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Freed to Serve

“Let My people go, so they can serve Me.” Moses repeatedly uttered this refrain to Pharaoh insisting the Egyptian ruler release the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham. Many modern translations translate Moses’ command as “Let My people go, so they can worship Me,” but the word better translates as “serve.”

Everyone loves a story of freedom; it’s one of our inalienable rights. The Exodus is one of the great stories of freedom in human history—an enslaved people miraculously led by God to freedom from their oppressive masters. It was such a potent story that in the “Slave Bible”—a Bible given to African slaves brought to the Americas—the story of the Exodus was removed being deemed too problematic.

Our love for liberty spills over into our faith and spirituality. We often focus on our “freedom” in Christ, or that Christ has “freed” us. But, freed us for what? The story of the Exodus, Israel’s miraculous deliverance, is not about freedom, but rather about God’s liberating His people so that they can serve Him. The Exodus from Egypt is not so much about the slave going free, but about God redeeming a people from slavery to serve Him. Throughout the Bible, the focus does not fall on freedom and liberty, but rather on service to God.

The Bible mentions God’s kingship for the first time in connection with the deliverance at the sea: “The Lord reigns forever and ever” (Exod. 15:18). A king is to be served. God established Himself as Israel’s deliverer and its king. The people, then, were freed in order to serve: “Let My people go, so they can serve Me.”

The problem, however, is that we don’t want to serve. We want our freedom, our liberty. The Bible views things differently: God is king; we are His servants. He makes the rules; we follow them. Jesus spoke far more about service and servanthood than he ever did about freedom and liberty. He understood that we either serve God or something else, (Matt. 6:24) but we have to serve somebody.

God delivered Israel to serve Him. They were freed to serve. He still frees people to serve Him.

PRAYER

Father, today I submit my will and my life into Your hands. You are the King; may I follow You today as Your faithful servant. Amen.

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Watch Your Words

We live in a world filled with talking: talk radio, twenty-four-hour news channels, Facebook, Twitter. We are surrounded by the noise of communication. Much of that communication, unfortunately, is cruel, hurtful, untrue, and demeaning. People hide behind their computers to give others “a piece of their mind” or “put them in their place.” It’s their divine right after all in a digital world.

Two thousand years ago James recognized the peril of human communication. Its unbridled ability to harm and destroy.

“And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself…It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth…Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs?” (James 3:6-12 NLT)

“Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God.” James sees it as an impossibility that we can both bless God and curse those made in His image. In our world where people are paid to give their opinions, and social media exists so anyone can give theirs, we often find our communication filled with deadly poison, even when we think we are defending God. God does not need our defense if it comes at the expense of hurting another person, made in His image, with our words.

We have become so accustomed to criticism, opinion, and saying our peace that we no longer ask, should we say that? Does what I am saying convey the truth and edify others? Is what I’m about to say going to poison one created in the image of God? Maybe instead of focusing on the critical and corrective, we should give our attentions to the creative and constructive.

Our words hurt. They damage. And, they ultimately reflect the genuine quality of our relationship with God. We cannot curse one made in His image and bless Him. Perhaps in a world filled with talking, our silence is the greatest testimony to our faith in God.

PRAYER

Father, today, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. And, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

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The Quality of Forgiveness

Forgiveness. It’s something we seek so readily for ourselves from God. In fact, God’s forgiveness of us provides a foundational principal of our faith. We seek it from God for ourselves, yet how readily do we extend it to others?

We often assume that our forgiveness from God is the precondition for us being able to forgive others, yet at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus stated, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). Jesus actually inverted the order: our forgiving others is the precondition for God forgiving us!

Jesus placed such a premium upon our forgiveness of one another as a prerequisite to God’s forgiveness that he told his Galilean listeners, “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple [Jerusalem is at least a three day journey from Galilee] and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matt. 5:23-24).

For Jesus, between me and God stands you, my neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), my enemy (Luke 6:27-31). In the manner that I relate to you, God will relate to me. Or, as Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7); by my showing mercy to another, like myself, I will receive mercy from God. Elsewhere he said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38). If I intend to receive mercy from God, I must show mercy; if I want to receive forgiveness, I must forgive.

In the parable of the “Unforgiving Servant” (Matt. 18:21-35), a servant, shown great mercy by his master, refuses to extend mercy to his fellow servant, like himself, and therefore, he faces judgement from the master because of his failure to show mercy. Jesus concludes the parable, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

Forgiveness. It’s something we all want from God. But, according to Jesus, before we can be forgiven, we must first forgive our neighbor, including our enemies. How different would our world, communities, and relationships be if our view of forgiveness aligned with Jesus’?

PRAYER

Father, forgive us today as we have forgiven those around us, even our enemies. May we show Your mercy to all we come in contact with. Amen.

