God of the covenant never leaves us alone


By Mitch Houston 

The summer heat is upon us in the greater Ballentine, S.C., area. The heat index today was 101. As I was lamenting the fact that the air conditioning in my car was not as cool as I wished, I saw a road sign that read, “Warning, bridge ices before road.” 

That certainly was not the warning I wanted or needed. Here I was so hot I was certain hell could not be any hotter, and the sign warns me of freezing weather. 

I laughed at the sign and was more concerned that the bridge might melt! But then the “optimist” in me kicked in and I realized that this was a sign of hope. The hot weather that I so hate and that makes me so miserable will not last forever. I trust in the design of creation: The fall will be cooler and the winter will make the sign necessary. The good news is that it is not the intent of God for us to be in our desolate condition forever. The sign of the cross brings hope and eternity. 

The children of Israel are exiled. The temple is destroyed. But God is not dead. The prophets bring with them the signs of new life for the exiles. The prophets talk about hope, repentance, responsibility and the justice of God. The road signs of deliverance, that lead to days of joy and peace again in the Holy City, Jerusalem. The lessons that follow share the story of captivity, deliverance and the rebuilding of the temple. Let us find our way and give thanks that the God of the covenant is with us regardless of the weather. 

Hope for the Hopeless
Focus: The people were in exile. They lived as people who had lost hope. But the writer of Lamentations says we have reason to hope in the midst of desolation because of God’s unfailing love and care.
Bible Lesson: Lamentations 3:25-33, 55-58
Key Verse: Lamentations 3:26 

C. S. Lewis, one of the great authors of our time, kept a personal journal of his suffering during the tragic illness and death of his wife. He said that his writing was his only consolation during this time of difficulty. The expression of his soul and pain brought him the hope he needed to continue. His journal begins with personal laments of desolation then leads to a renewal of his faith. He records his journey in his writing A Grief Observed. 

The Book of Lamentations is a series of poems, or laments, to and from God’s people after being taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The writing begins with the laments and desolation of the exiles, but slowly moves to the promise of hope. The first two poems lament the sins of the people and their pain in suffering as exiles. But the third, which begins with today’s lesson (3:18), is a poem of hope. God is not dead or far off. The God of grace and mercy brings hope even in captivity. 

The year is 587 BC. The Babylonians have conquered the people of Israel, and Jerusalem lay in ruin. The Holy Temple of Solomon has been burned to the ground. The people of God have been taken as slaves to Babylon, and the homeland is now inhabited by foreigners. Jeremiah had warned the people that their sins and rebellious living would lead to destruction, but they laughed and turned a deaf ear. The temple was seen as the place where God existed. With the destruction of the temple the people had the belief that God had been silenced. “How can you find God in a foreign land,” was more of a denial of faith than a question. 

The writer of Lamentations shares five laments. Beginning with the third lament he offers not words of desolation, but the promise of hope. If the exiles were to be able to exist and one day find freedom, they needed the hope only God could give. Without hope they would simply give up. Now in a time of profound personal and national distrust the writer seeks to bring the hearts of the people back into the presence of God. For all the woes, he now shares a message of God’s grace and presence in suffering. God is not dead; God is with them to bring them new life and hope for the future. The darkest moment of pain could not blind the writer to the constant goodness and mercy of God. 

“The Lord will not turn his back on us, although grief comes, his compassion is ever present, great is his steadfast love. He does not willingly grieve or afflict. O, Lord, you came near to me when I called upon your name and said, do not be afraid. You took up my case Lord and you redeemed my life.” (Vs. 32-33. 57-58) 

It was this poem of faith that brought hope to the exiles. Many years later it inspired this wonderful hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. Share the words and affirm the hope of God in your life. 

“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not.
As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!” 

The Blame Game
Focus: The exiles blamed their ancestors for their problems. People do not take responsibility for their actions. Ezekiel says the way to new life is for each individual be responsible for their personal deeds.
Bible Lesson: Ezekiel 18:4, 20-23, 30-32
Key verse: Ezekiel 18:32 

Jack attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He did not want to be there, but was made to attend. When he was invited to share his story he blamed “the system” for his troubles. He attacked God, his mother, the judge and his parole officer. He blamed everyone but himself for his condition. 

After the meeting he was approached by a veteran of sorts who said, “Young man, you need not waste your time. You are not ready for this.” The young man replied, “But I have no choice.” He then produced court papers assigning him to A.A. The old man replied, “Then you need to get some backbone. Examine yourself and own up to your problem.” 

