We lead with hope

We lead with Jesus

 

We lead with hope

We lead with Jesus

 

We lead with hope

We lead with Jesus

 

Author: admin

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ ”  Matthew 2:1–2

What are you looking for in life?  Chances are that if we took an inventory of how you spend your time those activities would reveal what your plans and dreams really are. Some may even be surprised by the results of such an activity because they’ve convinced themselves that they have one set of priorities when subconsciously they’re actually intent on pursuing a different set. 

Take the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth. If you’d asked, most of them would have said that they were pursuing God’s will for their lives and seeking to cooperate with his plans, but their lack of awareness and disinterest in the events that had happened in Bethlehem tell a very different story. 

For a sincere seeker there was plenty of opportunity to know that God had sent his Messiah. From a great distance the wisemen had seen an unusual light in the western sky that had a short time later coalesced into the light of a single fixed star. On the basis of the emergence of this star alone they had searched through the scriptures to find answers to their questions, and what they found had sent them on a journey to welcome the Christ child. 

The Jewish leaders, and all the people, had had the same opportunity. One could even reasonably suppose that they might have had additional indications of Christ’s birth given that Bethlehem is only a short distance from Jerusalem and you’d expect that some report would have reached Jerusalem of the experience of the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. Yet when the wisemen arrived in Jerusalem the Jewish leadership, and all the people, were ignorant and this ignorance reveals their lack of interest in truly keeping up with and cooperating the work of God in this world. 

One could say the same thing about the professed followers of God in this world today. Many are continuing to pursue routines and practices that have been in place for centuries and flattering themselves that they’re working with God. Others have made changes to the routines to adapt them to contemporary culture and they also tell themselves that they’re keeping up with God’s work of saving the world. But this focus on the routine reveals that there is an ignorance of the time we’re living in and the work God’s calling us to do. 

The wisemen completely interrupted their priorities, routine and work on the basis of their knowledge and faith. The book of Acts tells us that believers in the New Testament Church, led by the Holy Spirit, did this as well.  We living in these last days, knowing what we know, and believing what we profess to believe, ought to, as we seek God’s will, be doing the same. 

Wisemen, two thousand years ago, left everything and traveled far so that they might seen our Saviors face. Wisemen, and women, will do the same today. 

“But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ ”  Matthew 1:20–21

Joseph was afraid. 

Earlier that day Mary, his betrothed, had come to him and given him the news that she was pregnant. Under the best of circumstances that would have been sobering news to hear. If he had been the father that would have been potentially embarrassing because he’d always been known in the community as a responsible and righteous man, and this would have been a departure from the moral integrity he’d always tried to adhere to. But it would have been recoverable. They were, after all betrothed. They could just get married and everything would be all right. But Joseph was not the father. 

Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant with someone else’s child!

Now running through Joseph’s mind are thoughts of confusion, anger, grief and betrayal. “How could she do this to me? How could she give herself to another man? How could she throw away the future they’d had together? How could she ever think he’d believe that ridiculous explanation she’d tried to tell him? With child by the Holy Spirit? Give me a break. Does she think I’m a fool?” 

Finally his thoughts and emotions settle enough for him to decide what he’s going to do. He’ll call off the marriage, as quietly as he can, and let her go. With those thoughts he drifts off  fitfully to sleep. 

But his sleep isn’t peaceful like we’d normally expect it to be. An angel comes to him in a dream and says, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She’s told you the truth. She really is pregnant by the Holy Ghost. She will bear a son. You will name him Jesus, and he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew doesn’t say that Joseph’s fears had all gone away. I imagine that some were probably still lingering even as he chooses to believe the angel and take Mary as his wife. What’s important is that Joseph chose to act in accordance to faith and not in accordance to fear. Because of his decision to choose faith, and not fear, Joseph had the blessing and privilege to be husband to Mary and father to the Son of God. 

When we choose faith over fear it opens doors for us as well. The question is, are we willing to listen to God, turn a deaf ear to our fears, and live by faith?

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram.”  Matthew 1:1–3

I begin today with an apology for suddenly shifting from the gospel of Mark to Matthew. A few days ago when I began Mark I’d forgotten that more than a year and a half ago I’d already covered this gospel and not wanting to duplicate books already covered I made the switch. I’m sorry if this disappoints any of you. 

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy listing ancestors of Jesus from Abraham through Joseph. The main reason for this is to establish that Jesus had fulfilled prophecy and come into this world through the line of Judah. Matthew’s mistake in doing this was to track that line through Joseph who was not actually Jesus’ father. Luke makes it very clear that Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not Joseph which is why he includes Jesus’ genealogy tracking his ancestry through Mary. 

Notwithstanding the technical error, Matthew’s list of ancestors does demonstrate one powerful reality regarding Christ. He was not just a Jewish Savior he’s Savior to the world. 

