Nehemiah

Today’s reading is from Nehemiah, chapters 1-2.

Nehemiah had received some disheartening news in regard to the state of Jerusalem and those of the Israelites who were left behind after the rest of the people were carried off into exile by the Babylonians. The city was in ruins and those that remained were vulnerable to the surrounding nations. They were in trouble. It broke Nehemiah’s heart because this was his country – his people -who were suffering. It was also a reminder to him of the continued unfaithfulness of his people that led to the situation they now faced. The news of the condition of the city and those left behind that brought Nehemiah to his knees.

Ch 1:1-6: As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,  let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.Nehemiah understands the power of prayer and to whom he is presenting his petitions. He trusts in the power, love and faithfulness of his Lord.

Nehemiah confesses not only the sin of his people, but also his own sins. He correctly points out that they have acted in disobedience to God’s command and are deserving of the punishment that they are receiving. He also “reminds” God of the promises He had made to His people – a promise to restore them to their land, no matter where they may be, if they would be faithful to God’s command. Nehemiah was praying day and night for the restoration of his people. Finally, four months after receiving the news of the dilemma that the
remnant found themselves in, Nehemiah had the opportunity to present his request before the king.

Ch 2:1-6: In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.  And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.  I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”  Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.  And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”  And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time.

There was a danger in approaching the king with a rejected look. Servants in the king’s presence were always to be “on their game.” Additionally, Nehemiah was asking for something huge. Some would consider his request to be a backhanded condemnation as to the way that this ruling family had handled the situation in Jerusalem. Regardless of the potential danger, Nehemiah took the opportunity to make his request and the king responded in the affirmative. Not only that, he also granted Nehemiah’s request for letters to allow for safe-conduct through the region and supplies for his rebuilding program.

Most, if not all, of us have had situations in our lives that just broke our hearts. We find ourselves on our knees praying for hope, healing or maybe that the situation would be completely different. Nehemiah was well aware of his past and the past of his people that led them to the predicament that they were in. He also knew that his God remained true to His promises, loved His children and never stopped being involved in their lives, whether in Jerusalem or in exile. God never left them. Knowing this about God gives us comfort and reassurance that we can go before Him 24/7 and present the things that are on our heart, the celebrations and the struggles. God loves His children and He is active in answering prayer – maybe not always the way we had hoped for or in our timing – but He is always answering prayer.

Phillipians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Ahab and Ben Hadad

Today’s reading comes from 1 Kings 16:29-34 and 1 Kings 20:1-21; 29

The first twelve verses of 1 Kings 20 describe the problems facing the northern nation of Israel, summarized briefly in bullet points:

  • Ben-hadad is the king of Syria and leads an attack against Samaria, the capital city of Israel.
  • Ben-hadad sends messengers to Ahab, the king of Israel, with a choice. Either be destroyed or hand over your silver, gold, wives, and children
  • Basically everything and everyone is now under Syrian rule
  • Ahab agrees but it his quick acceptance seems to have caused the king of Syria to up the ante
  • Ben-hadad sends messengers back to Ahab to say that he is going to send his servants into Ahab’s palace and homes to take whatever they want – tomorrow
  • This is too outrageous and Ahab rejects the terms of the treaty
  • Verse 10 records Ben-hadad’s response that he is going to turn Samaria into dust. “There will be so little left of the city that there would not be enough for a handful of dust for each of my soldiers.”
  • Ahab’s response in verse 11 is pretty humorous. “You act like the battle is already over and we have not begun to fight.”  With this response the preparations are made for battle.

THEN an amazing grace from the Lord happens. A prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that the Lord is delivering the multitude of armies from Syria into his hand. The young officers are going to win this battle and Ahab must lead them into the battle. Ben-hadad is so confident in the victory that he is drinking himself drunk in his tent along with the 32 other kings who are fighting against Israel. So the army of Israel comes against the Syrians and just wipes them out. The Syrians go into full retreat and Ben-hadad must escape for his life. Rather than seeing the power of God, the Syrians come up with a foolish plan. They figure that Israel’s gods are gods of the hills and that is why they were stronger than us. They had a false understanding of God. They thought that the God of Israel had limitations.

We can make the same mistake as Ben-hadad. We may think that we know that God is over all places and people, but our actions may not reflect this truth.

What limits have you placed on God? One limit sometimes placed on God by his people is “limitations in sight” – we will believe that he only sees us at worship. People act like God is limited in sight and that he does not see what we are doing Monday through Saturday. He only sees us on Sunday and he sees me as a good, moral Christian. But God sees all that we do.

