Thursday, 20 December 2007

Charge! - 1 Chron 28:9-10

What a responsibility! Young Solomon, standing in front of all the people, hears his father David tell him that God himself has chosen Solomon to be David's successor, to build the temple and to lead God's people. And what a person to have to follow ... David, the man after God's own heart, the man to whom God gave such success, the man to whom God's promised land was finally all given. How could he possibly carry such a burden and responsibility?

Actually, the key is embedded in the charge given by David. How does it start? - "Acknowledge the God of your father, and serve Him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind ... If you seek Him, He will be found by you ...". This is the key! God with us. Understanding that our God wishes to have a close, personal, and working relationship with us, providing all the power, all the strength, all the protection, and all the resources needed - this is what allows us to tackle the daunting tasks He has for us!

And what an object-lesson Solomon had in David. Yes, David had been very foolish many times. But yet, David had kept a 'short account' with God - he had turned back to his heavenly father quickly and with a repentant heart after turning from Him each time. He had acknowledged his sin, confessed that his sin had been against God, and sought His forgiveness. He had laid himself on the mercies of God, even in God's punishment, each time. And through all of David's life walking with the Lord he had seen all God's provision, protection and power.

And yet, there is a warning too: "... the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts ... if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever". Solomon knew this, and yet did not walk with God as he should have done. He saw all God had done, knew God's continued blessing because of God's mercy because of His promises to David, and yet his heart was not fully committed to God. Psalm 115 pleads with us to trust the Lord, even though the nations around might say 'Where is their God?'. Our response must alway be 'Our God is in heaven, He does whatever pleases Him'. And, in remembering and worshiping Him only, there are blessings stored up for us. How many blessings were stored up for Solomon and his descendants, promised in v8, that were never seen.

We see this same story time and again in the Bible. We fail, and as a result we also fail to know all the riches He has for us in Him. Oh to learn to walk closely with our God who indwells us, to daily dedicate our lives to Him, to be His and His only, to find all our joy in Him alone. What an inheritance Solomon had, and what a great inheritance is ours. And so, we too must "Be strong and do His work" only in His power, presence and provision.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

On a snowy day - 1 Chron 11

It's a very crisp winter morning, with frost lying thick on the ground. I've just come back in from walking to the school at 7am with my daughter - unusually early because of a school coach trip. Because the school is just down the road and around a corner from the manse, I really did not expect anything unusual to happen. What would have happened, however, if I had come across a lion stuck in one of the ditches that criss-cross the wetlands in this part of Somerset? I guess I would have left well alone, and put as much distance between it and me as possible.

Benaiah was a different sort of character. One of David's mighty men, he either heard about, or came across, a lion in a pit on a snowy day. Rather than pass on by, content it could do no harm, he jumped right in with it and killed it. Why? Was he some kind of nutter or show-0ff? Was it a silly dare? We are told that Benaiah was put in charge of David's bodyguard, and so I think we can safely assume that he was not mad, and that he was not a foolish risk taker or unthinking show-off. So why did he do it?

I guess we will never know for sure, but the context of the verses do permit what is probably accurate speculation. A lion in a snow-bound pit would be unable to get out, held in by the slippery sides. If the lion had survived to get out once the snow had melted, it would be very hungry! It would have been a real danger. Rather than leave the danger, he risked his own life to save the lives of others - precisely the action you would expect of a good bodyguard!

Why is this little incident (and that of his slaying of the 2.3 meter high champion of the Egyptians) included here? Is it for us merely to admire the strength of David's mighty men? Clearly not, since "all scripture is given by inspiration ... so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped" (2 Tim 3v16). The big point is that when David was on the run, in danger of his life, God's appointment for him to be king seemingly so unlikely to happen, God was working to bring His will to pass. He brought to David men who became known as 'mighty', and not merely called 'mighty' by David but acknowledged as 'mighty' by all. They were not just mighty in their deeds but also in their hearts, as we see in Benaiah's actions on that snowy day. God was training up a 'crack squad' with David who He would use to bring His word to pass. And, God was doing this without any recruitment posters, planned training campaign, or head-hunting scheme ... David was clearly an organised man, a great planner and military strategist, but it was God who brought these men, gave them their military experience, trained them up, and prepared them so that David had this life-long support from the mighty men.

