In Deuteronomy 12, there is a warning to God’s people:
“30 do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.’ 31 You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates…”
I often wonder what it is that we need to pay attention to in our own culture, what are our gods? What are the things that demand our allegiance and take up our time and resources? What are the items or people or symbols to which we are to pay homage? What demands our trust and requires our dedication?
Well, let me suggest a few things that we might want to avoid, because they are American gods that compete with the Lord God Almighty in our lives.
Our homes are filled with stuff. We build bigger and bigger houses with more closets and storage space in order to keep all the things we purchase, or put on lines of credit. We rush out to buy the newest item, outfit, or gadget knowing that in a matter of days or months it will be completely obsolete, but we buy it anyway and we store it anyway. This unquenchable desire for more, better, and newer stuff is nothing more than what the Bible calls “covetousness.” We will never be happy indulging our materialistic desires because it is a trap to keep our focus on ourselves and not on God.
Our modern technology, especially movies, radio, TV, and now the Internet have opened up the world to our fingertips with promises of fame and the desire to be discovered. So now fame and celebrity are largely unquestioned, even among Christians. Being famous is always better than not being famous, and becoming a celebrity is always something to be applauded. The idea that anyone would want to sink back into obscurity seems strange. Paul’s teaching to become “less so that others may become more” is irrational, not to mention Jesus’ teaching to go about our good works “in secret” so that God can bless us. Many, if not most, people will sacrifice virtually anything for a chance for them, or their child, to become famous—the arenas are many including entertainment, sports, or even academia...even among church groups and ministers!
The late comedian George Carlin said: "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” Now, while you may not like the word stupid, the idea that politics can solve our issues or that a particular politician is a messianic figure posed to save us from all evil (that the last administration set up) is just…well, stupid. Understand this, elected officials are deeply rooted in “short-term” thought. They can only think ahead as far as the next election when, once again, they must effectively re-interview for their jobs. Additionally, they are naturally populist and must constantly bear in mind their public image. Their popularity and their existence go hand-in-hand and if the fickle public decides to change its mind, it is likely the politician will not be re-elected. How can this system, or person, produce the type of salvation that is promised every four to eight years?
Sports - college/professional
Sports have it all: money, fame, sex, technology, and immense and growing economic clout. It is professional sports that powers collegiate sports, to the point where the line between “professional” and “amateur” is often blurry at best. College sports power high-school sports—which power elementary school sports. A huge, interlocking system, a hierarchy. Compare the salaries and perks of university head coaches and athletic directors with those of presidents and deans as a first indicator of its power. Look at sports and media budgets at all levels, but especially high school and colleges. From the outside looking in, the idolatry is plain to see. From the inside, even to raise the question is betrayal and foolishness.
Our society worships at the altar of sex, and by extension, the altar of lust, pornography, and sensationalism. Every part of our daily lives seems to honor and revolve around sex. There is no escaping the pervasive presence of indulgent sex. It has infiltrated every corner of our culture and radically changed the way we view ourselves and the way we treat each other. The worst damage we inflict isn't physical; it's mental and spiritual. When everything we say and do is viewed through the lens of sexuality we reduce ourselves to objects. We turn ourselves over to the hungry impulse of physical desire, so that the final goal of every decision is our own satisfaction. But does this really satisfy us, or simply beg for more and more?
We worship at the altar of self-aggrandizement or self-fulfillment to the exclusion of other people and their needs and desires. This reveals itself in self-indulgence through many things, but we can focus on alcohol, drugs, and food for the purpose of example. Those in affluent countries have unlimited access to alcohol, drugs (prescription drug use is at an all-time high, even among children), and food. Obesity rates in the U.S. have increased rapidly, and childhood diabetes is an epidemic. The self-control we so desperately need is rejected in our insatiable desire to eat, drink, and medicate more and more. We resist any effort to get us to curb our appetites, and we are determined to make ourselves the god of our lives. We know that this will never ultimately fulfill us, but we keep falling for it over and over again.
This often takes the form of obsession with careers and jobs since we tend to identify ourselves with what we “do.” Millions of men, and increasingly more women, spend 60-80 hours a week working. Even on the weekends and during vacations, our laptops are humming, our cell phones are dinging, and our minds are whirling with thoughts of how to create more success; how to get that promotion, how to get the next raise, how to close the next deal, how to publish the next paper, etc. In the meantime, our children and our spouses are starving for attention and love. We fool ourselves into thinking we are doing it for them, to give them a better life, but we are really doing it for ourselves. We strive to increase our self-esteem by appearing more successful, but what are we sacrificing to appear this way? This is foolish.
