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Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Richer Understanding

In my reading today, I was reminded of the importance of using scripture to refresh what it is in my mind when I think about the gospel message. I’m concerned that we condense the gospel in our minds in unhealthy ways that diminish our grasp of the gospel and our wonder in it. I’ve memorized and used a number of gospel presentations over the years and these can be helpful summaries. But it is critical for anyone who wants to grasp he gospel to examine how the apostles themselves preached it. Peter’s message to Cornelius is one of the most complete instances we have a what Peter said when he preached.

If you have not I urge you to read from the beginning of Acts 10 to catch the full story of Cornelius, and of the men he sent to Peter, and of the vision Peter had while waiting on lunch. You don’t want to miss these “delicious” details. Peter traveled to Caesarea to preach Cornelius and his family. This story also reveals the only reason we have hope that people will come to faith in Christ when we share the gospel. That is that God is already at work, drawing people to himself. That is made very clear through the words of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10:30-33.

Acts 10:34-43 records Peter sharing the gospel. What elements would you say that he lists here? I see eight.
  1. God shows no partiality
  2. Jesus lived as a man doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil.
  3. We apostles are eyewitnesses to these realities
  4. Jesus was put to death by being hung on a tree
  5. God raised him from the dead on the third day
  6. He appeared to us who ate and drank with him after the resurrection.
  7. He commanded us to preach that Jesus is the Judge of the Living and the dead.
  8. The prophets bear witness that everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

This is not the only way the gospel is shared in the N.T. Later in Acts 17 is an example of how Paul shared the gospel with a pagan audience that had far less background than Cornelius had. We often will need to start further back as Paul did then with many who we talk to now. But in our hearts and minds, we need this much richer version of the gospel that Peter uses here embedded within us. When asked what is the gospel in a nutshell it is not wrong to say that, “Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins.” But that is a dangerous shortening of the message if it is not richly grounded in the fuller message of the gospel the way the apostles preached it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Unhealthy Speculation

Near the end of John's Gospel is a fascinating interaction between Jesus and Peter. The conversation recorded in John 21:15-19 is more well-known and well loved, but what happens after that incident is curious and left here for a reason that's not unimportant. After Jesus reinstates Peter poignantly to the ministry; that's what's recorded in verses 15-17; Jesus then predicts what looks like a difficult assignment for Peter and shows him how he would die. Immediately following that, John records this taking place:

John 21:20-23 (ESV)
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We aren’t told how Peter feels about this, but it doesn't seem like good news. But as Jesus and Peter continue to walk (we know they are walking because of verse 20) Peter looks back and sees the apostle John, the one who's writing this material, following them. So right after Peter hears what's going to happen to him in the future, he asks, “Lord, what about this man?” I understand that question to be loaded so that in reality he was asking something like this,  “Jesus, what about John? What does his future hold? How does his assignment for the future compare to mine?” 

Jesus says to him, “if it is my will that he remained until I come what is that to you, you follow me.  Or again to elaborate further Jesus says to Peter, “I’ve been very clear with you about what I'm calling you to do. I’ve given you more information than most get about their future. You know what I'm calling you to do. What I'm asking John to do and calling him to do is not really your concern.” 

It then appears that Peter took what Jesus said and distorted it. Somehow the rumor began that John was going to remain alive until Jesus returned. John, here in the letter that bears his name, is clearing up that that is obviously not what Jesus said. 

That’s what happens in v. 23.

23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We face a temptation to compare the difficulties that we face to those of other believers. That comparison can be related to our relative level of busyness, or what appears to be the relative difficulty or ease of a person’s ministry or family life. We might even feel, if not dare express, a bit of jealousy. But we can't know all that another person faces and all than of God is doing in one person's life compared to ours. Of course, this doesn't mean that we are not to be concerned about other peoples lives. But comparing the relative ease or difficulty of our lives to other people is a kind of speculation that Jesus warns us against. God’s call on our life is to follow him in our bodies with our unique set of opportunities and challenges without comparison to others.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Neither Panicked Nor Lazy

