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The Centurion's Tale


February 1

The Second Greatest Power

Job 5:11

Winston Churchill, in his magnificent history of the Second World War, points out an interesting characteristic of British diplomacy. Over several hundred years, with varying regimes and styles, it was the policy of the British to ally themselves with the second strongest power in Europe, opposed to the strongest power in Europe. Whether France, Spain or Germany, the enemy was always the great aggressive nation; the ally, the second strongest.

He points out that this is not from any sense of noblesse oblige, or misguided charity. It is a very practical policy. Britain is an island nation. She has the choice of joining the war or not, as long as her fleet rules the sea. To join with the strongest power on land gives very little chance to correct her behavior. To join with the second strongest is to correct her behavior, and likely as not prevent war from breaking out.

The point is almost a divine one. (Blessed are the peacemakers.) God does much the same thing in dealing with the humble and the proud. Do you not see that if God were to decide that the easy way to bring worship to his name was to simply have the thugs of earth require it , then he would have (in effect) ordained the thugs. The effect on the rest of us would be rather disastrous—worship the loving God, or else! Pray to the Prince of Peace, or I’ll bust your head open! No, God would not confirm the proud in their pride that way—if only because that pride would grow stronger, driving them further away from God.

Humility, if one must define it, is an honest look at yourself—especially in comparison to God. Pride is looking down on others, which prevents one from looking up to God. How can the proud seek God, unless he humbles them?

To make this clear, God deals with the humble so as to exalt them. If the proud and powerful are exalted, that is the way of the world. When the sad and lowly are exalted, it is the hand of God. So it is that he delights in sheltering and lifting up those who are the poor and oppressed of this world.

So do not be surprised at his treatment of the humble. It is his way, for he desires that all might be saved.

Lord, we see the arrogant and we are filled with envy. Those with power treat those without as if they were so many fleas. Let us see your compassion in the treatment of the humble and lowly, so that we may see your hand at work.

February 2

God Listens to the Humble Heart

Psalm 10:17-18

When we hear that someone is “of humble means” we usually take that to mean that his check book is empty. I submit that is a special case of humility: humility is the poverty of expectation. Those who are rich expect good things to happen to them (especially when they pay for it). But those who are poor learn quickly to set their expectations low, even if their dreams are set high. So it is that we see humility as being something one has, or does not have, and there is pretty much nothing to be done about it.

It is not so; we are taught that if God’s people will humble themselves and pray, God will hear. Humility is not just a status, it is not simply an attitude, it is also an action. It is the deliberate action of going before Almighty God and admitting that we have problems—which we cannot in our own power and wisdom solve. It is to say to God that our expectations are set very low, because only he could raise them up. We’re in deep trouble, we need help and there is no one to save us—but God.

So it is that God promises to the humble that he will strengthen their hearts. We know this well, I hope. Most of us in poor circumstances are quite sorrowful, depressed and have no hope. But there are some who have taken their troubles to the Lord. He may or may not change their circumstances; but he does give them hope. Sometimes it is simply that we have someone who listens and cares for us.

Nowhere is this better shown than when God vindicates. When the world around us oppresses the lowly—it is the way of the world since man arrived—God steps in. He is the friend of the friendless, “the hope of all who seek him, the joy of all who find.” He moves in the hearts of the meek, and things change.

Interestingly, this is often sufficient to change the situation. Much of the world’s way of keeping the oppressed in that condition (where it is much more profitable for the oppressors) is simply to make known that there is no hope of change. Don’t try anything, because it won’t work. Then God says, try my way—it never fails. He lifts our heads, we take heart and in his name conquer.

Lord, how often we have held our heads in our hands, thinking that nothing could be done. “Nothing” is very strong; but you are stronger. Drive the nothing from our hearts and replace it with your glorious hope.

February 3

God Teaches the Humble

Psalm 25:9

The best baseball coach I ever met (Little League, to be specific) put it this way: “I can teach anything but attitude.” We were working with young boys, eight to nine years old, and we found it to be true. Those with poor attitudes simply never got it right. It was our good fortune, however, to have most of the boys with a positive attitude, which made them very teachable. The coach’s skill combined with willing hearts added up to a league championship. I learned a lot from that man.

One other thing I learned (again) is that leadership is greater than management. God leads the humble in justice. He doesn’t just point the way and wish us a nice trip. Consider his example:

· His standard of righteousness is perfection. If it isn’t entirely right, it isn’t right. For us, that means the Cross—for we have no other route to righteousness.

· He has the same standard for all. Perfect righteousness without Christ, but “whosoever will” for those in Christ. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

· As Christ showed us in the temptation in the wilderness, righteousness can have no alliance with evil. Christ even forbade the demons to testify to who He is.

He teaches the humble his way. There is a certain obvious note to that. He certainly does not teach the proud his way—for as long as they are proud, why would they listen to him? To the proud, “my” is a special word—my things, my way, my ideas, my outcomes, my righteousness. The humble, by contrast, seek the things of God, for they know the worthlessness of the things of this world. In seeking him they find his greatness, his surpassing love and providential care. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the humble that when the things of God are told, they are “hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” The old, old story never goes stale; it always has its power to strengthen the hearts of the humble. Blessed are the meek, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Lord, it is hard for us to humble ourselves, even before you. Our world teaches us that victory belongs to the most arrogant; that the things of this world are all that are desirable; that these things require us to be arrogant to obtain them. Your way is perfect; not to strut, but to go to our knees and ask. It is through the humble and contrite heart that your blessings flow.

February 4

Hope in the Lord

Psalm 131

It is a very short Psalm. It is all the more remarkable for who wrote it. David—the author of this piece on humility—was the king of Israel. Not just a name in the history books, he is the greatest king Israel would know until the coming of the Christ. This is the man whose career started with Goliath, overthrowing his predecessor, Saul, by his manly virtues; the scourge of Israel’s enemies. Of all kings, this one should be proud.

And he is not. He has not forgotten his origin. In his own family he was so little thought of that his father, when the prophet came to anoint the new king, left David with the sheep and had the other seven stand before Samuel. Dad never expected much out of the runt of the litter.