Sometimes we act like God is limited in knowledge. We think that God does not understand what we are going through. We feel like we are alone. We feel like God does not comprehend the challenges we are facing. Jesus said that God the Father knows what we need even before we ask him (Matthew 6:8, 32).

Think about God’s full power and presence in your life. Are you “limiting” or minimizing what He is capable of in your life?

Samson: strong AND weak

Judges 13-16

“Then the Philistines seized Samson and gouged out his eyes; and they brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze chains, and he was a grinder in the prison.” Judges 16:21

The Bible has a lot to say about Samson. Four whole chapters are devoted to a character study of this strong man. Everyone tends to remember what the Bible says about Samson’s strength, but the biblical record tells us a lot more about this leader of ancient Israel.

The story of Samson is a study in contrasts – Tremendous feats of physical strength vs. spiritual shortcomings.

Samson lived in Israel during the period of the Judges. In fact, Samson was the last judge of Israel before Samuel. Soon after Samson’s death, Saul was anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel. The period of the judges was certainly not a time of spiritual growth in Israel’s history. The people of Israel had gone downhill since the days of Moses and Joshua. Disobedience to the Word of the Lord was the reason for this downhill spiral. A “do your own thing” attitude characterized the age of the judges. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 state that “everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.” God permitted the enemies of Israel to come in and oppress and defeat His people because of their sin.

Periodically during these dark days the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help. God then graciously raised up a judge to deliver them. But soon after they were delivered, they turned their backs on the Lord again and plunged into renewed idolatry and immorality. Against such a background Samson came on the scene – during a time of Philistine oppression. Right from the start Samson had everything going for him.

In chapter 13 we learn that Samson came from a solid home. He had godly parents who believed and worshiped the Lord. Furthermore, Samson was designated by God to be a deliverer of Israel from the hands of the Philistines (13:5). Victory was guaranteed. What more could one ask for? And then, of course, there were Samson’s physical attributes. Not only did God bless him with great physical strength but it seems that God gave him good looks as well. (An ugly Samson just could not have had the “success” that Samson had with the Philistine women!) On top of all this, we read further that God blessed young Samson and the Spirit of the Lord was at work in his life (13:24-25). To sum it up, Samson had everything going for him and apparently unlimited potential for success.

Instead of delivering Israel from the Philistines, Samson had delivered himself to the enemy. Who would have believed that this could ever happen to Samson–the teenager who had everything going for him? What went wrong, anyway?It doesn’t take much insight to discover the key to Samson’s downfall. It is found over and over again in chapters 14-16. Samson had no self control. He could not govern his passions. He was weak-willed and self-willed. What he wanted, he wanted now. “Not Thy will but mine be done” was Samson’s standard operating procedure. Look, for example, at Samson’s uncontrolled selfish passion in chapter 14:1-4. He saw a beautiful pagan Philistine woman and wanted her. His selfish response to the godly counsel of his parents was, “Get her for me, for she looks good to me.” Decisions made only on the basis of looks and pleasure are usually a sign of little self-control.

Look also at Samson’s weakness with Delilah in chapter 16. Because of his selfish “love” for this ungodly woman, Samson not only gave her the secret of his strength but he sold her his soul as well–“he told her all that was in his heart” (16:17). The almost unbelievable magnitude of Samson’s weakness is seen only when it is realized that he had three clear warnings of what was coming (16:8-14). How blind could Samson be–especially when Delilah had told him openly why she wanted to know his secret. “Please tell me where your great strength is and how you may be bound to afflict you(16:6).

How important it is for a growing Christian not to fall in love with an unbeliever. Love can be so blind at times that you do things you never dreamed possible–against all logic and common sense. What a mess you can get yourself into if you fall in love with a “Delilah”. No wonder God’s Word says that marriage between believers and unbelievers is wrong. (See 2 Corinthians 6:14.) Step by step Samson let his lack of self-control take over. He had taken the Nazarite vow as a youth, but one by one he was breaking the rules because of his undisciplined and selfish life. Samson ended up breaking every one of the rules because of his uncontrolled selfish desires.

We too may have a lot of God-given potential, but we may also lose all of it due to having no self control. Like Samson, we may come from a solid Christian background where we have been taught the precepts and principles of the Word of God. But like Samson, we may turn our backs on the clear teaching of God’s Word because we want to do our own thing and go our own way. Like Samson, we may have it all together in the physical area–good looks, talent, etc. But like Samson, we may take our God-given looks and talents and use them to indulge in selfish pleasure and passion.

