Are You Listening? (September 23)

Scripture:        Daniel, chapters 11-12; Luke, chapter 6

Luke 6:27-37 (NIV) – “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.  If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Observations: Are you listening?  

Luke chapter 6 tells us (verse 12) that Jesus went up on a mountainside to pray, and then the next day he called his disciples to him, and he chose 12 of them and designated them apostles (verse 13).  After that, he went down the mountain and began to teach, “looking at all his disciples” (verse 20).  In other words, the “disciples” to whom Jesus will speak in the rest of chapter 6 are not just “the twelve”; it was “a large crowd of his disciples” (verse 17).  After he makes some introductory remarks, he says:  “But to you who are listening…”(verse 27).

I don’t think we understand well enough that it is possible to be a “disciple” without really listening to Jesus all the time.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  he certainly expects us to be listening, and obeying, all the time!  But the fact that he prefaces the passage that I’ve quoted with the phrase, “to you who are listening” reminds us that there are times when we may be “tuning out.”

The real question is, why are we tuning out?  Are we distracted by the cares and concerns of life?  Are we too absorbed in other things?  That happens to all of us from time to time, and when we realize that it’s happening, we need to ask God’s forgiveness and re-focus on what God is doing, and what he is saying to us.

But there are times when we hear what Jesus is saying, and just choose not to do it.  I fear that the passage I’ve quoted above is a prime example of that.  We need to really listen to what Jesus is saying, and ask ourselves, “Am I really doing that?” 

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

Notice how Jesus finishes this passage:  Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  The word then tells us that our status and development as “children of the Most High” depends on our response to the call to love our enemies.  If we really want to be like Jesus, if we’re really focused on developing as “children of the Most High,” we must do what God does – because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Application:  I wonder how often we really examine our words, our attitudes, and our actions in light of this command?  Am I really loving my enemies?  Am I kind to the ungrateful and wicked the way that God is, the way that he calls me to be?  Or do I justify harsh words and unloving actions by judging others and deciding that they aren’t worthy?  I’m really struck by Jesus’ comment that God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked I fear there is far too much anger and animosity directed toward those whom we consider to be our “enemies” with the justification that they are “evil.”  If God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, and he calls us to follow his example, shouldn’t that make a difference in the way that we talk, the way that we act, the things that we post online, and our attitudes toward those who disagree with us?  Are we listening?

Prayer:   Father, forgive us for the times when we have not listened – whether because we’ve been distracted or focused on other things, or because we’ve heard you and just chosen not to obey.  Forgive us for the harsh attitudes we have held toward those who disagree with us; Jesus’ words clearly show us that “they started it” is not an excuse.  You call us to love our enemies, and to follow your example of being kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Give us the strength to do that.  We confess that it is hard, but we trust in you that your Spirit is ready, willing, and able to help us to do it.  Show us today how you want us to love our enemies, and to be kind to the ungrateful and wicked, because we want to be your children.  Amen.

“Because You Say So” (September 22, #2)

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

Luke 5:4-11 (NIV) – When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”  So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Observations: Because you say so.  Those are hard words for most of us to say, because they indicate a trust in the person who is “saying so” that we don’t easily hold.  There are very few people that I trust enough to tell them, “whatever you think best.”  But we can certainly trust Jesus that way!

Peter and his fellow fishermen had been working all night, casting nets out into the water, then hauling them back in.  I can only imagine that it was hard work, and at the end of a long night of doing that over and over, with no fish to show for it, they were probably ready for a nap!  (That’s something that I can relate to!)  

But when Jesus told Peter to put out into deep water, and let the nets down for a catch, Peter complied.  “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Now, it wasn’t without a small complaint – “We’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”  I’m guessing that Peter was thinking, “We’ve been fishing all night; we’ve been all over this lake.  If there were any fish around here, we certainly would have found them.”  But there was something about Jesus that made Peter want to please him, so he said, “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.

How many times do we hesitate at the point of obedience because we’re not willing to say, “Because you say so, Jesus”?  

“Can he really be asking me to do that?”

“I’m not capable of teaching a class.”

“I don’t have the confidence to share my faith with my co-workers.”

“I can’t afford to make that big of a contribution to the church.”  

“I don’t really want to call off this relationship because they’re not a believer.”

