At the time if this writing, the world is in the midst of dealing head on with the Covid 19 virus crisis, and all its implications.
I read multiple times in the first months of the crisis, that, despite the president’s claims to the contrary, those in our American government in charge of predicting possible pandemics had in 2019 expressed grave concerns. The flag was raised: a deadly and wide spread flu epidemic was likely on the way… and of the Covid 19 virus type.
For some reason, American political leaders did not take the warnings seriously.
In 2015, Bill Gates gave a Ted talk and shared a similar warning.
Bill and Melinda’s foundation has invested millions in seeking to eradicate several diseases. While not an expert, Bill made it clear: another virus would come to challenge the world’s population and we are not ready.
In 2006, Larry Brilliant shared a Ted talk about what it took to eradicate smallpox, and the kind of efforts that would be required to eradicate future pandemics.
Despite their well-reasoned arguments and the warnings of many other experts in the field (google search if you don’t believe me), we did not heed their advice. Their warnings were not taken seriously.
Maybe you are like me, who is asking: why…why didn’t we listen and take action earlier? And it’s a good question.
But even a surface reflection on American life or my own tendencies confirms my hunch: this tendency is not something restricted to deadly contagious diseases.
We all, consciously or not, constantly decide which warnings we will take seriously, and which ones we will not, right?
I remember being a young boy, in back lot of our house with my dad and tending a small fire of sticks and debris. I am not sure how a light bulb ended up in the fire, but my dad pointed it out and told me to not touch it long after the flames went out. It would stay hot and burn my hands if I picked it up.
Warning was noted, and warning was dismissed just thirty minutes later. Dad was gone and I picked up the darkened and interesting light bulb, only to find his prediction true.
Ouch! A burned hand right away and then blisters followed.
My dad was not immune to the tendency. At the time of my fire story, he was one millions in the USA who smoked cigarettes. He knew they were not good for him, was more than a little familiar with the warning on the side of the package, and…smoked anyway.
My dad and I are hardly alone. What about the millions who know they could more likely develop heart disease if they don’t change their eating and exercise habits…but whose choices reveal they don’t take the warnings seriously.
Now of course if we took every warning as a final “no,” there would be little to no risk taking or adventure. I am not advocating for a completely safe or sterile life. However, there are warnings worth our attention and an about face of action toward a new direction, aren’t’ there?
And I believe there is something deep in my nature that keeps me from taking warnings about tomorrow or my longer fun future seriously.
Anyone else raising their hand in agreement?
This isn’t just a Covid 19 thing, is it? It’s a long run thing.
I would like to explore this reality from two angles. For sure, from reflecting more on my own story and the story of our world today. But first, I would like to explore God’s bigger story and explore this pattern and our human tendency to resist God’s good warnings. Perhaps in taking a look at our question in light of the Biblical story, we will better understand, appreciate and respond to our tendency to ignore important warnings…and along the way, admire the patient love of a God who has oft warned his beloved.
In the opening scene of God’s good love and creation, a first command was given that we “eat, eat of every tree of the Garden (Genesis 2:16).” Generosity on steroids describes the Creator who made all things for his glory and our pleasure. However, the abundant life God intended was conditioned on his being on the Garden’s and our heart’s throne. He was the king; our experience of his kingdom would unravel if he was not central.
So, God gave his first and perhaps most fundamental warning of his story; it begins with a single command this time: “do not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Or to say it another way, “to eat of this tree means you are seeking to put yourself on the throne and without me be able to know and act as if you yourself are God and have no need of me as King.”
God’s warning continues, for good warnings always include not only the behavior to be avoided, but also the consequence of what will happen if it’s unheeded: “for it you eat of it, you will die, die.”
Like with the first command above, I have written the English in its literal Hebrew wording to make it clear: the emphasis for God is on the good life planned for us, not the warning of what not to do. Further, the Father heart of God means that like any good parent, the consequence is paramount, not the restriction of our activity.
