A Cultivated Heart

Any farmer, landscape artist, or gardener will prepare the soil before giving their work. A builder will prepare a foundation. A carpenter prepares their tools and wood. We know to prepare when working in our given specialties. The canvas must be prepared for the craftsmanship, and we must prepare our hearts if we are going to be properly receptive the gospel. We see such preparation in the character of Ezra.

Ezra is a leader of the Old Testament who grows up in captivity. Jerusalem is destroyed. Judah is a captive people to Babylon, and this is all Ezra knows until Cyrus decrees the captive people may independently return to their lands. Ezra leads a moral, social, and spiritual restoration of his people. In this, Ezra 7:10 reveals that Ezra sets his heart to seek after God’s law, to do it, and to teach it.

Preparing Our Hearts

Matthew 13:1-9 records Jesus telling the parable of the soils. Chances are we are familiar with the differences between the soil exposed to birds, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the fertile soil. He explains the parable in verses 18-23, describing the similarities between the soils and the hearts of those who hear his word. Some misunderstand; some respond but lose interest; some are crushed by worldly concerns; others live it.

We often apply this parable to others, but we seldom reflect enough to remove the rocks and thistles from our own lives. To prepare a real garden, it takes time and effort to prepare the soil. It takes time and effort to remove the weeds and the rocks. Then it takes time and effort to keep those things from returning to the garden – especially those weeds. We have to cultivate our devotion to God, and this takes preparation.

Our greater and deeper devotion to God begins in our hearts before we wake up on Sunday morning. Jesus spends much of His ministry talking about hearts – pure hearts, honest hearts, soft hearts, hard hearts, dull hearts. Acts 17:11 speaks of the people in Berea who have prepared their hearts and minds to receive God’s word. I Corinthians 8:5 describes the Christians in Macedonia as having given themselves to the Lord first, enabling them to support and encourage Paul.

Conclusion

Proverbs speaks of the heart at least seventy-five times. Proverbs 2:2 calls on us to apply our hearts to understanding. Proverbs 2:10 says wisdom enters through the heart. Proverbs 4:23 encourages us to keep our hearts pure, and Proverbs 23:12 tells us to incline our hearts to instruction. Seeking and doing the law of God does not come by accident any more than we can grow a bumper crop by mistake. It takes preparation and cultivation, just as Ezra prepared himself to live the law of his God.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Hearing the Voice of God

And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision. And it came to pass at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place (now his eyes had begun to wax dim, so that he could not see), and the lamp of God was not yet gone out, and Samuel was laid down to sleep, in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was; that the LORD called Samuel;  and he said, “Here am I.”

And he ran unto Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”

And he said, “I called not; lie down again.” And he went and lay down.

And the LORD called yet again, “Samuel.”

And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”

And he answered, “I called not, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him. And the LORD called Samuel again the third time.

And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”

And Eli perceived that the LORD had called the child. Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, ‘Speak, O LORD; for thy servant heareth.'”

So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  And the LORD came, and stood, and called as at other times, “Samuel, Samuel.”

Then Samuel said, “Speak; for thy servant heareth.”

– 1 Samuel 3:1-10

The days of Eli and Samuel were difficult days for Israel. Whereas in times past there were some prophets or prophetesses who heard the voice of the LORD and provided Israel with His guidance, such was now rare. That changes here in 1 Samuel 3 when God begins to speak with Samuel, the prophet who will now guide Israel for many years.

The example here of Samuel’s call is very instructive for us in the early twenty-first century. We live in a world where many people deny that there even is a God who would speak to humans, let alone to believe that He has definitively spoken in ways that we should all be able to hear. It is common for us to hear today that people who lived so long ago were in the “darkness” of “ignorance” and “superstition,” with the implicit belief that we are so much more superior today because of all of our discoveries and insights. Indeed, the word of the LORD seems quite rare these days.

