Monday, October 30, 2017

Two Paths and Two People

Psalm 1

Our Psalm today tells of the two paths in life, and the two types of people who travel these paths.  There is the path of obedience to God, and then the path of rebellion and destruction.  The choice that we make will determine where we spend eternity.

Our psalmist starts our Scripture passage with a description of the first type of person, the godly person who is blessed of the Lord (vs. 1).  Such a person does not listen or heed the advice of ungodly people, or of the worldly, anti-Christian philosophies all around today.  Scripture warns that God’s people who insist on being friends with those who mock or turn their back on God risk becoming indifferent to God and His will.  Good friends should help, not hinder, us in drawing closer to God.  Believers can and should be friendly to the unbelievers, but we are warned here against making them our closest friends and associates.  Godly people should avoid such ungodly associations as verse 1 describes, which will drag them down to their level.

The person who is blessed of the Lord is one who spends time in God’s Word, the Bible (vs. 2).  Meditating means spending time reading and thinking about what God is saying in the Scriptures.  If we want to walk with God, we must know what He says, and the only way to do that is to get into the Word of God.  The more we internalize the Scriptures, and let them direct our life, the more blessed we are.

Verse 3 continues on with the psalmist’s description of the godly person, who seeks to follow God.  They are like healthy, fruitful trees who have strong roots.  We see this echoed by the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 17:5-8).  How deep are we rooted?  If our roots are strong and deep in the Lord we can remain green and fruitful no matter what troubles come our way.  This does not mean that we are immune to difficulties or problems.  Nor does it guarantee health or wealth.  Applying God’s wisdom brings fruit that is good and blessed by God.  Being consistently in His Word will produce actions and attitudes that honor Him.  On the other hand, associating with those who mock God will draw us away from Him, causing us to become unfruitful.  They affect our behavior, thoughts, and attitude, so we should not join with them.

Now our psalmist takes a look at the other type of person, the one who has chosen the path of rebellion against God, and which eventually leads to their destruction.  In contrast to being a green and fruitful tree, these people are like chaff (vs. 4).   Chaff is the outer shell or husk of the kernels of grain.  Farmers in Biblical days would winnow the grain by tossing it into the breeze where the air current would separate the chaff from the grain.  The good grain would fall to the ground, while the wind would blow the chaff away. God here says that the lost are just like that, and will be blown away. Chaff is a symbol of a faithless life without God.  In contrast, the good grain is a symbol of a faithful life that is lived for the Savior, a life that can and is used by Him.

The path that the ungodly, lost person has chosen is fateful one (vs. 5 - 6).  It is a path that only leads to destruction, one that God will ultimately judge.  God promises that He knows the way of the righteous, those who have chosen His paths, but He says that the ungodly will perish (vs. 6).

What kind of fruit are we bearing?  If we are abiding in Christ we will bear good fruit (John 15:4-8).  A good tree will bear good fruit, and a bad tree will bear bad fruit.  We can recognize both (Matthew 7:17-20).  We need to stay in the Word of God and produce good fruit for Him.

What road are you traveling on?  The way of the righteous, or the way of the wicked?  If you want the Lord to bless you, you must follow His path, not the way that leads to judgment.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Strangers, Widows, and the Poor

Exodus 22:21-27

Our Old Testament reading from this Sunday’s Lectionary brings us to the Book of Exodus.  In this brief passage we read God’s commands to His people of how He wished them to treat people in the community who are poor and marginalized.  Let’s take a look at this passage and see what He says to us, and how He wants our behavior to be towards these people.

God specifies in these verses the stranger or foreigner (vs. 21), the widow and orphan (vs. 22 - 24), and the poor (vs. 25 - 27).  Each of these groups of people are frequently taken advantage of and mistreated by those in places of power, and God did not want His people doing so.  He didn’t like it back in the days of Moses, and He doesn’t today, either.

The people of Israel had been strangers or foreigners in Egypt, so they knew what it was like.  When Joseph had been prime minister, his brothers and their families had come to live in Egypt, where at first they were accepted.  After Joseph’s death, though, the country started to oppress them and they were then enslaved.  God reminded them of that, and instructed them to instead, treat foreigners with kindness.  He told the people of Israel, and tells the same to us today, to treat them as they would wish to be treated, remembering how they had been treated in Egypt.

The second group of people God instructed His people to treat kindly are the widows and orphans (vs. 22-24).  Women in the past were rarely able to work outside the home, so if their husband died, unless he had left her a lot of money, she would be in a very desperate situation.  The situation would be even worse if she had young children, who were now fatherless.  Through no fault of their own, mothers and children might have to resort to selling themselves as slaves.

Though today situations may be different, their plights can still be desolate.  Throughout the Bible we read of how the Lord has a special place in His heart for widows and orphans.  God makes it very clear in these verses that He hears their cries for help, and His anger will be kindled if He sees His people taking advantage of them, or if they turn their back on them.  How would you feel if your wife and children were to become a widow or orphan?  Would you want them in such a destitute situation?  Certainly not, so God tells His people to treat them with compassion.  When they cry to Him, He will hear.

The final group of people that the Lord instructs His people to care for and treat with kindness is the poor (vs. 25 - 27).  The poor might come to others, whether to family or friends, asking for a loan, and God tells us to not take advantage of them with a high interest.  He did not want such interest to worsen the plight of the poor.  Our passage is very clear that He does not want us to take advantage of them, including what the wealthy take as a pledge or security for the loan.  God does not want them left destitute, or treated in a humiliating way, such as taking his very coat or clothes (vs. 26 - 27).

