From the Depths…

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Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.(Psalm 130.1-2)

Today’s passages:
Psalm 130
Ezekiel 37.1-14
Romans 6.16-23
John 11.1-34

Perhaps you have seen a movie that shows a character falling into a body of water, a swimming pool or perhaps the lake where the family is taking summer vacation. There is an initial shock or struggle to swim, but eventually, the character resigns himself or herself to their “fate” and sort of drifts effortlessly along, as if taking a stroll in a water garden. Of course someone reaches into the water and saves the individual from their time of blissful peace, but for a moment, it was almost like life in the midst of certain demise was nothing but peace and comfort.

Psalm 130 is not that moment. In fact, none of the passages we read today are that moment. They are, collectively, moments of fear and doubt. They most likely include struggle in the face of what appears to be the end, but yet we long for that not to be the case. In our minds, there is no possible way life can change for us, yet we discover through the power of God, it does. Let’s look at each passage individually.

In Psalm 130, I get the picture that the writer is struggling against certain doom. He is in the depths because of his sins. The picture of “the depths” is an appropriate one, I believe. If you have ever been in a situation where you thought drowning was imminent (I have), there is nothing peaceful or blissful about it. You are in an all out struggle to find a way back to the top of the water. If you take lifeguard training, one of the dangers they repeatedly warn you about is not drowning itself, but the people who are drowning. They are in a panic and will try anything to keep from doing so, even if that means taking you down with them.

Notice the writer of the psalm does not blame poor choices or even a life in which he was dealt a lousy set of cards. No, the problem the writer is facing is of his own doing, yet he longs to find rescue.

Ezekiel is taken to a field of dry bones. Obviously life is not found in abundant in such circumstances, yet the Spirit of the Lord asks Ezekiel: Can these bones live?

Let’s think about that for just a moment. I am not sure how many “come-back-to-life” stories Ezekiel had experienced. I know there are some such stories mentioned in the Old Testament, but they do not seem to be an everyday occurrence. I do think, however, that no matter how many of these stories he might have seen, since the field was full of dry bones, life was probably the last thing on Ezekiel’s mind.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “the wages of sin is death” (6.23). This is the same guy who just a couple of chapters earlier mentioned: “all have sinned” (3.23). So if all sin and sin leads to death, well, the outcome of this equation does not seem like a good one, does it?

Finally, Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus and seeks to bring him back to life. Martha, seeing the world through the only lens she knew to look through, that of her own experiences, is quick to point out her brother Lazarus has been dead for four days. You can read her mind: Jesus, if you had been her the first or perhaps the second day, maybe there would have been a chance, but four days into this death and you might as well be talking to a field of dry bones. It ain’t happening.

What would you have done in any of the four situations we find in the readings for today? Would you doubt the ability of God to rescue you? Would you have thought the odds were just too much against you for things to change? Would you have given up and tried to accept your fate in a scene of bliss?

Whatever your circumstances, remember these things. Though you may feel your sin is overwhelming and so numerous they drag you down, God can deliver you from them. Though you may see nothing but dry, dead bones in your life—in whatever situation you find yourself—God can bring life to that which has been given up for dead. Though your sins may seem deadly pulling you completely away from any hope of a relationship with God, nothing, absolutely nothing separates you from his love. And though every experience you are familiar with seems to indicate the impossible cannot be done, God hasn’t even started so take away the stone.

 

Questions:

•If God does not keep a record of sins, why do we spend so much time doing so? How can we better condition ourselves to trust God’s ability to redeem us from our sins?

•Describe a time in your life when you were as good as dried bones littering an empty field. How did God breathe his life back into your life?

•Do you think people often think about the wages of sin before engaging in them? Why do you think this is the case and how would things be different if they did? How can you cling to God’s gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus more?

•Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead is the seventh of seven signs he does in the gospel of John. Why do you think this sign resonates so much with the people who read John’s gospel for the first time and why do you think is resonates for us today? How do we keep from assuming that someone, some situation, or perhaps even our own faith is dead and so far gone it is doing nothing but rotting in a tomb?

The Lord is my Shepherd

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The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
(Psalm 23.1)

Along with John 3:16, there may be no better-known part of scripture than Psalm 23. Many of our children, from a very early age in Bible classes, learn this psalm. Many can recite it for memory. Yet even though it is so familiar, we may often overlook the value of this psalm for our lives today.