Yet is Samuel so completely superstitious and ignorant as a young boy? Consider what happens – he hears his name called three times, and three times he goes and asks Eli what he wants. He assumes what we would all likely assume if we heard someone call our name – some other human near us is trying to get our attention. Samuel does not seem to even begin to connect the voice he is hearing with God.

For that matter, Eli, who is in God’s service as priest (cf. 1 Samuel 1:9), does not automatically connect the voice with God, either. It takes Eli being awoken three times by Samuel for him to even begin to wonder if perhaps it was the voice of God calling Samuel.

Yet, when Eli has that recognition – when he perceives that God is calling the child – everything seems to change. Yet, in reality, nothing has changed but Eli’s and Samuel’s perceptions.

God is a consistent God. Just as He does not compel or coerce anyone into believing in Him or serving Him, so He does not compel or coerce anyone into hearing Him. If we want to hear God’s voice, we must be open to the possibility of hearing His voice, else we will just interpret the voice of God according to our existing presuppositions and worldview, just as Eli and Samuel did.

This is true in terms of the creation. We can see the hand of God in the creation and hear His voice speaking through it, but only if we seek to understand in that way. If we are not open to seeing God’s hand or hearing His voice in the creation, we will just interpret the creation in terms of our own darkened presuppositions and worldview (cf. Romans 1:18-25).

This is quite powerfully true in terms of the Scriptures themselves, the revealed Word of God, and the message they contain about Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word of God. Consider Samuel again – God calls him, and he thinks he hears the voice of Eli. God’s message often comes through a human vehicle – His voice sounds like that of a human, and He has used His chosen people to communicate His message throughout time (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). It is easy for people to act as Samuel did at the beginning – believing the voice of God in Scripture to just be the voice of some human beings, perhaps interesting, but not convicting. But if we are open to hearing God’s voice through Scripture, the message becomes quite powerful, very convicting, and life-changing. When we are willing to hear the voice of God in Scripture, we have found all we need in order to live the lives God intends for us to lead (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). We learn about Jesus the Incarnate Word after whom we are to pattern our own lives (John 1:1-18, 1 John 2:6).

At that moment, everything seems to change. And yet, in reality, nothing has changed but our perspectives.

The word of the LORD is precious in these days. Far too many seem deaf to His call. And yet He continues to call out through the message of Scripture for all men to repent and to follow His Son (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4). Let us perceive the voice of God and follow after Him!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

A Mother Named Mary

One mother has become very important in modern religion – Mary, the mother of Christ. She was declared sinless by the papacy in 1537. Following that comes the doctrine of her immaculate conception and her perpetual virginity. Then comes the doctrine of her bodily ascension into heaven. She is called Queen of Heaven, Co-Mediatrix, and Co-Redemptrix. Many conservative Christians go to the opposite extreme with Mary. In response her deification in some religious circles, we tend to relegate her to a minor role and fail to give her the honor she is due.

A Woman Named Mary

We meet her in Luke 1 as a chaste maiden, pure in the sight of God. Verses 28 and 30 calls her one finding favor in God’s eyes. Noah in Genesis 6:8, Moses in Exodus 33:12, Hannah in I Samuel 1:18 – these are a few of the individuals who have found favor in God’s eyes. This is a term also used in Isaiah 61, signifying the coming of the Messiah. At first, she is troubled by the angel’s appearance, but her response is one of submission and humility in verse 38.

As we continue in Luke 1, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and we see her song of praise that begins in verse 46, magnifying God for His role in her life. (Remember also that this role would create a small scandal around Jesus’ birth, bringing question to her honor and to her Son’s.) She speaks of God’s mercy and generosity, His strength and His power, and she remembers His promises to His people in verses 54-55. Contrast this response to Moses’ when he is tasked with fulfilling God’s work in Exodus. Who would we resemble under similar circumstances?

A Devoted Mother and Servant

In Luke 2, we see Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where she gives birth to Jesus in a humble manger, for all inns are full. We know the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and verse 19 tells us Mary pondered all these signs and events in her heart. Again, we see no record of complaining or sorrow over her fate. She is quiet and devout. In verses 21 and after, they follow the word of the law surrounding the birth of a child.

