s Christian countries who use their armies to DEFEND the weak, rather than EXPLOIT them.)

But that wasn’t JUDAH in the time of Micah. The powerful plot evil against the weak. So, v3, therefore God will plot evil against THEM. God SEES. God CARES. And God will DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

And they’ll be powerless to save themselves. They had the power to take from the poor. But they’ll be powerless in the face of God’s disaster. They’ll be humbled. And, v5, the land and possessions they trusted in, and coveted, will be stripped away.

It’s one of the lessons we’ve been forced to learn through the pandemic. Especially those of us in the First World. The middle class. Who are used to having plenty of freedom. Who think we have POWER. Money can normally buy you choice, and options. But we’ve had to learn that it doesn’t matter HOW much money you’ve got, it won’t guarantee your health, or let you travel where you want, or give you freedoms.

That’s the bad news Micah delivers to the privileged and powerful of Judah. (Your power is useless, and God’s calling you to account).

And how is the message received? Like MOST bad news – NOT WELL!

In v6, Micah describes what OTHER prophets are saying about him. (The ones the people PREFER to listen to. Because they bring a comfortable message.) V6

6 “Do not prophesy,” their prophets say. “Do not prophesy about these things; DISGRACE WILL NOT OVERTAKE US.”

In other words, “Don’t listen to HIM. He’s got it all wrong! God won’t bring judgment. He’s not angry.

And the people are choosing which message they prefer. They’re COMPLACENT, and COMFORTABLE. They like those bits where God promises to do GOOD! But they’re ignoring the COVENANT REQUIREMENTS. The WARNINGS for disobedience. But you can’t pick and choose like that.

So, v7, Micah responds with some TRUTH about God’s requirements.

7 Should it be said, O house of Jacob: “Is the Spirit of the Lord angry? Does he do such things?”

The false prophets are dismissive and cynical about Micah’s warnings. They claim ONE thing about God’s promises – that he’s not angry. That he’ll do good WHATEVER God’s people DO. But the reality’s something DIFFERENT. (v7b)

“Do not my words do good TO HIM WHOSE WAYS ARE UPRIGHT?

Yes, he’ll do GOOD, but only as his people show they trust him by DOING WHAT HE SAYS.

Which is NOT what they’re doing. V8. More evidence of how rotten the society is.

8 Lately my people have risen up like an enemy. YOU STRIP OFF THE RICH ROBE from those who pass by without a care, like men returning from battle. 9 You drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes. You take away my blessing from their children forever.

More examples of the “HAVES” taking from the HAVE NOTS”. Not just FIELDS and HOUSES. But the clothes off their backs. Even though, in Exodus 22, God had commanded to CARE for the poor. That robes taken as security on loans were to be returned at sunset. And vulnerable widows were to be protected, not exploited.

You see, God CARES about how we treat the vulnerable. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Old or New Testaments. God lifts up the broken and humble. And he brings down the proud and powerful. And we’re to have that same compassion and action. That’s what his kingdom LOOKS LIKE.

And so, v10, God delivers his verdict

10 Get up, go away! For this is not your resting place, because it is DEFILED, it is RUINED, BEYOND ALL REMEDY.

God’s plan was that the Promised Land would be a place of REST, and JUSTICE, and PEACE. Where the characteristics of God himself, and his kingdom, would be demonstrated. But, instead, his people had RUINED it. Ignoring God, and ignoring his commands. There was no justice, or rest, or peace. There was no cure. And they’ll be removed from it.

And that’s the way it turned out in history. When, 140 yrs later, 587 BC, Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, and the temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon. God sees. God cares. And God’s doing something about it.

That’s the BAD news. But it’s not ALL the news. The chapter finishes with a glimmer of GOOD NEWS. A glimpse of a DIFFERENT future. Like a beam of brilliant sunshine piercing through dark thunderclouds. A DIFFERENT response from God. One that flows more naturally from his heart. What he loves to do. Yes, God’s ANGRY. And he’s PUNISHING. But his character is that he’s SLOW to become angry. He’s compassionate and gracious. And his anger quickly runs out of steam. But he ABOUNDS in love and faithfulness. Maintaining love to THOUSANDS of generations, forgiving sin.

And Micah brings that GOOD news. At least for SOME. God can’t WAIT to show forgiveness and compassion. V12, he promises

12 “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together THE REMNANT OF ISRAEL. I will bring them together LIKE SHEEP IN A PEN, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. 13 One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.”

There are two big ideas here, themes that run through the Bible like veins of gold through rock. The faithful remnant. And God as a Shepherd King.

All the way through the Bible, God calls to himself A FAITHFUL SUBSET to be his people. One son, but not another. One family out of sinful humanity. A faithful minority among a faithless nation. And at the end of their exile, that’s what God promises to do for his people. Many will be destroyed. But SOME will be protected.

And God, their shepherd king, will seek out his sheep, and rescue them. He’ll break down the gate that locks them in. And he’ll lead them out, back to his land. United, protected, at peace, under his care. Like sheep in green pasture.

And that’s the way it turned out in history. At least a SHADOW of that. When the people RETURNED from exile in Babylon. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. And rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple. And, for a while, lived in SOME sort of peace.

But they never FULLY lived with God as their shepherd king. And the kingdom of Israel was only a SHADOW of what God’s kingdom was MEANT to be. First, Persia ruled over them. Then Greece conquered. Then Rome. And the old problems of greed and self-centredness and injustice remained.

Until JESUS came. And TAKES ON HIMSELF God’s own job description as Israel’s shepherd king. (Flip over to the New Testament. To John chapter 10). In John 10:11, he says,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”

And, just like Micah, Jesus rebukes the leaders of the day. The privileged and powerful. Who were meant to be shepherds who CARED for the sheep. A few verses earlier he says, John 10 v1

1 “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is A THIEF AND A ROBBER. 2 The man who ENTERS BY THE GATE is THE SHEPHERD OF HIS SHEEP. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and THE SHEEP LISTEN TO HIS VOICE. He calls his own sheep by name and LEADS THEM OUT. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on AHEAD OF THEM, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Jesus is echoing what GOD promised to do in Micah 2. To be the shepherd king for his sheep. To go in through the gate. And lead out his people, who know his voice and follow him.

Jesus is calling ISRAEL to listen to his voice and FOLLOW him. Calling them back to God’s commands to live out justice and mercy and compassion and generosity. To live out God’s KINGDOM on earth.

A few verses further on, down in v9 he says

9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

He’s calling whoever will listen to be SAVED. To be part of that faithful remnant. And it’s a call to WHOEVER. Not just to Israel THEN, but down through history to ANY who’ll listen to his voice. He says down in v16 that he’s got other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. And that’s US!

And Jesus’ promise for us is that when we FOLLOW HIS VOICE, we’re SAVED from God’s judgment. And we FIND PASTURE. We have LIFE. Life that’s ABUNDANT.

But that’s not all. Micah would remind us that it’s not just an INDIVIDUAL abundance Jesus promises. As we listen to Jesus’ voice, we’ll follow our Shepherd King who protects and lays down his life for his sheep. We’ll look after the WEAK. We’ll protect the VULNERABLE. We’ll share our abundance with the POOR. We’ll speak up for those who don’t have a voice.

This Australia Day we’ve got the opportunity, for example, to think about how we’ve treated INDIGENOUS Australians. Common Grace is a Christian organisation encouraging us to pursue JUSTICE. And they’ve organised a prayer service, called Change the Heart, led by our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. It’s on Monday evening at 7.30pm. And you can watch it on TV, or online. Or listen on radio.

As we follow our Good Shepherd King, we’ll pray that God’s kingdom would come ON EARTH as it is in heaven. We’ll point those who don’t know his voice to King JESUS, the only one who lays down his life and saves them. The only one who brings life to the full.

 

Exodus 35-40: The God who comes near

Most movies you watch START SLOW, and BUILD TO AN EXCITING CLIMAX. With a successful rescue, or victory, or satisfying resolution, or arrival at the end of the journey.

Today we come to the end of the book of Exodus. And, at FIRST glance it seems to be a bit of an anti-climax. It’s a story that’s had ALL OF THE EXCITEMENT of a great movie. It started with God’s people in slavery. Unjust treatment, and difficult conditions. And a bad guy. There’s a HERO, and conflict. And God rescued them. Miraculously! They left Egypt, and they crossed the Red Sea. And all Pharaoh’s army was destroyed. And Israel arrived at Mt Sinai, and they worship God. And that’s all by Ch 19.

But, at first glance, that’s where the excitement STOPS. Israel doesn’t MOVE from the foot of Mt Sinai in Ch 19 to the end of Ch 40. There are 21 more chapters. And by comparison, at first glance they seem A BIT DISAPPOINTING. They’re short on action, but long on detail. A bit thin in terms of plot. But full of information and lists.

