Saturday, December 31, 2016

Be blessed

Jacob blessing Joseph's sons
- Artist unknown

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Numbers 6:22-27

TO CHEW ON: "The Lord bless you and keep you." Numbers 6:24

Doesn't your heart just take a deep breath and settle down as you read the few verses of today's scripture? There is something in this Aaronic blessing that feels like a warm blanket when you're shivering, or a cool breeze on a hot day, or a table loaded with food when you're hungry.

This blessing of only three lines (actually one, partitioned by semicolons) contains six actions. Let's look closely at them in order to soak up every bit of this blessing's goodness.

"The Lord bless..."
To bless someone means to consecrate, make holy, honour, exalt, glorify, bestow happiness and prosperity on. It's a powerful enough interaction between people—how much more when the blessing bestowed is the blessing of the Lord. How rich we are!

"..and keep you"
Keep (shamar) means to guard, keep watch and ward, protect, save the life of. When we keep something we retain the possession of it; we don't give it away. God holds onto us in that way. How safe we are!

"The Lord make His face shine upon you..."
The word "shine" ('owr) alludes to the shine of the sun, to illumine, to become lighted up, to make shine as of the face. Watch a mother's face light up when she sees her child. That's how God's face lights up when He looks at you and me. How loved we are!

"...and be gracious to you"
Gracious (chanan[a]) means to show favour, be gracious toward, have mercy on. It is characterized by showing kindness, affability. To be gracious means to be full of compassion and mercy. God is disposed that way toward us. How favored we are!

"The Lord lift up His countenance upon you..."
The picture here is similar to God making His face shine on us. I see, in addition, a focused attention, like a parent looking straight into a child's eyes. God looks straight at and into us. How known we are!

"...and give you peace."
Give (suwm) means to extend, establish, bring to pass peace - a state of mental or physical quiet or tranquility, calm, repose, reconciliation, freedom from mental agitation or anxiety. When God pours His peace over  and into us, how settled we are!

May we realize every part of this blessing as we head into 2015.

PRAYER: Dear God, Your blessing is what we need and want more than anything else, as we enter the new year. Amen.


MORE: "The Gate of the Year"

In December of 1939 Britain was at war. It's easy to forget, knowing what we do today, that at the time no one knew how that war would end.

That year in his Christmas message King George VI concluded his 9-minute broadcast with the lines of an obscure poem by a little-known poet.

"I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'
And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness,
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way.'"

He concluded his speech with "May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all."

I say, "Amen" to that!

(Read the article "At the Gate of the Year" which quotes the rest of the poem — originally titled "God Knows" but now usually called "At the Gate of the Year" — and tells us more about its author Minnie Haskins [1875-1957]).

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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.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Leave 2016 praising

Adoration of the Shepherds - Domenichino
Adoration of the Shepherds - Domenichino

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Luke 2:15-21

TO CHEW ON:
"Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen as it was told them." Luke 2:20

How wonderful that the birth of Jesus the Good Shepherd was announced first to shepherds!

These were no ordinary shepherds, though. "They were shepherds appointed to care for the temple flocks, destined for sacrifices. These flocks stayed in the fields throughout the year, even during winter" - Victor Handbook of Bible Knowledge, p. 325.

Thirty-three years from that time, the death of the One (the Lamb of God) they heard about on this night would make their job no longer necessary.

Though throughout Israel's history being a shepherd was considered a respectable calling, during Jesus' time they were thought to be a wild lot.* Their behavior on this night would probably have reinforced that conclusion as this joyful, rowdy crowd exclaimed and sang and praised God through the sleeping Bethlehem streets on their way back to the Judean hills. They had found the baby Jesus, just as the angel had told them!

I ask myself, have I been with Jesus this year? Have you? Where have we seen His hand on our lives? Felt His presence? Knelt and worshiped before His glory?

As we approach the end of the year, let's recall our encounters with Him. Let's realize He is with us here, right now, even as we read and think and pray. Then let's leave 2013 like the shepherds left Bethlehem that night: "… glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen…"

PRAYER:
Dear Jesus, thank You for meetings with You that fill me with unexplainable joy, praise and a desire to worship. May our past history together fill me with hope and expectation as I step into a new year. Amen.

* Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, edited by J.I. Packer & M.C. Tenney, p. 228

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New King James Version (NKJV) Used with permission. The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Bible Drive-Thru

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Litmus test for Christians

TODAY'S SPECIAL: 1 John 3:1-18

TO CHEW ON: "In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God nor is he who does not love his brother." 1 John 3:10


A possible title for 1 John 3 would be: "Two Ways to Tell if Someone is a Christian." John talks about two litmus-test aspects of the Christian life in this chapter and they come together in verse 10:

"In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest:
1] whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God
2] nor is he who does not love his brother."


Practicing righteousness makes its appearance in various forms throughout the chapter. It involves purifying ourselves (1 John 3:3), avoiding sin, and living, instead, a life of habitual righteousness (1 John 3: 6-8, 10, 22).

Loving one's brother is just as prominent. John presents it as an ancient requirement going back to Cain and Abel (1 John 3:11-12). He describes the person who does not love his brother as someone who "abides in death" (1 John 3:14), and the person who hates his brother as a "murderer" (1 John 3:15). That brotherly love is practical evidencing itself in a compassionate response to our brother's need (1 John 3:17-18). Our right living in this gives us confidence before God and assures us that He will answer our prayers (1 John 3:22).

I ask myself, if people looked at my life and judged it by these two criteria, would they say I was a Christian? What about you?


PRAYER: Dear God, Your standards are easy to understand but hard to live. I ask for Your help, especially with loving my brothers and sisters. Please help me to see fellow Christians—indeed all people—through Your eyes. Amen.

