Wednesday, February 27, 2013

List His benefits

(Photo: Morguefile.com)
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Psalm 68:1-20

TO CHEW ON: "Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation." Psalm 68:19


Have you ever listed the ways God has blessed you and your family, even your nation? That's what David is doing in Psalm 68.
  • He follows opening words of general praise to God (Psalm 68:1-6) with a history of the Israelites. 
  • He alludes to the nation's march through the wilderness (Psalm 68:7), how God appeared to them on Mount Sinai (Psalm 68:8) and provided for them in the desert (Psalm 68:8-10). The "rain" may refer to the daily manna (according to Matthew Henry's commentary).
  • Psalm 68:11 seems to be a reference to God giving the word against their enemies, in Canaan, and the people proclaiming the victory that resulted.
(I was surprised when at least half of the translations I consulted, spoke of those proclaimers as women e.g. "The Lord gives the command; The women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host" - NASB. Barnes notes on the Bible explain: "The word used is in the feminine gender and refers to the Oriental custom whereby females celebrated victories in songs and dances.")
  • The verses that follow continue to exult in Israel's triumphs. There is even a prophetic reference to Jesus: "You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive..."  quoted by Paul in Ephesians 4:7-10.

Our reading ends with a rousing praise:
"Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation!"

Nothing changes my attitude faster than gratitude. You may find that doing something like David did—recalling your history and looking for God's load of benefits in it—will lift your spirit. Why don't you try it today!

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for Your faithfulness to me. Help me to continually acknowledge You as the source of my blessings, and to have a heart of gratitude. Amen.
MORE: Messiah Alert!


Words from Psalm 68:11 are lyrics in the Handel's Messiah—Chorus 37: "The Lord Gave the Word.  Notice how the music illustrates the message. A solo voice singing "The Lord gave the word" is followed by a chorus: "Great was the company of the [preachers*],"   It's a chorus that grows larger, more complex and many-voiced as the song builds to a big-chord climax.




*It seems that Mr. Handel substituted "preachers" for the more cumbersome "company of those who proclaimed it" —at least I couldn't find any translation that translates Psalm 68:11 using the word "preachers."


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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Words that accomplish and prosper

Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart by Dave & Deborah Crough
 TODAY’S SPECIAL: Isaiah 55:1-13

TO CHEW ON: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth and make it bring forth and bud that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55: 10-11


A few years ago we received the beautiful coffee table book Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart as a gift.  This book of photographs was put together by Dave and Deborah Crough. Dave is a many-year photographer for Wycliffe Bible Translators. The volume is full of images of people whose lives have been impacted by the rain, snow, seed, and bread of God’s word that our focus verse talks about. The variety of skin color and ethnic dress show how widely the Gospel has spread. But you feel the book’s real impact when you focus on the eyes of the subjects. So many sparkle with hope.

A sidebar article about this passage in my Bible begins to scratch the surface in explaining the power of God’s word to give that sparkle.

“Evangelism (the spreading of the Good News) and expansion (the enlarging of life’s potential under God) both multiply by the “seeds” of God’s word. Jesus described the Word as “seed” also (Luke 8:11), the source of all saving life and growth possibilities transmitted from the Father to mankind…

Fruitfulness is the guaranteed byproduct – whether for the salvation of a lost soul or the provision of a disciple’s need. God’s Word cannot be barren or fruitless. his own life power is within it.” – Jack Hayford – New Spirit Filled Life Bible – p. 939.

This passage tells us:
- All increase of life comes by His word.
- Whether we receive it or disseminate it, God’s word will not be empty (void) but will accomplish and prosper God’s purposes.
- The power of His word fulfills the promise of His word. (Now there’s a thought to bend the mind!)

If there are areas in our lives that are barren and fruitless we can search God’s word for insight about them. We can apply His advice. We can obey if there is something we need to do. Then we can trust Him and His word to be the refreshing rain and snow, the seed and the bread in our lives and circumstances.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for the Bible – Your amazing communication to us. Help me to apply it to my life and obey it. Amen.

MORE: Some thoughts on the way to make God’s word effective in life:

"The golden rule for understanding spiritually is not intellect, but obedience. If a man wants scientific knowledge, intellectual curiosity is his guide; but if he wants insight into what Jesus Christ teaches, he can only get it by obedience. …

When Jesus brings a thing home by His word, don't shirk it. If you do, you will become a religious humbug. Watch the things you shrug your shoulders over, and you will know why you do not go on spiritually. First go - at the risk of being thought fanatical you must obey what God tells you."

– Oswald Chambers, from My Utmost for His Highest (July 27th reading)


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Monday, February 25, 2013

I AM—God's name forever

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Exodus 3:1-15

TO CHEW ON: "Then Moses said to God, 'Indeed when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they say to me, "What is His name?" what shall I say to them?'
And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' And He said, 'Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you ... This is My name forever."'" Exodus 3:13-15


What a curious name God calls Himself: I AM WHO I AM. My Bible's notes explain, "This name is related to the Hebrew word meaning 'to be,' and so implies the absolute existence of God" James Carroll Tollett,  Notes on Exodus, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 80.