For those whose life is going well, and who are safe and secure in their homes, God is instructing them to be sure to care about those in these groups, the poor, the foreigner, and the widows and orphans.  He is watching.  For those whose situations land them in any of these conditions, God does care.  He sees you, and hears your cries to Him.  He is not a God who is impersonal, blind and deaf to the needs of the desperate.  When you cry out to Him, He hears and will respond.

Friday, October 27, 2017

No One Can Outsmart God

Matthew 22:15-22

As our passage today in the Gospel of Matthew opens, Jesus has concluded telling the Pharisees and crowds of people His Kingdom parables.   These parables which Jesus taught upset some, particularly many of the Pharisees and chief priests (Matthew 21:45-46), and as we begin reading today, they are plotting among themselves how they can trap Jesus in what He says (vs. 15).  They would love to see Jesus speak something that could be twisted into appearing blasphemous, or incriminate Himself with what He says.  If they could get Him to do that, then maybe the crowds would leave Him, and come back to following them and their teachings.

In order to better accomplish this, the Pharisees decide to team up with a political group, the Herodians, who prior to this, they had greatly opposed.  The Herodians, a much smaller group than the Pharisees, supported Herod Antipas, who was the puppet king of Israel at the time, put in place by Caesar, and who answered to him.  The Herodians supported the policies of Rome and believed that the people were better off if they assimilated with the Greek and Roman cultures of the conquering empire.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, strongly opposed Roman rule, as did most of the common people.  Both groups intensely disliked each other, but here they were united in their intense dislike of Jesus.  They felt that maybe if they temporarily joined forces they could bring Him down, as Jesus and His teachings were a threat to them both.

The two groups send some representatives to Jesus.  First they tried to excessively praise and flatter Him (vs. 16), and then they asked Him a trick question about whether or not the people of Israel should pay their taxes to Caesar (vs. 17).  This was a trick question because if Jesus answered that the people should pay Caesar’s taxes it would look like Jesus supported the Roman occupation.  Most of the common people would be both angry and disappointed because they opposed Roman rule, and He would lose their support.  They felt that the taxes were oppressive, and only reluctantly paid them.  This tax money went in part to pay for the occupying army, and also supported many of the pagan Roman temples.  The Pharisees felt this answer would show Jesus was not loyal to the Jewish people and to God, and the people might leave off following Him.

If Jesus answered that that the people should not pay their taxes to Caesar then He could be turned over to the Romans as someone who was a troublemaker, and who promoted law-breaking and rebellion.  Such a person would likely be taken into Roman custody.  Joining forces like this, both the Pharisees and Herodians thought they could trap Jesus and bring Him down.

Their trick did not work, as they failed to realize who they were dealing with.  Jesus is God incarnate, and no one can trick or outsmart God!  Jesus asked to see the coin that was used to pay these taxes, and they brought Him one such coin (vs. 19).  Jesus then asked the representatives from these two groups whose image is on the coin, who minted the money and dispersed it through the country (vs. 20).  When told that it was Caesar’s image, Jesus told them to give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to give to God what belongs to Him (vs. 21).

If the people, both back then, and also today, receive any benefits from the government, they have the duty to pay for it.  Our earthly citizenship requires us to pay for services and benefits that our country gives us.  In the same token, though, our heavenly citizenship requires that we obey God, and serve Him loyally and faithfully.  If we have accepted the Lord Jesus as our Savior and are saved, then God’s image is stamped on us.  We owe Him our love, service, and obedience.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Being A Good Example

I Thessalonians 1:1-10

This week in the Book of Common Prayer we start several weeks of reading from the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians.  Let’s first take a look at the city of Thessalonica in the first century, at the time of this letter.  Thessalonica was the capital of the province of Macedonia in northern Greece, and had a population of approximately 200,000.  The most important Roman highway, the Egnatian Way, went through Thessalonica, and it was also a major seaport.  Thus this city was both wealthy and flourishing.  However, this also led to the city having many different pagan religions and influences.

The Apostle Paul began the new Christian church in Thessalonica, but had to leave after a very brief time due to persecution (Acts 17:1-10).  The new believers there remained firm and united in their faith, though.  As Paul starts his epistle (letter) he makes it clear that the church gathers in the Name of Jesus, the Son of God, and that this is not just some random, religious or philosophical assembly (vs. 1).  Jesus is both Lord God and Messiah.  At the start of each of Paul’s letters, he would emphasize the equality between God the Father and Jesus Christ.

In verse 3 Paul makes mention of the three important virtues - faith, love, and hope.  These characteristics should be marks of every effective Christian.  Believers should have a lifestyle of good works.  Good works don’t save us, but after salvation it should be a mark of our life, with faith, hope and love working together.

The Word of God changes lives (vs. 5).  It is more than just a collection of stories and poems.  Does our life confirm or contradict our faith?  Both in Paul’s day and also in ours, the Gospel message is confirmed by the lifestyle and character of those who preach the Word of God.  Paul’s life was open for all to review.  Everyone could see what he was like, and his life brought no shame to the message of Christ.  Hopefully that can be said of us, as well.

As the Thessalonian church, and most of the churches in other cities, were experiencing, the Christian life comes with adversity (vs. 6).  It is through adversity, though, that we draw closer to the Lord.  If we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our life, we can find joy in the midst of suffering.  As we remain firm in the faith, like the Thessalonians, we can be a strong witness to others who hear our testimony (vs. 7).