First there are lots of LAWS at Mt Sinai. “Do this. Don’t do that”. That’s chapters 19 to 24. Then lots of instructions about how to build the tabernacle. The special tent for meeting with God. That’s chapters 25 to 31. Then a few chapters about how close Moses was to God. And then finally, some MORE chapters about how the tabernacle was actually BUILT. With large sections repeated word for word from God’s instructions. Those are the chapters we’re looking at today. 19 chapters of action. Then 21 chapters of information. Surely the writer’s got it the wrong way round. Because that’s not how to write a best-seller!

UNLESS… Unless these last 21 chapters are, really, the IMPORTANT ones. The climax of the whole story. The high point of the journey. And that’s EXACTLY what’s going on. Because the whole point – the whole purpose – of the SLAVERY and the RESCUE/ was so that God could DWELL WITH HIS PEOPLE, and they could WORSHIP him. Listen to what God says in Exodus 29: 45-46. He’s talking about the Tabernacle. And what will happen when they build it.

THEN I WILL DWELL AMONG THE ISRAELITES AND BE THEIR GOD. {46} They will know that I am the LORD their God, WHO BROUGHT THEM OUT OF EGYPT SO THAT I MIGHT DWELL AMONG THEM. I am the LORD their God.

God RESCUED his people from slavery so that he could DWELL with them, and so that they could WORSHIP him. SLAVERY, RESCUE, and WORSHIP.

And that’s really the pattern for each one of us. Slavery, rescue and worship. The journey for each of US started with slavery. Slavery to sin and death. Helpless. Hopeless. But then God RESCUED us. Someone told us the good news of the gospel/ that in Jesus, we could have our sin forgiven. And we put our trust in Jesus. And God forgave our sin. He filled us with his Holy Spirit. And he made us into new people. Sin and death were defeated. Drowned in the Red Sea.

For some of us it was a SPECTACULAR rescue. There were DRAMATIC CHANGES in our lives. For others it didn’t seem too spectacular. God gradually brought us along the road to faith. Perhaps our parents told us about Jesus from the time we were babies. But each rescue was a miracle that only God could do. Slavery and rescue.

And now our journey involves WORSHIP. Meeting with God, and living for him. A life of submission to what HE wants. A life of walking closely with him. In fact, that’s what life is all about. The Shorter Catechism puts it this way. Question 1. “What is the chief end of man?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Worship is what we were MADE for. It’s what will satisfy us best. It’s our GOAL. Just like it was for Israel in Exodus.

So as we look at these final climactic chapters of Exodus, let’s remember that Israel’s goal is OUR goal too. And as they worship and wonder at God dwelling among them, let’s do that too.

Getting Ready for Royalty (35:1-40:33)

Chapter 35. Building the Tabernacle. God’s given Moses the plans, so Moses begins. He tells the people to bring all the materials to build the Tabernacle. And they obey! They can’t wait to bring everything that’s needed. The theme that keeps appearing here/ is that the people were WILLING. Look at ch 35 v 20.

Then the whole Israelite community withdrew from Moses’ presence, {21} and EVERYONE WHO WAS WILLING AND WHOSE HEART MOVED HIM came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the Tent of Meeting, for all its service, and for the sacred garments. {22} ALL WHO WERE WILLING, men and women alike,

They brought GOLD and CLOTH and HIDES and PRECIOUS STONES and SPICES and OIL. And in fact, they’re SO WILLING, the craftsmen have to tell Moses to stop the people bringing anything more! Over in Ch 36, v4 So all the skilled craftsmen who were doing all the work on the sanctuary LEFT their work 5 and said to Moses, “The people are bringing MORE THAN ENOUGH for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done.” 6 Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were RESTRAINED from bringing more, 7 because what THEY ALREADY HAD WAS MORE THAN ENOUGH TO DO ALL THE WORK.

The point is/ God’s coming to visit, and the people are keen to make sure they’re ready.

But they’re not doing it alone. Notice that God gives his Spirit to HELP them. He gives them the skill and ability to do the job. Look at Ch 35 v 30.

Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the LORD has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, {31} and he has FILLED HIM WITH THE SPIRIT OF GOD, WITH SKILL, ABILITY AND KNOWLEDGE in all kinds of crafts– {32} to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, {33} to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. {34} And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, THE ABILITY TO TEACH OTHERS. {35} HE HAS FILLED THEM WITH SKILL to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers–all of them master craftsmen and designers.

So Bezalel, Oholiab and EVERY SKILLED PERSON TO WHOM THE LORD HAS GIVEN SKILL AND ABILITY to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded.”

And that’s JUST WHAT THEY DO! This is no ordinary tent. There’s precision and beauty and craftsmanship.

It’s interesting watching people put up tents in a caravan park. They either do it QUICKLY so they can get to the BEACH. The ropes are a bit loose. And the canvas droops a bit. And it’s missing a few pegs. But MOST campsites have ONE person for whom tent setting up is a matter of PRIDE. Every rope is tight. Every pole it straight. Even the tent pegs are all lined up in straight rows.

And that’s what it’s like HERE. There’s skill and attention to detail. It’s fit for a king. And that’s the point. They’re getting ready for royalty.

Then finally, in Ch 39 v 32, everything’s finished. And the people bring the tabernacle to Moses. And in v43, Moses inspects the work. And he gives it is tick of approval. The first “quality assured” product.

And ch 40 describes how Moses sets up the Tabernacle. Verses 1-15 are God’s instructions for how Moses is to set it up. And then from v16 we get the DETAIL. How it actually gets set up.

And it’s a familiar pattern. First the INSTRUCTIONS, then the OBEDIENCE. Before it was about BUILDING the tabernacle. Chapters 25-31 were God’s instructions and 35-39 were the people OBEYING them. Same thing here. Except the two steps are crammed into one chapter. And except, Moses sets up the tabernacle. By himself!

Now when a CIRCUS comes to town, it takes dozens of men a long time to put up the main tent. But from v19 on, it reads like MOSES HIMSELF does everything. I think, probably, we’re meant to understand that he was RESPONSIBLE for it being constructed. (Especially in v21, that says Moses carried the ark into the tabernacle. It had two long poles attached and was meant to be carried by FOUR MEN.) I think the point is he’s the one God’s given the INSTRUCTIONS to. He needs to make sure it’s done RIGHT. Because GOD is coming to DWELL. And he DOES! Piece by piece the whole thing comes together. And as each piece is finished, Moses ANOINTS it, and set it apart for its special task.

The king is in the house. (40:34-38)

And then finally, v33, everything’s ready. Moses finishes the work. The tables and the altar are just so. The curtains and the coverings are all sitting straight. Aaron and his sons have been washed – ready to serve in the tabernacle. Everything’s ready for the arrival of the king.

And he stands back to see what will happen. It’s time for God to visit. V34. The king is in the house. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. {35} Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. {36} In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; {37} but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out–until the day it lifted. {38} So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels.

God was true to his word. He HADN’T left his people. And he was WITH THEM, from then on, as they travelled. He arrives IN HIS GLORY. GLORY is A VISIBLE REVELATION of God himself. GLORY’s connected to the cloud that led the people through the desert. Back in ch 16 v 10. While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud.

And a bit later in Ch 24 v 15, the glory comes down on Mt Sinai. When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, {16} and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. {17} To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

And now, here in Ch 40, God’s presence has come down into the middle of the camp. Filling the tabernacle. For everyone to see. Notice the progression? The cloud in THE SKY. The cloud ON MT SINAI. Then finally, the cloud coming down among all the people. Each step, God is getting CLOSER. It’s the climax. The end goal. The conclusion.

But there’s still something unsatisfying. Did you notice the PROBLEM? Did you see how the book ENDS? See v35? the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. {35} MOSES COULD NOT ENTER THE TENT OF MEETING because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

God is RIGHT THERE AMONG THE PEOPLE. But no one can meet him. Not even MOSES. All that action rescuing a people, then bringing them to himself. And there’s still a BARRIER between God and his people. It’s like one of those romantic movies where you expect the two characters to get together. There are twists and turns, but it’s inevitable. It’s all set up, but then, just as they’re about to KISS, there’s a complication. Something happens to STOP it. And then the final credits roll. And everyone in the audience GROANS!

That’s what it’s like here in Exodus. But here, the complication is SIN. We’ve seen it all the way through. The people’s grumbling and waywardness. They worship other gods. They refuse to keep their side of the covenant. And it SEPARATES them from truly knowing and worshipping God.

And so Exodus finishes with a QUESTION. A PROBLEM. How can sinful people approach a holy God? How can they come into his presence and WORSHIP him? It’s a question that gets answered in the NEXT book, LEVITICUS. Where God describes the SACRIFICES he’ll require.