Following Jesus means, at the very minimum, being willing to say, “Because you say so, I will do it.” 

Application:  It’s interesting that God led me to this passage and this thought, because I already had a passage and thoughts from our reading from Daniel chapter 9.  I don’t normally write two reflections in one day, and I don’t know if I’ve ever posted two reflections for the same day – but because he said so, I’m doing it.  (The first one is entitled “Daniel’s Prayer.”)  As I think about this second passage, I think God is telling us that being willing to pray like Daniel prayed is something that we all need to do – even if we don’t think that we’ve done anything wrong – because he says so.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that we are not just individuals doing our own “thing”; we’re part of your family, the body of Christ, and we’re responsible for each other.  Thank you for also reminding us that there are times when we need to say, “Because you say so, I will do it” – even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t feel like it, even if it takes us in exactly the opposite direction of where we want to go.  That’s what it means to pray that your Kingdom will come and your will be done, so help us to say, “Because you say so, I will do it” to whatever you put before us today.  Amen.

Daniel’s Prayer (September 22)

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

Daniel 9:1-19 (NIV) – In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom – in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:  “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.  We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame – the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you.  We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets.  All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.

Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you.  You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster.  Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.  Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.  The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong.  Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill.  Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant.  For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary.  Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name.  We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.  Lord, listen!  Lord, forgive!  Lord, hear and act!  For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”

Observations: As soon as I started to read this passage today, I felt God drawing me toward it.  That’s not because there are strict parallels between the Old Testament nation of Israel and the modern United States; we are not the city and the people who bear his Name, and God has not established us as a covenant partner with him.  But God has blessed us, and in times past we honored God by at least trying to follow his laws and acknowledging his sovereignty as Almighty God.  I think most people would be hard-pressed today to say that our nation and our culture acknowledges God’s sovereignty as Almighty God; most people are not willing to acknowledge anyone’s sovereignty over them.  We’re living in a time much like the days of the Judges in Israel, when “Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25, NIV).

But in the midst of all of this, Daniel’s prayer stands out to us as a model prayer of repentance on behalf of a nation – a group of people who have known God’s blessings but have gone their own way.   Notice that Daniel does not say, “God, these people have sinned; you need to do something to get their attention!”  Instead, he says, “we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws” (v 5).  That doesn’t mean that we have personally done any of those things; it means that we’re part of a people who have done them, and we are grieved by that rebellion against God enough to ask God’s forgiveness.  If there were anyone in Israel in those days who had to right to say, “I haven’t been wicked or rebelled against God,” it was Daniel.  He willingly was thrown into the lions’ den rather than dishonor God by refusing to pray.  He was willing to reject the king’s food and drink (chapter 1) because it would defile him; he was willing to reject the honors that Belshazzar offered him for interpreting the “writing on the wall” (chapter 5) because of Belshazzar’s wickedness and disrespect for God.  But in spite of Daniel’s personal holiness and faithfulness, he confessed the sins of his people and asked God’s forgiveness.

The other thing that stands out is that Daniel doesn’t ask God to act because of his (Daniel’s) obedience or repentance; he asks God to act “For your sake.”  We don’t have the standing to ask God to bless us:  “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy” (v 18).  And just so we don’t miss how important Daniel thought it was to repent on behalf of his people, he closes his prayer like this:  “Lord, listen!  Lord, forgive!  Lord, hear and act!  For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.

Application:  I think it’s especially fitting that God brought my attention to this passage today, because this Thursday (September 24) has been declared “a day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation for Divine healing in our state and our nation” by the Michigan House of Representatives.  Also, this Saturday – September 26 – is a day of prayer in Washington, D.C.  I believe that it’s time for God’s people to stop pointing fingers and allocating blame, and to acknowledge that as a nation we have drifted far from God’s principles and commands.  It’s easy to say things like, “I didn’t do that”; it’s much harder to pray, “Father, forgive us, for we have sinned.”  Satan loves to prompt spiritual pride that sets itself apart from “them,” the people “who do those things.”  We don’t have to be personally responsible to be sorry, or to say I’m sorry – to people who have been hurt, and to God.  Calls to prayer almost always make reference to 2 Chronicles 7, which calls on God’s people to humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways.  I think that Daniel’s prayer gives us a great model for doing just that.