I often wonder in all the things that I could be doing in the course of a day, what is best to do? How do I set priorities? There are responsibilities to cover. God has blessed me with a voracious appetite of activities that I’m interested in and things that I want to accomplish in ministry, tasks I want to do at home, and things I want to do with my family, There are gobs of books I want to read, far more than I’ll ever be able to get to. There are neighbors, church members, and people in the community in whom I want to invest. How do we prioritize amongst all the things that we could do? I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question, but today’s reading provides a Biblical answer that would certainly help put things in perspective. Matthew 24:36-44 addresses the problem about a lack awareness that the coming of the Son of Man could happen at any moment. Comparing the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah the problem was life just going on as normal and people were “unaware” until it was too late. The salutation to being unaware was to “stay awake” for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. That phrase “your Lord” is important. It’s not in this case meant to be fear based, like a group of unruly students keeping an eye on the door for when the teacher will return to the room. Rather, the right sense is to cultivate a joyful anticipation that we could see our Lord today and that reality will be the right medicine to make us neither panicked nor lazy as we live following Jesus.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Super Dangerous Thought

This morning I prayed through this text:
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As I prayed, I was challenged by the reality that self-righteousness is a danger for me and for anyone deeply immersed in ministry or church life. This is a super dangerous thought: “I am not like other men.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Beyond Our Comprehension

John 11 is a well known text but examination often yields new insight into the heart of God and his ways of drawing us to himself. 
As I read this morning the word “so” caught my eye. Look at v. 5-6:
John 11:5–6 (ESV) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
Jesus stayed two days longer because he loved them. He had something even better in mind for this family by delaying than if he had shown up immediately and healed Lazarus.

Jesus was acting, not only for the good of Lazarus, Mary and Martha but also for the good of the disciples. After Jesus explains to the disciples that Lazarus is already dead he says this:
John 11:14–15 (ESV) Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 
Jesus’ purpose in not being there sooner was, “so that you may believe.” Their faith was a greater good than Jesus’ showing up “on time” to heal Lazarus before he died. 

Obviously, Mary and Martha don't get what is happening. They couldn’t, nor could the disciples. They could only put together facts as they saw them. The facts as the disciples saw them were this:
John 11:7–8 (ESV)  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 
Let me paraphrase, “Jesus, we can't go back there, that is crazy talk. Usually you seem really smart, but this is not wise. Reconsider.” Then, when it’s clearly decided that they are going in spite of their “wise advice,” Thomas nobly says, “let us also go, that we may die with him.” Those were the facts according to the disciples. 

The facts as Mary and Martha would see them would likely be, “Jesus, Lazarus is dying. I know you've healed other people. We've seen you do it and we've heard the stories, so please this is really bad. If you don't get here soon it will be too late.”

Once Jesus arrives and encounters Martha, we can see her wrestling for perspective:
John 11:21–23 (ESV) Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Let’s use our imagination a bit to think more about what is going on in Martha’s mind, “Jesus, yes, I know he will rise again. I know that's supposed to give me hope for the future. And I'm looking forward to that. But what about now?” What she didn't need to say because this was well known then, was  that without a man to care for them they would have a very difficult time providing for themselves. “Don't you care that we are now going to be destitute? Are we to become beggars in the street? Of course, we are sad and we will miss him, but it's way, way worse than that.

Jesus answer to Martha is not so different from God’s answer to Job. Job's question, Martha's question, and often our question is, "why? Why God did you not intervene and do something about this soul crushing pain that is ravaging me right now? And just like with Job, and with Martha, and with us, he doesn't answer the why question. Rather, we can summarize what God said to Job, and what Jesus says to Martha, and what through them God says to us like this, "I am enough. You are looking for a temporary fix to your current pain. And I understand that. But what I am showing you is that because you have me, that supersedes everything else. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Soon Jesus we will weep for complicated reasons, but part of it is his pain. He grieves with us. But he is saying to her and to us. “I'm making death irrelevant.” The key to making it through an average difficult day or the worst of heartbreaks is actively, not just saying so, but to actively with tenacious faith hang on to Jesus. You will not know why things are happening. But you will know the one who does know why and that will be enough. Perhaps part of the reason that God doesn't tell us why what is happening is happening is that we couldn’t possibly understand it. For God is always doing a thousand different things in any one incident and all that he is doing is so intricately conceived that we could not possibly fathom it. If he were to start explaining it to us, it would not help us, it would be beyond our comprehension. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Needing Both the Words and the Image

