January 9 — Isaiah 44

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I belong to the Lord. (Isaiah 44.5)

I am thirsty.

I am dry.

I am worn out.

I see no rest in sight.

No one cares.

No one pays me any attention.

No one wants what is best for me.

I am a no one…

… and I belong to no one.

Not so fast, says the Lord. Listen, he says.

If you have ever felt some of the emotions above, Isaiah 44 may be just the passage for you. It opens with the Lord speaking to his servant, Jacob, and his chosen one, Israel. We may be quick to say: Well, he is not speaking to us, but doing so would miss the point. God is speaking to the one’s he calls and that is you and me. He wants us to hear this message. In fact, I would maintain that the reason this passage even appears in the book of Isaiah might have as much to do with an enduring message to generations of people to come as it does to the literal nation of Israel.

To his people, God says these things:

I formed you.
I will help you.
I will water you.
I will pour my spirit on your offspring (think: I not only guide you, but I will guide your children and children’s children.
And when I do, God says, they will recognize that they belong to the Lord.

If you are like me, there are very few things that give me more pride and joy than hearing someone speak well of my children. While I recognize they may not be perfect, to hear someone tell me that in the future good things will come their way reassures me.

It helps me breathe a little easier.

It makes me worry less.

It causes me to realize that the dryness I may feel does not mean there is no good to come.

My children … and I … belong to the Lord.

If you finish the rest of Isaiah 44 (vv. 6 and following) you discover this. If God is the one to whom we belong, if he is the one who has created the world and us in it, seeking idols is the wrong path. To whatever degree our despair may cause us to think of things beyond God, he is Lord and does not forget us.

Sing for joy, you heavens, for the Lord has done this;
shout aloud, you earth beneath.
Burst into song, you mountains,
you forests and all your trees,
for the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
he displays his glory in Israel. (Isaiah 44.23)

Questions:

Have you ever been so discouraged that your feelings of sadness made you lament not only your own position in life, but also your children’s, as well? How comforting is it to hear Isaiah describe God’s blessing (here told as water and springs for a dry land) for generations to come?

Following idol is a theme we often encounter in Old Testament prophetic writings. For them, the idols may have been tangible objects, even as those objects were symptomatic of hearts far from God. For us, we are more likely to follow after non-tangible items. What are some of the idols we chase and how do they pull us away from God. Compare a life that has “The Lord’s” written on his or hand versus a life chasing idols? How do we prevent the latter while seeking more of the former?

What song would you sing, similar to 44.23 to celebrate God’s provision for you? Pick a song of praise you are familiar with or perhaps you may want to write your own lyrics that communicate the praise you have for God.

January 1 – Isaiah 40

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This year, how are you making preparations for his coming?

Isaiah 40.1-31 is often called the “Book of Comfort.” After 39 chapters of discussion about the coming destruction of the Lord on both Israel and her enemies, chapter 40 strikes a word of hope about the future.

To be fair, all of Isaiah prior to this chapter is not gloom and doom. There are moments when the coming of the Lord and the restoration of his people are mentioned, but by and large, the first section of Isaiah serves as a stark warning to God’s people of the punishments to come.

To gain a sense of the importance of Isaiah 40, it is good to look at the chapter in outline form. You see a flow of God’s restoration better this way.

The very first word of this first section (vs. 1-2) is “comfort.” Yes, Israel is punished for her sins (of turning away from God), but those sins had been paid … in fact, Israel paid double for her sins. This is good news. Punishment was coming to an end.

Next (vs. 3-5) we hear of the passage most often tied to John the Baptist in the New Testament that a voice is calling in the wilderness for the people to get ready for the coming of the Lord. After punishment was over, God came to recall or re-gather his people Israel. Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes these verses in his “I Have a Dream” speech; referring to the ways the coming of the glory of the Lord would ease the burdens of the oppressed people. In King’s day, it was people of color and in Isaiah’s day, it was Israel whose punishment would soon be over.

We cannot forget, however, another way in which the mountains being made low and the valleys raised up are significant: When John the Baptist describes the coming of the glory of the Lord, he is referring to Jesus who would give God’s people salvation. It was impossible to find salvation in God without the coming sacrifice to which Jesus fulfills and John refers.

