Praying with Mixed Motives

David was an inspiring and capable leader and his list of achievements are impressive. But he was also an ambitious ruler. He had, for example, built himself a palace to complement his status as the ruler of Israel. Then he had consolidated the twin symbols of statehood by bringing the tabernacle in which God’s people worshipped, into Jerusalem. But when he looked out from his palace to the new centre of religious worship, the Holy of Holies remained housed in a tent. Compared with the other nations, the absence of a building made the worship of God seem cheapened. So David asked God if he could build a temple to house Israel’s worship. Initially, Nathan, the prophet agreed (2 Sam 7:1-5), but in a dream that night, Nathan was told that David could not proceed. The reason? David is a warrior and is tainted with the history of past battles. His feet have blood spilt on them (1 Ki 5:3; 1 Chron 22:8; 28:2-3).
The story exposes David’s mixed motives when he prays (a common aspect of our own prayers as well.). David wants the twin symbols of national power: a palace and a temple in his new capital. God will answer his prayer, but differently from his expectations. Despite his mixed motives, God will honour him (in fulfilment of Deut 12). God will build a house (a lineage) for David and appoint his son (who will be Solomon) to build the house of God. But there is more; God promises that this son and his successors will never be rejected; God’s love for him will be unconditional and enduring for ever. David didn’t receive what he wanted, but he was given something far better, and his lineage becomes the basis for Christ’s status as the ‘Son of David’.

Without holiness no one can see God

Worshipping God is not something to be entered into casually. To stand before him, or to encounter him in daily life, will give rise to an immediate awareness that God is holy. It is dangerous to think that God can be fooled or treated in an offhand way. In today’s reading from the Old Testament (2 Samuel 6:1-23), we are left with three disturbing images of people who have made various responses to God’s holiness.

The first is by Uzzah, who reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant which seems about to topple over on a cart. He is struck dead by the LORD. He has violated God’s holiness (similar to the Philistines in 1 Sam ch 6). The next image is of David exuberantly dancing semi-naked before The Ark as it is brought into Jerusalem. He is full of joy that God’s dwelling will now be in the new city he has founded. The third is the sour face of David’s wife, Michal (2 Sam 6:20). She despises David’s obvious love for God expressed enthusiastically in dance. As the daughter of Saul (2 Sam 6:16), she is bitter that her father was not the one doing what David has achieved and nurses deep resentment that she has been forcibly taken from her husband and given back to David who had won her as a trophy for getting 100 Philistine foreskins. She has been traded like war booty as a condition of his agreement to become king over Israel (2 Sam 3:13-16). The consequence of her bitterness was that she bore no children, probably because David refused to sleep with her, rather than as a sign that God’s blessing had been taken from her. “Without holiness,” writes the author of Hebrews, “. . . no one can see God.” (Heb 12:14. See also Matt 5:8).

Recognising God’s Call

The Australian composer of modern music, Peter Sculthorpe, always wanted to do one thing in life: it was to compose music. Not all agreed. At the age of seven, following his first piano lesson, he composed a little composition which he took to his second music lesson to show his teacher. His music teacher was not impressed and canned him. Peter persisted, but in secret. Another obstacle was his father. He didn’t understand the strange compositions his son was making and considered music unlikely to provide him with a living. He preferred he join his brother Roger in the family business which was a sports store in Launceston. Following his graduation from Melbourne University, Peter was broke and had to join his brother in the family store. On his 25th birthday, he sat on his parents’ bed, burst into tears, and announced “I’m a quarter of a century old, and I’ve done nothing!” (It is never wise to compare oneself
with Mozart who produced wonderful music at the age of 7.) At this point, his father gave up his expectation that he should continue to work in the family business.

This story illustrates what obstacles Jesus faced in order to follow his own calling to do the will of his Father, our God. Jesus had made a name as a healer and a prophet; a rabbi of some note. But when visiting his hometown, his family and the townsfolk he was met with disbelief. They could not recognise him for who he was and his calling due to their lack of faith (Mark 6:1-6). Recognising God’s call in our own life will often be met with obstacles, but we must persist in order to respond to what we know deep down, is our calling: to accept his commission and to follow him.

