By Woody Woodrick
Joshua: A Leader for the People
Purpose: To recognize that God’s strength and courage are important promises for leaders who have big shoes to fill.
Bible Lesson:Joshua 1
Key Verse: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9
When a legendary leader begins preparing to step aside, man folks speculate about the leader’s replacement. It’s a daunting task, and we’ve all probably heard the adage, “I want to follow the person who follows him.” The sentiment is understandable. The new leader would have high, almost impossible expectations. Even a successful leader is constantly compared to the “great one.”
This is where Joshua found himself. Moses had died the Hebrew people need someone to lead them into the Promised Land. This couldn’t be just anyone. They weren’t venturing into the unsettled wilderness. This was a land occupied by several tribes that had built thriving cities. Military action was going to be necessary along with the chore of leading the people through their daily routine. The job couldn’t go to just anybody.
However, God didn’t just pick Joshua and say, “Job’s yours; get to it.” Three times God gave Joshua a commandment: “Be strong and courageous.” God told Joshua that God would always be with him. That had to allay some of the fears Joshua had. What does that command suggest to us about what faith is to be like today?
Some folks turn down opportunities to lead in the church out of fear of failure or concern that they are not “worthy” of leading people of faith. I’ve done just that. However, what I tend to forget is that God doesn’t call us to be experts or perfect. He asks us to be obedient. He expects us to answer his call, put faith in him and “be strong and take courage.”
It’s been my observation that God often calls people to do one great thing. He calls them to make use of one skill or ability he has provided, gives them a specific task and then asks that they be strong and take courage in completing the job.
So how do we learn from Joshua’s situation and ours today? Have you been called to serve God in some capacity but been hesitant because you would have to follow someone who had done an outstanding job? Be strong and take courage.
Gideon: A Deliverer for the People
Purpose: To show that we can serve God even when we do not have all our questions about God’s ways answered.
Bible Lesson: Judges 6:1-3, 7-14
Key Verse: “Then the Lord turned to Gideon and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the land of Midian; I hereby commission you.’” — Judges 6:14
Have you ever been complaining about something and had someone turn to you and say, “Well, here’s your chance to do something about it”? Given that challenge we can react in one of three ways:
• Shut up and stew about the situation
• Acknowledge we’re just blowing off steam
• Accept the challenge and do something about it
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he responded by asking where God had been during the captivity in Midian. Where were all the great things the ancestors had told them God had done for the Israelites? Yeah, we’ve heard all those great things, but we sure haven’t seen any of them. Here we’ve been suffering for seven years and you show up now?
Undeterred, God answers by saying, “You’re my man. Deliver the people out of the hand of Midian.”
The first question these verses raise is where is God when bad things happen? We’ve just passed the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast. While great progress has been made in rebuilding, many problems brought by the devastating storm remain unresolved, not the least of which is the pain of loss of life. Where was God that day four years ago?
I consider this one of the most difficult questions Christians can face, whether from their own experience or when trying to explain God to a non-believer. Where is God when bad things happen? Why doesn’t he step in if he’s omnipotent and loves his children?
“I don’t know” seems such a cop out answer. Yet, we don’t understand much about the nature of God and his plan for our lives. We can ask — should ask — and seek the answer, but that doesn’t mean we will find it.
The lessons raise the question of whether questioning God is a sign of spiritual strength. What do you think? Why?
Quickly back to the Israelites and their being under the control of Gideon, basically refugees in their own land. The implication is that idolatry was their sin; they had adopted too much of the culture around them. What inappropriate values have people in our society embraced?
Ezra: A Priest for the People
Purpose: To acknowledge that God may require us to make radical changes in our lives when we have strayed from God’s ways.
Bible Lesson: Ezra 9:5-11, 15
Key Verse: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” — Ezra 9:6
Few situations are more humbling than having to apologize or seek forgiveness on behalf of a group of people for the actions of a few. But it can also be cleansing, too. When Dick Molpus, speaking for a group of citizens from Neshoba County, apologized to the families of the civil rights workers killed there in 1964, Mississippi took a huge step forward in improving race relations in this state.
