Judges 2:16-23 – Listen

From time to time, the Lord would choose special leaders known as judges. These judges would lead the Israelites into battle and defeat the enemies that made raids on them. In years gone by, the Israelites had been faithful to the Lord, but now they were quick to be unfaithful and to refuse even to listen to these judges. The Israelites would disobey the Lord, and instead of worshiping him, they would worship other gods.

When enemies made life miserable for the Israelites, the Lord would feel sorry for them. He would choose a judge and help that judge rescue Israel from its enemies. The Lord would be kind to Israel as long as that judge lived. But afterwards, the Israelites would become even more sinful than their ancestors had been. The Israelites were stubborn—they simply would not stop worshiping other gods or following the teachings of other religions.

The Lord was angry with Israel and said:

The Israelites have broken the agreement I made with their ancestors. They won’t obey me, so I’ll stop helping them defeat their enemies. Israel still had a lot of enemies when Joshua died, and I’m going to let those enemies stay. I’ll use them to test Israel, because then I can find out if Israel will worship and obey me as their ancestors did.

That’s why the Lord had not let Joshua get rid of all those enemy nations right away. (CEV)

Listening seems to be a lost art and a forgotten skill. Genuine focused attention on another person through careful listening takes practice. Maybe that is one reason there is a paucity of authentic hearing these days – it is just so doggone hard. Throw into the mix that a lot of folks like hearing their own voice, and you have a recipe for poor communication.

God is good at everything, especially listening.

The Lord is the Master Listener. In fact, God is so good at it that divine ears hear the prayers of people all over the world. The same careful attention is given to both the little girl in the West who intercedes for her parents and teddy bear at night, as well as halfway around the world with the national leader who requests wisdom for decisions in a heated meeting.

The Lord God Almighty is gracious, merciful, and kind, hearing us when we call, and listening when we our hearts long for the divine. God always bends low in a posture of listening to all creation. As creatures in the image of God, we were meant from the very beginning of creation to listen well. Yet, ever since humanity fell into disobedience, people have the tendency to talk more than they listen, to sometimes refuse to hear what another is saying. There are even those who ignore God’s speech.

The ancient Israelites in the book of Judges were fickle in their attention to God. When things were bad, they cried out to the Lord. Because God attentively listens, they were heard, and a merciful divine response came. However, when things were better, the people went about their business and forgot about God’s deliverance.

It was God who sent judges, rulers, and leaders, to the people for their own welfare. Instead of graciously receiving such a gift from God, the people were quick to be unfaithful and to refuse even to listen the divinely sent judges. Listening, really listening, was not a high value to the people. They talked and talked, incessantly droning on, and so could not hear what God through the divinely appointed rulers was saying.

We are to listen well because God listens well.

We are to pay attention and hear because we are designed by our Creator to do so. Perhaps our society would not be so perpetually upset and polarized if we would just take the time to take notice and take advice through a posture of humble hearing.

Try this little exercise of listening: Take just ten minutes and do not talk, read, check your phone, or do anything but just listen to the sounds around you…. What do you hear?… What do you think God is saying to you through those sounds?… How will you to respond?

Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity, allowing us to hear the still small voice of God. Sound is amplified through silence. If we desire a clear word from the Lord, then stillness and silence are the spiritual practices that will allow it to happen. Life’s most precious moments are not all loud or uproarious, for silence and stillness have their own virtues which connect us with the divine. Never underestimate the power of doing nothing.

God of all creation, you have made me with two ears for listening. Help me to so hear and distinguish you through creation and the voices of others so that I will follow Christ with confidence in my daily life. Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So, on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)

The Way of Peace

Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.

In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands.  Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.

  • Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1) 

Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else. 

This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.

If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.

  • Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3) 

Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue. 

This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.

Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics.  Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”

  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5) 

The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.

A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others. 

Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

  • Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)

Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.

On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.

Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest.  This logically leads to the fifth imperative….

  • Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7) 

Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.

Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.

We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.

  • Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.

Conclusion

Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.

Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?

Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few. 

May you know the peace of Christ this day.

May you experience God as your refuge and strength.

May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-9 – Paying Attention

Calvin and Hobbes - paying attention

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders, and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

My wife and three daughters all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). Although many people believe this to be a disadvantage, I have noticed that since their brain chemistry doesn’t have a good filter for filtering all the stimuli they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it.  Whereas you and I might take this for granted, the women in my life know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

The ability to pay attention and listen is necessary for a sustainable Christian life. The consequence of not developing such competency is that we will drift away – our minds will wander and allow other competing voices to overwhelm the singular voice of Jesus.  Taking salvation for granted may be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work, so we neglect to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth.  We are meant to have continual reminders of Christ’s redemptive events. We are to avoid the precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices. We need an intentional plan for paying attention without assuming we will be focused. Along with paying attention to our physical health and being vigilant about keeping the coronavirus at bay, here are a few ways of daily being mindful of our spiritual health:

  • Read the Scripture each day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Hold a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
  • Journal your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Set a consistent time and place for bible reading and prayer.
  • Use different translations and versions of the Bible to read.
  • Go outside occasionally and pray while walking.
  • Focus on your breathing, and consider using breath prayers, i.e. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
  • Drink some coffee, tea, or something soothing, and picture the comfort of Christ coming into your life.
  • Be aware of distractions and acknowledge them without judging yourself.
  • Observe the Christian Year and the Daily Lectionary.

While some might argue that observing Lectionaries, the Church Calendar, Christian seasons, and worship liturgies are vain repetition, I insist otherwise: We are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  Like a beach goer on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we can be unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.

Forming habits of worship, fellowship, service, and piety are essential to deliberately maintaining attention to Jesus. Perhaps if we all had spiritual A.D.D. we would be more intentional about grafting reminders and practices into our lives.

Ignorance does not come from a lack of education; it comes from a failure to pay attention to the most important things in life.

God pays attention to us in a special way, different from all other creation. As the only creatures for whom the image and likeness of God resides, we have an innate sense of connection with the divine. Paying attention to things, especially to what Christ has secured for us through the cross, reflects the God who is continually observing humanity.

May your contemplation of Christ and his redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension be always fresh and continually meaningful.

Soli Deo Gloria.