In the Gaps (October 19, 2021)

Scripture:        Job, chapter 5; Psalm 108; Acts, chapters 10-11

Acts 9:1-19 (ESV) – But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”  And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”  And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”  But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.  Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

Observations: This is another of those very familiar passages that we often skim through.  We all know the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, so what new thought or idea would we get from it?  Well, as I was reading this passage today, I noticed some new details that I hadn’t really considered before.  First, after Saul sees the blinding light and hears the Lord say “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” Jesus goes on and says: “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  I was struck by the parallel with God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12:  “Go to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1, my paraphrase).  The call to faith for Saul resembled the call to Abraham: Go, and I’ll tell you later what you should do.  Although Saul (Paul) does not explicitly make that connection in his writings, I have to believe that he recognized the parallel.  As a faithful Jew, a Pharisee who had studied the Scriptures, Paul would have recognized God’s pattern of calling people to faith.

The other thing that caught my attention today is the combination of chapters 9-10 of Acts, and the lengths to which God went to move forward with his purposes to extend the call to his kingdom to Gentiles as well as Jews.  In his appearance to Ananias, Jesus says, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”  Then, chapter 10 is the account of how God revealed to Peter his purposes:  “And he said to them, ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (10:28).  “So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35).  So in the course of these two chapters, Acts 9-10, God moves in dramatic fashion with the two most important figures of the early church – Peter and Paul – with the purpose of carrying the message of the Kingdom to the whole world.  These two very Jewish men – one a disciple of Jesus from the beginning, the other a recent convert who had actively opposed “the Way” – were the instruments which God used to make clear to everyone that God’s Kingdom is for all who believe:  “In every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Application:  I think sometimes we forget how transformational these events were in the life of the church.  Up to that point, the proclamation of the Gospel was to Jews, converts to Judaism, and “God-fearers” who were familiar with Jewish law and Scripture.  Now, however, the message of the Kingdom was going to go into “the ends of the earth,” just as Jesus had declared in Acts 1:8.  But there were untold small acts of God behind the scenes both before and after these two transformational events which paved the way for them – and God works the same way today.  There are occasionally those transformational events, but we should never lose sight of the thousands of small events that fill in the gaps – events like Jesus telling Ananias to go to Saul and lay hands on him, or believers being scattered throughout Judea and Samaria after Stephen’s death (Acts 7-8) – and our job is to make sure that we’re being obedient “in the gaps.”

Prayer:   Father, I thank you that you still work in big, transformational ways when your purposes call for that – but you are always at work in the gaps, calling us to daily faithfulness as you work in and through us to proclaim the good news of your Kingdom.  Help me today to recognize what you’re calling me to do, and how you want me to work “in the gaps,” that your Kingdom may come and your will be done on earth as in heaven.  Amen.

“As I Have Seen” (October 18, 2021)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 3-4; Acts, chapters 8-9

Job 4:1-11 (ESV) – Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?  Yet, who can keep from speaking?  Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.  Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?

Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?  Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.”

Observations: Whenever I read from the book of Job, I always have to remind myself that the speeches of Job’s friends are just that – the speeches of Job’s friends.  God speaks at the end of the book of Job, and God mostly corrects what Job’s friends have said to him.  And so it is with that in mind that I look at this speech of Eliphaz, as he begins to correct Job for Job’s attitude.  Chapter 3 is the beginning of Job’s lament, where he curses the day he was born – in other words, wishes that he had never been born at all.  Job says that those who die at birth are the same as “kings and counselors of the earth” (Job 3:14), because they all end up in the grave together – or, as Job puts it, “I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest” (Job 3:13).  That is the speech to which Eliphaz responds beginning in chapter 4.

Eliphaz points out that Job had instructed many, and…strengthened the weak hands…upheld him who was stumbling, and…made firm the feeble knees.  In other words, Eliphaz says, “You’ve helped other people in their difficult times; now let me help you in yours.”  It’s a noble sentiment – but when the “help” is misguided, it’s really no help at all.  The problem is that Eliphaz is working from the wrong premise:  “Who that was innocent ever perished?”  He even claims divine inspiration, later in chapter 4:  “Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it…A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?’”

