Tuesday, March 28, 2017

There is hope

"Valley Full of Bones" - James Shaw Crompton
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 37:1-14

TO CHEW ON: "Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and have brought you up from your graves." Ezekiel 37:13

What a graphic scene of hopelessness we see in Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones.

1. The situation was VERY hopeless.
"...there were very many (bones) in the open valley and indeed they were very dry" (Ezekiel 37:2).

2. Bringing the bones to life involved action on Ezekiel's part:
God challenged his FAITH:
God: "...can these bones live?"
Ezekiel: "O God, You know."

God called for his OBEDIENCE:
God: "Prophesy..."
Ezekiel: "So I prophesied as I was commanded" (Ezekiel 37:3,4)

3. The fulfillment of the prophecy came in STAGES.
First the bones came together (Ezekiel 37:7-8). Then breath inhabited them (Ezekiel 37:10). Finally the revived army of people left the graveyard to again live in their own land (Ezekiel 37:12-14).

4. Of course this isn't about a literal crowd of people coming back to life but about the resurrection of HOPE (Ezekiel 37:11). And in that way, this passage speaks powerfully to us. For the same Spirit who gave life to the dead situation of people in exile in Ezekiel's time, is ours.

This prophecy came true in 538 B.C. when Cyrus the Great allowed the people to return home, as recorded in Ezra 1 and 2. 

We see:
  • A hopeless situations is no obstacle to God. He can breathe life back into it.
  • That process may require action on our part. We need to be listening for any instructions and be quick to obey.
  • The fulfillment may take a while and come in stages.
  • Our situation will probably not be an issue of our nation returning from exile, as Israel's was. Let's claim God the Spirit's ability to breathe life ("I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live...") into whatever our boneyard situations are, be they broken families, prodigal children, fractured churches, severed relationships, bankruptcy, financial ruin, storm-damaged houses, etc.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You that Your power can bring the most hopeless situation back to life. Please give me faith to believe this and act in obedience when I can be part of the solution. Amen.

MORE: Dry bones in art

St. Nicholas' Church in Deptford England has on display wonderful carvings of the "Valley of the Dry Bones" by Grinling Gibbons (a contemporary of Christopher Wren). Read more about the church and view the carvings here.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

The high price of following Jesus

Jesus heals the blind man (Free Bible Images)
TODAY’S SPECIAL: John 9:18-41

TO CHEW ON: “For the Jews had already agreed that if any one should acknowledge Jesus to be the Christ, he should be expelled and excluded form the synagogue… So they cast him out—threw him clear outside the synagogue.: John 9:22,34 AMP

When the neighbors and acquaintances of the man who had been healed of blindness brought him to the Pharisees, the religious leaders demanded to know who had healed him. The discussion soon became about whether this miracle and miracle-worker were from God (John 9:8, 13-17).

The Jews then attempted to discredit the miracle by talking to the man’s parents. But they corroborated his words—he was their son and had been blind all his life. But they refused to express an opinion about whether Jesus was a prophet from God or not. Why? Because they feared excommunication (John 9:22). Indeed, excommunication was the treatment the healed man received after he defended Jesus (John 9:27-34).

The fear of excommunication appears in other places:

“Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue” - John 12:42.

'They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service’" - John 16:2.

What was this “put out of the synagogue” that was such a threat?

- From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

"Excommunication – The highest ecclesiastical censure, the exclusion of a person from the religious community, which among the Jews meant a practical prohibition of all intercourse with society. … its object being to preserve the solidarity of the nation and strengthen the authority of the Synagogue by enforcing obedience to its mandates" – Jewish Encyclopedia - quoted in “Unity and Excommunication” on Biblestudying.net (emphasis added)
- From Barnes Notes on the Bible:
"Put out of the synagogue - This took place in the temple, or near the temple. It does not refer, therefore, to any immediate and violent putting forth from the place where they were. It refers to excommunication from the synagogue. 
"Among the Jews there were two grades of excommunication; the one for lighter offences, of which they mentioned 24 causes; the other for greater offences. The first excluded a man for 30 days from the privilege of entering a synagogue, and from coming nearer to his wife or friends than 4 cubits. 
"The other was a solemn exclusion forever from the worship of the synagogue, attended with awful maledictions and curses, and an exclusion from all contact with the people. This was called the curse, and so thoroughly excluded the person from all communion whatever with his countrymen, that they were not allowed to sell to him anything, even the necessaries of life (Buxtorf). It is probable that this latter punishment was what they intended to inflict if anyone should confess that Jesus was the Messiah: and it was the fear of this terrible punishment that deterred his parents from expressing their opinion" (emphasis added - Barnes Notes on the Bible - John 9.).

