A Personal Devotional Journal

I invite you to journey with me. Sometimes we will look at short passages of Scripture and I will give my first thoughts and impressions. Other times, I will just share my thinking about spiritual issues. Always, you are welcome to comment and add your thoughts. Together, we could learn something.

Friday, December 26, 2014

"No Room" Luke 2:7

"She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."  Luke 2:7

A few hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet, Micah, had foretold that the Jewish Messiah was to be born in the village of Bethlehem.  Mary and Joseph, the man to whom Mary was engaged, both lived in Nazareth.  Nazareth was about 70 miles north of Bethlehem.  Although 70 miles may not seem like a significant distance to us today but, considering that the countryside between Nazareth and Bethlehem was wilderness with very few inns or villages along the way, and considering that the only way to travel was by foot, it certainly must have seemed like a long way to Mary and Joseph.  In fact, although Bethlehem was the place where both of their ancestors had lived –neither of them would ever have made this trip by choice –especially with Mary being 9 months pregnant.  But they had no choice.  The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had demanded that all Jewish people must return to their ancestral homes to be counted and to give an account of personal wealth for taxation.  So Joseph, and his young, pregnant fiancĂ©e walked the long, difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Unfortunately, when they finally arrived, they found that the sleepy little village of Bethlehem was the ancestral home to a lot of people.  Since Bethlehem was normally a village of just a few hundred, they were not at all equipped to provide for the several thousand people who arrived for the census.  Every home was filled, the local inn was filled, and still more people arrived daily.
To those who had found lodging, it must have been somewhat festive.  I’m sure there was a good deal of drinking and singing and dancing as long lost cousins reunited.  But for others the very fact that they were required to be in Bethlehem was a reminder that they were a conquered people.  For a tired traveler with a very pregnant wife, it was frustrating.

I remember once when we were on vacation we decided to drive until dark and then start looking for a motel.  When it was time to stop for the night, when we were very tired from driving all day, we started looking for a motel –only to find that there was not a motel anywhere with a vacancy.  I mean, there were lots of motels, and every single one we stopped at was completely full.  It had never occurred to me that every motel would be absolutely filled to capacity.  We ended up driving another two hours before we found any place with a room open.  And the motel where we finally found a vacancy was a shabby, dirty, run-down place that had holes in the bedding and dust and cobwebs in the corners and it didn’t smell very good.  This is not one of our favorite family vacation moments.  But for Mary and Joseph, this was worse. 

They had been walking for days on end.  Mary was pregnant, and her water had broken and the labor had begun.  And there was absolutely no place to stay.  Joseph must have knocked at every door in town.  Joseph was desperate. Can you imagine? Mary couldn’t have her baby out in the street.  Maybe he knocked again at the innkeeper’s door.  The innkeeper had already told him there was no room.  But, maybe he explained again why he so desperately needed a room.  Maybe he begged and pleaded.  We don’t know exactly what was said, but we do know that the innkeeper evidently agreed that the baby shouldn’t be born out in the street, and he allowed them to go around back and use the stable for a delivery room.

Of course, with all the travelers in town, the stable was full too.  It had donkeys and all sorts of animals.  And because it had been so hectic with all of the people arriving, I’m sure it had not been recently cleaned.  It wasn’t ideal –but at least it was a place to rest, a place to lie down, a place to have a baby out of public view.  And the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was born right there in that barn.

We like to picture the manger scene as a nice sterile place with clean, fresh hay, and clean stalls with pretty little sheep and maybe a friendly cow or two.  And that’s alright for our nativity sets we put out to symbolize this scene and remind us of the circumstance of Jesus’ birth –I mean, who wants a dirty, smelly barn sitting out on the coffee table?  But let’s be realistic.  Jesus was born in a real barn with real sheep and real cows and real goats and maybe chickens.  Real animals living in real barns don’t stay pretty and clean for very long.  Jesus was born in the midst of musty hay and sweaty animals and manure and mice and cobwebs, and his mother wrapped him carefully in some rags and laid him carefully in the feeding trough so that the cows wouldn’t accidentally trample him while she rested.  This is how God entered the world –the King of all Creation, Almighty God became a tiny baby, born to a teenage girl in a barn behind the local inn.