Now, in one sense Eliphaz is right; Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that there is none righteous – in our own righteousness.  But the book of Job begins with a different view of Job: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright…And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?’” (Job 1:1, 8).  God declared that Job was right before him, so Eliphaz was starting from the wrong premise – and when we start from the wrong place, we just end up going the wrong direction.

The real problem for Eliphaz is revealed in the middle of the passage I’ve set out:  As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.”  Eliphaz is judging Job based on what he, Eliphaz, understood and observed about life – but he was wrong.  He couldn’t see the council of heaven that we see in chapter 1, when Satan comes to accuse Job.  Eliphaz had concluded – based on his own observations and faulty ideas – that Job must have done wrong for God to punish him like this, but the fact is that God wasn’t punishing Job at all.  And when Eliphaz judged the situation based on what he could see, he got it wrong.

Application:  The application ought to be obvious: when I judge things based on what I have seen, or what I can see, I get it wrong – which is why Jesus tells us not to judge others at all.  Instead, we are called to offer grace – a grace that recognizes that we’ve all sinned, and we’re all in need of God’s forgiveness.  The good news is that God offers it to anyone who will believe – and he calls us to share that good news with others.  

Prayer:   Father, thank you for the grace that you have shown to us through your Son Jesus.  Thank you for the forgiveness and life that we have in his name; thank you for the privilege of sharing the good news with others.  And thank you for reminding us that the world is not governed nor defined by what “I have seen,” but by what you have declared.  Help me today to communicate your grace to others.  Amen.

“It Is Not for You to Know” (October 12, 2021)

Scripture:        Nehemiah, chapters 7-8; Acts, chapter 1

Acts 1:6-11 (ESV) – So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Observations: Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples had always been looking for a different kind of “kingdom” than the one Jesus proclaimed.  They had grown up learning that when the Messiah came, he would restore Israel as God’s Kingdom – which meant reestablishing David’s dynasty in an earthly kingdom.  He had tried to explain to them that his kingdom was not of this world, and its priorities and values are different from those of the world’s kingdoms; it’s clear from this passage that they still hadn’t completely grasped that, because they’re still asking about “restoring the kingdom to Israel.”  I suppose that given the fact that he had risen from the dead, they probably thought that now there was nothing that could stop him.

And that was true – but his goal was not what they thought.  His purpose for them was to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom, not to restore an earthly kingdom in Israel.  “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”  In other words, “Stay in your lane.”  And to emphasize that, and to remind them what their “lane” was, he went on:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

And then he ascended back to heaven, leaving them gazing into heaven.  Now what?  He was gone; the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet come; and the only thing they could think to do was to gaze into heaven.  Suddenly, two men stood by them – angels, we suppose – to bring them back to reality.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

Why are you looking into heaven?  Jesus will come back when it’s time; in the meantime, don’t just stand there watching for him; get to work!  When it’s time, he’ll come back in the same way he left – but remember what he just told you:  It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.

Application:  It’s not for you to know.  So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to find out what Jesus said is not for us to know?  Why do we listen to so-called “prophecy experts” who suggest that they’ve figured it all out when Jesus says, “it’s not for you to know?”  Instead of wasting time and energy trying to figure out what he told us not to worry about, why not spend that time and energy trying to do the things that he actually commanded us to do – like proclaim the good news of the kingdom, love our neighbors and our enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and be witnesses to what Jesus has done for us?

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that there are some things that are “not for us to know.”  You’ve told us everything that we do need to know; help us to focus on that, and to be faithful witnesses and kingdom citizens.  Amen.

“Put Not Your Trust in Princes” (October 11, 2021)

Scripture:        Nehemiah, chapters 5-6; Psalm 146; Luke, chapter 24

Psalm 146 (ESV) – Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord, O my soul!  I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widows and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations.  Praise the Lord!

