Running Through a Stop Sign

Since we live at a corner where there is a stop sign I have the opportunity to witness the various ways people apparently define the word “stop”. Some people understand it to mean your wheels stop rolling. Others seem to define “stop” as “slow down a little”. Strangely there are a few who see to think “stop” means “speed up”.

I realize that the way people respond to the stop sign in front of our home and how they respond to stop signs at busy intersections is different. The reason you see “rolling stops” at some places is because we do not perceive any danger at these places.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the two Pastors who were frantically waving their arms next to a sign on a road that said, “The End is Near! Turn Back”.  A couple of cars drove by and unflatteringly gestured to the Pastor’s and yelled something about them being “religious wackos” as they sped on by. After the sound of a crash one Pastor looked to the other and said, “Maybe we should have just written “Danger! Bridge Out!”

Just because something doesn’t seem dangerous doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Sometimes when it comes to decisions in our life we roll through stop signs when we should stop and turn around.

2 Samuel 24 is an example of a time when David ran through at least one stop sign. The result was disastrous. The chapter begins with the words, “again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel.” We are not surprised Israel has provoked God’s anger because we have seen it before. However, this time we have no indication of why the anger of the Lord burned against Israel. There is one thing of which we can be sure: Israel (just like us) deserved it.

David’s Sin

The next thing we are told is that He (God) “incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel’”. As we read on in the text we discover that David gets in trouble for doing what God apparently incited him to do.

The passage becomes even more complicated when we read the parallel passage found in 1 Chronicles 21. It is exactly the same story but there we read, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (v. 1) So, was it God or Satan who incited David to take a census?

The correct answer, I believe is: both. In 2 Samuel the author looks at the issue from the perspective of God’s ultimate sovereignty. Satan cannot operate without God’s approval (God and Satan are not equals!). God allowed Satan to incite David to count the people and did so for His own purposes, so in some sense, God incited David. However the Chronicler saw that the immediate cause of David’s action was Satan. Satan, in an effort to move David away from the Lord, incited David to take the census.

But what was so wrong about taking a census? In Numbers 1 and Numbers 26 God told Moses to take a census. Taking a census in and of itself is not sinful. So, what was it about this census that was wrong? There is no answer in our text. It must have been either the form of the census or the reason for the census. I believe it was the later.

I suspect David, flush from the victories in battle, commissioned the census out of the pride of his heart. The census was almost surely to assess David’s military strength. Perhaps David was guilty of putting his confidence in his military strength rather than in the Lord. He may have forgotten that Israel did not belong to him but to the Lord. It is true that we are often most vulnerable in times of victory.

Don’t miss the fact that David rolled right past a stop sign.  Look at verse 3,

Joab replied to the king, “May the LORD your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”

Joab, David’s conniving general, of all people, tried to talk some sense into the King. He said he hoped the Lord multiplied David’s military might but told him that the census was a mistake. David “over-ruled” Joab. David flexed his muscle and said, “Who asked for your opinion?” He rolled right through the stop sign and right into a heap of trouble.

David’s Punishment

It took nine and a half months for the census to be completed. It is possible that during that time David had a chance to think about what he had done. When he was presented with the census tallies we read,

10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”

We may not be clear why this was a sinful act but David is clear. He confessed his sin before the Lord. We are told.

11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’ ”

13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “Shall there come upon you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”

God let David choose His punishment. I’m sure David was like us and he was hoping God would just overlook his sin. But God doesn’t do so. Sin has consequences and the more public the sin, the more necessary are the consequences. David is given three choices,

  1. Three years of famine (in 2 Samuel some versions say 7 years)
  2. Three months of being pursued by his enemies
  3. Three days of plague

Not much of a choice! *(I am sure David wanted to say: “I choose number 4: none of the above”. However being a smart aleck when you are already in trouble is never a good idea.) David chose to “fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercy is great.” David had experienced God’s mercy. David knew God’s character. He decided he would rather entrust himself to the character of God than to sinful men.

It seems the plague began immediately and we are told that seventy thousand men were killed and it would have been many more if the Lord had not showed mercy and restrained the hand of the angel who was just outside of Jerusalem. What we should learn is that when we run through stop signs the results are often devastating.

The largest industrial accident that has ever taken place took place in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union. Operators of the power plant ran a test on an electric control system of one of the reactors. The tests caused instability in the reactor which caused a power surge, an explosion, and damage to the reactor which resulted in the release of radioactive materials. However, in order to get to this point the operators had to manually override a number of safety systems! In other words, this nuclear accident would not have happened if operators had not ignored numerous stop signs.

When we keep ignoring stop signs it is like dropping a glass on a ceramic tile floor. The pieces of glass shatter everywhere. Lives are ruined, marriages are destroyed, jobs are lost, health is undermined and testimonies are compromised.  Like a fence that is erected in a backyard, a stop sign is put up to protect us, not to make us miserable.

David’s Repentance

In verse 17 of 2 Samuel 24 we read, “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people…”. Stop there. I don’t know how much time has passed (it was less than three days) but David was surely already getting reports of massive casualties even though it would be many days before he would know the full extent of the plague. Imagine David’s heartache.

Some of you have no trouble imagining the heartache because you have been where David was. You have had to watch the wreckage that was created because you refused to listen. You may only be starting to see the consequence of ignoring God’s warnings. It’s not a good place to be.