Sometimes we are called on to accomplish things which seem unusual and of no relevance to God's work. Benaiah certainly did not expect to have to deal with a lion in a pit on that snowy day, I'm sure. But, in God's great providence, He is equipping His people for His work so that His church can continue to march in His triumphal procession until the day of His return. The church may look weak from time to time, may be 'on the run', may even have to be 'in hiding', but He always provides, always cares and continues to use people committed to Him to work out His great plans.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Minor [major] hero - 1 Chron 9:20

When doling out the jobs in the tabernacle, gatekeeper was probably not one of the jobs that people would have been clamoring for ... better than some, but hardly in the 'thick of the action'. Yet any job that we are given should be done for His glory, and with an eye to making the most of every opportunity He gives us.

Here in 1 Chronicles 9 we are reminded of Phinehas, who was in charge of the gatekeepers. Why is he remembered so many hundreds of years afterwards? Well, we find out more in Numbers 25, but before we go there lets just pause and look at what 1 Chronicles 9 says about him. Here we read: "... and the Lord was with him". What a wonderful commendation. Of course, the Lord was with all of the Israelites in the desert, because His presence was physically seen above the tabernacle both in day and night. And, in a much deeper way, the Lord is also always with those who are His - by the indwelling of the Spirit in the believer. However, there was something about the way Phinehas walked with God which particularly identified that the Lord was with him.

If we look in Numbers 25, we read that: "While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods." The very presence of God was seen physically with them in the signs of the pillars of cloud and fire; the miracles of God's deliverance from evil were still within living memory; the command of God in Ex 24:12-16 not to listen to the invitations of the surrounding nations - the people had all these benefits, and yet still turned from God. But Phinehas stood out. He saw the hypocrisy of the people weeping before God on the one hand whilst still inviting people of the surrounding nations into their home, and acted decisively to deal with the sin. Because he knew his God, and the Lord was known to him, he did not turn aside to sin, but was zealous for God's name.

I love 1 Chron 9:20, because it does not bring us back to the particular act that Phinehas did, but to the motivation that led to the act: "the Lord was with Him". People who truly know God must, surely, live and act in the light of His purity, glory and for His honour. No matter how humble or great the position God has given us, if we are living our life with the knowledge of His presence, always in His sight, and always for His glory, we can be greatly used for His honour. Not only did Phinehas act for God's glory, but his actions also saved the Israelite nation, because his actions stopped a plague put upon them in judgment.

Do we desire to be greatly used for God? Then we must be those who live our lives with God.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Well, just ask [for what glorifies Him]! - James 4v2

Here is another passage that I often hear quoted: "You do not have because you do not ask God". I say that I have heard it often but, thinking about it, I have to confess that I do too little to respond to the challenge of the verse.

It so happened that this morning I was reading from 1 Chron 4 as well as James 4. In the middle of the long genealogy that is found in that chapter, there are two verses of narrative that stand out - v9-10 "Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, 'I gave birth to him in pain.' Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request." Here was Jabez, born with the name 'pain'! Can you imagine it ... all through your life being called 'what a pain!' What an awful burden in life. Yet, in reality we are all born under the same curse, because in Genesis we see that at the fall the woman was told that she would suffer pain in child-birth and Adam would be subject to painful toil all his life. Thus, Jabez merely had an obvious label to point out the condition we are all born into because of the fall. But Jabez understood that He had a God who was able to free him from the curse, and so looked to God who answered him. He could have looked elsewhere for happiness, but knew that true contentment could only come from God. He could have looked elsewhere for blessing, but knew that the only blessing that would address his great needs was in God. Only in God is there an answer to the curse of sin, and only in God is there an answer to our needs, whether small or large. There is much more that could be said about Jabez, and you can read more from a much more capable preacher here.

However, although I really need to apply both James 4v2 and 1 Chron 4v9-10 personally, what I noticed this time was the context of the promise found in James 4v2. In the earlier verses God challenges His people - they are quarreling and fighting because they want things that others have but do not have these things themselves. There were two things wrong - a covetous heart that was not content with all God had given, and a failure to understand that He is able to supply all our needs. These both actually boil down to the same issue - a failure to understand that all we have comes from Him, who gives generously according to His own purposes for us. The problem is that we continually look elsewhere for the things we desire, when we should be looking to Him. Furthermore, v3 tells us that even when we do ask, we do so with wrong motives ... we seek what we desire for our own use or pleasure and fail to seek what He desires us to have for His glory; "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6v21).