Observations: Like a lot of the psalms, Psalm 146 encourages us to praise the Lord!  But as I read this psalm today, the reasons why we are to praise the Lord jump out to me.  First, I will praise the Lord as long as I live, because my life is in God’s hands.  He is the One who gives us breath each day; he is the One who sustains all of creation through his power and authority.

But we are also to praise the Lord because we should not put our trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  As I read that verse, I immediately thought of our country, and how so many people have put their trust in a man rather than in God.  In the last election, there were many people who were convinced that our nation’s only hope was the re-election of the president, while there were just as many who were convinced that our only hope was the election of his opponent.  For people who are committed followers of Jesus, our only hope is in him – not in princes, not in any son of man.  The Psalmist makes it clear that when we put out trust in people, we will ultimately be let down, because in people – no matter who they are, no matter how much we may trust them or believe in them – there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

As if to reinforce what he has just said, the Psalmist goes on in verse 5 to remind us, Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.  As followers of Jesus, we are those whose help is the God of Jacob – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  He is the God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widows and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.  Look how many times the Psalmist repeats the phrase “the Lord” in these verses!  We may think that people are doing things, that people are responsible for doing things – and there is no question that God often works through people.  But when people start trying to take credit for the things that Scripture tells us that God does – and when we put our trust in people who do so – we can expect disappointment, because there is no salvation in people, no matter how powerful or popular. All of these earthly rulers will pass away, but the Lord will reign forever.  Amen!

Application:  I think it’s important for us to stop putting so much emphasis on people – whether politicians or businessmen or even so-called religious leaders – and return our focus to God, who is our only hope.  If we think that any politician or other leader is “the answer,” we’re completely ignoring what Scripture teaches and what experience has shown.  If our hope is in Donald Trump or Joe Biden, we’re missing the point entirely; I will praise the Lord as long as I live, for there is no salvation in any “prince” or “son of man.”  The Lord will reign forever.  Praise the Lord!

Prayer:   Father, we confess that there are times that we have put our trust in people – when we have thought that if only we had the “right” leader, or the “right” pastor, or the “right” boss, or the “right” spouse, that everything would be great.  Please forgive us.  Thank you for reminding us that you alone are the One in whom we should trust, because you alone are the eternal, all-powerful Sovereign of the universe.  Help us to put our trust in you, and to seek first your kingdom, that your kingdom may come as we do your will on earth as in heaven.  Amen. 

“On That Night” (October 5, 2021)

Scripture:        Esther, chapters 3-8; Luke, chapter 18

Esther 6:1-13 (ESV) – On that night the king could not sleep. And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king. And it was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. And the king said, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The king’s young men who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.”  And the king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. And the king’s young men told him, “Haman is there, standing in the court.” And the king said, “Let him come in.”  So Haman came in, and the king said to him, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” And Hama said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set. And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’”  Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”  So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”

Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. And Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.”

Observations: We saw in yesterday’s reading the story of how Esther became queen of the Persian Empire; today we see why God worked to cause that to happen.  One of the king’s trusted advisor was a pompous man named Haman, who had convinced the king to issue an order that “all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bow down and pay homage to Haman” (Esther 3:2).  But Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman (evidently Mordecai was familiar with the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), which made Haman livid.  But Haman was not content to just go after Mordecai; he wanted to wipe out the entire Jewish people.  He went to the king and said, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom.  Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them” (3:8).  Haman offered to arrange to wipe them out, and even offered to pay for it, if the king would just issue a decree to allow it.  Because the king didn’t know exactly who Haman was talking about, he agreed.

When the decree was published, Mordecai knew what was going on, and he began to weep and mourn in sackcloth at the king’s gate.  This disturbed Esther, who sent word to Mordecai to stop; Mordecai then sent word to her to explain what was going on, and asked her to go to the king. When she pointed out that the king hadn’t called for her in 30 days, and that if she went in without being called she might be killed, Mordecai said the famous line that anyone who knows Esther’s story has heard: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:13-14).  So she agreed, and she arranges a plan to expose Haman and his plan and save the Jewish people.

