Monday, September 29, 2014

An Uncomfortable Answer from the Whirlwind

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: 
“Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words?  Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much.      
Job 38:1-4 (NLT)
I’ve read this passage so many times it’s easy to gloss over the thunderous impact it ought to have upon a mortal man who prays.

But not today.

“Job’s troubles” is a familiar phrase; it means one calamity piled on top of another; unrelenting hard times.

Job was a successful, rich and respected God-fearing man with a large and largely untroubled family.  In a mere 7 verses (Job 1:13-19) the unsuspecting godly man loses virtually everything.

And the questioning began; God….WHY?  WHAT DID I DO?

For 37 chapters there is question piled on top of silence. 

And then….


Whenever I have read or preached on this text, most often the weight of what I see is a comforting answer that we simply must trust God, because He knows best.

But what about the uncomfortable answer?  What about the answer that makes us squirm?
God says to Job:  Where were YOU (little man) when I created everything…tell me.

The uncomfortable answer, for me, is that one where I have pled my case before God in prayer – laid-out all the woes of my miserable existence, and listed all the ways I’ve been shortchanged.  I let God know in no uncertain terms that I’ve tried to be good and help others and serve him….and the voice of God comes back as the unrelenting light of truth invading every aspect of my life, requiring that I give an accounting of that life. 

It’s where God says, OK Russell, you’ve had your say…now you get REALLY honest and answer my question.  No platitudes, no excuses, no throwing off your part in all this on someone else this time….put on hold all your banal repetition of how victimized you’ve been and YOU answer ME:  Do you REALLY want an answer from me?

I am stumped every time at this.  Do you see my problem? 

If I say, Yes, Lord…talk to me, I have placed myself in the uncomfortable position of actually having to trust God.  He may have something planned like He had for Moses.  Moses wanted answers; he wanted to see the Israelites rescued, but when he got face to face with God in a burning bush, God said, I’m sending YOU to do the job, big guy.

Now that’s an uncomfortable answer.

Praying uncomfortably…that’s what we’re talking about here.

Do you remember the story of the farming community that was strangling in a drought?  It hadn’t rained in months and the crops were in danger; so they scheduled a prayer meeting to pray for relief.  As the people gathered at the church one little girl was heard asking her mother, Mommy, where are the umbrellas?  Why doesn’t everyone have an umbrella?  Aren’t we going to ask God to send rain?

And that is the point of uncomfortable prayer; if you are going to be honest with God about engaging in life with Him….bring an umbrella; place yourself in harm’s way because you’re about to get wet in the answer.

For You, Today

The next time you pray, decide before you open your mouth if you really want an answer. 

It will change everything about what you say to God.

Life in the [Stand] Fast Lane

Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet set up the doors in the gates.  So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono.
But I realized they were plotting to harm me, so I replied by sending this message to them:  “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come.  Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?” 
Four times they sent the same message, and each time I gave the same reply.  The fifth time, Sanballat’s servant came with an open letter in his hand, and this is what it said:
“There is a rumor among the surrounding nations, and Geshem tells me it is true, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel and that is why you are building the wall.  According to his reports, you plan to be their king.  He also reports that you have appointed prophets in Jerusalem to proclaim about you, ‘Look! There is a king in Judah!’  “You can be very sure that this report will get back to the king, so I suggest that you come and talk it over with me.”
I replied, “There is no truth in any part of your story.  You are making up the whole thing.”  They were just trying to intimidate us, imagining that they could discourage us and stop the work.  So I continued the work with even greater determination.
Later I went to visit Shemaiah son of Delaiah and grandson of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home.  He said, “Let us meet together inside the Temple of God and bolt the doors shut.  Your enemies are coming to kill you tonight.”
But I replied, “Should someone in my position run from danger?  Should someone in my position enter the Temple to save his life?  No, I won’t do it!”  
I realized that God had not spoken to him, but that he had uttered this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.  They were hoping to intimidate me and make me sin.  Then they would be able to accuse and discredit me.   Remember, O my God, all the evil things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done.  And remember Noadiah the prophet and all the prophets like her who have tried to intimidate me.
So on October 2 the wall was finished—just fifty-two days after we had begun.  When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it, they were frightened and humiliated.  They realized this work had been done with the help of our God.  During those fifty-two days, many letters went back and forth between Tobiah and the nobles of Judah.  For many in Judah had sworn allegiance to him because his father-in-law was Shecaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan was married to the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah.  They kept telling me about Tobiah’s good deeds, and then they told him everything I said.  And Tobiah kept sending threatening letters to intimidate me.  Nehemiah 6:1-19 (NLT)
You might remember from Bible stories of Exodus how Joshua led the nation of Israel to possess the Promised Land.  But Joshua could not conquer the Phonecian cities of Tyre and Sidon. (Josh. 13:3-4)

Tyre and Sidon were founded long before the Israelites entered the land of CanaanBoth cities were known for their maritime exploits and as centers of tradeAbout 870 B.C., Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the Phoenician king, bringing Baal worship to Israel’s court.[1]

Sidon is a hotbed of terrorist fanatics (Hezbollah and Al Qaeda).  There is much hatred there for Americans and Jews.  As such, American missionaries, along with journalists are often targeted for attacks. 