And so, I was challenged about two things today from James 4v2: How I need to learn to pray more for things rather than seek to find these things by myself, and how I need to have a heart that desires Him and His glory, so that the things I ask of Him are the very things that He longs to give. I have to get both of these right - desiring Him means that I will pray in His will for the things He desires for me. And there is a bonus: in getting this right I will also realise the promise in v7-8: "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you.".

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Without doubt - James 1:5-8

There are many famous passages in scripture which are frequently quoted as promises for us to appropriate without a consideration of the context of the verses. This is a dangerous practice - dangerous because our faith can be tested by the promise apparently not being kept, when the reality is that we have failed to understand the other verses that go with the promise. For a recent sermon I wanted to cite some promises of God, and so found a list from a book. I decided to check up each passage before using them, and discovered that I had to weed out two thirds of the quoted promises because they had been quoted out of context.

James 1v5 is an commonly quoted passage "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him." What a wonderful promise! How we, like Solomon, need to acknowledge that only God has the answer to the situations we find ourselves in, and so we need to throw ourselves in dependence on Him and His wisdom every day. However, we read on and find v6-8: "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does." Now, that's a bit different from the extract in v5! In fact, it paints a whole new picture.

The context of v5 is that of perseverance in trials and persecution. James reminds us that perseverance in such circumstances is important because these are sent that we might be honed and might learn more of Him, that we might be tested and shown to be disciples who love Him above all, that we might be disciplined so that we follow Him more closely. In the most difficult times, when all within us cries 'Why, Lord?', and the pressure is on to turn away from our saviour, we need wisdom to see beyond our circumstances to our sovereign and loving God. When we are faced with temptation, and the pressure to deny our love for Him, we need His wisdom to say 'no' to evil so that we are not conformed to the pattern of this world. In these trials we need His wisdom so that we are not 'blown and tossed by the wind'.

Now, understanding the correct context, we can see that the promise of His wisdom being given is a deeper blessing than merely the bald promise of v5. When we are struggling to walk with Him when under trials and difficulties, when we need to know we are following Him aright in the times when the way ahead seems so difficult to chose, when we need His reassurance that the decision to "not walk in the way of the ungodly" is the right decision, His wisdom is available to us. It is all about casting ourselves upon Him and His wisdom - believing and not doubting - in the time of trial.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Only 'in Christ' - Roms 12:3

Last week I preached a sermon on Romans 12v3, part of a series I have called 'Foundations of Faith' from Romans 12. If you follow this link to the sermon you will see that, whilst I was aware that this was a transition verse from v1-2, I followed the pattern of most commentators (and the paragraph breaks of modern versions) by putting v3 with the section v3-8 which talks about gifts and their use in the church. Thus, I pointed out (rightly) that, just as our salvation is all of God ("in view of God's mercy" v1), and our sanctification is also all of Him (v1b-2), our work in the church is also all of him (v3) - He is the one who provides the gifts, He is the one who gives us the strength to use the gifts, it is only by His spirit that our gifts can be applied for His purposes and we apply the gifts He has given only through faith in Him. To Him alone be all the glory in the church!

However, meditating on this verse, I have also become convinced that the verse applies back to v1-2. That is, I have become convinced that the verse is also intrinsically related to our salvation and sanctification, not just our gifting. This view restores v3 to be a genuine 'transition' verse, and is therefore the more complete (and, I think, correct) view. Let me explain what I mean...