Another Person used I Am a lot in describing Himself. Jesus said I am...
  • Messiah - John 4:25,26.
  • from above - John  8:23.
  • before Abraham was i.e. the Eternal One - John 8:58.
  • the Light of the world - John 9:5.
  • the Door - John 10:7.
  • the Good Shepherd - John 10:11-14.
  • the Son of God - John 10:36.
  • the Resurrection and the Life - John 11:25.
  • Teacher and Lord - John 13:13.
  • the Way the Truth and the Life - John 14:6.
  • the True Vine - John 15:1.
  • Alpha and Omega - Revelation 1:8.
  • the First and the Last - Revelation 1:17.

In our reading Yahweh answers Moses' question "Who am I...?" (vs. 11) with "I AM" (vs.14). It wasn't about who Moses was or what he could accomplish (in carrying out God's assignment to lead Israelites out of Egypt) but who would be at work in and through him.

Jesus has left us with an assignment and a promise:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that  I have commanded you; and lo I am with you always (look! another I Am!!) even to the end of the age" - Matthew 28:19-20.

PRAYER:
Dear I AM, thank You for being eternal and my one Constant. Help me to weave the realities of who You are in Jesus into my day-to-day life by the help of Holy Spirit. Amen.

MORE: You are Alpha and Omega


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Saturday, February 23, 2013

A new tent

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Philippians 3:1-21

TO CHEW ON: "For our citizenship is in heaven from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be transformed to the glorious body according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself." Philippians 3:20-21

Have you ever thought about how much your reaction to life is based on how you feel physically? I know I don't function well when I'm tired, hungry, dizzy, itchy, have a headache, feel nauseated, am in pain, etc. And with advancing age, aches and pains are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Though I suppose it's not much of a surprise when our bodies let us down as we get older, the truth is that they can do that at any age. In order for us to reach our expected threescore and ten, our bodies have to dodge a lot of bullets.

All that makes it good news that this physical-body-bound life isn't the final chapter. It's especially good news because we will face the next chapter in glorified bodies. The Bible doesn't give us a lot of information about these new "tents." But what it does say turns our eyes upward in anticipation, especially because this newness seems to involve more than just glorified blood and bone, but a spiritual freedom no longer hindered by malfunctioning cells.

What we can look forward to:

  • Appearing with Jesus: "...you also will appear with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:4).
  • Being identified (as in tattooed or branded) with God the Father (Revelation 14:1).
  • Bearing a recognizable resemblance to Jesus: "...bear the image of the heavenly Man" (1 Corinthians 15:49).

Until that time, we join others across the ages in longing for this new glorified home:
"We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we'll never have to relocate our "tents" again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what's coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we're tired of it! We've been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what's ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we'll never settle for less" 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 - Message.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for the promise of a new glorified body. Help me to trust You and to stay true to You through every physical challenge of this life. Amen.

MORE: Incredible hope

As someone who has been relatively healthy, I can't speak with the authority about physical suffering or the longing for a new body of, say, a Joni Eareckson Tada. She suffered a spinal cord injury in her teens and has spent her life as a quadriplegic. If you are bent, bruised and broken physically, or mentally find hope in these words of your fellow-traveler:

"I still can hardly believe it. I, with shrivelled, bent fingers, atrophied muscles, gnarled knees, and no feeling from the shoulders down, will one day have a new body, light, bright and clothed in righteousness — powerful and dazzling.


Can you imagine the hope this gives someone spinal cord-injured like me? Or someone who is cerebral palsied, brain-injured, or who has multiple sclerosis? Imagine the hope this gives someone who is manic depressive. No other religion, no other philosophy promises new bodies, hearts, and minds. Only in the Gospel of Christ do hurting people find such incredible hope" Joni Erickson Tada, in Heaven: Your Real Home, p. 53.


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Friday, February 22, 2013

Abandoned

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Psalm 27:1-14


TO CHEW ON: "When my father and my mother forsake me,
Then the Lord will take care of me." Psalm 27:10

"As a child, Pastor Bill (Wilson) experienced the pain and hopelessness of abandonment. One day, as he walked down a street with his mother, they stopped to sit for a while. She instructed him to sit there and wait for her to return. He sat and waited for three days straight. She never returned. A Christian gentleman who had seen Bill stranded and alone stopped and picked him up..." (from the About Us page of Metro Ministries).

Bill told us a little bit more about that time when he visited our church several years ago. The Christian gentleman who picked him up gave Bill water and something to eat, then paid the $17.50 it took (in 1961) to send him to camp. Five hours later, Bill was at an Assemblies of God youth camp where his life was turned around. He now heads up Metro Ministries, a Christian, non-profit organization dedicated to serving inner-city children throughout New York City and various urban centers around the world.