This is fitting. The law tells a king that he must copy out the law onto a scroll and read it every day—so that “his heart is not lifted above his countrymen.” Evidently David learned this well.

· He knows not to be proud or haughty.

· He knows not to get involved in things too great for him—a lesson that many a monarch learns the hard way. He knows his limits.

· He knows not to delve into things too difficult for him. It is a great principle of leadership—you don’t have to be the one who knows it all.

In this, then, he reflects upon the soul. The words sound strange, but see if they do not also sound desirable:

· His soul is composed. The word can also mean balanced; everything in due proportion. It is an act of the will to place the soul in harmony with God.

· His soul is quiet. Do we not long to still the nagging voices of the soul which always demand more? Here is a king who has learned to be content.

Even a man as great as this has learned to be at rest—in God. How? It is simple: the voices of fear for the future and discontent with the present, and the guilt from the past, are all swept away by his hope in the Lord.

Lord, we know that our hope should be in you. Forgive us, then, and teach us your way when our trust is placed in worldly things. Give us your peace; there is none like it in this world.

February 5

God is Exalted

Psalm 138:6

Somehow, in the workings of our time, we have lost the image of the awesome nature of God. Our pastor (like all speakers) has a series of phrases which mark his speech. One of them is to refer to “the holy-awesome-sovereign God.” He delivers the phrase so rapidly that it sounds like one adjective. In a sense, it is. It is a description of the God who Is, even if not the God we want.

To see this, you have but to examine the passages in the Bible where one of the prophets is given a vision of the throne of God. Isaiah’s immediate reaction was simply to declare himself lost—he was a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips. John saw and fell flat on his face. No other reaction would seem appropriate.

How is it, then, that this holy, awesome, sovereign God can say that he is near to the humble?

· He greatly values the ancient sacrifice: a humble and contrite heart. More than any gift of gold, the human heart prepared to meet him is his delight. He longs for the work of his hands.

· If you are to worship this God, you must know him. In short, you must know that he is holy and awesome—and you are not.

· He is holy; the only way we can approach him with a clean heart is by repentance. If repentance is sincere, there is contrition—the mark of the humble heart.

But to the proud he is far off. The matter can be put to the test. Is God near to you, or far off?

· Does he answer your prayer, or is he so far off that he cannot hear you?

· In time of distress, does he come to your aid, or is it too far to travel to help?

· Are you in need of mercy? On the Day we shall all need it, you do not want him to be far off.

Draw near to God; he will draw near to you. How can one do this? Only with a humble and contrite heart.

Lord, we are far more impressed with our own virtue than you are. Teach us to see things with forever eyes, knowing that the humble find welcome in your arms.

February 6

The Pleasure of God

Psalm 138:6

When I was a child I had a collection of toy soldiers. Now, this is politically incorrect these days, and toy soldiers of that type (plastic and cheap) are rather hard to find. But in those days the heroes of World War II were still honored men. So I had a cherished collection of them, expanded whenever my allowance would permit it.

They were not just a collection. I played with them, enjoying the hours (often alone) with them. I painted their helmets silver or gold, so that it would be easier to find them in the grass at the end of the day. I was quite anxious lest any one of them be left behind, and I would search diligently for any lost; by which you can tell I knew each one individually. But my greatest pleasure was this: no matter how badly outnumbered they were, in my imagination they were always victorious. To a child who moved to a new town at least once a year, they were good friends.

Now if I, as a child, took such care of my toy soldiers, how much more will God care for his children on earth? We are the works of his hands, and are therefore far more precious to him than my soldiers ever were to me. I would imagine my soldiers to be heroes, which of course made me feel a hero too. How much more, then, will God care for those who are made in his image? I would not leave an area without having each and every one accounted for. How much more, then, will God seek out and save the one who is lost?

But there is more. Just as my toy soldiers never lost a battle, so God will crown the humble with salvation. The word used for “crown” can also be translated “adorn” or “beautify.” It is his good pleasure to do so; it is his gift. And what a gift! The word used for salvation can also mean rescue; God ensures that no matter how bad the battle appears, his army is victorious.

And to whom does he give this victory? To the humble. My toy soldiers never talked back to me; they always obeyed my orders, and they were always victorious. If even a child can do that, how much more will God grant victory to those who are obedient to his will?

Lord, we are the works of your hand. Give us the wisdom to see that you are sovereign; that your commands are designed not just for our good but to bring us victory and salvation. The battle is yours, won at Calvary.

February 7

Dance Lessons

Proverbs 10:8

When I was in junior high school I received an invitation to a Sadie Hawkins day dance. For those not familiar with it, such a dance has the girls inviting the boys. It was considered impolite to refuse—but nothing was said about panic.

Panic I did. But my parents had the solution: they would send their left-footed son off to the local dance academy. There I was partnered with the most beautiful blond in the school (the owner’s daughter). Holding her reduced me to drooling idiocy (and pained her feet at the same time).

Isn’t it amazing? No matter how mal-coordinated you are, you think you can learn to dance. We’re willing to take dance lessons—but not life lessons.

Wisdom, you see, is often found in life lessons. The greatest of classical pianists will still have a coach. Baseball teams hire coaches to tell grown men how to play a game. Even the preacher hears from his wife. (I cannot resist repeating this. He relates that on the way home he told his wife that “that sermon just didn’t seem to get off the ground.” She replied, “It sure taxied long enough.”)

Sadly, we often meet the fool who says, “nobody can tell me nothing,” Such people sometimes do listen to advice, but only from selected people—like Dear Abby. Mere mortals need not apply. Christians are susceptible to this too; have you ever met someone who listened to only one Bible teacher?

Why is this so? It is pride. I will only listen to those who are obviously my superiors in intellect, understanding, learning and of course good looks. But God ignores this, and sends his messengers of wisdom in the form of all sorts of people. My wife is hardly boisterous, but on many occasions I have profited by her advice, given in a sweet tone behind closed doors.

That may not be the epitome of humility, but it will serve to make the point. If you have the humility to listen, God will provide the wisdom you need for this life. The usual way to tell if you have that humility is to listen: is that your own voice you hear babbling on?

