A STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE (Part 1)

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. [Exodus 32:9 (NIV)]

Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. [2 Chronicles 30:8 (NIV)]

great blue heronAlthough the Israelites often have been called the “Chosen People,” God chose a far less complimentary term early in the exodus when He called them “a stiff-necked people.” Having nothing to do with the stiff neck that comes with a long drive, sleeping in an awkward position, or hunching long hours over the computer, “stiff-necked” figuratively means stubborn, inflexibly obstinate, and even contumacious (which means flagrantly disobedient, rebellious or persistently refusing to obey a court order).

A commonly used term describing an obstinate ox, the Israelites didn’t need an explanation to know what God meant by “stiff-necked.” Ancient plows usually were drawn by a team of two oxen. While the plowman held the reins in one hand, in the other he carried an ox-goad: a pole with an iron spike on the end. The ploughman used it to prick the oxen on their back legs to increase their speed and on their necks to make them turn. A “stiff-necked” ox would keep his neck straight and refuse to turn even when poked by the goad. “Stiff-necked” perfectly described the intractable spirit of the Israelites, a people who seemed unwilling to respond to the commands of God. As the prophets later declared, it was because they were a stiff-necked people that God promised His judgment on Jerusalem.

While there are several “stiff-necked” references in the Old Testament, there is only one in the New. It occurs in Acts when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin. By summarizing God’s dealings with the Jews, he showed God’s faithfulness to Israel and then, calling them a “stiff-necked people,” he boldly accused them of resisting God just as their forefathers did. Instead of taking Stephen’s message to heart, the Sanhedrin grew furious. Rather than respond to God’s prod, they covered their ears, dragged Stephen into the street and stoned him. Indeed, like their forefathers, they were a stiff-necked people and not about to consider a new and better way—Jesus’ way.

Stiff-necked: stubborn, unmanageable, demanding, obstinate, headstrong, willful, pig-headed, uncooperative, uncompromising, troublesome, unaccommodating, and difficult. Do any of those words describe someone we know? At one time or another (probably more often than not), some of those adjectives could be used to describe any one of us. Are we ever so certain we’re right that we won’t even consider the possibility of error on our part? Unwilling to examine our opinions, motives, or behavior, do we ever refuse to listen to different points of view? Are we ever short on repentance and long on excuses, defensive when corrected, or unwilling to accept responsibility for our failures? Guilty, as charged! I may not be as stiff-necked as the Israelites; nevertheless, God frequently needs to use a sharp prod to get me moving in the right direction. Moreover, in spite of His prodding, I often seem bound and determined to go my way instead of His.

Father, forgive us when we are stubborn and obstinately insist on going our own way, when we’re inflexible and unwilling to adjust to circumstances, and when we defiantly refuse to listen to your truth. Keep prodding us to do your will; don’t let us be a stiff-necked people.

The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. … But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13a,14 (NIV)]

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THE SHEMA (Part 2)

The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]

great blue heronIn its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.

It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?

God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. [Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)]

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THE SHEMA (Part 1)

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. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)]

Meiringen-MichaelskircheMy morning’s reading took me to Deuteronomy 6 and the words that Jesus cited as the first, and most important commandment. Known as the Shema and found in verses 4 through 9, it is the essential declaration of the Jewish faith. Its name comes from the first Hebrew word of the verse, shema, which means “hear.” Observant Jews recite its words twice a day (morning and evening), on the Sabbath and religious holidays, and as the last words before death. The Shema is so entrenched in Judaism that a story is told about Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog who, in 1946, went searching for Jewish children who’d been hidden by Christians during the Holocaust. As he walked through European convents, monasteries, and orphanages, the rabbi would start to recite the Shema. He easily found the Jewish children because they immediately joined in saying the sacred words.

The Shema’s first words sum up the essence of Judaism—there is only one true God and He is Israel’s God. During the time of the Temple, a second line was inserted into the Shema. After the priest recited, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” the congregation replied, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.” In acknowledgement that this phrase is not part of the original Scripture, it usually is said in an undertone. The rest of the original prayer then follows.

