As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”  I Peter 1:14-16

Most of us seem to operate within certain tolerance limits when it comes to the laws of the land.  Someone who drives 80 miles an hour in a 55 mile per hour zone is a lunatic, but we are comfortable driving 60 ourselves.  If we are shortchanged at the checkout counter, a looooong conversation will ensue, but we may quietly pocket any surplus change we receive.

Unfortunately, our tendency is to apply that same level of tolerance to the law of God.  You might never expect to cheat on your spouse, but clicking an online newsfeed that promises risqué photos is OK.  You and God have an arrangement, you try to “be good” and He doesn’t hold you to too high a standard.

That sounds like a rational deal, except that God never agreed to it.  He requires holiness, like He is holy.  That is a whole different level of holiness than our being good.  As the Apostle Paul would say, our absolute best behavior is so beneath God’s standard as to be filthy by comparison.

That could be discouraging if you thought the answer was for you to try harder and do better.  That is required of us, of course, but it is far from the answer to our lawlessness.  We will never become like Christ simply by trying harder.  The first thing we must do is to acknowledge our complete inadequacy to be like Him.  Only when we lay down all our good intentions and attempts are we able to see ourselves as we are – worthless.  And only then can we begin to practice holiness, completely dependent on the mercy of Christ for every forward step we make.

Begin by laying aside everything you ever thought you did well, my friends.  As Thomas á Kempis would say, “Account thyself never to have profited till thou feel thee lower than all others.”

Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.  Matthew 10:9-10

I’m a serious planner.  I have lists with timelines on them.  I don’t like surprises and I hate the idea of underperforming on an assignment.  It makes me feel like a failure.  It makes me feel foolish.  You may not be like me but I bet you don’t like the feeling of being unprepared.

But our verses for today are in the context of Jesus sending out His followers on what appears to be their first solo ministry trip.  In those verses He gives them some pretty vague instructions, like where to go – Israel, and what to say – “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He does give them a very specific packing list – nothing – no gold, no silver, no copper, no bag, no extra clothes, not even a stick.

These poor disciples look pretty unprepared to me.  What if they get caught in a rain shower with no extra coat?  What if they need to buy some food along the way?  What if their sandals bust a strap? And what about their GPS, water bottles and emergency snacks?  Don’t they need copies of their passports?

Don’t get me wrong, God wants us to go on mission wisely, the way He does.  But the point of this whole exercise is that the disciples aren’t following their plan.  They are following God’s direction.  Yes, they are completely vulnerable, but not to the elements.  They have placed themselves in the service of the God of the elements.

Many times it seems like we wait to accumulate all the resources we might possibly need before we set off on God’s calling.  The problem is often not that we lack extra gold, silver or sandals.  The problem is that we lack faith and obedience.  If you find yourself waiting to set out where you believe the Lord is sending you, ask yourself why you are not ready to start.  Is it because of what you lack in the trunk of your car or what you lack in your spirit?

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Romans 1:20-21

Next week is Thanksgiving in the U.S.  Retailers find Christmas more profitable than Thanksgiving and would like to extend the Christmas buying season earlier into the year.  There is a resulting debate in popular culture about whether Thanksgiving has been underemphasized. This devotional is not about that debate.

This devotional is about the eternal yearning in every human soul to know God, to transcend the natural universe, to secure his or her eternity, to be more than dust of the earth.  Our search for meaning claims the deepest parts of us, sometimes even deeper than our instinct for survival.  It drives our days and seasons and our entire lives.  Our philosophers, poets and shaman have invested millennia in answering this need, with precious few results.

Worry no more, my friends.  The Lord, Himself, has instructed us in how to begin.  Our discovery of the meaning of life starts with a simple, “thank you.”  Our text for today lies in the midst of a passage in which the scripture describes the road to futility.  The first step down that long, dark path is failing to give thanks to the Creator we all know exists.

Could it really be that easy?  Could simply saying “thank you” to God (and occasionally even to others) save us from a life of meaninglessness and set us on a path to know God and walk in His eternal fullness?  Absolutely!

A simple “thank you” establishes the foundation of an eternal life.  It demonstrates that we understand that we have received something valuable that we did not earn.  It sets in our minds that we are not self-sufficient, that we are not in control.  It gives God room to be God.

This week, say “thank you”.  Say it again next week.  Say it on Christmas day.  Every day offer your thanks to the Lord, and to everyone He has used to bless you.  Let thankfulness be the rhythm of your walk, and every step will take you further up the brightening path of eternal life.

When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.  Deuteronomy 20:19-20.

Economists are famous for their focus on efficiency, often to the exclusion of other values.  They may not see a problem with third-world sweatshops.  Sure, some employees will receive subsistence wages but the sweatshop brings industrialization to a country formerly reliant on subsistence farming.  As long as the business creates net utility for the economy, it’s a good thing.

The Lord, our God, is famously focused on other goals.  He encourages generosity, forgiveness and self-sacrifice.  Those traits are supremely evident in the God of scripture and all His followers are called to evidence those same virtues in their own lives.

That makes our passage for today a little odd.  In the midst of calling upon the Israelites to execute His judgment on the ancient Canaanites, the Lord warns them to spare something valuable – trees.  The Hebrew armies are free to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees to build siegeworks, but not fruit trees.  They might be just as good for building material as non-bearing trees but they are not to be wasted on such an inefficient use.

The Lord sounds a lot like Adam Smith, no?  Mr. Smith was famous for his focus on long-term utility, preferring the sacrifice of short term opportunities to secure long term benefits.  Grabbing short term gains (like cutting down fruit trees to build a ladder) was not only inefficient, it was unethical.

Perhaps the similarity runs deeper than we know.  The Lord has a longer time horizon than those of us on this side of the veil.  His calls to generosity, forgiveness, and love may cost us some physical assets in the short-term, but are designed to secure for us eternal gains in the long term – the long, long term.  Only He knows the overwhelming size of the benefits we are to receive and our mission is to trust in Him.

Love generously my friends.  Our Lord is not only a God of goodness; He is a God of eternal efficiency.

If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.  *** You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 15:7,8 and 10

I have noticed in my time on earth that some people live wretched lives dominated by neediness.  They feel poor, and all their options out of poverty seem to be blocked by the poverty itself.  If they just had a little more, they could get free of their limitations and finally start living.  Others live lives of complete satisfaction.  They wake up every morning feeling wealthy and the sky is their limit.

The odd part of my observation is that the amount of actual hard currency people have has no real relation to how they experience life.  Men who don’t own a shirt with a collar and women with one pair of shoes can enjoy lives of tremendous abundance and satisfaction.  At the same time, men with 8 sets of gold cuff links and women who have boxes of shoes they have yet to wear can suffer under a prevailing sense of want.

In our passage for today, God does not just command that the Hebrews give to the needy.  He commands that they be generous, and generosity in this sense has nothing to do with the amount given.  It is a state of the heart.  We are required to enjoy giving.  We are required to invest our pleasure in it.

For those who follow the Lord’s heart in this command, any small amount they have is a blessing and an opportunity to give to someone in need.  For those who refuse it, the vast amount they may have is never enough, and they certainly can’t spare anything for others.

This kind of miserable stinginess will never be satisfied, even if you get all you can and can all you get.  Conversely, those who give freely, even in poverty, will receive joy that cannot be bought for all the money in the world.

Take heed to the Lord’s command, my friends.  There is something more valuable than your livelihood at stake.  There is life, itself.