Mark 9:33-37 records a simple incident where Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Capernaum and upon arriving he asked them about what they had been discussing along the way. Whether he supernaturally knew what they were saying or simply heard them is not clear, but they were “busted” as we might say. They didn’t respond to Jesus’ question. To tell the truth was too embarrassing, because they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. They clearly knew this was not a good thing for them to be arguing about. They knew this was contrary to who Jesus was and what he was modeling and teaching. But in this heightened emotional state, their embarrassment, Jesus rather gently teaches them. He sat down and gathered them around. This was no longer casually hanging out this was Jesus saying, “Get over here guys, sit down and let’s think this through. I want you to hear me well.” And then he simply said, “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” It’s almost like he was saying, “your ambition to be the greatest in and of itself is not really the problem. The problem is you don’t understand what it means to be great. You think it greatness means that people do what you say and serve you. The opposite is true. Greatness means you put yourself last and you choose to serve all.” 
Then he took a child and put the child right in front of them. You have to visualize the scene. They were already sitting around talking and before Jesus says more, he brings in the child and prominently places the child in the middle of the room as it to say, “pay attention here. Look at this child. This is a big part of what you need to understand.” Then with everyone watching. Jesus takes up the child in his arms. The disciples were clear on the reality that Jesus was the greatest, and here he is, doing what apparently all of them were hoping to avoid. In their thinking, caring for children was something lesser people did, but not greater people. Then with all looking Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but him who sent me.” The work of God is to serve those who can’t do anything for us. The work of trying to be great or trying to advance ourselves in the traditional way of thinking is to try to network with those who might be able to help our career. The work of the kingdom is to quietly serve those who like children can’t help our career or advance our image.
We likely can’t quite grasp what this image of seeing Jesus care for children did for them. It would be an image they couldn’t forget, probably a lot like their image of seeing him wash their feet as recorded in John 13. We need the same image to stun us that we too might not forget. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” We need both the words and the image to get this message that is so contrary to what comes naturally to us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Lord, To Whom Shall We Go"

A few weeks ago, our nine year old and I were eating breakfast before church on a Sunday morning when the subject of the Lord’s Supper came up. She said to me, “Dad, I know that we are supposed to eat the body of the Lord Jesus and I’m ok with that, but I don’t want to eat the intestines.” We had recently read John 6 with her and what it said messed with her, which is precisely what Jesus intended. Maybe you find her response inappropriate, or feel that it’s not right for me to relate the story. But I like her response, far more than my initial response as I started reading this morning, because I missed it entirely. In spite of the fact, that this chapter contains one my favorite scenes in all of the Bible, I literally read over the shocking words of the text and I didn’t see them. 

To get the full impact of the incident, you need to start reading beginning at John 6:22. But the trouble, if you will, starts in verse 51 where Jesus says:

John 6:51 (ESV) I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Some listening to him took issue with that last phrase. But rather than relieve the tension, Jesus ratcheted it up big time:

John 6:53–58 (ESV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Jesus shared all this publicly without much further explanation. What happened next is fascinating. When many of his “disciples" heard it, they said, “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it? Jesus explained his words a little but not enough to their liking. They were offended because Jesus didn't talk in a way that fit their grid of how the world worked. They wanted him to fit in to their way of thinking. They were not yet willing to give him control to the extent that they would allow him to set the direction of their lives. And so in v. 66 “many of his "disciples" turned back and no longer walked with hm.” 

Careful reading and interpretation are important here. It’s easy to conclude that when the text speaks of “disciples” in both v. 61 and v. 66 that Jesus was talking about the 12 disciples, Peter, James, and John and the others. But that's not accurate. Both of these instances refer to a larger group of people following Jesus around and listening to him teach. If we miss this, we miss a distinction in the reaction to Jesus that I think is the real treasure in this text. In v. 67 the text says that Jesus asked to the twelve, “do you want to go away as well?"" Here, Jesus spoke specifically addressed those twelve guys, distinguished from the larger group of disciples, many of whom turned back after they didn’t like what they were hearing from Jesus. 

Verses 68-69 are two of my favorite verses in the Bible, but to get them, you have to have followed carefully what's happening up until this point. 