Even our spiritual gifts can be misused and abused because of selfish interests and ambitions. Without self-control, a growing Christian with great potential strength will be as weak as Samson. In spite of Samson’s lack of self-control, God was still working with him and through him (see 14:4, 19; 15:14). And Hebrews 11:32 assures us that Samson had faith. All of this should be an encouragement to us who are constantly being tempted to do our own selfish thing.

God can still accomplish His purposes through us, but how much greater to yield to His control and realize our full potential.

You need to become helpless

Today’s reading is from Genesis, chapters 31-32.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. Gen. 32:24

This is one of those mysterious incidents found throughout the Old Testament, where an element of mystery is given without much explanation. Who is the masked man and what was he doing?? I am sure Jacob must have felt that way too. He thought he was all alone, having sent everyone and everything across the river, when suddenly out of the shadows steps a man, who to Jacob’s amazement begins to wrestle with him. As you read further, there is no doubt who the man is. In fact, at the end of the story, Jacob names the place of this encounter, Peniel, which means, the face of God, because he said, I have met God face to face and still survived. Here is a man who, in some strange way, in one of those Old Testament manifesetations, is God himself appearing in visible form, and he wrestles with Jacob.

What does all that mean? Taken in connection with the whole story there is no question that what we have here is God’s attempt to improve Jacob’s prayer life with a crash course on how to pray. God is attempting to break down Jacob’s stubborn dependence upon himself. Jacob’s problem was that he never really trusted God to do things. He always had that inward feeling that if he did not do it himself, God would probably not come through. Now God is dealing with him in a defining moment. Jacob has to face up to the fact that, though his prayers are eloquent and beautifully phrased they are useless because he does not actually believe that God is going to do anything. All his trust is in himself.  There is no expectation, but rather a stubborn refusal on Jacob’s part to give up and expect God to handle the situation.

Do you recognize yourself here? I recognize myself frequently doing that. The account continues, Verse 25: When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. That came after hours of wrestling. Jacob has resisted, struggled, and fought back. He will not give in until, at last, the divine hand touches him on the thigh and puts the hip socket out of joint. That is the end of it; nobody can wrestle in that condition. All Jacob can do now is to cling in helpless dependence upon this strange wrestler. Knowing by now something of who this man is, he hangs on desperately.

Many messages on this account comment on the fact that Jacob was mighty in prayer because he wrestled with God all night long and prevailed. But it is not true that Jacob wrestled with God. It is God who wrestled with Jacob, trying to break down his stubborn self-reliance, his feeling that it all depends on him, that he has got to do it or else it is not going to get done, that God is really going to do nothing in the situation.

Jacob did not prevail over God by wrestling. The moment of prevailing comes when his hip is broken, when he is absolutely helpless and can do nothing but hang on. That is when he prevailed with God. That is what this account is teaching us. God responds to that sense of human helplessness.

 

“By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”

Today’s reading is Revelation 12

I particularly like verse 11.  I find it extremely powerful and motivating.

“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:11)

Verse 11 points out to all of us that the critical blow for Satan came when the Lamb – Jesus Christ – shed His blood for our sins. This means that the ultimate victory was won and continues to be won by sacrifice – Christ’s death in our place to pay the penalty for our sins, and the sacrifices we are obligated to make when we are faithful followers of Christ.

I believe Satan is real and exists in the world today. Satan presents temptations to us and encourages us to act upon those temptations. As we face the battle with Satan we should not fear it but we should follow the example of Christ. Jesus Christ provides us the power to resist Satan’s temptations.

By resisting Satan, our testimony can be inspirational to others. Our actions can influence the actions of others, and this can help draw others into a relationship with Christ.

1 Timothy 1

Recently I was having a conversation with a lady in a courtroom. She had been found guilty of several crimes and was waiting for her sentencing, unsure whether she would be headed home or to jail for up to a year. Through the conversation she shared other struggles she was facing and her hopelessness. I invited her to come to church and suggested that she may be able to find useful resources through church that would benefit her family. Her response was, “Oh – I can’t go to church, that’s for religious people. People like me don’t go to church.”

Timothy says “…though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” 1 Tim 1:13-16

Sometimes I wish there were magic glasses that I could put on which would allow me to see only what is inside a person without the distraction of all that is on the outside. God is able to do that – appearance means nothing to him. How “religious” someone acts does not impress. He gave mercy so that through His mercy to us we would be an example to others of His perfect patience.

How do you think non-believers perceive Christ’s love and mercy through you?