The words of Deuteronomy 12:32 should resonate in our hearts, “so be careful to obey…”
If you have been around Christian circles for a while, I’m sure you have read and maybe even memorized Micah 6:8. It is a beautiful passage in which the prophet reacts to the rigid requirements of the sacrificial system and simply states what is truly required from those that want to serve the Lord God. I love this passage and like many others, I try to live it.
In Deuteronomy, that question also appears. Moses is speaking to God’s people and wants to point them in the right direction. Now, let’s be clear that this is before the writing of Micah, and the sacrificial system was newer and probably way more exciting. So, while I see the benefit of quoting Micah, loving Micah, and seizing upon Micah’s call; I also want us to hear Moses too…
10:12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. 13 And you must always obey the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.”
Moses also provides the reasoning behind this approach to God; namely to fear the Lord, please Him, love Him, and obey Him.
10:17 “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. 18 He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. 19 So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. 20 You must fear the Lord your God and worship him and cling to him. Your oaths must be in his name alone. 21 He alone is your God, the only one who is worthy of your praise, the one who has done these mighty miracles that you have seen with your own eyes.”
So, let’s get this straight! Moses makes the claim that God requires His people to fear Him, please Him, love Him, and obey Him. This needs to be done because it is grounded in who God is and what He has done among His people. Verse 21 sums up the thought, “He alone is your God, the only one who is worthy of your praise, the one who has done these mighty miracles that you have seen with your own eyes.”
Notice the invitation from Moses to the people in 10:16…“Therefore, change your hearts and stop being stubborn.” I think we get to Micah’s “do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” through Deuteronomy’s “fear Him, please Him, love Him, and obey Him.” And regardless of the way we want to walk with God, and regardless of the time period - we are invited to change our hearts and stop being stubborn!
We bow our Hearts
We bend our knees
Oh Spirit come make us humble
We turn our eyes from evil things
Oh Lord we cast down our idols
So give us clean hands
Give us pure hearts
Let us not lift our souls to another… (Give us Clean Hands by MercyMe)
In Luke 7, we read this interesting story:
7 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people, he returned to Capernaum. 2 At that time the highly valued slave of a Roman officer was sick and near death. 3 When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. 4 So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, 5 “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us.”
6 So Jesus went with them. But just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. 7 I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. 8 I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” 10 And when the officer’s friends returned to his house, they found the slave completely healed.
This is an odd but refreshing text, let me explain. The person of great faith is a Roman officer, a Centurion, who is a symbol of an occupying enemy of Israel. Yet, the officer has proven himself to be both respectful and friendly to Israel. First, he built them a synagogue. Second, he knew enough to talk to respected Jewish elders and have them address Jesus on his behalf. Third, the officer understood the ramifications of a Jewish teacher entering the home of a Gentile, and so the officer asks Jesus not to enter his house because he realizes the “honor” it would be and concludes that he is unworthy of it. Of course, in this story the officer shows great respect for Jesus and even respect for Jesus’ power to heal from a distance as much as from physically being present.
When you read the text, did you notice how surprised Jesus was? Jesus is described as “amazed” and turns to tell the crowd how much the faith of the Roman officer had impacted him. Just to be clear, the story starts off with a brief description of the problem for a foreign occupying nation’s officer. His slave is sick to the point of death, but why should Jesus care? Well, this enemy has shown great respect to the Jewish people, and is known and respected by the elders. Yet, here is a man that has no feelings of entitlement to Jesus, and he actually teaches us how to trust Jesus.
Does Jesus owe you something? Are you part of the special group to which Jesus should cater? If I am honest with myself, I sometimes feel that my work and dedication to Jesus is not a debt I owe God, but builds a debt that God owes me. However, the Roman officer didn’t know of such mind games, but knew there was a slim chance that this Jewish healer would even look his way. And when Jesus not only looked his way, but healed his slave and took notice of his faith; We gain some insight into what Jesus means when he asks us to, “Love our enemies.” (Luke 6:27) And you might be thinking that this was easier to do because the enemy officer was so respectful and kind, but the other side of that thought is that this would be harder to do because we cannot stereotype and hate a person who breaks the conventional image of an enemy!