But in the middle of that plan, an interesting thing happens.  Esther has invited Haman to the first banquet which she is throwing for the king, and Haman is feeling on top of the world.  The king has issued the decree to allow him to wipe out the Jews, and Queen Esther has invited him to a special banquet – but then he has to walk past Mordecai, who still refuses to bow down to him.  He goes home and mopes about it, and his wife and friends say, “Why don’t you just ask the king for permission to hang him and get it over with?”  (see 5:14).  

That brings us to our passage, and the first few words of chapter 6:  On that night.  What are the odds that on the very night that Haman is having gallows built to hang Mordecai, the king would have trouble sleeping?  (Maybe the sound of the gallows being built kept him awake!)  Anyway, the king “just happens” to read through the chronicles of the kingdom, and comes to the story of Mordecai having saved him from a plot by two of his eunuchs.  The king asks his attendants whether anything was done for Mordecai, and they answered no.  Just then Haman shows up – to ask for permission to hang Mordecai! – and the king asks him what should be done for someone the king wants to honor.  Haman thinks, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” (which shows the incredible depth of his arrogance), so he comes up with a grand scheme – which the king then orders Haman to do for Mordecai!

The last thing that caught my attention is the response of Haman’s wife and advisors when he tells them what happened:  If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.

And that’s exactly what happened, as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he had prepared to hang Mordecai.

Application:  On that night reminds us that God’s timing is always perfect.  God could have acted to keep Haman from ever convincing the king to issue the edict.  God could have caused Haman to drop dead from a heart attack.  He could have led the king to tell Haman “no.”  But God’s ways are always right, and his timing is always perfect.  Mordecai understood that: “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place…”  Mordecai was convinced that somehow God would work to deliver his people and fulfill his purposes; the only issue was whether Esther was willing to be part of God’s solution.

I believe that’s the question that God asks us today.  We can’t be content to sit back and just assume that God will “work it all out”; we have to be ready to be part of God’s solution.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” – and as C.S. Lewis points out, for us to pray that God’s will be done is an implicit agreement that we are willing to do God’s will, so that his kingdom does come.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that your timing is always perfect.  When situations seem dire to us, help us to remember that on that night you are at work for our good.  Thank you, too, for reminding us that you have called us to be a part of your solution as we work for your purposes and your glory.  Help us to honor you with our faithfulness, our obedience, our trust, and our praise today.  Amen.

“There Is No Compulsion” (October 4, 2021)

Scripture:        Esther, chapters 1-2; Psalm 150; Luke, chapter 17

Esther 1:1-12 (ESV) – Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus.

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.

Observations: Most people who have read the Bible to any degree are familiar with the story of Esther, the Jewish girl who won a beauty contest to become the queen of the entire Persian empire.  If we’ve read the story, we’re also familiar with Vashti, who preceded Esther as queen.  King Ahasuerus had thrown a huge party; he had been drinking (his heart was merry with wine), and he summoned Vashti to come before him so everyone could look at her.  But as we read this passage today, a couple of things stand out to me.  First, the one quote that is contained in these first twelve verses are from the edict which the king issued with regard to his big party:  “There is no compulsion.”  If you want to drink, fine; if you don’t, that’s fine too.  And although verse 8 says only that drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion,” the next verse seems to indicate that the order extended beyond drinking: For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired.

But when Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to come so he could show her off to his guests, she refused to come at the king’s command.  Of course, that’s what started the whole process which ultimately led to Esther becoming queen (as we see in chapter 2), and God had plans for Esther once she became the queen.  But there are a few things that we see in this story which I think are good for us to “chew on” today.  First, Ahasuerus seems like a good guy; he throws a party that lasts 180 days for all of his top officials, and then he follows that up with a 7-day feast for all the people in Susa (who presumably were doing all the work in the city for the six months that the king’s party lasted).  And the king was generous – royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king.