The problem with the exiles in the story today is they, like Jack, wanted to blame their suffering and problems on their ancestors and not look at the destructive practices of their own individual lives. Ezekiel knew that if they were to survive captivity then they needed a change of heart and mind. Ezekiel is very emphatic that a person will not be punished by God for the sins of their ancestors. Each person individually answers to God for his or her own life. 

To blame others for our sins is not new to God’s creation. In the beginning God created heaven and earth, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. Then God created humanity, male and female for each other. God gave them the Garden of Eden; a perfect place with a perfect relationship. God’s plan was for them to live in love with one another and God. The only stipulation was that they were not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Everything was good until one day the serpent approached the woman. The serpent’s temptation was for her to eat of the forbidden fruit and have the knowledge of God. The woman gave in and then tempted the man, who likewise ate of the fruit. Now God came back to the scene and the blame game begins. 

“Why are you hiding?” God asked the man. “Well, God, I ate of the forbidden fruit, but it is not my fault, the woman made me do it,” replied the man. The woman entered into the conversation, “Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t hold you down and make you eat the fruit. Besides, I did it because of the serpent. It is all the serpent’s fault.” 

You see, from the very beginning we have sought to blame others for our mistakes.

Ezekiel was in the “second wave” of exiles that were sent to Babylonia. The first group had been in captivity as slaves for some 10 years. In their suffering they had begun to blame their ancestors for their sins that led to captivity and the difficult circumstances of their lives. They said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge”(18:2). 

This is a proverb common to them. The former prophets as well as tradition had emphasized cooperate sins. The tradition was that for three or four generations the sins of the fathers would visit their children (Numbers 14:18). This tradition of blame was, in fact, the preaching of Jeremiah and other prophets. But now Ezekiel broke rank with those before him. If the people were to be free and find new life, they needed to become responsible for their own sins and lives. With the help of God, the people needed to look forward, not backward (v. 4). Ezekiel tells them clearly to stop blaming their ancestors, but to look at their individual lives as they now lived them. Repent each for their own sins and trust the God of forgiveness, hope and restoration. 

Ezekiel does not come as an evangelist to burden them with guilt. But by focusing them on looking individually within, Ezekiel sought to bring liberation. 

Ezekiel attempts to lift those in exile out of despair, regret and guilt. Ezekiel promises a God who seeks individuals to repent, turn from old ways toward the new way of the covenant. Ezekiel says, “Turn, turn, turn.” Turn from the old life to new life. Turn from darkness to light; death to life. Conversion in the New Testament means to turn and walk in a different direction than you have been walking. Ezekiel is saying the same thing here. “Have I pleasure in the death of the sinner,” says the Lord. “No, I would rather they turn from their ways and live” (18:4). 

Stephen Covey says, “Each of us have many, many maps in our heads which can be divided into two main categories. Maps of the way things were, or maps of the way things can be.” 

We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. Ezekiel tells us and the exiles to quit playing the blame game. Change your mind from the maps of the past and put your hope in the future. Look within and examine your life as you live it with God and others. Put your trust in the hands of God the redeemer and trust in God’s map that leads to Eternal Life. 

Return to God
Focus: People yearn for wholeness and happiness. But they try to find fulfillment apart from God. Zechariah says return to the Lord and God will return to us.
Bible Lesson: Zechariah 1:1-6, 7:8-14
Key Verse: Zechariah 1:3 

In 538 BC the exiled people of Israel were allowed to return to Jerusalem and were encouraged to rebuild the temple. But in 520 BC, Darius becomes the emperor, and the temple is still in ruins. The problem is the people have returned and are more concerned with rebuilding their own houses than they are with rebuilding God’s house. There is real symbolism here for us and for the post-exiles. We become so busy with our own personal needs that we forget God. It is not always a purposeful movement, but slowly we let the needs and pleasures of our lives push God aside. 

The prophet Zechariah comes on the scene. Zechariah, like his protégé Haggai, encourages the people to get back to building God’s house. Zechariah told the people not to look back or to live in the past. Living in the past was the mistake of their ancestors that led to captivity. Again, remember the failure to take seriously the rebuilding of the temple brought with it the failure to build new lives of faith with God. 

Zechariah tells them that the covenant relationship carries with it a two-fold responsibility. The post exiles are to rebuild their relationship with God, and they are to take seriously their relationship with others, especially those most in need such as widows, orphans, the poor and their neighbors. 

Zechariah said that forgetting God and those in need were the sins of your “ancestors.” Do not make the same mistakes and anger God. 

“Return to me says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.” 