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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.

Bible Drive-Thru


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Walking in the dark

TODAY'S SPECIAL: 1 John 2:3-29


TO CHEW ON: "But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes." 1 John 2:11

Our eyes are not well equipped to help us maneuver on our own in the dark. In darkness they no longer distinguish color. Our perception of depth and distance is altered. If we take away all light, our eyes are useless and we're as good as blind.

The Bible talks in many places about walking in darkness in a metaphorical way.

  • Jesus calls it having bad eyes (Matthew 6:22-23). He is talking about how we view life. We might call it worldview.
  • Jesus also talks about the Pharisees having an entrenched blindness that refuses to see life any other way than through their legalistic lens (Matthew 15:14; 23:19).
  • Paul refers to the refusal to believe in Jesus and His finished work for us as blindness of mind and heart that is lifted as a result of believing ("Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away" - 2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
  • The "god of this age" (Satan) can blind our minds to keep us from understanding and believing God's plan through Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).
  • Paul characterizes this darkness as a downward spiral that leads to an ever-increasing corruption of understanding and lifestyle (Romans 1:21,24-32; Ephesians 4:18,19).
  • And then we have our focus verse that reveals another aspect of walking in darkness: hating our brother. Really? we might ask. That's as dangerous as living in unbelief? As serious as having the legalistic, self-righteous worldview of the Pharisees? As hazardous as the determination to refuse to acknowledge God at all?

"Do not be blinded by the darkness of hatred," says a sidebar article on this passage in my Bible. "Understand that it will cause you to fall in your walk with the Lord. Turn away from hatred; ask for forgiveness for any hate in your heart. Ask God to heal you and enable you to forgive, knowing that Jesus paid the price for the wrong people have done" - Leslyn Musch, Truth-In-Action-Through 1 John, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1791 (emphasis added).

Forgiveness. Is that the switch that turns on the light from living in the darkness of hatred?

PRAYER: Dear God, I am not free from dislike, resentment, even hatred. Please show me where I am walking in such darkness. Help me to forgive and release anyone who has wronged me. Amen.

MORE: Shades of hatred

Would we recognize hatred in ourselves more readily if we acknowledged its subtle shades, its gradual growth in us from feelings of irritation, to dislike, to extreme animosity?

I was struck by this quote in Henri Nouwen's little book With Burning Hearts:
"I wonder how I would live if there were no resentment at all in my heart. I am so used to talking about people I do not like, to harboring memories about events that gave me much pain, or to acting with suspicion and fear that I do not know how it would be if there were nothing to complain about and nobody to gripe about! My heart still has many corners that hide my resentments and I wonder if I really want to be without them. What would I do without these resentments? And there are many moments in life in which I have the opportunity to nurture them. Before breakfast I have already had many feelings of suspicion, jealousy, many thoughts about people I prefer to avoid, and many little plans to live my day in a guarded way" - Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts, pp. 32,33.
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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.
Bible Drive-Thru

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Do we walk in darkness, or light?

TODAY’S SPECIAL: 1 John 1:1-2:2

TO CHEW ON:
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 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 1:6,7


Our reading talks about two ways to live: “Walk in darkness” and “walk in light.” These are metaphors. What do they mean?

The Zondervan Study Bible notes define both (emphases added):

To “walk in darkness” denotes a life characterized by wickedness and ignorance and an unwillingness to be open toward God and his revelation in Christ—lest one’s sinful behaviour be exposed.”

John actually quotes Jesus Himself on what walking in darkness is about:
‘For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’” - John 3:19.
Here’s the old secrecy over disobedience cropping up again that began way back in the Genesis garden (Genesis 3:8-10).

To “walk in light” denotes a life characterized by truth and holiness and a willingness to be open to God and his revelation, resulting in fellowship with one another and with God.”

How do we, in our everyday lives, walk in light?

A start, I believe is to be open with God—to let Him search us through the Bible and in prayer and keep no secrets from Him. We can express our doubts, fears, issues, and questions to Him. When He shows us attitudes to change and exposes the times we’ve sinned, we acknowledge, confess, repent, make restitution (or whatever is required). We let Him shine light into the farthest, darkest recesses of our hearts to show us to ourselves so we can renounce all darkness and live in light. (I’m thinking this may take years as, in my experience, God deals with us in layers to get to core of our onion hearts.)

A wonderful side benefit of living in light is how it smooths our relationships with fellow-Christians: “… we have fellowship with one another…”


PRAYER: Dear Father, help me to walk in light by being completely open and honest with You. Amen.
 
MORE: Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today the church celebrates the Feast of John who wrote the Gospel of John, the three epistles 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation.

Here is the prayer that begins the liturgy for the day:

"Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

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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.


Monday, December 26, 2016

The gifted speaker who served food

TODAY’S SPECIAL: Acts 6:1-15

TO CHEW ON: “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem … “ Acts 6:7

When the distraction of serving food to widows became too much for “the twelve” they called a meeting of “the multitude of the disciples” and put a new committee—a food committee— into place. Stephen was one of the men chosen for that committee (Acts 7:1-6).

As we read on we find out, however, that Stephen was also a gifted speaker—perhaps more powerful and anointed and talented than some of the original twelve (Acts 6:8-10). I suppose he could have said, “Why must I give up speaking and teaching to do this menial work? What makes your seminars more important than mine?”

Of course he didn’t say or give us any reason to believe he thought that, but served, without a ripple, along with the rest of the committee.

The result: “Then the word of God spread and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem…” Acts 6:7.

I see in this an important example for myself, indeed the contemporary church. When we put ourselves at God’s disposal to use in any way He wishes, we may not always be doing the things we think are our strengths or especially enjoy. But we do launch ourselves into the river of God’s activity—a productive and exciting place to be.