John 6:68–69 (ESV) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

In contrast to those who were offended and walked away, Peter answered for the group and essentially says something like this to Jesus, “I don’t get what you said. That sounds like crazy talk. I have no idea where you are taking us. But where else are we going to go? If you aren’t the answer, then we don’t know where else to turn. It is obvious to us that you have the words of eternal life and we will trust you even though we don’t understand you.” The difference is stark, though it may look similar from the outside. But those who walked away insisted on Jesus towing the line on their preconceived ideas of what it means to follow God. When he diverted from that direction, they bailed. The twelve said to Jesus, "we are in, no matter what. Though no go with me, still I will follow.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

From an Honest and Good Heart

The parable of the sower never fails to challenge me when I slow down and study it and ponder it. The application of the parable of the sower, especially when you consider what comes immediately before and after it, is about how we hear God's word. 

At the end of the parable in Luke’s version Jesus says in Luke 8:8, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In beginning to explain the parable he says, that it had been given to the disciples to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others he would speak in parables so that “seeing that may not see, and hearing that may not understand.” 

In each of the four kinds of soils, the initial act is their hearing of the word. In he first, the devil snatches it away immediately. In the second, when persecution comes because of the word they fall away. In the third, the cares and riches and pleasures of life choke the word in them and their fruit, though there is a beginning, does not mature. But then there is good soil which represents those who hearing the word, please read this slowly, "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." What does that mean? What is our role in seeing this happen? 

It's not a simple task to determine interpretively what each of these soils represent. Do these describe people who are ultimately believers or unbelievers? Does only the first soil represent unbelievers, the first and second, or the the first three? Please note this, only if there is an actual crop is there any benefit to the farmer. It’s not a simple thing to make a determination here. We certainly don't earn salvation by the way that we hear.

My thinking is that a person that has not been converted will be more like the person who may hear this parable and not think much about it beyond the moment. They are those whom Jesus describes as seeing but not seeing and hearing but not understanding. On the other hand, if the parable haunts you. If you when you stop and think about it and you are troubled by it and you are convicted about how you hear and take in the word of God, then I think that's a really good sign because God disciplines those he loves. Looking at it from that standpoint, it would seem that all four of these stages can happen to genuine believers. There are times we pick up the word of God to read or hear a sermon and it simply bounces off. We don't take it in at all and though we heard it, it does us no good. There are other times that we take in a passage of scripture and are excited about it at the moment, but then when we seek to actually live according to the scripture, we give up when it gets hard. Furthermore, our fruit bearing can be blocked by distractions; by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life and our spiritual fruit does not mature. 

So here is my proposal: May we learn to pray before we read scripture or study scripture or listen to a sermon: "Father, please grant that our hearts may be good soil. Help us to hear your word well. Help us to hold your word fast in an honest and good heart. May we increasingly grow in our understanding of what that means. And then Father, may we then, because of your word growing in us, patiently bear fruit, which we know can only happen as we remain connected to you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

From Worship to Fury

Reading slowly can cause phrases to jump out at us that we otherwise miss. Luke 4:16-30 provides a vivid image of Jesus that can prompt our worship if we read slowly enough to capture what’s really happening here. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. We are right to try to imagine what that was like for him and for those who’d known him as a boy. Many of us know what it feels like to go home and the rush of thoughts and feelings that can bring. More importantly this image can immediately break through our well worn image of Jesus that is not all that tangible to us. Jesus can seem like an idea more than a real person. Putting ourselves in the scene can help to get us past the idea-stage to the person-stage.

By God’s grace, as I read very slowly today I was more tangibly able to see Jesus as he stood up to read in the synagogue and as he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written. These mundane details help us see that Jesus was a real man. He had thigh muscles to help him stand. He had the tactile experience of unrolling that scroll and finding the place in the scroll. When we see these and ponder them, it grounds the person of Jesus more in tangible reality for us and our faith in him grows. Furthermore, this simple incident means that Jesus learned to read just like any other boy or girl in that time. There’s no reason to think the ability to read was just dumped into his brain as a fully formed ability. This was part of the limitation he willingly chose in taking on human flesh. He had to learn just like anyone else how to walk, how to talk, and how to read. When we see this, our amazement at him grows.

This is a rich passage. The implications of v.18-19, quoted from Isaiah are massive for both his ministry and ours but we can’t focus on that here. Let me direct your attention to what happens after.