Molpus and others in the group weren’t involved in the murders. Why should they apologize, some might ask. Good question. What is corporate or communal sin? Why should all apologize for the actions of a few? Why did Ezra feel the need to apologize for the Israelites?
One reason might be that while most of the Israelites didn’t sin against God by marrying outside their faith, others made little attempt to stop it. This was in direct opposition to what God had told them. The fear was that the non-Israelites would bring the temptation to worship other gods. By not stepping in and reminding their friends and neighbors what God had told them, folks turned their heads and appeared to even accept the marriages.
When we begin to accept sin as OK or try to rationalize it, we begin a slide down a slippery slope. When Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, some considered the film scandalous because at the end one character uttered the word “damn.” Today, that word in a movie won’t even earn a PG-13 rating and is quite common television along with much stronger language. We’ve come to accept a certain level of bad language. Is this right? Should we take a stand?
When we prepare to take communion, we offer the prayer of confession:
“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all people:
“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy divine majesty.
“We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us.
“Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.
“For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive is all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Why do we need communal confession?
Now let’s look at the solution. Ezra indicates that the men who had married women outside the faith should send away the women and children. This was a harsh stance. In those times, the women likely would not have been able to return to their families for assistance. They would have been viewed as having disgraced their families by marrying Israelites. What about the children? They would be completely innocent in the whole deal, yet they would have to pay the price.
The goal is to remove sin from our lives. Which is the greater sin, risking the temptation of idolatry or casting out innocent women and children?
God sometimes demands that we make radical changes in our lives. What are some examples of sin and resulting radical change because of a new awareness of sin?
Nehemiah: A Motivator for the People
Purpose: To see that the devotion and commitment of Nehemiah helped him rally the people to work for the common good.
Bible Lesson: Nehemiah 2:5, 11-20
Key Verse: “I told him that the hand of my god had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building.’” — Nehemiah 2:18
Leaders accomplish tasks in several ways. Some instill such fear in those under them that the work gets done, but at the first sign of trouble, the leader finds himself standing alone. Others show such great skill and ability that others follow along. Still others simply have a gift for saying the right things, doing the right things that make others want to do what’s needed to complete the job. The third kind of leader seems often to have the most long-term success. That’s what we find in Nehemiah.
What are some of the characteristics Nehemiah showed as a leader that motivated the people to begin rebuilding Jerusalem? Well, consider that he didn’t rush and start giving orders. He observed what needed to be done and likely listened to what those around him said about the situation. Next, he gave those who would rebuild the temple a personal stake in the effort, urging them to “no longer suffer disgrace.” Finally, it wasn’t all about him. He gave credit to God and worked, not for his own benefit, but for the good of all.
Sometimes we’re called to make sacrifices or give up something for the common good. One of my favorite movies is The Milagro Bean Field War. One of the characters talks quite a bit to an angel. They argue and joke with one another, but at one point in the movie the angel addresses the man in a serious tone. “My friend,” he says, “I need to ask you to do something; something that requires a great sacrifice.” The man agrees and puts his life at risk, but if things turn out right, his action will have been good for everyone in their small town.
In growing the church, it’s easy to make things about us. We want big crowds at worship, sometimes for the wrong reasons. We have to put aside our selfish desires and do what’s best for the common good. That might mean not complaining when the new worship means getting to the restaurant later and having to wait in line. It might mean giving up your Sunday school class for a time to teach in the elementary department.
How do we motivate people to step up for the kingdom? It might mean figuring out and offering a solution to a problem. It may mean taking on a new ministry instead of simply demanding that someone develop one.
What do you do in your church for the common good?
Some folks always challenge new things. Yet when we are motivated by our love of God and have prayed for his guidance, we need not worry about naysayers. When has the assurance of God’s presence enabled you to overcome ridicule or skepticism?