The love and care of one's parents is pretty well a given. We view it to be foundational to growing up as normal, healthy adults. How many stories haven't we heard of messed up adults whose problems are attributed to being neglected or abandoned as kids? Does our focus verse today mean that God can counteract such a basic lack in one's life?

I believe it does. Look at the stories of noteworthy Bible characters torn from parental care and love: Joseph, Daniel, Esther, the little Jewish maid of Naaman's wife.

Look at God's heart toward the abandoned as it comes out in other scripture passages:

Exodus 22:22-23:
You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry."

Deuteronomy 10:18
"He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing."

Psalm 10:14
"But You have seen, for You observe trouble and grief,
         To repay it by Your hand.
         The helpless commits himself to You;
         You are the helper of the fatherless."

Psalm 68:5
 "A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
         Is God in His holy habitation."

Psalm 146:9
"The LORD watches over the strangers;
         He relieves the fatherless and widow;
         But the way of the wicked He turns upside down."

Proverbs 15:25
"The LORD will destroy the house of the proud,
      But He will establish the boundary of the widow."

Jeremiah 49:11
"Leave your fatherless children,
      I will preserve them alive; And let your widows trust in Me.

Malachi 3:5
"And I will come near you for judgment;
      I will be a swift witness
      Against ... those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
      And against those who turn away an alien—
      Because they do not fear Me,”
      Says the LORD of hosts."

If you have been abandoned, remember that God is for you. He promises to take care of you. He will fill in the physical and emotional holes that your experiences have caused. You can say with confidence:

"When my mother and father (or my spouse, or my children) forsake me,
Then the Lord will take care of me."

PRAYER: Dear God thank You that You are for the abandoned, neglected, forgotten, bereaved, and passed-over ones. Help me, as Your child, to inherit Your heart of compassion, concern and care for them. Amen.

MORE: Covenant House
Covenant House is an organization that houses and takes care of homeless and abandoned youth in cities around North America. The first Covenant House was begun by Father Bruce Ritter in Manhattan in 1972. Read the history of Covenant House - Vancouver (only one of two Covenant Houses in Canada - the other one is in Toronto). Their BLOG tells the stories of some of the kids they help and describes their daily triumphs and challenges.


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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Suffering and lament

Jeremiah - Weeping Prophet by Julius Schnorr Von Karolsfeld
"Jeremiah"  by Julius Schnorr Von Karolsfeld
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Lamentations 1:1-22

TO CHEW ON: "Judah has gone into captivity
Under affliction and hard servitude;
She dwells among the nations;
She finds no rest;
All her persecutors overtake her in dire straits." Lamentations 1:3

Lamentations is a book of laments. Four of its five poems are acrostics, perhaps the writer Jeremiah's poetic way of exploring his feelings of grief from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Jeremiah was mourning the fall of Jerusalem and with it the kingdom of Judah. Second Kings and Second Chronicles tell the story of her moral decline. Despite prophet warnings, the nation has continued downward, perhaps feeling too secure in God's promises of ultimate protection. Finally after a starving siege by the Babylonian army, Jerusalem fell, the city was destroyed, the temple burned, and all but her poorest  citizens marched into exile in Babylon. So Jeremiah weeps.

Some of Lamentation's themes help us understand and deal with our own griefs. (Themes are suggested by the "Introduction to Lamentations" in my Bible, by Roy Edmund Hayden, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, pp. 1037-1038):

1. Their suffering was the result of their sin (Lamentations 1:5, 8, 18, 20).
2. Their suffering was seen as coming from God rather than from men (Lamentations 1:13,15).
3. Their suffering could direct them to God.
4. Suffering, tears, and prayers belong together (Lamentations 1:12, 16, 20).

The reasons we suffer may be different from the reasons Jeremiah and the Israelites suffered. We live under a different covenant where even blatant sinners may not experience punishment for sins until after death (2 Peter 2:4-10). But often we are forced to live the consequences of past actions. And suffering is also allowed to discipline us (Hebrews 12:3-17).

In a personal application part of Lamentation's introduction, R. E. Hayden shares some helpful thoughts about suffering with us:

"We need to submit to what God is doing and attempt to learn from the experience. If it is God's discipline, it will last as long as is necessary. There is no quick-fix solution to some of these problems and no easy way out. Discipline will direct us to God, drive us to prayer, and bring us into submission. We need it" - R. E. Hayden, "Introduction to Lamentations," New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1039 (emphasis added).

PRAYER: Dear God, I hate suffering as much as Jeremiah did. When trouble comes, may it drive me to You. Help me then to learn all the lessons I need to learn. When I am not suffering, help me to be sensitive and comforting to those around me who are. Amen.

MORE: Handel's Messiah Alert

G. F. Handel set words from Lamentations 1:12 ("Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow")  to music in his oratorio Messiah.