But even THEN, it’s only a TEMPORARY SOLUTION. God allows an animal to die in place of sinful humans. He permits a sacrifice to smooth the way of people into his presence. But it never actually DEALS WITH SIN. But it looks forward to ANOTHER sacrifice. To the death of Jesus.

And to GET there, I want to follow the thread of GOD’S GLORY through the Bible. A while later, King Solomon builds God a permanent temple. To replace the tabernacle. And, in 1 Kings 8, God’s glory also fills THE TEMPLE. Just like it did the Tabernacle. But, still, there’s a PROBLEM, v11. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. God is in the house. But there’s still A SEPARATION caused by sin.

Jump forward another few hundred years. Israel strays from God, and worships OTHER gods. And they even DO IT IN THE TEMPLE. And God’s had enough. The prophet Ezekiel receives a vision, chapter 10-11. He sees God’s glory DEPARTING from the temple because of Israel’s idolatry. He’s abandoning it. He keeps his promise, and Jerusalem is conquered. And the temple is DESTROYED. And the people are exiled to Babylon.

Eventually, seventy years later, they RETURN from exile to rebuild Jerusalem. And A NEW temple’s built under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah and the governor Zerubbabel.

And one of prophets encouraging them is Haggai. And, through him, God promises him that one day he’ll return to the temple, and FILL IT WITH HIS GLORY. Haggai 2 v4

Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. {5} ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ {6} “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. {7} I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I WILL FILL THIS HOUSE WITH GLORY,’ says the LORD Almighty.

And before long with Haggai’s encouragement, they FINISH the temple. But there’s no record of God’s glory filling it, like it had in the tabernacle, and the first temple.

And so they waited. Waited for the glory of God to come to the temple. For that momentous event when God would shake the heavens and the earth. 500 years went by. And still nothing.

Until God finally kept his promises. His glory finally descended. He finally visited his people again. The prophecy of Haggai ch 2 was fulfilled. John ch 1 v 14. Describing Jesus. The Word became flesh and MADE HIS DWELLING among us. We have seen his GLORY, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Jesus is the VISIBLE REVELATION of God. Who dwells, or pitches his tent, among us. Jesus revealed God’s glory in LIFE. (In the way he was full of grace and truth. The way he spoke. His compassion for the lost. His anger at false shepherds. His patience. His faithfulness and obedience to his Father’s will.)

And he visits the TEMPLE. In John chapter 2. God’s GLORY comes into the temple. And he pronounces JUDGMENT on it. And clears it out. And then declares that he’s REPLACING the temple with HIS BODY. He’s thinking about HIS DEATH.

Because even more than in LIFE, we see the glory of God in Jesus’ DEATH. Ultimately, it’s THE CROSS that the Haggai 2 prophecy was talking about. When the heavens and the earth will be shaken. And when the whole world will see God’s glory. In John 12, it’s a few days before Jesus’ arrest and death. And he announces, v23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be GLORIFIED. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it DIES, it produces MANY SEEDS.

It’s Jesus’ DEATH that reveal God’s glory. When God’s LOVE and JUSTICE will be displayed for the world to see. And it’s Jesus’ DEATH that answers the question of asked at the end of Exodus. Of how sinful people can approach a holy God. It’s Jesus’ death that SHAKES HEAVEN AND EARTH. That tears the curtain that separates the Holy Place from those outside. It’s Jesus’ death that invites us into God’s presence, confident and forgiven.

And, over the last 2000 years, MILLIONS and MILLIONS have done just THAT. And now the CHURCH is God’s temple. Where God dwells, by his Spirit. And the CHURCH is God’s GLORY, the visible representation of God, his hands and feet, his co-workers.

Today we come to the end of Exodus. But the end of Exodus isn’t the end. It’s only the BEGINNING.

Matthew 2: One King Too Many!

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!”

I always thought John Wayne said it. But apparently it’s from a 1932 B-grade Western called “The Western Code”.

It’s what happens when TWO people BOTH want to be in charge. And ONE of them will be disappointed!

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!” It might have been what someone said in an old Western movie. But it’s ALSO what King Herod said in about 2 BC.

He’s thinking of King Jesus. And the town was Jerusalem.

Because there was a new king in town. And the OLD King wasn’t too pleased. As far as Herod saw it, ONE king was just right. And any new contenders were a threat. Because Herod was in no mood to share his power with ANYONE.

The trouble started when some astronomers turned up. Wise men from around Persia. They’d arrived because they’d noticed a new star appear. And they’d worked out that meant A KING OF THE JEWS had been born. Literally, a sign in the heavens.

And so they turn up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The obvious place for a new king of the Jews to be born. And they ask, in v2.

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

This new KING OF THE JEWS was so important, A star had appeared to herald his birth. Like a 21 gun salute. Or a trumpet fanfare.

The WHOLE COSMOS was sitting up and taking notice. And that’s what these wise men wanted to do, too. Because when they found him, they wanted to WORSHIP him.

The problem was it was NEWS TO HEROD. His wife hadn’t given birth. So there was no new prince HE was responsible for.

And so this new king, whoever he was, was a THREAT. And he thinks, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Now, King Herod – Herod the Great – had a history of wiping out his opposition. He’d already murdered a wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, and an uncle. All because he thought they might be a threat.

And they were just NORMAL people. But the wise men were talking about a new king whose birth was announced by a NEW STAR! And who was worth WORSHIPPING. V3 says Herod was DISTURBED, and all Jerusalem WITH him. And no wonder – with HIS reputation, NO ONE was safe!

So Herod got to work. First up, v4, interrogating THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS. “Where would the Christ, or Messiah, appear?” (God’s promised chosen rescuer). They told him Bethlehem was the place. A little town just up the road. That’s what the prophet Micah had predicted.

Next up, he calls THE WISE MEN in, v7, secretly. He finds out when the star had first appeared. That will give him a BIRTH DATE, so he knows how old the boy is.

Then he points them in the direction of Bethlehem. And enlists them to do his dirty work for him. Listen to his instructions. There in v8.

He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Yeah right! Herod’s about as likely to worship this new king as Donald Trump is to send a Christmas card to Joe Biden.

And so the Magi head off again. But rather than follow HEROD’s directions. It’s THE STAR that leads the way. So they follow IT, INSTEAD.

And v9 tells us the star stopped over the place the child was. It’s actually a PASSIVE verb. The star WAS STOPPED. It didn’t just stop. It was MADE to STOP. In other words, GOD stopped the star.

The God who controls the events of history. Controlled the star that honoured his Son. The star that rose in the sky at his BIRTH. The star that guided the Wise men to where he was.

And notice what happened next. It’s there in v10. What is it that makes the Magi so happy?

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

I don’t think it’s THE STAR that made them happy. They’d obviously seen IT before. I think it was the fact that the star had STOPPED. They were overjoyed because their journey was OVER. Their searching was finished. They were finally HOME.

They may be hundreds of kilometers from where they LIVED. But they were HOME. The place where the REST of their LIFE BEGAN. Where questions would be answered. Where searching stopped. Where everything would get put into perspective.

Now the NIV translation’s pretty weak here. “They were overjoyed”. There are actually four different words. The old RSV is an accurate translation. “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

And this was even before they’d MET Jesus. That’s in v11.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary,

Two things to notice, just as an aside. They didn’t meet Jesus in the stable. And he wasn’t in a manger. It was a HOUSE. And it wasn’t a BABY – but a CHILD.

So it must have been some time AFTER Jesus’ birth. (After the night the shepherds visited).

Some other information that supports that:

First, it’s likely the star appeared at Jesus’ BIRTH. And it took the wise men a reasonable period of time to TRAVEL. A number of months at least.

Secondly, Herod sets an age limit of TWO YEARS when he sends his soldiers to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). Because he’d worked out when Jesus was born. And done his sums.

In fact, it doesn’t actually say they went to BETHLEHEM AT ALL. Herod TOLD them to go to Bethlehem. But LUKE’S gospel tells us Jesus’ family returned to Nazareth after his dedication in the temple at 40 days old. So it’s possible that’s where the house is.

So, most nativity scenes and Christmas cards get that bit wrong! Where they show the shepherds and wise men all gathering around the manger.

Almost certainly, it’s two different events. Which makes sense, seeing it’s LUKE’S gospel that tells us about the SHEPHERDS. And Matthew that tells us about the WISE MEN. And neither mentions the other.

So, these wise men finally meet Jesus. And what do they do? V11.

… they BOWED DOWN and WORSHIPED him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with GIFTS of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

The journey was OVER. They’d found the one they’d been looking for. And they fell down. They WORSHIPPED. They gave their gifts. In recognition and gratitude.