Prayer:   Father, we have sinned and done wrong.  When we have seen things that are wrong, we have failed to speak out against them.  We’ve seen people hurting and not shown them your love.  We’ve witnessed our nation’s moral decline and failed to try to turn the tide, staying silent when we’ve needed to speak.  We’ve allowed our own comfort and prosperity to become our priorities rather than seeking to honor you.  Forgive us. Strengthen our faith; give us courage to speak your truth regardless of the circumstances.  Help us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, rather than on the institutions and powers of this world. Help us to bear witness to the transforming power of your grace.  Help us to model the love which motivated you to send your Son to give his life for the world, that others may be drawn to you by that love.  Amen.

The Year of the Lord’s Favor (September 21)

Scripture:        Daniel, chapters 7-8; Psalm 137; Luke, chapter 4

Luke 4:14-21 (NIV) – Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.  He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Observations: Everyone praised him.  That’s the picture of Jesus that we like, the one where everyone loves him, and they all follow him around, hanging on his every word and talking about how great he is.  We like that picture of Jesus because we think of ourselves as being in that crowd, praising Jesus and following him.  The very next verse after the passage I’ve quoted about says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.”  

I think we also like that picture of Jesus because that’s the world we want to live in – a world where everyone speaks well of Jesus and praises him.  The passage that Jesus reads from Isaiah talks about the year of the Lord’s favor, and we like that, too!  Good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed.  Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

Well, the problem is that there is a cost involved in “signing up” for that – we have to surrender ourselves to God’s authority.  Everybody likes good news and freedom and healing, but when it comes time to do things God’s way, that’s where a lot of people check out.  The people liked the first part of Jesus’ message – “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” – but then Jesus started hitting a little closer to home, and their attitudes changed almost immediately.  It appears that they were wanting Jesus to do the kinds of things that he had done in other places, like healing people and casting out demons.  Jesus himself said, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown,” and then he gave them a couple of examples from the Old Testament where God acted in favor of Gentiles – the widow of Zarephath (see 1 Kings 17) and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5) – instead of Israelites.  As soon as the people heard that, their attitudes changed:  “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this” (Luke 4:29).  They were ready to take him outside of town and throw him off a cliff!

The problem is not with the message of good news, freedom, and healing; the problem is that we want to decide who hears the good news, who is set free, and who is healed.  We want God to do things our way, rather than trying to figure out what God is doing and joining him.  But that’s not how God works, and often God’s focus is on those that we tend to forget.

Application:  Notice what the passage from Isaiah says:  good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  We have a tendency to blame the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed for their circumstances; if only they worked harder, or didn’t get into trouble, they wouldn’t have those problems.  And that’s what makes us spiritually blind – because we cannot (or don’t want to) see that their problems are often the result of systems and circumstances which are the residual of sin’s impact in our world.  That doesn’t mean that personal choice and responsibility are not important, because they are – especially in a spiritual sense.  But it does mean that we need to remember that our favorable circumstances often are influenced because of things that we had nothing to do with – where we were born, who our parents were, what color our skin is, whether we’re male or female, and a number of other things like that.  We don’t like to think about that, don’t like to talk about it, because it makes us feel guilty.  But we shouldn’t feel guilty; we should feel grateful to God, and that gratitude should motivate us to care about the things that God cares about – like good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  We need to recognize that God’s heart has always been concerned for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized – and God has always called his people to love and help others just like he loves and helps us.  Everyone praised him, until his message hit a little too close to home.  We need to praise him because his message hits close to home, because that reminds us that God is still working on us, faithfully continuing his work of forming us in the image of Jesus.

Prayer: Father, thank you for reminding us that you call us to care for others, just as you cared for us.  Protect us from attitudes of superiority and spiritual pride that cause us to forget that every blessing that we enjoy has come from you; help us to share the good news with those who are poor – whether spiritually poor or materially poor.  Help us to proclaim freedom for those who are bound up and oppressed by sin, and to point them toward the freedom that comes from knowing Jesus.  Help us to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor” so others will experience that favor and blessing from you.  Amen.