The next section of verses (vs. 6-20) contrast the life of people, who wither and fade like grass, with God, who created the world and rules eternally. When the Old Testament refers back to the creation story and more specifically God’s role in creation, it most often is describing the sovereignty of God. (Sovereignty meaning the one who has all power due to his creation of the world and his current ruling over that same world.) We should not see God in the way we see one another in that we have limited lifespans. God, as creator of the world, is also the sustainer of the world and reigns forever. God is also not an idol, crafted by human hand. Idols, Isaiah points out, are inferior to God’s sovereignty.

The last two sections of Isaiah 40 both begin with the same text: “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” (v. 21, 28) Similar to the section above, the first of these two sections (vs. 21-27) describe God as the creator of the universe and asks the question: “To whom will you compare me?” The answer is obviously, “No one.” There is no comparison to the God who not only created the stars, but also knows each one by name.

Finally, the last section of Isaiah 40 (vs. 28-31) reminds the reader that because God is the creator of the world and because there is no comparison to him, he does not grow tired or weary. Remember the original opening of this chapter: Isaiah is writing to a people who have completed their punishment and I would assume who are extremely weary and extremely tired. Isaiah goes on to say that while humans do get tired—even youths get tired and weary—God (because he does not) is the one who provides renewal for their strength. They soar like eagles, Isaiah says, because of the Lord.

So, we see in Isaiah 40 a progression of comfort given to a people who were at the end of their punishment and who would be revived by the coming glory of the Lord. When the Lord comes, when he is revealed, those who see him are renewed.

Questions:

In what ways have you seen the glory of the Lord revealed to you? How would you contrast the glory of the Lord with things here on earth today that are competing with God’s position of sovereign king?

If God is the one who created the heavens and brought forth the starry hosts (v. 26), why do you think people are so quick to focus on inferior things (Isaiah would call them idols) as their “gods?” How can we be reminded to focus more on God’s coming glory than for these “gods” who clamor for our attention?

Why does the “voice calling in the wilderness” describe valleys being raised and mountains being made low, etc.? What connection do these things have with the coming of the Lord? Since this is the case, what can you do in your own life to prepare for the glory of the Lord to be revealed?

For Your Family:

What obstacles prevent you and your family from receiving fully the glory of the coming Lord? What specific steps can you do today and in the days to come with your family to better receive him?

The more important you make God a priority in your own life, the more your family understands the coming of his glory because they focus more on him. What things can you do with your family to show the importance of God in your life and in the life of your family?

May the Lord Bless You

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May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us.
(Psalm 67:1)

Today’s Passages:
Psalm 67
Isaiah 56:1-7
Romans 11:13.32
Matthew 15:21-28

When you think about God blessing you, what do you want to receive as the result of that blessing?

It’s hard not to have a desire for a better life, which we often describe as fewer troubles—in our jobs, our marriages, our families, and our finances. At times, perhaps we assume that God’s blessing translates into our “team” winning. Obviously, winning could be defined in a multitude of ways, many of them having nothing to do with sports or games. Maybe God’s blessing for you is for a desire for peace in your life. The Old Testament writers would have called this “Shalom” and it referred to more than peace as an absence of war, it meant something along the lines of everything being just like it was created to be.

Psalm 67 begins with an echo of the priestly blessing found in Numbers 6:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Number 6:24-26)

Nothing in this blessing would cause us not to think of the ideas we first mentioned about what a blessing would (or perhaps we might say should) look like for us.

But in verse 2, the psalmist turns an unexpected corner:

“so that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all the nations.

It would seem that the blessing of God has little to do with what we receive, or at least in this moment, the writer of the psalm understands that more important than what he receives is the awareness (publicity is probably an appropriate word, although we may find ourselves uncomfortable using it) that God receives because of the great things he has done.

Which brings up a question: What if we asked God to bless us in ways that we could use to share his glory with others? What if, instead of asking for better jobs, marriages, families, or more money, we asked God to give us what we need to be a mouthpiece for him?

 

Questions:

•Spend a few minutes writing down all of the things you would like to “ascribe” to God, that is, list the great things that God has done in your life.

•How does your life communicate to others that “Salvation comes from the Lord?” How can you do a better job telling others this?

•Describe a time when you have felt intense grief for those you love who have turned their back on God. How have you expressed this grief to them and also to God?

