Pay Attention! (December 11)

Today’s readings:  Philemon; Hebrews, chapters 1-4

Scripture:        Hebrews 2:1-4 (NRSV) – Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?  It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

Observations:  As we unpack these verses, we need to start with the core idea, which is right in the middle of the passage:  How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?  This is a rhetorical question; we cannot escape if we ignore the great salvation that God has offered to us.  The author of Hebrews has begun his epistle by demonstrating that Jesus is the best and highest demonstration and explanation of God’s love for us, and the salvation which is available to us through Jesus is the absolute peak of relationship with God.  The one and only Son of God came to us, took on flesh, lived a life of complete obedience and surrender to God, and then died as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  There is nothing that we can do on our own that could ever approach what God has done for us in Jesus.  That leads to the question:  How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

This message of salvation was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him.  Jesus came to be the sacrifice for our sins, but he also came to be “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14).  The high priest served to represent God before the people, and to represent the people before God.  In representing God to us, Jesus declared God’s love for us.  He invited us to know the Father through him; in fact, he told us that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Jesus declared that message to us by his life:  by his teaching; by the miracles which he performed; and by demonstrating God’s love to everyone he met.  He was the embodiment of God; that’s what we celebrate at Christmas. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); “he shall be called ‘Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14).

The message that Jesus declared was then communicated by those he had called to be his disciples.  Jesus told them to make disciples, teaching them everything Jesus had commanded and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).  He told them that they would be witnesses, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable them to share the Kingdom message (Acts 1:8).  The author of Hebrews recognizes that he and his readers received the message through those who heard him – and so have we.  We have heard that message through the writings of those first believers, preserved in the New Testament; more than that, if we had all of the records, we could trace our faith back through the people who shared the Gospel with us all the way to Jesus and his disciples.  In John 17, Jesus prayed for all of those who would come to faith through the word of the disciples – and everyone who is a follower of Christ today has come to faith through the word of the disciples, multiplied and transmitted throughout the ages.

God himself continues to confirm that message:  God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.  We may not always see signs and wonders and miracles, but we should always recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit which God has given to the Church – to us, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Every time we hear someone declare God’s message with power, we know that God is confirming the message of the Kingdom.  Every time we see someone serving God in ministry, in compassion, in generosity, in evangelism, in hospitality, or in any of the other ways that Scripture describes, we are seeing God adding his testimony to the Gospel message.  God continues to confirm the truth of the Gospel today, and we are called to embody Christ’s presence and demonstrate the truth of that message through our lives.

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  If we are called to participate in the proclamation of that message (and we certainly are!), we must be careful first to listen, to continue to grow, to allow God to deepen our faith and strengthen our witness.  But all of that requires that we pay greater attention to what we have heard.  It is very easy for us to get lax in our faith.  We read the Word, but we don’t really ready it; we just skim through it, because “we’ve read this story before.”  We serve God, and we obey him, but when God asks for more than we’re comfortable with doing or giving, we make excuses – or we convince ourselves “that’s not really God asking me to do that.”  We substitute our judgment for what “makes sense” for obedience to God’s call.  But when we fail to pay close attention to God and walk in obedience to him, we are in danger of drifting away from him.  “Pay attention” reminds us that it is our responsibility to actively listen to God, to make time for him in our daily lives, and to actually follow through in obedience.

Application:    God is reminding me how important it is for all of us to not neglect the salvation he has offered to us. This is not a “works salvation,” but a recognition that the life that God offers to us necessarily involves change.  God is also reminding me that this process of change continues throughout our lives. While the heart-change that he performs is complete when we are cleansed by the Spirit, we must continue to submit to him each day – and understand that he continues to identify areas where we need to confirm that heart-change by willingly surrendering those areas to him. God’s work of making us more like Jesus each day continues throughout our lives, and we are called to not neglect our part in that work, but to willingly submit to it in obedience and trust.

Prayer:            Father, we are prone to think that we’ve “arrived” – that we’ve grown enough, done enough, given enough.  Thank you for reminding me today that it’s not a matter of “how much” we’ve done; it’s a matter of today’s submission to your will.  That’s why Jesus called us to pray each day that you would lead us.  The moment that we start to think that we can figure out where we’re going or what we are to do, we start to “drift away” from you.  Thank you for calling to us each day, keeping us connected to you.  Thank you for the gifts you have given to your Church to confirm the message that you are declaring through us.  Help us to walk in faith and obedience today.  Amen.