So let’s not be too proud or picky to accept even the humblest jobs we’re asked to do. God needs and uses chair stackers, pancake flippers, parking lot attendants, spreadsheet makers etc. as well as preachers, teachers, and worship leaders. It’s the full complement of all of us doing the behind-the-scenes and upfront jobs that causes the gospel to flourish.

PRAYER: Dear Father, help me to be willing to do any job You have for me. Amen.

MORE: Feast of Saint Stephen—Deacon and Martyr

Today the church celebrates that main character of our reading, Stephen. The day’s liturgy begins with this prayer:

"We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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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.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

God—inhearted, enmeated, immarrowed

WISHING ALL WHO READ HERE A BLESSED CHRISTMAS! 

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Hebrews 2:1-18

TO CHEW ON:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same…” Hebrews 2:14


Today we celebrate the incarnation—God taking on human flesh, a human body and mind in Jesus Christ. Throughout the Bible we find footprints leading to and from this event.

Isaiah prophesied it:
“… Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son…” - Isaiah 7:14.  
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…” Isaiah 9:6 
“The LORD has called Me from the womb,
From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name” - Isaiah 49:1.

He would be born of David's kingly line:
"There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots" - Isaiah 11:1
Mary was the Hebrew girl God chose to be Jesus’ mother:
" And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus" Luke 1:31.
"And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" Luke 2:7.

The New Testament writers understand and communicate this incarnation in a variety of ways.

Paul draws our attention to the humbling plunge of this event:
“…but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men” - Philippians 2:7.

In another place He calls it a mystery:
“…great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh…” 2 Timothy 3:17.

John adds a layer of significance by calling Him the "Word":
“… the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” - John 1:14.

Paul affirms that He is from David’s line:
“Concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh” - Romans 1:3.

Paul and the writer of Hebrews also tell us the purpose of His coming—to deal once and for all with all of mankind’s sin, exposed by our inability to keep the law:
“For what the law could not do … God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh" - Romans 8:3.
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil” - Hebrews 2:14.

And this belief in the incarnation is a pillar of the Christian faith:
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” - 2 John 1:7.

It’s really mind-bending—God, creator of all there is, humbling Himself to become a person… I have found in a book of Advent readings a wonderful poetic expression of it. Here is a snippet:

Incarnation

I
Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow,
Embone, enrib yourself….
… Enmeat
Yourself so we can rise onto our feet
And meet. For eyes, just take two suns and shrink them.
Make all your thoughts as small as you can think them...

- by Amit Majmudar (read entire)

PRAYER: Thank You, Jesus for inhearting, immarrowing, emboning, enmeating Yourself for us—for me. May I never lose my awe of and gratitude for this. Amen.

MORE: The Feast of Christmas

Today the church celebrates the Feast of Christmas.
The Christmas day liturgy has a choice of beginning prayers. I leave you with this (third) collect:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


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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, December 24, 2016

Weak, small things

Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus
Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Luke 2:1-14

TO CHEW ON: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. … Joseph also went to be registered, everyone to his own city … to be registered with Mary his betrothed wife, who was with child.” - Luke 2:1,4,5

How often God used weak things to accomplish what He wanted to get done.

  • He empowered Moses’ rod to do amazing signs - Exodus 4:2.
  • He had Gideon pare his army down to a mere 300 men to defeat the Midianites - Judges 7:1-21.
  • Samson took a lot of lives with the jawbone of a donkey - Judges 15:15.
  • David felled Goliath with five stones - 1 Samuel 17:40.
  • God kept Elijah, a widow, and her son alive for a long time on a handful of flour and a little oil - 1 Kings 17:12-16.
  • The end of Israel’s three-year drought began with a cloud the size of a man’s hand - 1 Kings 18:44.
  • In our story Jesus was born to a young woman who was just a common citizen. At the beck-and-call of Caesar, she and her betrothed Joseph had to make a trip to Bethlehem at the worst time, with baby due any day. When they got to Bethlehem, they took the only available place—a stable, and that’s where Baby Jesus was born.
The angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds, rough, uncouth, despised members of society.

Today, on the threshold of Christmas day, let’s not despise the small things in our lives:
- The opportunity to give a smile or show a kindness to a child, a neighbor, a stranger.
- The prompting to say a prayer for the one who crosses our mind.
- The grace to let someone proceed ahead of us in traffic, a parking lot, a store lineup.
- The lyrics of a song that lift our spirits in praise.

“For who has despised the day of small things?” - Zechariah 4:10.

“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty” - 1 Corinthians 1:27.

PRAYER: Dear Father, thank You that my weakness and inability are not impediments to You. Please be present and active in the smallness of my life today. Amen.

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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.


Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas psalm

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Psalm 98:1-9

TO CHEW ON: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Psalm 98:3


When a Bible passage is assigned near Christmas, we look for aspects of the incarnation story in it. They are easy to find in Psalm 98.

There is singing:

“O sing to the LORD a new song!  … Break forth in song, rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the LORD with the harp” - Psalm 98:1,4,5.

There is wonder:

“For He has done marvelous things” - Psalm 98:1.

There is victory:
“His right hand and His holy arm have gained for Him the victory” - Psalm 98:1.

There is mercy:

“He has remembered His mercy” - Psalm 98:3.

There is joy:

“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth … Shout joyfully before the LORD the King” - Psalm 98:4,6.

There is a band:
“Sing … with the harp and the sound of a song. With trumpets and the sound of a horn” - Psalm 98:5,6.

Even nature celebrates:

“Let the sea roar and all its fullness. … Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the hills be joyful together before the LORD” - Psalm 98:8,9.