In verse 8 Paul says that the message of Jesus “sounded forth” from the Thessalonians.  They were just like mighty cymbals or like a trumpet for everyone to hear.  The message of Jesus should go out from us, both in our town, our state or province, our country and the world.  Just like cheerleaders and the roaring crowds at a sports event, we need to sound forth our support, love, and witness for Jesus and the Gospel.  Shout out our praise for Him, like the roaring crowds when a favorite team wins the big championship!

The Thessalonians turned to Yahweh, the true God, from many false idols (vs. 9).  Salvation involves turning from sin and false religions to Christ.  One needs to abandon all sins, wicked lifestyles, and all false gods, and turn completely around to follow Jesus.  Besides an actual image or statue, an idol can be anything that holds the place in our hearts that only God should have.  It could be most anything, including things that wouldn’t seem so bad, such as a house, hobbies, sports, food, cars, even family and health.  They all can be idols.

The “wrath to come” in verse 10 refers to both God’s wrath to come on the in during the period of Tribulation, and also the eternal wrath in hell.  As the Apostle Paul says in this opening of his letter to the Thessalonians we need to turn to God, serve God, and wait for Jesus’s return.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bringing Glory To God's Name

Psalm 96

Our psalm for this week is a psalm of praise to God.   Many psalms are ones of praise, leading us to come to the conclusion that praising God is an important duty for believers, something that we should be actively doing.

In verse 1 we are told to sing a new song to the Lord.  God wants us to sing a new song, in other words, bring Him new praise each day.  Sometimes we may hear someone, quite possibly even ourselves, praying “Thank you, God, for this day.  Thank you, God, for this food.”, praying that same prayer, day in and day out.  Don’t get me wrong - thanking God for our food and the day is right and proper.  Yet should we really be saying the same old prayer, same old thanks and praise each day, words we say by rote without any real thought?  If our spouse or children said the exact same words to us every day, possibly without any feeling or emotion, would we feel loved?  We should thank and praise God for everything, but each day we should look for new things in our life, things new and glorious, to give Him praise for.  Every day we should open our eyes and look around, and find a new song of praise to sing to Him.

As believers, we know that God is great and awesome, and that He has done marvelous things, both in our own lives and that of the world at large.  When we truly realize this, we can’t help but tell others (vs. 2-3).   When we witness to others with a heart filled with praise for what He has done for us, others are much more likely to respond.  A praise-filled witness or testimony is so much more effective than a ho-hum, dreary witness.  Who wants to hear that?  We have good news to proclaim!  If I have some really good news that I want to share with you, won’t I be excited?  If I have found a great treasure, something wonderful, I will want to share it with you.  The fact that God has saved my soul, delivered me from the power of sin, and promised me a home in heaven, is very good news, and one that should be shared joyously with everyone.

As we continue on in our psalm the psalmist proclaims that the Lord God is greater than any of the false, pagan gods of the neighboring lands (vs. 4 - 5).  These gods did not really exist, except in the minds of those who worshipped them, but nonetheless, the psalmist proclaims that Yahweh is greater than any of these false, pagan gods.  They are nothing but idols, just pieces of carved wood or stone, but Yahweh made all of heaven and earth.

Yahweh is a holy God, and thus He is worthy of all honor, majesty, glory, and worship from His children (vs. 6 - 9).  This is His due, as verse 8 declares.  Yes, He is a holy God, one that should be feared, treated with respect and awe.  The people of the earth, especially those who do not worship or serve Him, should tremble.  He is not one to be treated as something of little worth or respect.

In verses 11 and 12 we read of the heavens and earth giving the Lord praise.  He is their Creator, and they know to bring Him glory.  Have you ever stood by the ocean’s shore and listened to the crashing waves?  This psalmist must have at some time, and pictures it as roaring its praise to God.  The fields and trees of the woods also sign their praise to Him.  Many of the people of the world may not do sing His praise, but creation does.

Finally, in closing our psalm, the writer gives a reminder to his readers that the Lord God is coming one day to judge the world (vs. 10, 13).  This will be a righteous judgment, one where all of those who have not put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, will be judged.  Those who have mocked God and treated their fellow men with scorn and abuse may think that they can do as they chose and never come to any reckoning, but they are making a foolish mistake.  The Lord is coming one day, and He promises to make all right, judging in truth and righteousness.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Omniscience Of God

Isaiah 45:1-7

When theologians discuss the attributes of God, two attributes that are often brought up are His omniscience, and His omnipotence.  These refer to His knowledge of everything past, present, and future, and His being all-powerful.  Our passage in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah brings these up in some very special ways.

In the opening of our passage in verse one (and actually we could go back to the previous verse in chapter 48, verse 28) Isaiah makes mention of a fellow named Cyrus.  This would be the great ruler of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, who ruled from 559 - 530 BC.  What makes this quite astounding is that the Prophet Isaiah’s ministry was from approximately 740 - 681 BC, which would be over 150 years prior to the time of Cyrus.  The prophecies in the Bible, whether spoken by Isaiah or any other prophet, have all been specifically accurate, but here is one prophecy where the actual name of someone in the future was specifically named.  Can you imagine someone giving a prediction of a ruler in the future, some 150 or more years in the future,  giving his actual name, and then this actually happens down to the specific name?  We see this right here in Isaiah 44:28 - 45:1.  Isaiah had prophesied the fall of Jerusalem over 100 years before it happened in 586 BC, and over 200 years before the rebuilding of the Temple.

When we realize that these prophecies came from the Lord God, who is almighty, all-knowing, and all-powerful, it is not surprising that He would name a ruler in the future.  To God, time is meaningless, whether it is the past or the future.  Nothing is hid from Him, and the future does not take Him by surprise.