But the king was evidently partaking of his own bounty, because on the last day of the seven-day party, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he sent for Vashti.  He didn’t go find her himself and invite her to come; he didn’t inquire to see whether she was doing something else (she was; Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus).  He simply sent his eunuchs to her to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.  In other words, he wanted to bring her out and parade her before all of his guests – who had been drinking for seven days along with him – so they could all see how beautiful she was.  What could possibly go wrong with THAT?

Queen Vashti refused.  THAT’S what could go wrong.  Now, I know that cultural norms were different in those days, and I know that he was the king, and his order was law – but he should have been smart enough to realize that treating people like property was probably not the best way to gain their cooperation.  But two factors in the story clouded his judgment, and we would do well to recognize them:  wine and pride.  He had been drinking, and his heart was merry with wine, and regardless of how you feel about drinking, you would probably recognize that people who are drinking often make decisions that they would not make when they were sober.  The other factor is pride:  “I’m the king!  I give the orders around here!  I told her to come!  I don’t care if she IS the queen, I’m in charge!”  Pride steps in when we’re challenged to harden our stance and to refuse to acknowledge that perhaps we were wrong.  And once we’re hardened in our decision, we’ll continue to hold on to it no matter how much evidence comes along to show that we were wrong, because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).  The world clamors for a time and a system which does what each man desires – but human pride and selfishness makes that impossible.  The only true way for that to happen is for us to align our wills with God’s will, to want what God wants!

Application:  People who are reading this are probably aware that I’m part of a denomination which asks its members to make a covenant to abstain from alcohol (among other things), so you might wonder why I’d focus on this story.  Well, no matter who we are, pride impacts all of us.  We don’t like to be told that we’re wrong, we don’t like people to disagree with us, and we don’t like people who challenge our authority.  All of us are affected by pride.  Ahasuerus was; so was Vashti.  So were the advisors who told Ahasuerus that he needed to do something about Vashti, or all of their wives would be “looking at their husbands with contempt” (Esther 1:17). That’s why C.S. Lewis said that pride is the ultimate anti-God state of mind: it causes us to believe that we are in charge, rather than God.  Ahasuerus had a lot of power, and it went to his head – and the wine only made things worse.  If we’re to avoid his mistake, we need to keep a proper perspective on things – that God is in charge, not us.  That will help us to avoid the dangers that pride can bring. 

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that all authority belongs to you; when we start to think that we hold authority, we can quickly find ourselves in trouble, both from a human perspective and from a spiritual perspective.  Help us to remember that you are the Almighty God, whose name is hallowed, whose Kingdom is universal and eternal.  Help us to seek and do your will, rather than our own, that your Kingdom may come and your will be done on earth as in heaven.  Amen.

“By My Spirit, Says the Lord” (September 29, 2021)

Scripture:        Zechariah, chapters 4-6; Luke, chapter 12

Zechariah 4:1-10 (ESV) – And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on the left.” And I said to the angel who walked with me, “What are these, my lord?”  Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’”

Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of  small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.”

Observations: I would imagine that most people who read Scripture would recognize verse 6: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.  But how many of us would have known where to find that verse, and what the context is?  The context is important, of course, because that helps us to understand what it really means.  So what is the context?  Well, as we know from yesterday’s reading, Zechariah is prophesying during the reign of Darius, the king of the Medo-Persian Empire.  The order had gone out years before, under Darius’ predecessor Cyrus, for the Jews to be allowed to return to Jerusalem and be permitted to rebuild the Temple.  But now we’re a number of years later, and the work on the Temple has not progressed.  So God’s command came through Zechariah to Zerubbabel, who was the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, to move forward with the restoration of the Temple.  It seems that this oracle from Zechariah was a few months after the first command (in 1:1, he references the “eighth month” of the “second year of Darius,” while 1:7 says that the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah “on the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month”).  