Part of the failure to fully appreciate the psalm, aside from its familiarity, is that we (and by we, I mean most adults) have been conditioned to believe that our value comes from our ability to work hard and have something to show for our hard work. Ask just about anyone you see in any given church on a Sunday morning: “How’s life?” or “How’s work?” and you will most likely hear the answer: Busy. We take pride in our ability to prove our busy-ness. (Never mind if our being busy benefits us or the world we live in. We just need to be able to say we have more to do than we know how to get accomplished.)

So, contrast this need for accomplishment through our busy—and dare I say, important—occupations with a psalm that basically says: God gives me everything I need. No wonder we assume Psalm 23 is great for children, but has lesser value for us. We need to remind ourselves OFTEN that our busy-ness and our hectic, frantic pace of life is not valuable, nor a blessing from God. What is important is the realization that just like a shepherd does his sheep, God takes care of our needs.

Another failure of ours to appreciate the importance of Psalm 23 can be found in verse 3, where we read that God guides us for “his name’s sake.” The tasks we must do, or at least the tasks we choose to place in important positions on our To-Do lists, should be rooted in the value of giving glory to God. This goes back to my original point. We work hard to have something to show for our work, then of course we want to take the credit for those accomplishments.

What if we stopped and knew that anything we do or accomplish is only possible through the power of God at work in our lives. If we took on this attitude, I think we would find ourselves much more willing to give him the praise. It would be for “his name’s sake” that we celebrate our accomplishments because we know it was him working in us in the first place.

The last misunderstanding I will point out (and you could certainly find more) is this: We do not understand the power of God in the presence of our enemies. You may have heard people lament that America is no longer or at least moving away from being a Christian nation. Oftentimes, this cry is accompanied by a sense of despair that people who do not hold the same values as followers of Jesus will take over and as a result, we will be faced daily with the “presence of our enemies.” They will, the assumption goes, force us into accepting things contrary to God’s will.

I always wonder what the psalmist was thinking of his enemies when he wrote about sitting at a table with them, a table prepared by God. Surprisingly, perhaps, we do not hear the psalmist lament the power of his enemies or all the bad things they have done. Just as surprising may be the fact that we do not hear how they have been destroyed or how God puts them in their place. The enemies of the psalmist are faceless, nameless, and I would add powerless people. There are present, but without any standing, really. They garner but a brief passing mention from the psalmist. Why? Because the Lord is the one who has the power and gives goodness to those who follow him. We do not have to fear the overthrow of God’s rule. It’s not going to happen.

Instead of being fearful, we celebrate in the Lord’s house. Forever.

 

Questions:

•What is your earliest recollection of Psalm 23? How did you learn it and in what ways has it held value for you throughout your life as a follower of Jesus?

•When you read about the anointing of David as (future) king of Israel, what most surprises you about the way this story goes? How important is it to you that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance? In what ways can we ensure that our heart yearns for God?

•Ephesians 5.1-14 gives us quite a list of things we are to avoid as followers of Jesus. How serious do we take this list? In what ways do we perhaps overlook some of the things Paul mentions in this passage, thinking: Well, you know, God understands? How can we work on making sure we live pure and holy lives for God?

•In what ways do you encounter people you would describe as “spiritually blind?” How can you help others see God clearly, or stated another way, how can you help them not be blind to who God is?

Grumblers and Complainers?

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Come let us sign for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
(Psalm 95.1-2)

Psalm 95 is what is considered a Sovereign Psalm. It is focused on the fact that God has created the world (us included) and as such, is worthy of the praise we (should) give him. It also recognizes that he is the creator and we are the created, or as this psalmist has written: the people of his pasture.

Knowing that God is the one whom we need to worship would be enough to be considered a complete psalm. (We could use more admonition to worship, truthfully.) Unfortunately, we tend to live our lives in such a way that celebrates our accomplishments more than they give glory to God for the ways he is working in those lives. We forget the significance of God as an important part of why our lives are “blessed” in the first place.

But the psalmist goes on and says, in essence, BECAUSE God created you and is your shepherd and BECAUSE you are the flock under his care, you now have a choice. You may choose between recognizing God as you creator, or you can harden your hearts and ignore him.