"Behold and See" (Handel's Messiah Part 2 - #30)


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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Desperate king

Hezekiah prays - 2 Kings 19:14
TODAY'S SPECIAL: 2 Kings 19:8-19

TO CHEW ON:
"And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it, and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord." 2 Kings 19:14

Today's reading is only part of a larger story where Sennarcherib king of Assyria has threatened Hezekiah, king of Judah, numerous times.

  • Hezekiah responded to the first threat by asking the Assyrian envoys to stop speaking the language the people could understand - 2 Kings 18:26.
  • He responded to the second threat with silence and later called on Isaiah to pray - 2 Kings 18:16-37; 19:2-4.
  • Today's reading is Assyria's third challenge. Walter Brueggemann says of this time:
"... it is important to understand the context of acute anxiety in which the king prays. Hezekiah utters his prayer because he is completely vulnerable and has exhausted all other resources" - Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament, p. 82 (emphasis added).

So Hezekiah goes to the temple in Jerusalem with the threatening Assyrian letter in hand, spreads it out before God and prays.

What a picture of "Help!" Perhaps this is what we should do more of when we get puzzling correspondence, bills that are bigger than the extra in our bank accounts, a bad report about our child from the teacher,  distressing news about our neighbourhood or country in the newspaper. We too could spread these things out before God and cry out for His help.

As the writer of my Bible's notes says, "Hezekiah is an excellent illustration of what a believer should do when threatened by an enemy. Hezekiah does not react to the threats of Sennarcherib, but cries out to the Lord for help" - Larry D. Powers, Notes on 2 Kings, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 507 (emphasis added).

PRAYER: Dear God, please bring to my mind this picture of Hezekiah the next time I feel threatened. May I make it a habit to call on You in trouble before I do anything else. Amen.  

MORE: A great OT prayer

Hezekiah's prayer here is considered another of the great prayers of the Old Testament. Our commenter on these prayers takes this lesson for us from Hezekiah's actions and words:
"In the midst of a frightened people and in the face of overwhelming imperial power, Hezekiah nevertheless acts and speaks as a person of faith who appeals to a will and an agency that refuses conventional worldly characterizations of power .... The most important promise of this text is that prayer cannot be confined to safe familial or domestic spheres of life. The most important seduction of this text is the temptation to harness 'the power of prayer' to the cause of state in uncritical ways" - Walter Brueggemann, Op. Cit. , pp. 86,87 (emphasis added).
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Friday, February 15, 2013

Our own firstfruits offering

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

TO CHEW ON: "'He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.'" Deuteronomy 26:9

The ceremony described in our reading today is the Offering of Firstfruits. Moses' instructions for it are part of his last talks given to the Israelites shortly before he died. The next big event for them would be entering Canaan, routing its inhabitants, and settling there themselves. They were supposed to give this offering the very first year they grew a crop.

We notice that:
  • No specific amount of offering was prescribed. This was not a tenth (tithe). The instructions for the tithe follow (Deuteronomy 26:12-15) and were to start in the third year.  It was just "some," a token amount standing in for the whole crop.
  • They were to present this offering to the priest along with a speech. This speech declared God's goodness along with the general story of how they got there (Deuteronomy 26:3-9).
  • It was to be a worshipful, joyous event celebrating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and God's faithfulness in bringing them to this place.
  • No one was excluded. This ceremony was for "...you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger who is among you" - Deuteronomy 26:11.

Wouldn't bringing an offering of firstfruits be a meaningful practice for us to follow? Not as in dutifully adhering to an Old Testament command but as a way of reminding ourselves that we belong to God, reviewing our history with Him, and acknowledging His first place in our lives. For the Israelites it was an offering of produce. For us it would most likely be money, given to our church or the place we are spiritually nurtured.

This would be an especially meaningful thing to do at a time of beginning something new—getting a job, a new job, or a promotion, making our first sale, seeing the first profits of a business venture. It would be an excellent reminder of how we got to this place, how every part of life belongs to God, and how He comes first—even in getting the first of our labour.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for blessing my life. Whether I give an actual firstfruits offering or not, help me to have the thoughtful, thankful, joyful attitude about Your deliverance, provision and blessing that was to accompany this offering. Amen.

MORE: More about the firstfruits offering

Want to read more about the offering of firstfruits? The website gotquestions.org asks: "What was the firstfruits offering? Should Christians give a firstfruits offering today?" It ends:

"In summary, firstfruits symbolizes God’s harvest of souls, it illustrates giving to God from a grateful heart, and it sets a pattern of giving back to Him the first (and the best) of what He has given us. Not being under the Old Testament Law, the Christian is under no further obligation than to give cheerfully and liberally (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)."

Read the entire article HERE.


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Thursday, February 14, 2013

How to love everybody

TODAY'S SPECIAL: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

TO CHEW ON: "Love...does not seek its own..." 1 Corinthians 13:5.

Adrian Plass tells this story of an epiphany he had when he was ten:
"As I sat on the front seat of the big green Maidstone and District bus, a sixpenny bit and a penny clutched in my hand ready for the conductor, a phrase I had read earlier repeated itself over and over in my mind.