Lord, as we come to you in prayer, may our hearts be open to your counsel and correction. Teach us the humility you have; not weakness, but the constant companionship of the Father. May our mouths be shut so our ears will open.

February 8

Pride and Dishonor

Proverbs 11:2

The connection between pride and dishonor, versus wisdom and humility, is a frequent one in the Bible. We read it, but often enough we don’t believe it. Why? Because when we look around it seems the proud are riding high. But there are some clues to just how this system works:

· First, we are told that God gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud. That, of course, is his prerogative. Just because we see the proud while they are still riding high doesn’t mean that God has no plans for them.

· Next, there is the obvious fact that the proud do not seek instruction or advice. Can you really be that brilliant all the time?

· Further, once the world knows who you are, nobody is in a hurry to help an arrogant jerk. In fact, they rather enjoy watching the pratfall.

· If pride really takes hold, you begin to think yourself above the rules (which, of course, apply to insignificant people.) You are too important to follow the rules and too smart to get caught.  Right.

· The matter boils down to this: knowledge is great, a very good thing. But without love in the heart, it creates the puffed up ego balloon looking for the pinprick.

Ah, but then the second half: why is wisdom with the humble?

· Note that “the humble” is plural. All of us are smarter than any of us.

· Another good reason: the humble are very often the humbled.

· The humble are team players; team players listen to other team players.

· If you don’t know it all, you’re more likely to seek advice.

· Finally, because God chooses to give them wisdom.

For the moment, for the while it appears that the arrogant are to be admired. But there is a God; he is patient, not dead.

Lord, so often those with intelligence think that all things can be at their command. Let us remember that Solomon was the wisest of men, and he too had his fall. Keep us, Lord, in your hands so that we do not grow proud—and dishonored.

February 9

Riding the Tiger

Proverbs 16:18-19

In the early part of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power very few politicians outside Germany recognized what a serious threat this man would be to the peace of Europe. To many, he seemed like just another politician. His words against other countries seemed like just so much flag-waving, good for the vote but no harm done.

One man saw it differently. Winston Churchill very quickly determined that Hitler was not what he proclaimed himself to be. It is an exceptional insight; Churchill saw one thing others missed. Adolf Hitler was riding the tiger. He had to go from success to success, or he would fail. Such men may succeed for a while, but eventually there is one step too many. The only real question is which step that will be. But in the meanwhile, the damage is done.

How does this come about? Often, in looking back, you can see that the turning point was the choice of friends. Birds of a feather flock together, we say. But the truth is that we get to choose which feather. So how do you recognize yourself as one who would divide the spoil with the haughty?

Let’s start with what used to be called sportsmanship. Athletics play a great part in our culture. Today we can see the attitude of “your pain is my gain.” Does the mere fact that your rival hurts give you pleasure? Does his failure please you as much as your own success does? These used to be unfashionable attitudes, years ago. Now, trash talk rules. But it’s not just in sports.

Gather around the office water cooler. Are you feeding the rumor mill? Your friends will encourage it; after all, it’s not lying, it’s competition. Everybody does it, right? This is a good sign that you have chosen the proud road.

But the great test is in defeat. Suppose the two of you are contending for the promotion—and he wins. Is envy quick to rise in your heart? Even in minor setbacks? Do you have the self-assurance that he must have cheated somehow; how else could this have happened? Do you walk away vowing to use every means possible (including the ones you think he did) for “next time?”

You don’t need to be rich and famous to have an arrogance problem. All you need is the desire to win at any cost.

Lord, teach us to examine ourselves by the standard of your word, not by what our culture teaches or our friends think. Give us wisdom—in time to use it.

February 10


Proverbs 22:4

It may come as a surprise to you that God rewards the humble. It should be no secret that he rewards those who fear and obey Him. But it seems a stretch of logic to say he rewards the humble. In our thought, winners are rewarded; winners are arrogant. So how can God tell us to the contrary?

The two traits go hand in hand. If you are one who fears God, you must know Him. To know God is to know that he is infinitely greater than you. This is the first key to humility; there’s somebody who’s better at everything. Since this humility comes from fear of the Lord—which we acknowledge to be rewarded—it should be no surprise that he rewards humility also.

“Ah yes,” you say, “when He returns he will reward the humble.” But of course in the meantime the arrogant are rewarded. But consider his word: riches, honor and life to the humble who fear him.

Riches? Is it possible that God rewards the humble with riches? It’s not just possible—it’s rather likely. Humble people tend to have good work habits and prudent spending habits. Little by little the wealth comes. Humble people also tend to have no enemies; no one to destroy their hopes. The reason we don’t see the connection is that the riches come so quietly—as befits a humble servant of the Lord.

Honor? Consider your own family. A humble, obedient father does not anger his children, but leads them in the way of Christ. As they grow, your children will honor genuine Christianity (and quickly see the fake variety for what it is). Humble people are a pleasure to work with; their team members give them honor as those valued for their contributions. Ultimately, however, the greatest honor comes from God, when he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Life? To begin with, just who holds the cord of your life in His hand? Who is it that determines long life or short? If God promises it, should you not believe it? But more than that: you can see at least some of his methods in this. Tell me: who has more stress in his life, the humble man or the proud one? And what did your doctor tell you about stress?

Lord, as the lilies of the field just grow, so does the wealth, honor and life of the humble, obedient servant. Open our eyes so that we may see how you have blessed the lilies—and us.

February 11

Moving Up

Proverbs 25:6-7

The legend is a cherished one; my father told it often. He was a finance officer in the Army. One of the problems that came with such a position was this: those with high rank often thought it beneath them to stand in line for their pay just like the enlisted men. So they would simply go to the front of the line. Finance officers were rarely higher than captains; one does not send the colonel to the end of the line.

The story goes that one day during World War II a colonel did precisely that. He got out of his chauffeured car and walked directly to the front of the line. He felt a tap on the shoulder, and a voice behind him said, “Colonel, I think it best if we both go to the back of the line.” The colonel turned around and blushed to see Dwight Eisenhower—who walked him to the end of the line. Is it a true story? I don’t know—but it ought to be.