As I was reading about this and thinking about the implications it has for us, I started thinking about all those other people staying in Bethlehem.  I started thinking about the innkeeper; God was born in his barn, and he didn’t even know it.  And I started thinking about the other travelers and the guests at the inn and the people thronging the streets.  God was being born right there where they were and they had no idea.

For hundreds of years the Jewish people had been waiting for and praying for the Messiah.  For hundreds of years they had been praying and waiting and watching.  Now the time had come.  The prophecies were fulfilled.  God became man.  God became flesh.  The Savior of mankind had been born –Messiah had come.  And no one even noticed.

When morning came, I doubt anyone even thought twice about the pregnant teenager staying in the barn.  Once daylight was upon them, there were chores to do, errands to run, people to see, places to go.  The little village hummed with the hustle and bustle.  Food merchants tried to outbid each other to get people’s attention.  Merchants of all sorts hawked their wares.  All of them were unaware that God had arrived.

This was clearly the most significant event in all of world history up to that point –God had become man.  God’s plan for redemption and  salvation had been put into action.  Angels were amazed, but the humans were oblivious.

So, Christ, the Messiah, had come to Bethlehem, but Bethlehem didn’t even know it.  These people who thronged the streets and hawked their wares and filled the inns –these people who had longed for and prayed for God to send the Messiah –these people missed the birth of God.  They didn’t miss the advent of the Messiah because they were terrible people. Not at all –they were mostly good, devout Jewish people.   These other people living in the village of Bethlehem didn’t miss the most important event in all of human history because they were hopelessly evil or wicked or cruel.  They missed the birth of Jesus simply because they were too busy to notice.

That brings me to today.  I wonder –do I really have to make the application?  We sure are busy people aren’t we?  We have much to do –don’t we? We are always busy people, but during holidays we are even busier than usual.

I want to encourage you to take a moment right now to stop and think of how much love God has shown us through this baby that was born.  I want to invite you to pause for a moment  -in a sense, to pause before the manger and look at Baby Jesus and think about God’s extraordinary love.  God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son that whoever believes on Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.  This is love –not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)  This is love –God sent His Son.  Please, let’s not be too busy to notice. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ephesians 4:2 "Learning Patience"

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. (1 Corinthians 13:4)
Although I live in Florida, I grew up in Michigan.  I very clearly remember as a child in the winter time getting all bundled up with mittens and coats and boots before venturing out into the snow.  So, this illustration of patience from the life of an elementary school teacher seems plausible.

There was a kindergarten teacher that was helping one of her students put his boots on at the end of the day.  This little boy had asked for help, and the teacher could see why –the boots were a little small, and even with a lot of pushing and pulling, they didn’t want to go on.

When the second boot was finally on, after the teacher had already worked up a pretty good sweat, they little guy pointed out, “Teacher –they’re on the wrong feet.”  And when she looked down, sure enough they were on the wrong feet.

They were nearly as hard to get off as they had been to put on –but she managed to keep her cool as they eventually got the boots on the right feet.
That’s when the boy announced, “You know, these aren’t my boots.”

Fighting back a scream, the teacher once again grabbed the boots and began pulling and tugging and finally got them off his feet again, and then asked, “So, where are your boots?”  

“They’re at home –they were too wet to wear today.”
“So what boots did you wear?”  She asked.

“The ones you just took off –they’re my brother’s –my mom made me wear them.” 
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, the teacher pushed and pulled the ill-fitting boots back onto the boy’s feet, and then asked, “And where are your mittens?”

To which the boy replied, “I didn’t want to lose them, so I stuffed them in the toes of the boots.”


Sunday, August 24, 2014

John 4:24 "True Worship: Spirit and Truth"

John 4:24 "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Godly humility -the humility necessary for true, authentic worship -is a matter of understanding who we actually are before God.  It is neither thinking more of ourselves nor less of ourselves than God thinks of us.  When we understand this –when we let down our masks and our walls and all of those things that we build up around ourselves to protect ourselves, and we stand alone and vulnerable before God, something wonderful happens –we find the ability to truly worship.