It is an uneasy time in which we live; there were bombing attacks this week in Syria against al-Qaeda-linked Khorasan and ISIS groups and the Nusra Front.  There are live beheadings on CNN, and all the news heads warn of the frightening things going on, and how we had better be on the alert; be afraid, very afraid. 

Scripture, on the other hand maintains composure, and even says, “Thank you, Lord” even under the severest of hardships. 

How do you reconcile those two?  How do you look at the state of things in this world and come up balanced?  Consider:
the nervousness of constant war
a flattened economy
crime on the rise
Teen suicides on the rise
taxes through the roof
Pension plans blowing up
…and on, and on, and on.

Life in the fast lane is frightening.  But our study of Nehemiah’s journal shows us someone living in what looks like the fast lane; it just happens to be the [stand] fast lane!

The Story

Nehemiah did experience some really difficult times from the opening of the book to this point. 

As a servant of Artaxerxes the Persian king, Nehemiah was the cupbearer who asked to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls.  It was frightening to be a lowly servant asking a powerful king to change his former edict to let the walls lay in rubble.

As a traveler making a 1,000 mile journey, there were many dangers to face – sickness, bands of thieves, desertion or mutiny by those sent to protect him.

As a new arrival back in Jerusalem Nehemiah found hostility from the local governors.

When the wall was being rebuilt there were problems from within his own people, grumbling from the poor who were being oppressed by the rich.

In our text this morning we notice that even after the wall was completed, Sanballat and Tobiah were still after him.  This time they used rumor and lies about Nehemiah’s intent and character.  When that failed they resorted to a plot of intrigue to lure Nehemiah to a location away from the safety of Jerusalem…the plain of Ono.  
Of course Nehemiah said “Oh NO!” to that!

Nehemiah’s Steadfastness

Four times Sanballat and Geshem sent letters of invitation to diplomatic negotiation.  Four times Nehemiah answered the same way:  “I am working on God’s big project here.  You will have to wait.”  There is something admirable about a man who can remember his priorities!

The story is told of young Charles Darwin that one day he was eagerly holding one rare beetle in his right fist, another in his left and then suddenly he caught sight of a third beetle that he simply knew he must have for his collection.  What to do?

In a flash he put one of the beetles in his mouth for safekeeping and reached for the third beetle with his now free hand.  But the mouth-imprisoned beetle squirted acid down Darwin's throat, so that in a fit of coughing he lost all three beetles.[2]  

Remembering your priorities is always to be tempered with remembering to keep the larger picture in perspective.

The fifth attempt to disrupt Nehemiah’s work was an unsealed letter – open for even the messenger to read – it used rumor and even a bald-faced lie that Nehemiah was planning a revolt against the Persian Empire.  Nehemiah answered in that time-honored fashion – He said, “Y’all are nuts!”

One final attempt was the religious ploy – they paid Shemaiah, who had a reputation of being a prophet of God, to pretend he was looking out for Nehemiah’s neck – instead he was luring him into a murderous trap. 

Nehemiah left that prophet behind like a bad-hair day.

The Question

Heroes of the faith like Nehemiah always bring up questions.  The one looming before the house this morning has to do with how in the world Nehemiah knew the skullduggery those clowns were planning.  And, more importantly, as I follow Christ each day, how can I act with the same kind of discernment I see in Nehemiah?

If you check out Nehemiah’s response to Shemaiah’s invitation you can see the key to his pattern of discernment – Nehemiah leaned on the Word of God.

When Shemaiah said, Go in the temple, Nehemiah recalled that going into the temple for safety was only in certain circumstances – this didn’t qualify.  In addition, fleeing in the face of an ungodly plot was so contradictory to the way God’s servants had acted throughout history. 

Shemaiah claimed to be a prophet, but he was suggesting remedies for Nehemiah’s difficult situations that went decidedly against God’s ways. 

Nehemiah knew how God felt about such prophets:
But any prophet who falsely claims to speak in my name or who speaks in the name of another god must die.’   Deuteronomy 18:20 (NLT)

Therein is the teaching for us as well.  If you really want to know how to follow God, seek His Word every day…
·        memorize it
·         meditate on it
·        make it your heart’s stuff! 

Then, when courses of action are suggested to you, you will know how not to sin against Him. 

