August 8, 2017 – Iron Sharpens Iron- Acts 18:24-28, Proverbs 27:17

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Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus. Acts 18:24-28 (NRSV)

It is refreshing to meet people who have first come to faith in Jesus. Even though they may (or may not) be armed with a few Bible verses, their enthusiasm is infectious.  Sometimes their theology is iffy, but their vivaciousness almost makes up for that lack.

As a person who tends to be rational versus emotional, I envy those who can look up at the sky with a blissful smile and say, “Just give me Jesus!,” and don’t give a whole lot of thought to theology or to necessarily nit picking on all the “right” things. Unfortunately for me and other fellow rational types, nothing gets close to my heart without going through my brain first.  Some people, like me, challenge what we are taught and have to do the research and study to back up what we are taught, and even then we still struggle with belief.  We have to learn all of the “right things” and even then we have to see faith in action, and almost get hit by lightning to even have a chance at getting it.  This is why I always insist we give poor “doubting Thomas” a break!

Apollos was said to be an eloquent man and well versed in the Scriptures, but even he needed other people’s input for his knowledge to be more complete and for his teaching to be more effective.

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. Proverbs 27:17 (NRSV)

Priscilla and Aquila provided Apollos with the knowledge he needed to be a more effective witness. The Berean believers searched the Scriptures to back up what the apostle Paul was teaching.  To be strong and valid, our faith must be an informed faith, built upon the Foundation, who is Jesus.

Some of us have that beautiful quality of “falling into” faith. Others of us have to “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling” as the apostle Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:12.  Either way, we need each other’s input. We need each other’s enthusiasm and encouragement.  God created us to live out our faith in community.

We are all stronger when we share our gifts and encourage each other.

How can we share our faith and encourage each other today?

August 7, 2017- The Truth Doesn’t Make Us Popular- Acts 17:10-15

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That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue.  These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.  But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him. – Acts 17:10-15 (NRSV)

The apostle Paul commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures and not just blindly believing the message he brought to them. The Russian people have a proverb: “Trust, but verify.” People of faith should ask questions. An informed faith is a strong faith and a valid faith.  Jesus taught that we should build our house on a solid foundation and not on sand. Our faith has a solid foundation- Jesus Himself. We learn of Him all throughout the Bible, and we encounter Him in the world and through other people as we go out and do what He taught. This is the reason why worship and prayer and study and service all go together- our faith is not intended to be a blind faith, but a practical, dynamic and growing faith.

The difficult thing about telling the truth is that telling the truth doesn’t always make one popular. Usually truth telling has quite the opposite effect.  Throughout Scripture God’s prophets were treated rather nastily for telling the truth.  Jeremiah was consigned to a dirty cistern (Jeremiah 37:11-16) as a prison.  Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den to be eaten by lions (Daniel 6:10-20) for refusing to pray to an earthly king.  John the Baptist ended up with his head on a platter as a gift for Herod.  Going against the current ruler or saying bad things about the king wasn’t an activity to engage in, if you valued your hide.  Telling the truth and speaking out for what is right is not always a safe thing to do, even today.  Anyone who doubts that can test the theory. Agree with a woman when she comments that she has put on a few pounds, and watch the sparks fly.

Paul was no less popular to the old school Jews and Pharisees, who did not understand and did not want to believe Who Jesus was. They didn’t want to be told He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets and of the Law.  The Pharisees and other old school Jews were looking for a grand military style king like David who would defeat the Romans and restore the Jewish state as their Messiah, not the Suffering Servant that Isaiah had foretold.

Paul himself had once been the Pharisee Saul, who was behind the persecution and killing of Christians until Jesus paid him a visit on the Damascus road. So it was likely that the Pharisees were even more incensed with Paul because they saw him not just as a heretic, but also as a traitor.

The truth is a threat to those in power, especially if their power is built on sustaining a lie. To admit that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah meant that there was no longer any reason to submit to the religious authorities.  To admit that Jesus was God Himself and that God had revealed Himself to the whole of humanity and not just the Jewish people, was more than the Jewish leaders of the day could stand.

The Jewish leaders of Paul’s time couldn’t stand the thought of the truth that God is God of all- and that because of Jesus they could no longer assert an exclusive claim on God. God’s people were not just the direct descendants of Abraham, but all people are God’s people- the door had been opened.

Perhaps we have to face some unpopular truths today. Sometimes the truth revealed in Scripture can be hard to take, such as when we are called to forgive, or we are called to take a path we know is difficult and that we would rather not be on.

What parts of God’s truth are hard for us to accept? That He loves the unlovable?  That He calls us to sacrifice?  That sometimes the answer to our prayers is no?