The psalmist did not just make up the idea of “hardening your heart.” It was an example previously lived out by the people of Israel. In Exodus 17, we are told that the people of Israel are camped at Rephidim, but find themselves without water. Up to this point in their story, God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, shown himself strong in the process by bringing plagues upon the Pharaoh, and God had provided the people’s needs every step along the way. Yet at this point, the people grumble and complain against God, asking: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Think about this moment in Israelite history for just a second. God had done what you and I would probably consider more than enough to provide for his people. There was never a time in their journey through the desert—and yes, I can imagine a journey through the desert might not be considered plush accommodations—when God did not take care of his people. They were indeed the “flock under his care.” In spite of all of this, they quarreled and grumbled, testing their God.

So fast-forward past the time of the Psalmist’s writings to now. How do you live? First do you recognize all of the things God has done for you? And if you do, do you still grumble and complain, asking: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

 

Questions:

•In what ways have you seen God provide for you, taking care of all your needs? In what ways have you failed to recognize his provision and perhaps even grumbled about what you thought he was not providing you? How can you do a better job of recognizing God as your Sovereign Lord?

•How do you think you would have reacted to the lack of water that the Israelite’s faced? How does your reaction compare to theirs? Why is it so easy for us to forget the sovereignty of God and grumble about what we do not have?

•What is the greatest sacrifice someone has ever made for you? How would you say that compares to the sacrifice Jesus made for those who were ungodly (that includes you, by the way)? How does Jesus’ sacrifice for you change the way you feel about making sacrifices for others?

•How does Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well help you understand God’s mission to find those who are lost in the world? Who would be a person you know that might be considered “the woman at the well” today? How can you encourage her to know and understand the truth of God?

 

Making Countries Great

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Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.

No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
(Psalm 33.12, 16)

What does it take to make a country great? No, not to make a country great, again. To make a country a nation that is held in high esteem and seen as one who is run with wisdom and Godly guidance. What does it take for us to be a part of the people of God?

You often hear people calling for our country to return to its “Christian roots,” that is, to be a Christian nation as our forefathers intended it to be. One could argue the validity of the latter point, but I do not think anyone would question that our sense of morality has waned over the years. It’s not even on the fringes where we find people’s action running counter to the things that just a few years ago most people would consider “wrong.” So how do we return to being a nation centered on Godly living?

If you take the four passages we find in our reading for this week, you discover four things that I want to list here.

First, our military power does not make a great nation, just like brute force is never the answer for Godly living for each of us individually. The psalmist says that you may have strong horses (perhaps today the psalmist would write: you may have powerful weapons), but their strength cannot save the ruler. I think what is most ironic is that we lament the fact that America is no longer a Christian nation, yet most of what America espouses as greatness centers on those things that are completely self-reliant. It is no wonder that our strength does not save us. We were created to be dependent on God, not ourselves.

Second, from the Genesis story, we discover that strategic planning does not make us a great nation. Again, this seems counter intuitive. Were you to seek a loan for a new business, you would be asked to provide the lender with a “business plan,” which would include the strategies you would use to go about creating this wonderful—and for the bank’s sake, profitable—business. Abraham wasn’t given a plan. His plan was just to pack and walk until God told him to stop. God, however, used Abraham’s willingness to go (even if Abraham did at times question God’s promise) to create through him a great nation.

Third, when we fast forward to the time of the Apostle Paul, we discover he wrote celebrating Abraham’s faith. Trust in God, rather than our associations with the right people or a glorious upbringing, is essential for God to be able to use us to make a great nation. Paul’s argument in Roman’s 4 is essentially that the people who were that great nation of Abraham (this would be the people of Israel) could not claim that their privileged status was the result of following the rules and regulations applied to God’s people from the time of Abraham. Abraham was not a good person and the nation he was promised was not built because of the way he followed all of God’s rules, but because Abraham believed that God said he could do what he promised. Whether you think you have your life under control or not, your trust in God versus your status or privilege indicates your willingness to allow him to work in you.

Last, being a member of God’s kingdom happens as the result of belief in Jesus, who was lifted up as a sacrifice for our sins. It is not a physical thing, like the rebirth Nicodemus was confused about in John 3, nor is it something we are able to do (Nicodemus, you were right. An adult cannot start the birth process over again). No, our inclusion into that great nation that is the kingdom of God happens through the Spirit of God. That Spirit comes only through a belief in Jesus to give eternal life.