For...

There is righteous judgment and fairness for all:
“His (the LORD’s) righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations … For He is coming to judge the earth, With righteousness He shall judge the world, And the peoples with equity” - Psalm 98:2,9.

And there is salvation:

“The LORD has made known His salvation; …All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” - Psalm 98:2,3.

This Psalm reminds us that though things weren’t right with the world, the LORD had a remedy. It’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
 
PRAYER: Dear Father, thank You for this song of praise foreshadowing Your solution to the world’s need for a Saviour.

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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.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

The excellency of God's Son

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Hebrews 1:1-14

TO CHEW ON: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…” Hebrews 1:1,2

In Hebrews 1 the writer has put together a montage of Old Testament prophecies that predict the excellency of God’s Son.

1. He is creator
- Hebrews 1:2,10 (quoting Psalm 102:25-27).

2. He is the One who “purged our sins” - Hebrews 1:3.

3. Mission accomplished, He now enjoys His inheritance at God’s right hand. As such He is King of the angels—greater than, served and worshiped by them - Hebrews 1:4,5,6,7,13 (quoting Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14; Deuteronomy 32:43 NLT; Psalm 104:4; Psalm 110:1).

4. His kingdom is eternal - Hebrews 1:8,11,12 (quoting Psalm 45:6,7; Isaiah 34:4; 50:9; 51:6).

5. His kingdom is righteous - Hebrews 1:8,9 (quoting Psalm 45:6,7; Isaiah 61:1,3).

6. His kingdom is joyous - Hebrews 1:9 (quoting Isaiah 61:1,3).

7. His kingdom is unchanging - Hebrews 1:12 (quoting Isaiah 50:9; 51:6).

As we come ever closer to the day we celebrate the incarnation of God’s Son (Jesus Christ), let’s stir up our adoration and worship by meditating on these grand prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus:

“O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come, ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him
born the King of angels!

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”

~ John Francis Wade circa 1743 (Translated from the Latin).

(It sounds like John Francis Wade may have read Hebrews 1 before he wrote this beautiful Christmas hymn!)


PRAYER:
Dear Jesus, thank You for coming to purge our sins and establish an eternal, righteous, joyous, and unchanging kingdom. Amen.
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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, December 21, 2016

God's arm

Jesus carrying a lamb in His arms
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Isaiah 52:1-12

TO CHEW ON: "The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God."  Isaiah 52:10

In this prophecy of God redeeming and restoring Jerusalem, Isaiah uses the picturesque expression, "made bare His holy arm." My Bible's notes on Isaiah explain that this is a colloquialism meaning, "God will roll up His sleeves." In other words, really get down to business in saving Jerusalem.

Bible writers use God's arm as a figure of speech in other places. I've picked out a few. In each of the ones I'm citing, it refers to an aspect of His power.

  • God, in conversation with Moses, promises to free Israel from bondage to the Egyptians with an "outstretched arm" - Exodus 6:6. Isaiah talks about God's "glorious arm" dividing the water for the Israelites as they leave Egypt - Isaiah 63:12. Paul also refers to God freeing Israel from slavery: "…and with an uplifted arm He brought them out of it" - Acts 13:17.
  • In Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people that God is unchanging. He shelters them in "everlasting arms" - Deuteronomy 33:27.
  • Ethan the Ezrahite writes about God's "mighty arm," which scatters enemies, along with His strong hand and high right hand, giving us the picture of a victory stance - Psalm 89:10,13.
  • Our reading isn't the only place God uses His arm on behalf of Jerusalem. God swears by "His right hand and the arm of His strength" to restore her in Isaiah 62:8.
  • "To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" asks Isaiah (Isaiah 53:1). He goes on to answer his question by describing the One we interpret as Jesus, who became the lamb of God sacrificed for our sins (Isaiah 53:2 and on).
  • Finally, Mary in her prayer of praise we call the Magnificat, sums up the significance of God's arm at work: "He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts" - Luke 1:51. And we recall that the occasion of Mary speaking the Magnificat (her pregnancy and visit to Elizabeth), ended in the birth of Jesus, God's arm of justice and love extended to save the world!

Like Israel needed God's arm to get away from Egypt; like the Israelites needed His arm to defend them against their enemies; like Jerusalem needed His arm to be redeemed and restored; like all of mankind needs Him for salvation, we need God to "bare His arm," to roll up His sleeves on our behalf. We need His arm for salvation and the challenges of life.

(It's interesting to note that the work we might consider arm-worthy—the creation of the earth and the universe—is described as the work of God's fingers [Psalm 8:3].)

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for these pictures of Your powerful arm. Help me to turn to You for that power whenever life is too big for me—which is usually. Amen.

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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.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Good works - what and why?

Image: Pixabay
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Titus 3:1-15

TO CHEW ON: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us .... those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works." - Titus 3:5,8


If Titus has any question about the role of good works in a Christian's life, Paul clears it up in this bit of his letter.

He says, first, that doing good works is not a way to earn salvation. That comes through God's mercy and the supernatural new birth where He washes us clean (signified so beautifully by baptism) and renews us with the Holy Spirit.

But good works are important. Paul says we are to be careful to maintain them and that they are good and profitable. Other Bible passages shed more light on what good works are and their role in our lives.

What are good works?
  • Isaiah gives us some broad good work categories: seeking justice, rebuking the oppressor, defending the fatherless, and taking up the case of the widow - Isaiah 1:17.
  • Jesus describes a future time when God will praise those who fed the hungry, took in the stranger, clothed the poor, and visited the sick and prisoner as if they had done these things to Him - Matthew 25:35-36.
  • Paul describes good works as being ready to give and willing to share - 1 Timothy 6:18.