But we have a very, very difficult time letting down our defenses –especially in the context of corporate worship as we worship with other Believers.  We don’t easily allow other people to see behind the facade we have built.  We have so carefully constructed the false personas that we want other people to see.  We have these masks that we hold out.  The real me is somewhere back here behind the mask, but the person you see is the mask, the person I want you to think I am.  We all do this.  We create an identity that we put on when we go out into public.  This identity kind of protects us.  If you don’t like me, you see, I know that it’s not me you don’t like, it’s the mask.  If you only knew the real me, you’d probably like me.  But of course, you might not and I don’t want to take the risk.  If I let down the mask, and allow you to get a peek at the real me, and then if you don’t like me, then I might truly be hurt. 

The ironic thing is that these masks and false identities that we construct become such a part of us that we forget we are even hiding behind them.  When we go out into public, we put them on automatically.  This is my public image.  My public image is kind of like me, but it certainly is not the real me or the entire real me.   Because we automatically put on these masks whenever we go out into public, and because we are so used to wearing them, when somebody suggest that we are hiding behind a mask, we automatically respond, “Un-uh. No way.”  You see, part of our mask, part of our defense mechanism is to create the illusion that what you see is who I really am –but it’s not.
Now, understand this.  At least in part what God is saying when He tells us that He requires that we worship in spirit and truth, is “take off the mask.”  True humility is not about putting ourselves down or making ourselves less than we are; it’s about taking off the mask, tearing down the walls, removing the barricades, and being honest and open before God.  Authentic worship cannot happen anywhere in any context without this.  We can go through the motions of worship without removing the mask, but we cannot truly worship.  One of the dilemmas we have in corporate worship, then, one of the reasons true authentic worship rarely takes place in church services is because it requires that we take off our masks in the presence of others.  Let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about from the New Testament.
There is a story in Luke chapter 7 where Jesus is invited to the home of one of the Pharisees.   Some friends and acquaintances and followers of Jesus evidently came with Him to this meal.  As they were sitting around the table, something dramatic and a little wierd took place.  A woman who had come with Jesus -a prostitute to whom Jesus had restored dignity by forgiving her was overcome in her love and appreciation for Jesus and fell at His feet crying.   

This forgiven prostitute was weeping so hard that her tears made Jesus feet wet.  She was actually embarrassed by this, so took her hair and attempted to dry Jesus’ feet.  The Pharisee, of course, was appalled.  He was thinking to himself, “How can Jesus call Himself a holy man when He allows this prostitute to do such a degrading, ridiculous thing in public?”   The Pharisee said to himself, “There is absolutely no way that I would ever put up with that kind of thing –it would be embarrassing –it would be humiliating.  First, she is a prostitute.  She shouldn't even be here.  Second, her crying and carrying on is too personal and intimate and is making everybody here uncomfortable.  She should quit.”
Jesus, evidently, knew what the Pharisee was thinking and responded, “The one who has been forgiven much, loves much.”  The Pharisee was a religious leader.  The woman was a sinful, social misfit.  The Pharisee made a lifestyle of worshiping God in public, and yet knew nothing about true worship.  The woman knew nothing about decorum or style or appropriateness, or even how or where or when worship was acceptable.  She only knew that Jesus had forgiven her and that she loved Jesus more than she could express.  The woman is the one who was worshiping, not the Pharisee.   

Now, I want us to understand what made this pathetic woman’s actions true, authentic worship.  It was true worship because she did not care about what anybody thought, she was not inhibited by society’s rules, she couldn’t care less that the Pharisee thought her foolish and annoying.  Her love for Jesus superseded what anybody else in the room thought of her.  She took off her mask, she pulled down the walls, and she fell at Jesus feet and worshiped.  And Jesus found that acceptable.

Lord Jesus, help us to worship you in Spirit and in Truth -without masks and without pretense.  Help us worship in such a way that You find acceptable.  Amen.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Acts 2:46-47 "True Worship As Evangelism"

I believe true authentic worship is the best witness we have to an unbelieving world that Jesus is, indeed, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m convinced that when unbelievers enter our midst and see first hand Christians in communion with our Savior -when they see us remembering the saving deeds of God, and bowing humbly in brokenness before God with thanksgiving in our hearts and giving praise, when they see us singing joyfully to a God with whom we have a personal relationship, when they see us letting down the walls and the masks that hide us and separate us from each other, when they see us reaching out to God and to each other with love -they begin to understand that something real is going on. When unbelievers see true, authentic worship, they begin to see the truth. When unbelievers see true, authentic worship, they get a glimpse of the otherliness, the holiness, the transcendence and the majesty of God.

