When God Sends a Canoe…

There is an old joke about a man whose house was in the path of a great flood. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him from the rising waters. As the water crept closer to his front door, a man in a canoe came paddling by. He said he had room in the canoe, if the man wanted to evacuate. “No, no,” the man replied. I have faith that God will rescue me.

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But the water kept rising. The man was now trapped upstairs, as the water had flooded his ground floor and continued pouring into his house. A Coast Guard rescue boat came by. It was crowded with people, but the rescue workers assured the man that there was still room for one more. “No, no,” the man replied. I’ve been praying, and I know God will rescue me.

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Just before sundown, the man was forced to climb onto his roof, as the waters kept rising. A Marine rescue helicopter hovered, and a Marine was lowered with a rope to rescue the man. By this time, the man was hungry, exhausted and shivering, but he refused to accept the Marine’s help, once again claiming that God would rescue him.

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As night fell, and the waters were creeping up to his perch on the roof, the man cried out to God,” Where are you, Lord? I prayed for your help, and I trusted you to rescue me. Yet here I am, clinging to the roof. I’m wet, scared, cold, hungry, and tired. Didn’t you hear me? Don’t you care?”

From the darkness above, a voice answered: “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?”

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This is a silly story, but it made me think– how often do I miss God’s answer to my prayers because of my own narrow focus or selfish expectations? When God sends a canoe, do I dismiss it because I want a different outcome? The story doesn’t say why this man refused to see God’s hand in the reasonable rescue attempts that came his way– perhaps he thought God would simply redirect the floodwaters away from his house, or provide a supernatural rescue. And we never find out what happens next– maybe the man gets his miracle, after all.

God’s ways are not our ways, but God often uses practical, even humble means to answer our prayers. And He rarely ever tells us what His answers will look like.

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Even the Apostle Paul had to be rescued– several times. In Acts 27 and 28, we find an amazing story in which God revealed to Paul that he would be shipwrecked and rescued. Several attempts were made to save the ship, but Paul’s focus was on saving the lives of all on board. And God answered his prayer. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+27-28&version=NIV Strangely, God chose not to reveal that Paul would face a new danger as soon as he was safely on land. Paul trusted God to make sure he arrived safely in Rome– no matter WHAT crisis arose, no matter what surprising disaster loomed. When he was bitten by a poisonous viper, Paul didn’t panic. The same God who had led him safely to shore kept him from harm yet again. This same God would bring him to Rome, where he would be executed for his faith. While in jail, Paul wrote many letters, sometimes asking for basic necessities– including a warm cloak and some parchment. Paul never lived to see his letters become part of the New Testament. He never lived to see generations of martyrs and missionaries reading and sharing his words around the world. But he left a testimony of faith that God would be with him, wherever he went and whatever circumstances he faced.

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Whether God sends me a canoe today, or a helicopter tomorrow, I know I can trust Him to do what is best– in His way and in His time.

Winning the “Lot”-tery

The character of Lot in the Biblical book of Genesis is one that often gets overlooked in favor of his uncle, Abram/Abraham. Yet Lot lingers in the background, following Abram to Canaan, and later to the area between Bethel and Ai. (See the end of Genesis 11 and the beginning Genesis 13.) Curiously, we don’t hear anything of Lot when Abram and Sarai travel to Egypt during a period of famine. He isn’t there to support his uncle, or share his burden. He isn’t there to alleviate any of Abram’s fears relating to Sarai (See Genesis 12). Abram resorts to lying about his relationship, and causing difficulties with Pharaoh, but there is no mention of Lot until Abram and Sarai return from Egypt. Lot rejoins his uncle and they move into a fertile region– so fertile, in fact, that their flocks and herds soon grow too big for the area.

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At the beginning of Genesis 13, things have come to a crisis point. Abram, as the elder, could have used his age and position to demand the best grazing land and force Lot to fend for himself elsewhere. But he doesn’t. God has already promised that Abram and he will become a great nation and own the land of Canaan. Abram, in faith, tells Lot that he can have his choice of the land– anywhere he goes, Abram will pull back and take the leftovers.

It must have felt like winning a prize–being given carte blanche– first dibs on the best land in the region, while your elder agrees to give you even more space to expand. And Lot makes the most of this golden opportunity. He chooses the best land in the area– well watered, green, and near wealthy centers of commerce and culture–what could go wrong?