Why do good works?
  • Jesus tells us our good works point people to God - Matthew 5:16.
  • Paul links good works with God's process of purifying us for Himself - Titus 2:14.
  • James makes a powerful case for good works being the evidence that our faith is real - James 2:17-18.
  • To the writer to the Hebrews, good works are a kind church fellowship glue when members think about how to stir up love and good deeds in each other - Hebrews 10:24.

Over the Christmas season we'll probably get lots of chances to do good works—contribute to food bank drives, sing carols at nursing homes, put together boxes of gifts for children in faraway lands, assemble hampers for needy families... The needs are legion and all around us. Let's not give in to mercy fatigue that shuts its heart to doing good works because of the multitude of appeals. Rather, let's let good works characterize us because that's who believers in Jesus are. 

PRAYER: Dear God, please grow compassion and generosity in me. May my life be known for good works that are an asset to You and Your reputation. Amen.

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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, December 19, 2016

When grace is our teacher

"Christ and His Disciples by Rembrandt

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Titus 2:1-15

TO CHEW ON: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age." Titus 2:11-12


We are all to some degree products of our education. Many a life has been put on track by the words and actions of an encouraging teacher. Our reading today tells us that God's grace also teaches us. What does it teach?

First, we are to deny certain things:
- ungodliness [asebeia is a lack of reverence and regard for God.]

- worldly lusts. Lust [epithumia] is a strong desire and intense craving for something. Worldly lusts would include things like the "gratification of sensual cravings, desiring the forbidden, longing for evil, coveting what belongs to someone else, and striving for things, persons, and experiences contrary to the will of God" - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1713.

Instead we are to live:
- soberly [sophronos that is "act in a responsible manner, sensibly, prudently, being in self-control and in full possession of intellectual and emotional faculties" - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1721]

- righteously [dikaios meaning properly as is right, agreeable to the law of right.]

- godly [eusebos that is piously with our actions set in motion by reverence for God.]

What impresses me about Paul's interpretation of God's grace teaching us is how much our will is involved. Right attitudes don't just fall into place or come over us. We choose to deny [arneomai - disregard, reject] certain mind-sets and actions, and to intentionally cultivate or live [zao - breathe, be among the living, be active in] others.

Living this way is not some unpleasant heavy duty but a ticket to freedom. Leslyn Musch explains it well:

"God's grace teaches us to do good works not to earn salvation, but because we are free from sinful behaviors and free to do good things for God. This is the privilege and inheritance of God's people and not a harsh law to be followed and fulfilled. Holy living is the response of God's chosen and special people to the redeeming love and immeasurable grace of Jesus Christ" - Leslyn Musch, "Truth-In-Action through Titus, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1723 (emphasis added).

PRAYER: Dear God, please help me to deny impulses within me to take You lightly and to gratify my selfish and worldly cravings. Help me to choose the sober, righteous, and godly response to the circumstances of my life today. Amen.

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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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Sunday, December 18, 2016

A challenge to us as followers

pastor behind pulpit with arms raised
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Titus 1:1-16

TO CHEW ON: "For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money." Titus 1:7

Those of us who attend church with pastor leaders are well aware of the hazards of such a position. Pastors get criticized for a multitude of things: their leadership style, their sermons, how organized or disorganized they are, the hours they work or don't, not visiting the sick and shut-ins or visiting too much, driving too big and fancy a car or looking too poor… and the list could go on.

Paul's letter to Titus deals with choosing church leaders and lists some of the qualifications they should have. Paul tells Titus to choose bishops (overseers) who are: (quotes in parenthesis are from the Amplified Bible).
  • "blameless" ("of unquestionable integrity")
  • "the husband of one wife" 
  • good fathers whose children are described as "faithful … not accused of dissipation or insubordination" ("well-trained … believers … not  … loose in morals and conduct or unruly or disorderly")
  • "not self-willed" ("arrogant or presumptuous")
  • "not quick-tempered" 
  • "not given to wine"
  • "not violent" ("pugnacious, brawling")
  • "not greedy ("grasping … for filthy lucre [financial gain])"
  • "hospitable" ("loving and a friend to believers, especially to strangers and foreigners")
  • "lovers of what is good" ("of good people and good things")
  • "sober-minded" ("sensible, discreet")
  • "just" ("upright and fair-minded")
  • "holy" ("a devout man and religiously correct")
  • "self-controlled" ("temperate and keeping himself in hand")
  • "holding fast the faithful word he has been taught"
  • "able… to exhort and convict those who contradict" ("able both to give stimulating instruction and encouragement in sound {wholesome} doctrine and to refute and convict those who contradict and oppose it [showing the wayward their error]")

Even though this list is over 2000 years old, it is still applicable to church leaders today. However, rather than using it as a yardstick to point out ways our pastors don't measure up, let's use it as a template for prayer that they do and will.

In their positions pastors and other church leaders are targets of not only us who are followers in their congregations but the watching world. Probably nothing makes the devil happier than when a prominent man or woman of God gets tangled in sin.

So with all our hearts, let's fill our months with intercession for our pastors in these many areas rather than criticism.


PRAYER: Dear God, I pray for my pastor and Your under-shepherds all over the world.  May these men and women stay pure and dedicated as they work as stewards in Your church. Amen.

MORE: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Today the church celebrates the Fourth Sunday of Advent. If there is a Christmas story character focus today, I'd guess it would be "Shepherds."

The Fourth Advent Sunday liturgy begins with this collect:

"Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen"

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New King James Version (NKJV) Used with permission. The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Would you change plans because of a dream?