Paul starts "For by the grace given to me", which I pointed out was a kind of code, pointing us back to his position as an Apostle. It was also a wonderful illustration of the point he is about to make ... that all that He is, has and did to Paul is all given by grace alone - none of the credit can go to Paul, but all must go to God. And so, just as the gift of Apostleship is from God, so is the gift of salvation. Now, he says, 'do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment'. This applies to salvation and sanctification too! We are saved only by grace (Eph 2v8-9), and we are made a new creation only 'in Christ' (2 Cor 5v17). It is only by the power of the spirit that His new creation is continually renewed so that it is not 'conformed to the pattern of this world' (Rom 12v2). It is only He who can make the sacrifice Holy as our bodies are offered to Him daily (Rom 12v1, Ex 29v37). We are therefore never to consider 'bigging ourselves up in our minds' to consider that it is by our effort that we are sanctified. To do so is 'foolish thinking' (not thinking with "sober judgment"), that causes us to fail to act in faith and seek this transformation by our own power. This makes sense of the last part of v3 "in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you" ... God gives faith to us all - it is His gift in salvation - but we can reduce the impact by failing to act on that faith and instead looking to ourselves.

So, we are not to think of ourselves too highly - we cannot do anything towards our sanctification because it is only by His power as He enables us to resist the attacks of the devil and show the fruit of His spirit in us. All on the altar - all pride at what we have become, all self-reliance, all self-exaltation - none of this has a place. It is only 'in Christ' that we are new creations. Yes, we must stand firm on His word. Yes, we must resist the devil. Yes, we must offer our bodies on His altar. But we do so only in His strength, only by His power, only through His Spirit at work in us.

So, when we look in the spiritual 'mirror', I hope you are pleased with what you see God has made you become. But never take on the praise to yourself, never think it is in your power, never believe that you have done it yourself. Never be a Nebuchadnezzar, surveying the blessings God has given and claiming the glory for yourself! Be God glorifying people!

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Health, wealth, but evil - 2 Kings 21

I was amazed when reading 2 Kings 21 how Manasseh had turned so badly from God's ways when he had the example of the destruction of Israel and the contrasting preservation and prosperity of his father Hezekiah. What was he doing? Could he not see the contrast between the way in which Hezekiah had prospered and been protected and the, now scattered, nation of Israel. Had other nations really prospered more than they for following all the ways of the gods he adopted? What made him move so dramatically back to the practices of Ahaz and the Israelite nation?

Well, we are not actually told directly. However, we can summise from his actions. Look at the range of gods he put up - it looks very like 'spread betting' ... lets get to worshiping as many gods as possible so that we are covered just in case one of them does not look upon us too well! This, I think, shows a basic insecurity - He wanted to be a prosperous and successful king, but with so many powerful nations around and with such a small country, how could he be? Instead of understanding that there was a great God in whom all trust could be put, he followed a natural inclination to protect himself with as much as possible.

In some ways he must have thought that this strategy paid off. He had a long reign with relative peace. Ahab, the earlier Israelite king, had a similar experience - great prosperity and international respect, yet a life following foreign gods. However, scripture records the true verdict on both men ... they did evil in the eyes of God!

The recent 'prosperity' movement had robbed us of a proper understanding of God's sovereignty and authority. Simple formulas do not work, because we cannot see all the variables or their values. Only He knows the beginning from the end. Only he can see the full extent of His purposes. He had a purpose of judgment for the wicked hearts of the people, who even in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, those two Godly kings, only turned back to him on the outward appearance but not in the heart. The Kings rent their clothes, wept before the Lord and sought purity, but the hearts of the people still looked elsewhere, as we see from the rapid turn back to sin as soon as these Godly kings had gone.

The real question to ask ourselves, then, is this: Where is our true, total trust? Are we 'spread betting' in our lives, trusting on ourselves or the support of others, or the reputation we have built in our jobs, or the money we have in savings, or the love of our family, or whatever else, rather than in God? We may be seeing prosperity, but that does not mean our hearts are right. He longs for 'truth in the inward parts' (Ps 51v6), not the sham of worship when we are also trusting in other 'gods'.

A Deep clean - 2 Kings 22-23

I recently visited a member of the church in a hospital ward where there had been an infection. A team were in before the ward was to be re-opened. They were the 'deep cleaning' team ... a 'crack squad' of cleaners, equipped with the very best in cleaning equipment, including steam cleaning. They were meticulous, covering every millimeter of every surface, taking every bed, cabinet, chair and anything else in the room apart to clean the whole room. It was hard, tough, time-consuming work, but essential if the infection was to be eradicated.