“Your Prayer Has Been Heard” (September 18)

Scripture:        Ezekiel, chapters 45-46; Luke, chapter 1

Luke 1:11-17 (NIV) – Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his brith, for the will be great in the sight of the Lord.  He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Observations: It’s interesting as we make the transition from Revelation, with all of its symbolism and with John’s lofty language, to the Gospel according to Luke.  Luke was a doctor, and he wrote with precision and detail, setting forth all of the pertinent information.  He begins his gospel with an explanation that he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” and his intent is to write an “orderly account” so that Theophilus (whover that might have been) might “know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting that Luke begins his story with the account of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist.  They were both Levites and descendants of Aaron, which meant that they were not just Levites; they were part of the priesthood.  “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (v 7).  In our culture, when many people are choosing to not have children, it is hard for us to grasp what a stigma was attached to a woman who was married and childless.  The common belief was that such a fate was a punishment from God.  But in that time, when everyone was waiting and watching for the coming of the Messiah, childlessness was even worse – because there was no way that you could be the mother of the Messiah if you were childless.  And that was the state of things at the time of the events that we read in Luke chapter 1.

As I was reading this passage, the phrase that caught my attention was the angel’s statement to Zechariah:  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”  That’s interesting, because Luke does not mention that Zechariah had been praying for anything.  It would be surprising for a righteous Jewish man of the priesthood to not be praying regularly, but up to this point Luke doesn’t mention any specific prayers of Zechariah.

But it’s clear from the angel’s statement that Zechariah had been praying, and praying specifically for a son – but up to this point, it had not happened, “and they were both very old.”  Can you imagine the faith that it must have taken for Zechariah to pray that?  Can you imagine what his prayers must have been like?  “Dear God, I know that we’re both old, but I also know that this is nothing to you.  You enabled our father Abraham to become a father at the age of 100, and Sarah to give birth at the age of 90.  You answered the prayers of Manoah and his wife, and gave them Samson to be their son. You answered the prayers of Hannah, and enabled her to give birth to Samuel, the great prophet and judge.  So I know that you’re able to do this, and we pray that you would do it, for your glory.  Amen.”

I’m sure he was praying, at least sometimes, but I also think it must have been really hard for him to believe that it would actually happen.  But he must have had enough faith to pray it, and that was enough faith for God to do it.

Application:  God is reminding me that he calls us to pray in faith, and trust that one of two things will happen:  either he will grant what we ask, or he will do something better.  Now, that “something better” will not always be something that we recognize as being better, at least not right away.  The Apostle Paul prayed three times that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” which he described as “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” God’s response was “no” – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).  At first glance, God’s “no” was not better than the “yes” that Paul was asking for – but by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, Paul was able to recognize the way that God had given him sufficient grace, and that enabled God to be glorified even more.  We need to pray, and pray boldly, that God will do what he has laid on our hearts to pray for – but we also need to trust him to answer those prayers in the best way possible.  Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

Prayer:   Father, I thank you for the reminder that you hear our prayers.  As the psalmist said in Psalm 145, you’re always listening when we pray and really mean it.  Help us to pray and really mean it; help us to learn to see things with spiritual eyes, so that we realize that your “no” is really a greater “yes” for our spiritual good.  Help us to not be afraid, and to believe that our prayers have been heard.  Amen.

Trustworthy and True (September 17)

Scripture:        Ezekiel, chapters 42-44; Revelation, chapter 22

Revelation 22:6-17 (NIV) – The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true.  The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“Look, I am coming soon!  Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.  And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me.  But he said to me, “Don’t do that!  I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll.  Worship God!”  Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.  Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”

“Look, I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.  Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.  I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.  I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”  And let the one who hears say, “Come!”  Let the one who is thirsty come, and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Observations: These words are trustworthy and true.  While that applies to all of Scripture, the angel is referring specifically to the words of the Revelation.  So they are “trustworthy and true” – but what does that mean?  What does it mean to say that a vision is “true” when we can’t really understand all of the symbolism?

If you’ve listened to me or read comments I’ve made on Revelation, you know that I do not see it as a “treasure map” to find the “key” to the end.  There is an old story – I can’t remember where I first read it – about a group of seminary students who met each week at an elementary school to play basketball.  The custodian who opened the gym for them would sit and read while they played, and one night they asked him what he was reading.  They could see that he was reading the Bible, and they expected some basic answer, but he told them, “I’m reading Revelation.”  They were surprised, and one of them asked, “Do you understand it?”  He said, “Yes, I do.”  They were even more surprised – because, as seminary students, they “knew” that nobody understands Revelation – so they said, “Well, what does it mean?”  He said, “God wins.”