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Before we explore the answer to that question, let’s stop and consider Lot’s character and choice in comparison to his uncle’s character and offer.

Abram reveals much of his character in a pattern of “calling on the Lord.” He does it in Genesis 12:7, 13:4, and again after the separation from Lot in Genesis 13:18, where he built an altar. There is no mention of Lot ever calling on the Lord for anything. Not to seek His face, or give Him praise, or memorialize an event. Lot is not a giver– he is a taker. He takes advantage of his uncle’s wealth and standing time after time, but we never see him thanking his uncle or showing deference to him as an elder. This is not to say that Lot never showed gratitude or deference, but he seems not to have made a habit of it. In taking the best land for himself, Lot acted with supreme self-interest. He could have sought out good land elsewhere, leaving his older uncle in possession of good land close by. He could have taken time to consider more than just the obvious good points of the land he chose. But he didn’t. He jumped at what looked like an amazing stroke of luck. But in the end it turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing.

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How often am I like Lot? When have I jumped at the chance to take the “easy” path, never bothering to consider how it impacts others? Have I developed the bad habit of taking “good fortune” for granted? Do I thank God, and those who have poured into my life, for their care and help? Am I dependable– am I “there” for my friends and family in good times and in times of famine, hardship, or pain?

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Lord, help me to learn these lessons from your word. Help me to be more like Abram, and less like Lot as I go through the day and week ahead. And Thank You for Your character of faithfulness and grace, that chose to rescue Lot (twice!) in spite of his selfish choices. Help me to show the same grace to others I encounter.

A Lot to Discover…

I spent part of last year taking a closer look at some of the figures of the Old Testament. This week, I’d like to take a closer look at one of the lesser figures of Genesis: Abraham’s nephew, Lot.

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We tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the apostles in the New Testament. We should. But we should not neglect the lessons to be found in these ancient stories. They have a “lot” to teach us about human nature, and about God’s response to it. They are rich with characters, patterns, metaphors, and foreshadowing.

We first meet the character of Lot, along with his family, at the end of Genesis 11:
27 This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah. 30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. 31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there. 32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.
(Genesis 11:27-32 NIV, taken from http://www.biblegateway.com)

When I was reading this passage the other day, I was struck by something I never noticed before, and have never heard in any sermon or Bible study–Lot’s mother is never mentioned, and there is a strong implication that Lot’s parents were never married. The text merely says that Haran became the father of Lot, and that he died. The next sentence, however, says that both his uncles married– and it names their wives. The Bible does not state explicitly that Lot was illegitimate, or that he never knew his mother, but if that is the case, it makes certain things about his life stand in sharp contrast. And, though it says Haran died while his father was still alive, we don’t know how long he was a part of his son’s life. Lot is part of a family, but his position is not well-defined. He is a grandson, and a nephew, but he has no parents or siblings, and he is not adopted or named as an heir by either of his uncles. (Even before Abraham becomes a father, his “heir” is a servant named Eliezer of Damascus, not his nephew– see Genesis 15:1-3) He travels with his grandfather, and then “moves about” with Abraham (Genesis 13), but doesn’t seem to be a part of Abraham’s household. Instead, he is raised by his grandfather, who seems to have given him his father’s portion of the inheritance. Lot isn’t abandoned by his father’s family, but he is not embraced, either.

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Lot seems almost to be included in this family history by chance. And, indeed, his name connotes chance and happenstance. People cast lots, play the lottery, and talk about their “lot in life.” Lot, much like his name, seems to depend on chance as he travels through life. His birth is mysterious and obscure, but he has connections to a great and wealthy family. He has great success in building his flocks and herds, enough that the “land could not not support (he and Abraham) while they stayed together” (Genesis 13:6a), but he doesn’t seem to be able to stay out of trouble. He gets used as a pawn in a territorial war (Genesis 14), and must be rescued by his uncle, only to return to the wicked city of Sodom. Angels must drag him out of the city to rescue him again, when God decides to destroy both Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Bitter and pouting, Lot becomes a pawn for his own daughters in the aftermath of his rescue, ending his days as a footnote in history, as the ancestor of two of Israel’s fiercest enemies– the Moabites and Ammonites.