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The Power of Scripture (December 10)

Today’s reading:  2 Timothy, chapters 1-4

Scripture:        2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV) – Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra.  What persecutions I endured!  Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.  Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.  But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Observations:  This second letter to Timothy really has the flavor of being a personal letter, full of shared stories and undergirded with a deep love shared between two believers who have known each other and worked together in the faith.  This is not a letter of powerful passages of theology and doctrine, such as we find in Romans or Galatians; this is a heartfelt letter to a younger protégé and friend, encouraging and seeking encouragement, drawing upon the strength of a long friendship.  “Do your best to come to me soon…” (4:9) reminds us that even though Paul was spiritually strong and committed to the Gospel, he still needed the support and encouragement of friends.

In the verses which I’ve quoted above, Paul remarks on how Timothy has “seen it all” – my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering…  This is a powerful reminder that the process of discipleship involves doing life together, being with each other in good times and bad, and allowing the truth of the Gospel to shine through in every circumstance.  

But Paul also notes that Timothy had more available to him than “just” Paul’s example:  from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Paul didn’t need to tell Timothy what “sacred writings” he was referring to, but the beginning of the next sentence makes it clear to us:  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…  When Paul referred to the “sacred writings” he wasn’t referring to books written by popular teachers or preachers; he didn’t mean devotional books with someone else’s insights; he meant Scripture.  For Paul, that was the Old Testament; for us, it is the entire Bible.  (The Church engaged in a long process over the first few hundred years of the Christian era in deciding which writings of the apostles and early church leaders would be recognized as “canonical” – Scripture which is authoritative for believers.  That process resulted in the New Testament which we know today.)  

All scripture is inspired by God; all of it is useful to us for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.  There are times when we all need to be corrected, to have our failures pointed out. We all need training in righteousness, for it does not come naturally to sinful humanity.  We all need daily time in the Word! It is not enough to just read a short devotional thought that comes from Scripture; we need to immerse ourselves in the Word and allow God to speak to us through it.  Sometimes, he points out areas where we have been falling short. Sometimes, he encourages and strengthens us by a promise or a reminder of his faithfulness.  At times he will show us things we have never known before. But all Scripture is useful, and we need to grow more and more familiar with all of it.

Application:    God is reminding me today (again!) of the importance of spending this daily time in his Word and in reflecting on what he is saying.  No matter how busy I may think I am, I must have time for this!  Timothy had known the Scriptures since childhood, but God still had things to teach him with regard to the salvation that we have through Jesus.  No matter how many times I’ve read a passage, God is still able to speak to me, to the present circumstances of my life, through his Word.  What an awesome reminder of his faithfulness!

Prayer:            Father, I thank you today for your Word.  As the Psalmist wrote, I have hidden your Word in my heart so that I might not sin against you – might not drift away from you and from the way of life to which you have called us.  As I pray “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one,” remind me that you have given us your Word to lead us in your paths. If I’m following Jesus, you will not lead me into temptation.  Temptation may find me, but you do not lead me to it, and you certainly don’t abandon me to it!  Thank you for Paul’s statement that “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom,” and for the assurance that the same promise is for me.  Lead me in your paths today, that I may glorify you.  Amen.

Pursuing Jesus (December 9)

Today’s readings:  1 Timothy, chapters 5-6; Titus, chapters 1-3

Scripture:        1 Timothy 6:11-16 (NRSV) – But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

Observations:  “As for you, man of God, shun all this.”  What is the “all this” to which Paul refers?  The things which he lists in the verses immediately before this, which result from false teaching.  “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.  From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”  (1 Timothy 6:3-5, NRSV)

But it is not enough to simply shun what is bad; we have to actively embrace what is good.  Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  To “pursue” something is to make it our goal, to strive to obtain it.  We have all had experiences of wanting to obtain or achieve something enough to devote ourselves to that process.  For some it is education – studying at some prestigious school, or earning a particular degree.  For others the pursuit is success in work – climbing the ladder, putting in the extra hours, doing the little things that get us noticed and lead to promotion.  Perhaps our goal is to live in a particular area, or a certain type of home.  It might be to gain the affection of that special woman or man.  None of these things are bad goals to have in themselves, but any of them might lead us away from what is really important.  These goals or dreams are not the “all this” that Paul tells us to shun, but they may keep us from pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness – and if they keep us from pursuing those things, that’s a problem!