Kings and rulers of the past have frequently been anointed when they come to the throne.  God said that Cyrus, in the future, will be anointed by Him, specifically chosen by Him (vs. 1).  God anoints whoever He chooses.  He had a special task that He would have Cyrus do.  It was Cyrus who would allow the destroyed city of Jerusalem to be rebuilt.  Cyrus would also allow the Jewish people to return to their land.  Cyrus’s kingdom was the largest on earth up until then.  It encompassed both the Assyrian and Babylonian territories and more.

God is in control of everything (vs. 6 - 7).  He is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  The devil cannot bring something to pass in our life, or in the world at large, without His express permission.  God is sovereign over everything, both good and bad.  Everything that happens in our life, God has allowed for a reason.  Thus, we don’t need to panic, thinking something is just too much for Him to handle, or something caught Him off guard.  God will help us through all our days as we turn to Him.

Though in this passage God is speaking to the future, yet unborn, Cyrus, who will be emperor of Persia, we can know that God promises to watch over and take care of us, as well, in every difficult situation (vs. 2).  We don’t have to worry.  God had planned out centuries in advance, just how, and through whom, He would bring about the return of the Jewish people to their land.  He will use whatever means He sees fit, even a pagan ruler.  This shows that He will also care about us, as well, using whatever means He chooses to bring about His plans and purposes for our lives.  Our omnipotent, omniscient God has chosen each of us, His born-again children, from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5).  He loves us with an everlasting love, and as we see throughout Scriptures, He will work all things for His purposes and our good (Romans 8:28-32).

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Royal Wedding Invitation

Matthew 22:1-14

Imagine that back in 2011 you had received an invitation by special messenger to attend the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, one of the most special weddings in recent times.  Most people would not turn down such an invitation, especially if something special would be provided for you to wear.  Our Gospel passage this week tells of another parable that Jesus told of a royal wedding, invitations sent out, and the response received.

Jesus begins His parable by telling of a king who was preparing a great wedding feast for his son.  In the culture of that day when someone was giving a special grand banquet or feast, such as this royal wedding banquet, two invitations were sent out.  The first one was to specifically invite the guests.  The second was sent out right before to say that all was ready, and for the guests to start to come.  This wedding banquet was for the king’s son.  To be invited was an extreme honor, just as today to be invited to a royal wedding would be, so as we read in verses 3, 5, and 6 of the guests response it seems shocking.  They didn’t want to come, preferring instead to go to work.  Who would choose to go to work rather than attend the wedding of the year?  Some of the invited guests even beat up the messengers.

The king then sent his servants out to invite other people to the wedding feast.  The wedding of his son is important and special, and he wants the wedding hall to be full.

While mingling with the wedding guests the king sees one who is not dressed appropriately in the garments provided (vs. 11-13), and he has that guest thrown out.  Another cultural tradition of that time was for the wedding host to provide special garments to wear to the wedding.  To refuse, and instead wear what we want, something of our own, was a grave insult to the host.

This parable of Jesus speaks of the wedding feast of God’s Son.  God has sent out invitations to all of mankind, over and over again.  So many have outright rejected this invitation, and many more have just ignored it.  God is patient, even to those who spurn His repeated invitations, and calls for more people to come to Him (vs. 9).

The second half of this parable focuses on one specific guest, one who is not dressed in the garments provided by the host (vs. 11-13).  The wedding garments that were provided and the ones the guest were wearing symbolize the need to be clothed in the righteousness that Jesus Christ gives us.  When we come to God we can only come and be accepted by Him if we are only clothed in Jesus’s righteousness, not our own.  We cannot enter heaven if we are coming to Him with our own righteousness.

The man not attired in the provided wedding garments represents those who identify and call themselves Christians, might even belong to a physical church, but have never made a true salvation decision, and are not truly saved.  They are coming to God in their own righteousness, not that of Christ’s.  Just like the man at the wedding, coming dressed in his own clothes, was thrown out, so, too, anyone coming to God clothed in their own righteousness will not be allowed into heaven, but will be thrown out into outer darkness (vs. 13).

We see the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in verse 13.  That is a phrase that Jesus used several times in the Gospels to describe hell.  Hell is real, a place of inconsolable grief and unremitting torment.  There are some who don’t like the idea of there being a hell, and say that it doesn’t exist.  They like the idea of a heaven, and accept that, but not that of hell.  Jesus makes it very clear there is such a place as hell.  Many hear the call of God, but few respond (vs. 14).  Those who have heard the call, but refused and rejected the invitation, then exclusion to the Kingdom is totally just and right.

So what should us believers be doing?  We are to share the Gospel with everyone.  We don’t know who will respond.  Sometimes the most unlikely people get saved, so we need to witness to all.  We must be ready and clothed in the correct garments, that of the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone.  The invitations are ready and open for all, so come to the wedding feast of God’s Son, come clothed in His righteousness alone, and sit at His banquet table.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Worry Less And Pray More

Philippians 4:4-13

Today’s New Testament Scripture passage from the letter Paul wrote to the Philippian church contains several verses which many might have marked as favorites in their Bibles.  Let’s look and see what we can learn from these special verses what the Apostle Paul is teaching.