The atmosphere was pregnant with anticipation. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Perhaps they could not say why, but the impression was that everyone present could sense something momentous was going on. Someone reading from a scroll and sitting down to talk would have been a routine occurrence in the synagogue. But everyone present could sense something different was happening that day.

Now notice the reaction beginning in v. 22. All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?” One moment all spoke well of him. All of them marveled, there was a sense of wonder and aliveness to everything he said, they marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. We don't fully appreciate the wonder of that. But, may we also be stunned because he was so perfectly faithful to be exactly who he was, that one moment they were praising him for his gracious words and then, within a few moments, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath and they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.”

May we be stunned by this image and may our confidence in Jesus grow. This would not be the last time in Jesus’ life a crowd of people would move from worship to fury in the space of a very short time.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Bible Jesus Read

Today I finished my reading of the Old Testament in the chronological path through the Bible I'm following this year. Perhaps, if you have been reading along with me, you are breathing a sigh of relief. That’s understandable. Much of the prophets in particular are obscure to us because they are often more difficult to understand. Yet today in this final day of reading i’m reminded of Philip Yancey’s description of the O.T. He called it, “The Bible Jesus Read.” It was also the Bible the apostles read as well. Peter knew the reading from today so well that he quoted from it freely in his message on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. 

But perhaps most American believers could not, off the top of their heads, say much about what is in the book of Joel. If we remember anything, we might remember that it talks about locusts, but why is likely a mystery. 

The first line of the book says, this is “the word of the Lord.” This is “the word of the Lord” just as much as the gospel of John, Romans, or the epistle of James. The book is an instance of how God lovingly warned and passionately pursued the wayward world. As Hebrews 1:1 says, 

Hebrews 1:1–2 (ESV)
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .  

The book is one of those many ways that God pursues us with passion and creativity. it does in fact use locusts as an image of the judgment of God. It is an urgent word to alarm us into paying attention. 

The stern words that seem harsh and negative in the O.T. prophets are always an act of passionate love. These words are never an instance of God just telling people off because he is angry. Jesus is the final version of this “word of the Lord” and he is no less passionate or fierce at times in his tone. Look at how John the Baptist spoke of him. 

Matthew 3:11–12 (ESV)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Before closing, I don’t want you to be deprived of knowing about a tender call to repentance in the book. Here is more evidence that God’s most fierce warnings aim at wooing wayward people to himself. But if we don’t first hear the warnings, like those that precede the verses below, we will not be able to taste the sweetness of this wonderful news of grace. It is the good news of the gospel, right here in this little known book. 

Joel 2:12–14 (ESV)
12  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, 
“return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” 
Return to the Lord your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful, 
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; 
and he relents over disaster. 
14  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, 
and leave a blessing behind him, 
a grain offering and a drink offering 
for the Lord your God?

Archive of Reflections on the Chronological Bible Reading Plan

You can react publicly to today’s reflection on my Facebook page where there is a link to this post. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Confessing in the Rain

Ezra 9-10 contains a profound prayer and confession of sin by Ezra for the people of Israel who have returned to Jerusalem from exile. The problem was this, the Israelites were intermarrying with the peoples around them. This was not a racial matter but a religious one. Verses 4-5 record Ezra's response to learning of the people's sin:

Ezra 9:4–5 (ESV)
Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, 

Verse 6 and following record Ezra's profound prayer of confession. I recommend this prayer (really all of chapters 9-10) to you for prompting your own practice of confession. I have used these passages for this purpose many times. They help to reveal the sort of humility we need. Such humility cannot be worked up by mere human effort, but we can pray that God would create this sort of brokenness in us which can lead to a greater appreciation of the grace of God with thanksgiving. 

Chapter 10 explores further the interaction between Ezra and the people over this matter. Eventually a huge gathering is announced to take place in Jerusalem within three days. 

I've read and prayed through these chapters many times, but today I've noticed something new. Ezra was a tough rascal. 10:9 describes the setting once all the people had gathered. "The people were trembling before God because of the matter and the heavy rain!" So they are all standing outside, Ezra included, in the rain but he thunders on as if oblivious to the storm. "You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives!" it's like he is saying, "what rain!" He is so grieved and passionate about the sin of the people that he is unfazed by the brutal weather. 