We see this dynamic clearly in the experience of the early church. Acts 2:46-47 tells us, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

This Scripture tells us that in the early church the Believers went to the temple to worship everyday. Why do you suppose these young, new Believers wanted to gather together to worship everyday? I think that their desire to worship is a reflection of something very significant that had happened in their lives. When they turned to Jesus for forgiveness, a radical change took place in their lives –in effect, their entire lives changed –their priorities changed. For these new Believers, Christianity was not just something that they added into the routine of their daily lives –it became the routine of their lives. Because of what Jesus had done in their lives, worship became a significant and routine part of their existence. Whatever else they had going on in their lives before knowing Christ, now took a back seat to their new priority of worshiping the God who had redeemed them. So the routine of their lives included gathering together with other like-minded Believers for corporate worship.

These first Christians regularly met together for worship, and regularly met together for fellowship –and because the fellowship was grounded in a mutual relationship with Christ, there was not even a great distinction between the times of worship and the times of fellowship –it was all part of the Christian lifestyle –it was all part of the new routine of their lives. And this passage tells us that whether at worship as a congregation or whether fellowshiping over a meal in individual homes, everything this church did was characterized by glad hearts and praise to God.

Now, here is an interesting thing. We are told that one of the consequences of this unity –one of the consequences of sincere, authentic corporate worship and intimate friendships was that these people found favor in the community. Happy, friendly, graceful, merciful, forgiving people are nice to be around.

We live in a time when many people are, frankly, prejudiced against Christianity. Many people have serious misunderstandings about what we believe and how we think. Often times the media portrays us as narrow-minded, unthinking, bitter, angry, hateful bigots that can’t get along with other religions and can’t get along with other viewpoints. So, in movies and on television and even in new reports, Christians are often shown as stupid, mean-spirited, ignorant people. And yet, interestingly, these same people who are prejudiced against Christians in general, are often attracted to the qualities they see in the lives of the Christians they actually know.

Several years ago when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the first game of the NFL playoffs, the sportscasters were trying to describe the character of Tony Dungee, the Buccaneers’ coach at that time. Tony Dungee is a very vocal, very serious Believer. These cynical sportscasters didn’t have enough good words to describe Dungee. They talked about his honesty and his integrity and his kindness. One of them, in all seriousness, said that Tony Dungee is the best human being in the whole world –it was interesting to me that the qualities they affirmed in Tony Dungee are explicitly Christian qualities.

The truth about Christians is that we are good citizens and good neighbors, and good employees, and good friends. True Christians are people of integrity and compassion and mercy and grace. And the result for the early church was that they found favor in the community –and that God used all of this –the authentic worship, the sincere, glad fellowship, and the good citizenship to draw people into the Kingdom. The Lord added to their numbers daily.

I believe that God added to their numbers daily because everything they did daily was a reflection of Christ working in their hearts and lives –there was no separation between their secular lives and their religious lives. Joyful, sincere worship was a way of life that was attractive to a cynical, unbelieving world –and I believe it still is.
Teach us as Your people to love Your house best of all dwellings, Your Scripture as best of all books, Your provisions as best of all gifts, and the fellowship of Believers as the best of all company. May we as one family give thanks and adore Your glory. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Romans 1:21-32 "True Worship 2: Acknowledging God and Giving Thanks"

They know God, but they do not give him the honor that belongs to him, nor do they thank him. Instead, their thoughts have become complete nonsense, and their empty minds are filled with darkness. They say they are wise, but they are fools.... And so God has given those people over to do the filthy things their hearts desire, and they do shameful things with each other.  They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself.... Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions. Even the women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts.  In the same way the men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passion for each other....  Because those people refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God, he has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do.  They are filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil, greed, and vice; they are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, and malice. They gossip  and speak evil of one another; they are hateful to God, insolent, proud, and boastful; they think of more ways to do evil; they disobey their parents;  they have no conscience; they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or pity for others.  They know that God's law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them.  (Romans 1:21-32)