Five women are listed in Matthew’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Many commentators have discussed the actual and apparent moral failings of these four ladies demonstrating that God wasn’t cherry picking antecedents for Christ when he selected the family his Son would call his own. However, given the presence of Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, in the line up I don’t think Matthew needed these ladies to establish that fact; after all he did apostatize, worship idols, and kill the prophet Isaiah by having him stuffed into a log and then sawn in half. I think there’s a more significant reason for the inclusion of these women. 

Consideration of the first four women reveals a definite un-Jewish connection. We don’t know who Tamar’s father was but it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that he was Canaanite. Rahab was definitely Canaanite. We know that Ruth was Moabite. Bathsheba is believed to have been Jewish but her legitimate husband was a Hittite.

Matthew’s intentional association of Jesus with nonJewish ancestors firmly establishes Jesus’ connection to those who cannot claim to have descended from Abraham, of whom I am one. 

Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was truly the Son of Man. As Savior to the world no wonder that his favorite way of referring to himself was by the title Son of Man. He hadn’t come to this earth to save one single family line. He’d come for all. As creator he claims every son and daughter of Adam as his own and as Messiah his chosen pedigree demonstrates that he’s not ashamed to connect himself to anyone

“Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ ”  Mark 1:11

The time is at hand for Jesus to begin his public labors. For the past thirty years he’s done what no other person has ever done, he has lived a sinless life. He’s never been disobedient, rebellious, impatient, unkind, or unloving. One can imagine that there have been times when his  righteous inclinations came into conflict with the unrighteous expectations of others but even in these instances a way has been found to respectfully refrain from what he’s been asked to do. God’s will is always first for Jesus. 

Following his earthly father Joseph’s death Jesus has worked as a carpenter to provide for his mother Mary. Now the carpenter’s tools are set aside and the shop door closed. Now his feet carry him south from his home in Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River in Judea where his cousin John is preaching to the people and baptizing those who repent. 

Jesus has come to be baptized. He has never sinned so he has no need to repent for himself but he’s not doing this for himself. Everything he does he does for us. 

We’re all sinners, and our sinfulness is so deeply engrained that it affects and contaminates every thing we do and every thought we have. Our sinfulness even taints our most sincere repentance. It’s for this reason that Jesus is baptized. He is our substitute. His perfect repentance and submission replace our faulty attempts and fulfills our need. 

Mark records that as Jesus comes out of the water a voice is heard from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

I’m not sure what part of this statement I love the most: the words “My Son”, the word “beloved”, or the phrase “in whom I’m well pleased.”  Each of these elements in this brief pronouncement has a significance and weight that is to me profound. The first confirms identity and affirms kinship, the second assures that the one affirmed is valued and loved, and the third communicates approval of the beloved and what he’s done.

My love language is words of affirmation, which means that more than anything else, it’s what people say to me about myself and what I’ve done that tells me that they value and care for me. Gifts, quality time, and a helping hand are all appreciated but more than anything it’s words that leave a mark either for good or ill. And my heart thrills to imagine my Heavenly Father proclaiming those words over me. 

And he does. Because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice God does claim me as his son. Because of Jesus I am beloved of my Heavenly Father.  Because the Holy Spirit is working in me and through me I’m learning to live a life that pleases God. Jesus has made a way for me, and anyone else who will accept him, to hear the words, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”


“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’ ”  Mark 1:1–3

Two of the gospels begin the account of Jesus’ life and ministry with a record of his conception and birth, and two begin their account with the ministry of John the Baptist. John, the last to write his gospel, makes it clear, without actually stating it, that his gospel account isn’t intended to be a retelling of that which others have told. Rather he intends to emphasize elements of the Saviors earthly ministry not covered by the earlier written accounts.  This may explain John’s exclusion of the birth of Christ from his narrative but what of Mark’s.  The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written first, and even used as a reference for Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but no reason is obvious for his beginning with the work of John the Baptist rather than the nativity. 

While we don’t know Mark’s exact reason for beginning his gospel the way he did there are a few plausible answers to the question of which I believe the most compelling is found in the Old Testament prophetic record. 

Mark has not set out to do as Matthew did and cite as many prophetic fulfillment’s as he could find. Yet it appears he may have taken as his starting point those events pointed to by the time prophecies of Daniel. When God revealed the time of the Messiah to Daniel his time table pointed to Messiah’s anointing at the time of his baptism, when Christ was thirty years old, not the time of his incarnation and birth. 

In truth, the world new very little, and understood even less, when it came to the monumental actions being taken by heaven for the salvation of souls at that time. Christ had lived unrecognized for decades and it was the promised forerunner, John the Baptist, come in garb reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, who first brought the time and person of the Messiah forcefully to the people’s attention.  

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight,” was John’s call. The time of Messiah was at hand the people must be prepared to receive him. 

Hundreds and thousands came to hear the prophet preach and to be baptized by him. Perhaps some even speculated that he might be the promised Messiah but John set those people right. “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Many spend their lives pursuing greatness in this world. Jesus’ testimony was that there was none, born of woman, greater than John, and he lived and worked to point others to Jesus. This is our privilege as well. Only lifting up Jesus will produce for us anything that lasts. Only this can bring us any true greatness in this world. 