Imagine…you can hear a mom or dad saying their young child: “play, play hard all day long, but don’t play in the busy street, because if you do, you might die, die.”
God gives warnings with at least as much love as the best human parents, right?
Well here in exhibit A we would hope that Adam and Eve would have done the sensible thing as mere creatures: gorge on delicious fruit trees and heed the serious warning of the middle tree.
But they didn’t, did they?
Nor did their children, Cain and Abel and for that matter all the generations that followed through the flood, the tower of Babel and into the rest of the Biblical story. Examples abound here of God giving warnings, some that were heeded and many that were ignored.
Here are a few of the big ones.
When Moses came into Pharaoh’s court, over and over he pleaded for the release of his people or God would send plagues that Egypt’s gods could not rebuke. And Pharaoh did not listen, but rather hardened his heart. And not just once but over and over, to the point of losing his first-born son and then his entire army into the Red Sea.
God soon after exchanged covenant vows on Mt. Sinai and gave his commands to Moses to give to the people. The first, repeated three times in three different ways for emphasis, was that his people, his bride, worship no one else, neither create any idols. As in the Garden, God’s love would be to the thousandth generation of those who kept him as King but, warning: those who replaced Him with another object of worship would find themselves and their children living under hard consequences for their unfaithfulness.
Did they listen? Hardly. Literally hours later they asked Aaron to make for them a calf, an Egyptian idol and a reminder of their back home in Egypt religion. Unbelievable! They did so on their honeymoon night, so to speak.
And did they learn from their first mistake and then heed this warning thereafter?
After Moses died, Joshua and his army were commanded to rid the land of her inhabitants and stay clear of their religion and idols; if they refused, God’s Promised Land plans would be forever infected.
Oops. Some people were left in the land, who brought in suitcases filled with the strong drink of Baal religion. By the time Joshua lay down his mantle of leadership, he could with confidence in his final speech predict that the people would not stay faithful to God. They would drift back into their Canaanite idol worship and suffer the consequences.
Despite the people’s pledge to do otherwise, they and the generations after them continued to heed little the warnings of Moses and Joshua. The judges’ victories over their enemies brought only temporary relief. And nothing compared to the idolatry that plagued Israel in her history with God and her neighbors. They missed his abundant life, lost it over and over.
When the period of the judges was over, the people raised their hands in frustration and their voice in desperation to Samuel: “we want a human king, just like all the other nations have.” They perhaps imagined being able to keep God as their divine king but also have a human one. God, well aware of His first warning in the Garden and seeing the writing on the wall, responding firmly through Samuel: “Would you please renew your pledge to me as King and trust me to be everything they need?”
If they would not, the Lord resolved to give them a king as they requested, but with solemn warnings: they would be drawn away from their singular loyalty to Him. And their human king would do what all other human kings did at that time: raise taxes to build his palace and feed his court, take their daughters to be his concubines (see 1 Samuel 8).
Sure enough, the people still demanded Samuel give them an earthly king, and sure enough, their first king Saul was hardly the answer to their prayers. The initial mess got a bit better with David (if you excuse his adultery, murder and other lapses of faithfulness) but went downhill pretty quick after his death.
David’s son and heir to the throne, Solomon seemed to get off on the right foot, asking God for wisdom more than riches, insight more than power. The Lord granted him all the above, and all seemed well for a while. But after he built the temple and transitioned into the new role fully, he did everything Samuel had warned. Raised taxes, forced his own people to be concubines and builders of his larger than temple palace.
Now to his credit, Solomon wrote a book full of proverbs, full of wisdom and scores of warnings for those would choose the foolish way over the fear of god. Problem was, by the 2nd half of his reign, Solomon lost the ability to listen to his own warnings.
From there the kingdom broke into two parts, North and South, and scripture’s recorded history makes it clear: kings of Israel and Judah were almost to a letter a complete failure. The idolatry and laxity and oppression grew like weeds.
Ouch! Oh, what misery would have been prevented if they had listened to the warnings of Samuel and Yahweh their true king!
