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.

Publish This

20161225-letters-1hbsPublish his glorious deeds among the nations.
Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.
(Psalm 96.3, NLT)

If there was a fantastic event happening in your city this weekend, how would you know where and when the event was being held? Let’s say the circus was coming to town. You and your family love the circus and would love to attend, but how would you get the information you needed to do so?

Easy, you say. What with newspaper, radio, television, the Internet and social media, it might be hard NOT to be aware of the upcoming circus.

And while this has not always been the case, you would be right. The movable type printing press has been around since the mid-1400s, but recent technologies have created ways to more easily share a wealth of information:

  • The first radio news broadcast was aired in 1920.
  • The regularly scheduled news you watch nightly has only been around since 1950.
  • The first publicly available use of the Word Wide Web happened August of 1991.
  • Facebook, perhaps the most common way of receiving information today, first went online in 2004. (Twitter followed in 2006, Pinterest and Instagram in 2010, and the latest rage, Snapchat, has been around since 2011. By the time this is published, something else will probably be the “in” thing.)

It is no wonder people talk about information overload. Dissemination of information used to be in the hands of only a few, but now it can be accomplished by anyone. Today there will be over 3 million blog posts published from around 175 million blogs. If you checked Facebook today, you did so along with 1.6 billion other individuals. During the 10 seconds it takes you to read this sentence, over 60,000 tweets will have been published, which equates to roughly 500 million tweets per day.

The issue, therefore, is not finding something to talk about. It is talking about those things that really are important. It is about finding the good stuff in the midst of all of the other noise.

That’s why the psalmist’s words in Psalm 96 are so significant. Publish THIS news: God’s glorious deeds and his presence are among us. “Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!” (96.4)

When you think about the weight of these words on this day, Christmas Day, their significance becomes even more important. Away in a manger, as we sing, a small child was born who to anyone passing by might have seemed just another child or incredibly insignificant in a world full of newborns. Stop the presses, however. This child is important. He is the light that shines into the world (Isaiah 9.2) and the hope that brings salvation to all humankind (Titus 2.11). In a time when (too) many things are said, creating a distracted environment of indistinguishable noise, the birth of child needs to be the center of our conversation.

Indeed, he has done amazing things. Publish them to the entire world … and to the person sitting next to you. Praise his name.

Questions:

•How has the movement from expecting the light to come to the birth of Jesus to the salvation he offers impacted how you live your life today? How can you share this story of faith with others?

•Share with one another the ways you have seen God’s marvelous deeds in your life. How can you share these deeds with someone else today?

•Think of all of the names you can think of that are used to describe Jesus. Which one means the most to you and why?

•Share with one another your salvation has allowed you to say “No” to ungodliness. Why does the appearance of Jesus Christ give you hope?

•What is the most unexpected thing about Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus?

Vacation – June 14

Text: Isaiah 58 (Read it here.)20160614

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

(Isaiah 58.13-14, NIV)

Disappointed with God
Author: Ralph Beistle

Have you thought that things seem to be going from bad to worse?  And wonder why our culture seems to be trying to get rid of religion?  They don’t want religion, and don’t want us to have it either.  Have you wondered why God hasn’t overruled circumstances to right the wrongs that seem to multiply with increasing rapidity?

Isaiah 58 reveals some disturbing questions that God asked people who claimed to be His people, but were disappointed with God.  Isaiah expressed God’s view of their situation, saying:

“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’”

Those complainers were not trying to eliminate religion, but were people who thought God should be “fixing” things the way they would like them to be.  Notice how they felt so deserving, but God was not impressed.

God made it clear that He had not become distant, but rather they had failed to follow His way:

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

But God’s blessings are still attainable, subject to the willingness of the people to accept the conditions He would require of them:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if
you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the Lord,”

Rather than being disappointed with God, we should remember that God wants to bless.  The question is: are people wanting them enough to change their ways?

Questions:

When we observe the Sabbath or a fast, as is mentioned in Isaiah 58.3-5, we do not do it to gain something or to be rewarded for our diligence to God, but we do it to know God better. How have you found yourself at times fasting, observing Sabbath, or acting on some other discipline is such a way that misses the point? How can you take on such disciplines in a way so as to humble yourself before God?

How do you act to “loose the chains of injustice” or “ set the oppressed free?” How can you do this better? What specific thing can you do to accomplish this today?

How well do you observe Sabbath? Do you find it to be a day of rest and remembrance of God or a day off from work which gives you an opportunity to fill the day with other busy work? How have you found joy in taking Sabbath-rest before God?