This little boy/ embodied God himself. And deserved their worship. Not just their GIFTS, but their LOYALTY and RESPECT and their LIVES.

And their gifts show a God-given insight into Jesus. His identity and role. GOLD fit for a KING. INCENSE – used by the PRIESTS in offering up prayers. And a strange gift for a baby – MYRRH – used to embalm A DEAD BODY.

So much expectation wrapped up in such a small bundle. Arrives with the backing of the God who controls THE STARS. The God who prepared his people to expect him through prophetic messages.

This little child destined for such an AWESOME and PUZZLING combination of roles and responsibilities. A KING over the world – over life and death. Over the fate of people. (promised to David, predicted in Isaiah 9)

A PRIEST standing between God and man. Representing one before the other. (An ETERNAL priest in the order of Melchizedek, promised in Psalm 110).

A DEATHLY SACRIFICE – a life offered in place of others. The means of atonement. A suffering servant pierced for our transgressions, promised in Isaiah 53).

Somehow, they’d perceived that this life that had started with such INNOCENCE and WEAKNESS and PROMISE. Would END in POWERFUL, LOVING, VIOLENT SACRIFICE.

No wonder they’d bowed down and worshipped!

That’s ONE reaction to Jesus. But the opposite reaction is never far from the surface. Look at the very next verse. Verse 12.

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to HEROD, they returned to their country by another route.

And it was just as well they did. Look at how Herod reacted when he found out. Down in v16.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was FURIOUS, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Herod. And the Magi. Two opposite responses to Jesus.

Herod was troubled. And jealous. And threatened. And furious. He’d do ANYTHING to keep Jesus OFF the throne.

And the Magi. They’d do anything to SEE HIM ENTHRONED. To WORSHIP him. To OFFER THEMSELVES in SERVICE to him.

And it’s the same today. There are millions of Herods around. Puny, deluded kings. Looking to control every part of their life. (Their health, their financial security, their pleasure, their leisure, their choices). Refusing to submit. Always knowing best. Ruthless in dealing with any threat to their autonomy.

You see, anyone who lives life WITHOUT Jesus on the throne. Is a King Herod.

It’s JESUS who deserves to be your king. In fact, he IS the king over the cosmos, whether we recognize him or NOT.

God sent him to be a priest and a sacrifice. To die in our place. To win our reconciliation back to God. And then he RAISED HIM FROM DEATH, DECLARING him to be both LORD and MESSIAH. To be KING over EVERYTHING. (That’s Acts 2:36)

Philippians 2 says God EXALTED Jesus to the HIGHEST place, and gave him the name that is above EVERY name. So that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE SHOULD BOW.

And, ONE DAY, that WILL happen. (Every knee will bow before King Jesus). Either WILLINGLY, or Unwillingly.

The wise men just got in EARLY. They bowed the knee to Jesus as a little BOY.

But MOST people AREN’T wise. They’re like King Herod. Most people think life’s about looking after “Number One”. And ignoring the opposition. Doing WHAT they want/ WHEN they want. People might OPENLY thumb our noses at Jesus. Try to wipe him out. That’s what Herod did. Or people might just PRETEND he’s not there. ACT as if he’s not there. That’s probably most Aussies. But either way. For most people. If Jesus is on the scene. (If he’s asserting his right to rule). THAT’S ONE KING TOO MANY.

And THAT sort of attitude/ is what the Bible calls sin. (Setting yourself up on life’s throne. Instead of Jesus. Thinking you know better than the God who created you). That’s sin.

And God says/ that deserves his JUDGMENT. ETERNAL separation from him. Giving us what we WANT. Independence from God for all eternity. (People thought being on HEROD’S bad side was a scary thing. But that’s NOTHING compared to being on God’s bad side.)

Much better, says Matthew, to be a WISE GUY. Wisdom/ is recognising the true state of affairs and acting on it. It’s what the Magi did. Recognise who Jesus is. And submit to him. Fall before him. That’s where we deserve to be. On our faces in front of him.

This Christmas we all give and receive gifts. But how about giving KING JESUS the gift HE deserves? Our loyalty. Our worship. A life committed to serving him as king.

You see, the Magi ALSO knew that once Jesus arrived/ that was ONE KING TOO MANY. They couldn’t continue being king of their life/ while Jesus was king.

And so they demitted. They stepped off the throne of their lives. They bowed down and worshipped. They gave the crown to Jesus instead.

And that’s what WE need to do. The FIRST time we do that is when God makes us a new person. When we become a Christian.

Perhaps that’s something YOU need to do this Christmas.

Most of you have already done that. But we need to KEEP doing that. EACH DAY hopping off our thrones. And bowing before King Jesus. In SUBMISSION to his majesty and authority. And in THANKS that he’s saved us. Give up your kingship in your CAREER. In your AMBITION. Give it up / in your plans for how your CHILDREN will grow up. Or your plans for the future. Give it up in your MARRIAGE. Or your singleness. Give up your kingship over your HEALTH. And over your COMFORT. And PLEASURE. And your FINANCIAL SECURITY.

Wise Guys give up their kingship EVERY DAY. And fall before King Jesus. Because they recognise that TWO kings/ is ONE king too many.

Exodus 32-34: The God who is merciful

When you meet someone new, how can you learn about them? (What their character is?)

One way is to WATCH them. (See the things they DO. What they like and don’t like. How they treat people.) Like two people going on a date together. Doing things together, so they can get to know each other.

The OTHER way is to ASK them. Ask questions. Then let them TELL you about their personality, their priorities, and their preferences. And that’s REALLY where you get to know someone. Because you don’t have to INTERPRET their actions. Actions can be MISUNDERSTOOD. Instead, they can TELL you why they did something. They can TELL you about their character. About their dreams and plans. What they’re passionate about.

Doing things together is ONE level of getting to know someone. But it’s LONG, unguarded CONVERSATIONS when you REALLY get to know a person.

And it’s the same with knowing GOD. And in Exodus 32-34 we see BOTH ways. We WATCH him, and we LISTEN to him. We’ve got a story ABOUT him. (How he ACTS). That’s chapter 32. But Moses wants to know MORE about God. So he ASKS him. That’s chapter 33. Then in chapter 34 God TELLS Moses what he’s like. And the STORY and the SELF-DESCRIPTION AGREE. They COMPLEMENT each other.

In fact they do it SO well, there’s probably no other passage in the Old Testament that better shows us God’s character and nature. In fact, verses 6 and 7 of chapter 34 are the MOST-QUOTED VERSES IN THE WHOLE BIBLE. They really get to heart of WHO GOD IS.

So listen carefully, because if you do, you’ll know God better. You’ll REJOICE at his MERCY and FAITHFULNESS. You’ll be GRATEFUL that he ABOUNDS in love in faithfulness, but is SLOW to become angry. That his basic orientation is FOR you, not AGAINST you. You’ll be HUMBLED at your sinfulness, but at the same time you’ll GROW IN CONFIDENCE that you’re FORGIVEN and ACCEPTED. And you’ll be ENCOURAGED to PRAY MORE BOLDLY.

We’re picking it up in chapter 32. Last week we were in chapter 20, with Moses up on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. But not just the Ten Commandments. While he’s up there, God gives him a bunch of OTHER laws. First, from chapters 20 to 23. Expanding and applying the Ten Commandments. And then, again, from chapter 25 to 31 there are instructions about building the tabernacle.

There’s lots for Moses to write down. In fact, ch 24 v18 says he stayed on the mountain FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS. Which sets the scene for chapter 32. V1 begins. When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

The people are so dependent on Moses, they don’t know what to do when he’s GONE. Moses had led them. (Gone BEFORE them) Now they want Aaron to make GODS to go before them. So, v2, Aaron collects their gold jewellery, makes an idol in the shape of a calf, builds an altar in front of it, and announces, v5, “Tomorrow there’ll be a festival to the LORD.”

And that’s what they do, v6. They’re KEEN – they get up early, and offer sacrifices. Except it’s not to GOD, it’s to a statue of a golden calf. Which they were told NOT to make. Or to worship. And except, afterwards, they had a great party, which almost certainly included some behaviour God had just FORBIDDEN.

God’s promised if they keep the covenant, they’ll be his treasured possession. And they promised they would. Twice. 19:8 and 24:3. (Promised they’d obey everything he commanded). But they don’t even last SIX WEEKS.

V7, the scene switches to God and Moses up on the mountain. God says, “Go down, the people have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them.” V9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

It’s interesting the number of references to BODY PARTS in these chapters. Israel are STIFF-NECKED. Like cattle or horses that won’t be turned in another direction. They’re STUBBORN and unteachable. It’s an expression that’s crossed over into English. But the way GOD’S described HASN’T made it from Hebrew to English. He says to Moses, “Leave me alone, “for MY NOSE IS HOT against them”. A hot NOSE means God’s ANGRY with them, and he wants to destroy them. They DESERVE to be destroyed. God would be entirely consistent with his covenant promise and his character to wipe them out.