Mankind was created to worship God and have fellowship with God. Mankind was created to have a relationship with God. And it is within the context of this relationship that humans find purpose and meaning. As Paul so graphically pointed out in the Romans passage we just read, apart from the relationship, our minds become darkened and our thinking becomes futile, and we think we are wise when actually we are fools, and we begin a cycle of deceit and treachery and violence and aggression. And because we are essentially spiritual beings, we try to fill the spiritual vacuum that is produced when we leave God out, with created things rather than the Creator. We try to fill the spiritual vacuum with cars and houses and careers and education and family and alcohol and sex and drugs and movies and sports and hobbies and all kinds of thing –some of them good things, some of them not so good, but none of them actually able to fill the hole in our souls. It is a meaningless, pathetic existence and it leads to a horrible logical conclusion –eternal death. All this caused by refusing acknowledge and worship God.

Without a sense of gratitude to God, I begin to think that I am the most important thing –I need to take care of number one. I think that every good thing that happens I did for myself, and every bad thing that happens is because other people did me wrong. Not surprisingly, I lose any sense of responsibility to my neighbor –to those around me. And the ultimate consequence of this perverted thinking is found again in that list Paul gave us in Romans chapter one. We become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. We are filled with envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. We are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; we invent ways of doing evil; we disobey our parents; we are senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.

These are not qualities that make for good neighbors are they? They are not qualities that make good friends or husbands or wives or children or bosses or employees. And yet, these are qualities that we begin to see in ourselves when we are ungrateful and refuse to acknowledge God and give Him praise.

And that’s not all of it. There is at least one other arena of life in which sin has caused brokenness. Sin has broken our relationship to nature. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he sent His only Son. The word used here for world means His creation. When we read this verse, we most often think of the world meaning the people in the world –and it does –but it means even more than the people; it means that God loved everything He created. You might remember that at every step in the creation story in the book of Genesis –after God created, He paused and said, “It is good.” Mankind is the crown jewel of creation. Unlike anything else God created –even unlike the angels, we alone were created in the image of God –so, we are, indeed, special to God. But it would be a mistake to think that God doesn’t care about the rest of His creation. He does. God loves His creation. And in the book of Genesis, we are told that God gave man dominion over the world, over what He had created. What that means is that God entrusted the care of His world to men. We were to be the caretakers. But because our relationship to God is broken, and because our relationship to other people is broken, and because we think that the only thing that matters in life is taking care of number one, we have over the centuries used and abused creation to the point where our relationship with nature is horribly broken. The water is polluted, the air is polluted, and in many areas the very dirt is polluted. The depletion of the ozone, the so-called, “greenhouse affect,” the mass destruction of the rain forests. All of these are examples of how alienated we are from nature. What we were entrusted with to take care of, because we are sinful, we destroy.

Because we do not worship as God deserves, life has no meaning or purpose and we fail at everything we were created for -we fail to know and love God, we fail to love others and we fail to care for the earth. There is only one solution to the human dilemma. We need to acknowledge God and give Him thanks.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

1 Peter 2:9-10 "True Worship"

If we want to understand what worship is –or what it consists of, we need to start by looking at the Bible. Instead of looking at random passages about worship, I'm thinking more about the big picture of the Bible. If we look at the story of the Bible in its entirety, from beginning to end, we will notice that the story revolves around events. There are several defining events in the Bible –events that have shaped the Hebrew people, and the Christian Church. There is the act of creation, and the event of the fall. There is the event of the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt. There is the Christ Event –the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus –and there is the promised event of Christ’s second coming. This is the story of the Bible in a nutshell, isn’t it? And since these are the events that shape the story of the Bible, and since the Bible is our official Book of Worship, these same events form the basis for our worshipof the God of these events.

What I’m suggesting is that true worship is not a warm fuzzy feeling that we get towards God. True worship is not an emotion. And, in fact, true worship is not even an action exactly. True worship begins at least as a remembrance. Worship begins as we remember the saving events of God. In the Old Testament, many of the Psalms, for instance, recount how God called them into being as the Children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, about how God established a covenant with them, and how God, after the Exodus and the wandering in the desert, went before them into the land He had promised them and drove out the other nations before them. And as they remembered what God had done for them as a people, they also acknowledged how God provided for them as individuals. Again, in the Psalms, David wrote often about how God had saved Him from the miry pit, from destruction by his enemies, from despair.

