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first putting GOD first in living and giving
Devotions by Matthew L. Kelley
By Mike Slaughter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
After the Promise
Exodus 20:2-4, 22-24; 32:1-35
God doesn't like idols. God made that abundantly clear when the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai and God gave them his top-ten list describing the kind of nation he was calling them to be. No idols. Okay, got it. No sweat, right? Except that a few chapters later, there was this giant gold statue of a cow in the center of a big, wild party, while God and Moses were up on the mountain working out the fine print of the covenant. How did the Israelites go from a grateful nation of liberated slaves gladly receiving God's law one minute, to a restless group dancing around an idol the next?
Well, old habits die hard. The Hebrews had lived all their lives in Egypt, where they had seen people make sacrifices to their gods. Given how wealthy the Egyptians were, the sacrifices must have seemed to the Hebrews like a good strategy, so when they faced their own time of uncertainty in the wilderness it makes sense that they fell back on what they knew. Except that this strategy was exactly the opposite of what God wanted, and God was not happy about it.
Even more basic than old habits dying hard, though, was the fact that it's easier to put your faith in something you can see. You can wrap your mind around it. And because you can understand it, you feel some measure of control over it. By contrast, it's a whole lot harder to put your faith in an abstract idea and to keep it there when things get rough. That was exactly the challenge that these newly liberated slaves faced.
Yes, the Israelites saw God unleash plagues on Egypt and part the seas for them to escape the Egyptian cavalry. But then Moses went up on the mountain, and the people were just supposed to wait, and there were very few clues about how to find sustainable sources of food and water. They were simply supposed to trust this invisible God, who was going to get around to finishing the job whenever he got around to it. At least, that's how it must have seemed.
Given the circumstances, it makes sense that they thought the easiest way forward was to take the gold they had plundered on their way out of Egypt (that the invisible God had provided for them, ironically enough), ask Aaron to melt it down, and make an idol to see what would happen. It must have seemed more proactive than waiting around and doing nothing.
Aaron knew better, of course, but when everyone kept pressuring him, he gave in. He built the idol, even though he knew it was a bad idea. Maybe he thought it could be done before Moses returned, and Moses and God would be none the wiser. Oops.
What seems like a strange, foreign story to us in the modern world becomes a lot more understandable when we break it down to its most basic, human elements. Maybe we've seen God do great things, maybe even experienced them personally. We've been enthralled by the stories of those who have given up everything, trusted God completely, and been part of something incredible. And those stories might have lit a fire in us, causing us to make a commitment to live differently, to trust God and give as generously as we can.
But then reality sets in. We see people losing their homes and their life savings when the housing bubble bursts and the stock market crashes. We feel the pinch when the cost of gas goes up, and we see that the people around us who seem to be doing well are the ones who played it safe, who didn't take big risks and are sitting on a nice rainy-day fund. Maybe no one is actively urging us to join the crowd the way they did to Aaron, but we hear the message loud and clear. We're tempted to go back on our commitment to trust God and to return to faith in things we can see, touch, and control.
Naming our idols involves acknowledging the power they hold, power we feel even after we've named them as idols and promised to turn away from them. As you prayerfully consider the idols in your own life, remember what the Israelites learned: that the idols will still tempt you even after you turn from them. But also remember that the God who delivers you from their power will give you the strength to resist them. Place your faith in the one who remains after the idols have turned to dust.
Lord, help me to recognize the idols that hold power in my own life. Give me the courage to name them and the strength to turn away, even as others around me continue to worship them. Amen.CHAPTER 2
Taking the Long View
Deuteronomy 4:12-15; 2 Kings 17:24-41; Matthew 6:19-24
We humans are a pretty shortsighted lot. We tend to focus only on the here and now, what we can see, touch, and understand. Sure, we know that there is a future beyond this moment, but that's not as real to us as what's right in front of us. We have a hard time taking the long view.
Maybe it's not entirely our fault. After all, we are inherently limited, finite beings. What we perceive with our five senses is what is most real to us. We grasp time in relatively short spans. I can understand that what I do now will affect my life five years from now. I can understand the need to save for retirement. I can even kinda sorta understand that one day I will die. But it's hard.
We humans might be short-term thinkers, but God challenges us not to settle just for what we can wrap our minds around. Worshiping what we can create and control is what got Israel in trouble in the wilderness, and sadly, it wasn't the last time. When Moses gave his farewell address to the people before they crossed the Jordan, he reminded them that they never "saw" God during their forty years of wandering. God spoke to them through a fire, something powerful and extremely hard to control. He challenged them not to settle just for what they knew, but to trust the God who was beyond full comprehension, and certainly beyond their ability to control. In other words, Moses told the people to let God be in charge.