The way that we protect ourselves from pursuing the wrong things, or failing to pursue the right things, is to remember that “he (meaning God) is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”  There will always be those in authority over us – rulers, bosses, teachers, church leaders – but none of those can be Sovereign in our lives if we’re following Jesus.  When we remember that God is the blessed and only Sovereign, we will not allow ourselves to be led astray by people or things that try to claim that allegiance for themselves.  Jesus is not “just” our friend, or our Savior – he is the One who came to reveal the Father to us, the One who is “the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Father is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Application:    I was caught by the first verse of this passage:  “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”  How do we pursue such things?  As I was reflecting, I was thinking about activity – setting a goal and working to achieve it.  But then God reminded me that such a focus keeps me in the center of the picture.  I don’t achieve righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, or gentleness by pursing them; those things result from pursuing Jesus.  My primary goal is to become more and more like Jesus each day.

Prayer:            Father, thank you for your faithfulness to me.  You are the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, yet you call me your child, and invite me to call you “Father.”  Help me not to get so caught up in my activity that I lose sight of the call to be your child – a call to become more and more like your Son, Jesus. Lead me today in paths that will draw me ever closer to you.  Amen.

Divine Instruction (December 8)

Today’s reading:  1 Timothy, chapters 1-4

Scripture:        1 Timothy 1:3-7 (NRSV) – I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.  But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.  Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.

Observations:  Two things stand out to me from these verses.  First, one of the primary tasks which Timothy had as a leader was to instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. There are any number of “speculations” that arise when people read Scripture – particularly when they read it out of context.  They take a snippet of Scripture – a couple of verses here, a phrase there – and then let their imaginations run wild coming up with all sorts of ideas that arise from that Scripture, and turn those ideas into a “theology.”  Real theology must be grounded in Scripture, and that means that it conforms to the overall message of Scripture, not just a few verses taken out of context.  Rather than occupying ourselves with “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations,” we should occupy ourselves with studying the Word – the divine training that is known by faith.

The second thing that stands out to me is that “the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”  As we look at this, we need to recognize that the aim is not one thing, but four; not just love arising from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith, but love, a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.  In verse 6 Paul says, “Some people have deviated from these”; “these” refers to several things, not just one.  The aim of Christian teaching is to produce love (the kind of love which Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 13); a pure heart (a heart which is fixed on God and his will, not “double-minded); a good conscience (developed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, to lead us in paths of righteousness, and away from evil); and sincere faith (which trusts in God at all times, not just when convenient or when it “makes sense”).  Christian instruction is not just for the sake of gaining knowledge, but for forming the image of Christ in us.  The aim is not to be people who can walk around and spout all kinds of information, but to be people who incarnate the presence of Jesus in the midst of a darkened and dying world.

Application:    God is reminding me to stay focused in terms of my preaching and teaching by looking at the work that he is doing in peoples’ lives.  While simply learning Scripture is certainly not bad, we also need to intentionally put what Scripture says into practice – and do this more and more each day.  The measure of our Christian development is not simply how long we’ve been following, but how much like Jesus we’re becoming.

Prayer:            Father, when we pray each day that you would give us our daily bread, remind us that your “bread” for us is not only the provision of our physical needs, but also the spiritual bread of your Word.  When we pray that you would lead us not into temptation but that you would deliver us from the evil one, remind us that you have already given us much help in that way by giving us your Word and your Holy Spirit to direct our ways. As we pray that your will would be done on earth as in heaven, remind us that we answer that prayer as WE do your will. And as we pray that your Kingdom would come, remind us that it HAS come in some measure, and encourage us to work toward the day when it will come in its fullness.  Amen.