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Matthew 1:1-25

TO CHEW ON:
“But while he thought about these things, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.’” Matthew 1:20


A friend of mine moved from Iran some years ago. Her reason for wanting to leave was because of persecution as a Christian. The night before her immigration hearing she had a dream. In the dream it was impressed on her to study a certain passage of scripture. She awoke and, instead of going back to sleep, memorized the scripture from her dream. The next day at her hearing, the officer quizzed her on exactly the passage she had studied.

Joseph, in our reading, altered his plans as the result of a dream. As he mulled over his terrible predicament and what to do, he dreamed that an angel spoke to him, telling him to abandon fear and marry Mary despite her pregnant condition. So he did (Matthew 1:20,24).

Does God still speak to people in dreams?

If stories from people in countries which are closed to the gospel are to be believed, He certainly does—often. In fact, He uses this mode of communication all over the world—even here, where we’re free to read and hear the gospel (for examples, read the book Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters).

How do we sort out whether a dream we have is a message from God or not? Some points to keep in mind:

1. God cares about our situation and our dilemmas. Like He saw Joseph’s predicament and knew he needed direction (Luke 1:19,20), He knows our circumstances and what we need. We have no reason to be surprised when He communicates with us..

2. God’s message to us can come in many ways: through reading or hearing the Bible, through another person, through the lyrics of a song, an angel, a vision, a dream…

3. However, the Bible is finished. It is complete in the Word—the message of Jesus (Hebrews 1:1,2, John 1:1,14).  A dream does not have equal authority with the Bible. Rather, we should compare the message of our dream with the message of the Bible. Of course this implies some familiarity with scripture and assumes we will recognize the “voice of the shepherd” - John 10:3,4. The more intimate we are with God, the greater the likelihood we’ll recognize His voice in instruction and reassurance to “fear not.”

4. We can ask God for wisdom for life (James 1:5) and for help in understanding what we believe are spiritual dreams (Daniel 8:15-17).

May we be so attuned to His voice that we obey Him, however He speaks to us, without hesitation or questions, like Joseph did.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, help me to hear and recognize Your voice in whatever way You choose to speak. Amen.

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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.



Friday, December 16, 2016

What's your mission statement?

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Romans 1:1-17

TO CHEW ON: "Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God...To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints." Romans 1:1, 7a

Paul sure knew how to economize with words. Here using just a few, he spells out what his whole life is about. It's a lot like a modern mission statement.

Mission statements—formal short written statements of purpose—are normally connected to companies or organizations. According to Wikipedia, they often include:
1. The purpose and aim of the organization.
2. The organization's primary stakeholders.
3. Responsibility of the organization to those stakeholders.
4. Products and services offered.

If we substitute the word "person" for "organization" we have the framework for a personal mission statement. Paul's declaration about himself plugs in comfortably. We can learn a lot about determining our own priorities by studying his.

1. The purpose and aim of the person: "Paul a bondservant of Jesus Christ..."

My Bible's study notes explain:
"Bondservant — also translated 'servant' or 'slave' refers to an employee who was paid wages, often had considerable skills and responsibilities...But a bondservant could not resign and work for another employer. Highly educated and skilled people, as well as ordinary labourers were bondservants" Wayne Grudem, footnotes on Romans, New Spirit Filled Life Bible, p. 1548.
Paul's purpose was to serve Jesus in this lifelong bondservant way.

2. The person's primary stakeholders: "To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints..."

In his letters to the Romans Paul is addressing Roman Christians. Of course we know his "stakeholders" were far more numerous than that; his mission field included much of the then-known world. But I'm sure he never imagined that his words would reverberate through centuries, crossing continents and oceans, reaching us here in 2016!

3. Responsibility of the person to those stakeholders: "...called to be an apostle."
"Apostle here refers to the unique officers in the early church who had the power to govern the churches with absolute authority and to speak and write the very words of God without error..." Ibid).
Paul was clear about his job title and what responsibilities his position gave him toward the Christians who were his contemporaries.

4. Products and services offered: "...separated to the gospel of God."

Paul elaborates on the magnificence of his product of "good news" often through his writings, several times even within Romans 1:1-17. He reminds the Roman Christians that this gospel:
  • was promised by the Old Testament prophets (Romans 1:2).
  • is about Jesus—who was born physically as a son of David (Romans 1:3).
  • and who was shown to be the son of God because He rose from the dead (Romans 1:4).
  • is part and parcel of his (Paul's) service to God (Romans 1:9).
  • is news he is proud, not ashamed of (Romans 1:16).
  • is powerful to the extent of providing salvation to everyone who believes, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 1:16).

Paul's impact was no doubt due, somewhat at least, to his focus. He knew who he was, whom he served, the role he was to play in their lives, and the supernatural "product" he offered. I ask myself, would my life benefit from some of Paul's focus? Would yours?

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for Paul's purposeful, passionate life. Help me to sharpen my own life by studying his example. Amen.

MORE: Your mission statement
Have you ever written a statement of mission for your life? Try writing one. If you like, use the sentences below as a guide.

1. The purpose or aim of my life is to _____ .
2. My "stakeholders" are ______ .
3. I will fulfill my purpose to my stakeholders by _____ .
4. The product I offer is _____ .

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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, December 15, 2016

Christmas light

lit up Christmas tree
Our little lit-up tree.

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Isaiah 8:21-9:7

TO CHEW ON:
"The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined." Isaiah 9:2


Those of us who live in the northern hemisphere and celebrate Christmas only four days after the shortest day of the year, easily relate to the promise of Jesus bringing light and being light.

Of course there are some advantages to darkness. Our many hours of it are a wonderful chance to enjoy the pretty lights of the season. Long nights also prompt us to look up at the stars and remember the importance of one star in the Christmas story. But the season's darkness also reminds us every day of how much we need light.