It would be easy to get distracted by the visions of lampstands and olive trees and all of that, but I believe that we need to stay focused on what God says rather than the imagery behind it.  And what God says is: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.  Zerubbabel was likely facing opposition, both from inside Judah and from outside, and the work was evidently not going well.  (We see a similar story in Nehemiah.)  So Zechariah’s message from God to Zerubbabel is that the work was not dependent on Zerubbabel’s power or authority, but rather on God’s Spirit – which no one could take away.  

The second part of the message is often overlooked, but I believe it’s just as important:  The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it.  When God calls us to a task, he calls for our cooperation; he supplies the resources and the authority to do it, and he will be faithful to see it through.  

Application:  There will always be challenges when we seek to do the Lord’s work, because there is an enemy of our souls who is like a roaring lion, roaming to and fro, seeking to discourage and even devour those who are serving God.  Rather than focusing all of our attention on the challenges, we should focus on the One who promised that it is not by our might or our power, but by the Spirit of God that we are able to serve him – and he has promised that what he gives us to start, he will enable us to finish.  That doesn’t mean that we will always see the end result of the work that God calls us to do, but God will enable us to complete the tasks to which he has called us.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that when you call us, you equip us and enable us to see our work to completion.  Help us to be satisfied with knowing that we have been obedient, rather than allowing the enemy to distract us and discourage us by what may seem to be a lack of “results.”  It’s not our might or our power; if it were up to us, we’d surely fail.  It’s based on the presence and power of your Spirit, whom you have given us to lead us and empower us in every situation that life brings.  Help us to focus on doing your will, on earth as in heaven, that we may see your Kingdom come.  Amen.

“Return to Me” (September 28, 2021)

Scripture:        Zechariah, chapters 1-3; Luke, chapter 11

Zechariah 1:1-6 (ESV) – In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, “The Lord was very angry with your fathers.  Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, ‘As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so he has dealt with us.’”

Observations: There are a lot of different ideas packed into these verses at the beginning of Zechariah’s prophecy.  First, you may have noticed that the time frame of this prophecy is very close to that of Haggai, which we looked at yesterday.  Haggai began his prophecy “in the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (Haggai 1.1); he continued into the seventh month (see Haggai 2:1), and then in the ninth month (Haggai 2:10, 20).  Zechariah is prophesying in the eighth month, in the second year of Darius.  So their ministries overlap – but that is not the only similarity.  Zechariah also uses the title “the Lord of hosts” to refer to God, just as Haggai did (Zechariah uses the title four times in these six verses).  Remember that “the Lord of hosts” is a title that refers to God’s power as the head of the armies of heaven (or “God-of-the-Angel-Armies, as The Message renders it).

But what Zechariah says is what is really important, because the word of the Lord came to him and said these things.  The first thing that God says through Zechariah is Return to me, and I will return to you.  Wow!  For a people who had been in exile for 70 years, away from Jerusalem, away from the land that God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to their descendants, God’s call to return to me, and I will return to you was an incredible expression of God’s grace.  Many of the Jews had repented and sought God when the disaster of conquest and exile came upon them, but God did not call them to return because they had fixed everything and were now qualified to come back to him; he called them to return because he saw that they had had enough.

But God doesn’t just say Return to me, and I will return to you; he also says, Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.  They could look back historically and see the ways that their forefathers had rejected God – and the consequences which they suffered.  They had the choice to return to God or to continue in the ways of their forefathers.  Those ancestors had heard the word of the Lord and seen him at work, yet they continued to reject him; God is warning the current generation not to follow in those footsteps.  They needed to turn from their evil ways and evil deeds, a recognition that God is just as concerned with what is going on inside our hearts as he is in what we’re doing “on the outside.”

Finally, God reminds them that his word is eternal: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?”  Both the good – the prophets – and the bad – their fathers – passed away, because this life does not last forever. But God’s word and God’s commands do last forever – which means that we should never reject God’s way because we suspect it might be “old-fashioned” or “out-of-touch.”  No doubt there were those among the Jewish people who thought that God’s ways were outdated way back in Darius’ day (approximately 500 BC), just as there are many people today who reject Scripture and God’s commands because they believe that they are outdated.  My words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?  Or, as Jesus would later say, ‘For truly I say to  you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  That doesn’t sound “outdated” to me!