These remembrances of God’s saving events became the basis for worship. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, almost always when we find people worshiping, we also find them remembering.

The primary saving event in the Old Testament was, of course, the exodus out of Egypt. Consequently, the vast majority of Hebrew corporate worship, including most of their holy holidays, Passover, for example, revolve around remembering how God saved them as a people from slavery in Egypt.

In the New Testament, we also have a saving event around which almost all of our worship focuses. Jesus lived and died and rose again from the dead. In the Christ event, God brought us out of our bondage and addiction to sin, and he forgave us and he restored our relationship to Himself. Through Jesus God gave to us a new covenant and we became His people and He became our God.

In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter tells us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

In other words, since we once were not a people, but are now the people of God, since we once had not been forgiven, had not received mercy through the shed blood of Jesus, but now our sins have been forgiven, we declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into light. There is a cause and effect relationship between acknowledging and remembering how God has saved us and our ability to give Him praise.

In worship, God does what He has always done. He reaches out to us with compassion and mercy; He brings us out of bondage and addiction. He heals and restores us. He forgives both the guilt of our sin and the shame of our sin. And He calls us to gather around His throne and give Him thanks and give Him praise. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

John 15:1-2 "Living On The Vine"

On the evening that Jesus was betrayed, after the Passover meal Jesus walked with His disciples to the Mount of Olives where they were going to pray.  Jesus, of course, knew what was about to happen.  Although the disciples didn't know, Jesus knew that this walk to the Garden of Gethsemane was His last walk before His false arrest, unjust trial, and brutal execution.  

So, when Jesus pauses at the ancient vineyards near the foot of the hilltop garden to tell them an object lesson, it is significant.  Because Jesus knew this was His final teaching time with the disciples, He was not wasting time talking about trivia.  There was so much He still wanted them to understand, and such a small amount of time left to Him; certainly, He didn't waste it.

As Jesus paused by the ancient grape vines, He told His disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser (gardener). Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."  John 15:1-2

Since these disciples came from a culture where grapevines were a way of life (the vine is actually a national symbol of ancient Israel) there are probably a few things that the disciples knew about grapes and vines that we might not know.  Because of their agrarian background, this object lesson made good sense to them.  

First, it made sense that a branch had to be connected to the vine in order to grow.  So, if Jesus is the vine, they are the branches and they needed to remain connected.  Also, it was understood that the purpose of grape vines was to produce grapes.  There is no purpose for a branch that does not produce fruit.  So, it makes sense that the gardener would cut off any branch that remains perpetually fruitless.  What they understood that most of us probably don't is how a gardener got the maximum amount of fruit from a vine branch.

Under the right growing conditions, grapevines grow aggressively.   In a single growing season, a branch can grow as much as 50 ft.  The dilemma is that while a branch is growing outwardly, it does not produce much fruit.  The nutrients and energy of the plant are used for new growth, not fruit. 

What this means is that a grapevine can be big and robust with lots of greenery and apparent health, but have little to no fruit.  The casual observer would think that the vine is a perfect specimen -yet there is no fruit.  If there is no fruit, there is no purpose for the branch.

So, a good vinedresser watches and monitors new growth, allowing for a some outward growth, and then at the right time, cuts back the new growth forcing the nutrients and energy into producing fruit.  If he does this right and the vine responds as it ought to, there will be a good amount of healthy new growth and fruit as well.

Once the vinedresser cuts back the new growth, if the branch doesn't set fruit but just starts growing again, the fruitless branch is cut off completely.  There is no purpose in a branch that continues to drain nutrients and energy but won't produce fruit.

On the other hand, once it has been established that a branch will set fruit, the vinedresser continues to selectively prune off non-fruit-producing runners and unneeded foliage so that the branch can produce the maximum amount of fruit.

So, the big picture here is that there is a season of growing and a season for basic pruning and a season of selective pruning -all with the end goal of producing the maximum amount of fruit.