Remember that you have a choice as to which end of the line you take. If there is any doubt at all, pick the back. I recall an elegant wedding of one of the people in our class. Many people of influence and status were there; who should sit where could have been a Charlie Chaplin comedy. But the bride had anticipated that; she put name cards out—at round tables. No one was in doubt; no one need worry about status. One way to make sure you never need worry about status is to simply go to the back of the line. After all, the man at the counter might have a different idea. If you’re at the back, it’s no embarrassment to come forward—but oh the grins you get going to the back.

This applies in many areas of life. The problem comes from this: we often have a rosy picture of ourselves. In estimating ourselves, we tend to guess on the high side. You can test this in yourself:

· Are there certain perquisites that you “have to have?”

· Are you too important for certain tasks? Somebody else can make the next pot of coffee?

· Even if your actions don’t show it, do you look at those above you with envy?

The Scripture tells us to humble ourselves. It is a deliberate act of the will. It is also good manners.

Lord, remind us that we should be gracious and courteous to others, for we are your children. That is honor enough. May we look forward to your “well done,” even in the small things.

February 12

Telling Another One’s Tale

Proverbs 27:2

Like many of you, I get an annual performance review. This is usually accompanied by a sad tale of why the company can’t afford any better performance from me. To prepare for this, I collect items that my colleagues have sent—those that praise me. They may be little things, like, “It was nice working with you” or “thanks for your hard work.” Little or not, I know their use. My boss doesn’t want to hear me tell how great I am—but he’ll listen to my colleagues.

Moral of the story: People take account of your motives, especially if you’re bragging.

So, of course, you want to let other people praise you. But suppose they don’t want to? Why would such a thing happen to a wonderful person like you?

· Maybe you don’t deserve it. Hey, it happens. Until someone was kind enough to point it out to me, I was managing people by intimidation. I didn’t think so; I thought I was doing a wonderful job. My people were afraid to tell me that I wasn’t. Sometimes you need to ask!

· Maybe you are “doing a good job, but…” Sometimes it’s just one little thing, an annoying habit or a blind spot. Again, it takes courage to go to others and ask them to identify your faults. Sometimes it takes even more courage on their part to tell you what will anger you to hear.

But what a mirror! If you really want the praise of others in a genuine way, use this mirror. You may find that your humility is entirely theoretical.

It is no accident that we are taught to examine ourselves each week before taking the Lord’s Supper. Such an examination is an aid to humility; it is a small mirror of the person others see as you. If the picture is not pleasing, then take the problem to your Lord. He is one who wants you to have practical humility; he gives wisdom generously. Sometimes hearing the praise that others are not giving you can be a very spiritual experience.

Lord, how much our world tells us to be bold, arrogant and caring nothing for those under us. Keep us mindful of how you faced your tormentors in the hours before the Cross—so that we might be a mirror for you in our own humility.

February 13

Prayer—In Few Words

Ecclesiastes 5:2

A story is told of a Jewish rabbi. He was an advisor to the king. One day the king asked him, “Why do you pray only three times a day? Wouldn’t it be better to pray constantly?” The rabbi said nothing—at the moment.

But ten minutes later he entered the throne room again. He made all the formal salutations he could think of to honor the king—and got up and left. A little while later he did it again. And again. Eventually the king had enough: “Have you no respect for royalty?”

“Hear your own words, O King. The Holy One, praised be He, is high above you. Should I not respect his royalty?”

It is a point. We are so accustomed to what one friend called the “Me and Jesus in the telephone booth” style of prayer that we forget that we are addressing the high and holy one, the God who created all things. It is for us to consider, then, whether or not Solomon was right. Should our prayers be chatty and rattle on?

Allowing that one man’s chatting on is another woman’s brevity, I submit that we err on the side of too much talk. How so?

· Often we repeat ourselves—not from deep love or concern, but simply to fill in the time we have allotted for prayer. But our Lord warns us against heathen repetition.

· Sometimes we are “just venting.” Consider it: would you vent like that to the President? Then why God?

· Sometimes, like one philosopher, we make our prayers long because we have not taken the time to make them short. Would you go before the almighty without organizing your thoughts—every night?

What then should we do? Solomon tells us too things:

· Our words should not be hasty. Sometimes this can’t be avoided; usually this is mental laziness. Consider carefully what you ask for, as you are likely to get it.

· Our words should be few. Our Father knows our every need before we speak. One way to keep his name holy is to keep it in awe and respect.

Think before you talk; think before you pray.

Lord, how often we take you for granted! Help us to remember you as transfigured on the mount—and coming again.

February 14

The Home Of God

Isaiah 57:15

One of the difficulties in reading the Old Testament is that the system of weights and measures is not familiar to us. (Remember Bill Cosby and “what’s a cubit?”) So we shall need a little help in understanding in this essay.

Tucked away in Second Chronicles is the amount of gold which King David left behind for Solomon as he was to build the temple. Reading it, you might just go past the casual statement that he had provided a hundred thousand talents of gold, and a million talents of silver. Sounds like a fair amount; just how big is it. Well, at this time, the talent was approximately seventy-five pounds. I’ll save you the math; that’s over three thousand tons of gold. Billions of dollars worth.

And what did Solomon do with all that gold? There were various fixtures made from it, but a large proportion went to line the walls of the Holy of Holies, which held the Ark of the Covenant—where the High Priest would meet God. This, for the temple, which is God’s dwelling on earth.

Do you see how utterly valuable is the dwelling place of God? How precious it is? Solomon admitted that the Temple could not contain God; even the universe could not do that. But this was the best they could do for God’s House.

Now consider this:

· We—the Christians—are the temple of the Living God.

· Paul tells us that he boasts of his weakness so that the power of Christ would dwell in him.

· Revelation tells us that when Christ returns he will dwell with us, face to face.

How can this be? Only if the church is composed of souls who are humble in heart. The humble and contrite heart, says David, is the site which God will not despise. Indeed, the humble heart makes room for the Holy Spirit now and the fullness of God when Christ returns.

Christ tells us: he stands at the door and knocks. If we will but open the door, he will come in and dwell in us. Pride shuts Him out; the humble heart welcomes him home.