'Everybody is I.'


For some reason, I sensed an important inner core of meaning in the words, but I was unable to dig it out. I was frustrated and fascinated by the problem....


[...] Suddenly I stiffened. Body erect, hands flat on the ledge below the window, I pressed my forehead against the glass and stared in amazement at the crowds on the pavement below. The true meaning of those three simple but puzzling words had exploded into my mind, destroying the illusion that I was the centre of the universe, and leaving me to cope, for the rest of my life, with the burden of knowledge. Every one of those people down there in the street, walking the pavements, driving cars, waiting for buses — every single one, whatever they were, whatever they looked like, whatever I thought of them, were as important to themselves as I was to myself! - Adrian Plass, From Growing Up Pains to the Sacred Diary, p. 20,21 (emphasis added).
In our quest to learn about love, to learn how to love, the realization that "Everybody is I" is a good place to start. As we, in our imaginations, put ourselves into another's shoes, it becomes much easier to suffer long, be kind, humble, polite, patient, etc.

It is the other-centered love we see flowing from Jesus when He speaks to the Samaritan woman, cuddles and blesses babies, parties with tax collectors, names for the Rich Young Ruler the one thing that keeps him from being a follower, and in so many other incidents does the thing that communicates God's love.

The miracle of Christ in us is that through His indwelling Spirit, He can communicate through us to those around us the love Jesus showed to those around Him when He lived on earth.

PRAYER: Dear God, please help me to learn the love lessons of 1 Corinthians 13, not only intellectually but practically, as I put them into action in my life. Amen.

MORE: Valentine's Day

Today we celebrate romantic love. History.com explains the origins of the day:
Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.


The history of Valentine's Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance. St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. (Read the whole article.
Get in the mood of the day: view a Valentine photo gallery
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ezra's prayer of 'Here is how it is...'

Ezra in Prayer by Gustave Dore
Ezra in Prayer - Gustave Dore

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezra 9:1-15

TO CHEW ON:
"And I said, 'O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown to the heavens.'" Ezra 9:6

Ezra was terribly distressed. His body language—torn clothes, pulled out hair, abject posture—tells us that, even before we read the first words that come out of his mouth.

The reason? It's because the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem, indeed even their leaders, had intermarried with the idol-worshiping women of the surrounding nations. And in general the people were arranging marriages for their sons and daughters with pagan neighbours.

There was a strong tradition of marital exclusivity among the Jews:
  • Abraham insisted Isaac not marry a Canaanite women (Genesis 24:3,37).
  • Rebekah insisted Jacob not take a wife from the Canaanites (Genesis 28:1) though Esau did, much to his parents' chagrin (Genesis 27:46).
  • When the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses spoke the ban clearly:
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land...you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them (the "many nations" that inhabit it) ....Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from Me to serve other gods so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly" (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).

But intermarrying with Gentiles had happened over and over already in Israel's history with predictable results. A notable example was Solomon (1 Kings 3:1; 11:1-11).

Now Ezra was witnessing the old compromise, and he was clearly terrified that God would make good on His threat to destroy them. His prayer isn't  a direct request at all, but an implied call for mercy. We could paraphrase the end of his prayer: 'Here we are God; this is how it is.'

I wonder what Ezra would think about the marriages of our time. I know it isn't our custom to arrange marriages for our kids and when they fall in love with non-believers we look on helplessly. Well, not exactly helplessly, because we pray that they won't make unwise choices and give them as much guidance as they'll take.

Oh, I know stories abound of how the Christian partner leads the non-Christian to God. But I have also heard too many stories of heartbreak when spouses don't have the same beliefs and values. There is disagreement about how to raise the kids, how to spend money, and on and on. Way too often the unbelieving spouse leads the believing one off the "straight and narrow." There is a reason for Paul's words to the Corinthians to "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers..." - 2 Corinthians 6:14.

PRAYER:
Dear God, Ezra's shock and grief at Israel's mixed marriages makes me look at our customs through a different lens. Please help us to raise our kids and grandkids by Your wise principles. Amen.

MORE: Ezra's prayer


Ezra's prayer here (Ezra 9:6-15) is another one of the Great Prayers of the Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann says of this prayer:

"... the prayer is not really a petition for it does not ask anything of God. The prayer functions to evoke a resolved response for determined obedience..."
He goes on to end the chapter with several question which we do well to ask ourselves:

"1 What sins do we need to confess in our prayers?
2. How can we pray for a new start and a second chance?"
 
- Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament, pp. 97-98, Kindle edition.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

The prayer that changed a nation's story

Nehemiah praying - Nehemiah 1
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Nehemiah 1:1-11

TO CHEW ON:
"And so it was, when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned for many days' I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven." - Nehemiah 1:4


The word economy of the Bible quickly gets us to the crux of the matter in this story that takes place at the end of the Old Testament time. The described state of his fellow Hebrews in Jerusalem distresses Nehemiah (who is a servant of Persian King Artaxerxes) immensely. So he does what we should all do when we're distressed—goes to the One who can help.