“Return to me says the Lord of Hosts.” The action God sought from the people is defined in the Hebrew word “hesed.” Hesed means to go beyond what is required by law. Hesed calls for a community based on kindness and a healthy combination of justice and compassion toward God’s people. Hesed calls the people to “go the extra mile” in the service of others. 

To return to the Lord is also a call for them to find again God’s word in their lives. They are to find a renewed understanding of God’s commandments and covenant. God’s word is the only sure and constant in life. Homes, health and temple can be destroyed, but the post-exile need to understand that God’s word can never be taken from them. To know, understand and live God’s word was the very substance of this new found freedom. 

“And I will return to you says the Lord of Hosts.” Zechariah is not implying that God has been absent. The fact is God has been constant in waiting for the exiles to return to him. God is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son told by Jesus. The younger son demands his inheritance from his father while his father is still alive. He in return takes the money to a distant land and wastes it on sinful living. He is left to live with the pigs. So he says, “I’d rather be a servant in my father’s house than live like this,” and returns home. 

As he drags up the dusty road to his father’s house, his father waits at the window with a loving heart and arms of welcome. When his father sees his son he runs down the road, robe flying and sandals flopping. He welcomes him as if he had never left. Instead of judging him he throws a party. Have you noticed that when one who is lost is found there is always a celebration? 

So God waits for his people to rebuild the temple and rebuild their lives of faith. He waits like a loving parent to return them to the covenant relationship. 

Our lives are God’s temple. We are God’s vessels to a broken world. We need to find again the goodness of God’s grace and share it with others. God like a loving parent waits for us with open arms.

“Return to me says the Lord of host and I will return to you.” 

A Message from God
Focus: Most people feel good when justice and good triumphs. But waiting for justice can be difficult. Malachi affirms that God will come one day to judge the world and set all things right.
Key verse: Malachi 2:17-3:5; 4:1
Bible Lesson: Malachi 3:1-2 

The phone rings, you answer and the voice on the other end declares, “Do I have something to tell you?” The doorbell rings, the postman is there with a letter, you sign for it and anxiously open it to read the news. You go to church, the pastor reads the scripture then she begins to share a word from God. The list could go on, but the point is that in each situation a person brings to you a message that could change your life.

Malachi was a messenger from God. The name Malachi means to be a messenger. The Hebrew word for messenger is “malak,” a root name for Malachi. 

Malachi is an unknown prophet. Malachi speaks of a messenger who will come, a forerunner of the Lord of host. He will come to refine, cleanse and purify. Many believe that the messenger Malachi “is the likes of” John the Baptist. John, like Malachi, was a messenger who witnessed to the coming of the Lord. John and Malachi had a similar message. You prepare for the coming of the Lord through repentance. God is near. The day is coming. The Kingdom is at hand. Repent. 

Malachi begins by saying, “You have wearied the Lord with your words ...” (2:17). The temple had been rebuilt. The people were again at worship, but their faith wavered. Foreigners still occupied the land and a famine was in their midst because of an invasion of locusts (3:11). So the people of the post-exile forgot the goodness of God and began to question God’s justice for them. Their mumbling and complaining had exhausted God. 

To weary God means to forget God’s goodness and to be unwilling to trust God. So Malachi reminds them of God’s goodness and points them to the time when God will come again. He says there will be a triumphant day of the Lord at the end-time. On this day all the injustices will be made right and the unrighteous will be punished (3:1-5).

Like John the Baptist, Malachi called the people to repent. The repentance Malachi called for is three-fold: 

  • Stop blaming others and confess your own sins. You can only find forgiveness and new life by taking responsibility for your sins. 
  • Change the way you live. Just being sorry is not enough. The people came out to hear John the Baptist and he said “prepare the way” by repentance. But one must show the fruits of repentance. “Whoever has two coats must share with those who have need; whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11). Malachi encourages the people to give to God what God deserves. He tells the priests to speak against evil and encourages the people to trust and serve God. 
  • Commitment and perseverance. Malachi shares the story of the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap to let us know the way is not always easy. But the rewards on the last days will bring healing, comfort, peace and eternity. 

These words of Malachi (3:1-2) are set to music in Handel’s Messiah. Imagine the soloist again proclaiming that if you trust in the Lord, “you will emerge from the fire purer and come out of the boiling kettle cleaner.” 

We are all challenged to repent of our sins and live kingdom lives. If we offend anyone, we seek forgiveness. If someone lives in poverty, we are to give and lighten their burden according to what we have. We are to speak out against the evils of this world and seek to live in peace. We are called to be messengers for God where and when needed. It is not always easy but this is the way of God and the example of Jesus. 

Houston is pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Ballentine, S.C.