Putting Our Clothes On (December 7)

Today’s reading:  Colossians, chapters 1-4

Scripture:        Colossians 3:5-17 (NRSV) – Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices, and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against one another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Observations:One of the interesting things about reading Paul’s shorter letters one after another as we do this time of year is that, when we read closely, we more readily notice the nuances of the language. If we just zoom through them, we may think that they all say the same thing.  When we take time to read and reflect on them, however, little differences jump out – and those differences are important, because it seems logical that there is a reason for them.  What is Paul trying to say with these specific phrases?

The first thing that I notice is this: “get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.”  I know that I’ve remarked on this before, but I think it’s a message that we need to hear over and over as we live in a culture that is becoming more and more angry, more and more abusive to people who disagree with it.  I don’t think we should be surprised that the culture – which operates from the mindset of the world, apart from Christ – is angry, slanderous, and abusive; that’s the way it treated Jesus in his day. But we must not allow ourselves to be dragged down into that mindset of anger and abuse.  There is no justification for followers of Christ to act that way:  no “he started it,” no “they’re lying about me.”  Our example is Jesus:  “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth”  (Isaiah 53:3, 7, NRSV).

Next, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Again, this is not new; Jesus began his ministry by teaching his disciples this in the Sermon on the Mount. But we need to be reminded of it regularly, because these things are not part of our earthly nature.  As the Spirit cleanses us, he washes away the selfishness, rudeness, pride, and anger that the sinful nature produces, and replaces them with the character of Christ.  And then Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Love is at the very core of Christlikeness; it is the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  And the converse is also true:  the absence of love is evidence of the Spirit’s absence from our lives.  This love is the self-giving love that Paul describes in detail in 1 Corinthians 13, not the emotional fluff that the world has come to accept as love.

Finally, Paul encourages us, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.”  That sentence catches my attention today, during Advent, when I think of the prophecy that he would be called Prince of Peace.  When we reject the anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language that marks the world, and allow God to replace those things with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the like, peace will rule in our hearts, and we will experience the joy that the angels announced to the shepherds on the night that Christ was born.

Application:    God is reminding me today of the importance of “putting on our clothes” every day – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love.  In Ephesians Paul talks about putting on our armor, and that’s important – but we have to put our clothes on first!  The armor protects us from the spiritual attacks that the enemy throws at us.  But if we just focus on the armor, we can become so absorbed in the conflict that we lose the peace that God wants to rule in our hearts.  The thing that connects it all is the Word – it is the sword which we take up as part of our armor, but it is also our daily bread, with which God feeds us.  The Word is the key tool that God uses to strengthen us, encourage us, and give us peace.

Prayer:            Father, I thank you for your daily bread – not only the physical food which you provide, but more importantly the spiritual bread with which you feed me each morning. Help me to let the peace of Christ rule in my heart.  Help me to hear the words of Jesus, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you – not as the world gives.”  The world gives with strings attached, always ready to pull its “gifts” back; you give completely.  Thank you for the love and the peace that you have given to me.  Help me to be an instrument of your love and peace this Advent season, that others may come to know Jesus.  Amen.

Enabling Our Wills (December 6)

Today’s reading:  Philippians, chapters 1-4

Scripture:        Philippians 2:12-18 (NRSV) – Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine fast like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Observations:I have always been fascinated by the first part of this passage –work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  The seeming contradiction between “work out your own salvation” and “it is God who is at work in you” is one of those things that causes confusion and frustration for those who look at it solely from a human point of view.  However, when we focus on God and his sovereignty in our lives, it should become more clear.  It helps to take the second part of the sentence first:  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Everything that we do in the spiritual realm is empowered and inspired by God.  

But it’s also important for us to remember that we are to act on those inspirations that God gives us.  As we do that, he is shaping us and strengthening us, enabling us not only to do what he wants, but also to want to do what he wants. We can serve God grudgingly, because we know we’re “supposed to” – or we can serve God willingly and joyfully, because God has so transformed us that our wills are conformed to his.  As we grow in our knowledge of God and in spiritual maturity, we learn to recognize what God wants us to do – and we jump at the chance to honor God in that way.  That growth and maturity comes as we spend time in the Word, spend time in prayer, and then act on what God is telling us – in other words, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. It is not that we are achieving our salvation through our work, but that we are expressing it.  We are allowing our salvation to work in us and through us as God is at work, enabling both our wills and our actions.