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Sanctifying God

The children of Israel found themselves in the wilderness of Zin (Num. 20:1-13). They desperately needed water, so God instructed Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Moses, however, frustrated with the complaining of the people struck the rock, and bitter water issued forth. As a result of Moses’ disobedience, he could not lead Israel into the Promised Land. That responsibility fell to Joshua.

God rebuked Moses and Aaron for their disobedience saying, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me, before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this assembly into the land which I gave to them” (Num. 20:12). Two things stand out in the Lord’s pronouncement: 1) He equated “believing in Him” with human obedience, and 2) God’s name is sanctified through our obedience.

We frequently speak of believing in God in a way where what we mean is believing something about God. Faith then, for us, is often merely belief about God. In the Bible, “to believe” in God requires our obedience. It’s not our belief or opinion about God, but our obedient response to His commands and directives. As James stated, “faith without works is dead” (2:17). Moses and Aaron’s disobedience meant that they did not believe in God in that moment.

Moses and Aaron’s disobedience to God’s command meant that they did not sanctify God’s name before Israel, rather, they profaned it. The verb translated in this passage as “to sanctify” literally means “to make holy.” Think about that. Our obedience has the ability to make God holy before people, and our disobedience profanes Him before the world. Perhaps the reason why the world around us does not treat God as holy is because we, His followers, do not live in submitted obedience to Him, making Him holy in the world.

If believing in God equals our obedience, our obedience, then, sanctifies God’s name within our world. Our disobedience results in His name being profaned. In the Bible, a person’s obedient actions determined their faith in God. That obedience makes God holy in the world.

What an incredible thought: the God of the universe, who is holy, relies, in part, upon our obedience to make Him holy within the world. What an awesome responsibility. Do we through our obedience show ourselves to believe in Him? Do we seek to sanctify Him, make Him holy, before our world through our daily obedience to Him?

PRAYER

Father, may our obedience demonstrate that we believe in You, and may Your name be sanctified in our world through our obedience to Your commands. Amen.

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God’s Offensive Mercy

Does the mercy of God sometimes offend you? It should. We love God’s mercy when its extended towards us, or those like us. But that’s not the nature of God’s mercy.

After commanding his disciples to love those who hated them, even their enemies (Matt. 5:43-44), Jesus appealed to God’s mercy as a model for their own: “For He causes His sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). For Jesus, sunshine and rain represented God’s daily mercy towards all humanity; God does not distinguish between the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous in His mercy. And so, Jesus says, neither can we: “Therefore be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

We love to think that our “relationship” with God brings us special privilege and connection to Him, yet Jesus states that God’s mercy extends to everyone. He doesn’t show partiality. He even shows His mercy towards those who are not like us and do not agree with us, towards those who do not live as we think they should, or even in obedience to God. In this way, God’s mercy offends us.

We can often become ego-centric in our spirituality thinking that we hold a special place in God’s heart. And we do, but so does everyone else regardless if they are good or evil, righteous or unrighteous. When we realize this, we often find ourselves like the older brother in Jesus’ parable, which we’ve named the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). He was offended about the mercy shown by the father to his younger brother. The parable ends in an open-ended manner with the father and brother standing in the field. Did the older brother enter into the house to rejoice at his younger brother’s return? Or, did he remain in the field?

The focus of the parable is often directed towards the younger son, but in reality, the main character of the parable is the father, who has two equally lost sons. The father represents God, who shows his mercy to both sons, but the unfinished ending of the parable indicates that Jesus thought his audience would identify more with the older son, who was offended by the mercy of the father. The parable’s open-endedness sought to cause Jesus’ listeners to realize that they too must show mercy as the father in the parable did, even to those who offended and hurt him: “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

Jesus portrayed God as a model of mercy that we are to follow and emulate. God’s mercy extends to all whatever their state. And that can offend us. At the same time, Jesus believed that in the manner we show mercy towards others, like ourselves, we will receive mercy in the future: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7).

PRAYER

Father, offend us with Your mercy. Help us to follow Your example by extending mercy to all, righteous and unrighteous alike. Amen.

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The Paganism of Worry

We live in a world built upon stress, our jobs, the news, social media, politics. So much fills our lives with noise and stress clamoring for our attention and allegiance; we find ourselves choked without peace and stability.

In the Parable of the Sower, which is actually about the different soils, not the seed, Jesus compared the seed that fell among the thorns with the effect that the cares, riches, and pleasures of life have upon a person (Luke 8:14); they choked the growing plant. Of the four soils, it’s the only one where external factors strangled the growing plant’s ability to grow. Jesus recognized that the cares and stresses of life inhibit our spiritual growth and development.