Lord, it seems so strange that the humble heart is the grand reception for you. But you do not enter the heart high and proud; you enter the humble heart, and transform it to be like yours.

February 15

Let’s Make A Deal

Isaiah 66:1-2

The Lord God Almighty, it would seem, has a lot of trouble getting an accurate reputation. We seem to want to recreate him in the image we desire—the Bargaining God.

· The God who can be bribed. This God is extremely useful when you know you’re going to be doing something slightly less than ethical. All you need to know is the price tag; it’s a cost of doing dirty business.

· The God who can be appeased. Particularly useful in dealing with a guilty conscience, this God specializes in getting you off the hook. He’s often found to be cheaper as your sins fade into the past.

· The God who can be deceived. This is the God that is very impressed with your display of piety. He particularly favors people who go to church every Sunday. As this is the only time he hears from you, he’s bound to be impressed.

All these “Gods” have one slight drawback: not one of them is in fact the Lord God Jehovah. This passage is a great reminder of that. It brings up the focus of the problem: just why would God want to bargain with you anyway? What do you have that he could possibly value?

Though He will not bargain with you, he does make it clear what kind of Christian he considers pleasing:

· First, he must be humble. This is simply having the good sense to know that He is God—and you are not.

· Next, he must be contrite. All of us are sinners. While this might seem very democratic, it’s nothing to brag about. In fact, it’s something to be ashamed of. And you should be.

· He looks for one who “trembles at his word.” There is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun; he has taken great trouble to have this recorded by his prophets and his apostles. We should therefore take this quite seriously.

He is not the bargaining God; He is the gracious God. It is his good pleasure to bless those who approach him with a humble and contrite heart; by his awesome word he imparts wisdom. It may indeed be amazing; it is certainly grace.

Lord, may we always approach your throne with the ancient sacrifice: the humble and contrite heart.

February 16


Micah 6:8

It is convenient, it seems, to reduce matters to something which can easily be memorized. Our memories are short, and often are best after the disaster. Therefore God gives us sayings like this, that our memories might be of use before trouble begins.

Do Justice

We must first notice the active verb. We are to “do” justice, not simply to admire it when we see it. It is not someone else’s problem, it is ours. For surely it is clear that we desire justice on our own part; how can we expect to receive any such thing if we only want it for ourselves? Therefore:

· We must do justice on every occasion which arises. We are willing when we profit in it; sometimes if we see no harm in it. The true Christian will do it, even when it is costly.

· We must therefore make a habit of it. It is of no use remembering that you should have; habit makes it part of the will.

By its nature justice is fairness, which yields rich rewards. It brings peace and order where there was turmoil, and warns the evil while blessing the good.

Love Mercy

(This is the King James word for it). We are so often proud that we do not cherish this as we should. But we are to love it not only for ourselves but for others. Why love? Because love willingly gives. It is the nature of mercy that it loses its essence when given grudgingly or under duress. Those who love mercy are the ones who imitate God, who is merciful.

Walk humbly with your God

We often speak of “walking the talk.” We are not fond of hypocrites; neither is God. How does one “walk humbly?” There are many ways. We have seen that we should take a low position when offered a choice, so that others might esteem us, not ourselves. Humility gives honor where it is due; it deprives no one of the respect due them.

But do not forget: “with your God.” How can we walk with God? He chooses his walking companions carefully, and we should do the same. We must dismiss pride as our companion; then will we have Jesus Christ at our side.

Lord, your justice is perfect; your mercy is pure; your humility shown at the Cross. May we walk with you—and walk like you.

February 17

Blessed Are The Meek

Matthew 5:3

There is a curious parallel between the Beatitudes and some of the Psalms. In particular, they resemble what is called a Psalm of Ascent—a psalm specifically designed to be sung while ceremonially going up each step towards the Temple. The order in which the phrases are to be sung is considered important; each step gets its own phrase (or verse, as we might say).

It is fitting that the first step in Christ’s Psalm of Ascent should be a blessing on the humble. So often the Scripture tells us that our daily walk is a matter of the heart; the heart, therefore is the first step. The heart acceptable to God is the humble heart.

But notice this: in Christ’s Psalm of Ascent the emphasis is upon the blessing that God gives. See, then, the marvelous blessing he gives to those of humble heart: the kingdom of heaven itself. The point was clearer in earlier times. Paul once boasted that he was a “Roman born” - for in that time being a citizen of the Roman Empire was a privilege greatly prized. The protections of a citizen were great; the authorities treated them differently. A mere peasant could be flogged at the whim of the officer; a citizen, only after a formal trial and conviction.

What, then, are the blessings of the kingdom of heaven?

· If the humble call upon God in time of trouble, He will hear them. Trouble must call at God’s gate first.

· If the humble call upon God in time of peace, He will lift them up, sustaining them.

This is a matter of divine style. He prefers to work with the humble, so that when great things are done those around will ask themselves, “How can those so lowly do things so great?” The answer is that God has chosen the humble, as he has chosen the foolishness of preaching, to confound the arrogant.

A Korean pastor (alas, I do not have record of his name) once remarked upon the fact that the history of Latin America has been a series of coups d’etat, military juntas and tyranny. The history of North America has been one of long-lived democracy. He points out the reason: the men who settled Latin America came for gold. The men who settled North America came for God. Blessed are those humble enough to seek the kingdom—for they shall enter.

Lord, our world tells us that only the arrogant will succeed. Without you, this is true. With you, all things are possible.

February 18


Matthew 18:2-4

One of the great curiosities of our time is the status which children have attained. You need only look at any television sitcom to see that all the ingenuity and wisdom in the typical American family is entirely contained in its children. Indeed, were it not for their incredibly cool and talented teenagers, most parents would probably starve to death by reason of stupidity. The fact that teenagers are known to have large disposable incomes has, I am sure, nothing to do with this. Whatever the cause, age is despised, youth is venerated.

It was not always so. Some of us who are old enough to fall into the stupid category remember a time when the phrase, “children should be seen and not heard” was more than a cliché. It was an accurate measure of the status of children. The general assumption was that as soon as you grow up, learn a trade and make your own way, you’ll get the respect you crave. Not before. It may seem amazing, but this attitude only recently left our culture.