Application:  God is reminding me of the importance of pointing people back to the truth of his Word – and of calling people to return to me, and I will return to you.  Our eternal standing with God is not out of our control, as though we were hard-wired for obedience or disobedience; the fact that God calls us to return to me means that we have a choice in the matter – and we should encourage everyone to choose Jesus!

Prayer:   Father, thank you that you have given us the opportunity to choose to accept the life that you offer us through Jesus – that we can choose to return to you, with the promise that you will return to us.  Help us to seek you with all our hearts, and to leave behind the evil ways and evil deeds of this world.  Amen.

The Lord of Hosts (September 27, 2021)

Scripture:        Haggai, chapters 1-2; Psalm 129; Luke, chapter 10

Haggai 2:1-9 (ESV) – In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet. “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord.  Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.  The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’”

Observations: When I read this passage and started thinking about it, I focused on the promise of verse 9: The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.  We are in a period of declining attendance and participation in church, and many people have just accepted the fact that this is the way it will be.  Others have suggested that this is a “pruning” period, and that when those who are less connected and committed have drifted away, God will have a “remnant” with which to work to restore the church.  That thought came to my mind as I read this, and I immediately thought about people returning to church, and seeing the church full, and experiencing the joy and enthusiasm of worship together.

Those are not bad things, and I certainly am praying that God will do that. But the more I thought, two other things came to my mind.  First, the “glory of this house” belongs to God, not to us – so if our longing to see the church restored is at all tainted by selfish motives, we will not see the greater glory to which Haggai refers.  That brings me to the second thing: the “glory of this house” for churches is not primarily related to attendance, but to making disciples.  Now, don’t get me wrong: if people are coming to faith in Christ and growing spiritually, we should expect to see church attendance increase.  But there are all sorts of ways for us to increase attendance that may or may not lead to transformed lives, and that’s where we need to be careful.  

And that brings me to the last thing that God brought to my mind this morning, as he led me through these other thoughts to the place that I think is most important:  the Lord of hosts.  If you’ve read the Old Testament very much, you’re familiar with that title – but do you know what it means?  The “hosts” are the hosts of heaven; in The Message, Peterson renders the phrase “Lord of hosts” as “God of the angel armies.”  But the idea that comes to my mind today is that God is over all of us, all of his people – and he is the one who is in control, he is the one to whom the glory belongs.  The one who is “God of the angel armies” is the all-powerful, all-knowing God – and he is the one who has promised to restore his house to its former glory!

Application:  It’s easy to read this passage and then try to make connections with regard to church buildings in the present day, but we need to resist that temptation.  I think there are two reasons for this: first, in Haggai’s day, God’s point was that the people’s commitment and dedication to him was demonstrated by their care for his “house.”  In the New Testament (and in our day), the church – God’s “house” – is not a building; it is made up of his people.  And the second point is that our commitment is not primarily demonstrated by concern for a building (although we do need to take care of the resources that God has entrusted to us); it is demonstrated by our concern for the body, the group of people into which God has called us. In Haggai’s day, the people were taking care of their own houses while neglecting the Temple (see Haggai 1:4).  In our day, though, it is much more common for people to do what they want rather than seeking the good of the body as a whole.  It’s easier to stay home and watch a service on television, or streaming online, than to get up and go in person.  It’s easier, but it’s not the same – and I fear it’s the equivalent of neglecting “God’s house” just as the Jews were in Haggai’s day.  And the answer, as God tells Haggai to proclaim in verse 4 of our passage, is to be strong and work.  If we are faithful, God has promised that he will fill this house with glory – and who doesn’t want to see that?

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that we are your house – and when we neglect being active in the life and the work of the body, we are “dwelling in paneled houses while your house lies in ruins” (Haggai 1:4).  Challenge us, encourage us, and inspire us to work for you and for your glory, and give us hearts that long to see you fill your “house” with your glory.  Amen.