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Why is the story of Lot woven into the chronicles of Abraham? What can we learn from his character and life story? How does Lot play a part in the genealogy of Jesus?

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I’ve challenged myself to learn more–may I pray that you might do the same? Nothing about Lot’s story is written without some purpose–let’s search out what a “lot” God has to share with us in the life of this one man.

Five Smooth Stones

God’s ways are not our ways. God often turns our expectations on their heads– choosing Abraham and Sarah to become parents at an advanced age; choosing Moses, reluctant, disgraced, and hot-tempered, to shepherd close to a million refugees across the wilderness; choosing David, young and poorly armed to defeat the mighty giant, Goliath; choosing to send His Messiah as an infant, the son of a teenage girl stranded miles from home in a cattle shed…

Not only that, but God chooses to include cryptic and seemingly random details in many of the stories we read in the Bible. When Abraham and Sarah received news that they would become parents, Sarah laughed. Such a small detail, but God called attention to it, even giving the name Isaac (Laughter) to this promised son. When God called Moses, He didn’t just include the details of the burning bush and the miraculous signs, He chose to include Moses’s excuses and objections, and a curious command to Moses to remove his shoes.

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Recently, I found a short discussion about the “five smooth stones” David used to defeat Goliath. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17%3A26-50&version=MSG Some teachers spend time talking about the number of stones– why five? Did David doubt God’s power and provision? Can we attach significance or apply principles to each stone? But someone commented (I’m sorry, I lost the reference, or I would attach a link) on the fact that the stones were smooth–I’d never really noticed that detail before. David chose five smooth stones from the brook, not five heavy rocks, not sharp-edged stones of flint, not round balls made of iron– five smooth stones. The smooth stones in the brook may seem like a strange choice to us if we are not used to using a sling, but to David, such stones meant greater accuracy and speed. Five such stones would have been about a handful– easy to carry, load, and fire in rapid succession, if necessary.

I would like to suggest that there are some principles here that apply to both prayer and Christian living, especially involving how we can pray for and interact with the “giants” and “enemies” in our lives:

  • First, understand the reality of the “Giant”—Goliath was huge; bigger than any single warrior in Israel. But he wasn’t bigger than God. Goliath was also hampered by his heavy armor, his size, and his arrogance. David was offered armor and weapons similar to Goliath’s, but David’s greatest weapon was his understanding that Goliath was no match for the God of Angel Armies! We often make the mistake of magnifying our enemies. We see their size, their shining armor, and heavy weaponry. We forget that God is the maker of smooth stones!
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  • Second, actions really do speak louder than words. Goliath inspired fear; he taunted the army of Israel. Yet he never landed a blow against David. Goliath scoffed, bullied, and talked a good game, but David paired his words with action. Goliath demanded that David (or any other warrior) “Come down to me..” He had a javelin and a spear, but he never used either one. I find it interesting that many “enemies” of the Church behave the same way. They want to challenge the followers of Christ in debates; they publish books and articles filled with arrogant words, accusations, and complex arguments. It is tempting to respond in kind– to get into a war of words; to match their arrogance with our self-righteous assertions. What if we fought their words with action, instead of spending so much of our time answering and defending ourselves against empty arguments and accusations. We will not “win” any culture wars; we will not “win” the hearts and minds of the next generation; we will not “defend” morality by using bigger, better, or more persuasive words, or by having better armor and sharper weapons than our enemies. We need smooth stones from the brook–small acts of kindness and humility and grace that defy all the logic and brute force of those who trust in their own understanding.
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  • Third, accuracy is better than power. Goliath had one spear–and it was impressive–” His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.” (verse 7). Still, Goliath had a javelin, a sword, and several pounds of armor. David had no armor, one shepherd’s staff, and his sling and five smooth stones. But he only used one stone! It was accurate and true; it was sufficient, and it won the battle! Sin likes to flaunt it’s power–shiny armor, impressive weapons.. But if we are “true”–if we hold fast to the truth and follow the words and example of Jesus Christ–if we are faithful in our everyday walk with Christ, it is sufficient.
    There is an amazing climax in the movie, Star Wars (episode 4, A New Hope), where the young Luke Skywalker is sent with a group of fighters on a seemingly impossible task– destroy the “indestructible” Death Star! There is only one weakness–one small target. Luke’s small fighter plane is old and outdated; he and his fellow soldiers are under attack, and the pressure is on. But Luke’s accurate shot leads to victory. It is a modern retelling of the story of David and Goliath (with several space-age gadgets and extra plot twists).
    How many of our interactions with others get “sidetracked” by anger, envy, bitterness, and pride, to the point that we no longer reflect Christ accurately? How often do we consistently pray to stay “true” to God’s word, rather than praying for more powerful opportunities or platforms?
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  • Fourth, know your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your enemy). David knew that his strength was, first and foremost, in God. And David’s passion for God’s honor gave him focus and commitment beyond all that was found among the skilled soldiers of either side. He knew that fancy weapons and armor could not improve his skill with the sling, and that his skill had been tested in battle before.
    But David also knew better than to aim the stone at Goliaths’s breastplate, shield, or greaves. Goliath’s weakness was in his head! His first weakness was in thinking that his power was enough to defy the God of Israel’s army. But he also left his head unprotected from attack. Some scholars have even suggested that Goliath may have had very poor eyesight– that he was a fierce warrior in hand-to-hand combat, but literally could not see the stone coming at his forehead. Perhaps all his blustering and taunting was, in part, to distract from his very real vulnerability.
    I am reminded that this is also true of many of the “giants” we face. Their weakness is in their head and in their vision–they trust in their own understanding and in human arguments, or in their “vision” of who God is, or “isn’t”, or “should be”. They rely on what they can comprehend and control. They wave their swords and rattle their shields; they have gleaming armor and they “talk a good game”. They have locked away their hearts and bodies, often hiding painful scars and deep hurts.
    Goliath was a giant–but he wasn’t a god. He was once a little boy (or maybe never a “little” boy, but a young boy..). David was a young man (probably in his mid-to-late teens), who was a simple shepherd.
    How do we see ourselves? How do we see others around us? Do we know our weaknesses? Do we see the vulnerability in those who would threaten us?
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  • Last, God’s “weapons” are not like those of the world. Five smooth stones do not look like weapons. In fact, five smooth stones from the brook may have looked charming and harmless and even comforting in David’s hand. Four of those stones may have gone back into the brook, to be polished some more by the current, or carried out to the sea.
    Christ’s followers have armor and weapons, but they are spiritual in nature. We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+6%3A11-18&version=ESV, including the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Good News, Faith, Salvation– This is how we prepare for battle! And we are to pray at all times! Imagine dropping the weapons of sarcasm and self-righteous posturing, and picking up a smooth stone of grace!
    God calls us to use unconventional “weapons”– not to kill or destroy those around us, but to demolish lies, tear down walls of hatred, and defend the helpless. Has God placed you in a situation where you need to pick up “five smooth stones” today?

Things That Make You Wonder…(Daniel, Chapter 3)

The Biblical book of Daniel can be difficult to read. It contains stories, but they don’t seem to tie together. And sprinkled among the stories are visions, dreams, and prophecies. In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens all the wise men of Babylon in his fear over a disturbing dream. (https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/17/daniel-prayer-under-pressure/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/19/daniel-prayer-under-pressure-part-2/) At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate in awe of the God of Daniel, and rewards Daniel with a high position. He even rewards Daniel’s friends who prayed for him.

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None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).

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The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.

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Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).

Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.

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Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.

  • We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
  • Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
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  • Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
  • Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
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  • Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
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Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.

Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure (part 2)

Last time, we looked at the story from Daniel Chapter 2 (see text here:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=ESV ) Daniel, his friends, and the entire court of magicians, sorcerers, wise men, and counselors of Babylon are under threat of death if they cannot tell the mighty Nebudchadnezzar the meaning of his dreams– dreams he refuses to disclose to them! The power and wrath of the king of Babylon is imposing. The threat is real and very dire.

But today, I want to look at the larger picture, just as Daniel was able to do so long ago.

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Nebuchadnezzar looms large across all his empire– he is the supreme ruler, a despot, and a madman. But he is not God. Even as he strikes fear in the hearts of his counselors, he causes Daniel and his friends to seek help from a higher power. Already, the other learned men, sorcerers and astrologers have come to Daniel for help. Even though he is young, and a foreign captive, there is something about his character that has earned the respect of others in authority. Daniel could easily have become arrogant and proud. Or he could have folded under the pressure, knowing that he had no answers to give the king.