I hope you recognize that this idea of “great nation” really has very little to do with a physical, tangible kingdom, like America, or Canada, or Mexico. It instead has everything to do with being a part of the people God calls to himself through his Son. The real question is: Will you believe in the power of God to bring you into his kingdom with him? That is what makes you a part of a great nation.

 

Questions:

•What sort of things do people use to show their power and worth? Why are these things considered valuable in the world we live in? How are they viewed in light of God and his kingdom?

•How willing would you have been to pack up all your stuff and head out to an unknown place like Abraham did? What do you think would have been Abraham’s biggest challenges in doing this? What things did he have to help him trust in God’s instructions?

•How well do you have faith in the promises of God? What events in your life have proven those promises to you?

•John tells us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. How well do you think that message has been proclaimed to the people around you? In what ways do you think the opposite message has been communicated? What can you do to ensure the proper message about Jesus is told to others?

•How can you live a life that demonstrates your faith in God as the ruler of your kingdom, even if that means living a life counter to the values of the world around you?

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?

Vacation – June 9

Text: John 15.26-16.33 (Read it here.)20160609

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
(John 16.33, NIV)

Help for Our Struggles as We Live in the World
Author: Charles Stephenson

This section begins with a repeat of the promise stated in John 14:26 (ESV). The Helper, which is the Spirit, was to be sent when Jesus left his disciples to return to his Father. John 15:26-27 (ESV) states that the Spirit will bear witness about Jesus along with the witness of Jesus’s disciples. In our study of Acts in our adult Bible classes we saw that Peter stated (Acts 5:32), And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Peter’s statement indicates the fulling of that promise given in John 14 and 15. He also stated the Spirit, our Helper, is given to all those who obey God. As God’s obedient kingdom people we have the Helper sent from the Father by Jesus, the risen Christ.

We should note the Greek word translated Helper is translated as advocate when referring to the enthroned Jesus (1 John 2:1, ESV). Jesus referred to the Spirit as another Helper sent to those who love and obey him (John 14:16, ESV). The Spirit is our helper like Jesus was when he was on earth. John 16 contains warnings from Jesus about how the Jews and the world would treat his disciples when he went away. He forewarned the disciples so they would not be caught off guard when these things happened.

Jesus not only forewarned his disciples he sent them a helper like himself, the Spirit of Truth. The fact that Jesus was leaving them did make them sad. They did not understand what was happening. Jesus said to them when they were filled with sorrow, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)

And, what help the Helper offers! He comes to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. What help this is for our witness about the power of God in Christ! Those early disciples were struggling to understand what they witnessed happening in Jesus Christ. The Spirit led them to the truth, the good news. THE truth that they preached, taught, and wrote, which is still available to us in the record of what they preached, taught, and wrote, the Bible. (John 14:1-7, Jesus, the only way to God) Compare John 5:19-20 where Jesus spoke of how he received this knowledge from God with John 16:12-15 where he spoke of how the Spirit received his knowledge from Jesus, which is from God.

Look at what Jesus said in John 14:13-17: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” In these words, Jesus said to ask him for anything in his name. Then, he said he would ask God for the disciples needs.

Now, note what Jesus said in John 16:23-24: “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Jesus continues in John16:26-28: “In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” In these words, Jesus said to ask for anything in his name. Then, he said he would not ask God for the disciples needs. Jesus stated that the Father loves us because we have loved Jesus, the one who came from God the Father.

Jesus and the Father know that we have struggles in our world because the world does not believe in Jesus as the One who came from God and returned to God where he remains in glory until his return in glory. Knowing that, they have offered us great help: the presence of the Helper in our lives and a close loving relationship with our Father. In Christ, we can go directly to our Father who loves us!

Questions:

What are the kinds of struggles mentioned by Jesus in John 16?

Where do you see these struggles in the world around us?

What are the implications for understanding Jesus and the Spirit when you know that they can both be called helper, advocate, counselor, and comforter?

What is implied about the Spirit in the lives of Christians and the life of the church when Jesus said that it is to our benefit that he returned to be with God?

What are the implications of the prayer life Jesus described for us? Do you want that prayer life? How can you have such a prayer life?