•It is interesting that Jesus chose to spend time alone praying to God. Why do you think this was so important to Jesus (who came from God, after all) and what does his actions say about how we should also approach God in prayer?

•When have you heard Jesus tell you to “Take courage!” and really needed the courage that only he can bring?

Be Compassionate and Humble

20170521 - 1HBSWho is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?
(1 Peter 3.13)

Today’s passages:
Psalm 148
Isaiah 41.17-20
1 Peter 3.8-18
John 15.1-8

If you live long enough, you will probably make someone mad at you. (I know, for some of us, it didn’t take that long, did it?) You don’t mean to, it’s just that the tosses and turns of life at times rub people the wrong way and you end up on the wrong end of their ire.

My grandfather lived well beyond his 90th year and to my knowledge, he never had anyone who disliked him. (Obviously I am both biased and somewhat sheltered from all of the negatives, but when we rehearse family stories, a conflict with someone else is never a part of those stories.) You couldn’t. He was calm, kind, gentle, and always sought the best in others. He was so busy doing good, he really didn’t have time to rile people up and if he did, he was so busy doing good you wouldn’t have wanted to stop what he was doing.

I am sure I get more joy of thinking about my grandfather than you do, since you did not know him, so let me make this a little more personal for you. When you read Peter’s words: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble,” who comes to mind?

And as you continue to read, who is a person who would never repay evil with evil?

Let me make this even more personal still: Are you a person of whom someone would say they always repay evil with a blessing, never an insult? That is easy to long for, yet I find it incredibly hard to do. We seem to be conditioned at an early age to hit back as soon as someone hits you first. (Ever hung out in an elementary or middle school cafeteria and listened to the banter?) If someone talks bad about you – true or not – we seem to understand it as a license to return the favor.

We could discuss all day long why we do this. It may be an act of protection, avoiding getting our feelings completely destroyed by someone else. It may be an act of aggression, trying to one up someone else so that every knows who’s “boss.” It may be that we are just mean.

Whatever the case, Peter says it’s wrong. Rather than try to fight back, we should be eager to do good. Who’s going to come after you if you are spending your time doing good for others? (Want to bring a “cut-down” session to a screeching halt? Agree with the insult and then say something nice. It’s not nearly as fun to argue with someone who agrees with you!)

Peter goes on to say: don’t be wishy washy or back down from answering people about why you have hope in the Lord, but when you answer them, do so with gentleness and respect. It is a rare but valuable commodity to be able to disagree with someone but do it in such a way that they feel loved and cared for in spite of their dissenting view. If we could figure out how to do this more, the world would be a better place.

 

Questions:

•When the psalmist calls on us to praise the Lord, he does so because we understand the Lord as the one who made us. Why does knowing that the world came from God change our perspective about how we view him? If God made the world and everything in it, why would we not want to praise (i.e.: give him the honor he deserves) him?

•In what ways has God given you water and caused rivers to flow when you need it most, when you were “on barren heights?”

•Most of us try to avoid suffering at all costs because we assume if we are suffering, we must be doing something wrong. Peter argues that if we suffer, we are simply following in the example that Jesus gave us. How do you feel about suffering and how it relates to living a life a faith in Jesus Christ?

•What does it mean to “remain in Jesus” and allow yourself to continue to be connected to the vine? What are some specific ways you can be connected to him today, tomorrow, and this week?

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

2017.04.09 - 1HBSMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me?
(Psalm 22.1)

Today’s passages:
Psalm 22.1-22
Isaiah 45.21-25
Philippians 2.5-11
Matthew 26.36-75

I wonder how many times Jesus asked himself the following question in the week leading up to his crucifixion: Why am I having to go through this?

Sometimes I think we have this assumption that Jesus spent his life going through the motions as if reading from a script.

“Let’s see… Today I am to go down to Galilee and heal some people when I get there. Oh yes, then tomorrow it looks like the schedule says I need to teach some people.”

I think taking such a view removes some of the significance that Jesus was divine, yet he was also fully human. I cannot explain how that happens, but I believe the humanity of Jesus caused him to not only be tempted in every way like we are (Hebrews 4.15) but to also have some control over the ways he lived his life. If this is true—and I think the gospels demonstrate that it is—then Jesus’ last week must have been one that was full of anxious anticipation. He knew what was to come and quite frankly, I am not sure he was excited about the consequences at hand.