What the blind man’s story and its fallout says to me is that putting our faith in Jesus can have serious consequences. We readily accept that such a belief severs us from the world. But here it separated a man from his religion as well including the community that was part of that faith system.

As contemporary Christianity drifts farther and farther away from its biblical anchors, could such separation be ahead for us too? And I ask myself, am I, are we willing to pay that price?

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I love it that You sought out that excommunicated man and communicated to him who you were and that You accepted him. May Your approval and friendship be enough for me too. Amen.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked AMP are taken from the Amplified® Bible,
Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission." (www.Lockman.org)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Do our lives reveal the works of God?

Image: Pixabay

“And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in Him.’” John 9:23

This little story raises a question. We ask, did God allow this man’s congenital blindness, which he suffered with for many years before Jesus healed him, just so Jesus’ power could be on display at this moment in time?

Jesus’ entry into his life at this moment and saying what He did implies to me that all of the man’s life—even the time he was blind, was part of God’s plan for him.

God didn’t create the world with flaws. These things entered when Adam and Eve chose disobedience and rebellion. However, the disciples believed that the man’s blindness was caused by specific sins he or his parents had committed. Jesus said “no” to that. The writer of my Bible’s study notes explains:

“Assuming that an individual case of suffering was due to specific sin, the disciples inquired into the cause of the man’s blindness. Jesus, however, notes that beyond the tragedy of human defects, which result in a general way from man’s fall and the consequent entry of sin, sickness, affliction, and death into the world, God’s merciful and sovereign grace is available” - Siegfried Schatzmann, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1460.

What does this mean for us today? How do we square the fact that God does heal some, but not everyone who prays for healing gets healed? Is it that some don’t have enough faith? That they’re praying the wrong way? That there’s sin in the life?

For me the answer lies in Jesus explanation of why the man was born blind in the first place: '… that the works of God should be revealed.' In this man’s case it was a work of miraculous healing. But we also see the works of God displayed in lives lived under lifelong clouds of sickness, pain, debilitation—any one of the heavy consequences of the fall. To me the life of Joni Earickson Tada is an example of such a work of God on display in a many-year quadriplegic.

Here's Paul talking about a similar situation:
 "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

PRAYER: Dear Father, on this side of seeing You, it’s easy to be puzzled by our health (and other) problems. Help me to live by faith that You have a good reason for everything that You allow into my life. May Your presence within me reveal the works of God, whether works of healing or works of trust, faith, and rejoicing in and through pain, suffering, and sickness. Amen.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Nothing is impossible!

"Mary and Angel" by S. Botticelli
"Mary and Angel" - Botticelli

TO CHEW ON: "Then the angel said to her … He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom there will be no end." Luke 1:31, 32-33

The day Jesus rode into Jerusalem accompanied by crowds of cheering followers, I wonder if Mary recalled the angel's words to her before Jesus was born (part of our reading today) and thought, Now it's coming true. The angel's promise is playing out right in front of my eyes!

I wonder how she grappled with her thoughts and emotions a few days later when all her expectations were dashed by Jesus dying on the cross. We can only imagine the emotional bungee plunge of all Jesus' followers when what seemed like an impending coronation turned into a crucifixion.

Of course with our long view, we know that this was all part of God's plan. It's a plan we're still living through, in faith that the prediction of the angel about Jesus ultimately establishing a forever kingdom will be seen and acknowledged by everyone on earth as we have acknowledged Him king of our lives and of the church.

Perhaps we can also take a lesson from this for our day-to-day lives. We pray. We get a promise. We think we're getting our answer as the circumstances line up. And then they turn. The door shuts. The heavens are brass. We cry and wonder, was my faith misplaced? Is God really going to make good on His promise?

Maybe, as it was for Mary, our answer will be way bigger than an immediate answer would ever be, like Jesus' ultimate kingship will be way bigger than just being a deliverer and king for the Roman-oppressed Jews of His time.