If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, it follows that Father (our gardener) desires us to produce the maximum amount of Kingdom fruit.  In order for us to produce fruit, we need a season of growing.  So, we study and learn and memorize Scripture and pray and prepare and build community and fellowship and do all the things that we equate with growth.  But we understand that after a season of growth, there will be some pruning.  This is not punishment, it is a necessary process to move us from becoming large fruitless branches full of greenery and apparent health to strong branches actually bearing fruit.  And as we cooperate with God, He further hones in on the areas that are not fruitful and trims away all that holds us back from maximum fruit.

Things that in the beginning did not seem like a big deal might actually become a big deal as God identifies the things that need to be trimmed away.  Until He begins to prune, it is not an issue.  However, when Father says it is time for something to go, it is time for it to go or we risk becoming fruitless.

Let me give an example from my own life.  For several years I had a very old copy of a high end photography editing program on my computer.  A friend had installed it my my computer for me and I used it regularly -even though I knew that my friend had obtained his copy illegally.  I justified keeping and using the program with the knowledge that it was so old that it couldn't even be purchased anymore and the company didn't even support that old version anymore.

Then one night in the middle of the night I woke up with a start and felt like God was telling me to delete that program.  It wasn't an issue for me until God said it was -then it became an issue.  God wanted to prune away an area that lacked integrity even though I didn't realize there was a breach of integrity.  Once God identified it, however, my choice was simply obey or not obey.  I obeyed.  Almost instantly the effectiveness of my ministry grew.  God was pruning to produce more fruit.

Do you want to be fruitful?  My understanding is that there are actually steps for us to follow and if we cooperate with God in this we will be fruitful.  First we study and learn and grow in grace and knowledge.  Next, when God begins to bring conviction and understanding to the general areas of life, we stay connected and allow God to cut away the big obstacles to intimacy with Him -and to Kingdom fruit.  In effect we begin to value righteousness over knowledge.  And then as God begins to identify the specific areas of our lives that need change, we obey.  The end result: spiritual fruit.

Monday, May 19, 2014

1 John 1:9 "Why Confess?"

 1 Peter 5:7 Cast all your care on Him, because He cares about you.

 1 John 1:9  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
God desires to carry our burdens.  He cares about the things that weigh us down and keep us separated from Him.  Sin is an awful heavy burden.  The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death.  The Bible also tells us that the soul cleansing blood of Jesus washes away our sin.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we are forgiven and restored to right relationship with God.

Even though through Jesus we are forgiven, we still struggle with the burden of sin. The experience that many Christians have is that even though we have been changed from people who like and enjoy sin into people who hate sinning, we still continue to sin. I do not want to excuse this fact or make light of it, but it does us no good to pretend.

We live in a fallen, broken world, we are constantly surrounded by evil influences, and we are weak willed people; so, even though we believe in Jesus and have accepted His death as the punishment for our sin and have turned to Him for forgiveness and new life, we still struggle with sin. 

Because we still struggle with sin, God made a continuing provision for sin.  The Bible tells us, “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This rich promise was given to the church -to Christians.  It reminds us of the fact that Jesus has already paid the penalty for sin –in that sense, God made provision for our forgiveness once and for all, and for all time.  The penalty has been been paid, and we have been forgiven.  Yet, Christians are specifically instructed to confess sin as it occurs.  We should probably seek to understand what this means and why it is such good news.
There is a very good reason God wants us to confess our sin.  It’s because unconfessed sin turns into baggage that we have to carry around with us.  When we sin and do not confront it, and do not repent, and refuse to confess it, we end up with a load of guilt and shame and bitterness and anxiety and fear.  God doesn’t want that for us.  God wants us to unload those kinds of burdens.  We unload by confession and repentance.

Now, don’t misunderstand.  God doesn’t need to hear our confession so that He knows what we’ve been up to.  He already knows every wrong thing and every right thing we’ve ever thought or said or done.  Our confession doesn’t change God, and it doesn’t change God’s mind, and it doesn’t change God’s opinion of us.  Our confession changes us.

When we are humbly confessing our sin to God, something happens.  In order to truly confess, we must examine ourselves.  In order to realistically examine ourselves, we need to quit pretending to be people we’re not –we need to let our defenses down, we need to take our masks off.  In order to confess, we need to be brutally honest about ourselves before God.  And it is in the context of humble honesty, with no pretense and no defense that a relationship with God begins to develop.  And the relationship is what God desires.