“ ‘In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will take you, Zerubbabel My servant, the son of Shealtiel,’ says the Lord, ‘and will make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Haggai 2:23

The last three verses of the book of Haggai contain one final message for Zerubbabel, and the message comes in two parts. The first part is a declaration of what God is going to do among the nations, and the second part is what he is going to do with Zerubbabel.

The first part reads this way, “I will shake heaven and earth. I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms; l will destroy the strength of the Gentile kingdoms. I will overthrow the chariots and those who ride in them; the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother.”

Israel and Judah had suffered much at the hands of the gentile nations. Her cities had been destroyed, the temple had been leveled, and many of their family members had been either killed or dispersed across a vast empire, and they had been powerless to prevent any of it. 

Now God is promising that he will be the one doing the shaking and that it will be the gentiles that will be being shaken. What’s more his message indicates that he won’t be requiring the man power any Jewish men and boys to accomplish the shaking of the armies of the gentile nations. No the gentile horsemen and charioteers will be brought down by the swords of their own brothers. 

Then God promises Zerubbabel, “In that day … I will take you … and will make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you.”

A signet or signet ring is a sign or seal of the authenticity of a message or messenger. Any person or communication bearing that seal would be understood to be possessing the full authority of the person to whom the seal belonged. In this promise God doesn’t merely say that he will place his seal on Zerubbabel. He promises to make Zerubbabel like a signet or seal. What does that mean.  It means that Zerubbel will be so associated with God that anyone possessing the seal or sign of Zerubbabel would be recognized as also representing or being connected to God; it was that evident that God had chosen Zerubbabel. 

Friends, God wants to chose you and me as well, and, if we will be obedient to him, we too will become a signet for God. People will recognize that when we speak or act we speak and act for God. Our faithfulness to him will shine out from all we do. His love, his kindness, his faithfulness, his righteousness and holiness his Spirit will be demonstrated in all we do. Everything about us will declare that we have been chosen by God. 

“‘Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord; ‘and be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and be strong, all you people of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Haggai 2:4

My mother-in-law is a very talented artist, capable of working in a wide variety of mediums. She can draw, paint, sculpt, carve, tool leather, and upholster furniture, though she would probably claim the last as a skill more than an art. 

I believe that her favorite art forms are drawing and painting. 

More than twenty years ago, when Cheryl and I had been married less than five years, Mom was visiting our home and we were playing with rubber stamps, creating greeting cards using a variety of stamps and then coloring the pictures with markers.

I was pretty pleased with the way the card I was working on was turning out and I started to show it to Mom when I got a look at what she was working on. Wow! Compared to her work mine looked like a kindergartener’s coloring book. Any pride I had in my work was humbled in that moment. I still thought I’d done well but I now knew better what really good looked like. 

Under Zerubbabel’s and Joshua’s leadership the people are rebuilding the Temple. The work is going well but there are those in the community that remember the beauty of the Temple Solomon built and this does not compare favorably. And no doubt added to this diminishment in beauty is the knowledge that the Ark of the Covenant is absent as well, having been hidden and then lost at the time when Nebuchadnezzar had the Temple destroyed. 

As Haggai chapter two begins God speaks to the inferiority of the temple’s beauty and seeks to reassure the people as they go about their work. His assurance to them is that notwithstanding the poor comparison of the beauty of this temple with the former he accepts their work and he is with them. 

He knows they haven’t had years to collect materials like David and Solomon did. He knows they couldn’t recruit and train the best craftsman to do the work. He knows that they’re doing the best they can with the talent and material available.  God doesn’t look at the surface and compare our gifts with the gifts of others. He looks at our hearts and receives the gifts and service we give according to the spirit in which we given them, and when it is in our hearts to give to him our best he honors that gift with the acceptance of his presence. 

Before the work is complete, they’ve actually been working less than a full month, God sends the message, “Be strong … I am with you.”

The same assurance comes to us when we, like Zerubbabel and Joshua, give God the best we have to offer. God doesn’t compare our best to our neighbor’s. We are precious to him, and he values the efforts we make to love and serve him. Never hesitate to give you best to God. 

“Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, spoke the Lord’s message to the people, saying, ‘I am with you, says the Lord.’”  Haggai 1:13

Have you ever had something to do that was going to call for all that you could give?

I’ll never forget the workout I had years ago when I was twenty years old. I loved working out with weights. Nearly every exercise was fun for me. I say nearly because there was one lift that I found intimidating and just a bit scary. That lift is the squat, and because of my fear of this lift I was never able to push myself the way I needed to to get the results I could have gotten. 

Then one day, as I was preparing to do a squat workout, Andy, one of the club members, asked if he could workout with me.  I agreed. 

Now to say that Andy was big would have been an understatement. Andy was a very big man. 

I learned that day that there was nothing that could give you confidence when doing a difficult lift than the knowledge that the person spotting you had the ability to lift both you and the weight you were lifting. That day I had no fear or hesitation when it came to the squat, and I lifted more weight, and had a best leg workout I’ve ever had. Knowing Andy was with me may all the difference. 