When Moses passed these words along to the Israelites, they had spent centuries surrounded by people who worshipped many gods. The Shema’s daily repetition impressed upon them that love, obedience, and faithfulness to their one true God was the only way to live. These words may have been passed to the Jews some 3,500 years ago but its message holds true for all of God’s children—there is one true God and He is ours!

The rest of the original Shema details how that belief in the one true God is to be lived and its words continue to apply to Christians as well as Jews. We are to love Him with our whole being, teach his word to the next generation, make His words part of our daily conversation, and impress His word into all aspects of our lives.

In verses 8 and 9, we find the command to bind the God’s words to our hands, foreheads, doorposts, and gates. Taking the words literally, Jews wore black leather boxes (tefillin) containing scripture on their heads and arms and placed mezuzot, containing part of the Shema, on their doorposts. Observant Jews continue to do so today.

Even when taking those instructions figuratively, it’s not difficult to understand what is meant by placing God’s word between our eyes or on our arms. God’s words must affect the way we think and see as well as our every action. While we don’t place Scripture on doorways and gates, when stepping into a Christian’s home or workplace, God’s presence and influence should be felt by all who enter. For the Christian, the Shema’s words mean that we are to write God’s words in our hearts and minds and love Him with our whole being!

Because the words of the Shema were important to Jesus, they are important to us. Whether Christian or Jew, I can’t think of a better way to start or end my day than with these words: “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.”

And one of the scribes…asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” [Mark 12:28-30 (ESV)]

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SABBATH CONFLICTS

What can we bring to the Lord? Should we bring him burnt offerings? … No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:6a,8 (NLT)]

In the Holy Place of the Tabernacle, there was a table on which the showbread was placed. Consisting of twelve loaves of unleavened bread stacked in two columns, it remained on the table for a week. When new loaves replaced it, the showbread was removed and eaten by the priests in the sanctuary. Because it was holy, no one other than a priest could eat it. Nevertheless, when David and his hungry men arrived in the town of Nob where the Tabernacle was located, Ahimelech the priest gave them the previous week’s showbread once he was assured the men were ceremonially clean. Having no other food for the famished men, the priest understood that feeding them was more essential than compliance with the ceremonial law. He knew the laws of compassion, mercy and love took precedence over ritual.

A thousand years later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath when the hungry men picked some heads of grain and ate them. The Pharisees charged them with breaking the law, but not because they were picking grain in someone else’s field. It was perfectly permissible to do what they’d done any other day of the week but they’d done it on the Sabbath! Although harvesting grain was one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden work on this day of rest, it’s not as if they were reaping sheaves of grain! Actually, the hungry men were doing no more work than someone feeding himself at a table. Moreover, Jewish tradition prohibited fasting on the Sabbath.

That subtle difference, however, was lost on the Pharisees who couldn’t see beyond the technicalities of the law. After Jesus reminded them of the story of David and the sacred loaves, He pointed out that they clearly didn’t understand God’s words in Micah about preferring mercy to sacrifices and that compassion was as important as the Law. Declaring Himself Lord over the Sabbath, Jesus then claimed authority over how the Sabbath was to be observed. To the Pharisees, however, His words were heresy.

Soon after, the Pharisees continued to exhibit their lack of mercy when they condemned Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus exposed their inconsistency by asking if they could save an animal on the Sabbath and then pointing out that a man was more valuable than a sheep. The laws of the Sabbath were never meant to release people from the need for mercy, whether to feed the hungry or relieve the misery of the afflicted.

Jesus regularly came into conflict with the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath but His issue wasn’t with the Sabbath; it was with the Pharisees. God didn’t create the Sabbath before making man! After creating humanity, God knew people would need a rest from the burden of work so He created the Sabbath for them. “The Sabbath,” Jesus explained, “was made to meet the needs of the people, and not the people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”

While this sacred day of rest and worship should have been viewed as a gift from God, by Jesus’ day, it had been complicated with an extensive list of restrictions (along with a variety of devious ways to skirt them). The Pharisees, however, had built their lives around rules and regulations and when Jesus questioned their authority, they called a meeting to plot His death. They didn’t understand that our God is a God of love not ritual, a God of people not regulations, a God who asks us to do is what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.