Beginning in Luke 2:41, we see they regularly go to Jerusalem for Passover, and, when Jesus is twelve years old, we see Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus this year, finding Him debating the priests in the temple. Again, verse 51, Mary keeps these events in her heart. That verse also gives us the only brief look we have at Jesus’ home life, living in submission to His earthly parents.

John 2 sees Mary invited to a wedding feast at which Jesus is present. She comes to Him when the wine runs out, a symbol of God’s blessings in this setting, and she turns to the servants, instructing them to do anything her Son says. She grows to have faith in Jesus.

Then, we see Mary standing before the cross. When so many have fled Jesus, have denied Jesus, have hidden in fear, Mary is there for her Son and her Savior. She sees the child she raised die, seeing the Redeemer of Israel give Himself up to the cross. In this same setting, in John 19, we see Jesus’ own devotion to His mother. He makes sure she will be cared for after He is gone and trusts her care to one of His closest friends.

An Inspiration for Us

We know little of Mary, but we see Mary accepts her place in God’s plan. She rejoices in a time that would bring her shame and ridicule from the world. She illustrates her faith in the few glimpses we have, and we see the devotion in her relationship with Jesus at the cross. The last we see of Mary is in Acts 1:12-14, where she is in Jerusalem with her other children and the apostles, preparing for the events at Pentecost.

She is an astounding woman, wife, mother, and servant of the Lord. We sometimes fail to be the examples we should be, but we can read of Mary’s life, see the souls entrusted to her by God, and see an example of the devotion we should have to God and our own families. Those qualities we see in Mary is what God and others should see when they look at us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Forgiven But Unforgotten

II Samuel 13-14 provides some difficult material concerning Absalom, Tamar, and Amnon. Amnon attempts to court Tamar and ends up sexually assaulting her. David does nothing about this for two years until Absalom (Tamar’s brother and Amnon’s half-broter) kills Amnon for his crime against Tamar. Abaslom is indeed guilty of murder, but some of the blame falls on David. Remember, according to II Samuel 13:23, David neglected justice for two entire years.

Absalom flees to Geshur, and David desires to destroy Absalom for Amnon’s death according to verse 39. (The Hebrew word translated as “go out to” in most English translations, more literally means “to consume.”) In chapter 14, however, Joab sees this preoccupation growing in David, and he puts a plan into action to restore David’s family. He hires a wise woman of Tekoa who relates a story very similar to the events of his own life, begging for mercy for her son’s life. David acquiesces to mercy, and, in II Samuel 14:12, she begins to lead David into making application of her story to himself and Absalom. In verse 14, she reminds Him that God shows mercy and does not always require life for life. David should be so merciful.

Forgiving Without Forgetting

This message applies to David on multiple levels. Not only does it apply to his current conflict with Absalom, but David himself is worthy of death for his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. He sees God’s mercy in his own life, recognizes his life being spared, and decides to do likewise with Absalom. The story, unfortunately, does not end here, though.

In chapter 14:24, David orders Absalom to come back, but David keeps him in a state of household exile for another two years. His punishment is not physical exile, but he treats him as such. From the point of Absalom fleeing until he sees David again, five entire years pass. Is it any wonder Absalom begins to conspire against his father? Do you think David’s actions do not weigh on Absalom’s heart?

Mercy, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

These chapters are really about mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. David had been forgiven by and reconciled to God in His mercy. David does not do the same for Absalom. This chain of events begins because David ignores Amnon’s wrongdoing, prodding Absalom into taking matters into his own hands. We cannot let our own past sins prevent us from addressing wrong as David’s history with Bathsheba clouds his judgment with Amnon.

Finally, we should be as merciful with others as we hope God would be with us. We cannot “forgive” and continue to punish after repentance. Remember the adulterous relationship Paul condemns in I Corinthians. Once the issue is resolved, Paul writes in II Corinthians 2:7 that the repentant sinner’s brothers and sisters should comfort him and confirm their love for him. David’s perpetual punishment makes room in Absalom’s heart for sin. Paul says we should never allow that opening to form. We cannot continue to punish after we forgive. DOing so is detrimental to our relationships and our souls, and it is not how we would want God to treat us.