But did they listen? Of course not! Israel's history, like our history, is a roller coaster. People focus on what they can control, find out it doesn't work, cry to God for help, see God save the day, worship God faithfully for a while, then lose focus and lose faith, and the whole process starts all over again.
Centuries after Moses, the Israelites were living in the Promised Land, but the Northern and Southern Kingdoms had split, and the North had been overrun by the Assyrian empire. People from other lands had moved in and brought the worship of their gods with them. So the remaining Israelites chose to worship both their God and the foreign gods, basically as a way of hedging their bets. They figured that at least one of those would be the right god to pray to so the harvest would be good, and it in the process their worship of the other gods would help them get along with their neighbors. They were making their decisions based solely on what would help them right at that moment. In doing that, they were abandoning their faithfulness to the God who had delivered their ancestors from slavery.
Several centuries after that, Jesus was preaching to a large crowd and told them they needed to think long term. "Store up treasures in heaven," he said, and it remains true today. Sure, the latest gadget makes us happy right in the moment, but it's not long before it breaks down, isn't as shiny, gets stolen, or becomes obsolete once a new model comes out. Jesus urged us to sacrifice shortterm comfort and build the kind of wealth that can't get stolen, won't fade away, and will never lose its luster.
What are the pressures of short-term thinking in your own life? Do you really want that shiny new car more than you want to invest in the kingdom of God through your church or some other organization? Does the stress of paying the bills or saving enough for retirement hold you back from a commitment to tithe? What would it mean for you to take the long view? What treasures in heaven could you be pursuing right now?
Lord, help me to know and resist the idols in my own life, and to invest in eternal treasures. Help me to see my actions in light of eternity, so that everything I do will be an act of worship to you. Amen.CHAPTER 3
In the movie The Matrix, there is a great scene in which Neo, recently "unplugged" from a giant machine that uses human beings as batteries and awakened to the real world, is unlearning all the things he thought he knew. Morpheus, the leader of the rebel humans resisting the machines, is teaching Neo the new fighting skills that have been uploaded into his brain. After some amazing kung-fu sparring, Neo bends over, gasping for air, and says that Morpheus is too fast.
Morpheus replies, "Do you think that my being faster or stronger than you has anything to do with my muscles? You think that's air you're breathing?" Neo is still convinced that everything he is seeing at that moment is real, even though on some level he knows that he's inside a computer program. But knowing it in abstract and really believing it are two entirely different things. The rest of the film shows Neo's journey to let go of his illusions and grasp what is real.
The Matrix got people talking about deep philosophical and theological questions. How do we know what is real and what is not? Do we trust our senses, or can they be fooled as easily as in the movie? How do we know that what we think we know is in fact true?
Idols are like the machines in The Matrix. They're not as systematic, and maybe not as sinister, but their effect on us is just as harmful. The idols we worship and put in place of God turn us into something less than we were created to be. We end up giving our energy to something that sucks us dry and provides nothing in return. All that for something that's not even real!
The psalmist points out the folly of giving our worship to idols. Idols look real, but they can't hear our prayers or speak a word to answer them. They're shiny, but when you get down to it they're just atoms arranged in a certain way, no different from the dust that you swept out your door this morning. These idols aren't real. They're nothing. And when we worship nothing, we get nothing in return.
An idol—whether it's a statue, a job title, a desired salary level, or our dream house—can't give us real and lasting satisfaction, because it's not alive. It's not real. Only the living God can give us anything real and life-giving in return.
For us to get our priorities in line, we must unlearn many of the things we were taught about, like what is important in life. It's not enough to know in the abstract that money and power and status aren't the most important things in the world. We can say it all we want, but unless our actions match, they're just as empty and meaningless as the idols we're warned against worshiping.
In Neo's training to free his mind, Morpheus loads the "jump program," in which the two of them are on top of a tall building, and the task is to jump to the top of another tall building far away. Neo takes the leap, but he's so invested in gravity that his mind can't grasp the situation, and he slams into the pavement.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you suddenly realized your words and your actions didn't line up? How does it feel to be struck with the truth that you're not where you want to be in life? What are the idols that you know are idols but still have a grip on you? Has there ever been a point when you realized that whatever you were worshiping wasn't giving you anything in return?