That’s the message that we need to take from Revelation, and I believe it’s the message that John’s first readers would have taken from it.  John was sitting in exile on the island of Patmos, writing to churches that were beginning to suffer persecution from both the government and from the people who lived around them.  The letters to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation encouraged those believers to hold on and persevere, because in the end they would be “victorious.”  

That’s a message that the church needs to hear today.  As the attitude of our culture toward the church changes, we will face more and more challenges.  Studies suggest that as many as one-third of the people who attended church before the COVID-19 pandemic will not come back to church.  City and state governments are getting more aggressive in trying to restrict churches in their ability to worship, preach, and share the Gospel with others.  Some churches are even abandoning the truth of Scripture in an attempt to be more “relevant” or “tolerant” of others.  We need to hear the words of Jesus again:  Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.  Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone else who loves and practices falsehood.  There will be an “inside” and an “outside,” and the entrance to the city is limited to those who wash their robes.  That thought takes us back to chapter 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’… Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’  I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’  And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”  The only thing that can make our “robes” white is the blood of the Lamb – “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Those whose “robes” have been washed may go through the gates into the city of God; those who have not are outside.  But no one has to be outside:  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”  and let the one who hears say, “Come!”  Let the one who is thirsty come, and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.  All who are thirsty are invited.  All who want make take the free gift of the water of life.  That’s the message of Revelation – and in the end, God wins!

Application:  God is reminding me today that because these words are trustworthy and true, we need to immerse ourselves in them – in Revelation, and Ezekiel, and everything else in Scripture.  The call to the church is to be faithful and persevere, because those who are victorious will receive the crown of life.  The call to everyone is to come and take the free gift of the water of life.  As we’re sharing with others what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, we need to always remember this call to take the free gift of the water of life; we don’t own that gift, and we don’t get to decide who will take it.  It’s available to everyone, and we should do whatever we can to encourage them to take it!

But we also need to remember that it is those who wash their robes who will be allowed into the city of God; we must live in accordance with the Word of God, because those who don’t follow God’s Word will be outside.  God doesn’t want that, but he has given everyone the opportunity to choose whether they will take the free gift of the water of life, wash their robes, and come into his Kingdom. 

Prayer:   Father, we thank you for the free gift of the water of life.  Thank you for offering it to us, and enabling us to say “yes” to you.  Thank you for the ability to wash our “robes” in the blood of the Lamb, that we may be among those who are allowed to enter your kingdom.  Help us not to become proud or arrogant about that, because it is not because of anything that we have done.  Help us to love others the way that you do, so that we may encourage them to take the free gift as well, and that we may rejoice when they do.  Thank you for the life that we have in Jesus.  Amen.

On That Very Day (September 16)

Scripture:        Ezekiel, chapters 40-41; Psalm 128; Revelation, chapter 21

Ezekiel 40:1 (NIV) – In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the fall of the city – on that very day the hand of the Lord was on me and he took me there.

Observations: On that very day.  There are events in our lives that we can always relate exactly when they happened, and what we were doing.  For many of us, the events of September 11, 2001 fall into that category; last week on Facebook, I saw a number of comments and reflections of people stating what they were doing when they heard about the terrorist attacks, where they were, who had told them, and all kinds of other details.  Even though it was 19 years ago, people remember it very vividly – they remember the day, and everything associated with it.

Ezekiel had that kind of clarity about his vision of the Temple – In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the fall of the city.  And his clarity wasn’t limited to the exact day; he sets forth all kinds of details, with measurements and design and arrangements of all sorts of things, as he describes the vision he had of the restored Temple area and the Temple itself in chapters 40-41.

It’s interesting that John had the same sort of detail in his vision of the new Jerusalem in our reading from Revelation 21 today – details like the measurements of the city, the thickness of the walls, and the materials from which it was constructed.  Again, it’s not surprising; when you have an experience that is life-changing, you tend to remember all kinds of details about it!