Through Haggai the prophet, God was calling his people to do something bigger than they’d ever done before. He was calling them to set aside their worries and plans for their own prosperity and take up the work of rebuilding his house. This would take a great deal of time and resources. 

Some of the people responded to God’s rebuke and exhortation, among them were Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua the High Priest. 

To these two men, and the determined but fearful group of people led by them, God sent the message, “I am with you.”

Knowing that God was with them strengthened them to the task that God had called them to, and knowing that God is with us ought to strengthen us as we obey his call as well. 

Haggai doesn’t record the obstacles and hardships they had to overcome to obey God’s call. He only records that God was with them and they obeyed. 

Most of the time we’re not warned in advance of the trials we will have to face, though we know we will have them. It’s enough to know his call and remember God’s promise, “I am with you.”

In those times when this promise is not enough to banish your fears scripture contains many other promises and the accounts recording God’s faithfulness in keeping his word. Recall these many precious promises and strengthen yourself in the strength of the Lord for surely he is strong, he is kind, he is generous, he is able, and he is with you. 

“Thus speaks the Lord of hosts, saying: ‘This people says, “The time has not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built.” ’ ” Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways!”  Haggai 1:2–5

The heart of the problem with sin is that it’s infection makes us want everything our way and the kingdom of heaven doesn’t work that way. 

When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest his answer didn’t come from the Ten Commandments but instead he quoted the words, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, And the second is like to it, you shall love your neighbor as your self.”

Paul in Philippians chapter two said it this was, “let each esteem others better than himself.”

Throughout scripture the Godhead invites anyone that will say yes to begin a relationship with them. The only rule is that if you join that relationship circle you have to love others better than you love yourself. If we were all perfect it would end with just that. But we’re all sinners and this means that our expectations are bent and twisted so God has had to also stipulate that we have to love him better than anyone else. If there were no sin nothing would be competing with the values God created his universe to function with, but there is competition so he has to put himself first for us so that he can restore harmony. 

 But do we want him?

Far too often we demonstrate that while we desire his blessings we really don’t desire him. We’re like potential heirs hanging around the home of a dying billionaire in the hopes of collecting an inheritance. We don’t love the benefactor but we’d sure love to get rich. 

This was the heart demonstrated by many of those that had returned home with the first wave of exiles from Babylon and Medo-Persia. They’re back in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions and their focus is on restoring their own fortunes, their ancestral homes and properties, and seeking their own security. The problem was that they weren’t understanding that their security flowed directly from God and they were neglecting their connection with him. Like so many of us they wanted the blessings but not the Blesser. 

Our focus text contains God’s rebuke for their neglect and his call to repentance. Stop focusing on pursuing only your own needs and interests and consider God’s. It’s a surprise to many of us that God has needs, but he does. One of his needs is for you. That’s right, he needs you and he wants you. And, whether you know it or not, you need him too. The question is, do you want him?  And if you say you do, do you demonstrate it by making a place for him in your life? 

“I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; with my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations. For I have said, ‘Mercy shall be built up forever; Your faithfulness You shall establish in the very heavens.’”  Psalm 89:1–2

I have memories of singing psalm eighty-nine verse one as a praise chorus that date back to when I was a little boy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to sing it in a group, other praise choruses have taken its place in the list of songs popularly sung, but if I recall correctly we would sing this verse in a round with one part overlapping the other as we sang the words over and over. 

Verse two continues to extol God’s mercy by boasting that, “Mercy shall be built up forever; Your faithfulness You shall establish in the very heavens.”  For the next thirty-five verses the psalmist, Ethan the Ezrahite, continues to recount God’s blessings and promises and the covenant he made with David to establish him and bless his sons after him if they would be faithful in leading the nation of Israel to be faithful to God.  Then in verse thirty-eight Ethan abruptly changes the theme from praise to a lament with the words, “But You have cast off and abhorred, You have been furious with Your anointed. You have renounced the covenant of Your servant; You have profaned his crown by casting it to the ground.”

It would be easy to know what events Ethan was referring to if we knew exactly who Ethan the Ezrahite was. But we don’t. It’s most probable that he was a Levite serving in the temple during the reign of David in which case this psalm may have been written during the rebellion of Absalom, but this is speculation.  

Regardless as to the exact nature of the disobedience God has been compelled to respond to with his punishment one thing becomes clear when you compare the promises God made in his covenant with the actions of his people; God keeps his word. 

We may be variable and inconsistent when it comes to our faithfulness but God is not. His mercy provided in advance blessings to encourage continued reliance and obedience, as well as punitive measures to discourage persistent waywardness. Sadly, sinful man seems determined to squander and take for granted the blessings God’s given.  He seems equally determined to explain away any disciplinary measures God takes to bring about repentance and reform, so that he can feel justified in continuing to pursue the sinful course he’s chosen. The track record of man’s inconstancy seems to be just as consistent as God’s faithfulness. 