At times like that we can hold close the angel's further words: "For with God nothing will be impossible" - Luke 1:37.

PRAYER: Dear God, please help me to hang onto Your promises for their fulfillment in Your ultimate big-picture way. Help me to really believe that with God nothing is impossible. Amen. 

MORE: Feast of the Annunciation

Today the church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation. The liturgy for this day begins with this Collect:
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Exposing darkness

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ephesians 5:5-21

TO CHEW ON: "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them." Ephesians 5:11

Mike Leehan in his book Ascent from Darkness, does exactly that (exposes the "works of darkness"). Mad at God after his divorce, he decided to give himself to the dark side. For the next about 20 years he lived as a servant and worshiper of Satan. In his book he tells about that life:

  • He describes how he repeatedly cut himself as part of his ritual and fasted to gain spiritual power.
  • He discloses his mission: to sow confusion and mayhem within churches. Some of the things he did were carry copies of the Satanic Bible so he could plant them on church premises, seduce women, attend small group Bible studies to introduce unbelief and doctrinal error.
  • He tells of numerous incidents when he had spiritual insight into people, sensing their spiritual protection or vulnerability.
  • He describes how he felt and acted around Christians. For example, he found it impossible to sit in a worship service and often blacked out when in conversation as he channeled spirits.
  • He shows us the terrifying side of spirit possession—the spooky nights filled with demonic phenomena and his ever-present depression and obsession with death. He was preparing to compose a suicide note to one of his kids the day he called out to God at a men's retreat and was miraculously delivered.

Why read such a book? Perhaps it's not for everyone, but it certainly opened my eyes.
  • It showed me the fearful price that Satan exacts in loyalty, obedience and servitude.
  • It showed how Satan's promises are lies.
  • It illustrated, by contrast, the light, life, freedom, and joy we have in Christ—things it's easy for us to take for granted, until we've experienced (vicariously, through reading about it was experience enough for me) what life on the dark side is like.
  • It provided an insight into what may be behind many of our society's bizarre and self-destructive behaviours (like rampant suicide, the prevalence of cutting, the spirit of lust that has taken down not only lay-Christians but many pastors too) and gave clues as to how to minister to demonically oppressed people.
  • Mike's spiritual zeal for and commitment to the dark side put me to shame as I compared it to my zeal and commitment to Jesus.

Dear God, thank You for the freedom, peace, joy, cleanness and wholesomeness  available to me because of Jesus. Help me to live with a greater awareness of darkness, and to guard myself against it. Amen.

MORE: Why share such a story?

Here, in Mike's own words, is why he told his story:
"I have learned the only thing that evil can take over is darkness. Darkness invades our lives when we shut out the light of God's love. But where there is light, there cannot be darkness. Light pierces darkness and illuminates the truth.

We must realize that we are in a world that is spiritually intertwined. There is more to our existence than the obvious. We must open our eyes to see the spiritual realm, which is very real and very powerful. And we must learn the weapons of our adversary, not only to avoid becoming ensnared by darkness but to be able to reach into that darkness to rescue others, like me, with the light. We are instruments of change. We are powerful vessels carrying an eternal cargo of either life or death.

The reason for sharing my story in this book is to demonstrate the power of God over Satan and to show how merciful a God we have in heaven. To give Him the glory and praise, and to demonstrate the power of love over fear, to show the love our Father has for us, to let God's light expose the darkness—but mainly to facilitate the hope that by reading this story, people might turn to the King of Kings!"
- Mike Leehan, Ascent from Darkness, Kindle Location 3462 (emphasis added).

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Providence meets faith

TODAY’S SPECIAL: 1 Samuel 17:41-57

“Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth.” 1 Samuel 17:49

What are the chances that this youthful armed-only-with-a-sling shepherd would get the best of a 9 foot, 9 inch fully armed warrior? Pretty slim, I’d say. Yet here it happens before our eyes. What’s the explanation?

Surely David was skillful with his primitive weapon, so that’s one thing. However, I believe much bigger forces were at war here as they had been numerous times before in Israel’s history.

Right now our pastor is teaching a Bible study on Judges. There too we see unlikely Israelite victories.

