The scriptures that define you

“So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10).

What do you mean when you say a certain scripture is “my verse” or “my text”? That you ‘own’ that verse or have ‘claimed it as your own’?

The verses I claim as ‘mine’ are that not because I own them, but they own me.  They know me, are privy to all my secrets, and have nailed me as surely as an prosecuting attorney ever could.

Take Luke 17:7-10, for instance.  It’s not a particularly happy text, not one I read for inspiration and encouragement.  No, it’s something else entirely. But it is mine as surely as my children, my wife, and this house are mine. They carry my name, and so this this scripture.

When all is said and done, I am an unworthy servant; I’ve just done my duty.

Even if and when I do everything the Lord has commanded, instead of patting myself on the back, I should reign in my ego with this announcement.

This passage speaks to me as few others do in the Word (and they all do!).  It carries my DNA as much as John 3:16 and Romans 10:13 ever have.

Joe McKeever is an unworthy servant; even if (like that’s going to happen!) he ever obeys all the Lord’s commands, he’s only doing his duty. Anything he receives short of judgement and condemnation is all of grace and mercy.

The Lord knew.  He knew I’d be needing to pull in my desire for recognition and my appetite for appreciation, and so He put this teaching smack dab in the front of my face–in the middle of my favorite gospel!–so I couldn’t miss it. Furthermore, He made the zip code (the reference) so easy that I cannot forget it: Luke 17:7-10.  How simple is that?

The Lord does this for all His children who care enough to stay with Him for the long haul, for what has been called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

It is His way to call our attention to a verse here and one there and to (so to speak) tattoo them on your heart and soul.  These are messages from Heaven to you, special deliveries with your name all over them.

They’re not all fun either.

When I was pastoring, I would periodically tell the congregation that in my battle for control over my wayward tongue, I regularly prayed Psalm 141:3, which goes: “Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

One day someone had that verse turned into calligraphy–true, it is beautiful, no question about it–and framed to hang in my office.  What I assume they did not know is that it’s not a particularly beloved verse, not one I enjoy. Rather, it’s like taking my medicine for the day (which I do regularly), because my health requires it.

Luke 17:7-10 is that for me, but one step above medicine.  A vitamin?  Maybe so.

1) I am the Lord’s servant.

2) As with Saul of Tarsus on the Damascan Road, my daily question then becomes, “Lord, what will you have me do?”

3) I serve Him by serving His people, just as Paul said in Second Corinthians 4:5. “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord. And ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

4) Servants tend to be anonymous, and must not attract attention to themselves and get between the Master and the one being served.

5) According to Romans 14:4, the one whom I obey is my master, period. “His servants you are to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey.”

6) Only the strong can serve best. That seems to be the point of the amazing four verses that open John chapter 13 where the Lord washes the feet of His disciples.  (Those verses comprise one long sentence, and contain some amazing insights on who can serve. Bottom line: to do the lowliest, hardest service, it helps to know who you are and have nothing to prove.)

7) While I am to tell myself “you are only an unworthy servant; you’ve only done your job,” we are not to say that to each other.   October is “Pastor Appreciation Month.” Imagine if the church were to honor its pastor by announcing, “Pastor Mike, thank you for your five years of faithful leadership for this congregation. However, you are an unworthy servant just doing your duty.”  That would not work!

8) Nor does the Lord say this to us.  Instead, He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many.”

9) But this little mantra–“I am only an unworthy servant, just doing my job”–is something I must keep telling myself. It drives a stake through the ego and nails it to the cross.

10) I need to say it daily, and sometimes numerous times a day.  (The drive for recognition and the yearning for appreciation never goes away, but keeps rearing its ugly head with its insatiable appetite for centerplace.)

11) And, may we say, this mantra is not something we need to tell others about ourselves.  If a church honors me, I should receive it graciously and thank them, and sit down. What I should not do is pull an “aw shucks” routine and assure them, “I’m nothing; I’m an unworthy servant, just doing my duty.”  Say it to yourself, but it sounds pious (and a little hokey) when you say it about yourself to others.

12) I’m so grateful for the Holy Spirit showing me this passage.  There are others, of course, which speak to me so pointedly that the Author (ahem) may have been reading my mail this morning.  Here are a few of them….

Exodus 34:6-7 is like no other text in the Bible–except for all the places it’s quoted. 

My hunch is that this self-revelation of God is the most-quoted Old Testament verse throughout the rest of the Old Testament. (As opposed to an OT verse quoted throughout the NT.)

“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgressions, and sins; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

This was claimed by Moses in Numbers 14:18, sung by Nehemiah in 9:17, confessed by Jonah in 4:2, preached by Joel in 2:18, and sung by David in Psalms 86, 103, and 145.

The last phrase used to trouble me, the part about God visiting the fathers’ sins upon their offspring for several generations. Two things finally hit me: 1) He’s simply stating a fact of life, that what we do may affect those who come after us in awful ways, and 2) in contrast to that, He “keeps lovingkindness for thousands,” referring not to thousands of people, but thousands of generations!! And how good is that!

I Kings 18:36 is a reminder of how embattled pastors may pray.

On Carmel, Elijah prayed, “Lord, let these people know there is a God in Israel (i.e., in this place) and that I’m your servant.”

I’ve prayed that many a time, particularly in the last two churches I served as pastor.  When small groups of self-appointed authorities were doing all in their power to undermine my leadership, this prayer was never far from my lips.

Did He answer? He did, in His own time and His own ways.  No fire fell from Heaven and my critics were not slain. Nothing dramatic. But in time, the critics went their way (or changed their ways or were called home!) and the Lord had His way. That’s all I ever wanted.

Matthew 13:52 reminds us the Lord never finishes giving us insights from His word.

I shared this verse with my brother Glenn last Friday. He’s recovering from surgery and a slight stroke and has difficulty speaking. But he can read and his thinking apparatus seems to be working.  I reminded him how we used to plow the bottomland on the family farm and regularly found arrowheads and other Indian artifacts. Once he and I both found tomahawks in the same day–and never again!  (I have them both in my rock cabinet.)  And the word of God is just like this, I told him: No matter how many times you read a passage, you keep finding new things in it. It’s a wonderful gift the Lord has given us in His Word.  We neglect it to our detriment, and read it and meditate upon it to our everlasting benefit.

I’ll stop here. The verses that define me and own me are numerous and I love them the way I do my grandchildren. Thank you, Lord, for each one.  How wonderful you are.


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