Lord, I don't have the strength to let go of my idols on my own. Only you can help me do that. Help me to lay them aside and give my absolute best to you. Amen.CHAPTER 4
Daniel 2:24-28, 3:7-30
All of us need people in our lives who are courageous enough to tell us uncomfortable truths. Many of us don't want to hear about things we need but don't want, and still fewer of us want to deal with the consequences of telling a truth that will upset a friend. People willing to resist those impulses and tell the truth are heroes.
Consider these four biblical heroes: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These four young men were Jews who were carried off to Babylon after Jerusalem fell. They were identified as being among the best and brightest of the exiles, so they were selected to be trained in the language and culture of the empire, and to be given important positions in the imperial government. The logic of the empire was that it was not enough to have a military victory: The spirit of the conquered people must be broken by getting the most promising young people to turn their backs on the religion and culture of their birth and become Babylonians.
But these four young men showed incredible strength in resisting the empire's attempt to wipe out their culture. They stayed faithful to God, even though all their immediate circumstances (and more than a few people around them) said to give in. "Yeah, it stinks what happened to your home country, but that's your ancestors' fault, not yours. Just go through the motions of acknowledging these new gods while remaining loyal to the real God in your heart. It's a win-win situation."
But not Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They had the courage to remain loyal to the God of Israel and avoid doing anything that even remotely suggested otherwise. Their courage became even more impressive when they faced dire consequences for telling the truth.
King Nebuchadnezzar had been having some strange dreams that he wanted to have interpreted, and it just so happened that Daniel had the gift of interpreting dreams. Daniel had just seen the wisest men in Babylon executed for failing to interpret the dreams, so Daniel knew he should be careful about what he said. But when Daniel stood there before the king, he stated that the source of his gift is was the God of Israel, not the gods that Nebuchadnezzar worshiped. Pretty bold.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced an even clearer choice. Everyone who didn't worship the golden statue would be thrown into a furnace. When the three of them were hauled before the king to explain their refusal to worship the statue, they replied that God might or might not rescue them, but they would not worship the idol. Thrown into the furnace, they were met by an angel and were not even singed. Their miraculous survival so impressed Nebuchadnezzar that he changed his mind and acknowledged the God of Israel.
Telling an uncomfortable truth in the face of strong opposition is not an easy or fun thing to do, but showing that kind of courage doesn't go unnoticed. Someone might get angry with you for taking a nonjudgmental, principled stand; but then again, they might just respect the courage it takes and consider the possibility that you're right.
What would it look like for you to resist the power of the idols around you and label them as such without condemning those who disagree with you?
If you and your coworkers are getting bonuses, and they're all planning to spend the money on a car or a boat, you might decide to contribute to your church's project to build an orphanage or dig wells in parts of the world where people die every day from a lack of clean drinking water.
If many of your friends are moving to bigger houses just because they can afford it, you might choose to remain where you are, being satisfied with having what you need and not accumulating more just because you are able to.
Maybe you have friends who are clearly orienting their priorities around making more money or getting promotions, and in doing so they are being dishonest or compromising a value they hold dear. In that moment, when you see the idol for what it is, can you muster the courage to challenge your friends' choices, lovingly, and invite them to withdraw their worship from that idol?
Whatever life situation you find yourself in, may you gain the courage to tell an uncomfortable truth, and the humility to listen when someone tells that truth to you.
Lord, help me to know and resist the idols in my own life. Give me the courage to resist their temptation, even when that resistance may cost me in the moment. Amen.CHAPTER 5
In Matthew 8, we see Jesus performing miracles, and because people are impressed, they want to follow him. Sounds like a great opportunity to grow the movement, right? This is Jesus' opportunity to expand his influence and change a lot of lives!
At least, that's our logic. It's certainly the logic of church growth! But Jesus, as usual, does what we least expect him to do. One guy comes and tells Jesus that he wants to join up, but that he needs to go and bury his father first. Jesus tells him quite bluntly to "let the dead bury their own dead."
Wait, what? Is Jesus telling a man to let his father's corpse rot? Can't Jesus let the guy catch up with the group in a day or two? Is Jesus really that insensitive?
Well, no. That's not quite what is going on here. Jesus is a preacher and sometimes tends to exaggerate, but this isn't one of those times. The issue here is about standard cultural expectations and practices.
Excerpted from first putting GOD first in living and giving by Mike Slaughter. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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