If you know the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, you know that one of the seven last words he spoke was a quotation of Psalm 22.1, as seen above. He did not quote the entire psalm, just the first half of the first verse: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

One can take this in a couple of different ways. The first would be to assume the abandonment by God in the precise moment that Jesus died. There are all kinds of theological arguments made for such a view, each trying to point out that Jesus suffered while going through death for our salvation.

The second thought about this quote of Jesus is that when one would quote a portion of a psalm, that entire psalm would come into the minds of those who heard the quotation. If this is the case, then we cannot simply stop at the idea of abandonment, but must also include the psalmist’s words that God is “enthroned as the Holy One” (v. 3) and that the writer would “declare [God’s] name to [his] people.” (v. 22) This second view probably gets closer to what Jesus was expressing with his quote on the cross. This idea is further enhanced when we look at the Philippian passage from today’s reading.

Many of us are familiar with these verses, which many scholars believe was originally a song that Paul used within his letter. The gist of the song goes like this: Jesus was God (we read this truth expressed all throughout Scripture) yet, he did not hold on to his “godness.” Instead, he gave it up (literally: emptied himself) so that he could be a sacrifice for us. This was an act of obedience, by the way. We might assume that if we knew we were to be glorified after the fact (see verses 9-11), then it would be easy to give up the life we currently have for the moment. I believe—whatever Jesus knew about what was to come—he was willing to give up his life, even if there was no guarantee for something in the future.

Which brings us full circle to my original question. How many times have you asked yourself: Why do I have to go through this? It is easy for us to assume that our lives, once we have committed to following Jesus, suddenly become heavy with the responsibilities of being good and not sinning and the like. We can also swing to the other side of the pendulum and assume that because we follow Christ, our lives will be nothing but joy and pleasantries. If something goes wrong, we think that God must have abandoned us. Both ways of thinking are filled with the dangers of overgeneralization, as well as the possibilities of missing God at work.

Perhaps a better question to ask, then, is: How can I remain obedient to God regardless of the circumstances that present themselves to me throughout my day?

 

Questions:

•Would you say you spend your time more in the first part of Psalm 22 (the one lamenting God’s forsaking you) or the latter part (where you rejoice in the assembly, praising God)? Why is this the case? In what ways have you been able to find a balance between these two extremes?

•How do Isaiah’s words that deliverance comes “in the Lord alone” provide comfort for you? In what ways have you tried to find deliverance in other things besides God? How has God shown himself as the only one who provides you deliverance and strength?

•How have you been able to take on the same mindset as Christ in your relationships with one another?

•As you read through our reading from Matthew, what stands out to you, even if you have read these verses many times before? How do you see Christ’s humility displayed in these verses?

•How do you remain obedient to God regardless of the circumstances that present themselves to you throughout the day?

Where are you staying?

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I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.
(John 1.34)

Where are you staying?

Ask yourself: If Jesus had just been pointed out to you in a crowd or perhaps at a busy market, how would you begin a conversation with him? What would you say when you first walked up to him? Even if you did not fully understand or even believe his power, his reputation alone might cause you some hesitation as you approached him.

For many of us, the moment we find ourselves in front of someone famous or someone with a lot of power, we find ourselves dumbstruck. All the great things we were going to say fly out the window. We stutter and stammer, barely able to communicate anything. We finally blurt out some word of praise or awe, but even that comes across strange.

Perhaps the awkwardness of the moment impacts our ability to think clearly. We don’t know what to say exactly, so we compensate by saying something … anything. Like walking into a hospital room and asking a patient who is in critical condition or perhaps near death: How’s it going? (Well, not so good, but thanks for asking!)

These two disciples of John find themselves in a similar situation. They are with their teacher, when Jesus, the “Lamb of God,” passes by. This would not have been the first time these men heard of Jesus, for John spent his life pointing out the coming of the Messiah to those who would listen. And John was obviously successful at what he came to do because these two start to follow Jesus. This was the plan all along: “He must be greater; I must become less.” (Jn. 3.30) To John’s disciples, there must have been a sense of awe in finally coming face-to-face with this man. At this point, following him seemed like the only logical choice.

When Jesus realizes they are following him, he asks: “What do you want?”

“Where are you staying?” they reply.