In Isaiah's prophecy about Messiah, our reading today, he predicts that Messiah's coming will bring light.

A brief overview of Bible verses that refer to Christ as the light of the world remind us of the richness of this promise.
  • This prophecy is old. Balaam, that ancient prophet King Balak hired to curse Israel (which he wouldn't/couldn't do) delivered this prophecy about a descendant of Israel  coming as light while the Israelites were still on their way to the Promised Land - Numbers 24:17.
  • Messiah's light is bright according to Isaiah - Isaiah 30:26. Malachi calls Him the "Sun of Righteousness" - Malachi 4:2.
  • This light is not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles - Isaiah 42:6.
  • This light comes with healing as well as illumination - Malachi 4:2.
  • Matthew quotes our focus verse from Isaiah when he tells about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus - Matthew 4:13-16.
  • Apostle John in his gospel:
- refers to Jesus as the light - John 1:4,9
- quotes Jesus' bold words: "'I am the light of the world…'" - John 8:12, also John 12:46.
  • Paul describes how the light of Christ illumines our hearts and even shines through us - 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 5:8.
  • Someday, Jesus will be the light of heaven - Revelation 21:23.

As we enjoy the lights of the Christmas season, let's view them not only as symbols of celebration but also as metaphors of how Jesus brings light to us. His life sheds light on who God is. His teachings explain to us what living in the light is all about. His sacrifice allows us to be reconciled with God so that clothed in Christ's righteousness, we no longer need to fear the day we will stand  before God and under the scrutiny His holy brightness.


PRAYER:
Dear Jesus, thank You for coming as light. May Your light sine through me today. Amen.

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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, December 14, 2016

Jesus—offense or sanctuary?

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Isaiah 8:3-20

TO CHEW ON: “He will be as a sanctuary,
But a stone of stumbling
And a rock of offense
To both the houses of Israel,
As a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Isaiah 8:14


Whatever this (“He will be a stone of stumbling and rock of offense”) meant to the people of Isaiah’s time, we now recognize “Rock of Offense” as one of Christ’s names.
  • The image of an offending stone appears as early as Psalm 118:22:
“The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.”
  • Our passage speaks of of He (Messiah) as a sanctuary to some but “a stone of stumbling,” “rock of offense” and a “trap and a snare" to both Judah and Israel. (See also Jeremiah 6:21).
  • The Gospel instances of Jesus mentioned in connection with offense are many:
    • He said to John’s disciples when they asked: “‘Are You the coming one?’” “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” - Matthew 11:6. 
    • People of Nazareth wondered how a local boy who had grown up before they eyes could have such wisdom and supernatural power. “So they were offended at Him and their unbelief quelled His miracles among them - Matthew 13:57. 
    • He offended the Pharisees by laying bare of their hypocrisy - Matthew 16:12.
  • Paul gets at the root of the reason for this offense. By his estimation it’s all about the Jews clinging to law-keeping as a way of earning right standing with God versus accepting righteousness by faith (see Romans 9:31-33).
  • Peter sums up this dilemma well (1 Peter 2:6-8), even bringing in the  OT verses that we noted at the beginning:
"Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture,
'Behold, I lay in Zion / A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, / And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.' (quoting Isaiah 28:16) 
Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient,'The stone which the builders rejected / 
Has become the chief cornerstone,' (quoting Psalm 118:22) 
 and 
A stone of stumbling
 / And a rock of offense” (quoting Isaiah 8:14).

I think there is a warning for us in this too. We may not be hung up on keeping the Jewish law, but there is in our culture an underlying belief that it’s on the basis of the good we do that we’ll earn our way into heaven. This “I’ve done more good things than bad” thinking fails to take into account God’s righteous, holy standard and the realization that even our best living is tainted by sin:
“All we like sheep have gone astray…” - Isaiah 53:6.

and

“All our righteousnesses are as fllthy rags” - Isaiah 64:6.
 
So let’s live in a posture of faith in Him and Him alone as our righteousness even though it’s a message that continues to offend. For it is the only way to find in this Stone a sanctuary instead of one that will someday offend, stumble, snare, even destroy (Mathew 21:44).

PRAYER: Dear Father, help me to life by faith in the sanctuary of Jesus  and His death for me as the basis of my right standing with God. Amen.

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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.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A world that needs to be made new

A fly on thorny branch
Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Isaiah 7:17-8:2

TO CHEW ON: “It shall happen in that day,
That wherever there could be a thousand vines
Worth a thousand shekels of silver,
It shall be for briers and thorns.” Isaiah 7:23


Our reading today is more prophecy of the variety we read yesterday. A quote from The Bible Panorama explains about prophecy and this passage:

“God’s prophecy is often like looking at a range of mountains or a series of clouds, some of which are close and some distant. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish one range or series from another.
(Isaiah 7:10-16 - yesterday’s reading) " Here there are specific prophecies which God gives to Ahaz as a sign. The widest and furthest sweep of prophecy concerns the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah. He will be born of a virgin, and that is a sign of God sending His Son… Isaiah 7:17-25: "Here the closer prophecies concern the invasion of Judah by other countries. When Judah is invaded and taken into captivity, it will be very hard to survive and earn a living. Previously fruitful occupations and places will become wastelands” - The Bible Panorama - Accessed through Biblegateway.com.

While prophetic passages like Isaiah 7 are hard to understand completely, not to speak of difficult to apply, they do paint a general picture that we readily see is dire. The details of the difficulties prophesied over Judah here bring to mind aspects of God’s ways with mankind through history.

1. “The Lord will whistle for the fly … and for the bee” - Isaiah 7:18.