But what is most interesting to me from these passages is that they were visions.  Ezekiel did not physically go to Jerusalem; the hand of the Lord was on me and he took me there.  In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel…  The same is true of John; beginning in chapter 4 of Revelation, he relates what he saw in the vision that he had:  “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.  And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’  At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (Revelation 4:1-2, NIV).  

The point is that God can give us visions and revelations that are full of detail, very vivid and real – and those experiences can transform us.  But it takes faith to believe that what we “see” and “hear” is real, and to act on it – however God tells us to act.

Application:  God’s Word promised that when the Holy Spirit came, God would “pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-29).  So the problem is not that God doesn’t want to reveal himself to us; the problem is that we struggle to believe that he will.  I believe that God wants us to have very real experiences of his presence and his revelation of himself to us – experiences that we can pinpoint to the very day – and those experiences will transform us!

Prayer:   Father, thank you for revealing yourself to us in your Word.  Thank you also for the gift of your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.  You have given the Spirit to every believer; help us to recognize his presence and his work in us.  Give us the eyes of faith that will enable us to “see” you as you reveal yourself to us.  Give us the ears of faith that enable us to “hear” you speak to us.  Give us the faith to walk in obedience as you show us your way.  And give us the boldness to share how you are at work with each other, that we may be your people, led by your Spirit.  Amen.

Slow to Anger and Rich in Love (September 15)

Scripture:        Ezekiel, chapters 38-39; Psalm 145; Revelation, chapter 20

Psalm 145:8-13 (NIV) – The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.

The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.  All your works praise you, Lord; your faithful people extol you. They tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all people may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.  Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.

Observations: My usual practice is to read the passages for each day in the order in which I list them; that order is normally “Old Testament, Psalm (if there is one), New Testament.”  So as I read today, I started with the passage from Ezekiel, and the prophecy of a great battle at which the enemies of Israel would be defeated.  I then read Psalm 145, and moved on to Revelation 20 – which also tells of a great battle between God and the forces of Satan.  My first thought was that I should reflect on those prophecies, and what they might mean to us – and then God quickly said, “No, look at Psalm 145.”  You see, there is no shortage of opinions about what the prophecies of Revelation mean – and in my opinion, none of them are completely correct.  After all, Jesus said that no one knows the day or the hour of his coming – not even him.  Only the Father knows.  I think that means that we may see signs that make us think that “the end is near,” but in truth people have believed that ever since Jesus returned to his Father.  There are all sorts of questions that come up as we read these prophetic passages:  what parts are to be taken literally?  What parts are symbolic – and what does the symbolism mean?  Have any of these events already happened, or are they all still in the future?  My experience in reading and listening to various interpretations l has shown me that people tend to choose which parts to emphasize and which to ignore, based on their preferred “answer” – which is NOT the way to read Scripture!  (This shouldn’t be a surprise, because people have been doing the same thing with Scripture in general for as long as we’ve had Scripture – but I digress.)

That brings us to Psalm 145, which begins with the idea of exalting God and praising him forever.  God certainly is worthy of our praise – and that is the focus of the verses which I’ve quoted above.  First, God is worthy to be praised because he is gracious and compassionate.  If he were not gracious and compassionate, none of us would stand a chance – because every one of us is completely in need of God’s grace and compassion!  But God is gracious and compassionate, so those of us who recognize his grace and compassion – and our need for them – ought to be first in line to praise him!

The Psalmist then tells us that God is slow to anger and rich in love.  Do we really grasp that?  Or do we live in a constant state of unease, afraid that God is going to “zap” us the moment we mess up?  We need to remember – and demonstrate – and tell others every chance we get – that God is slow to anger and rich in love.  God went to such great lengths to make salvation and new life available to us – sending his one and only Son to give his life for us – that the fact that he is rich in love ought to go without saying.  But we need to remember that he is also slow to anger.  The heading for Psalm 145 indicates that it is a psalm of David; our knowledge of David’s story helps us to understand what he means when he says that God is slow to anger.  The history of the Israelite people, from the time of Moses, was a history of rebellion followed by repentance, followed by more rebellion.  The entire book of Judges is the story of the cycles of rebellion and repentance that the Israelites went through, from the time of Joshua’s death until David became king.  (Of course, those cycles resumed after David was gone, but that’s a story for another day.)  God was patient with the Israelites, giving them chance after chance to repent, to turn from their idolatry and wickedness, and return to him.