In verse 4 we read that Paul tells us to be always rejoicing.  Though rejoicing no matter what happens in our life seems kind of hard to do, the Philippians had witnessed the truth of this verse when Paul and Silas were wrongly beaten and whipped, and then sat, chained in a prison and sang praises to God in spite of everything (Acts 16:19-26).  God can bring good out of any situation when we praise Him.  Our inner joy does not have to be affected by outward circumstances.  Paul had joy no matter what because of Jesus.  Choose joy in spite of circumstances.

Next the Apostle Paul tells us not to worry, but to bring all of our concerns to God in prayer (vs. 6-7).  He has all power and all wisdom to handle all of our problems.  When we are submitted to Him, we have nothing to fear.  When we fret and worry, it shows a lack of trust in God.  God’s peace is a fruit from abiding in Him.  He gives a peace that passes all understanding.  God will give His child peace and tranquility when we trust and believe that He will do what’s best for us.  God will take away anxiety, fear, doubt, and distress.  We can be calm when the world is in turmoil.  He is in control.

Verse 8 is one that I frequently go to when I start thinking those depressive and negative thoughts that often hound me.  Negative or even sinful thoughts bring down one’s thinking.  Instead of dwelling on them, we should fill our mind with positive, wholesome thoughts, and especially the Word of God.  What is in our minds will determine our actions.  What Paul says we should do is replace all of the harmful and negative thoughts with the virtues he listed in this verse.  When temptation comes knocking, keep those thoughts in our mind, along with Scripture and prayer, otherwise it is very hard to resist.

In addition to guarding our thoughts, Paul urges us to follow the example of godly believers, as they follow God (vs. 9).  It’s not good enough to just read the Word of God.  We must also put it into practice.  James also tells us the same thing, to be a doer of the Word, not just a hearer (James 1:22-25).

Paul wraps up this passage by sharing with his readers how that he knew how to get along with little, in humble circumstances, or how to live with prosperity (vs. 11-12).  He was content with whatever God sent his way.  Paul was yielded to Him, like how the clay yields to the Potter’s hands.  Notice in verse 11 that Paul used the word “learned”.  This wasn’t what came naturally to Paul, any more than it does to us.  With most of us, though, it is easier to murmur and complain about our situation then to be content with it.  Paul knew that to find contentment he needed to draw closer to God, as we need to do, as well.  He needed to learn this from staying in the Scriptures.  As we learn this contentment, God will give us the strength to do all that He asks us to do (vs. 13).  Without Jesus we can do nothing, but with Him, nothing is impossible.

Through this passage we see that God knows our needs, and promises to provide for them.  Trust in Him, with thanksgiving and contentment.  Keep our mind and heart focused on Jesus.  There is always something to be grateful for and rejoice over.  Fears flee when God is present, so let’s turn our worries into prayers.  Worry less and pray more.  God is in control!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Jesus Walks Through The Valley With Us

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 has been the chosen psalm several times this past year for the Book of Common Prayer Lectionary Scripture selections, which is understandable, as this is one of the most beloved of all Scriptures.  Today I want to focus on verse 4 from our psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

Though I live in the flat plains of the Chicagoland area, I have been in the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains several times.  If my life circumstances were to ever change, and I could move to wherever I chose to, I have even thought of moving to the mountains.  Living in a village in a mountain valley may be nice, but traveling through the valleys of life are often not too pleasant.  Throughout life we go through many such valleys.  There is death, of course, which casts a very large and dark shadow across each of our lives.  Most people have lost loved ones in that dark valley, and until the day when Jesus returns, we all will go through that valley, as well.  There are other valleys many of us go through, as well, such as valleys filled with physical ailments of our own or loved ones.  That valley can be scary and sometimes painful.  There are also valleys of financial troubles, family problems, and also emotional turmoil.  These are also very difficult valleys to travel through.

What does our verse promise us?  David, the psalmist who wrote these beloved words, promised us that God is with us in this valley.  He is walking that dark and shadowy path with us.  We don’t need to fear wherever our path may lead.  God is there, walking with us.  Our path may lead us down deep into the valley.  It may also lead us through the flood or fire (Isaiah 43:1-3).  Do we see our Savior walking with us, His arms around us all the way?  Knowing that, we can be assured that we will be alright.

Why, we may wonder, do we have to go down into these valleys of difficulty?  In the mountains, when we are on one mountaintop, and we see another mountain that we need to go to, how do we get there?  If we are a bird, it is easy to just fly over to that other mountain.  We are not birds, though, so we can’t just take off and land on the other mountain.  We have to go down, across the valley, and then on up to the other mountain we need to get to.  God sometimes permits His children to go through some difficult times, some shadowy valleys, in order to get us to where He wishes us to be in our life, some other “mountain” He wants us on.  We can be assured that our Good Shepherd is walking with us, protecting us from all danger.

Our Good Shepherd, who travels this valley with us, comes well equipped.  He carries with Him both a rod and a staff, which are common articles that any good shepherd will carry with them.  A shepherd always had a rod, which was a good, strong stick, sometimes 3 - 4 feet in length.  These would often be used as a weapon, like a club, against any predatory animal that would come against the sheep.  Going through a dark and shadowy valley, the sheep could easily find himself face to face with a wolf, mountain lion, or some other danger.  A good shepherd would have his rod ready to protect them.  Our Good Shepherd is also well equipped to protect and care for His sheep, us believers, as we go through our various dark valleys.  He won’t leave us defenseless and ready to perish.

