1 Chronicles 13-14, Zechariah 7, John 20

Read 1 Chronicles 13-14, Zechariah 7, and John 20 today. This devotional is about Zechariah 7.

During the 70 years that Judah was captive to Babylon, the Jewish people began a tradition of fasting in the fifth and seventh month of each year (vv. 3-4). The purpose of this fast was, on the surface at least, to beg the Lord to end the captivity, return his people to the promised land, and restore the temple. But the temple was now being rebuilt and many people were returning to Judah, so this delegation wanted to know if the fasting was still necessary.

Zechariah’s answer was long and did not conclude until chapter 8, but his entire answer challenged the questioners more than it answered the question. The Lord asked the people, “…was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” (vv. 6-7). A fast of true repentance would have honored the Lord but a mere ritual that everyone observed as a matter of custom meant as little to the Lord as it did to the people observing the fast. Likewise, their “normal” days of eating and drinking were done without any regard for the Lord. They did not give thanks for the food he provided or enjoy it as an act of worship from grateful hearts. Both their religious observance and their daily habits were done for themselves, not as servants of God seeking to please him.

Instead, God wanted his people to live like him daily, showing justice, mercy and compassion (v. 9) by caring for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor rather than using the vulnerabilities of these groups as levers to exploit them (v. 10). That is the kind of worship God wants, not because he expected people to work to earn his favor but because these ethics were evidence of a truly changed heart.

Think about your daily choices–to eat or not to eat, to read God’s word and pray or not, to attend church or sleep in, to be kind and helpful to others or to ignore their needs. Does your walk with God drive the decisions you make on these (and other) things or do you choose what you will and won’t do based on your own personal motivations?

When you have the opportunity to help someone in need, do you do it as an act of worship and obedience to the Lord?

1 Chronicles 7-8, Amos 5

Today, our schedule calls for us to read 1 Chronicles 7-8, Amos 5.

This devotional is about Amos 5.

Many religions are built around rituals. Rituals may involve memorizing words and saying them at certain times. They may involve lighting candles or attending gatherings or giving money. Religious rituals can center on what someone eats, what kind of clothing (or underwear) they wear. Most religions have certain expectations that followers of that religion must do or should do or are supposed to do.

Judaism was no different; in fact, Old Testament worship had many, many rituals. It regulated how often and when people gathered, how much they gave, what they wore, what they ate, and on and on.

Rituals can be meaningful but they can also just become habits. Like most habits, we can do rituals without thinking or caring very much. This is especially true if someone equates their relationship to God 100% with the performance of the ritual. If someone thinks that God is pleased because he or she performed a religious act or consistently performed a bunch of religious acts, that person needs to look more closely at scripture.

And, if we do rituals in God’s name while also practicing sinful habits the rest of the time, we are deceiving ourselves. Here in Amos 5:21-24, God condemned the observance of Jewish religious rituals in the harshest of terms. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me” he said in verse 21. Forget the sacrifices, too (v. 22) and your worship music, no matter how emotive it is or how skillfully you play it (v. 23).

Instead, God wanted those who loved him to do what is right: “…let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (v. 24). Christ has fulfilled the sacrifices so that we can be declared righteous and God can be just. But if we name the name of Christ and diligently do what Christians are supposed to do yet we break God’s commands routinely in our daily lives, we are deceiving ourselves about the state of our relationship with God.

How about ti? Are you living a life that is right with God in your home, your workplace, and in our community? If someone from one of those contexts found out that you are a Christian, would they be surprised? God wants living sacrifices; our daily choices, ethics, values, how we treat people, and the words that we say reveal far more about our faith than does our church attendance, giving, and Bible reading. Those things–church attendance, etc.–are designed to help us live a more righteous life. They are important for growing and strengthening our faith, not for measuring our compliance with Christian expectations.

God judged his people for many things including religious performance without righteous living. Let’s learn from their painful example and truly walk with God.

Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, Psalm 16

Today we’re scheduled to read Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, and Psalm 16.

This devotional is about Genesis 17.

Two major events in Israel’s history were recorded in this chapter. First, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (v. 5). Second, God commanded Abraham and his descendants to obey the covenant of circumcision (vv. 9-14). Of all the commands God gave to Israel throughout the generations, this is the only one that they obeyed faithfully. The generation that entered the promised land had not been circumcised by their fathers, but that appears to be the only time when this covenant was not practiced faithfully (see Joshua 5:2-8).

Circumcision created a permanent, physical mark on a man’s body that separated him from people in other nations and specified that he belonged to the nation of Israel. That was important for preserving the unique ethnic identity that God wanted. The Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaites, and later the Philistines and many others had their own identity for a time, but then were absorbed into other nations and ethnicities. Circumcision set God’s people apart from these other nations.

But the covenant of circumcision had a much greater importance than just creating and preserving a national identity for Israel. God told Abraham here in Genesis 17:7 that the purpose of the covenant was, “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Although it was a physical mark, it had a spiritual purpose. Faithfully marking each man physically, apart from the spiritual purpose, made it an empty ritual.

Rituals such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, faithful church attendance, and Bible reading and prayer are some of the ways in which God’s grace helps us to grow in Christ. But you can observe these rituals without God actually becoming “your God.” And, even as Christians, we can lose focus on our walk with God while continuing to practice these rituals; our practice of them becomes work that we do by habit or by willpower or because we think they earn merit with God rather than expressions of our love for God. Is there anything you’re doing as a Christian that is expected of Christians but that does not come from your heart? Ask God to re-ignite your passion for him so that you become again a person who walks with God faithfully from the heart.