One other thing that I note in these verses is the last phrase in verse 18: in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.  It’s hard to think of rejoicing with Paul in his suffering and imprisonment!  We can easily think of praying for people who are suffering, and even to think of ways to help them – but how do we rejoice with them?  How could Paul tell the Philippians that, not only could they rejoice with him, but that they must?  The key is in Paul’s attitude:  he was rejoicing, because he could see how God was using his suffering and imprisonment to further the Gospel.  “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.  Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  What does it matter?  Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:12-18a, NRSV).

Application:    Too many times we automatically look at situations that seem bad to us and assume that they are bad, and we pray for God to “fix” them.  God is reminding me today that there are times when our suffering serves to glorify Him through our response to that suffering.  We should never rejoice in someone else’s suffering if they are not rejoicing in it, but we also should not automatically assume that circumstances that look “bad” require our prayers for God to change those circumstances.  I’m sure Paul’s friends wanted to pray that God would get him out of prison NOW!  But Paul recognized all along that his imprisonments and trials were opportunities for him to proclaim the Gospel, so he embraced them.  God wants me to approach life that way: recognizing the opportunities, even in circumstances that look “bad,” and acting to glorify Him as He works in me through those circumstances.

Prayer:  Father, none of us likes to suffer, yet so often suffering is part of this life.  Help me, when I am in difficult circumstances, to seek your will and your glory.  Help me to be able to pray, like Paul, that even if I am being poured out like a drink offering, I will be glad and rejoice, so that others may see the peace and the strength that comes from knowing you.  Help me to walk in your ways today; work in me to will and to act for your good pleasure.  Amen.

Try to Find Out (December 5)

Today’s readings:  Psalm 119:1-80; Ephesians, chapters 5-6

Scripture:        Ephesians 5:6-20 (NRSV) – Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.  Therefore do not be associated with them.  For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Observations:  It is always interesting and instructive to read the “practical” parts of Paul’s letters.  Many of his letters have a “doctrinal” section and a “practical” section, and while both are important, the “practical” sections really help us to understand what it means to live out our faith in day-to-day life. In this passage, Paul admonishes us to not be deceived with empty words.  I think empty words are words that sound good to us, but are devoid of spiritual meaning and value.  When I think of this phrase, I think of the types of things that sound spiritual, but in reality are rooted in human wisdom rather than spiritual truth.  Empty words turn our attention away from God rather than toward him, and cause us to think about ourselves and our own desires rather than what pleases God.

I was really struck by verse 10:  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  “Try” implies making an effort, and the fact that Paul urges us to try means that we do not naturally know or do what is pleasing to the Lord.  Paul is writing to believers – like us – and we need to recognize that even though we are followers of Christ, we have to try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord – and to do it!  Of course, the most important ways for us to find out what is pleasing to the Lord is through reading the Word and prayer, because those are the ways that we put ourselves before God and allow Him to speak to us.

In verse 15 Paul explains further:  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms  and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This again makes clear the importance of gathering together to worship: singing among yourselves obviously refers to gatherings for the purpose of worshiping God in the name of Jesus.  I don’t think we can say this too often:  God’s plan is for his people to come together regularly for worship and prayer; he speaks to us in those times in ways that do not happen when we neglect corporate worship.

Application:    I’m really struck by the phrase “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”  I think that for a long time I just assumed that if I was doing the things that I was “supposed” to do, God would let me know what I needed to know along the way. Over the last couple of years, though, I have learned that it is vitally important for me to specifically read the Word and reflect on it, asking God what He is saying to me, and allowing Him the opportunity to direct me, rather than just asking (or expecting) Him to bless what I want to do.  

Prayer:  Father, thank you for reminding me today how important it is for me to try to find out what is pleasing to you.  Thank you, also, for faithfully showing me what is pleasing to you as I spend time with you in the Word each day.  Help me to walk in your ways, and to encourage others to do the same.  Help my life to reflect you and glorify you today.  May your Kingdom come in greater measure today as your people do your will. Amen.