When we repent, God shows mercy, forgiving us and reconciling us to Him. We should be so merciful when those close to us repent of their sins.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Misusing Our Blessings

David is a very positive figure in the Old Testament, but we are familiar with a couple very significant missteps in his reign. He falls into sins that are unique to the resources and opportunities he has through his position, and we can learn much from how he falls into these sins – and ultimately how he reacts to and deals with these shortcomings.

In II Samuel 11, David remains in Jerusalem while his armies are at war. He sees Bathsheba bathing while he is up on his rooftop, sends messengers to find out who she is and bring her to him. II Samuel 24 records God’s anger in David’s insistence of conducting a census. Even Joab tries to deter David, citing the Lord’s strength over man’s. In both cases, David walks into sin. He takes negative advantage of his position, but David also maintains his relationship with God because of his reaction to the realization of his sins.

Taking Advantage of Blessings

In both of these cases, does God set David up to sin? We might say if God had never promoted David to king, he would have never had the position or resources necessary for these sins. I think we understand that blessings from God are not evil, even when those blessings open up opportunities that might lead to sin. Many of us are greatly blessed by God in so many ways, ways we may not even understand or appreciate. We can then either use those positions for good, or we can take advantage of those positions. In I Peter 5:1-5, for example, admonishes spiritual leaders to avoid taking advantage of their authority position. Also, James 3:1-2 warns in caution regarding teaching. With the opportunity to guide comes the danger of misguiding.

Galatians 5 warns against how we view our spiritual liberty in Jesus. Freedom in Christ does allow for indulgence in sin. Paul contrasts between living by the flesh and living in the spirit, and he keeps returning to the importance of love in our spiritual liberty. We are in a great position to be free in Christ, and we need to be willing to share that freedom with others rather than gloat over it. I Corinthians 8 reminds us to avoid being puffed up in our knowledge of Christ and that there will be differences in opinions and values that will not interfere with our ability to come to God. Verses 7-10 specifically address simple misunderstandings that can cause others to stumble. We should be sensitive to those.

Reconciling with God

Just like David, we will eventually take advantage of our blessings in a negative way. James 3:2 assures us that stumbling happens. How we react is what defines us. In II Samuel 12:13 and II Samuel 24:10, David acknowledges his errors. He chooses to submit to God’s judgment. He takes personal responsibility, and He puts Himself entirely in God’s hands.

God has provided us with hope and salvation, with fellowship with Him and fellow Christians. He has given us life from death and all that we have. We are who we are today because of Christ’s influence. Let’s use those blessings to His honor and glory and praise God in all we say and do.

lesson by Ben Lanius

Seeing Our Reflection

Lately, we’ve been revisiting the Old Testament in our Bible classes, and we understand that, while we are no longer bound to that law, studying the triumphs and failings of God’s people can benefit our own spiritual growth. As Paul writes in Romans 15:4:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

I want to take some time in this lesson to look at a few individuals from the Old and New Testaments. What will we see in them? Will we see characters to judge and condemn, or will we see reflections of ourselves – the same faults, the same misplaced priorities, the same desires, the same misdirection, and the same stumbles we all share? If we can see ourselves in them, then we will be able to see our reflections in one another and handle the sins in our lives and others all the better.

Seeing Ourselves in Them

We know the figures of King Saul, King David, and the Apostle Peter pretty well. We’ve studied their lives time and again, and I don’t think this lesson is going to shed any new light on these individuals. I want us, however, to be self-reflective as we take a look at specific events from each of these lives.