This thing about discerning God’s will baffles the world.  When Nehemiah was the subject of gossip and rumor, threats and plots, he told his enemies to hit the road – then he went right on waiting on the Lord, working on the wall, praying and waiting for God to act.  Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem were put to shame.

This is the difference when Hezbollah or Al Qaeda terrorists threaten.  This is the difference when the economy crumbles, or the doctor says the “c” word.  This is the difference for people who have peace in the middle of a dark day, in the midst of a storm – this is the difference in people who are living an everyday close relationship with the God Who is in charge of everything He made. 

When the storms come, your God gives you the peace that passes understanding on the inside to make the fast lane your [stand] fast lane! 

That’s what He does!

[1] Scott Langston, Holman Bible Dictionary
[2] James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 26.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Good Ol' Days That Weren't

Monday, September 29, 2014
As Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons to be judges over Israel.  Joel and Abijah, his oldest sons, held court in Beersheba.  But they were not like their father, for they were greedy for money.  They accepted bribes and perverted justice.  Finally, all the elders of Israel met at Ramah to discuss the matter with Samuel.   “Look,” they told him, “you are now old, and your sons are not like you.  Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.”  Samuel was displeased with their request and went to the Lord for guidance.  “Do everything they say to you,” the Lord replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you.  They don’t want me to be their king any longer.  Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods.  And now they are giving you the same treatment.  Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.”        
1 Samuel 8:1-9 (NLT)

Rebellion demands that each generation despise something of the previous one. 

The Prophet Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah were no exception.  They were reared in a preacher’s household and put in charge of the ministry when their father got ready to retire.  But unlike their father, the sons did not respect the nature of unselfish leadership; they were greedy, and when they rejected the call of God on their lives it caused nothing but trouble for everyone!

There is abundant example across the pages of Holy Scripture that show how the past is much less “rose colored” than individual or collective memory might lead us to believe.  In short, the good ol’ days weren’t!

The good ol’ days of Jacob were rotten days.  “Jacob” means “trickster” or “supplanter” – he bullied and schemed his way to the top.  God later re-named him “Israel” (Prince of God), but the rebellion in him made for a tough climb out of many a mess.

Nobody names their child “Judas” or “Adolph” anymore; those rebellious lives ended badly.  Not good ol’ days at all!

And do you recall how the children of God followed Moses around the desert complaining about the food, clothing and lack of water?  They wailed that they wanted to go back to their good ol’ days of onions and slavery in Egypt. 

Go figure!

So why is it that people in churches still clamor for the good ol’ days? 

Now, hold on; before you call the bishop on me, let me disclaim that I have it in me too.  I remember the good ol’ days in the church of my youth.  But I also recall the rebelliousness that led me away from church for a number of years.  If those good ol’ days were that good, why did I run?

I guess the point is that, for most of us…uhhh…ALL of us…we just have to go through it; we just have to rebel until the past catches up with us.

Like Jacob we have to wrestle with God’s angel and roll around in the dust until we get tired, covered in mud, bruised and disjointed enough – honest enough – to quiet down so we can see how our rebellion has taken us to the Prodigal’s pigpen.

Like David, we’ve got to sin big enough to invite the rebuke of God to wake us up to the cost of our rebellion.

Frankly, I wouldn’t go back to those good ol’ days for love or money! 

That’s why I’m trying to go forward every morning.

For You, Today
As you think about your good ol’ days remember them accurately with all the good stuff AND the warts and rebellion; then thank God for where, what and Whose you are today.

And then move forward in joy and peace.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Don't Bother Me

Friday, September 26, 2014
And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”  2 Corinthians 5:18b-20 (NLT)
Some years ago I served a church in the Gator city, Gainesville, Florida.  The city-wide pastime there is finding a street without a traffic jam.  I used to take a shortcut down one of the side streets every day on the way to the church because it was usually never crowded. 

There were a number of very beautiful yards on this street.  Driving by one day, I noticed a large hole had been dug in the middle of the front yard. 

It was curious. 

The next day the hole was twice the size. 

I wondered. 

On the third day the hole was humongous, covering nearly half the yard!  I almost stopped to check it out, but resolved if there was time tomorrow I would stop and ask the owner what was going on. 

On day 4, there was a hastily made sign near the hole – a half-sheet of plywood, propped up with a two-by-four, facing the street for all the curious drivers of cars to see.  

Three words were painted in angry red, announcing:  It's a Pond!

We don't live in a friendly world any more.  For the most part people hang their signs out that say, Leave me alone – Don't stop – Don't ask – Don't bother me!  

That's not the way they really feel.  But it's a conditioned response to growing up in a scary world.  It's like whistling in the dark; the louder you whistle the more frightened you may be inside. 

People are afraid to trust.  There are so many voices.  It's scary to trust. 

But the Father has called us to fellowship.  He's called us to be trustworthy, and vulnerable, and open.  And all so the sign-makers of this world will see that we were meant to love each other. 

