Sabbath Surprise

Her eyes looked down at the dirt. She wouldn’t raise them. She couldn’t.

She recognized neighbors and strangers by their feet. Whether faces smiled or frowned at her, she did not see. It had been this way—her body bent double—for eighteen years. But today, although she didn’t know it yet, there would be a change.

Today was the Sabbath; and she was going where she always went on the Sabbath, walking the same path to the same synagogue. The rabbi’s voice she heard, though, was not the same one. He, pausing from his teaching, singled her out.

“When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God” (Luke 13:12-13 NIV).

In spite of her personal shame and pain, this woman had clung to her habit of meeting with others for the Sabbath service. Both she and Jesus obeyed God’s instruction that “the seventh day is a day of . . .  sacred assembly” (Leviticus 23:3 NIV). They were where God wanted them to be on the Sabbath. It is the day God designated for humanity to meet together in reverence and respect for Him.

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The Second Shortest

The shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). You probably knew that. What about the second shortest? It is three words. Jesus said them. Only Luke recorded them.

Luke quoted Jesus as saying, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). It may be the second shortest verse in the entire Bible, but why did Jesus say those three words?

It happened when He was talking with His disciples about the end times. Two-thirds of the way through His discourse, Jesus gave the warning, “Remember Lot’s wife.”

Along with her husband and two daughters, Lot’s wife was leaving the city of Sodom. Guiding angels specifically told them to “flee for your life; do not look back” (Genesis 19:17 RSV). Lot’s wife looked back at the burning city and became a pillar of salt.

Why did she disobey? Didn’t she believe that the angels had her best interests in mind? That time was of the essence? Or did she delay because her heart longed for Sodom? Was it that she did not want to leave the things that were there—the possessions, the positions, the perversions?

Looking back is an inclination to go back. When Jesus warns, “Remember Lot’s wife,” isn’t He cautioning us to beware of an attachment to this fleeting world?

Is Jesus also saying that the past belongs to the past? That is what the apostle Paul learned: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 RSV).

Dwelling on the past, whether sorrows, joys, failures, accomplishments, troubles, delights, will sap us of the energy needed for today and tomorrow. Press on. To look back is to delay.

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The Other Good Samaritan

Of all the people who might stop to help the suffering soul, he was the most unlikely. Mixed race. A different class. Not one of us. Despised. All the reasons Jesus chose him to be the protagonist in His earthly story with a heavenly meaning. That Samaritan was fiction, but there was a good Samaritan who was real.

He was among a group of ten lepers who cried out to for mercy to the healing rabbi. Jesus directed them to see the priests. As they were on their way, their skin disease disappeared. “Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15-16 NASB).

Jesus asked, “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18 NASB). This foreigner—a Samaritan—was good enough to be grateful and to say so.

 

 

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The Saboteur

Some say he was a sorcerer. Others, a truth-speaking prophet. Regardless, he was an infamous saboteur.

His subterfuge began when the king of one nation “was terrified because there were so many people” (Numbers 22:3 NIV) camped nearby.  Fearing that “this horde is going to lick up everything around us” (Numbers 22:4 NIV), King Balak of Moab made a pact with another nation to put an end to this situation. They agreed on the person they needed to put their plan in action.

A delegation from both Moab and Midian traveled 400 miles to tantalize Balaam with prestige and wealth if he would do just one thing for them. If he would put a curse on the Israelites, they could take it from there.

When Balaam sent them packing, a larger delegation of higher-ranking officials came. That time Balaam mounted his donkey and went to meet with King Balak, who dangled in front of him the promise of a hefty reward.

With the king directing him when and where, Balaam set out three times to claim the bribe. The result was always the same: a blessing instead of a curse.

Defending himself to the king, Balaam said, “I must speak only what God puts in my mouth” (Numbers 22:38 NIV). That didn’t mean, though, that they both couldn’t get what they were after.

Balaam knew a surefire way that would cause God to curse these people—His chosen people. He “taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14 NIV). Consumed with greed, Balaam sold out the Israelites. It worked.

God cursed the Israelites with a plague, and “those who died in the plague numbered 24,000” (Numbers 25:9 NIV). Before those deaths, however, God had told Moses to “take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel” (Numbers 25:4 NIV).

God’s punishment started at the top. Leaders had the power and duty to prevent the sinful behavior. Instead, they shirked their moral responsibility and even took part in the sinning. Could we say they led a rebellion against God?

A public execution. A smiting plague. And God was not through.

Because “they were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord” (Numbers 31:16 NIV), God told Moses to “treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them” (Numbers 25:16-17 NIV).  During that conflict, “They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword” (Numbers 31:8 NIV). Thus, the saboteur got his reward.