On another occasion, Jesus instructed his disciples not to worry about what they will eat or wear (Matt. 6:25-34), for God knows what you need. And He will take care of you. He compared those who worry about food and clothing—the cares of life—with gentiles, i.e., pagans.

Paganism, at its core, sought to manipulate the deities by appeasing them through sacrifices. If something unfortunate or catastrophic happened, you had upset the gods and needed to appease them with offerings and sacrifices. Ancient pagans often lived in fear of the world around them because the gods were a group you satisfied, but not interested in your care and welfare.

Jesus, however, instructed his followers to relax because God, their heavenly Father, cared for them. His single requirement: to seek first His kingdom by obediently submitting to His rule and reign in their lives. The care of life and welfare was His responsibility. So, don’t worry.

In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he instructed them to pray: “Give this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). The image of daily bread recalls the provision of manna in the wilderness, which God provided for the children of Israel. The Israelites in the wilderness received only enough manna for the day; if they tried to keep any over for tomorrow, it would rot. On Friday, they collected a double portion for the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, God tells the people that the purpose of the manna was “to try you to know what was in your heart if you would keep my statutes or not” (8:2) and so they would learn that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding out of the mouth of God” (8:3). God is the source of daily provision, and He is intimately involved in our lives to provide what we need.

We often blame the secular forces in our world for the decline of values and those who honor God, but is it possible in this crazy, stressful world of ours that the paganism of our own worry screams too loudly in the ears of those around us for them to hear the voice of Jesus? Do we demonstrate through our calm, patient, obedience our deep sense of peace because God, our Father, will take care of us? Or do we get caught up in our culture, which is predicated upon stress and worry? Jesus’ instruction to his followers: relax, God’s got you.

PRAYER

Father, thank You for Your daily provision. May I submit myself in humble obedience to you today knowing that You will take care of the things I need in my life. Amen.

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Your Will Be Done

Have you ever wondered about Jesus’ daily spiritual practices? Or have you considered how those practices shaped His life and ministry? The Gospels do not give a lot of information. While they mention Jesus at times going off to pray, they do not provide a list of His daily spiritual disciplines. Understanding the world of ancient Judaism, the spiritual world of Jesus, sheds light on what His daily practices might have been.

In the first century, Jews daily recited Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). The recitation of this passage was seen as a person submitting to God’s rule and reign. It established the nature of our relationship with God: He is the king; He makes the rules; we follow them in obedience. In fact, it was said that the one who recited this passage accepted upon themselves the kingdom of Heaven (i.e., God’s rule and reign). Jesus identified this passage as the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36-38), so we can assume that He also daily recited this passage, submitting Himself to the will of His heavenly Father.

The Gospels only provide a brief period of time in the life of Jesus. We actually know very little about the majority of His life. If we forget this, we may have the tendency to assume that His entire life was one miracle after another. As Christians, we rightly emphasize the deity of Jesus, but in doing so, we can sometimes lose sight of His humanity. As God in the flesh, Jesus faced many of the same human struggles and emotions that we do. Yet, we can assume He daily recited Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and learned to submit His will to that of his Father’s.

At the end of His life, the night before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). He could have escaped and run away. But He chose to submit Himself to the will of His Father. In this moment when the weight of the world rested upon Him, could He have submitted to His Father’s will had He not made that part of His daily practice?

We often think that true spirituality is how one lives in the big moments of life. But we fail to realize that our capacity to respond or perform in those big moments is actually conditioned by how we have disciplined ourselves to live each and every day.

Jesus submitted to the will of His Father in Gethsemane, because He had already done so each and every day in the years leading up to that pivotal moment. He chose obedience in that instant, because He had already chosen a life of obedience.

PRAYER

Father, today, may we submit our will to Yours in everything we say and do. May we discipline ourselves in obedience today and forever. Amen.

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Living at the Crossroads

Have you ever wondered why God brought Abraham from Ur in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan? Mesopotamia was far more developed culturally and economically than Canaan, so why did God bring Abraham and his descendants there? Or why Samuel after making his circuit around Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah judging Israel, he always returned to Ramah, his hometown, to judge Israel (1 Sam. 7:16-17)? Or why did Paul choose to reside in Ephesus for over two years?

All of these locations—Canaan, Ramah, and Ephesus—share the same common feature: they sit at a crossroads. The land of Canaan sits along the eastern Mediterranean coast wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the desert. It provides the natural land bridge that connected the continents of Asia and Africa. It was also located between the major superpowers of the ancient world, Egypt in the south and the Mesopotamian powers to the north. If you wanted to travel within the ancient world, you had to pass through the land of Canaan; it was the crossroads of the known world.