The shepherds also had a staff, which has the familiar crook at the end of it.  Though they, too, could be used to fend off wild animals, the rod was a better weapon for that.  The staff with the crook at the end would be used to nudge the wandering sheep back into the fold when they would stray.  He could use the crook at the end to wrap around the sheep’s neck or shoulder, and bring them back where they belonged, safe within the fold.  A sheep on his own was vulnerable to attack by wild beasts.  Our Good Shepherd does the same for us.  When we wander off, astray from His Word and His care, sometimes He needs to take that staff and give us a yank to get us back where we belong.

These two pieces of shepherds’ equipment may seem like they are harsh, but they are necessary for the safety of the sheep.  Jesus is with us through the valleys.  He is there to protect us.  He is our Savior and our Good Shepherd, and He goes before us on the path, protecting us from all danger.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

God's Promises Are Faithful and True

Isaiah 25:1-9

Our passage for the start of this week’s Lectionary Scriptures is from the Prophet Isaiah.   In addition to prophecies about the coming Messiah, prophecies about both the children of Israel and other surrounding nations, and admonitions to God’s people to worship only Him and follow His Word, there are many beautiful songs of praise to God scattered throughout the Book of Isaiah, and our passage today is one of them.  As we look into this passage, we will see some of the reasons that Isaiah is praising God at this moment.

In verse 1, we read that God’s counsels of old are faithfulness and truth.   God’s purposes have been planned by Him from ages past.  He completes the plans that He has made and has promised.  We can trust in the Lord God that He will fulfill all of the promises that He makes to us.

One of the great promises that God has made to His children is that He will protect and care for the poor (vs. 4).  When others are ruthless and oppress us, we can turn to Him.  I know from personal experience that when your financial support has been knocked out from underneath you, and your worries start to mount, God is the only sure and reliable one to turn to.  He is a place of safety and refuge for the poor and needy.  When the storms of life come upon us, we can turn to the Lord God for safety in trouble.

In verse 6 we see a reference to God’s Messianic banquet during the Millennial age.  The Prophet Isaiah pictures it atop a mountain, filled with grandness and glory.  This banquet is open to all people of all nations, and any who have accepted Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as their Savior will be present.  It is not just for any one group of people.  His saving message was intended to go into all of the world, to all peoples and all nations.  In the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, we read where God’s promise of this banquet is fulfilled in the marriage feast of the Lamb.  This is the banquet for the Church, all those who have accepted Him as Savior (Revelation 19:6-9).

There is another promise of God that Isaiah speaks of in this passage, and that is the promise that He will destroy death forever (vs. 7-8).  Most everyone has faced the heartache of losing a loved one in death.  It is our ancient enemy, and one that many people fear as they get older.  God, though, has promised His children victory over death.  The Apostle Paul made a mention of death being swallowed up in his letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 15:54).

One of the most precious promises we read in Scriptures, and is first mentioned here in verse 8, is that God will wipe away all of our tears.  Life is difficult, and there are so many times that the tears come.  As we’ve just mentioned, the death of loved ones bring tears.  Also so many of our troubles and trials will bring tears, as well.  Tears are all too familiar to many of us.  God promises us here that He will one day wipe all of our tears from off our face.  No matter how desperate a believer’s situation, we have a divine hope, knowing God will wipe all of those tears away.  This is such an assured promise, God repeated it twice in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7:17; Revelation 21:4).

As our passage closes, we have one more promise that God makes to us (vs. 9).  God promises to act on behalf of those who wait for Him.  When we wait for Him, He has promised to save us.  Waiting patiently shows that we believe God’s promises, and that we trust in Him to fulfill them.

God has never made a promise that He has not kept.  His record is sure.  Place your trust in Him, and know that we can fully rely that every promise will be fulfilled.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Workers Of The Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-43

Today’s Scripture reading continues the theme for the past week of the vineyard.  As the passage opens, Jesus is with a crowd of people, both His disciples, Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders, and other regular folks.  He has been teaching them lessons about the Kingdom of God, and He tells the group another parable, a story with a religious and moral lesson.   A landowner plants a vineyard, puts a hedge around it, along with a winepress,  He leases it out to vineyard workers to tend to the vines, and departs.  When harvest time comes, the owner sends servants to bring back the crops, but the workers beat them up, even killing some.  He sends more, and they treat them the same way.  When the owner sends his son to the workers he felt they would treat him with respect, but he was mistaken.  These vineyard workers take the son out of the vineyard and kill him.

Jesus then asks the crowd around Him what the owner should do.  Without waiting for a response, He tells them that the vineyard will be taken from those wicked workers, and given to others who will honestly work for the owner.  Most of those who would have been hearing this parable would have known who each character in this parable referred to.  The people of Israel were often referred to in the Old Testament as God’s vineyard, and God as the vineyard Owner.  The workers would have been known to be the Jewish religious leaders throughout the years.  The Pharisees and other religious leaders who heard this parable from Jesus were quite angry with Him for telling this, as they knew He was speaking it against them, as both Mark’s and Luke’s account record (Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19).  They especially didn’t like the fact that He said that God would take the Kingdom from them and give it to other nations, which meant to the Gentiles, whom they despised.

Repeatedly over the centuries God has sent His messengers to the people of Israel, but they have abused, mistreated, and rejected them, even killing many.  Even a casual reading of the Old Testament will show how often the prophets of God were mistreated by the people. (II Chronicles 36:15-16; Nehemiah 9:26)  Jeremiah was abused, both physically and verbally, even being thrown into a pit filled with slimy, contaminated muck.  Elijah had to flee for his life from the hands of the wicked, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and hide in the wilderness.  She had already killed many of God’s prophets and preachers (I Kings 18:13).   Though not specifically mentioned in the Bible, tradition holds that the great Prophet Isaiah was killed during the reign of the wicked King Manasseh, by being sawn in two, which is possibly alluded to in Hebrews 11:36-37.