This reminds us of God’s sovereignty over nature, even in its broken, potentially destructive state. Humankind is also part of that nature (some Bible scholars interpret “fly” and “bee” to refer to invading armies from Africa and the Euphrates).

2. “…thorns… It shall happen in that day / That wherever there could be a thousand vines … / It will become briers and thorns … / You will not go there for fear of briers and thorns” - Isaiah 7:19, 23, 24, 25.

Here we have a harsh reminder of the old curse of the fall spoken to Adam: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; / … Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” - Genesis 3:17,18.

3. “… the Lord will shave with a hired razor… / The head and the hair of the legs, / And will also remove the beard” - Isaiah 7:20.
Shaving hair and plucking the beard were signs of dishonor applied to slaves. They serve as a reminder of our troubled world and how we abuse each other. The plucked beard also recalls a detail Isaiah prophesied about Messiah’s treatment: “I gave My back to those who strike, / And My cheeks to those who pull out the beard” - Isaiah 50:6.

4. “For curds and honey everyone will eat who is left in the land" - Isaiah 7:21,22.
Cottage cheese made from the milk of one cow and two sheep (Isaiah 7:21), plus honey! Not exactly rich fare is it? This speaks of the diet of deprivation.

These reminders of our fallen world give us every reason to celebrate the incarnation of the One who has promised to banish the curse of fallen nature and mankind, and to make all things new -  Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21:1.

PRAYER:
Dear Father, when I’m in the thick of this world’s snags, problems, and darkness, I will lift my eyes to the hope of Your promise of renewal. Amen.

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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.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Weak faith—no obstacle to God

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Isaiah 7:1-16

TO CHEW ON: “‘Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God, ask it either in the depth or in the height above.’
But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD.’” Isaiah 7:11,12


We have weak-faith Ahaz to thank for one of the Bible’s most often quoted messianic prophecies. Ahaz demurred when Isaiah asked him to name a sign confirming his faith that God would come through for Judah at this time of war with Syria and Israel (Isaiah 7:1,2).

Because Ahaz wouldn’t name a sign, Isaiah the prophet did. We have it recorded in the inspired words of Isaiah 7:14:
“‘Therefore the LORD Himself will give you a sign. Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.’”

The writer of my Bible’s study notes points out that the Hebrew word for virgin used here (‘almah) can mean either a “virgin” or a “young woman.” Given the dual meaning of “virgin,” the prophecy’s fulfillment during Ahaz’s time was quite feasible.

Scholars suggest that in the immediate this sign may have been fulfilled in the birth of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. A real baby’s birth was the sign to Ahaz and Judah of Immanuel—“God with us” in their fight with the Syrian-Israeli coalition.

However, when these words are repeated in the New Testament (Matthew 1:23) we see that they also have a long-range prophetic aspect.

In Matthew and Luke (Luke 1:27) the Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos) means virgin. And so the meaning of Immanuel broadens, fulfilled in Jesus’ birth through the Virgin Mary. “Immanuel” comes to mean God with us—all of us—in the flesh of Jesus.

And we see that God uses human weakness, like Ahaz’s wimpy faith, to advance His plans and purposes.

PRAYER: Dear Father, thank You that Your will is not stymied by our weak faith. Amen.

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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.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Kingdom violence

"Saint John the Baptist Sees Jesus From Afar" 
James Tissot, 1886-1894

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Matthew 11:2-15

TO CHEW ON: "'And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.'" Matthew 11:12  (link is to five translations)


Jesus has just finished describing the opposition His disciples will encounter (Matthew 10:17-20). Then in the very next chapter we see in John the Baptist, a living example of what He is talking about.

King Herod has imprisoned John for criticizing his morals. From his prison cell, John sends two of his disciples to see Jesus and bring back a little reassurance. "Are you the One?" they ask. "Or do we look for another?"

Jesus, in His typical way gives them an answer that both probes their expectations and enlists their commitment (Matthew 11:4-6). Then He praises John the Baptist and makes this curious statement: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force." What does that mean?

An article that discusses the themes of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) says this:

"A dominant theme of Jesus' teaching is the kingdom of God. Jesus presents numerous word-pictures of what this supernatural realm "is like." But the kingdom is not merely to be understood with the mind. Rather, it is spiritual and is to be comprehended and entered into by spiritual means and in practical living....Enter the kingdom of God by "violent" determination. Be aggressive about serving Christ" - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1439.

Jack Hayford explains it another way:

"Jesus asserts the "violence" of the kingdom....Jesus' references to the nonreligious style of John and the confrontative, miraculous ministry of Elijah teach that the kingdom of God makes its penetration by a kind of violent entry opposing the human status quo ...The upheaval caused by the kingdom of God is not caused by political provocation or armed advance. It is the result of God's order shaking relationships, households, cities, and nations by the entry of the Holy Spirit's power working in people. (See also Luke 16:6)" - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1310. (All emphases added.)
Whether Jesus was talking about:
- our violent determination as we enter the kingdom,
- or the violence with which it enters our lives (playing havoc with our old life),
- or the violence with which it penetrates society (as we its citizens are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be salt and light),
- or the violent reaction society has to it, Jesus' statement embodies an energy and determination we don't often equate with religious belief—at least not in our day and not about the Christian faith. It sounds almost fanatical.

I ask myself, am I such a determined, committed, "violent" one? Are you?

PRAYER: Dear God, I hate being labeled a fanatic and yet the martyr faith in Jesus of believers across the centuries and even in my own time illustrates the price I should be willing to pay. Help me to come to terms with the true cost of following You. Amen.

MORE: Third Sunday of Advent
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. The liturgy for the day begins with this collect:

"Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen."
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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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