In the time of this meeting, children were the lowest in status. Their parents were autocrats, and society backed them up. A rebellious teenager was just that: rebellious. Not cool.

How much lowlier, then, were the little children—for the word used here can also be used of an infant. Yet Christ tells us that we are to be like those little children. If you will examine the Scriptures, you can find three ways specifically given for this:

· Faith. We are to have the faith that little children have in their parents—a faith that trusts completely. It is also a faith that desires to be with the Father more and more. (Ever notice how little kids are always underfoot like that?)

· Evil. We keep little children from the evil of this world. It’s tough enough to handle it as adults. But as adults we sometimes fall for the old lie: evil is enlightening. No; we are to be those who choose to be innocent and pure.

· The milk of the word.  As little children crave breast milk, we are to crave the word of God.

Sometimes it seems so hard to enter the kingdom of God. It is hard. We have to become like children to do it. Indeed, becoming like a little child is about half-way to being born again.

Lord, we need to trust you like little children trust us. Grant us the faith to see this not as ignorance but purity.

February 19

Greatness in the Kingdom

Matthew 20:25-28

There is a recurrent thread in the teaching of Christ: the paradox. Over and again we read things that, from the world’s point of view, must seem to be utter foolishness.

Leadership, greatness—these are like that. The world’s view is very clear. You climb to the top and at each rung you lord it over those underneath you. I remember in particular one corporate vice-president, named “JJ”. JJ believed himself the reincarnation of George Patton, and strutted accordingly. He took it for granted that you were genuinely pleased to be working for such a brilliant mind. Therefore you wouldn’t mind groveling, would you?

But Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” For the kingdom of God nothing but the weapons of God will do; one of the chief is humility.

Note how Christ phrases it: “it is not this way with you.” It is not so much a command as a description. The kingdom of God simply will not work when run by the world’s methods. It will collapse into an organized hypocrisy if you try.

Chief of the methods is that of “servant leadership.” The concept is simple. The concept is quite simple: leadership is a task like any other in the church, to be accepted with humility, completed without vanity and borne cheerfully as a service to Jesus Christ. The servant leader does not work to attain status or position; he works to get the job done, whatever the job might be.

Titles mean nothing to the servant leader. Rabbi? Teacher? Father? Leader? Christ tells us to accept none of these, for there is only one real rabbi, teacher, Father and leader. Therefore leadership is a task which can only be accomplished in humility.

Examples of this abound; consider these two. First, there is Paul—a missionary who made his own living in Corinth by being a tentmaker. Why? So that no one could accuse him of preaching for the money or the title. The supreme example is Jesus himself; the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, deliberately washed his disciples’ feet on the night of the Last Supper.

On the Day of Judgment we will hear those who complain they didn’t know feeding the hungry was required. Why? Because the task was beneath their dignity. Their position wouldn’t allow it.

Lord, grant us a clear vision of the kingdom—not a place of pomp, a place of service. Help us to remember that “little is much when God is in it” - and be pleased with our own tasks.

February 20

God Be Merciful

Luke 18:9-14

It comes as a shock when you figure it out. Did you know that there is a qualification you must meet before you can become a Christian? “No way—whosoever will,” say you. Not true, say I. Before you can become a Christian you must first meet the qualification: you must be a sinner. Fortunately, I am exceedingly well qualified.

This point might well have been missed by the audience for the parable Christ tells here. The audience has two key aspects:

· First, they are confident in their own righteousness. If you’d like to start your own religion, I recommend this method. Make your requirements a little tougher than the church down the street; the salvation by pride in works group will soon arrive.

· Of course, they also look down on those who can’t keep the rules. There is no sense in being pious without rubbing it in, is there?

But please note: these two men have much in common. You think not?

· Both have arrived at the Temple with the same purpose: to tell God just what kind of person they are. Both describe it accurately—if unintentionally.

· Both have arrived to beg. Beg? Yes—the first man is begging the praise he thinks he deserves. He is begging (aloud, at that) to be praised for his conduct. The other fellow came to beg mercy.

· In a sense, both got what they came for. The first fellow let everyone know what a pious man he is; he basks in the light of his own glory. The second begged mercy—and got it.

It is a paradox. In the kingdom of God, if you exalt yourself, God will take pains to humble you. If you humble yourself, He will take pains to exalt you. For it is the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of God. Those who are poor in spirit know from whom all blessings flow; they know to whom the glory belongs—and they know who loves a humble heart.

Lord, those of us with many years in the kingdom face the temptation of telling others just how wonderful we are. Keep before us the sense of our unworthiness and your glory.

February 21

Washing the Feet

John 13:12-17

It is the most dramatic night in human history: the night before the Crucifixion, the night of the Last Supper. John’s Gospel records in great detail the events of that night; the disciple whom Jesus loved remembering every precious and sacred teaching

In this night we see the utter humility of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Does it sound a contradiction? Not in the kingdom of God, where God exalts the humble heart. One of the reasons we love him so much—He is the Servant King who did not come to be served but to serve. So He washes the disciples’ feet.

There is an interesting word in verse 12. The New International Version translates it, “Do you know what I have done for you?” No other major translation does this; they translate it, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (Emphasis added). It as if He were telling them that He has put them in the position in which they have no choice: you must do as I have done, you must follow my example, or cease to be my disciple. What is that example? One of utter humility and service.

Teacher Consider his claim as teacher. These men have spent three years with him; a serious investment of time. If He is Teacher, then you must acknowledge these:

· He is your source for commandment—thou shalt!

· He is your source for warning—thou shalt not!

· He is your source for wisdom—ask, and receive liberally.

If this is so, can you refuse his teaching on this night of nights?

Lord If “teacher” binds you to his precepts, how much more does the word “lord” mean? He is the Master, and we call him that often. Therefore we owe him obedience. If He appeared in bodily form and asked for an hour of your undivided service, could you refuse? Of course not. How then can you refuse Him when He commands you as your Lord? His authority rests easily on his shoulders, and his yoke will rest easily on your shoulders as well.

The crux of the matter is this: it is not sufficient that the washing of the disciples’ feet be admired, extolled, commented on, examined and memorized. Blessed are you if you do these things. He is both teacher and lord, and as such he is entitled to your obedience. Does he receive it?