They didn’t – which ultimately led to the Exile.  But even then, God didn’t wipe them out, didn’t abandon them and say, “I’m done with you!”  The Exile was another attempt by God to get their attention and turn their hearts back to him.  Of course, that didn’t work, either – which is why Jesus came.  And even now, God is patient, wanting to give people every possible opportunity to turn away from sin and turn to him – because he is slow to anger and rich in love.

Application:  His Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures through all generations.  The history of mankind seems to be that one generation forgets about God and turns to something else – pleasure, knowledge, power, whatever – trying to fill the void inside with something other than God.  But in each of us is a God-shaped hole, and only God can truly fill it.  His kingdom is an everlasting one, made for all who will acknowledge him and allow him to fill that void.  The story of Jesus is not some ancient myth, destined to the dustbin of history as people become more “educated”; his Kingdom is an everlasting one, and the truth of his Word is eternal.  Vote Jesus the Truth! 

Prayer:   Father, thank you for the fact that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.  Thank you for the way that you demonstrate your love and compassion to us.  Help us to be gracious and compassionate to one another, following the example of Jesus.  Amen.

Invited to the Wedding (September 14)

Scripture:        Ezekiel, chapters 36-37; Psalm 110; Revelation, chapter 19

Revelation 19:5-9 (NIV) – Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you servants, you who fear him, both great and small!”

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:  “Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Almighty reigns!  Let us be glad and rejoice and give him glory!  For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.  Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”  (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to be:  “Write this:  Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”  And he added:  “These are the true words of God.”

Observations: These are verses which I have often skimmed over, moving ahead to get to the great battle at the end of chapter 19.  But there are a few things that caught my attention this morning as I read this passage. First, a voice came from the throne, saying, “Praise our God, all you servants, you who fear him, both great and small.”  The voice came from the throne, which means that it was spoken with all of the authority of God.  We don’t know who actually said this, but it seems unlikely that it was God himself, because he says, “Praise our God” – which seems like an unusual thing for God to say.  That means that it was most likely Jesus who said it, because he is the One who speaks with the authority of God.  And what does he tell us?  Praise our God, all you servants, you who fear him, both great and small.  Praise God – that’s what we were created to do, and we find our fulfillment in it.  The “business of heaven” is worship and praise; that’s one of the themes that we see repeated over and over in Revelation.  So what better way could there be for us to prepare for God’s eternal Kingdom than to praise him now?

The second thing that we see is the response of the multitude:  Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Almighty reigns.  The call to praise brings a response of praise, and the description of that praise is very telling:  like the roar of rushing waters, and like loud peals of thunder, shouting.  Do you get the idea that the praise is enthusiastic?  I fear that too many times our praise and worship of God is restrained, like we’re afraid someone might hear us, or they might think that we’re being too loud.  NO!  One of the things that we see consistently in Scripture is that when people praise God from their hearts, it is loud!  When we think about what God has done for us, when we think about his promises, when we think about the Kingdom that he is preparing and what it will be like for us to dwell in his presence forever, how could we be silent?  How could we just mumble through some expression of praise?  Let the roar of rushing waters and…loud peals of thunder echo throughout the world:  Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Almighty reigns!

The third thing that caught my attention is this phrase:  Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!  One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that there are many weddings where the ceremony itself is small, but everyone is invited to the “party.” That’s not what is reflected in this passage. Blessed are those who are invited tells us that not everyone is invited – it will not all “just work out in the end.”  The passage reflects that the invitation is for those who have prepared themselves – his bride has made herself ready.  Fine line, bright and clean, was given her to wear.  The invitation to follow Jesus is open to all – “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”  We’re all invited to believe, to follow Jesus – but only those who accept that invitation will be invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb, and that invitation comes to those who have prepared themselves.  This passage is one of the few places in Revelation where John tells us what the symbolism means:  Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.  We prepare ourselves for the wedding supper by living the way that God calls us to – by following the example of Jesus, by doing what God has commanded.  As James said, faith without works is dead – and we demonstrate our faith in Jesus by living the way he told us to live.