Why would the people so overwhelmingly hate the prophets and preachers that brought them God’s Word?  It’s the same reason why today many preachers who stay steadfast in preaching the Bible are mocked and ridiculed - their message from God is not what the people want to hear.  Then as now, people want messages that tickle their ears and make them feel good.  They want to be told how good they are, not that they are sinners who need to repent and turn to God.  They also like messages of prosperity and blessings, not that there might be tribulation or hardships for God’s people.  People don’t like the truth about their sins, and when a preacher might speak against this things, the reaction is angry and sometimes even violent.  In I Kings 22 we read about the Prophet Micaiah who was true to God’s Word, and how the many false prophets who only spoke what the people wanted to hear, imprisoned him and violently mistreated him.  We know what happened to John the Baptist; he was beheaded for speaking the truth from God.

Over and over again, God sent His prophets to the Jewish people, and finally He sent His Son, Jesus Christ.  Was He given more respect, as God’s Son?  No!  They took Him and threw Him out of the vineyard, outside the Holy City of Jerusalem, and killed Him.  God did not leave Him dead in the grave.  He rose again, and is now the Chief Cornerstone.  Because of their rejection of the prophets, and especially His Son, God, the Vineyard Owner, has taken the Kingdom and all spiritual advantages from Israel and given them to the Church, which is made up of primarily Gentiles.

In thinking back over this parable, we, as believers, need to accept God’s messengers when they are bringing us His truth from the Word.  It may not always be what we like to hear, but it will be what we need to hear.  Let us not harden our hearts against the Lord and His messengers, like the Pharisees did.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping Our Eyes On The Prize

Philippians 3:14-21

Most of us have seen a marathon or other type of race, either in person on the sidelines, or often on TV.  Those runners have a purpose, a goal, and that is to cross the finish line.  If they are a good runner, hopefully they will be the first to cross, but all desire to at least finish the race.  As they run they keep that goal, the finish line, foremost in their mind.  They don’t want distractions.  As believers, we too, have a goal, a finish line to cross, and that is what Paul talks about in our Scripture passage today.

As each of us should have, Paul had a goal in life (vs. 14).  What was this goal that he was pressing towards?  Paul wanted to spread the Gospel to as many people as he could.  He wanted to fulfill the commission God had given him when he was saved.  Paul wanted to be more Christ-like each day, and his prize would be his reward in heaven, and finally being transformed into Christ’s likeness.  Like Paul, we should never allow anything to get us sidetracked from following Jesus, or to give up.  Like him, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. (Hebrews 12:2)  Just like Paul had said earlier in the letter, in chapter 2, we need to train our minds to be like that of Jesus (vs. 15).  God wishes us to stay in line spiritually, and progress in holiness (vs. 16).

Continuing on with our race analogy, new marathon runners, as they train, will seek advice from more experienced runners.  In our Christian life, who are our examples and role models?  Are they TV or movie stars?  The latest music star?  If we are followers of Christ, they should not be who we strive to be like.  Paul knew that we need to have some flesh and blood people we can look to for examples (vs. 17).  He was living for Jesus, and was a godly example for others.  Look around to find some more mature believers that you can follow as godly examples, or if you’ve been a believer for awhile, be that godly example for someone newer to the faith.  We have to beware, though, as not everyone who claims to be of the faith really is (vs. 18-19).  There are false teachers all around, teaching false doctrines, and are a danger.  Paul calls them “enemies of the cross”, pretending to be Christians.  They are in reality opposed to Jesus and the Blood that bought our salvation.  These false leaders teach contrary to Biblical truth, which will end in their eternal damnation.  They care only for this world and their own earthly pleasures and desires.

Do you ever feel out of place in this world?  My son and I were just discussing this the other day.  Believers who are living for the Lord will often feel out of place with the world today.  That is because our citizenship is in heaven, not this world (vs. 20).  The closer we draw to the Lord the less worldly attractions will allure us.  Paul knew, and we should as well, that runners shouldn’t let anything distract them from their goal of the finish line.  It is a shame when a person who is a believer feels at home in the world.  We should not be too comfortable with the world and its philosophy.  Our home is in heaven, not here on earth.  Peter called believers “strangers and pilgrims” here on earth (I Peter 2:11).  As the years go by, with many true believers, they often will develop a stronger longing to be with the Lord.  When the unsaved mock us, or even persecute us, we don’t need to worry - we’re not home yet.

Paul closes this passage with the precious promise that Jesus has made for His children and followers, and that is that after we have “crossed the finish line” of our life, our earthly body will be transformed to be like Jesus’s resurrected one (vs. 21).  When we die we immediately go into the presence of God.  Our bodies are transformed.  There is no more sickness or infirmities for us to endure.  Our broken, sick, or painful bodies will be brand new, just like the body Jesus had after His resurrection, if we are believers in Him.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Repentance For Restoration

Psalm 80

Our psalm reading this week is a prayer or plea to God that He would restore His people.  This psalm is believed to have been written shortly after the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel, when the Assyrian Empire came in, overran the Kingdom, and took the people captive.  This occurred between 732 - 720 BC.

After King Solomon had died, during the reign of his son, King Rehoboam, the northern tribes rebelled and broke off, forming the northern Kingdom of Israel, leaving the Southern Kingdom of Judah loyal to Rehoboam and the Davidic monarchy.  One of the first things that happened in the northern Kingdom of Israel was that the majority of the people turned away from the true worship of Yahweh, and started worshipping pagan idols.  Though God sent multitudes of prophets and preachers to them, seeking to bring them back to true faith, the majority of the people persisted in their wickedness.