But God does not give up. His faithfulness endures forever. His love never fails. From the multitudes of the peoples of this world he will glean for himself a remnant that will be faithful to him and follow him wherever he goes. His call to us today is to chose him. To chose his mercy. Before the course of intervention shifts from discipline to judgement chose the grace of Jesus. Chose mercy.

“Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? But to You I have cried out, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer comes before You.”  Psalm 88:11–13

Have you ever thought back over a prayer you’ve prayed to God and thought to yourself, “What an ugly prayer. How could God ever find that acceptable? What right do I have to talk to God like that?”

If I had prayed a prayer like the one recorded in Psalm eighty-eight I might have thought that afterward. The entire psalm is one long complaint that God has taken so long to give evidence that he has heard and is answering the psalmist’s petition. 

The psalmist laments that God has left him to suffer alone with his unnamed hardship. His heart is burdened and his friends are far away and it seems that God himself has abandoned him to his troubles.

In the middle of the psalm the psalmist even tries to entice God into action by saying that if he dies he won’t be able to worship and praise him anymore because God’s lovingkindness and wonders can’t be declared in the grave. 

Most psalms of lament eventually do come round to an awareness of God’s steadfast presence and an expression of faith but psalm eighty-eight does not. At the time of its writing its author is still so overburdened by the weight of his trial that he has yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Still in his despair he knows where to turn. He turns to God. 

Sometimes life’s like that for us. The trials come fast and heavy and we’re overwhelmed before we can find the words to express our faith. The only thing we have to bring to God is a description of the pain and isolation we feel, and then to offer our pitiful bargains to him, and the good news is God hears and he accepts our prayers, even ugly prayers like that.

I’ll admit it. At first I had a hard time liking psalm eighty-eight but now I love it. In this psalm I have 2500 year old evidence that God hears, remembers, and treasures my prayers no matter how ugly they are. The most important thing is that I bring my prayers to him. 

God knows my brokenness. He’s not surprised or turned off by my capacity for ugliness. He hears me and he accepts my prayers even when he has to discipline me. My prayers may not alter the course of God’s intervention in my life, after all, he knows what is best, but psalm eighty-eight is proof to me that he does hear and he does care. Perhaps, most especially when I find it hardest to see how loving and kind he really is. 

“I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’ And of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.’  The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples: ‘This one was born there.’  Selah”  Psalm 87:4–6

Where were you born?

I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. And other than the few days my twin brother and I were in the hospital following our birth I don’t think I’ve spent more than a few hours in the city at any one time. 

For many people the place of their birth is also their home town and it’s the place that seems to call to them no matter where they are. Family and friends are there. The most important memories from childhood are set there. It’s home, and the heart yearns to renew its connection with home.

Ever since I was a boy every few years we were packing up our belongings and moving to another town. After I became an adult that pattern continued, the only difference being that sometimes the different towns are also in different states.  For a long time Michigan, the state I grew up in, was the closest thing any place was to home. No specific town, the whole state was fine. But now, after nearly half my life living in other places even those feelings of home have nearly all faded. It’s not that I feel homeless. It’s just that no place feels particularly like it’s home. 

In Psalm eighty-seven, David writes of a time when God registers the citizens of the city of Zion. At that time people will be present from Rahab, another name for Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia. All these were proud and prominent countries. Countries their citizens were proud to claim as their home. But something has changed for the people God is registering. Our focus text tells us that when God registers the people all the people, though they were born in very different places, are registered as having been born in Zion. 

Somehow the roots they’ve established in this world have been transferred to heaven, and Zion has become the place their hearts yearn to return to. Yes return to. By faith they’ve been reborn in Zion. Though their bodies have never been there and their eyes may have never seen that land, their hearts have dwelt there and they long for their home. 

For those of us who’ve already set our hearts in Zion the words of the gospel hymn speak the reality that beats within us, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue; the angels beckon me from heavens open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

“Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy.  Preserve my life, for I am holy; You are my God; save Your servant who trusts in You!  Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I cry to You all day long.”  Psalm 86:1–3

When I was a little boy my father was a member of a mixed gospel quartet that would travel several sabbaths a year to different churches and perform concerts. My mom’s gift wasn’t singing; but she did have a natural ability to read aloud with expression and feeling, and she would perform one or two readings during the concerts. Her readings were often the part of the performance that people would request be repeated later. 

There was one number that she and my father performed together. She told the story of a poor ditch digger singing the gospel hymn, “I’m A Child Of The King.” My Father would, in his rich baritone voice, intersperse the words of that hymn throughout the story, while my mother told of a day when, while he was digging a ditch, an aristocratic woman chastised him and told him that he was not of such a pedigree he was just a poor old ditch digger.

Is it possible to be both humble and exalted, poor and rich, the child of a king and a poor ditch digger. 

Apparently King David thought so. The first two verses of Psalm eighty-six read this way, “Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy.  Preserve my life, for I am holy”

Our sinful assumptions and expectations want holiness and poverty to be incompatible, mutually exclusive, to one another but the reality of God’s grace and mercy to us works differently than that. 