Nehemiah 1:5-11 is Nehemiah's heartfelt prayer. Let's look closely at it to see what we can learn about prayer from it.

1. Nehemiah begins by addressing God: "Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God..." His beginning puts him in his place and vaults God to His. By saying these faith-building words (Nehemiah 1:5) Nehemiah also reminds himself of God's power and ability to answer.

2. Nehemiah includes himself with the people (Nehemiah 1:6-7).  Though he is many miles away and probably hasn't participated personally in the sins he confesses, he stands in solidarity with his countrymen. His identification with them also shows his understanding of how God works in and through nations.

3. He prays God's words back to Him.
Nehemiah 1:8-9 are a paraphrase a Moses' words in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, recalling words of warning and blessing to Israel from centuries earlier (see Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 4:25-27, 29-3; 28:63-67; 30:4).

4. He names his request. He reminds God of the investment He has already made in Israel (Nehemiah 1:10) and pleads for mercy, for himself (from his boss, the King of Persia; 'would God move the heart of a king to give him favor?') and in that, also for all of Israel (Nehemiah 1:11).

The rest of the book of Nehemiah tells the story of how King Artaxerxes releases Nehemiah from his duties, finances and equips his trip to Jerusalem, and then how Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall and eventually a spiritual revival.

What large and small things are troubling us today? Let's pray about them. Let's pray remembering how big and capable God is in contrast to our own neediness, frailty, and unworthiness. Let's pray God's words—His promises—back to Him, naming our requests with all the passion and emotion they bring up in his.

PRAYER:
Dear God, thank You for prayer. Help me to realize that a burden about a situation or person is also an invitation to pray about it. Help me to pray from my heart,  with faith in You and Your power. Amen.

MORE: Nehemiah's prayer

Nehemiah's prayer is considered one of the twelve Great Prayers of the Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann in his chapter on this prayer draws our attention to the fact that prayer can impact international events:

"Except for the imagination of faith exhibited in this prayer, one would not think to connect "mercy" and "empire." But that is the way of daring prayer. Because everything in the prayer is uttered under the aegis of the creator God, matters are connected and interfaced and intertwined in ways that can never be apart from the rule of God" - Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament,  p.105 (emphasis added).




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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Portable glory

TODAY’S SPECIAL: Luke 9:28-43a

TO CHEW ON: “And they were all amazed at the majesty of God.” Luke 9:43a

“…the appearance of His (Jesus’) face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.” 


Haven’t we seen this somewhere before? Doesn’t this remind us of Moses and his shining face after being with God on Mount Sinai?

It must have been quite the awesome yet disturbing experience for the disciples, being dazzled by incredible light while hearing Jesus talk about his “decease” – death – with the glorified patriarchs. Peter was overcome by a sense of rightness, goodness and well-being and suggested that they build tents and stay.

But when it was time, they left and headed back to the rough-and-tumble, grubby and confusing world below. The contrast was stark. The very next day from out of the crowd came a desperate man.

His sad tale of the disciples’ inability to cast a demon out of his little boy brought Jesus’ rebuke (even after all they had experienced, they were still ‘faithless') and an invitation to fetch the boy. Even as he came the demon threw him down in a convulsion. Then Jesus rebuked the dirty spirit, cast him out and at least one father and son went home that day knowing, at a see-and-touch level, the majesty of God.

We too know the contrast of this story. From times of ecstatic worship, when we’re in the very presence of God’s clean, holy light, we’re inevitably ejected back to earth with its broken-down cars, clamoring kids, aging parents, and sinister lab reports. Just as Jesus didn’t stay on the rarified mountaintop, neither can we. For that’s why Jesus came – to spread the "majesty " of God to all. And that’s still our mission today (Mark 16:15-18).

PRAYER: Dear God, may my times with You, enjoying Your glory translate into stronger faith and more usefulness to my troubled world. Amen.

MORE: Oswald Chambers says:
“It is a great thing to be on the mount with God, but a man only gets there in order that afterwards he may get down among the devil-possessed and lift them up. We are not built for the mountains and the dawns and aesthetic affinities, those are for moments of inspiration, that is all. We are built for the valley, for the ordinary stuff we are in, and that is where we have to prove our mettle. Spiritual selfishness always wants repeated moments on the mount. We feel we could talk like angels and live like angels, if only we could stay on the mount. The times of exaltation are exceptional, they have their meaning in our life with God, but we must beware lest our spiritual selfishness wants to make them the only time.”
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest (October 1 reading)
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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Treasure in earthy containers

clay jar - 2 Corinthians 4:7
TODAY'S SPECIAL: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18

TO CHEW ON: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us." 2 Corinthians 4:7

Some months ago a pastor at my church, when speaking on this passage, related an old custom. Apparently it was common in Bible times to hide valuables—jewelry and money—in clay jars to keep them safe from thieves. Of course, if the neck of the jar was small, the treasures were also then in safekeeping from their owners. The owner would have to break the jar to retrieve his or her valuables.