  • Judge Ehud managed to get alone with Eglon, King of Moab, kill him with one thrust of his homemade sword, and get well away before the servants discovered the deed—a catalyst to Israel’s victory over Moab (Judges 3:15-30).
  • Tentwife Jael invited fleeing army general Sisera into her tent and, after he fell asleep,  killed him by driving a tent peg through his temple - Judges 4:18-24.
  • Gideon defeated an army of thousands of Midianites and Amalekites with only 300 men armed with pitchers, torches, and trumpets - Judges 7:16-25.

What’s at work in each of these incidents is people of faith and courage taking action. That faith combined with the providence of God is what led to these stunning victories.

David had zeal for God’s honour (1 Samuel 17:45-47). That zeal combined with his past experience of God’s help (1 Samuel 17:34-36) filled him with courage and faith, so that he took up what was at hand to do battle. But I believe it wasn’t only his skill that felled Goliath that day, but God’s providence that clinched his success.

My challenge from the story of David and Goliath is wrapped up in these snippets from my study notes on Judges:

“We take steps of faith and courage, and trust in the providence of God … Providence continues to be God’s gift to His people. What’s in your hand? As you partner with God, His grace will come on you. Take a risk this week. Believe God to be with you. Your “hand tool” will make a difference” - Derrick Hamre.

PRAYER:  Dear Father, thank You that as I step out in faith with You on my side, I too can win unlikely victories. Amen.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

God sees past birth order

Siblings (Image: Pixabay)
TODAY’S SPECIAL: 1 Samuel 17:26-40

TO CHEW ON: “Now Eliab, his oldest brother, heard when he spoke to the men; and Eliab’s anger was aroused against David, and he said, ‘Why did you come down here? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your pride and the insolence of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.’”  1 Samuel 17:28

Two days ago we looked at how various people viewed David. Here we see him from another angle—as his older brother saw him. David’s answer to Eliab’s “Why did you come here?” is almost a nonchalant shrug: ”’What have I done now?’” It tells me that this was not the first time Eliab was on his case.

Their interchange reminds me of other Bible first born / later-born conflicts.
  • Cain killed his younger brother Abel. 
  • Jacob connived how to get his father’s firstborn blessing from older Esau. 
  • Joseph (the second-youngest) was hated by his older brothers. 
  • In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, it’s the oldest dutiful big brother who ends up being the antihero of the story.

Perhaps one reason Bible firstborns had trouble with their younger siblings getting special treatment was because in Israel special privilege was supposed to go to the oldest son, as in:
“… a larger inheritance, a special paternal blessing, family leadership, and an honored place at mealtimes (Genesis 25:5-6; 27:35-37; 37:21; 42:37; 43:33; Deuteronomy 21:15-17). … In Israelite ritual, the firstborn belonged to God (Exodus 13:2; 22:29-30; Numbers 3:13)” - “What's the significance of 'first-born' in the Bible” from GotAnswers.org.

As an oldest myself, I am not unsympathetic toward these Bible firstborns. Psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman has studied and written about characteristics that are often found in people according to their birth order (The Birth Order Book). I can see how many of the qualities typically found in last borns readily grate on firstborns.

Firstborn qualities: conscientious, well-organized, serious, goal-oriented, achieving, people pleaser, believer in authority, perfectionist, reliable, list-maker, critical, self-sacrificing, conservative, supporter of law and order, legalistic, self-reliant .

Lastborn qualities: manipulative, charming, blame others, attention seekers, tenacious, people person, natural salesperson, precocious, engaging, affectionate, love surprises - Kevin Leman, The Birth Order Book, 80,167.

God often chose those born later in the family for special assignments:
  • Of the sons of Jacob, middle-born Judah established the ancestral line of Jesus.
  • Moses, a youngest son, led Israel out of Egypt.
  • Solomon (not the oldest but middle or youngest) was the one chosen of David’s sons to become king.
But God also chose firstborns. Jesus, a firstborn, is our Messiah and Saviour.

All this to say that whatever qualities we’re born with or that our family has nurtured in us, we still need to be yielded to God for His purposes. It’s not birth order or societally mandated privilege that determines whether God can use us or not. It’s what’s in our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7).

Dear Father, thank You for my family and how they have molded me. Help me to yield my firstborn tendencies to You for whatever destiny You have planned for me. Amen.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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