Lord, we cannot march ahead of you; but we can fall in behind you. May we be faithful followers, imitating you.

February 22

A Necessary Humility

Romans 12:3-5

There is a curious misapprehension of humility in our day. We somehow believe that humility consists of very bashfully listing our strengths as our weaknesses. As the motive is generally good, it seems a minor thing—but in fact it is nothing but dishonesty. Which has no place in Christ’s church.

Humility is, in fact, simply an honest appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses. It is not an easy thing to achieve; very often we will need the assistance of others to get it. Combine this with an honest appraisal of the tasks to which God has set you, and reasons to be humble will be readily apparent.

Indeed, so readily apparent that Paul here clearly tells us that to do so requires faith—which will be supplied in God’s measure. It is his habit to take people who are unqualified (and know it), impart to them the faith necessary and set them to tasks impossible. When these are achieved, it is necessary to give God the glory. This is a lot easier when you know how little you could do in your own strength. If you practice this long enough, faith will drive out the fear that says, “I could never do that.” You soon begin to wonder how God will accomplish it. It is necessary to know your assigned tasks; God chooses the one to do the impossible.

This humility has another beneficial effect upon the church: if the job is tough enough, we get humble enough to ask for help. This helps us be honest and helps unify the church.

We are told that humility is necessary in the church. In one sense this is obvious; the alternative is arrogant pride. This is a clear cause of bickering and strife. There are two other reasons which are not so obvious:

· We are all members of the church—meaning we need to know where to fit in We are not interchangeable parts.

· We are also members of each other—responsible for the other members, upholding them in their tasks and seeking their aid in our own.

The world says that teamwork comes only from shared arrogance. Christ says it comes only from following Him.  If you will humble yourself and follow him, you will soon see how even the least of tasks becomes a joy. His burden is indeed light.

Lord, like little children we want things “our way.” Teach us to see that your way is the only way.

February 23

Prisoners of Hope

1 Corinthians 1:26-29

A Los Angeles institution recently shut its doors. The Children’s Museum of Los Angeles is between locations. One of the features of this museum which was amusing was its great collection of discarded manufacturing materials. Some manufacturer would punch holes in sheet plastic; the discs created wound up at the Children’s Museum amongst a huge collection of other industrial discards.

Why? The museum offered them to visiting teachers—free. It seems that elementary teachers are born with artistic genes, and what looked like scrap material to me was excellent raw material to them. It would go from trash to kindergarten art. From some of the sample projects displayed you could see the possibilities for the creative mind.

Now, if the mind of a kindergarten teacher could take the trash of industry and create art, think what the Creator can do with the human material of the church:

· Very few of us came to the church as those who are wise, well educated or highly intellectual. Yet from these God builds his church in ways beyond the human mind.

· Very few of us were powerful; very few were holders of high office or positions of influence. By the world’s standards, we don’t count. But God sees it differently.

· Very few of us were true and righteous in character when we met the Lord; yet his church is honored for these things.

Why is it that God didn’t do it the world’s way? Surely it would be so simple for him to recruit the finest in brain power, persuade all those in authority and certainly all those who are noble and righteous people. Think what a church that could be! So why didn’t he?

So that none of us had anything to boast about, except in Him. No one shall say to God, “You couldn’t have done it without me.” Pride is a sin, and God will not have it in his church. Pride causes dissension, and the church is to be one body. Ultimately, pride takes the glory that belongs to God and reserves it to the proud. It is the sin of Satan himself.

Lord, help us to look past our weakness and poverty to see your power displayed in your kingdom. May we always be pleased to be at your service, giving you the glory.

February 24

Humility in Love

1 Corinthians 13:4

By way of disclaimer: My wife and I have never participated in Marriage Encounter. As far as I know, it is a wonderful, worthy cause which is effective in achieving its ends.

But it has an interesting side effect. On more than one occasion, with different couples, this story is repeated:

He’s driving. She’s chatting with the other couples in the van. She is usually one of those women who do not noticeably pause for breath in conversation. It goes like this: “I absolutely had to drag (name of husband) off to Marriage Encounter. He resisted it like it was poison, but now he’s so glad we went. I told him we needed to go, but he kept making excuses. Finally I corralled him into going. It’s the best thing that ever happened to our marriage, isn’t it, dear.”

“Yes, dear.” I will leave to your imagination the tone of voice used in delivering that phrase.

Now, please, do not focus your attention on the wife. She’s tactless, perhaps, but genuinely enthused. The fact that her husband didn’t explode at that point would tell you the seminar probably did at least some good.

Focus your attention on the other men in the van. If this is a van full of Christians you should find (and I did) that the men react with an embarrassed silence, searching for some innocuous way to change the subject (and hoping their own wives will go along). The one thought in the male mind is to get past this awkward moment.

But if this happens in a van full of those who are not Christians, you can readily see the result. The husband will instantly be the target of the jokes. The subject will constantly come up in the humor of the evening. His wife will view this as a good thing—because it will make her point about Marriage Encounter. The only one miserable is the husband.

The difference? Arrogance. The world teaches those men to take any and all opportunities to make fun of and belittle your friends. The world tells the wife that, as a liberated woman, she needs to keep him on the defensive. But is any of this done in love? You know the answer; it can’t be done in love. Arrogance picks a rival; love seeks its mate.

Lord, keep before us the example of love you gave—not one of condemnation but of pardon, effected by divine love.

February 25

Unity of Spirit

Ephesians 4:1-3

How much stress do you have in your life? Let’s measure you against “Mr. Stress” of the New Testament: Paul. As he writes this passage, he’s locked up in a Roman jail. The jailer can beat you for the fun of it.; you don’t get fed unless your friends bring you something; most of all, you’re waiting to hear if you’re going to be freed or get the death penalty. Stress? I think so.

Now what, then, does this man under stress ask of his friends in another city? Money for bail? No, he implores them to be one in the Spirit. This is more important. From his description of that unity we can see how he handled the stress.

· Humility. One key to humility is the taming of our expectations. If everything is supposed to be “my way,” stress comes pretty quickly. Maybe “my way” isn’t the right way.