But notice what he says to Moses, “LEAVE ME ALONE so that my wrath may burn against them.” It’s almost an invitation for Moses NOT to leave God alone. A hint that God’s character is more about FORGIVING than it is getting ANGRY. A hint that if Moses was to ASK, God would calm his anger – cool his nose.

And that’s what Moses does. V11. “Why should your nose burn against your people?” And then he gives God two reasons why he shouldn’t destroy them: Because if you do, v12, the Egyptians will say you brought them out of Egypt on PURPOSE to kill them, and Because, v13, you promised Abraham, Isaac and Israel that you’d make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Because of his REPUTATION and his FAITHFULNESS). And he pleads, v12, “TURN from your fierce anger; RELENT and do not bring disaster on your people.”

And if we’ve been following the way God’s acted with his people SO FAR, we should be surprised he DOES JUST THAT. V14. “Then the Lord RELENTED and did NOT bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

It’s hard to work out how God can be SOVEREIGN and controlling and planning and knowing EVERYTHING. And yet, it seems like he CHANGES HIS MIND. PART of the answer’s explained in chapter 34, where God says he ABOUNDS in love and faithfulness, but SLOW to become angry. His natural inclination is to LOVE. He’s easily convinced to keep forgiving. The natural, simple way of reading it is that Moses’ prayer caused God to change from the path he’d suggested.

We may not UNDERSTAND it, but we can REJOICE in it. It means we can pray, confident that our prayers are HEARD, and EFFECTIVE. Somehow, they’re part of God’s purposes for his world.

So, v15, Moses heads down the mountain to check out the damage. He’s carrying the two stone tablets. When he gets to the camp, v19, he sees the calf, and the partying. And he throws down the tablets, and they break into pieces. It’s what ISRAEL’S done to God’s covenant. They’d agreed to KEEP it, but then they SMASHED it. And Moses destroys THE CALF – burns it and then grinds it up for good measure. (God might be slow to get angry, but MOSES isn’t)

And then, v21, he turns his attention to Aaron, who he’d left in charge. He’s destroyed the TABLETS, he’s destroyed the CALF. I wonder whether Aaron thinks HE’LL BE NEXT. Look at his weak reply, v22. “Don’t be angry, my lord. You know how prone these people are to evil.” Which is TRUE. “They said ‘Make us gods’. So I said, v24, ‘Take off your jewellery’. I threw it into the fire and OUT CAME THIS CALF!” What a ridiculous piece of blame-shifting! It would be HILARIOUS if it wasn’t so SAD!”

Meanwhile, v25, the party continues to rage out of control in the camp. They’re running wild. And Aaron hasn’t STOPPED them. And Moses realises the nations who hear about it will LAUGH. God’s NAME will be ridiculed. His reputation will suffer. So he stands at the entrance to the camp, and shouts out for volunteers, v26. And all the Levites join him. And they go through the camp and kill those involved in what was probably an orgy. And that day THREE THOUSAND died. It seems like that finally stops the party. And, v29. Moses commends the Levites for defending God’s honour.

But we can’t help wondering if he did the right thing, or not. Is it what God wanted? The narrator doesn’t make it obvious.

Either way, it’s not the end of the matter. For Moses, OR God. V30, the next day, Moses tells the people, “You committed a great sin. Perhaps I can make atonement. Perhaps I can satisfy God’s anger.” Is he thinking about the punishment he’s just performed? Or about the offer he’s about to make to God? Again, it’s not clear.

So Moses CONFESSES the sin of the people, v31, and asks God to FORGIVE. And then he adds, “but if not, then BLOT ME OUT of the book you’ve written.” He’s offering himself in place of the people. That if God WON’T just forgive their sin, he’ll take Moses’ life INSTEAD.

But look at God’s reply. V33 “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

On the one hand, God says it’s not up to Moses to make atonement. No one can pay for another person’s sin. Everyone has to pay for his own sin. That’s JUSTICE. And God will look after his own justice. Which he DOES. In time. Because he’s SLOW to become angry. What Moses COULDN’T do, in God’s timing, JESUS DID. When he died as the atoning sacrifice. God himself satisfies his own justice in paying for the sin of the world.

I wonder if there’s not a slight rebuke here, too, against Moses’ action of quick action. (Of immediately delivering the death sentence on the people). God says, “Your job is to lead the people into the land. I’ll do the blotting out. You don’t need to do it. When the time comes for me to punish, I’ll punish. And then v35 describes a plague against the people that comes some time later.

We know Moses is impulsive and quick to act. (That’s what started the whole process back in chapter 2, when he killed the Egyptian.) And he’s jumped straight in to execute Israelites. In contrast, in chapter 34 God tells Moses that he’s SLOW to anger, whereas it seems Moses has been QUICK to anger. Despite the people DESERVING it. Despite them failing the conditions of the covenant. God PERSEVERES with them. (Into chapter 33), he tells Moses to lead the people into the land he promised.

And that’s section one. (The STORY. We’ve watched how God’s ACTED.) In section TWO we’ve got the SELF-DESCRIPTION. (God TELLING Moses what he’s like). Jump down to v7 of ch33. Moses would meet with God in a tent set up on the outside of camp. And v11, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

And what Moses wants MOST is to KNOW GOD BETTER. Perhaps he’s been slightly puzzled, like us, with how God’s ACTED. So he wants things cleared up. It’s what he needs if he’s going to lead them properly. He says, v13, If you are pleased with me, TEACH ME YOUR WAYS SO I MAY KNOW YOU and continue to find favor with you.

He wants to know what guides God’s actions. What lies at the core of his being? And, v17, God AGREES. He says, “I’ll do the very thing you’ve asked, because I’m pleased with you.”

To which Moses has ANOTHER request, v18, “Now show me your GLORY.” The GLORY of God is something like A VISIBLE REPRESENTATION of God. The people saw it in the pillar of cloud that led them, and that settled on Mount Sinai.

But look at what God offers INSTEAD. V19. “I will cause MY GOODNESS to pass in front of you. And I will proclaim my NAME, the LORD, in your presence. I’m MERCIFUL, and COMPASSIONATE. But you can’t see my FACE, or you’ll DIE.” God reveals himself, his CHARACTER, most clearly IN WORDS, not in what he LOOKS LIKE. He’s a God who SPEAKS.

And then, v23, he promises that he’ll pass by Moses, but he’ll protect him in a split in a rock, so he doesn’t get destroyed. He’ll cover Moses with his HAND, so he only sees God’s BACK and not his FACE. (once again, more body parts)

And that’s the way it seems to have happened. Into ch34. Moses makes two more stone tablets. To replace the ones who broke. And he heads up Mt Sinai. Again. And then, v5.

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

These are the verses quoted more times in the Bible than any other. They’re God’s answer to Moses’ two requests, “Teach me your ways”, and “Show me your glory.”

What is God’s character? And how does he ACT? On the POSITIVE side, he’s MERCIFUL – withholding punishment we deserve. And he’s GRACIOUS – giving us good things we DON’T deserve.

And he’s SLOW to anger. In Hebrew, he says he’s LONG OF NOSE. Remember after the golden calf, how he told Moses to leave him alone for his NOSE WAS HOT against Israel? But here he says he’s LONG OF NOSE. THAT’S his character. That’s why Moses was able to pray for God not to destroy them. And God DIDN’T. And instead of getting ANGRY, he’s more like to show steadfast, reliable, consistent LOVE, and truthful FAITHFULNESS. And, v7, when that’s applied to his dealings with humanity. He shows steadfast love to thousands of generations, and forgives their sin.

But, on the OTHER hand, that’s not ALL he is. He does have LIMITS. As SLOW as he is to anger, there comes a point where his justice falls. Where his patience will run out. He will CERTAINLY punish the guilty. Israel mustn’t ABUSE his patience. But in comparison to how long his LOVE is – to a THOUSAND generations – his PUNISHMENT runs out of steam after THREE AND FOUR generations. Because he’s compassionate and gracious.

And, v8, Moses bows down to the ground. And WORSHIPS God. And so should WE. As quick to sin as we are, God is quick to FORGIVE. As slow to repent as we are, God is slow to BECOME ANGRY. As faithless and wandering as we are, God is faithful and reliable. As lying and dishonest as we are, God is truthful and consistent. Yes, God is just and will punish sin. But he’s overwhelmingly FOR us, not AGAINST us. He’s PATIENT, not wanting ANY to perish, but ALL to come to eternal life.