This homey illustration fits on several levels with Paul's statement here. If we are indeed the vessels that hold the precious treasure of the "life of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:11):
  • Such glory is well camouflaged in our earthy holders, with their common and deteriorating exteriors.
  • It is often when we are broken that the glory of the treasure is seen most startlingly. Who of us hasn't marveled at the grace of God that shines through saints—old and young—when a life is fully surrendered (even the bad bits) to God?

PRAYER:
Dear God, please help me to be a good treasure-holder. But may it not take breaking to let Your glory shine in and through me. Amen.

MORE: Grace habits

"We have to form habits to express what God's grace has done in us. It is not a question of being saved from hell, but of being saved in order to manifest the life of the Son of God in our mortal flesh, and it is the disagreeable things which make us exhibit whether or not we are manifesting His life. Do I manifest the essential sweetness of the Son of God, or the essential irritation of 'myself' apart from Him? - Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, May 14 reading (emphasis added).
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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

God's visible shining

"God and Moses"- 1573 woodcut
by  an unknown artist.

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Exodus 34:29-35

TO CHEW ON: "Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses' hand when he came down from the mountain) that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him." Exodus 34:29

The visible glory on Moses' face when he came down from talking with God on Mount Sinai seems to have served several purposes.

- It was physical evidence that Moses had had a supernatural encounter.
- It was a sign that Moses had an intimate relationship with God.
- It was also a sign that God endorsed Moses as a leader — unlike the Israelites who had repudiated his leadership just a little while earlier (Exodus 32:1-6).
- It wasn't something Moses consciously sought or even knew he exhibited.

The visible glory of God displayed on a person's face is the stuff of other supernatural encounters in the Bible.
  • In Judges 3:16 Manoah's wife (Samson's mother) described the face of the Angel of the Lord as "very awesome."
  • In Daniel 10:6 Daniel encounters a man whose face had "the appearance of lightning."
  • At Jesus' transfiguration His face "shone like the sun and His clothes became white as light" - Matthew 17:2; also Luke 8:29-32.
  • At Jesus' resurrection the angel of the Lord who rolled away the stone was described: "His countenance was like lightning" - Matthew 28:3.
  • When Stephen was stoned, as he was looking into heaven shortly before he died, onlookers saw his face become "as the face of an angel" - Acts 6:15.

There are at least two other references to God's glory shining form one's person, though probably more in a metaphorical way than an actual physical shining:
  • One is in Ecclesiastes where the writer says "A man's wisdom makes his face shine." (This reference to wisdom reminds me of my favourite wisdom passage — James 3:13-17. Check it out. It kind of dovetails with the next reference to shining...)
  • Another is from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" - Matthew 5:16.
I think we could say, in sum-up, that consciously seeking that visible shining glory for ourselves is not something we need to do.  But we can all aspire to reflect the glory of wisdom, and give others reason to glorify God by the shine of our good works. And should God one day radiate His presence through our physical selves in even more startling and supernatural ways — all glory to Him.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for evidences of Your glorious presence visible on people's faces throughout the Bible. I would love it if my life would shine, to the extent that people would be inspired to glorify You because of it. Amen.

MORE: "Be Glorified" sung by Ron Kenoly

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

God-Who-Forgives

mud bath
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Psalm 99:1-9

TO CHEW ON: "You answered them, O Lord our God;
You were to them God-Who-Forgives,
Though you took vengeance on their deeds." - Psalm 99:8


Imagine you're a kid and have been caught in a rainstorm walking home on a country road. Soon the ground underfoot is soft and squishy. Clay clings to the soles of your feet, encrusts your pant cuffs, and you have grungy spatters all up your legs. Then a car motors by, splashing mud all over you. Finally you reach home, but there your mom bars your entrance. She's just washed the floor and vacuumed the white carpet. "You can't come in like you are!" she says.

That person covered head to foot in grime at the door of a clean house is a crude picture of us before a holy God. It brings to mind Isaiah standing at the entrance of the temple. Inside the angels are praising: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord." And Isaiah becomes keenly aware of his filthiness: "Woe is me for I am undone. Because I am a man of unclean lips" - Isaiah 6:1-5.

In this psalm the focus on God's holiness (Psalm 99:3,5,9) brings up thoughts of mankind's unworthiness in the writer. But then he remembers that God spoke to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel despite their imperfections. He was to them the God-Who-Forgives, though He didn't overlook their sins ("... You took vengeance on their deeds").

[Forgive: 1) to grant pardon for or remission of something and cease to demand the penalty for; 2) to grant freedom from penalty; 3) to cease to blame or feel resentment against; 4) To remit as a debt; 5) To show forgiveness, grant pardon; absolve.]