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The Contentment

She knew he was a man of God. Everyone knew it. For sure, he knew it. But there was something he didn’t know and wanted to know. It involved her.

Never calling her by name, he always referred to her by where she lived. She started off by making him a meal whenever he traveled through her village. Later on, she asked her husband to build a room for him in their house so that, whenever he passed that way, he would never worry about where to rest his weary bones. She had been so thoughtful and kind.

One day, wanting to show his appreciation, he asked her what he could do for her. Confident of his influence in high places, he offered to put in a word for her to the king or to the army’s general, whatever she desired.

This woman from Shunem, however, was not impressed that Elisha’s connections reached to the highest authorities. She had given to him with no agenda. Neither covert nor overt. Unswayed by his suggestion, she did not taint her pure motive and replied: “Nothing. I’m secure and satisfied in my family” (2 Kings 4:13 MSG). She was content. But not Elisha.

As successor to the renowned prophet Elijah, he, too, had God-given power. He could do something special for her if only he knew what this Shunammite woman needed or wanted. Maybe his servant Gehazi knew something he didn’t.

Gehazi was not oblivious to the obvious. “Well, she has no son, and her husband is an old man” (2 Kings 4:14 MSG).

Thus it came about that Elisha promised the Shunammite woman: “This time next year you’re going to be nursing an infant son” (2 Kings 4:16 MSG). The gift of that son was Elisha’s sixth miracle.

Although he was a prophet, Elisha did not think of himself as a know-it-all. Otherwise, he would not have asked the advice of his servant. Even he, a miracle-working prophet, had limited knowledge.

The Shunammite woman knew contentment with her circumstances—where she was and as she was. Her desire was to be a blessing, pure and simple.

But godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV).

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Fight Focus

When the adolescent David met Goliath for battle, he was undersized and underequipped. Easy to defeat. Or so he appeared in the eyes of the 9-foot opponent standing inside 125 pounds of body armor and gripping a 26-foot-long spear.

None of that, however, intimidated David. With five stones tucked inside the shepherd’s bag slung between his shoulders and a slingshot in his hand, he was combat-ready. Yet, he knew that he would not be the victor and said so.

With unshakable confidence, David shouted to the giant who dared taunt the God he loved and cherished: “The battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:47 NASB).

Earlier David had spoken of the armies of the living God. First to some of Israel’s soldiers and then to King Saul. Human eyes could not see the invisible battlefield where the real conflict was being fought. But it was clear to David that what he confronted was spiritual warfare, and that’s the focus he brought to the fight.

Daily we are in some sort of spiritual battle even though we cannot physically see the real attacker. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV).

By whom was David taught
To aim the dreadful blow,
When he Goliath fought,
And laid the Gittite low?
No sword nor spear the stripling took,
But chose a pebble from the brook.

“Twas Israel’s God and King
Who sent him to the fight;
Who gave him strength to fling.
And skill to aim aright.
Ye feeble saints, your strength endures,
Because young David’s God is yours.
(William Cowper,1731-1800)

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Senior Second Thoughts

At first it seemed like a good idea. But now he wasn’t so sure. Perhaps, he had been too hasty. He had been caught up in the moment of the good news.

Joseph was alive—not dead, as he had been made to believe for more than twenty years. So, yes, he was excited to go to Egypt to see his son. But this was not a visit. This was to be permanent.

Joseph wanted the entire family to join him in Egypt. And Jacob had agreed. But now that he had had time to think about it, this move meant he would die and be buried in a foreign land. Not in his homeland. When you get old, you think about these things.

His family—from the eldest to the youngest—was excited about a new beginning. Not him. Been there and done that. He had no desire to make any more life changes.

There had been a famine in his father’s day too. God had told him, “Do not go down to Egypt” (Genesis 26:2 NASB). He couldn’t shake that from his mind. Wouldn’t that also apply to him? Shouldn’t he stay in Canaan and live through this famine?

Suppose his sons adopt the idolatrous ways of Egypt and forget the one true God. Everything he had taught them. Maybe Joseph already had. Perish the thought!

And how scary is that prediction God gave his grandfather! “God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years’” (Genesis 15:13 NASB)? Would he be the instigator of that slavery? What kind of legacy was that?

If only he could be sure he was doing the right thing. Jacob settled it at the last stop before crossing into the desert.

God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt . . .’ (Genesis 46:2-4 NASB).

Then Jacob moved forward, knowing:

The light of God surrounds me;
The love of God enfolds me;
The power of God protects me;
The presence of God watches over me;
Wherever I am, God is.
(“The Prayer for Protection” by James Dillet Freeman, 1912-2003)

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The Murderer-Priest

The high priest’s son wondered about those woeful souls huddled in front of the worship center. Weeping and wailing, moaning and groaning. Was it because the punishing plague had already killed 24,000 of their congregation? Or were they distraught because they were scared to death they would be next? Or could it possibly be they were crying over their shameless sinning?