Our psalmist sees what has happened to the ten northern tribes of Israel, as they had removed themselves from God’s blessings through their apostasy.  Also, the southern Kingdom of Judah was swiftly following in their footsteps.  The psalmist sets down in this prayer-psalm a plea to God to restore His people, identifying himself with the people who have been overrun by the enemy, though he is a worshipper of Yahweh alone, and probably from the southern Kingdom.

Three times throughout this psalm we hear the plea repeated for God to restore us, His people, to cause His face to shine upon us, and we would be saved (vs. 3, 7, and 19).  The idea of God’s face to shine upon us is that He would be pleased with us, no longer having an angry, glowering face.  He would be benevolent and willing to bless.   The psalmist reminds God of how He brought His people out of Egypt and planted them like a plant in the land (vs. 8-11).  Now, though, the kingdom is overrun by the enemy, and the people are in great sorrow, and they know that this is from the hand of God (vs. 4-6, 12-13).

When we are going through a difficult time in our life, either in our life individually, or as a people, we can cry out like we read in this psalm for God to restore us.  Where have the good days gone?  The psalmist here knew that what had happened was a result of the people’s sins.  The people had renounced the true worship of Yahweh and abandoned His Word, and instead gone following the pagan religions of the neighboring lands.   Before restoration can occur, there must be repentance, and a turning away from sin.  The psalmist’s cry for the people to be restored could not occur until the people, both individually and as a nation, returned wholeheartedly to Yahweh.   This is the same, not only in Biblical days, but also today.  We must humble ourselves, turn to God, and receive His forgiveness before restoration can occur.

Just like in Biblical times, we can turn away from God and go off on our own way, straying further and further away from Him and His Word.  Then when troubles arise we turn back to God and cry out, “Help me!”  We want Him to come and deliver us from the troubles that have befallen us.  But just as it was at the time of this psalm, there must be genuine repentance and a turning from the sins in our life before God can bring restoration, either to us individually or collectively.  Both the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah learned this.  Today, so often in many religious circles, repentance and turning from sin are brushed aside as relics of a former time, remnants of a more sterner, puritanical age.  The message of repenting and turning from sin, though, is still the message of God, not only in the Old Testament, but in the New as well, and is still His Word today.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Disappointing Vineyard

Isaiah 5:1-7

The Old Testament reading from this week’s Sunday Lectionary brings us to the Prophet Isaiah.  In this passage Isaiah gives a sort of song, or lyrical poem describing God and His relationship with the nation of Israel.  Let’s take a look, and see what we can learn from this brief passage.

Isaiah begins in verses 1 and 2, introducing God by the name of Well-beloved and Beloved.  As he goes on in this poem, Isaiah describes a grape vine that God cherishes, and takes great care in planting.  He prepares the ground, clearing it of any stones or other objects that would hinder its growth.  God builds a wall around the vineyard, with a tower, a winepress, everything to make it an ideal place to grow choice grapes.  But what happens?  It doesn’t grow choice, sweet grapes.  It grows sour ones.  What a disappointment!  Most of us have probably at one time or another bought grapes from the market, expecting a sweet, delicious treat, only to taste one and find it sour.  This is what God found with the vineyard He had planted and tended.

As we proceed on to verses 3 and 4, our speaker is now the Lord God, as He talks about His vineyard.  He is speaking to the nation of Israel, and asks them to bring a judgment.  Is there anything else He could have done to ensure a good crop of grapes?  He had done everything possible, and yet the grapes were inedible.  What was God going to do to this vineyard?  Verses 5 and 6 explain.  He wasn’t going to continue caring for vines that produced wild, sour grapes.  God gives a very graphic description of how He will tear down the vineyard, break the walls, the hedge, trample it all to the dirt.  He will not maintain it, nor water it with rain.  Very drastic.

It’s when we get to verse 7 that we see what this poem or song is all about.  As we have seen, God is the owner and planter of the vineyard.  What we learn is that people of Israel are the vine.  Several times throughout the Old Testament the people of God were described as vines, planted by the Lord God.  God desired that the Jewish people would grow and flourish, as His children and representatives to the Gentile nations.  They had His laws, they had His Word, and had been witnesses to His love, miracles, and deliverances throughout the ages.  What had happened?  Instead of being good grapes, why now are they bad, wild grapes?

Israel had turned its back on obeying God.  They neglected the poor and instead, exploited and oppressed them.  They were not a morally right or fair nation, but were instead a selfish people.  And just as important, instead of being a blessing to the world as God had intended, they hated other people, the Gentile nations.  Many of the people even had turned to worship other false gods, or mixed their worship of the true God with that of false gods.  Instead of being good grapes, all God saw in them was sour grapes.

Because of their persistence in disobeying Him, and practicing idolatry, God was going to tear down this vineyard He had planted.  He was going to take away the protection He had given the nation, and foreign enemies would come and trample her underfoot, which happened when Babylon overthrew the nation and took the people into captivity.

The Lord God, as the Vineyard Owner, had done everything possible for a good harvest, but still got only sour, useless grapes.  God had done all He could to have a godly, holy, righteous people, but they still did not live for Him.  They were bad grapes, bad fruit.

What kind of fruit are we bearing for Jesus?  Are we bearing good fruit or bad?  Jesus said “By their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:20)  We need to serve the Lord in truth and righteousness.  We need to be a good grape!