That's what God still does for us. No matter how dirty we are when we come to Him, or how much we mess up, He continues to be the God-Who-Forgives. Of course He doesn't overlook our sin-besmirched selves. He has made a wonderful way of dealing with our filthiness.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for being a God who forgives. May the love of Your holy presence be a hedge about me, keeping me from conscious and wilfull sin. Amen.

MORE: God cleans us up!
God not only forgives our sin but He cleans us up!

"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols" - Ezekiel 36:25.

"...how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" - Hebrews 9:14.

"But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" - 1 John 1:7.

"... and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood" - Revelation 1:5.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Our tough and tender Shepherd

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Isaiah 40:1-11

TO CHEW ON: "Behold the Lord God shall come with a strong hand ...
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arms,
And carry them in His bosom
And gently lead those who are with young." Isaiah 40:10,11

I love seeing news footage of tough athletes (hockey or football players) interacting with kids from the Vancouver Children's Hospital, or watching my strong, capable son-in-law take care of his little daughter. There is something compelling about strength combined with tenderness. In Isaiah 40 we see that aspect of God.

Though He governs with a strong hand and a ruling arm, He rules His own with the utmost of gentleness:
  • He feeds His flock. [Feed - ra 'ah  means to shepherd, tend, pasture, cause one's herd or flock to graze, care for one's animals, providing them with good pasture - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 919.]
  • He carries the lambs—the young and immature—in His arms and carries them close to His heart.
  • He takes special care of the mothers: "gently leads those who are with young."

This passage from Isaiah reminds us of other God-as-shepherd passages.

* Psalm 80:1-2 also combines God's tenderness with strength: "Give ear O Shepherd of Israel / You who lead Joseph like a flock .... Stir up Your strength, / And come and save us."

* So does Micah 5:4: "He shall stand and feed His flock / In the strength of the Lord .." Here "He" refers to Jesus. Two verses earlier in the same passage, Micah predicts His birth in Bethlehem.

* Psalm 23:1-6 shows God shepherding the individual by bringing him to the best pasture and to still water, comforting him in a brush with death, and exalting him before enemies.

* And of course we can't forget the words of Jesus Himself as He expands on His role as our shepherd in John 10. There He talks about how His sheep know His voice (John 10:4), how entry into the sheepfold through Him (the door - John 10:7) assures them safety and an abundant life (John 10:9,10), how He is so committed to the sheep He lays down His life for them (John 10:15), and how no one has power to take the sheep away from Him (John 10:28).

What comfort and security we know in the care of our shepherd who is both strong and tender. I have put myself in His care. Have you?

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, thank You for Your power, which so often shows itself in gentleness. Help me to recognize Your voice and always follow You. Amen.


MORE: Handel's Messiah Alert!
G. F. Handel dipped generously into Isaiah 40 when he was writing the Messiah.

He quoted from Isaiah 40:1-5 in Choruses 2 - ("Comfort Ye My People"), 3 ("Every Valley") and 4 (And the Glory of the Lord").

He used words directly from Isaiah 40:9 in Chorus 9 ("O Thou That Tellest").

And he took the words for Chorus 18 from Isaiah 40:11 ("He Shall Feed His Flock").




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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Perks of God's presence

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Haggai 2:1-9

TO CHEW ON: "'...and in this place I will give peace,' declares the Lord of hosts." Haggai 2:9

Haggai confronts the priests of the exiles with a grave denunciation. He says that it's their uncleanness that has polluted the entire land, to the extent of spoiling their crops and making each venture a disappointment: "When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty" (Haggai 2:16).

It's happening because they are violating the principle of uncleanness that governs the handling of holy things. Haggai quizzes them on it and they know the right answers — that a holy item (like meat sacrificed to God) is made unclean by coming into contact with an unclean person who has, say, touched a dead body. Yet, though they know the right answers, they aren't living them. Haggai tells them that their unclean lives are violating this principle and their behaviour is the reason for Israel's agricultural funk.

But, Haggai promises, the presence of God among them as signified by the temple will change all that. God promises, "Consider from this day onward ... Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you" (Haggai 2:18-19).

Can we similarly claim God's blessing because of His presence in our lives? Oh, I know it's not realistic or biblical to expect everything to go smoothly once Christ enters our situations. We have sickness, and crop failures, and failed business ventures like everyone else. And yet I believe there is a sense in which God's presence in our day-to-day even through these difficulties, translates them into peace (as the temple would bring peace and plenty to Judah back then).

Here are some promises that God will be present with us, particularly through difficulty. Let's meditate on and claim them today:
  • Psalm 34:19-20
  • Psalm 138:7
  • Isaiah 43:2
  • Isaiah 51:22
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17
  • 2 Corinthians 12:19.

PRAYER: Dear God, may Your presence in my life bring the peace and abundance pictured in Haggai. Please show me any disobedience that would cancel out Your blessings. Amen.

MORE:  Handel's Messiah Alert: Chorus 5

Two verses of today's reading (Haggai 2:6,7) appear in Handel's Messiah, Selection 5.



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