God is Lord of all. No matter how we may be challenged, or how we might suffer, Jesus is walking with us.  He knows our disappointment, our pain, and our sorrows as well as our love and our joy.  In Him we can be confident when we tell the truth, even when it doesn’t contribute to our popularity.

August 4, 2017 The Shema, Go Load Up on the Good News- Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Psalm 145:14-21

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Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NRSV)

The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.

 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever. Psalm 145:14-21 (NRSV)

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is known to Jewish scholars as the Shema Yisrael (meaning- Hear, O, Israel) which is the primary foundational teaching on our relationship with God.

God is God. Love God with all you have.  Learn about Him and write that knowledge on your mind and your heart.  Share that knowledge with everyone around you.  Sounds like the best advice ever. The question is, are we following that directive?

Part of the purpose of daily (or even more often) prayer and Bible study is for us to write the knowledge of God into our heads and hearts, to save it back for those times when we are really going to need it. When we are in crisis and can’t find the words to pray, the Holy Spirit does intervene for us, but those words of truth and comfort from Scripture that we have committed to memory provide us a foundation on which we can stand when the world throws its worst at us.  We pre-wire ourselves to respond to the Holy Spirit when we load up on the knowledge of Scripture.  We can remember God’s truth- and His promises to us- when the world comes crashing down.

We can see why the Shema is so important to Jews and to Christians as well. How can we trust in God’s provision if we don’t soak it up, and pass it around?

The good news is not only to be found in the Gospels. The Bible is saturated with good news of God’s love for us from the beginning and all the way throughout. The Psalms are an especially rich source of comfort and peace and a place to go when we can’t find the words to pray.  There is hope when we are at the end of our strength.  God gives us provision when our lives are empty.  God is as near as our prayers.

August 3, 2017 Healthy Priorities or Vain Toil? Isaiah 55:1-2, Ecclesiastes 2:10-12, Matthew 6:31-33

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Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2 (NRSV)

 

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:10-12 (NRSV)

 

(Jesus said): Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:31-33 (NRSV)

Vanity has a similar meaning to futility. When we appeal to our vanity we are looking at either instant gratification or outward appearances. Both are temporary. Often we do things that don’t make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of it all just for appearance sake. We think less about what we really need and more about keeping up with the Joneses. We put a lot of time and effort and money into things and activities that don’t do much to edify ourselves or build anyone else up.

In Ecclesiastes Solomon warns about things done in excess and/or things done for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t mean that we should not strive to achieve, or that we should take up hair shirts and austerity as a lifestyle. God’s gifts are good.  There is nothing evil about achievement, gaining wealth, or material things in and of themselves.  Our stewardship and use of those resources is what matters.

Jesus tells us to strive first for the kingdom of God. That is where our fulfillment and joy and purpose originate.  Is that where our priorities in life lie?  Do our vocation and our leisure time activities glorify God?

God knows better than we do what we need. This shouldn’t be taken to say that we should just sit back and let provision fall from the sky, but that our first priority should be going after the things that God wants in our lives.  We run into trouble when we become obsessed with work or the pursuit of money or the pursuit of stuff instead of seeking a balanced life focused on God first.

There is no cost for us to come to God. We don’t have to put on a show either.  We are invited to come to Him exactly as we are. We can trust that as we reach out to Him He will provide us what we need.

Isn’t it a relief knowing that we can stop chasing after the wind?

August 2, 2017- What Are We Asking For? Matthew 7:7-11

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(Jesus said): “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11 (NRSV)

“Now you’re asking for it!” How many times did we hear that phrase directed at us when we were children?  How many times have we said it to our own kids?  It was always a phrase that meant you were asking for trouble, and you were about to receive it.

Kids ask for some pretty outrageous things. My son once begged me for a pair of horrendously ugly $100 skater pants- during a summer in which he miraculously grew from about 5’6” to about 6’ in the span of about three months.  Even had I been foolish enough to spend that kind of money on a rather (in my mind anyway) ugly and impractical pair of pants, by the end of the summer they wouldn’t have fit.  It was better for him- and for my wallet at the time- for him to wear the cargo shorts he already had in the summer, and for us to seek out more sensible and affordable pants to wear in the fall.

I wanted my son to have serviceable and affordable clothing, and for him not to be mocked too severely by his friends for his clothing choices.

Sometimes what we want and what we need are two different things.

Sometimes we come to God asking for silly or impractical things like the awful skater pants my son asked for when he was fourteen. Sometimes we ask for things that appear to be good on the surface, but would ultimately be harmful for us.  Sometimes we ask to be delivered from trials that are difficult and painful, but necessary for us to learn and grow into being the people God created us to be.