Instead, he did two key things– first, he asked for help from his friends. He asked for their support in prayer. Never discount the power of prayer– especially the prayers of others on your behalf. So often, we worry and wallow in our problems, waiting for God to work, praying in isolation and silent anguish. God wants us to seek His face; He wants to hear our prayers. But He also wants us to seek help and prayer support from those who are close to us. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked for support from His three closest friends. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+14%3A32-42&version=ESV) He went off alone to pray and pour out His deepest anguish, but He took His closest friends to “keep watch”. Daniel would face Nebuchadnezzar one-on-one, but he would not be “alone.” Not only would he know that God was with him, he would know that his caring friends were “keeping watch,” and providing faithful support. We should do the same.

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In weight training, there is a practice called “spotting”, in which another person stands ready to help a weight lifter as s/he attempts to lift a heavier weight than normal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotting_(weight_training)) Daniel is preparing to shoulder a big weight. He expects to face Nebuchadnezzar, and, while he doesn’t know (yet) the content of the king’s dreams, he knows that they are disturbing and mysterious. Whatever he says to the king, however tactfully he says it, his life (and the lives of many others) may be at stake. Spotters “keep watch”, and offer to step in and help if the weight is too great to bear. In this instance, Daniel’s friends were there, ready to help. They were not required to step up and face Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. But their time will come soon enough! As Christians, we need to be prepared to be a Daniel– but we also need to be prepared to be a “spotter” for our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to “keep watch,” ready to step in with prayer, action, and faithful support.

Secondly, Daniel waited with hope and expectation. The Bible does not tell us what Daniel prayed before God sent His answer, but it does record Daniel’s response to God’s vision. And his prayer is not one of selfish relief– “Thank you, God for giving me what I need to save me from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar…”–instead, Daniel rejoices in God Almighty; the one who causes kings to rise and fall, the one who gives wisdom and who knows the future. It is this God Daniel has trusted, and this God Daniel will honor when he goes in to meet with Nebuchadnezzar.

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Today, may we follow the good example of Daniel. Let’s share our concerns with others, and gladly offer to pray for each other, pray with each other, and “keep watch” for each other. And let us expect great things from our great and faithful God– even if we are living –and praying–under pressure!

Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )

First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.

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Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.

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We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.

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The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.

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No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.

Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

The “God of Jacob”– not “Jacob’s God”

For a blog about prayer, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing Bible study on the character of Jacob. But I think there is a huge connection. The stories in the Bible are powerful and important, not because of the human characters, but because, in them, we see how God interacts with a variety of His created people. And that can help us as we come to God in prayer.

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When we begin to understand that the “heroes” of the Bible are often ordinary people who encounter Almighty God, we see that little has changed in the course of history. God still chooses to bless and challenge ordinary people– for their own good, and as a witness to others.

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In today’s world, we often reverse the importance of the characters in our own stories. Christians talk about “my God” or “our God”, as though God belongs to us or serves us. But the Bible doesn’t speak in those terms. God is not “Jacob’s God” or “Solomon’s God” or “Queen Esther’s God,” or even “Israel’s God.” Instead, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of Israel. He is pre-eminent. God exists, rules, creates, and acts on His own terms, not ours. And He exists, rules, and acts universally. No person, group, or nation can claim that God blesses them because of who they are or what they have done. Thus, there is no African God or Caucasian God or Chen Family God, or Jean’s God, or Muscovite God, etc. There is only One God– but He wants to be the intimate and personal God of every person on the African continent, and in Moscow, and everyone named Shirley, Clarence, Chen, Smith, Martinez, or Klein. He invites each of us into a personal relationship, but He remains Holy and Unchanging and Sovereign.

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The very same God who wrestled with Jacob wants to be your best friend. He also wants to be your King and Lord of your life. When we pray to “the God of Jacob”– we are not praying to “Jacob’s God”. We are praying to the very passionate lover of our soul. He just happens to be the same God who loved Jacob enough to take him through a series of adventures many centuries ago; the same God who promised never to leave him; the same God who blessed him and preserved him and made him the father of a great nation. Just think of what He’s waiting to do for and through you!

Jacob’s (Third) Dysfunctional Family

The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.

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It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.

Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.

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So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.

Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!

If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.

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Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!

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