And, v10, God RENEWS his covenant with Moses and Israel. And down in v28, Moses writes all the words down on the SECOND pair of stone tablets. And he’s there ANOTHER forty days and nights. And when he comes down, his face is GLOWING because he’s MET WITH GOD. And the people are AFRAID.

What an incredible event! That the LORD would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with a friend. And reveal his CHARACTER – his GLORY – to him. And show him his WAYS. No wonder it’s the most quoted paragraph in the Bible! But as clear an explanation as it is of God. There’s an even CLEARER one. When God speaks about himself IN HIS SON. The Lord Jesus.

Fittingly, the beginning of John’s Gospel calls him THE WORD. God’s self-communication. He was WITH God in the beginning, and WAS God. And then we get to v14. Exodus 34:6-7 are pretty special. But v14 is EVEN BETTER. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus made his dwelling among us. Literally, he TABERNACLED – pitched his TENT – among us. Just like GOD did when he came down on the tent of meeting and met with Moses. And John says, We have SEEN HIS GLORY, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father. The only one who could reveal God’s magnificence is the only one who’s come from the Father.

Moses asked to see God’s glory. And God hid him in a split in a rock and protected him with his hand, and showed him his BACK as he passed by. But John and the other eyewitnesses SAW the GLORY of God himself in the God-man, Jesus. He walked and talked among them. And while God revealed himself to Moses as abounding in love and faithfulness, Jesus revealed himself as FULL OF GRACE and TRUTH. (Overflowing with generous mercy and reliable consistency) The same characteristics as God. Because he’s GOD HIMSELF.

As UNIQUE as Moses’ experience was, the eyewitnesses to Jesus saw God EVEN MORE CLEARLY. John adds, in v18. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Not even MOSES saw God’s face. But John and the other disciples have seen JESUS, and through him, God himself. And what’s TRULY amazing is that we get to DO THE SAME. We look over their shoulders, listening to their testimony. And see GOD HIMSELF, revealed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, full of grace and truth. Merciful, forgiving, reliable.

But more than that, through him, we can KNOW GOD. Not just know ABOUT him. John says, in v12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-

Sons and daughters of the God who’s compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. And that, out of ALL the things God’s told you about himself today, is the BEST piece of information of ALL!

Exodus 19-20: God’s Law: God’s Gift to God’s People

Is there someone you have trouble buying presents for? Perhaps they already seem to have everything. Or maybe it’s someone you want to say “thank you” to, but there’s no gift that says a “thank you” that’s big enough. For me, it’s my Dad. If he wants something, he just BUYS it. Occasionally I find something he needs, or would enjoy. Like a theology book he doesn’t have, or the DVD set of a new series. But what’s even BETTER is when Dad TELLS me what he’d like. It spoils the surprise. But he figures it’s better to get something he NEEDS rather than something that will sit in a cupboard.

But what about God? How do you say thank-you to God? He’s given us EVERYTHING. But what present can you give God to say thankyou for ALL THAT? And what does he NEED from us? He’s entirely self-sufficient. What’s HE missing from his cupboard? What book’s not on HIS shelf?

Here’s the good news. Just like my Dad, God TELLS us what he wants. He tells us HOW TO SAY THANK YOU. Look at Exodus 19 v 3. God’s led Israel through the desert. And they arrive at the foot of Mt Sinai. And God’s got a message for Moses. Look at v3.

“This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: {4} ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. {5} 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, {6} you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

God reminds Moses about all that he’s done for Israel. And then he says what he expects in return. OBEDIENCE. And it’s the same for US. We say thank you to God for saving us/ by OBEYING him. In GRATITUDE. That’s the correct response to God’s GRACE.

But WHAT are we to obey? The good news is we don’t have to GUESS. Because, once again, God TELLS us. He gives us HIS LAW so we know WHAT to obey. And that’s what we see in chapter 20 onwards. Chapter after chapter of how God’s people are to obey him. Covering every aspect of life. From how to worship God, to how you do business, right down to what to do if you find your neighbour’s donkey.

And as they DO that, THREE THINGS HAPPEN. One, they LEARN ABOUT THE HOLINESS OF GOD. Two, they SHOW GRATITUDE TO GOD. And, three, they SHOW THE WORLD how great God is.

  1. Obedience means learning about the holiness of God.

Firstly, obedience means LEARNING ABOUT THE HOLINESS OF GOD. The things that stands out in chapter 19 is HOW HOLY, or DIFFERENT, GOD IS. And the requirement for the people to be CEREMONIALLY CLEAN. They had to PREPARE THEMSELVES before they could come near to God.

The point was that people are SINFUL, and God WASN’T. Approaching a holy God wasn’t something you did EASILY. Or LIGHTLY. It was like preparing to enter a nuclear reactor. It was a big deal to come into God’s presence. He’s pure, dangerous, white hot holiness. Look from v10 of Ch 19. God tells Moses, Have the people CONSECRATE themselves. PURIFY themselves and their clothes. And it won’t be QUICK. Today, and tomorrow, and, v11, be ready on the third day. Because on that day the LORD will come down to Mt Sinai in the sight of all the people. And v12, set up a safe perimeter around the mountain. So people don’t TOUCH it. And v13, make sure you approach only when the ram’s horn sounds. That’s when it will be safe for them to go up.

And that’s what the people did. And then, v16, On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. {17} Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. {18} Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, {19} and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. {20} The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up {21} and the LORD said to him, “Go down and WARN the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. {22} Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.”

That really does sound like what you do around a nuclear reactor! It was an awesome thing to come before the God of the Universe. And we can only come AT HIS REQUEST. ACCORDING TO HIS RULES of APPROACH. Point one: In the law, we learn about the HOLINESS of God.

How FOOLISH people are to think they have the right to come to God ANY WAY THEY PLEASE! That he’s like your neighbor, or your best friend. Who you can drop in on unannounced, and ask a favour. Even as CHRISTIANS, we can take that access for granted. We think we can approach him because we’ve read our Bible every day this week. Or because we’re giving money for missionaries. Or serving in a ministry. The reality is we serve the same awesome holy God as Israel did. We can’t approach him any more easily.

Except because JESUS has MADE THE WAY. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father, except through him. He’s the PRIEST, and the SACRIFICE. He’s the TEMPLE and the CURTAIN into the Most Holy Place.

This description of God’s dangerous, white hot holiness should drive us to REJOICE in GRATITUDE for what Jesus has done. Shake our heads in amazement that we can boldly approach the throne of grace of a God like THIS, through work of Jesus!

What an ENORMOUS THING Jesus did. What a COST to cleanse us! To satisfy the wrath of a holy God like THIS. So we could stand before him, clean and pure and WELCOME.

Listen to the encouragement we have to approach God, in Hebrews 10 v19

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have CONFIDENCE to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 LET US DRAW NEAR TO GOD WITH A SINCERE HEART IN FULL ASSURANCE OF FAITH, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Praise God for Jesus, and the access he gives us to God!

  1. Obedience means showing gratitude to God.

(ONE, the law shows us God’s holiness. Secondly, obeying the law SHOWS GRATITUDE TO GOD.) All the way through Exodus we’ve seen the order of things. God ACTS, and then he expects A RESPONSE. He shows GRACE, then he gives a test of obedience. A chance to show GRATITUDE. And it’s the same at the start of Ch 19. (We read it earlier). ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. {5} NOW IF YOU OBEY ME FULLY AND KEEP MY COVENANT, then out of all nations you will be MY TREASURED POSSESSION.

God reminds Israel what he’s done, and THEN he tells them the right response to that. Same thing in Ch 20. How do the Ten Commandments start? V2. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. {3} “You shall have no other gods before me.

He starts by declaring who he is, and what he’s done. ONLY THEN does he tell us what WE have to do. It’s the OPPOSITE of what every other world religion teaches. And it’s the complete opposite of what most people think Christianity is about. That you do things for God, and then he saves you because you’ve EARNED it.

And it’s the complete opposite of what most people think is happening here. They think, “The New Testament’s about GRACE. About what GOD does for US. But the Old Testament’s about LAW. About what WE have to do for GOD. “If I obey the Ten Commandments, then God will accept me”.

But that’s upside-down thinking! Because the WHOLE of the Bible is about grace. God’s ALWAYS made people his children because of grace. And obeying him is always a RESPONSE OF GRATEFUL APPRECIATION TO THAT GRACE. Take the Sabbath command for example. Ch 20 v10. “The seventh day is a Sabbath TO THE LORD”. Our rest is to be DIRECTED TO HIM in THANKS.