God comes to us with his gift of salvation when we’re lost and poor, far removed from him. If we accept his offer of redemption he accepts us and sets us apart from the life we once lived and the sinful world of which we were once a part. It’s that setting apart that makes us holy; that’s what holy means, to set apart. Most of us are aware of this “setting apart” because almost immediately after we opened our lives up to Christ and let his spirit come in our perspective and desires in this life changed and we started feeling incompatible with the people and activities that were once natural to us. 

Were we still poor?  

Oh yes!  In fact, we may have never felt as poor before our acceptance of Christ as we did after. There’s nothing like really seeing Jesus more clearly to open a person’s eyes up to their own sinfulness. Yet at the same time that revealing helps us understand the depth of his love better and assures us that his acceptance isn’t a trick, it’s the most real and precious gift we’ve ever been given. 

But Christ hasn’t saved us from sin to leave us where he found us. In fact, acceptance of his salvation is evidenced by a strong desire to stop obeying Satan and the sinful desires we once had and to start obeying Christ and the Spirit he’s put in our hearts. We’re so poor that he has to give us obedience and it’s the richness of that gift that sets us apart to step away from what we once were and to stand with him. 

“How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young— even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You.  Selah.”  Psalm 84:1–4

Psalm eighty-four is one of the most beautiful of the psalms. I believe that in any language it’s imagery would communicate the psalmist’s joy at being near to God in his house and his confidence in the care and provision he will receive from God.  

Do you love being near to God?  What are the places that you sense his presence most profoundly?

For the psalmist that wrote psalm eighty-four one of those places was the tabernacle of God. For many their home church has the same kind of feeling. When you’re there you know God is near. For others the place of greatest connection with God is some place closer to nature and with greater solitude. The truth is that God is with his people where ever we are. His presence never leaves us. Any feelings of greater or lesser connectedness are due to our personal emotions regarding the location and not any change in the reality of God’s presence. 

Toward the end of the psalm the psalmist says, “the Lord God is a sun…”

Recently I learned a bit more about how important the sun is to our health. Nearly all the life on earth is fed by the sun either directly or indirectly through a process by which plants convert light energy into food energy called photosynthesis. In humans the light of the sun stimulates our skin to produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient. The light of the sun is also important for setting and maintaining proper waking and sleeping rhythms. In fact, insufficient light has been shown to interrupt healthy sleep cycles making it hard to fall asleep, sleep deep enough, and sleep long enough. Not getting enough quality sleep has been shown to produce several mental health problems some of them quite serious. If you’re finding it difficult getting quality sleep you might try getting 30-60 minutes of exposure to the sun’s light each day. The closer the exposure is to when you wake up appears to be the most effective. 

Revelation twenty-one tells us that in the city New Jerusalem there will be no need for the sun and the moon because the presence of God and the Lamb are all the light it needs. Think about it. God is all that is needed to sustain his creation. If we draw close to him he will provide for all our needs. 

O Lord God you are a sun to us. You through your provision give us food and every other necessary thing. Your presence gives us peace. Your love gives us comfort and your mercy has provided us with forgiveness and salvation. 

“Do not keep silent, O God!  Do not hold Your peace, and do not be still, O God! For behold, Your enemies make a tumult; and those who hate You have lifted up their head. They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted together against Your sheltered ones.”  Psalm 83:1–3

I’ve never wanted anyone dead so I have a hard time relating to most of the content of Psalm eighty-three. 

I guess I’ve led a sheltered life. I’ve never been in war.  I’ve had friends in war but I’ve never had anyone I was personally dependent upon, or emotionally attached to, involved in war.  I’ve never had anyone threaten my life or the lives of my family. I’ve never been held up and robbed or persistently bullied. I know there are people that have experienced all of these things and as a result they’ve wanted to exact revenge and teach their enemy a lesson, and I get their desire for justice and retribution, but I’ve never experienced it for myself so I guess there’s also part of me that doesn’t really get it. 

But there’s a lesson in Psalm eighty-three for those like me who find it easy to go gently with oppressors and wrong doers and that’s that there’s a place, when it comes to justice, for harsh penalties and even the sentence of death. 

There’s also a lesson for those who’ve tasted the most difficult of losses life in this sin filled world can bring. For those who’ve been one of the oppressed, who’ve experienced the worst of the injustices, and now want the scales to balance, want to see the wrong doers pay.  The lesson you have to learn is that judgment and justice does not lie with any individual personally. Justice lies with God and with the governments he’s allowed to rise up. 

Asaph realizes this so it’s to God that he comes with his burden of pain and injustice. It’s to God that he presents his request for vengeance. It’s with God that he places the burden of teaching the nations a lesson they won’t forget. 

Its important also that we remember that one psalm alone doesn’t communicate all that God has in his heart for the wayward sons of the fallen Adam and Eve.  Yes, at times there’s justice and vengeance, but there’s also justice and mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Because of this God may not respond when and how we would like him to. You see, we haven’t learn yet where justice and mercy truly begin and end. But God knows and we can rely on him to make the right decision and do what needs to be done. 

