This week, the readings that the Lord picked out for us had two common themes: What God demands of man, and the consequences of not respecting those demands. The consequences are much easier to explai n, and don't show a lot of variation:
Matthew 21:44- broken and crushed to powder;
Joshua 24:20- do you harm and consume you;
Jeremiah 38:18 and 23- burn you down;
Isaiah 46:1-2 go into captivity;
Zephaniah 1:2-3 utterly comsume all things... "the stumbling blocks along with the wicked".
So the point is, God isn't messing around when He says He wants something from us. And it actually all comes down to one word, which we will get to at the end, but you won't truly get it unless we explore the facets of it first.
Monday turned out to be the lone New Testament reading, and it was a story carried in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It begins with the priests questioning Jesus about His authority, and ends with the parable of the evil vinedressers. Each Gospel has the priests come demanding Jesus tell them where He draws His authority from. Jesus tells them:
“I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
Which of course put them in a dilemma. They knew the people believed John was a prophet, and if they admitted it (even to themselves) they would be admitting their hypocrisy, because they never received it themselves. So they said, "We don't know," and Jesus responded, "Then I'm not telling."
Two of the gospels then go straight to the parable (while the other throws another short parable in-between) in which the owner of the land makes a great vineyard, hires vinedressers to tend it, and goes off to a far land. At harvest time, he sends servants to collect the fruit of his land; but the vinedressers abuse, refuse, and even kill these servants. Finally the owner sends his own son, whom they also kill. This is the story of the leadership of God's faithful passing from the Jews to the gentiles, with God as the owner, the Jews as the vinedressers, the prophets as the servants, and Jesus as the Son.
Finally, Jesus throws in Psalm 118's warning about the Cornerstone:
22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
finishing with the warning noted earlier, that he who stumbles on it will be broken, and he who it falls upon will be crushed. Now I want to note three related things God is asking here, and three reactions to it.
First, in the first part, God is demanding us to RESPECT the authority of Christ. In the parable, by describing Christ as the Son, He is demanding we respect the DIVINITY of Christ. And a certain line in the psalm- "the Lord has done this," which my Bible also translates as "this is from the Lord"- tells us that Jesus' authority is GOD'S WILL. And their reactions? In Matthew, at least some of the priests, even though they knew it was talking about them, recognized that they had done wrong to God all these years- though they didn't repent, and in fact became more set against Him as a result. In Mark, they said nothing- just let it basically go in one ear and out the other. And in Luke, when Jesus got to the end of the parable and suggested the owner would come and destroy the evil vinedressers, they shouted, "Certainly not!" In other words, they rejected the authority all together.
That this subject of Authority was underlined three times tells us how important this is- to God and to us. But it is not yet the main theme we seek.
Tuesday my reading was the 24th chapter of Joshua- famous for his declaration, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." He spent much of the chapter re-telling all the things that God had done to the Egyptians for them- and if you think that got done a lot, consider how easily they kept forgetting. The people told Joshua they would serve Him as well, but Joshua replied:
“...You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and consume you, after he has been good to you.”
But they said, "No, really," and Joshua told them, "okay, you said it... now, you have to do it." Joshua knew well it was easy to make promises at great occasions surrounded by like minded people. Going home afterwards and "clearing out the idols" is tougher. But it is the second of God's demands.
Wednesday I hit the key to it all... but I'm going to save that. God put it in the middle because it is the CENTRAL demand... I bumped it to the back to make it easier for your humble author to stress it.
Thursday found us in Isaiah 46, which began with an elegant description of the power of foreign gods- "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops..." The prophet speaking for God tells of the creation of idols out of wood and gold and silver, how they have to be pinned down to stand up, and how the cattle pulling their carts find them a burden. Then God goes on to describe His own glory, His pre-eminence, and after describing the plight of those who cry to the idols and are not answered, reminds them of "former times" when their belief led God to do great things for them. "Remember, and take courage", He tells us, and come to Him first in all things.
Friday brought us to the first two chapters of the minor prophet Zephaniah. The first chapter is a portrait of all God will do to a sinful and unrepentant world. I really love the verse I pulled out above where "the stumbling blocks will be destroyed along with the wicked." The entire network of evil doers and their evil society will be rooted out. But my point comes at the beginning of chapter two:
Gather together, gather yourselves together,
you shameful nation,
2 before the decree takes effect
and that day passes like windblown chaff,
before the Lord’s fierce anger
comes upon you,
before the day of the Lord’s wrath
comes upon you.
3 Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
you who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you will be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger.
To escape the fate of an evil world, God calls us to Seek Righteousness. That is what will save us from the way things will end. Jesus says, "But seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be
given to you as well."(Matt. 6:33)
Which brings us to the summing up on Saturday, courtesy Exodus 15. This is mainly taken up in Moses' re-telling, in psalm form, of the escape from Egypt (see, I told you this gets repeated a lot!) But at the very end, they have their first battle with thirst, and God gives them water. Afterwards, Moses goes over God's covenant with them once again:
He said, “If you listen carefully to 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.” (Ex.15:26)
So let's break that down. "Listen carefully (or in my Bible, "dilligently heed") to the Lord your God" is equivalent to the "accepting His authority" from Monday. "Do what is right in His eyes" is the same as Friday's "seek righteousness". "Pay attention to His commands (or commandments in my Bible)" equals the "giving Him pre-eminence" of Thursday. And "keep all His decrees (or statutes) is analogous to Tuesday's "be obedient". And the promise is that God won't give you "any of the disease I brought upon Egypt"- another words, the plagues used to break the pride of Pharoah- and the unrepentant.
But what was that central thing, that one demand that is really a part of all the others? We find that in Wednesday's reading in Jeremiah 38. Here we are at the bitter end of the original Jewish kingdom. The Babylonian army has been starving Jerusalem for some time, and Egypt does not appear to be coming to the rescue. King Zedekiah fears the Babylonians that will kill him if the city falls, fears the princes of Judah that will kill and overthrow him if he surrenders the city, fears everybody but God, who has sent Jeremiah to tell him to surrender, for it is God's will that Israel be exiled to Babylon. Finally, Zed sends for Jeremiah and says, "Don't B.S. me, give it to me straight," to which Jeremiah says, "Why? You aren't going to listen anyway," and Zed replies, "No, really" (Where have we heard THAT before?)
So Jeremiah lays it out for Zed- he can do God's will, surrender the city, and the Babylonians will treat him as a prince in their own land. Or, he can stand athwart God's will, fight to the bitter end, and the city will burn and everybody will pay. But like I said, he feared everybody BUT God. He warned Jeremiah not to say anything to anybody about it until he made up his mind, because he knew the princes would surely kill him if he entertained the idea of giving up. As a result of his refusal to surrender, the city was destroyed, his sons were executed in front of him and his eyes put out (so that their deaths would be the last thing he ever saw), and spent the rest of his life in chains in a Babylonian prison.
And so, our central demand of God- SURRENDER. Surrender pride, the concept of being able to do it yourself. The idea of having to be right, and the practice of your faith being a "Sunday thing". Surrender the thought that there are more important things than God. That is what a righteous God expects of you. Strong's concordance sheds light on the consequence of refusal- the word translated "consume" in Joshua comes "from a primitive root, meaning 'to end.' "