 

 

 

 

 

All have sinned

Romans 3 is a reminder of the amazing gift of life given to us through Christ on the cross. Through our own actions, no matter how hard we try to be “good” and live as Christians, we are reminded that ALL of us are sinners. Without the blood of Christ – the gift given freely for all – heaven and eternal life would be unattainable.

My kids love to point out my flaws. I’ve never been so aware of how many mistakes I make (big, small or otherwise) as I am with four sets of eyeballs on me holding me accountable at all times. The mistakes can range from being incorrect about what time a certain restaurant closes to how closely I follow the speed limit. I realize that I am constantly in the wrong, whether intentional or not, and even over (seemingly) very insignificant things. The good in this though is that I am able to humble myself to my children and, swallowing my pride, admit to them that I am not always right, or that I do not always do the right thing. I am able to set an example for them in admitting fault. I am also then reminded about how many ways there are to fall short. Failing to remember, being wrong, getting angry, breaking the laws of our land (even if only by a few mph). If becoming perfect like God was in our own hands we would all be condemned. Be thankful for God’s willingness to fill the gap with the blood of Christ.

Legal does not equal “Right”

Our reading today is Acts 5, I’ll focus on verses 17-29.

17 But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.

Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

Peter and the apostles answered: “We must obey God rather than men.” 

In his powerful book Unspeakable, Os Guinness wrestles with the problem of evil in the world. In one section, he focuses on the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. The Nazi officers, having been charged with crimes against humanity, offered the following defense: “I was merely following orders.” The verdict, however, was that the soldiers had a moral obligation to defy orders that – though legal – were clearly wrong.

In a much different context, Peter and the disciples were arrested for presenting the message of the risen Christ and brought before the religious rulers in Jerusalem. Rather than allowing themselves to be shaped by the mood of the mob, the disciples declared their intention to continue preaching Christ.

The orders of the religious establishment may have been legal, but they were wrong. When the disciples chose to obey God rather than the godless religious leaders, they raised a standard of conviction that rose above the opinions of the rulers of this world.

The trials we face may test our commitment. But we will find opportunities to exalt God if we trust Him for the strength to go beyond the words of the crowd-pleasers to do what is truly right – NOT just what is acceptable under the terms of legality in our society.

 

In my Father’s House are Many Mansions

Today’s reading is John 14

My 5 year old son, Samuel, asks a million questions a day (at least it seems like a million!). Recently, he asks a lot of questions about heaven. What it looks like, who is there, what people do in heaven, etc. Inevitably the conversations eventually turn to the topic of losing someone, and he makes declarations that he doesn’t want to die and doesn’t want me or anyone else in our family to die. These kind of conversations are challenging – especially with a 5 year old child – but also with mature adults. God has given us so many things on earth to love and cherish that our finite minds have difficulty comprehending the eternity of heaven.

Growing up, I went every Memorial Day with my dad to the cemetery on the edge of town. Many of his loved ones were buried there. His father (who died in his forties), his sister (who died when she was 4 days old), his grandparents, and many more. We would tidy up the areas around their headstones and leave flowers. But the best part of the trip was that my dad talked about them. He told stories about their lives and made me feel like I knew them, although I had never met any of them. And always he spoke of their love for God. He would remind me that while we didn’t get to be with them now, that because they were in heaven with God we would all someday rejoice together for eternity.

As Christians, the concept of eternity is one of the most important things that separates us from non-believers. Death and what comes after should not be frightful for us. In fact, everything we do should be centered around the eventuality of reaching heaven and praying that everyone we know and love will be there too.

I am thankful not only for the memories made all those years ago with my dad, but for the way he was able to bring faith to life about what happens after death. Hopefully the talks that Samuel and I have about heaven will leave him at peace about the concept of mortality and eternity, both of which he is just beginning to grasp.

I am so thankful for the words of Jesus, which are not only comforting, but (to me anyway:) ) exciting as well:

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” John 14:1-4

Do you have everything you need?

In John 6, Jesus feeds more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, walks on water across the sea during a storm in the middle of the night, and then declares to a crowd of people that in order to live they must eat His flesh and drink His blood.

To be honest, some of the events in this chapter seem a little scary. Not just because Jesus talks about eating flesh and blood, but because the concept of eating flesh and blood is difficult to comprehend. Many in the crowd felt the same, “from this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him” (John 6:66).

Walking on water and making bread join a long list of miracles along with raising people from the dead and opening blind eyes.

Jesus’ miracles and His controversial “eat my flesh” statement all convey the same message: Jesus is the point. In this life and the next, we can never be satisfied apart from Jesus. And on the opposite end of that spectrum, if we have nothing but Jesus, we have everything.

“Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).