· Gentleness. May I point out that this is not restricted to a lack of physical violence? We use the weapons we know. If you have an acid tongue it is no gentleness to use it, even if you excuse yourself with, “I didn’t hit anybody.” The truly strong can be very gentle, like a father with his infant child.

· Patience. There is a patience with things (waiting for the roses to grow) and a patience with people (waiting for your children to bloom.) Many of us are patient with things, or “the system,” but few can resist the temptation to fix someone else right now.

· Tolerance.  Among Christians today this is a negative word; it now means “approves wholeheartedly of homosexuality.” That is not the meaning here, of course. Let’s take an example: do impatient people bug you? How about intolerant people? Is it their complete failure to correct an annoying fault (the prayer from the pulpit is much too long) really so intolerable to you?

Paul has a purpose in this. He is encouraging his hearers to be diligent in this matter—and so he points out those things which assist in being diligent. The goal is simple: unity in the Holy Spirit, the bond of peace—the harmony of God’s people. It does not just happen; we must be diligent to preserve it.

Lord, how quick we are to become angry at the smallest things! Give us wisdom in this—and may it arrive in time for us to use it as you intended.

February 26

Rich and Poor

James 1:9-10

It is a curious experience to go from a poor church to a rich church. Poor and rich measured in money, that is. We have done that; here are some observations:

The poor church

· God has indeed chosen the poor to be rich in faith. In their simplicity the poor are much readier to trust God—and more frequently see the results of that trust. Indeed, most of them live not hand to mouth but from providence to providence.

· The poor church is mocked by the rich ones. Having been a teacher in the poor church, I asked to teach in the rich. In reply it was strongly suggested that no such teacher was needed. Perhaps at another church, one more like the poor one? To mock the poor is to taunt their maker.

· The poor church is an example of one certain thing: God’s affinity for the poor and weak. The poor rely on him, and find him completely reliable.

The rich church

· One thing is clear: it is hard to evangelize a rich man. It’s hard for him to have faith. It can be done, and when it is, the result is a wonderful blessing.

· The rich man who is true to God knows that his riches are nothing to brag about—but a tool to use.

· Indeed, the secret to being a faithful Christian with material wealth seems to be a simple one: you need to know what true riches are. If you do, the money becomes almost trivial.

· Almost trivial; or else it becomes a burden. The professional charities gather around your check book, each worthier than the last. There is a difference between a lot of money and an infinite amount of money.

This world will pass away, and all the wealth we cherish with it. Indeed, “rich man” and “poor man” are but parts in God’s theater of the universe. To play either role well, you must diligently study your part.

Lord, remind us that money and grass are both green, and both fade away. Help us be content with true riches.

February 27

Catching God’s Ear

2 Chronicles 34:27

Have you ever been in a restaurant, trying to catch your waiter’s eye or ear? It can be frustrating; he thinks you want to linger over that last cup of coffee (and wouldn’t dream of interrupting) while you’re staring at your watch, hoping for the check.

Have you ever thought of what it takes to get God’s ear? Josiah found out. The story is rather obscure, but it shouldn’t be. From the time he enters upon the throne of Judah, Josiah is a man who tries to do the right thing. He worships the living God, and purges the land of the idols and ceremonial groves and stones. He leads the reform of Jewish society.

In the process of this a discovery is made. Workmen, cleaning out the Temple to restore it, find a copy of the Law of Moses. They deliver it to the priest, who sends it to Josiah.

His reaction is interesting. Even though he has been diligent in getting rid of idol worship, he does not protest to God that (since he’s been such a good boy) the curses of the Law should not be executed upon Judah. He does not depend upon his own righteousness, but upon the character of God. God cherishes the humble heart, and Josiah humbles himself before God.

He then sends to the prophetess for word from God. This verse is part of the reply. The prophetess reveals that Josiah will not see the ruin; it will happen after he dies. Why God listened, and blessed him this way, you can see for yourself.

What does this example show us?

· With or without instructions, we should always strive to do good.

· When God speaks, don’t justify yourself—listen!

· God does not hear the man who cries out in his own righteousness; he hears the humble heart.

· Blessed is the man who is obedient to God’s commands.

Josiah is a little known king of Judah; rarely do you hear his name in a sermon. Perhaps this is because the wicked kings provide so much better sermon material; who can say? Had his example been around earlier, perhaps there would have been fewer wicked kings.

Lord, show us your mercy. Reward those who humble themselves before you, so that others may know that you are God.

February 28

The Supreme Example

Philippians 2:3-11

The tension between the church and the world can very often be reduced to a simple question: who’s number one? Many of us would be quite content to be humble—if we could still look out for number one, of course.

In a sense, you can. Paul instructs us here to regard others as being more important than ourselves. Taken strictly, this is an impossibility. How could each of us be less important than anyone else around? Are not all one in Christ Jesus?

But Paul says “regard” others as more important than yourself. This each and every one of us can do. If you will do this, you can see that harmony in the church will be much easier. More than that, you will be one who is an imitator of Jesus Christ. Long before the teenagers came up with “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, the church has known that the individual’s supreme duty is the imitation of Christ.

Seen in this light, we can see how “regarding” others as more important is an imitation of Christ. For instance:

· Christ “emptied himself” in his equality with the Father, and was his obedient son. If we are willing to empty ourselves in the same way (obedience) we shall be like him.

· Christ took human form—a tremendous humbling for the one who created all things. What role, then, is too menial for us?

· He humbled himself. Consider that he took on human form in a society that was conquered territory; his family was poor, he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. All of this he sacrificed for our salvation; is there anything we could not sacrifice for him?

· He was obedient—even to the point of death on the Cross. Since then it has been the highest honor a Christian can attain—to be a martyr for the faith. If this is the greatest, then what obedience is too difficult for us?

This is not the end of the discussion. Because he humbled himself, God has exalted him. His name is above all names; one day all knees will bow before him. If God rewards him this way, surely He will reward our little efforts too.

Lord, your example of humility is awesome; beyond our real comprehension. If our knowledge is limited, then let our imitation be sure—and our home with you sure as well.

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