And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” [Mark 12:33 (NLT)]

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REBOOTING

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation. [1 Thessalonians 5:8 (NLT)]

After a security update, I was prompted to restart my computer. Although I didn’t want to stop writing for a reboot, malicious software—whether a virus, spyware, rootkit, ransom ware, Trojan horse, or whatever the latest threat is—can range from being merely troublesome to incredibly destructive, so I willingly stopped my work.

While waiting for the installation process to finish and my computer to restart, it occurred to me how much I’d like a similar program installed in my life. The damage done by cybercriminals and malware is nothing when compared to the devastation Satan can wreak on our lives. Instead of protecting us from attacks on our devices, an anti-sin program would have a firewall to protect us from external threats to our spiritual well-being. Once installed, it would warn us about potential trouble spots and regularly scan our thoughts to keep any sinful ones from sneaking in.

Mercifully, God has already provided an excellent anti-sin program and firewall in the armor of God. Like any computer program, however, it requires a reboot—the life changing one of accepting Jesus. And, like our computers, without regular updating, it becomes vulnerable to the latest threats. Our anti-sin program requires an on-going relationship with God and, if we’re not connected to His Holy Spirit, there’s no chance of defeating the enemy.

But, just as a computer’s anti-virus program can’t defend against the bad judgment of its user, neither can our anti-sin program. It’s not God’s fault when we sin—we have only ourselves to blame for our poor choices. Both computers and people are fallible and there will be times we get bugs in our software or, worse, simply crash. Since I’m technically challenged, when I run into computer problems, I call my tech savvy son-in-law (whose first advice usually is to reboot)! When it’s a spiritual problem, if we ask the Holy Spirit to show us what isn’t working properly and how to fix it, we can be sure He will. He’ll offer excellent tech support involving things like confession, repentance, prayer, Scripture, study, fellowship, and service.

To make it perform more efficiently, my computer regularly cleans out unnecessary files and then asks me to complete the process with a restart. Just as those useless files on my computer need to be eliminated to make room for new data, there’s a fair amount of rubbish in our minds—things like guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and resentment—that should be discarded to make room for the good news of the gospel. Don’t be surprised if a reboot is required!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

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THE RICH YOUNG RULER (Part 1)

Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” [Matthew 19:16 (NLT)]

Most of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that God would never bestow wealth on a sinner so the rich young ruler presumed he’d inherit eternal life. Nevertheless, he asked Jesus what good deed was needed to guarantee it. While we might expect Jesus to give an answer about faith in Him, He tells the man to obey the commandments. When the man wants to know which ones, Jesus lists several of the commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man. The man, unable to recognize his own sinfulness, proudly claims to have obeyed every one since childhood. Assuming Jesus will tell him he’s done all that is necessary, he asks if there is anything else he needs to do. Thinking his prosperity is evidence of God’s favor, he’s stunned when Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow Him. Unwilling to part with his possessions, the rich young man sadly departs.

Jesus, however, isn’t establishing a universal principle that, to be saved, we must all be penniless. After all, God never told Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, or Solomon to give away their wealth. Martha, Mary and Lazarus appeared to be people of means and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy, but Jesus never told them to sell their possession and give everything away.

Although the rich man’s wealth obstructed his discipleship, the issue wasn’t his wealth: it was his heart! He loved and trusted in money more than God. Without even realizing it, this man who claimed to obey the commandments had violated the first and greatest one of all: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The man couldn’t put his faith in God and follow Jesus until he stopped having faith in and following his money! We can have only one God and He must take precedence over everything else in our lives!

While it was wealth that deterred the young man from following Jesus, their exchange was about more than wealth and applies to every one of us. Indeed, wealth can be a hindrance to our salvation, but so can a number of other things—things like reputation, appearance, status, security, family, education, profession, comfort, drink or drugs, science, sex, or self. Like the rich young ruler, do we love something more than God? What would He ask you to give away?

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Matthew 6:24 (NLT)]

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