I was reading this morning from 2 Kings 22-23. Josiah had become king after the reigns of Manasseh and Amon, both Kings who did evil in the eyes of God. Amazingly, without access to the word of God, he decided to abandon the ways of his fathers and follow God. Isn't it wonderful how the pattern of the father in the story of the prodigal son is seen again and again in scripture? In His mercy, God has the book of the law discovered! Josiah had started the process of rebuilding the temple and turning back to God, and now God reveals His holy standard so that the process can be completed. Josiah responds as we ought, but so often fail to do ... he tore his robes (he laid himself 'bare' before the Lord, no reliance on his wealth or strength, no dependence on his own possessions, all given over to Him), and he wept (not 'crocodile tears', but genuine, heartfelt grief over how much the nation had grieved and angered the Holy God).

What struck me most from this passage, however, was a little phrase in v12 "He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz". Now we have no indication of how long they had been there. The phrase 'Kings' could mean just Manasseh and Amon, but why not just say that? I doubt these altars were there in Hezekiah's time, because he broke down all the high places and his fervor for purity is recorded in 2 Kings 18v3-5. Whatever the case, I love this little verse because it reveals that this was 'deep cleaning'! Josiah did not just deal with all the high places, idols, and idol worship in public places, but dealt with the hidden places that were known only to him. He looked inside his own life, with God's aid he found every little place where evil lurked, and cut all of it out, totally removing the evil and doing all he possibly could to ensure that it could not return (even to the extent of having the very stones of the altars 'ground to powder' (e.g. v15)!

What a challenge in my life. How easy it is to let sin lurk within, to hold on to the 'high places' in my life! I need to allow God's word to penetrate, to 'renew my mind' (Rom 12v2), to utterly transform me so that every part of my life might shine for Him.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Luke 9v1-36

I was struck in reading this passage today, not by the detail, in each of the incidents, but by the bigger issues.

Luke 9 is not helped by the chapter division ... we need to remember what had happened in the previous chapters (perhaps unsurprisingly). Luke 8 starts to ask the question, 'Who is Jesus?'. We see it in v19-21 when Jesus surprises us about who his real brothers and sisters are. We see it in v22-25 when Jesus calms the storm and the disciples ask 'Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him'. We see it in v26-39 when the demons know precisely who He is, and yet blind the people of the region of Gerasenes to Him and ask the one the demons see is 'Jesus, the Son of the Most High God' to leave!

Yet we also see that Jesus does not want people to come to sudden, meager conclusions about who He is ... it is easy to place a label, whether a great one like 'Son of the Most High' (8v28) or 'Messiah' (9v20), or a lesser one (though great in our consideration) like 'healer' (9v56), 'miracle worker' (8v22, 9v11), or prophet (9v7-8,19-20). In attaching such a label we can completely miss the full message.

No wonder Jesus told the parable of the seed (8v1-15) ... 'the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by perseverance produce a good crop'. We need to 'consider Him', not label Him.

The tragedy is that no matter how trivially or deeply we think we understand Him, we can get it so wrong. Herod was intrigued (9v7-9), but merely intellectually ... even if he attributed the label 'prophet' he was as ready to behead Jesus as he had done John. The disciples, who had known the empowering of God to do miracles and wonders (9v1) and the provision of God (9v3,10), still failed to transfer that experience to practical faith when faced with 5000 to feed with five loaves and two fish (9v10-17). Peter, who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (9v20), failed to understand this also meant He was Lord who demanded our all (9v33,v23-24) and would be the very one who would deny Him because of fear of a young girl despite what Jesus warned in 9v25-26.

What a warning for us, then. He is 'prophet, priest and king'. He is God's son (8v28, 9v35). But we can know this and yet be a demon, or even hear it from the mouth of God Himself and yet deny Him!

We need, of course, to firstly know him as 'My Lord and my God'. This is the only starting point. All else is mere knowledge without relationship, understanding or security.

But knowing that, we need also to go on without thinking that we have Him 'sussed'. How we need to walk with Him, learning from Him each day in humility, letting the 'word dwell in you deeply'. How much we need to not forget the lessons we learn from Him and of Him in the blessings, but also apply them in the difficulties. How much we need to raise our eyes beyond the trivialities of the things around us, that would cause us to be concerned with 'who is the greatest' (9v46-50). "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done out duty.' " (17v10)