How could they here—here at our last stop before crossing into the promised land do this? How could they blatantly break God’s first commandment: You shall have no other gods before Me?

Why did they let themselves be seduced into idol worship? Its sacrificial feasts? Its fertility rites? Its debauchery?

And why now? Now at the threshold of a new beginning? Hadn’t they learned anything while wandering in the wilderness for forty years? No way could they have forgotten God’s warning: “For you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14 NASB).

Look at that! There’s Zimri brazenly bringing his pagan princess into our camp! Right in front of our very eyes! And him a prince in the Simeon tribe! What a spectacle! Every step he takes is saying to the Almighty God, “In your face.” Of all the gall!

Phinehas felt as if a sword had pierced his heart. How dare they trash the holiness of God! Setting his jaw, he grabbed a spear and “went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked” (Numbers 25:8 NASB).

God had something to say about this murderer, and he said it to Moses:

Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel’ (Numbers 25:11-13 NASB).

Phinehas committed murder that, according to the Word of God, “was reckoned to him for righteousness, To all generations forever” (Psalm 106:31 NASB).

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Lockstep Lesson

Why did Abraham listen to God when He said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2 NIV)?

Abraham had waited twenty-five years for his heir after God had promised he would be the father of many nations. Isaac embodied that future. So, why would God want him sacrificed? Why would God promise him a son, fulfill that promise, and then tell him to kill the promise? It made no sense.

This was hard. Harder than when God changed his life’s direction decades ago, telling him to “go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 NIV). Abraham had walked away from familiar surroundings and, stepping into faith, followed God into the unknown. That was a sacrifice, wasn’t it?

He made it. But could he make this one? Should he? Why would anyone sacrifice his only son?

Abraham’s mind wrestled with this for three days as he and Isaac trekked the 50 miles to Moriah. When they were in view of God’s chosen mountain, Abraham knew the ending. He could say to his servants as he left the donkey with them, “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5 NIV).

We will come back?

Somehow Abraham knew that both he and Isaac would come down from that mountain alive. Did he believe that God would resurrect his son? Whatever he thought, Abraham was confident God would keep his promise that Isaac would be the channel to future nations. That assurance, however, did not quell carrying out God’s demand to sacrifice his son.

How did Abraham get to this place in his life’s journey? One step at a time, he had learned to trust God on his faith’s route.

So, Abraham stacked stones for the altar, put wood on top, bound his son’s ankles and wrists with leather thongs, laid Isaac on the wood, clasped the knife in his palm, stretched out his hand for the death cut, and—froze.

God was speaking. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12 NIV).

Abraham climbed to faith’s pinnacle because he had reached lockstep with God.

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Reaching Out

Both were eunuchs. Both were Ethiopians. They shared palace parallels even though they lived six hundred years apart. Together they illustrate the two facets of a helping hand.

One reached out for it. One reached out with it.

The Ethiopian eunuch who reached out for a helping hand struggled with his muddled mind. Words he was saying weren’t making sense to him. A voice, taking him unawares, interrupted his confusion: ‘“Do you understand what you are reading?’” (Acts 8:30 NASB).

Who was this stranger suddenly standing beside his chariot? And how was this any of his business? Nevertheless, the royal treasurer owned up to his inadequacy: ‘“Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:31 NASB).

This first-century evangelist and deacon accepted the eunuch’s invitation. As they rode along the desert road, Philip explained that the ancient prophecy the eunuch was reading had been fulfilled in their lifetime through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When the eunuch believed for himself that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he asked Philip to baptize him. “And they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:38 NASB).

Today the Ethiopian eunuch who reached out for a helping hand is nameless. Not so with the one who reached out with a helping hand.

Ebed-melech, one of the king of Judah’s eunuchs, lost no time in setting out to right a wrong. Never mind that he was about to ask the ruler to reverse himself. The injustice demanded it! How could this monarch have listened to those self-serving, wicked officials! Now there was an innocent man helplessly mired in mud and left to die.

Following the king’s changed orders, Ebed-melech “took the men under his authority and went into the king’s palace to a place beneath the storeroom and took from there worn-out clothes and worn-out rags and let them down by ropes into the cistern to Jeremiah. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, ‘Now put these worn-out clothes and rags under your armpits under the ropes’; and Jeremiah did so. So they pulled Jeremiah up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern, and Jeremiah stayed in the court of the guardhouse” (Jeremiah 38:11-13 NASB).

A helping hand is either needed or given.

 

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