So once again it comes down to faith and trust. Do we trust God with our deepest and most personal pain and our need for justice?

“God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods. How long will you judge unjustly, And show partiality to the wicked? Selah

Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked.”  Psalm 82:1–4

The Hebrew word “Selah” frequently appears throughout the psalms. Most of us when we see it have no idea what it means so we brush past it hurriedly as if it were an odd person on the side walk that we were afraid of being seen with. But this hurried departure is exactly the opposite action the author intended us to have. The word is a command, which means it’s not to be ignored or taken lightly. 

The crazy thing about this command, that occurs seventy-four times throughout the psalms, is that it has from ancient times resisted translation. Which means that while David and Asaph knew exactly what they were calling us to do we don’t. 

Recently I was attending a lecture and the presenter assigned a helpful definition to the word. He said it meant “think about it”.  While I’m not sure that this is literally accurate I believe that functionally this is the action we’re being called to take. 

In Psalm eighty-two Asaph has just said that God stands in the midst of the people and judges among the mighty ones and then asks, “How long will you judge in such a way that you favor the wicked?”  This question is then followed by the word “selah”, and it seems accurate that this is a call to think about the preceding statement and question. 

Too often we rush through life giving little if any thought to anything truly important in our lives. We think long and hard about clothing, and houses, and money, and entertainment and a host of other things that will soon become meaningless. 

In the judgment will God ask to see our bank records or stock portfolios? Will he consider the quality of our homes or wardrobes? Will he take into account which sports teams we’re fans of or the depth of our knowledge of popular trivia?

No. People, their needs for provision, care and lovingkindness; the fairness, generosity, and compassion with which we treat them, this is important to God and this is what he wants us to think about. 

Doctrine, theological expertise and depth in biblical knowledge will get you nowhere if they’re not combined with actions that show that Christ’s love for people has also been added to your heart. Don’t get me wrong, the knowledge is important. God wouldn’t have given it to us if it weren’t. But both Old and New Testament repeatedly emphasize that living God’s love for the people he loves is the highest priority for his children. 

Selah

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. But My people would not heed My voice, and Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels. Oh, that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!”  Psalm 81:10–13

One of the best ways to teach a person that the way they’re doing something is the wrong way is to let them do it their way and experience the results, stress and frustration of doing it the wrong way. Usually, if they’re not to proud to admit they were wrong, this will result in a lasting avoidance of the way they once thought was right and commitment to doing things the right way. We call this learning something the hard way. 

One thing not mentioned in the above scenario is that the person learning their lesson the hard way has been instructed in the correct course of action and has actually been given a choice on how to do the task. I’ve seen and experienced some supervisors or instructors sending their charges to work with no instruction forcing them to learn the hard way. Far better it would have been to give instructions before time, resources, and energy were waisted. 

Psalm eighty-one reveals that God is a good leader and instructor. Before Israel ever had any tasks given to her God taught his people his ways and instructed them in what they ought to do. He promised to prosper and provide for them if they would be faithful and do all that he had commanded them to do. 

But God doesn’t force us to see things his way. God doesn’t irresistibly block our every disobedient action. Verse twelve of Psalm eighty-one, and part of our focus text, tells us that God gave Israel over to a stubborn heart and allowed them to walk in their own counsels. 

That stubborn heart was the one they already hard and the counsels were their own as well. Because they insisted, God allowed them to learn the hard way that life could be better if they would follow him and let him bless them in all the ways he wanted to. 

He works the same way with us today. Most, if not all, of the frustration and difficulty we experience in the church and in our families is the result of our not listening to him and following his instructions. The Bible is full of counsel and advice that applies to nearly every aspect of life and the Holy Spirit is present every second of every day to teach us so that we don’t misapply even a single word.  But still, if we insist on ignoring him, he’ll send us out to learn things the hard way. Not because he wanted to but because we insisted on it. 

What a loving, wise and good God. 

O Lord, help me to learn today and every day that you know the way I should go and I don’t have a clue. Help me to choose to listen and to follow. Especially when I think I might know better on my own. 

“You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow, and the mighty cedars with its boughs.  She sent out her boughs to the Sea, and her branches to the River.”  Psalm 80:8–11

Psalm eighty, like many of the psalms of Asaph, is a plea for God to intervene and defend Israel from the incursions of the pagan nations surrounding it. 

Steadily throughout the reigns of Saul and David the Philistines, Amorites, Ammonites, Amalekites,  Edomites, Syrians and other nations were pushed back and prevented from successfully raiding and annexing territories claimed by Israel. Finally during the reign of Solomon the efforts of these two warrior kings bore fruit in prolong peace and security for the Hebrew nation. 

But Asaph didn’t serve during the time of Solomon, he wrote and prophesied during the time of David and was obviously personally familiar with the stress and difficulty associated with a nation plagued by frequent war. Hence his plea for God’s intervention and protection. 