We don’t see the complete picture. God does, and He is out for our ultimate good.  He is equipping us for eternal life as well as for life right now. So sometimes His answer to our requests needs to be no.

It has been said that the purpose of prayer is not so much to come to God asking for gifts in the way that a child might make out a list for Santa Claus, but to come to God and talk with Him, to let Him speak to us and align our wills with His will.

God does hear our prayers, and through our prayers He does transform our hearts so that we desire the things that He desires for us. Even if we don’t always get what we ask for, God provides what we need- abundantly, fully and always.

August 1, 2017 “Just Me-n-Jesus?” Philippians 4:10-15

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I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  Philippians 4:10-15 (NRSV)

I can do all things in Him (Jesus) who strengthens me. (verse 13)

Verse 13 of the above passage from Philippians is often picked out and quoted on its own. Yes it is true that Jesus is our Strength, but that shouldn’t make us infer that the journey of following Jesus is just a “me-n-Jesus” sort of proposition.

In our country we have been conditioned to prize our independence, which is not always a bad thing. No one wants to be a mindless lemming that just goes along with the group without thinking about what the group is doing. Many people are also wired to be introverted, which means a little socialization goes a long way, as introverts primarily recharge their batteries by getting away from people and being alone.  Jesus Himself did this at times.  He went off to pray and fast by Himself quite often.  Taking times of solitude- in moderation- can be a healthy discipline.

It can be unwise to think we are too independent though. Not only do we move and breathe and have our strength because those things all come from God, we were created to live and operate in community.  Not just “me-n-Jesus,” but “me-n-Jesus AND the greater community,” is how it’s supposed to work.

This means we are supposed to engage in dialogue. We are supposed to contribute to the life and the well being of our families and communities.  We are, like the apostle Paul did, supposed to accept help from others when we need it.  We are called to the drama and the messiness of belonging to a community and participating in the life of the community.

We do encounter Jesus in the solitude of prayer and study, and those disciplines are important to our growth in understanding and faith. Yet there are some who will say things such as, “nature is my church,” and who claim to not need the fellowship and the encouragement of a Christian community.  Unfortunately when we miss out on being part of a community, we miss out on a vital way of connecting with God, and we miss out on sharing the strength and encouragement of others.

How can we live out our lives as Jesus followers and rely on His strength both one-on-one with Him in solitude, study, contemplation and prayer, AND in community, alongside fellow believers?

July 31, 2017 Supernatural Law- Proverbs 10:1-5, Romans 6:23

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A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief. Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame. – Proverbs 10:1-5 (NRSV)

The book of Proverbs is considered to be a book of wisdom. It has been attributed to King Solomon, as is Ecclesiastes, another wisdom book of the Bible.  Much of what Solomon teaches has to do with cause and effect, or “natural law,” which is the principle that actions have consequences.  Even in science this basic concept is found in Newton’s Third Law, which is, “Every action in nature has an opposite and equal reaction.”

In Scripture the apostle Paul gives us a theological truth that is very similar to Newton’s Third Law:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”- Romans 6:23 (NRSV)

No matter how hard we try, sometimes we are wise children and other times we are foolish children. We can be deceptive and petty and downright evil in our dealings with others.  We can be slackers and miss opportunities to participate in the life of God’s kingdom. There are so many ways we fail God and fall short of His will every day even if we try to do the right things.  God demands perfection, and we just aren’t capable of it.  He gives us His best, and even our best efforts can’t measure up.

On the surface, and here in the natural world, we humans are doomed to the consequences of natural law. Our physical bodies are going to die, and those physical bodies are subject to all of the entropy, apathy and decay that is rampant throughout this world. Both Paul in his letter to the Romans, and Newton in his Third Law underscore inevitable truths about the natural world.  Sin results in death.  Actions have consequences. That is the Law of God, and it is universal throughout His creation.  The Gospel- the good news- is that Jesus took on the consequence of death for us.  Since Jesus conquered death and the grave on our behalf, we are free to live.  Life in Jesus, the good news of the Gospel, is supernatural law.

Solomon taught wise principles, even if he didn’t always adhere to them himself. He gave many instructions to follow to make our lives here on earth more God-pleasing and prosperous. It is always good for us to read the teachings of the Proverbs- and a blessing for us that they are part of Scripture, because they give us good and healthy standards for living.  But apart from the grace of God in Christ we don’t stand a chance of living up to those standards.

Wisdom says we need to to run to Jesus, to go to the foot of the Cross and ask for His forgiveness and mercy and grace. We have the confidence in Him that we shouldn’t try to have in ourselves alone. His supernatural law transcends the inevitabilities of the natural law of this world.

How can we find ways to run to the foot of the Cross and find help in Christ when we are overwhelmed?