And that’s exactly the same for Christians. Nothing’s changed. The New Testament’s full of examples. About how we obey in response to God’s goodness. Like Romans 12 v1. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, IN VIEW OF GOD’S MERCY, TO OFFER YOUR BODIES AS LIVING SACRIFICES, HOLY AND PLEASING TO GOD–THIS IS YOUR SPIRITUAL ACT OF WORSHIP. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, etc

God shows us MERCY. THEN we offer our bodies. We obey in RESPONSE to God’s grace. Or what about Ephesians 2:8-10?  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, CREATED IN CHRIST JESUS TO DO GOOD WORKS, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

God SAVED us, and THEN calls us to do the good works he’s prepared for us. And that COMPLETING TRANSFORMS the way you approach obeying God. It sets you FREE. Because it’s not about your PERFORMANCE, but about your GRATITUDE. Jesus has ALREADY PERFORMED. Point TWO: In obeying the law, we SHOW OUR GRATITUDE TO GOD.

  1. Obedience means showing the WORLD what a great God we serve.

The third point about the law/ is obedience shows the WORLD what a great God we serve. Go back to Ch 19 v 6 again. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although (the Hebrew has “BECAUSE”) the whole earth is mine, {6} YOU WILL BE FOR ME A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS and a holy nation.”

Obedience means that Israel will be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS. What does that mean? Remember that a priest’s job was to represent man before God, and to represent God before man. To be the “in-betweener”. If you like, the introduction agency.

And God WANTS all nations to be introduced to him. Because they BELONG to him. It’s BECAUSE the whole earth is his that he wants a kingdom of priests to REPRESENT him to the world. It’s what God promised Abraham, right back in Genesis 12, “I will make you a great nation and ALL PEOPLES on EARTH WILL BE BLESSED THROUGH YOU.

How would the whole nation act as priests? By obeying God FULLY and keeping his covenant. That’s V5. And then v6 says that will mean they fulfil their calling to be a kingdom of PRIESTS to the whole earth.

Over in Deuteronomy 4, it explains how obedience can introduce the world to God. It’s the OTHER account of the Ten Commandments. Listen to what Moses says about what obedience will do. V5 of Deut 4.

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. {6} Observe them carefully, for THIS WILL SHOW YOUR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING TO THE NATIONS, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” {7} What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? {8} And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

As Israel obeyed God’s laws, it made the OTHER nations sit up and take notice. “Look at what a great nation Israel is! It’s really got its act together! If they show justice and mercy to each other LIKE THAT, how just and merciful must THEIR GOD be!” Obeying God’s law declared God’s goodness to the nations.

And if you look at the follow-up chapters in Exodus. Chapters 20-23. There are SOME laws to do with GOD. (To do with worship and idols and altars). And they’re really important. But the majority are to do with HOW PEOPLE TREAT EACH OTHER. And it’s a pretty attractive picture. If people really DID treat each other like that, then the world would be a great place. The whole TONE of the chapters isn’t about loading great burdens onto people’s backs. One more law after another.

They’re certainly COMMANDS. But it’s also a vision of God’s preferred future. It’s describing PARADISE. If everyone looked to the interests of OTHERS, then THE WHOLE SOCIETY will be better. (Make sure your animals are tied up. Make sure your verandah is fenced off. Look after slaves, and widows, and orphans. Don’t accept interest on loans. If you take a man’s cloak as security, make sure he gets it back at night). BE OTHER-PERSON CENTRED. In fact, it would be just like the way God created things in the beginning. All relationships in harmony. Man at peace with man. Man at peace with creation. Man at peace with God.

These laws aren’t “Here are some burdens for you to bear.” But/ “Here’s the way society will work best. The way people’s rights will be protected. Here’s my gift to you”

And that’s what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. He comes at the end of a long line of prophets calling people back to obeying God’s law. Matthew Ch 5. He says is that he hasn’t come to ABOLISH the law. Verse 17. And that nothing’s going to disappear from the law. In fact, he makes it even harder. Because he goes on to talk about a number of the Ten Commandments. Murder. BEING ANGRY is just like murder. Adultery. A LUSTFUL THOUGHT is just like adultery. And some other favourites. Divorce. The law isn’t an excuse for you to change your wife because you feel like it. It’s there to protect the rights of people.

And the same with “an eye for an eye”. Matthew 5:38. Getting someone back because they hurt you. It’s not an excuse for vengeance. God’s original law set a LIMIT on punishment. The punishment was there to PROTECT PEOPLE’S RIGHTS. If you’re “other-person-centred”, the best way you can look after their rights is to TURN THE OTHER CHEEK – that’s the purpose of the law. And he finishes chapter 5, Be PERFECT, as your heavenly Father is PERFECT.

Just imagine if people actually LIVED like this?! It would be LIFE AT ITS BEST. The way it was designed. And when that happens. When people start treating each other well, THE WORLD WILL TAKE NOTICE! Jesus takes up God’s call for his people to be a kingdom of priests when he talks about being SALT AND LIGHT. 5:13. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world”.

If Israel obey God’s law, and if they do it from the right motivation, and they put other people first, then the world (other nations) will notice. They’ll see what a great life it is following God. And Israel really WILL be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS.

And that’s JUST as true for us Christians as it was for Israel. Turn over to 1 Peter Ch 2 with me. Peter’s talking to THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH. But he picks up the language of Exodus 19. Look at verse 9. Look at who he calls the Christian church.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We, the church, are a holy nation. We’re to be separate and pure. But we’re also a royal priesthood. They’re to be IN the world, but not OF it. To be IN the world/ means to stand between men and God. And to declare God’s praises to the people around. To introduce people to the God who can save them. Who can call them out of darkness.

And look how we’re to do that. Look down at v 11. They do it by obeying God’s laws.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. {12} LIVE SUCH GOOD LIVES AMONG THE PAGANS that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Our lives are to be so good, that we’ll STAND OUT. That our neighbours will want to be part of us. And they’ll glorify God on judgement day. In other words, they’ll become God’s people too!

That’s a challenge for us, isn’t it? That, as a church, our lives should be SO OTHER-PERSON-CENTRED, and full of JOY AND LOVE AND GRATITUDE TO GOD, that other people will want to be part of us. They’ll want to be introduced to the one who can rescue them from darkness, too!

God’s law is his gift to his people. In the law we learn about his HOLINESS. As we obey it, we show GRATITUDE to him. And we SHOW THE WORLD what a great God we serve.

Exodus 15:22-17:7: Grumbling, Grace and Gratitude

It’s been a year where GRUMBLING is acceptable conversation. Grumbling about the health risks in a pandemic. Grumbling about the inconveniences of lockdown and closures. Grumbling about the boredom, or tensions, of working from home. And not being able to travel. And too many zoom meetings. And wearing masks. The list goes on and on.

But is grumbling acceptable for God’s people? There’s a TYPE of grumbling we find all through the Psalms. It’s LAMENT. It’s okay to be SAD, and to cry out to God. Because the world is BROKEN. God ENCOURAGES us to hand our pain, and requests, over to him, because he’s God and we’re NOT.

But then there’s the grumbling we see in today’s chapters of Exodus. Which is something DIFFERENT. It begins with FORGETFULNESS. It’s only DAYS since God miraculously rescued them from slavery and destroyed Egypt’s army. But they’ve FORGOTTEN how God rescued them, and so they don’t TRUST that he’ll look after them. And they’ve forgotten how BAD Egypt was, so they’re not CONTENT. And they’re UNGRATEFUL. That’s what separates grumbling from lament. A LACK OF GRATITUDE, CONTENTMENT AND FAITH.

We see grumbling again and again in today’s chapters. (Putting God to the TEST). And yet despite their grumbling. Again and again, we see God GRACIOUSLY PROVIDING what they need. And giving them the opportunity express GRATITUDE.

What if we could learn a lesson from Israel? What if, instead of grumbling, we REJOICED? Expressed GRATITUDE. TRUSTED God to provide. Trusted that he’d work GOOD through all things. What if we learned to look FOR HIS GOOD HAND AT WORK in the midst of the mess? I reckon it would transform our conversations. And transform the way we approached life. And how we walked through it with God.

1. God provides water (15:22-27)

We’re picking up the story in Exodus 15 v22. Israel’s just crossed the Red Sea, and Pharaoh’s army’s been completely wiped out. God’s miraculously saved Israel. And they’ve sung his praises. But now, it’s only three days later. They’ve marched through the desert. And there’s no water.

Finally they find a spring. But when they start drinking, they spit it out in disgust. It’s salty! Full of minerals. Like drinking SEA water! They could have done THAT back at the Red Sea! And so v24. They GRUMBLE to Moses, “What are we to drink?” So Moses cries out to God. V25. and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the WATER BECAME SWEET.

Protest and provision. Grumbling and grace. They’re thirsty. And he gives them water to drink. Not because they DESERVE it. But simply because OF WHO GOD IS.