Generations of evil’s continual spiral passed, and against all logic, God’s loving commitment to warn us was renewed. The office of the prophet was created, and those employed were commissioned to proclaim to Israel of his impending judgment: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Joel, messengers with a call and a courage to speak the truth about Israel’s rebellion and set to sail loyalty to God. Their tone was urgent, the evidence of their guilt specific and compelling, and always coupled with warnings.
We oft ignore and don’t preach it in today’s pulpit or podcasts, but a large section of God’s holy word is filled with the warnings offered to Israel in pleading love and imminent judgment.
Guess what? God’s people did not listen to the prophet’s warnings, generations of warnings. Easier to listen to the voices of the false prophets assuring that all was well or promising exiles that all would soon be well. Easier to keep on doing what they were doing and not let the warnings disrupt their routines and religion.
Dismissing the prophets’ warnings cost them all dearly. Assyria came as warned in 722 BC, wiped out the whole northern kingdom. Babylon picked up where Assyrian left off in late 7th century. By 587 BC, even the once protected and always beloved Jerusalem and temple were reduced to rubble.
So, what good news and religious relief it was for God’s people when Jesus arrived, bringing the same good news of God’s Kingdom and Eden’s abundant life, available to all who would heed and believe. This was the highpoint of Jesus’ preaching. However, as in Eden and the Old Testament story, warnings were included.
To believe in Jesus means eternal life (John 3:16). Yes, but warning: to not believe in Jesus will lead to death (John 3:18, 36). To abide in Christ is to find life and be fruitful for God. But, to not abide nor bear fruit would result in being thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:6). To not remain alert in prayer would lead to the disciples to falling into temptation and denying him (Matthew 26:34, 41). Many of Jesus’ parables were stories with pointed warnings, were employed at every turn and found their mark. The future of the world was pronounced so that they would change their priorities in the present and be ready for his return. (Matthew 24) Warnings and “woes” were given to the unrepentant cities (Matthew 11:20-21) and the hard- hearted religious leaders (Matthew 23).
“If they rejected me, they will reject you also.” He warned us, didn’t he? So why are we so surprised when we are rejected for our faith?
And we could go on, right?
In the coming of His spirit on Pentecost, hope was renewed that God’s people would be able to walk in His ways as Ezekiel had so long ago prophesied (36: 25-28). Peter preached about the new life possible in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and yet do not miss the subtext, part of the good news so easy for us to avoid: “and with many he warned them, saying, save yourself from this corrupt generation!” (Acts 2:40). When his wooing and warnings were both shared, thousands came forward to believe and be baptized.
Paul’s letters are filled with the same wooing’s and warnings of the gospel. Read through some of his letters with eyes on guard, and you will see them often.
Now, a few decades later, God sent angels from heaven to deliver to John messages to seven of the churches in Asia Minor. The letters were full of both commendation and correction, encouragement and…warnings: “if you don’t repent, I will spit you out of my mouth…I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth… they will suffer intensely…I will come like a thief in the night (Rev. 2:16, 22, 3:3, 16).
In fact, the book of Revelation ends with visions of the seals and trumpets and bowls and beast and dragon, a dramatic unveiling of history finale, with the future judgment of evil and the restoring of heaven to earth. All the images are laced with hope for the faithful and drip with warnings to the wavering.
To resist putting our faith in the Lamb of God would have eternal ramifications for this life and the next…and we need to know.
So, there we have it in brief, an attempt to trace in God’s story His loving commitment to warn us, and our proclivity to not take heed, to not take His warnings for today or tomorrow seriously.
The point of my retelling is diagnostic, that we might recognize what God has long known: our fallen human nature makes us stiff necked and hard hearted to the words and warnings of God, or of any truth for that matter.
So…how does this retelling of God’s story help us reframe and understand our own experience with warnings in the world and in his word?
That’s worth exploring far beyond the boundaries of this writing, but let’s begin a discussion here.
Stay tuned. Next week we will begin to flesh out the discussion!