David was broken. He cried out,

“I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”

David did what any true child of God would do; he took responsibility for his actions. This is always the first step in getting out of any bad situation. Before we can be made right with God we must stop blaming others and excusing our behavior and instead take responsibility for our actions. David confessed his sin and sought God’s forgiveness.

The prophet Gad was sent to David and told David to “Go up and build an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” (v. 18) This was a spot just outside of Jerusalem (later included in Jerusalem). David did not hesitate. He went immediately to Araunah’s land.

We don’t know if Araunah also saw the angel or if he knew what was going on. What we do know is that he was eager to help in any way. He offered the King the land and any animals or supplies he needed for the sacrifice. However, David responded, ““No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” This is one of the great statements of Scripture. Once again we see the man with the heart of God.

Husbands, do you think your wife would be pleased if you brought her flowers you took from someone’s grave at the cemetery? Would she feel loved if you brought her home candy that you didn’t like that someone gave to you? Of course not! Why? Because the gifts cost you nothing! There was no thought, money, time or effort put into those gifts.

It is the same with God. David understood that convenient discipleship is not true discipleship. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23) He drove the point home a little later in the chapter

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.”

62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Unfortunately, we live in a time when people want a “convenient Christianity”. We want to serve God when it fits our schedule and meets our needs. We want to make our appearance at church, pay our dues and then get on with the rest of our lives.

Jesus stressed that true discipleship was a commitment. He told us to count the cost. I think we can conclude that if there is no sacrifice in our discipleship, there is no real discipleship.

David honored the Lord by his actions. He built an altar, offered sacrifices and called upon the Lord. We are told in 1 Chronicles that the Lord answered with fire from Heaven. The plague was over.

How to Keep From Running Stop Signs

There is an interesting sequel to this story. That threshing ground of Araunah was the place where Solomon later built the temple. Mt. Moriah is also the place where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac. And it was also on this hill that Jesus was crucified!

It is a power (and I don’t think for a minute that it is coincidental) reminder that even in the times of devastation we can find God’s grace. Who will ever forget the image of a cross amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center?

Perhaps you have run through some stop signs. Maybe your whole life has consisted of running through stop signs. Perhaps you sit here today and all around you there is devastation that is of your own making. Please take hope. There may be a temple in your future. The sacrifice of Jesus can turn your heartache into something of worth.

If you want this to be true you’ve got to stop stomping down on the gas pedal. Instead, like David you need to stop and admit the mess you have made of things. You need to be honest about your foolishness and ask for His forgiveness. You need accept the consequences, head in a new direction and start paying attention to His instructions. If you do what He says, you will see beauty rise from the ashes of your life. It is not too late. As long as you have life it is NEVER too late.

Maybe you aren’t in a crisis situation right now. The question we should ask is this: How can we avoid running stop signs in our lives? How can we keep from getting into this kind of situation?

First, Turn to Scripture as your final authority. If you aren’t sure whether something is right, check it out in the Bible. If the Bible tells you to go in a different direction…pay attention to the stop sign! When someone gives you advice or shares their counsel (especially when they say, “I think God has/does/wants . . . “) ask them for the Biblical basis for their statements. Refuse to accept “it’s in there someplace”. Spiritual sounding truth without Biblical support is really just the Devil’s deception in fancy packaging.

Be a student of the Scriptures. Read and study regularly. Learn to build your life on the truth of Scripture rather than the opinions of men.

Second, Be Suspicious of your desires. Let’s face a simple fact: as sinful people we are usually going to gravitate toward that which we want to be true.  What we want to be true is often not what God has declared to be true. When you want something so badly that you can’t think about anything else, this should be a warning sign. It may be an indication that you are going in the wrong direction. Sadly, we cannot trust our desires.

Third, Cultivate strong Christian friendships. Our Christian friends can often see when we are heading for trouble long before we see it ourselves. If your friends see problems (and especially if they show you Scripture to prove it) God has given you a precious STOP sign. Don’t speed past it!

If you have friends (even non-believers) or acquaintances who say things like: :“What are you thinking?” or “I would have never thought you’d do something like that” or “That sure seem like a dumb/bad idea.” Don’t get angry . . . it’s a Stop sign. Pay attention!

Fourth, Stay Connected to the Church. In the book of Hebrews we read,

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

God designed the church to be a place where we can help each other. Our weekly fellowship exposes us to the teaching of the Word of God. It brings us into contact with people who care about us. If you cut yourself off from the fellowship of God’s people you are simply rolling through one more stop sign.

Finally, Serve God Passionately The more half-hearted our commitment, the more difficult it will be to detect the guidance of God’s Spirit.  When we get lazy in our faith we fall out of step with the Spirit. Like a husband and wife who stop talking to each other, we drift apart. We may claim to be in fellowship with the Lord, but we are deceiving ourselves. We may think we are hearing from the Spirit but it is more likely to be the Devil. Like any relationship, our relationship with God must be cultivated and maintained. This takes work and sacrifice.

I hope that every time we see a Stop sign (even if we choose to roll through it) God will remind us of the story of David and his ill-advised census. I pray in that brief instant we will be reminded to stay alert for the Stop signs God sends into our lives. Because then hopefully, we will pay attention, make adjustments and avoid the heartache and devastation that eventually comes when we just keeping rolling.

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