But look what else he does. He gives the chance to show GRATITUDE. He gives them a test. Half way through v25.

There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and THERE HE TESTED THEM. {26} He said, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Israel had taken their eyes OFF God. They’d DOUBTED him. But they’d been shown grace. And now they’ve got the chance to show GRATITUDE. To LISTEN to God’s commands, and to DO WHAT’S RIGHT. If they PASS, the curses of disobedience won’t come on them.

And then, v27, to REINFORCE God’s undeserved goodness, and to back up his promise of blessing, they come to the spring of Elim. With no salty water. And twelve springs – one for each tribe. And seventy palm trees to top it off! Grumbling, grace, and gratitude. Look out for that pattern as we keep moving.

2. God provides food (16:1-36)

Episode two. Chapter 16. They move on from the spring of Elim. It’s been one month since Israel left Egypt. Thirty whole days. And what happens? More grumbling! V2.

In the desert the whole community GRUMBLED against Moses and Aaron. {3} The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

The food’s running out. Their STOMACH’S are grumbling, so THEY start grumbling. It would be HILARIOUS if it wasn’t so SAD. It’s the ultimate in selective amnesia – forgetting the worse bits of their years of suffering. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. One month of freedom. And they want to go back to Egypt. God’s TESTED them. And it hasn’t taken them long to COMPLETELY FAIL.

Israel GRUMBLES. And how does God respond? Once again, he shows GRACE. Look at v7 and also in v12. He tells Moses, “I’ve HEARD their grumbling.” Which is OMINOUS, if his response is about what they DESERVE. But instead he PROVIDES. He promises MEAT in the EVENING, and BREAD in the MORNING. A two course heavenly banquet. And that’s what HAPPENS. V13. That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. {14} When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. {15} When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” (In Aramaic “Mah na?”) For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.

Gratitude (16:19-30; 31-35 ) – a test (16:4-5)

Grumbling. And grace. The LORD provides. But once again, notice how God gives them the opportunity to show GRATITUDE. The GIFT comes with ANOTHER TEST. Look back at v4 and 5. A test in two parts.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough FOR THAT DAY. IN THIS WAY I WILL TEST THEM and see whether they will follow my instructions. (And) on the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and THAT IS TO BE TWICE AS MUCH as they gather on the other days.”

He PROVIDES for them, but he TESTS them. He shows GRACE. But he expects OBEDIENCE. To see whether they TRUST him, or not.

Here’s how the testing worked. First, he tells them to collect just enough for one day. No more. But just like most of us, some people couldn’t help collecting a bit extra. Just in case.  But look what happened. God tested them, and they failed the test. Because they didn’t trust God. Over to verse 19. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” {20} However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

They failed the first part. How would they go with the second? On Friday, God said to collect TWICE AS MUCH. Because there’d be none to collect on the SATURDAY. Because God wanted them to REST on the Sabbath.

And that’s the way it HAPPENED. Twice as much collected on Friday. And, v24, it lasted until Saturday. And then, v25, Moses explains it all

“Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. {26} Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”

But look at v27. SOME of the people DIDN’T collect double on Friday. And they went out looking on Saturday. When they were supposed to be RESTING. (I wonder if it was the same people who’d collected TOO MUCH during the week, and it had gone off?). And God had a message for Moses to tell them. V28.

“How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? {29} Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” {30} So the people rested on the seventh day.

God did it that way for a reason. For one thing, He wanted his people to REST. Secondly, he wanted to test their obedience. Obedience which was IN RESPONSE to his grace. Notice that it’s not just Sabbath, but “Sabbath to the LORD”. Their act of keeping the Sabbath is TO EXPRESS THEIR GRATITUDE to God’s grace. They stop working IN RECOGNITION that God’s PROVIDED for them, so they don’t HAVE to. Grumbling, grace and gratitude.

3. God provides water –again (17:1-7)

Grumbling (17:1-4)

Next we get to Ch 17. and the story’s a familiar one. V1, more travelling, and more thirsty people. V2.

SO THEY QUARRELED WITH MOSES and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? WHY DO YOU PUT THE LORD TO THE TEST?” {3} But the people were thirsty for water there, and they GRUMBLED against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” {4} Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Once again – grumbling. But notice? This time it’s the PEOPLE who put GOD to the test. Rather than responding to GOD’S test by OBEYING, they grumble, and put God to the test! “What are YOU going to do for US? How much grace have you got?”

Grace (17:5-6):

THEY might fail GOD’S test. But HE doesn’t fail THEIRS. v5.

The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. {6} I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

Once again, God provides. DESPITE the doubting of his people. And in v7 Moses even gives the place a couple of nicknames. “Testing” and “quarrelling”.

“because the Israelites QUARRELED and because they TESTED the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Is the LORD among us or not? There’s a CYNICISM there, I think. A doubt that God’s GOOD or that he’s ABLE. (Will he PROVIDE? Is he LOOKING? Does he CARE?)

And it’s that VERY QUESTION that gets answered in the next two sections. “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Because God continues to provide for his people. He provides in WARTIME, and he provides in PEACETIME. He brings them victory against the AMALEKITES in ch 17. And he provides JUDGES to help Moses govern the people in ch 18. Which are great stories. But we don’t have time to look at them today.

Instead, I want to come back to the question we BEGAN with. Can we learn a lesson from Israel, and move FROM GRUMBLING TO GRATITUDE? The truth is we’ve been saved from a much greater enemy than Egypt. A much greater slavery than forced labour. If we’re Christian, we’ve been saved from the power and consequences of our sin. We’ve been saved from God’s anger and judgment. We’ve been put right with God through trusting Jesus.

That’s the GREAT TRUTH that should colour the way we think about life NOW. Look at the logic in Romans 5. Focussing on how God’s JUSTIFIED us IN THE PAST means we can confidently rejoice in PRESENT SUFFERINGS. Romans 5 v1.

Therefore, SINCE WE HAVE BEEN JUSTIFIED THROUGH FAITH, we have PEACE WITH GOD through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we REJOICE in the hope of the glory of God. 3 NOT ONLY SO, BUT WE ALSO REJOICE IN OUR SUFFERINGS, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Focus on what God’s ALREADY DONE FOR US in saving us. Rejoice in the experience of your relationship with him. That will give you the tools, the perspective, to rejoice in the PAIN of life. The GOSPEL is the key to moving from GRUMBLING to GRATITUDE.

The God who SAVED you will never DESERT you. Or, as Romans 8:32 says, “If God did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us ALL THINGS?!”

Paul didn’t just WRITE those words. He LIVED THEM. The letter to the Philippians was written from PRISON. But it’s also called the LETTER OF JOY. He rejoices that he’s stuck in prison, because, 1:13, “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” And so he can say, in v18, And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,

Even though it looks like he might be EXECUTED. Not even the THREAT OF DEATH can stop his joy. Because he knows that he’ll be better off, because he’ll BE WITH JESUS. He says, 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

In v27, he encourages them, “whatever happens conduct yourselves IN A MANNER WORTHY OF THE GOSPEL.” In other words, live out the GRATITUDE of people who’ve been shown GRACE.

And then, 2:14, he turns it around. And states the NEGATIVE. Grumbling is the NEGATIVE of REJOICING. He commands Do everything WITHOUT COMPLAINING OR ARGUING, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you SHINE LIKE STARS in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life-

It’s easy to do things you ENJOY without grumbling. But do EVERYTHING without grumbling. Everything! Wake up with a sore throat, receive criticism, sit in traffic, pay a parking ticket, cook dinner for an ungrateful family. Sit through another zoom meeting.

And if you can live like THAT in the midst of a grumbling generation, you’ll LOOK DIFFERENT. As different as stars in the night sky. Do THAT. And you’ll show yourselves to be TRUSTING CHILDREN of your heavenly Father. Who cares for you and gives you good things.

Not grumbling is an attitude that flows from your relationship with him. That’s what it means when he says in 3:1 Rejoice IN THE LORD. Rejoice BECAUSE you belong to the Lord.

That’s the treasure Paul says he’ll GIVE UP EVERYTHING ELSE for. Knowing God is his TOP PRIORITY. Everything else is worthless. He says in 3:8

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of KNOWING CHRIST JESUS MY LORD, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I MAY GAIN CHRIST 9 AND BE FOUND IN HIM, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ

That’s where JOY and GRATITUDE come from. That’s what STOPS grumbling. That’s the secret of BEING CONTENT. Because what you have in JESUS is worth FAR MORE than anything this world can offer you. 4:12

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned THE SECRET OF BEING CONTENT in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

The strength to be CONTENT. To not GRUMBLE. But instead to show GRATITUDE. To trust the God who SAVED you, the FATHER who cares for you.  Rejoice in the LORD always! I’ll say it again, REJOICE! And don’t grumble!