Application:  It is important for us to remember that transformed lives look different.  That seems so obvious, but I fear that the evidence of our transformation is not always so obvious.  If we really believe in Jesus, if we’ve really committed to follow him, we submit ourselves each day to God’s work in transforming us into the image of Jesus.  Every day, we have opportunities to walk in obedience, to reflect God’s love and God’s presence to those around us.  Every day, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel through our transformed lives – lives that look different because of the transforming work of Jesus.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for the truth that if we are in Christ, we are new creations.  Help us today to live as new creations, reflecting the love that you have shown us to those we encounter.  Help us to lift Jesus up, that others may be drawn to him.  And help us to live so as to prepare our “wedding garments” for that day when we celebrate the wedding feast!  Amen.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Downfall (September 12)

Scripture:        Daniel, chapters 3-4; Palm 81; Revelation, chapter 17

Daniel 4:24-33a (NIV) – “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven.  Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.  The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules.  Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar.  Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken away from you.  You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox.  Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled.

Observations: Nebuchadnezzar was the powerful king of the greatest empire in the known world at that time, and he acted like it.  When he had a dream that he didn’t understand, he demanded that his advisors not only interpret the dream, but tell him what it was – and when they complained that no one could do that, he ordered that they be put to death (chapter 2).  When Daniel was able to tell him the dream and what it meant – giving all the glory to God – Nebuchadnezzar said, “Surely  your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47).  Later, Nebuchadnezzar made a giant gold statue – 90 feet high and 9 feet wide – and ordered that everyone in the kingdom bow down to the statue.  (We don’t know who or what the statue represented, but an educated guess would be either Nebuchadnezzar himself or the primary god of the Babylonians.)  When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused, he ordered that they be thrown into a fiery furnace – after ordering that it be heated seven times hotter than usual.  We know the story; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were unharmed, walking around inside the furnace with a fourth person who looked “like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25).  When he called them out of the furnace, he again acknowledged the power and authority of God:  “I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way” (Daniel 3:29).

But he obviously didn’t learn his lesson, because when God warned him in a dream what was going to happen to him, he didn’t listen.  When Daniel pleaded with him to listen – Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed – Nebuchadnezzar ignored him.  And twelve months later, everything happened to Nebuchadnezzar just as Daniel has predicted in interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

Fortunately for Nebuchadnezzar, the dream also provided for his restoration – and after “seven times” (a term usually used in Daniel to refer to years) Nebuchadnezzar came to his senses, was restored to his throne, and “praised the Most High” (Daniel 4:34).  The chapter closes with these words:  “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37, emphasis added).

Application:  There are any number of applications which might be made.  Some people might apply this passage to political leaders; others might apply them to corporate executives; still others might think the lesson is for famous people who seem to be “full of themselves.”  But I believe that the lesson here is for the church, and its desire to exercise political power and be “on the inside.”  We need to follow the lesson of Daniel, and of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to allow their positions of influence cause them to compromise their beliefs.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could have “reasonably” thought:  “God obviously blessed us by putting us in these positions of authority.  God knows that we honor him, and since he put us here, he probably won’t mind if we just bow down to that statue this one time.”  But they didn’t; they told Nebuchadnezzar that God was able to save them, but even if he didn’t, they still would not compromise their beliefs for the sake of political expediency, or even for the sake of their lives.

What would their witness have been like if they had bowed down?  Would Nebuchadnezzar have ever come to the place where he “came to his senses” and acknowledged God as the one true God?  God is reminding me that we are called to trust him even when it “doesn’t make sense,” even when we may have all kinds of “reasonable” justifications for compromising our beliefs and “going along.”  

As I thought about this, God reminded me that chapter 4 is written in the form of a decree by Nebuchadnezzar, explaining after the fact what had happened to him.  There is one sentence in his decree that stands out, and reminds us of our guiding principle:  “The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people” (Daniel 4:17).   

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me that you act according to your purposes, and you call your people to follow your lead.  Protect us from the temptation to think we understand what needs to be done and how to achieve it; help us instead to walk humbly with you, allowing you to direct us each day, that your name may be glorified.  Guard us from the pride that leads us to think that we have the answers; you are the only answer that we need.  Help us to follow the example of Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross – so that you may be glorified in us.  Amen.