Ramah sits at the juncture of the major north-south and east-west roadways through the hill country of Israel, where the majority of the Israelites lived. The easiest way for Samuel to judge the majority of the people was to place himself at the crossroads and the people would come to him.

Ephesus served as the major east-west gateway of the Roman Empire. Traders and travelers journeying from east or west passed through Ephesus. It was also a major pilgrimage site as it boasted one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis (see Acts 19:24-34), so pilgrims throughout the Roman world journeyed to Ephesus to worship the goddess.

The selection of these locations was strategic. They served as significant crossroads, places where God and His message could impact the most people. These crossroads became platforms for God to get His message out to the world. At the same time, He demanded that His people live in obedience to Him at the crossroads to demonstrate to the world His kingship. Even in the midst of a pagan city like Ephesus, Paul did not isolate himself; rather, he lived at this crossroads, and his life and message impacted the paganism of the city (see Acts 19:24-34).

Where are the crossroads of our world today? Where are your crossroads? God still desires to place people at the crossroads of our world to affect the world for His glory and to display His kingship.

PRAYER

Father, today make me mindful of the crossroads in my sphere of influence. Help me to be strategic in my actions to bring glory to Your holy name. Help me to live obediently at the crossroads of my world, so that many may see You in me and glorify You. Amen.

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Bringing Glory to Your Father in Heaven

Have you ever thought seriously about Jesus’ statement: “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matt. 5:16)? It is common for Christians to blame the secular world, the media, government, politics, etc. for the decline of faith and Godly values in our world. But if we take Jesus’ statement seriously, then we understand that God’s reputation is at stake in us! We are the reason people glorify God or not.

The problem, however, is that many of us have a tendency of viewing our “spiritual life” as separate and distinct from other areas of our life. Consequently, our faith does not always inform and permeate every aspect of our daily living. What did Jesus say would draw people to praise and glorify God? It’s when our faith is lived out and our good deeds are on display for all to see. It’s how we choose to live in the common and mundane moments of our lives that shines a light in the darkness directing people to the Lord.

The prophet Amos condemned the kingdom of Israel: “They sell honorable people for silver and poor people for a pair of sandals. They trample helpless people in the dust and shove the oppressed out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). The prophet goes on to condemn their religious practices too, but he specifically points out behaviors reflecting their disregard for their fellow human beings, especially the poor and oppressed among them. In other words, their mistreatment of others in the course of everyday life and business is what defamed the name of God.

Is it possible that one of the main reasons people in our world today often ignore God and deny His existence is because of how His people represent Him? Without question, how we practice our faith in the home and at church is vitally important, but God’s reputation is far more at stake in how we choose to live all of life and particularly how we choose to treat other people. Do our lives and how we treat others reflect the love and goodness of our God? Do our words and actions compel and inspire people to praise and glorify Him?

PRAYER

Father, help me to live my life in such a way that, in everything I say and do, I bring honor and glory to Your great name. Amen.

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Finding God in the Silence

We live in a world that doesn’t like silence. Everything that surrounds us, seeks to fill our lives with noise and words. We have twenty-four-hour news cycles, social media, non-stop television and radio. It all fills our lives with noise. Even when we go to church, every moment is filled with noise, whether talking or music. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of silence. Yet, all the noise in our world, even that which we manufacture ourselves, often pushes God to the periphery, and we miss the opportunity to encounter God in the silence and stillness.

Most Bible readers are familiar with Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. How after three years of drought, Elijah prayed a short prayer and God sent fire to consume the drenched sacrifice (1 Kings 18), and after the people turned to Him and Elijah prayed again, God sent rain on the parched land. After this encounter, Jezebel, the queen, threatened to kill Elijah because he had slaughtered 450 prophets of Ba’al. So, Elijah fled to the south, near Beersheva, and from there, further into the desert to the mountain of the Lord.

While in a cave, God called Elijah to come out and stand as God passed by. Wind, earthquake, and fire all tore across the mountain splitting rocks and shaking the ground, but God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Then the Bible says that after the fire came “a moment of absolute silence” (which is the actual translation of the Hebrew phrase); then Elijah recognized the voice of the Lord. Afterwards, God reaffirmed His call and commission to Elijah for him to finish his task. It’s interesting that the miraculous and dramatic event of the fire falling from heaven did not give Elijah the strength to face the challenges and threats he had. Rather, in that moment of absolute silence, Elijah encountered God and found the strength to finish his course.

Do we seek to find God in the silence? Are we too caught-up in seeking the fire falling from heaven that we miss His real presence in the silent and still moments of our lives? Do we seek quiet in order to encounter Him and hear His voice?

PRAYER

Lord, as I quiet myself before you, help me to encounter You in the silence and stillness. Enable me to hear Your voice and follow your direction. Amen.

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