Flawed Heroes

“How the mighty have fallen!” cried David when he lamented the death of king Saul. (2 Samuel 1 vss 19, 25, 27). Saul was not what we would consider a ‘success’. He had disobeyed God’s command to destroy Israel’s enemies, the Amalekites, turned to a medium in desperation and acted out of self preservation when pressured by his troops to save the best (1 Sam 15:7- 26). Every leader has spectacular failings. John F. Kennedy had affairs, as did Martin Luther King. Richard Nixon lied and conspired to pervert the course of justice. Recent findings by the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse have turned the spot light on many cases of abuse by leaders in positions of power in social and sporting clubs, churches and institutions with the responsibility to care for the disabled and vulnerable.

Saul did have some military successes. He had begun to bind the disjointed tribes of Israel together as a nation and he saved the city of Jabesh (1 Sam ch 11). David is magnanimous in his lament which is surprising given how Saul had hunted him in order to kill him. But even David had his faults – and they were equally as spectacular as Saul’s. In fact, almost every ‘hero’ of the Bible has faults exposed. There was one man, our Lord Jesus Christ, who although tempted and tested, did not fail in his obedience to God (Hebrews 5:8). The Bible gives an unvarnished account of heroes of the faith and their faults – to teach us wisdom. It is not book which we read, but a book which reads us and casts a light on our own moral weaknesses and temptations.

David and Goliath

1 Samuel 17 relates the encounter between David and Goliath and is perhaps the best known of all our Old Testament stories. Little guy beats big guy. It is often referenced that way in popular culture. But what does it mean for us today? What is the lesson to be gleaned for our own lives?

In Chapter 15 we read that Saul, the king, has disobeyed God’s commands and is out of favour with God. In Chapter 16 God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse and still a stripling, as the future king.

Now the Philistine army is on the war path and they face the army of Israel, across a valley. But they are at a stalemate. 9 foot tall Goliath steps out as the champion of the Philistines and waits for the Israelites to respond. Saul doesn’t know what to do. David, who is still too young to be a warrior and only came to bring food for his brothers, does know what to do.

With God on his side and in his heart, David appreciates the situation perfectly, and understands precisely what he can do about it. He stands up and plays his part, and sees it through to the end: a victory for those who have placed themselves in God’s hands.

Do we always see accurately what is happening around us? Do we see the contribution we might make? Do we stand up when we can, and strike a blow for the kingdom of God? Can we face the fear and unpleasantness that we might have to go through? By putting all of his skills and experience in God’s service, David grows in stature, and proves himself a worthy future king of Israel

Obedience

Many a Christian has not progressed far in their spiritual life beyond the first base of believing and trusting in our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is simple. The first thing they must learn to go deeper with God and to enjoy the slow, but steady transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, is that obedience to God is not optional, but essential. Many a ‘would-be’ believer, has fallen by the wayside, because they have not understood this simple truth. You see, Jesus is called, ‘the Lord’ for good reason. He is the Lord over heaven and earth, which is confirmed by his resurrection, and he is the Lord over the lives of men and women. He holds the keys to death and Hades (Rev 1:18).

King Saul, who precedes King David, learnt the truth painfully that obedience to God takes priority over all other things. He failed God’s command to destroy the Amalekites completely (1 Sam 15:7-14). He withheld some of the cattle and sheep and did not kill Agag the Amalekite king. Perhaps he thought that kings deserved special treatment (1 Sam 15:15-20). Saul justified his actions by appealing to his intention to offer them to the Lord (vs 21). Samuel the prophet differs and accuses him of acting in self-interest. Saul has not understood the seriousness of disobedience. He has, as so many have thought, that by offering the right sacrifices and do the ‘right thing religious things’ (actions) for God, he will justify himself. It won’t. His actions are equated with rebellion and idolatry and have brought upon him God’s rejection. For the Christian today, we are to question ourselves: is our heart right and obedient toward God?

Actions Speak Louder than Words

The Bible does not offer long winded definitions about what love means. The reason is due in part to the more precise language used in both the Old and New Testaments (Hebrew and Greek). In English however, our word ‘love’ is defined by its context. For example, I love ice-cream, I love my dog and I love my wife. You would not for one moment think I loved each exactly in the same way or to the same degree.

The Bible prefers to give illustrations of what God’s love looks like in action. For example, there is the parable of the farmer searching for his lost sheep (Matt 18:12-14); the husband who is willing to take back his adulterous wife (Hosea ch. 1), the father who waits at the farm gate daily, looking down the road into the distance waiting for his wayward son to return (Luke 15:11-32). In our reading of 1 John 4:1-21 today, John does not give a definition of God’s love; he also prefers to tell us how this love is demonstrated. Actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words.