  • King Saul (I Samuel 13:5-12). Scared of the impending doom he perceives and anxiously impatient for Samuel’s arrival, Saul takes it upon himself to make an offering to the Lord. The problem is that it is not his place to do so, and he acts outside the authority of God’s word.
  • King David (II Samuel 11:3-5). David sees a woman bathing and desires her. He goes to great lengths to have her and to greater lengths to cover his sin, resorting to lies and murder to prevent the knowledge of his indiscretion from spreading.
  • Peter the Apostle (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter walks on water to reach Jesus, but his faith falters. He begins to sink, and Jesus must pull him up, chastising him for a lack of faith.

What do we see with these individuals? Do we only see the rebukes and the consequences their actions inspire? Do we only focus on their failings? Do we sit back and judge, patting ourselves on our back that we are not as bad as them?  Do we just see Saul as an impatient egomaniac; David as a womanizer; Bathsheba as immodest; Peter as faithless? It’s very easy to look at these people as mere character whom we can academically dissect and discuss while failing to see our own reflection in them. Can we not see that you and I are no different today? Should we not be learning about ourselves as we are learning about them?

When we examine Saul’s action in I Samuel 13, we can see our own fears and insecurities in him. How often do we want God to work on our own timeline? How often do we feel when need to do His work for Him? After all, Christians are fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin: “God helps those who help themselves.” With David, it’s easy to throw blame all over the place in those events, but do we not see our own struggles with lust and desire in him? Are we not as guilty of increasing our own sins to cover our own faults? Finally, in the case Peter, we all have our moments when our faith meets its limits and falters. At least in Peter’s case, he turns to the right source for salvation. At times, I am Saul. I am David. I am Peter, and so are we all.

Forgiving Others

If we can empathize with these distant historical figures, it should be all the easier to be compassionate and forgiving toward our fellow man. Jesus’ ministry is filled with moments of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness – especially toward individuals with whom we might have a hard time relating – activists, tax collectors, prostitutes. The Hebrew writer gives us some insight into this empathy in Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has     been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may     receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus can empathize with our struggles and shortcomings, and we should be able to do the same with our fellow man. Just like we often say we should be quick to hear and slow to speak, we should be quick to care and slow to judge others’ sin. After all, if we look closely enough at their problems, we might just see a reflection of our own.

Forgiving Ourselves

If we can forgive David, Peter, and Saul their failings, we should be able to more easily forgive our own. If we are quick to criticize and condemn those we see in the Bible, what will we do when we see our own reflection in them? If we are too harsh on them, will we be too harsh on ourselves? II Corinthians 7:10 warns of falling too deeply into regret over our sins.

If we want to beat down individuals like David, Peter, and Saul for their faults; if we want to beat down others around us for their faults, how will we handle it when we fall into the same traps? Will we be like David and try to conceal our sins, regardless of the cost? Will we beat ourselves down for these failings? Instead, we should be helping each other up, turning to each other for that help, and ultimately allowing our Lord to lift us up when we begin to sink into the despair of sin.

Conclusion

The Bible story is one of redemption and reconciliation, and time and again we see that anyone, regardless of their pasts and their faults, can take advantage of God’s grace. Saul could have turned back to the Lord instead of sinking deeper and deeper into bitterness. David and Peter do ultimately grow. My mind keeps coming back to the imagery of Peter sinking beneath the waves; he knows who to appeal for salvation. There are many lost and wandering in the world, sinking in sin, and we can be that rescuing hand if we can look upon them with the love and compassion demonstrated in our Lord. Conversely, we will need that mercy at times. We will need a brother or sister pull us up, and we have to be able to forgive ourselves when that happens.

It all starts with what we see when we look into God’s word. If we can see ourselves reflected in the people within, with all their faith and all their faults, then we can better forgive others and ourselves for their faults. We all have David moments. We all have Saul moments. We all have Peter moments. The measure of our spirituality comes when see those moments in ourselves and others. We can look into that flawed reflection and see a soul that Christ loves and for which He was willing to sacrifice Himself. We can see the value of our own souls and those of others, and, in so doing, we can see the need for our Savior in our own lives and theirs. What will you do with others when you see them sinking in sin? What will you do when you need rescuing? It depends on what you see when you look into the mirrors in God’s word and those all around us.