Trusting the God of ordinary things

Trust in the Lord“Trust and obey,” says the hymn, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”

That’s easy, even fun to sing in church on Sunday or perhaps at home during personal devotions. It’s nothing but church talk if we don’t put legs on it, set our hands to work on it, and let it control our mouths and, yes, our thoughts once we close the hymnal.

Weekday faith, in other words, keeps working somehow even when life’s choices do not appear in strictly and obviously moral terms. It works to keep us trusting and obeying in the midst of ordinary, every day temptations.

What does it mean to trust God?

There are any number of ways to approach this question. I want to focus on just two of them. To trust God, we must know him well enough to recognize how he works. And we must be totally dependent on him and not rely on our own resources.

I keep hearing a story about a fellow who was stranded in a flood. His family begged him to evacuate his house, but he said no, he was trusting in the Lord.

When the flood water covered his porch, someone came by in a row boat and offered to rescue him, but he said no, he was trusting in the Lord. Another boat came by when was forced to go up to the second floor and look out the window, but he said no, he was trusting in the Lord.

Finally, when he had to sit on his roof to escape the flood waters, a helicopter offered to rescue him, but he said no, he was trusting in the Lord. A little later, he drowned and found himself before God.

He told God, “I trusted you all the days of my life, and you never let me down. So why did you let me die in that flood? Why didn’t you rescue me?” And God said, “What more did you want? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

That man evidently thought that God works in mysterious ways, that anything not clearly supernatural must be natural and therefore not God. He misplaced his trust by not recognizing the hand of God when he saw it.

More often, American Christians fail to trust God because they first put trust in natural resources and turn to God only if other means of help don’t work.

Struggling to pay bills, for example, some people look at the collection plate and charitable giving as one of the first places to cut their budgets. But God demanded a sabbath rest precisely so people would recognize that he, and not their own labor, would supply their needs.

Putting God first seems easy in Sunday talk. Otherwise, it takes some discernment. A song called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” was popular in the Second World War. That attitude is a statement of faith if and only if it means trusting God while we do the tasks he sets before us.

Otherwise, it represents exactly the disobedience the apostate Israelites displayed throughout the Old Testament. That is, the attitude in the song is faithless if it pays lip service to God but takes up the ammunition in the expectation that it’s our use of it that will get us through the battle.

A lesson from 1 Samuel 7

EbenezerDisaster struck Israel when a couple of apostate priests took the ark of the covenant into battle with the Philistines. Contrary to everyone’s expectation, the Philistines not only won the battle, but captured the ark. They also apparently destroyed Shiloh, the main center of Israelite worship.

Samuel preached for 20 years that the people needed to repent corporately for violating their covenant with God by worshiping idols. Once he was satisfied that they had, he called for an assembly at Mizpah for a sacrifice.

The Philistines assumed that any gathering that large had to be a military gathering aimed at them. So armies from the five major Philistine cities marched on Mizpah and arrived just as the worship service was in full swing.

The people of Israel demonstrated respect for God’s law and for Samuel, God’s appointed judge, in their response to the Philistine threat. They were all armed, but they did not immediately reach for their weapons. They did not tell Samuel to wait for them.

Instead, they asked Samuel to pray about this sudden military threat. He did, and began to offer the sacrifice as scheduled. Just as he did, the Philistines attacked. The warriors put aside their fears continued their worship. Then the thunderstorm began.

Nothing obviously supernatural happened. Sudden thunderstorms are ordinary weather events. But God controls the weather. He demonstrated whose side he was on in the timing. He responded to Israel’s display of faith. It might have been weak and timid faith, but that day it was genuine.

Mizpah is a high place. The name means “watch tower.” The Philistines had prepared a sneak attack, but they were on the lower ground. The sudden change in weather caught them off guard and broke up their battle lines.

The sacrifice ended, and then the Israelites rushed down from the high ground. The rout was on, but this time the Israelites prevailed and slaughtered the Philistines. Samuel set up a memorial altar he called Ebenezer.

The worship and military triumph at Mizpah represented one of Samuel’s greatest personal triumphs. Scripture goes on to describe his more ordinary ministry.

He had an annual circuit of three cities, plus his own home. Apparently the former worship center, Shiloh, where Eli had ministered and judged, had been destroyed in the mean time.

If you think of the whole extent of Israel from north to south, everywhere that Samuel went with any regularity is kind if in the middle. That meant that people who lived in the far north or far south never saw Samuel unless they went to him.

In the legal sense, the entire purpose of a judge is to determine right from wrong. We can see that in our own day. Every day in this country, our judges preside over civil and criminal trials to determine guilt or innocence and the proper consequences under the law.

In ancient times, local elders were quite capable of doing that. From Moses’ time onward, whoever judged all Israel had a larger responsibility. That one person had the duty to proclaim right and wrong not on an individual level, but as governing society as a whole.

We can draw an analogy with our Supreme Court. Like the ancient judges, the Supreme Court is never the first court to hear a dispute. Supreme Court decisions likewise become the law of the land. Of course, there are some big differences between the Supreme Court and, say, Samuel.

The Supreme Court is guided by the Constitution, but there is no agreement in our society how to interpret it. As long as I can remember, vitally important cases have been decided on a vote of five to four. Unanimous decisions are rare.

In other words, Whatever the Supreme Court decides, lots of legal experts–not to mention the rest of the population–think they got it wrong. And their decisions are called opinions.

Samuel and the other judges meditated on the law of Moses and prayed. They did not proclaim their own opinions. They passed on what they heard from God.

The system didn’t work very well. It depended on having a godly man, designated by God for the task. It also depended on the people’s respect for God, for the judge, and for the law.

It depended, in other words, on trusting God. Most of the time, people didn’t. So most of the time Israel suffered the consequences of unbelief and disobedience.

Ultimately, justice depends on doing the will of God. As Christians, we have two good ways to miss God. We can fail by a timid lack of trust and depend on the world, its values, and its resources. Or we can fail by being too religious for our own good, and not noticing how God is leading through our circumstances and the resources he has provided.

At Mizpah, Israel had to trust God enough not to abandon service to him in order to fight the enemy. God answered with a perfectly natural event, favorable weather. Then and only then, Israelite fighters had to take up their ammunition and pursue the enemy until they won the victory.

Photo credits:
Trust the Lord: Gospel Clip Art
(Source of Ebenezer not determined)


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