God, John tells us, showed his love by sending his Son into our world, a world which is rejecting him and disinterested in him, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9). Love is demonstrated by God making the first move; he sought us out before we were interested in him, and he gave his only Son to atone for our sins (4:10). The sacrifice we see in Christ’s death is the hallmark of genuine love. For this reason, John calls us to express our love for each other as God has for them (4:11). In contrast, those who have split from John’s churches, do not. Love is the mark of a genuine disciple of Christ (John 13:34-35).

Love is the Hallmark of a True Believer

It sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? Love one another. John’s letter (1 John 3:11-20), merely reinforces what Jesus himself had said in John 13:34. One minister I heard of stood up on Sunday morning and preached just this text for his sermon. Then he sat down. The next week, he preached the same message, ‘love one another’ and sat down. By the third Sunday, his congregation were getting uneasy. Then he did it again. Finally they understood. They had to actually practice what they had heard. Love is shown by our actions (1 John 3:16-17). The church became transformed and grew.

John makes a contrast between the person who loves their fellow Christian and those who claim to be a member of the church, but hate their fellow believer (1 John 3:12-15). They are like Cain who hated his brother Abel and murdered him. To hate is as good as murder. It also shows that the person who hates, remains in a place of death, not living in the life of God through his Spirit.

Why does John state things so bluntly and starkly? Because how we speak to each other, how we treat each other and how we fail to care for each other, indicate our love or lack of love. Those who speak ill and mistreat their fellow believer, do not demonstrate that they have passed from ‘death to life’ (1 John 3:14).

Love is the hallmark of a true believer. Jesus said: ‘By your love people will know you are my disciples.’ (John 13:34) No love, no indication that you are a disciple of Christ, and this in turn, is no indication that you really belong to God, or live in Christ. (1 John 3:23-24)

The World and the Love of God

For many years, Australia’s economy has grown without a recession. To all appearances, our prosperity has increased (if we ignore the unemployed and poor). Living in the ‘most liveable city in the world’, Melbourne, is good, and people are generally law abiding and neighbourly. It might come as a surprise then, to read John’s view of our society and our relationship to it. He is negative about it and critical of those who ‘love’ it. He describes our society as ‘the world’ (1 Jn 2:15). His use of this description refers to a quality within our society which is in rebellion against God and coolly indifferent to him. It is not a criticism of the material world that we live in, or else Christ himself would not have taken on our flesh (materiality), and lived amongst us. It is criticism of the spirit which animates our society and all those who do not belong to God. The ‘world’s values’ are expressed by our preoccupation and love of things and pleasure (1 Jn 2:16). It is one which celebrates ruthless ambition and success, yet it is indifferent to the poor and disadvantaged (1 Jn 3:17). The world, for John, stands in stark contrast to the love we are to have for God. A love for this world creates within a disciple of Christ a divided loyalty to opposing and irreconcilable claims.

Those who do the will of God will live for ever; those who do not, dwell in the darkness, and will perish with this world (1 Jn 2:17). But, as God’s children who are called to live in the expectation and hope of seeing Christ, this hope leads them to purify themselves from this world’s empty promises, so that we might not be ashamed when we meet Christ again (1 Jn 3:1-6).

What Are We to Believe?

In an age, long, long ago, before Christianity was legally recognised by the Roman Emperor, before there were church buildings and Christians met in homes and huddled outside after sundown on the Sunday when their work was finished; before dioceses existed with a bishop to oversee them, before there was a pope, before there was general acceptance of the Apostles Creed and what books were considered orthodox and complied into what we would now call, ‘The New Testament’; the fledgling early church relied on prophets, teachers, itinerant evangelists and the ‘memoirs of the apostles’ (the NT letters), which were read at their church services. A sense of orthodox ‘tradition’ guided local church leadership in their practice and doctrine (1 Cor 15:3; 2 Thess 2:15)

But it was a free for all religious world, with charismatic Christian leaders establishing their own churches. Often they broke away from a church which could trace its foundation to one of the apostles, or a second generation leader who had been instructed by that apostle (Heb 2:2-3). What was to be done when a group of Christians leaves an established church over a disagreement about who they believed Jesus Christ to be? How could a Christian identify a ‘true’ church from one which was heretical and had ‘dodgy’ practices and beliefs? Does it matter? Today, we face the same issue. What are we to believe? Is the church down the road part of the big ‘Church’ or just doing their own thing? Does the behaviour by people in any church tell us something about their beliefs? John believes it does. These issues are what the First Letter of John deals with.