Now or later?
Have ever been in the grocery store and observed the little exchange between mother and child which goes something like, "No, Johnny, you cannot have that, put it back and get in the cart. I'm giving you until three to get back in the cart. One...two...two and a half...."? We all probably have heard this at one time or another, and to be truthful, we probably have used it! What we are teaching in that moment is that we don't really mean what we say when we say it - little Johnny really gets an additional amount of chances to act upon what he has heard rather than acting when he first hears the instruction. At first this may not seem very significant, but when we learn we have "added chances" to comply with a request, we usually develop a little laziness (or stubbornness) when asked to do something. Rather than immediately responding, we think there will be "grace" to let it go a little longer. This may not be very important if it is something like you can take your shower now or in the morning, because these are choices - either will work. When the instruction is to stop something, or do it now, these aren't choices - these are words with a definite expected response. If mom tells you to tie your shoe, she knows if you don't, you will trip, ruin the shoelaces from dragging them through who knows what, or step right out of your shoe! So, to ignore the instruction is to pay some sort of consequence - if not immediate, at least down the road. Maybe learning to understand the difference between choice and instruction is a good thing!
God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what. (Hebrews 4:12-13 MSG)
If you have ever observed that little conversation between mom and child in the store, you may have just heard the little caveat "I MEAN it, Johnny!" tacked onto the end of the requirement to return the candy bar to the shelf. What mom is saying is there will be consequences if Johnny doesn't do it. What she is saying by extending the time he has to "think about" being obedient when she counts to three is really telling him he can delay those consequences, or possibly even wear her down! At first, this subtle "delay" in getting the response one wants doesn't seem like much, but when it is repeated over and over again, the pattern becomes a habit. Habits are hard to break - because once established, the root goes deep. So, learning to be obedient to the first request, facing the consequences if not, and then embracing obedience the next time without hesitation is the best plan (and dare I say, every parent's dream)!
Don't forget, God is our "parent" in this new life we live as part of his family. As such, when he asks for us to do something, leave something alone, or respond to his request, he doesn't want to play this "counting game" with us! He wants his word to be acted upon - not just be a suggestion. There are times we treat his word like a choice - rather than an instruction which needs to be immediately embraced. When we respond by thinking it is a choice, we often miss out on what he has planned for us. When God asks us to do something, it is usually for our protection, to save us some negative consequence, or to get us to see clearly what our choices have been doing to us. His word can be counted on to not only protect us, but to open us up in areas where light hasn't had an opportunity to permeate yet. So, resisting his requests to respond a certain way is like saying we choose darkness over light, penalty over protection.
As we look at this passage, we will do well to keep in mind how these words came to be penned. The writer has just spent a significant amount of time speaking about the stubbornness of those who heard God's word and then chose to do their own thing - rejecting God's instruction because it seemed too hard, or didn't fit in with their perception of how God should have catered to their needs at the moment. Then he spends some time speaking about the trust-worthiness of God - he keeps his word - now and forever. Little Johnnie isn't learning that mom keeps her word - he is learning to count! Lest you think I am down on mothers everywhere, don't forget I too am a mother and have subjected both my children and grandchildren to this counting on occasion! I need this lesson as much as you might! Our writer emphasizes something we often do as parents - we extend grace. God met the stubbornness of heart with grace - making each new day the day of grace for a rebellious people.
Yet, look how "grace" responds - it lays us open to listen and to obey! I have learned in my own life that God's grace today saves me the pain and tragedy of needing him to renew it tomorrow and then the day after and the day after that. To respond to grace today is to save us the "deep-digging" of the surgeon's scalpel some tomorrows down the road! His word is sure - but it is also everlasting. We cannot escape its searching - nor can we escape its expectations. What is presented may seem like a choice - what is expected is for us to choose wisely. As scripture aptly says, no discipline seems all that great at the moment, but once embraced, it provides life and liberty. We may not like the expectations set forth, but when we learn to put the candy bar back on the shelf the first time we are asked, we can save ourselves a whole lot of misery!
What is promised right before this passage is God's rest. Does it make our obedience seem a little more palatable when we think of obedience actually producing a bit of "rest" in us? Think about it... Obedience is a choice, but making the right choice produces "rest" in our lives. Grace extended today, embraced today - not tomorrow or tomorrow's tomorrow - produces rest. We don't respond in obedience to "earn" rest - but it is an outcome of us making the right choices the first time we are asked. The "right choice" delayed just produces more unrest and prolongs the time it takes to realize God's rest in our lives. Just sayin!