Lord, help us love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, especially since you have been there and done that!
In what will be an ongoing battle with the Pharisees and other teachers of the law, Jesus makes a statement about, well, healthcare. Jesus responds to a question about why he eats and drinks with “such scum” by declaring,
“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” (Luke 5:31)
Well, now, time out Jesus! I have been told that preventative medicine is the way to go. I mean, after all, we need to have our yearly check-ups and we need to periodically come to understand the condition of our health so that we can adjust things, like diet and exercise, as we age and go through life. But it seems like Jesus just avoids any discussion of preventative medicine in his declaration. This is, until we read the next line.
Luke 5:32 I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”
Ohhhhhh!! Now we have something - don’t we. What does the word “healthy” mean, Jesus? If that time was anything like this time, then healthy is a comparison game. Well, I’m not as heavy as he is… I’m not in a wheelchair like that one friend I know… It’s sad that she can’t take care of herself… and we make a list of persons who are more unhealthy than we are, and so we look healthy!
And that describes the Pharisees and teachers’ approach to everything spiritual. Thus, they didn’t need a doctor or a savior, because they were healthy! Jesus, however, knowing that they hadn’t been in for their spiritual check-ups and had no idea the reality of their spiritual condition does not try to convince them of their unrighteousness. Jesus simply asserts that he goes to dine with “scum” because they need cleaned up, and they know it!
The Pharisees are the “poster children” for spiritual preventative care. Do you know anyone who “thinks they are righteous” and no longer needs to practice preventative care? Are you one of those people? Notice that Jesus doesn’t call those people, but those who know they are spiritually sick without him! Here is a preventative appointment you need to make and some questions to ask of yourself:
Remember: “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5)
In Numbers 35, there is an interesting passage in which the people of Israel are told by God to set up “cities of refuge,” here is how it reads:
35:9 The Lord said to Moses, 10 “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.
“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. 12 These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. 13 Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, 14 three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. 15 These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.
Now, there are a few things going on here that need to be explained or highlighted. First and foremost, these cities of refuge were set up to provide asylum for those who accidentally murdered someone. If the person purposefully committed murder, then they are to be put to death but the “family avenger” (this is the role of Boaz in his dealing with Ruth, the situation and duty was different, but the role was the same).
Second, because the “family avenger” will be zealous to do his duty, there must be a time of tempering and trial. The cities of refuge provide an opportunity for the trial to take place under the care and concern of the community and priest…not just the family who lost a loved one. Thus, if the murder is found to be intentional, the person is handed over to the family avenger for punishment; but if the murder is unintentional, then the person will be able to live in the city of refuge without fear of harm.
Third, the person must stay in the city of refuge to be safe. If a person murders someone unintentionally, they are safe in the city but they are not bound to the city. They may choose to leave, but when they do they put themselves in danger of being killed by the family avenger. Oh, and if the person is killed by the family avenger outside the city of refuge, there is no penalty for such an action. The only safe way out of the city of refuge for the murderer is if the high priest dies, then the murderer is released to roam where he or she wants to go.
Fourth, if you read this chapter in the Bible you will notice a high regard for the land that has to accept the blood of the murdered person. The problem is not only how people treat each other, but also that the “promised land” should not have to drink the blood of murdered individuals. The land itself is a witness to God’s promises fulfilled - both in providing them a place to call home and a place where God is present. Notice that no murder is seen as “innocent” but the level of guilt is differentiated by the terms - intentional or unintentional. The text reassures the people concerning these laws.
35:33 This will ensure that the land where you live will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land. And no sacrifice except the execution of the murderer can purify the land from murder. 34 You must not defile the land where you live, for I live there myself. I am the Lord, who lives among the people of Israel.”
What can we take from this? Well, that is what has my head spinning. I have been thinking about how we react to criminals and the assumptions we make, and the way we go to social media to spew outrage and emotions. I often wonder what their families think and how justified immediate reactions are. I also read the descriptions of murders in this passage and obviously didn’t hear anything about firearms…just stones and wooden objects. So, while we have been innovative in how we kill each other, the results, reactions, and need for justice remains about the same. I think we need places of refuge in our lives, and they don’t entirely match the function of these ancient places, but maybe the thought behind them might be the same.
We need space to:
Not only do I need this but I need to extend a refuge to others; especially the foreigners living with me and those just traveling through.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.