Growing

20170910 - 1HBSTherefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…
(Romans 12.1)

Today’s Passages:
Psalm 119.33-48
Ezekiel 33.1-11
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 18.15-20

One of the hardest things for me to discover is what I need to do to continue to grow in my faith. I want to follow Jesus and I know there are some things people say will help you be a better follower, but sometimes I find the practical, “Here’s what this should all look like” missing. I know being a part of a church and reading my Bible is important, but what changes should these activities bring in my day-to-day life.

This is what I love about the list we find in Roman’s 12. Now, I want to be the first to say that I do not in anyway think Paul wrote this list as a checklist to be graded by our spiritual mentors. (“Good! You completed 7 out of 10 tasks. That’s a passing grade in most places!”) But while we may not use this to ensure a winning percentage, I think it is helpful to evaluate our lives through the lens of these things. As we read and pray more, our lives should take on the things Paul lists here, so in that way, this is a helpful passage for me.

Let me encourage you to spend some time reading through this list. Ask yourself: Does my life show the fruit of these activities? Has my desire to follow Jesus produced these sorts of things in my day-to-day activities?

  • Love must be sincere.
  • Hate what is evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Be devoted to one another in love.
  • Honor one another above yourselves.
  • Never be lacking in zeal.
  • Keep your spiritual fervor.
  • Serve the Lord.
  • Be joyful in hope.
  • Be patient in affliction.
  • Be faithful in prayer.
  • Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.
  • Practice hospitality.
  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Bless and do not curse.
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice.
  • Mourn with those who mourn.
  • Live in harmony with one another.
  • Do not be proud.
  • Be willing to associate with people of low position.
  • Do not be conceited.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
  • Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
  • If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
  • Do not take revenge.
  • Leave room for God’s wrath.
  • “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Questions:

•The first few verses of the Psalm 119 passage we are reading today appeals to the power of God to direct us. How would you compare seeking God’s power for understanding and direction with trying to tough your way through learning about and following God? How can you remind yourself to see God’s guidance more?

•Who is a watchman for you? Who keeps you accountable and keeps alert to ensure you are following God? For whom are you a watchman?

•When you see the list Paul writes in Romans 12 (listed above), what has he left off? What on this list surprises you? What from this list helps you follow him best?

•How comfortable are you at helping another see his or her sin? Why is this so difficult for many of us? Why is it important, however, that we do this, even beyond the fact that Jesus mentions it in this passage from Matthew?

 

May the Lord Bless You

20170820 - 1HBS

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?

Man Overboard

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In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.
(Jonah 2.1)

Today’s Passages:
Psalm 29
Jonah 2:1-9
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

What do you do when the bottom falls out and everything goes wrong?

I do not mean necessarily when you see evil in the world around you, although “What do you do and say?” is a highly appropriate question, especially today.

I mean more what do you do when your choices have created in your life a scenario where there is nowhere to go but up, although you are not convinced up is even possible.

If you have spent time as a part of a faith community growing up, chances are good that at some point you have turned your back on what you know you were taught to do and when you examined the wreck of your life, you thought: “Wow! I have made a mess of things and I know exactly why I am in the place I am.”

If you have never had that instruction of faith to serve as a foundation for your set of beliefs and actions, you still probably have found yourself in a place where you know things are not good and have an inkling that you wrong choices or lack of choices have somehow played a role in your life.

Imagine how you would feel if you were Jonah. Told to go serve as God’s messenger (and from that, I am going to assume he knew what God expected of him), Jonah decides to run as far away from God as possible. Get a map and find the city of Ninevah and the city Tarshish. Spoiler Alert: they are on opposite ends of the map. If you have read Jonah 1, you discover that Jonah’s decision to run did not end well. It involved a storm, being thrown overboard, and a very large fish.

Given the circumstances, how would you have reacted if you were Jonah? His prayer in Jonah 2 is a fascinating insight into how to handle that moment when you fully realize your decision to run away from God, rather than toward him and the implications that decision holds.

Instead of breaking it down for you, let me ask you to do this. Spend time every day this week praying Jonah’s prayer. Whether you find his prayer misses the mark of where your life is at this moment or if you are looking around waiting for someone to throw you overboard, I believe you will find this prayer a powerful testimony to the goodness of God, especially when wonder about your own goodness.

 

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?

Genie in a Bottle

20170730 - 1HBS - LampSo give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?
(1 Kings 3:9)

Today’s passages:
Psalm 119:121-136
1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-34
Matthew 13:31-49

You are walking along the beach and stumble across an antique lamp. As you rub it to try to dust off the sand, suddenly a genie appears and grants you a wish. It’s the kind of thing dreams … and jokes are made of.

Like the one where three ladies are stranded on a deserted island and find a bottle with a genie. Each is told they can have one wish, so the first wishes to go back home to her husband and family, whom they have not seen during the years they have been stranded. The second wishes for the same. The third woman, however, starts crying. “What is it?” asks the genie. “I just wish I had my friends back” she replies.

How do you think you would answer the question: If you could have anything in the world, what would you ask for?

Now, I’m not trying to imply that God is a genie—far from it—but when we read in 1 Kings 3 that God appears to Solomon and tells him he can ask for anything he desires, you get the sense that the sky’s the limit on what can be asked.

The fact that Solomon asks for wisdom (the NIV calls it a “discerning heart”) says something about him, doesn’t it. Again, I do not want to assume anything about what you might ask for, but I am fairly confident wisdom would not be on the top of my list.

If you read the passage carefully, you see that Solomon knows three things.

First, he recognizes how he got to the position he was in. There is no sense of how hard he worked to accomplish so many great things. He knows that it was “God’s kindness to my father David” that Solomon sits on the throne.

Not only does Solomon recognize his position, he also understands his standing in comparison to God and the task set before him. Whereas another man might have been tempted to assume that he was placed in his position because of the skills, talents, and abilities he possesses, Solomon knows that he is “just a child” faced with the task of performing duties far beyond his abilities.

Finally, Solomon knows the importance of his role because of the importance of the people he leads. Too many leaders turn that perspective upside-down and assume that the organization or nation or even church exists because of the greatness of the leader and those below him or her should be grateful for the leader’s benevolence.

“Who is able to govern this great people of yours?” Solomon asks. It indeed takes wisdom to understand the importance of God’s people and the need to ask for his guidance in those things that we do.

So I ask our original question again, altered for this context: If you had a chance to ask for one thing that you knew God would give you, what would you ask?

Questions:

•The Psalmist asks God to deal with him “according to your love” and then he goes on to say: “teach me your decrees.” How do you see the connection of the love of God and our understanding his decrees? In what ways would the love of God help us understand Scripture better?

•In what ways would a “discerning heart” help Solomon lead God’s people? In what ways would such a heart help you as you live a life of faith today? While God may not have come to you in a vision to ask you to request whatever you want, how often do you pray for discernment and wisdom?

•If God is for us, who can be against us?

•If you were going to describe the kingdom of heaven to your neighbor or perhaps someone at work, what words and images would you use to do so? How does your description compare to those of the passage we read in Matthew 13? What do you learn about the kingdom of heaven from these descriptions?

From the Depths…

20170402 - 1HBS

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?

Grumblers and Complainers?

20170319 - 1HBS

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?