This is a very serious passage of scripture but for some reason, I'm seeing some humor in this today. I’m imaging the people saying here next, (I’m paraphrasing here) “Yes, yes, you crazy old man, you are right, it is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and and it is raining buckets; we cannot keep on standing out here in the open. Nor can we fix this all at one time. It’s taken a long time to get ourselves into this mess, it's not going to get fixed in a day." But looking at verse 15, it seems that Ezra had some folks just as “ crazy" as he was. That verse speaks of three men who opposed this proposal by the majority of the people to get out of the rain and deal with this in an orderly manner over a period of time (see verse 14.)  I don’t think that we can say this with certainty, but it seems possible that what these three were saying in opposing the proposal was this, "I don't care that its raining, we are going to stand here in the rain and confess our sins for as long as it takes to make this right!"

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What Provokes Positive Change?

Many leaders, authors, doctors, and yes Bible teachers have written much and said more about how change happens. A quick glance at my library reveals nearly a dozen titles with the word change in the title, but at some level nearly every book in my library addresses change. But only one book in my library is always authoritative. The O.T. book of Ezra contains a provocative clue about what can provoke real change. 
Ezra enters the story that bears his name seven chapters into the book. Ezra was a priest exiled in Babylon. He is introduced in the text and his genealogy is listed all the way back to chief priest Aaron. Ezra was a scribe “skilled in the Law of Moses” It’s worth noting that his study of scripture is what provoked him to act. I say this because immediately after mentioning his skill in he law of Moses, it speaks of his petition to king Artaxerxes for permission to make the 500 mile or so journey to Jerusalem. Also verse 10 further hints at this cause and effect. The journey took five months. This is described in verses 8-9. Then there is this verse, that if I’m really paying attention when I read always stirs me. It’s very simple but here is verse 10. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” This captures what God has called me to do specifically but all believers generally. Let me explain: 
  1. He set his heart to study the Law of the Lord. This was not simply an academic exercise. I greatly value education, but academics can become an end in themselves without the final two points. 
  2. He set his heart to do the Law of the Lord. Ezra’s study provoked him to leave what had become the status quo for him. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal, but he had lived in Babylon for some time. He could have just decided he wanted to stay there and live out his days. Instead, his study of scripture stirred up his heart so that it provoked him to undertake an enormous project not just for him but to organize many other people to go with him. My study of the scripture is about the only thing that will prod me to have the desire to do anything more than serve myself. Mere reading of scripture doesn’t seem to have this affect on me. I don’t know if this is just me. But it’s when I study, when I stick with the text long enough to ask questions and to write observations that stirs me up to act. 
  3. He set his heart to teach his statues and rules in Israel. There is a special sense in which Ezra was called to do this and in which I am called to do this and I am grateful for it. When I study, I do find myself compelled to share it in some way and when I am writing up something like this to share, I always have he sense the I am doing what God has called me to do. But there is a sense that every believer has this responsibility. Ezra was a priest, but in Christ we are all priests. More explicit however, that every believer is to do this work, even if it is never more than a one on one experience is in Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
This instruction to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonish one another in all wisdom . . .  Is clearly to all believers. I pray this stirs you as it stirs me to study, obey, and teach. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Those Stories are Many Centuries Late

My experience with the O.T. book of Esther is unique and so I don’t have a good sense of how other people do or do not pay attention to it. My guess is that it is rather obscure to many and not well known. If true that is unfortunate. In high school our pastor’s wife wrote a musical drama based on the book and as a youth ministry we performed it in our church and even took it on the road to three states. This was common in the 70’s, if unusual for a church from the mountains of Kentucky. 

The plot of the story of Esther is riveting. If you were reading it from the beginning and you had no previous knowledge of the book, there is no way that you could predict the turns in the plot. If you don’t know the story, (or if you do) I urge you at your earliest convenience to set aside 30 or 45 minutes and read it in one sitting. 

The major characters are Esther, her uncle Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and Haman the enemy of the Jewish people. We live in a time when stories of strong female characters are rightly valued in movies like Moana and Rogue One, to mention a couple of recent offerings. Those stories and others like them are obviously many centuries behind this story of a courageous woman who serves sacrificially for the good of others. The story reveals how God works in the midst of questionable circumstances (chapter 1). It exposes issues of shame and honor throughout. I’m copying in a few verses below to show the immediate relevance of the story in how it reveals the pettiness that arrogance can create in a person. Look at Haman’s bragging in (v. 11) and his complete inability to handle the least slight (v. 13) and the extreme measures he takes to address the supposed “indignity that’s been done to him. 