Most of us (scholars included) want to know: did these two know what they were asking or was this just another bumbled introduction?

On the one hand, we might expect a question like: “Can we follow you?” or “Will you teach us?” Perhaps they might want to know the most important command of the law or secrets to a faithful life. As men of faith (remember, they were disciples of John), we certainly expect some sense of recognition of the greatness of Jesus, God’s Son.

Yet on the other hand, their question may get at the heart of what it means to truly follow Jesus. First, learning from Jesus is a life-long process. It involves day-in and day-out examples of what it means to live under the Lordship of him. Hearing the good news of Jesus’ salvation may only take a moment, but the implications of fully realizing how salvation affects our actions takes a long time. So it would make sense that John’s disciples wanted more than just a “quick word” with Jesus.

The other thing that I imagine is going on is that when you are introduced to the “Lamb of God,” the savior of the world, you want to spend extended time with him. A conversation with someone like Jesus takes more than a moment or two. You cannot simply visit over dinner and call it good. Days and months and years must pass to really get to know him and every moment you have with him adds to the joy of knowing him. Like that young couple in love, when you hang up at night, you count the seconds until you can visit again. If this is true, then asking where are you staying makes complete sense.

What about you? When you meet Jesus, what is your question? A stumbling, awkward attempt to praise the Son of God or a request to spend time—extended time—with God?

Where are you staying?

 

Questions:

•How does knowing the ways God has rescued you—lifted you from the pit, the psalmist says—give you a new song of praise to God? In what ways do people see and fear God because of your praise? How can you do a better job of praising him so that others know him?

•In several places in scripture we are told God knew us, by name, before we were even born. How does this knowledge help you better understand the power of God and his love for you?

•What ways do you struggle with your faith, thinking that you are not good enough to live a Godly life? How does Paul’s admonition that you “do not lack any spiritual gift” help you recognizes the abilities God has given you to live for Him?

•What was the first thing you did when you learned about Jesus? How does your reaction compare to the actions of Andrew? How can our knowledge of Jesus propel us to share that with those closest to us?

•What practices can we engage in to help ourselves know God better? Once we know him better, how can we be sure to share him more with others?

I Have Called You

20170108-1hbsI, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.

I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles.
(Isaiah 42.6)

God wants us to be his people. It is a message that goes all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After they sin, it would have been easy for God to kick them out of the garden and have nothing else to do with them. (Let’s be honest, that’s how we treat most people who let us down.) That wasn’t God’s plan, however. He clothes them and even though there were repercussions for their sin, they were still his people.

We see it again in the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 and following. God wants this man to be the start of a great nation; a nation that God would call his own. We see it in the lives of God’s kings; we hear it in the voices of his prophets.

It is the same story told by Peter, who in the midst of a religious climate that refused to associate with Gentiles (non-Jews, or in our day we might think of them as people without faith and opposed to God), discovered that God shows no favoritism. While many people would assume that you MUST exclude people unlike you, Peter is directed by God to accept and bring people completely opposite of him into the church.

Finally, we feel the full impact of God’s desire when his son is crucified on the cross. God wants us to be his people.

Too often, we miss that our responsibility is not just to be his people. We forget that we are to help others be his people, too. All the way back in the book of Isaiah, we are told we are to be God’s covenant people, which meant we would be not only in covenant with him, but also a light to the Gentiles.

There’s more, we would:

  • Open eyes that are blind
  • Free captives from prison
  • Release from the dungeon those in darkness

Being God’s people means more than just a single focus on God and us. It also means looking to those seeking him, or those who perhaps do not yet even know he is the one they seek.

It is what his servant and son Jesus did. How well do you seek out others to be his?

 

Questions:

•In what ways have you sung the praises of God’s great love and made his faithfulness known to others? What specific things would you include in your song? Make a list and share it with someone also reading these passages.

•How does knowing God seeks you out, he WANTS you to be his, affect your devotion to God? How does it make it easier for you to want to follow him?

•How do you think you would have reacted to Peter’s acceptance of a Gentile? In what ways might we exclude people from faith today? How can we overcome the tendency to be exclusionary or to play favorites? What is something you can do today to do so?

•In what ways have you felt the affirmation of God on you? How has it affected your spiritual walk?

•Do something today that reminds you that God really, really does love you, and also helps you remember to share his love with others.