Daniel’s Prayer (September 22, 2021)

Scripture:        Daniel, chapters 9-10; Psalm 123; Luke, chapter 5

Daniel 9:3-19 (ESV) – Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.  To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.  To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that re written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. And now, O Lord, our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day, we have sinned, we have done wickedly.

O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”

Observations: Now that is a prayer!  It’s a good prayer to examine, because as we’ve seen in our recent readings in Daniel, Daniel was a righteous and godly man who took prayer seriously.  So what do we see in this prayer of Daniel?

First, Daniel is not hesitant to confess sin and wickedness – for himself, and on behalf of his people.  But it’s important for us to recognize a couple of important points.  First, Daniel was not sinful and wicked.  As we saw in our reading in chapter 6 a couple of days ago, King Darius recognized that Daniel was a righteous man: “May your God, whom you continually serve, deliver you!” (6:16).  Daniel himself understood that as well:  “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm” (6:22).  But that did not stop Daniel from confessing at the beginning of his prayer, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.”  So, is Daniel just “faking” confession?  No!  He is acknowledging that the people of Israel had sinned against God, and he is part of Israel, so he confesses on behalf of Israel.  But he also considered Israel’s sin his own sin, as he says in the verse immediately following our passage for today:  “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God…” (9:20).  He undoubtedly recognized that even though he strove to be righteous and obedient to God, there were times when he “fell short of the mark” – and he understood that he needed to confess those failings to God.

Second, Daniel recognizes that the desperate state in which the people of Israel found themselves was the result of a long pattern of disobedience:  “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.”   All during the period of Israel’s rebellion and decline, God sent prophets to warn the people and call them back to the covenant which God had made with them.  But on every level, Israel had rejected those messengers and their warning – our kings, our princes and our fathers, and…all the people of the land.  God sent these messengers to warn the people and call them to repentance, but they refused to listen.

Third, Daniel acknowledges that any mercy on God’s part would be the result of his character, rather than any merit of the people:  “To us, O Lord, belongs open shame…because we have sinned against you.  To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.”  When the prophets spoke, the people were supposed to listen – because the prophets were considered the voice of the Lord our God.  The people understood what God had commanded them to do – his commandments and rules – but they refused to obey.  And at the end of the prayer Daniel says, “For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.”  If we have to stand based on our own righteousness, we’re in BIG TROUBLE – but when we trust in God’s great mercy, we have hope.  And the only reasonable response to God’s great mercy is our faithful obedience.

Application:  There are undoubtedly a number of big issues in our country and our culture which demonstrate how far we have drifted from God:  legalizing abortion, celebrating same-sex marriages, the over-sexualization of our culture, and idolizing power and fame and wealth, just to name a few.  Each of these “conditions” is a direct repudiation of the Word of God.  I believe that God is calling on his people to pray, as Daniel prayed, for God’s mercy – and the first step for us is to confess those sins and acknowledge our own culpability for them.  One of the biggest problems that we have is our tendency to say, “That’s not my fault!  I didn’t do that!”  Daniel could have said that about all of the disobedience of his people, but he didn’t; he confessed that sin in his prayer, and acknowledged that things were not the way that God wanted them to be.  I think that would be a great place for the Church to start today – to acknowledge that things are not the way that God wants them to be, to confess our culpability as part of humanity that has refused to follow God’s way, and to ask God’s forgiveness.  “If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  

Prayer:   Father, please forgive us for the way that our world has become.  We have been silent when we ought to have spoken; we have been idle when we ought to have acted.  And forgive us for thinking that the answers to these problems could be found in the works of mankind, when it was the works of mankind that brought us to this point.  Help us not to seek the answer in political programs or social movements, but in the Word of God and the power of the Spirit unleashed among your people.  Help us to live so that we, like Daniel, might hear you say, “O Daniel, you are greatly loved” (9:22-23; 10:11).  Amen.