Esther 5:9–14 (ESV)
9 And Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai. 10 Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh. 11 And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king. 12 Then Haman said, “Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared. And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king. 13 Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” 14 Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it. Then go joyfully with the king to the feast.” This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made.

Finally, this book is the only book of the Bible where the name of God is not mentioned. Yet, God’s hand is clear throughout. I’d love to hear your reaction, especially if you don’t know the story and you read it for the first time. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Praying in the Spirit of the Lord's Prayer

It’s not easy to know how to immediately apply some of the reading in Zechariah. I’ve loved studying this book in years past and read it with profit now, but handling all the images and ideas that seem so obscure to us are beyond the scope of these emails. 

September 12th
EZRA 5:3-6:14
ZECHARIAH 7:1-8:23

However, I did use this section to prompt my prayer this morning:

Zechariah 7:4–10 (ESV)
Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous, with her cities around her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited?’ ” 
And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

I spent some time thinking about what it would mean to fast or to eat and drink “for the Lord.” I prayed that I might do everything that I do as unto the Lord in the sense that I am most aware of him more than anyone else. I don’t want to see this as some sort of burden, but that I actually see the living such a God centered life would ultimately be liberating, to be less concerned with how what I do plays to the world, but most concerned about living for an audience of one. 

I also prayed in the spirit of the Lord’s prayer to pray corporately through verse 9. In other words instead of praying, “Lord may “I” render true judgments . . . I prayed Lord may “we” render true judgments and continued on from there in like manner. That simple tweak draws me out of an individualistic mindset and praying only for myself into real intercession. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Signs of Grace

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)
 1  The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” . . . 
The story of Belshazzar son of Nebuchadnezzar recorded in Daniel 5 could be the prime story to illustrate this reality.

Daniel 5:1–2 (ESV) 
King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.

The complete absence of any fear of God will cost the king his life. This absence is exactly the problem. He has no respect for the things of God and for some reason he elected to choose the elements from Jerusalem to actually flaunt his lack of the fear of the Lord. 

Daniel 5:3–4 (ESV)
Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Father, please develop in us a holy reverence for you that provokes us to long to honor you with every part of our lives. The desire of the king is to flaunt his belief that there is no God. The fool says in his heart, there is no God. That is what the king is doing. He exalted his own kingship. He loudly proclaimed, “I am King, there is nothing to fear from this so called god of the Israelites. Look I will prove it to you. We will use the items of their worship from their temple which we carried off for our drunken orgy.”

So they drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. 

in what sense did they praise these “gods”? Likely they were mocking the living God, doing all they could to distract themselves from seeing that God is real, even though according to Romans 1, they couldn't not know that God is God. Every one knows at some level that there is a God who created the universe, but more so now than perhaps ever, elaborate mechanisms have been created to seek to block us from seeing these realities. (Evolution, scientism, etc.)

Daniel 5:5 (ESV)
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote.

This is the stuff of a horror film. This sign is going to be too late for the king. He would die that night. This is very much like a horror movie, where a terrifying danger is announced him but from which there is no escape. 

But there were other signs in his life that he missed. For one, the prophet Daniel was available to him. Daniel was right there in the king’s court, clearly living a consistent and godly life that had caught the attention of the king’s father Nebuchadnezzar, but he had missed those lessons. Interestingly, the king’s wife didn’t completely miss it. She  informed the king of Daniel when no one else could be found to interpret the king’s dream. 

But there was also the witness of nature that the king missed. 

Romans 1:18–22 (ESV)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

Belshazzar is an example of what Paul describes here. This reality was as true then as it is now. What can be known about God (through nature, which is not everything, but enough to develop a holy reverence for God) was plain to the king, because God had shown it to him. But the king rejected this. He became futile in his thinking and his foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, he became a fool.

God in his good grace to us has given us the witness of all of the scripture, including the negative example of this king. We also have all the evidence that Romans 1:18-22 describes. May we not miss these signs of grace but cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us to create a holy reverence for God that provokes worship and obedience.

The rest of the story is too long for me to cover in this post but I pray you will go to Daniel 5 to catch all of it.