And the sign-makers of this world really do want you to stop and ask; they've just been taught to be afraid. 

There are hurting people with their little signs posted all over. 

For You, Today

Will you ignore those signs and stop anyway? 

Will you go to those without hope? 

Will you share the peace of Jesus you've found? 

Will you find those potential brothers and sisters in Christ? 

Will you call them into the fellowship?

Will you tell them it's alright to come home?

[1] "CPS141privydigging". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

God's Way --- My Way

Thursday, September 25, 2014
So humble yourselves before God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come close to God, and God will come close to you.  James 4:7-8a (NLT)
Coming “close” to God is sometimes not easy.
(I shared this little demonstration with the children in our churches last week - see video)
We all have choices.  “My way” is the choice to disregard “God’s Way” in favor of doing what I want, submitting my life to impulses and personal preference.  The trouble with making that choice is I become susceptible to temptation.  
Which leads to a bigger problem – falling prey to temptation, which, ultimately, leaves me in the condition where I continue to affirm my choices as better than God’s ways.
Which leads to an even bigger problem – I become alienated, or separated from God.
The result of this pathway through life is that the moment I begin to choose to do my own thing, the possibility of coming close to God becomes unavailable.  However I may try to “include” God in my life, I will find myself alone with my choices; Scripture calls it sin.  And, no matter how badly I feel about being separated from God’s presence and care, no matter how loudly I cry out in anguish for God to come close to me, there will be silence from Heaven and emptiness in my soul.

So….what to do?

James never minces words; he speaks plainly.  Humble yourself….Come close to God, he says.  Biblical humility exists in resisting the devil which is another way of saying “change your ways”….begin to do things God’s way.
When you do that, God understands the intent of your heart is to be obedient, to walk with Him, and not oppose Him.
The result of this new pathway is fellowship with God.
Apostle John put it this way:
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.    1 John 1:9 (NLT)
To be cleansed from all wickedness is the condition of being in right relationship with God.  And when that is your condition you move through life with God in close fellowship.  You experience God’s care and protection as closer than the breath in your chest.

For You, Today

Repentance is the word today.  In Scripture that means turn – in the mind and actions, as in flipping over a coin, facing the opposite way.
It’s not easy, but if you want God close in your life, well…it is possible.

And it is your choice – God’s ways or your ways.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

When Faith Leads to Trouble

"CaravaggioSalomeLondon". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah.  John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork.  Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”  John used many such warnings as he announced the Good News to the people.  John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done.  So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.    Luke 3:15-19 (NLT)
John knew at least three things:
He knew he was NOT the Messiah.
He knew Jesus WAS the Messiah.
He knew a servant must KEEP both of those facts in plain view.
John, as a servant of Jesus, was willing to hold to that truth no matter what it cost him.
And it did cost him…everything.  
John the Baptist was a preacher of righteousness who talked of fire and threshing floors, where the wheat is taken violently out of the chaff.  He didn’t fear telling the truth, even to a wicked king like Herod.  This prophet was fierce and unwavering in his devotion to the Kingdom of God.  In the end they cut off his head to say thanks for your ministry!
How inconvenient! 
Not exactly a gold retirement watch and Hallmark Channel finish to John’s life.
I am quite often amazed, particularly compared to the Baptist’s fate, at how comfortable my life has been.  Compared to John the Baptist I have hardly had troubles.  That’s not to say there hasn’t been pain and heartache over personal losses and family difficulties – everyone experiences that. 
But, in the wee hours of the morning, I’m faced with the question of why John suffered as he did, and not Russell.  (Now, stop peeking over my shoulder….I could have used your name here too, you know; we all have to answer this question…has Russell, have you been as committed to Jesus as John the Baptist…and if not, why not?).
Why is it that the greater the devotion to the Kingdom and King Jesus, the less you’re likely to experience comfort?  Could it have something to do with picking up a cross
By the way…that was Jesus’ plan; when you give yourself fully to the service of King Jesus others will get ticked, just like Herod fumed over John’s stand for truth.  Contrary to some contemporary preaching of the “prosperity gospel” Jesus did not come to provide the comfortable life of the American way, with two cars, 401K, lake houses and time share travel vacations.  And Jesus knew that people would bristle over the cost of picking up a cross…
“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth!  I came not to bring peace, but a sword.  ‘I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  Matthew 10:34-35 (NLT)
Here’s a dose of reality at 5am:  If you want to follow Jesus, closely, devotedly, obediently, get ready for surrender!  Get ready to surrender all thought of comfort and ease.  Living a life of following Jesus Christ is joyful and peaceful in the heart, but it’s liable to get you in trouble everywhere else!  Including family, friends and kings.
For You, Today

A question:  If it was going to cost you everything you possess, would it be your choice to stand and loudly proclaim Jesus as King?