Abruptly in the middle of Asaph’s petition are four verses in which the poet artfully recalls God’s providence in leading Israel out of Egypt and establishing her in Canaan. Using the metaphor of a vine to symbolize Israel Asaph casts God as a gardener, or vine dresser, who lovingly and skillfully plants his vine and nurtures it until it’s mature and fruitful. 

One wonders who Asaph is trying to remind of God’s attentiveness, himself, together with the rest of Israel, or God. 

It’s not obvious from the psalm itself but it stands to reason that God doesn’t need our prompting to remember his care for us. It’s we who need reminding. Difficulty, grief and hardship often tempt us to question and doubt God’s presence in our lives. We forget that God has a plan for our lives and that under his care all things work together for our good. 

It’s tempting to trust in the blessing and providences God sends our way for our security when it’s God himself who should be the one being relied upon. The truth that trust is more profoundly demonstrated and more deeply engrained in the midst of uncertainty and trial than it is in ease and leisure is a difficult lesson to learn 

Like Asaph we need to come to God entreating him for the blessing and protection we need all the while remembering that God has already blessed us in more ways than we could ever count and for this reason we can rely on him as he leads us through the valley of difficulty. 

You’ve planted and prospered us, O Lord, we trust you to protect us now. 

“But He made His own people go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock; and He led them on safely, so that they did not fear; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.  And He brought them to His holy border, this mountain which His right hand had acquired.  He also drove out the nations before them, allotted them an inheritance by survey, and made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents. Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God, and did not keep His testimonies…”  Psalm 78:52–56

Psalm seventy eight is a lengthy psalm in which Asaph contemplates God’s mighty acts and Israel’s frequent faithlessness from the exodus to the reign of David. 

Our focus text serves as an example of the all too often demonstrated pattern enacted by the people of Israel and Judah. God had blessed them and delivered them from their enemies, leading them into safety and providing for all their needs only to have them accuse him of neglecting them and rebelling against him. The only thing that consistently turned Israel’s heart back to following after God was when he sent some sort of hardship upon them as a punishment. Then their eyes would be opened to their waywardness and their ears would be opened to his entreaties to return to him. And for a time they would be humble and obedient and follow after him but hardly a generation would pass before they forgot God once again and turned their backs on him. 

As a people we’re no better. It’s seems that each successive generation requires that God once again prove himself to them. What hard lessons these are to learn. What a high price it is to pay to ignore the lessons learned by past generations and discover for oneself that God is real, and active, and present. Isn’t their enough suffering in the world?  Why do we add to our burden by shunning the blessing of his presence in our lives?  Why do we force God to discipline us once again when we could more easily learn of his nearness by remaining loyal to him and receiving of his goodness?

In Romans chapter two verse four the apostle Paul reminds us that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Jesus himself tells us in Revelation chapter three verse nineteen that he chastens and rebukes those he loves. 

History has demonstrated that only rarely are people awakened from their intoxication with sin by gentleness from God. Far more often his blessings are squandered and his children lapse deeper into their rebellion and wickedness. It’s hardship and trials that more often shake us awake and remind us of how deeply we’re dependent upon our creator. 

O friends, just this once, let us not force God to remind us of his love by his chastening.  Let us do what Solomon advised in the book of Ecclesiastes and remember while we’re still young, before the years of trial and difficulty come upon us. Let us be the generation that so welcomes Jesus into our hearts and lives that his final work is completed and his people are prepared to see him face to face. 

“And I said, ‘This is my anguish; But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the works of the Lord; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will also meditate on all Your work, And talk of Your deeds.”

When the going gets tough, really tough, what keeps you going?

For many people the what is really a who. 

My kids keep me going. My husband, or my wife keeps me going. My best friend. My girl friend. My boy friend. My mentor, my teacher, my grandma, my grandpa. The list could go on and this shows just how profoundly important these relationships can be in our lives. 

But what happens when all these human relationships are stripped away. 

This past week, while attending a summit on emotional health, I heard the testimony of a man who had lost all of his family and nearly all of friends in the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990’s. Around him people were giving up in grief and despair but never once did he give up,  not even when death was literally moments and inches away.  The partial telling of his story left me feeling that I’d never really experienced stress or loss. 

What gave him the courage and strength to hold on in the face of such trials? 

Once again the answer isn’t a what it’s a who?  God gave him the fortitude to hang on and persevere. While he could hear people dying all around him God have him the courage to not give up hope. When a killers knife was literally at his throat God gave him the courage to speak for him. When he was literally digging his own grave God gave him the opportunity and words to speak forgiveness and salvation to his executioners and then opened the way for him to be set free once again. 

Friends, trouble and trials will come upon us. At some point everything is this world we hold onto for security will be stripped away, and that will probably be when we are in our greatest need. This is why it’s so important that we learn to trust in someone that’s truly out of this world.  We need to learn of all that God has done in the past and collect a treasury of our own experiences as we live our lives with him. Then we, like Asaph, the author of today’s focus text, will be able to say, “I will remember… I will meditate… I will speak of the wonders, of the works, of the deeds of the Lord.“

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