When we confess our sin, God forgives our sin.  But He does even more.  He cleanses us from unrighteousness.  Unrighteousness is a result of participating with the enemy.  Sin defiles us.  The defilement of sin is a continuing burden even after we have been forgiven.  Forgiveness takes care of the guilt -but the cleansing is what takes care of defilement.  God doesn't just forgive, He cleanses and restores.  He carries the burden.  That's how much He cares.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Micah 6:8 "Walking Humbly With God"

Micah 6:8 
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
--> For the last couple of posts, we have been looking at Micah chapter 6.  This was written to the Israelites concerning a general attitude that seemed to develop concerning sin and what God actually desired of them. 
Under the Old Covenant, you remember, sins were forgiven through a process of animal sacrifice.  The people would come to temple and through the priest, make sacrifices.  That was God’s law.  It has always been God’s law that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin.  It’s not because God is a bloodthirsty God who delights in gore.  Its because God wants us to be aware of the awfulness of sin.   
The Israelites were willing to make whatever sacrifices at the temple were necessary in order for them to get off the hook for their sins, not necessarily because they wanted to quit sinning, but simply because they didn’t want the punishment for the sin that they knew for certain was comingThey really didn't understand why sin was a problem or what God actually wanted from them. 
--> Since they could always go to the temple and make sacrifices, they didn’t think sin was that big of a deal.   
Micah, in this passage, points out to the people, and to us, that although God instituted the sacrificial system, He was never actually interested in their sacrifices.  What He really wanted from them and from us is a relationship.  He wants an authentic, day-to-day, ongoing relationship.  
What we have seen so far is that if we have a right relationship with God it will affect both our outward actions and our inward character.  A right relationship with God will always lead us act justly, to do justice.  Also, a right relationship with God will produce in us the quality of mercy.   
--> Now, we are looking at the third and final thing that Micah lists as God’s requirement: walking humbly with God.  The obvious key to understanding what Micah is trying to teach here is the word humble.  But, as we will see, the word walk also has implications for us.

--> There are three basic ways in which the concept of humility is used in the Bible.  The first use of the word humble is to describe the condition of poverty.  When people are poor or deprived or needy, they are humble –they are not fancy and frivolous.  The second use of the word humble has to do with abasing oneself, lowering oneself.  It is the opposite of arrogance.  Arrogance puffs up and calls attention to itself.  Humility lets others get the attention and the glory.  And the third use of the word humble has to do with submission.  Like when a soldier, for instance, submits to the authority of a commanding officer.  It has, in a sense, to do with understanding our rank, understanding and accepting where we fit into the scheme of things.
All of these things are loosely connected, and they all have some implications for what Micah is telling us.  A right relationship with God involves our admission of spiritual poverty, admitting that we need God.  A right relationship with God involves letting go of our pride and arrogance –giving God the attention, giving God the glory, instead of trying to glorify ourselves.  And a right relationship with God involves submitting to God.  It involves understanding exactly who we are in relationship to God.  When Micah tells us that the Lord requires us to walk humbly with God, he is implying all of this.
In a sense, though, it is impossible to walk with God if we don’t submit and give up our arrogance and recognize our spiritual need.
--> We are either walking humbly with God, or we’re not walking with God at all. So, perhaps, the bigger understanding we need to have of this passage has to do with that other word: walk.
The Hebrew word used for walk here, halak, is loaded with implications for us.  It means to move surely and steadily.  It means to keep apace.  It means to go along side.  It means to move forward.  All of these are descriptions of what it means to walk with God.
--> Walking with God means that we going where God is going.  We aren’t going off in our own directions following our own whims and desires.  It means we are keeping apace with Him.  That means we don’t stop unless He stops.  It also means we don’t run ahead of Him trying to find the path on our own.  If we are walking with God, we are walking beside Him, letting Him choose the direction, letting Him open the right doors, letting Him close the wrong ones.  
We often get in trouble over these things don’t we?  Don’t we try to figure things out for ourselves and get way ahead of God and try to push open doors that God doesn’t want open?  And at other times don’t we see God’s open doors before us, and refuse to go through them.  Don’t we sometimes dig in our heels and sit down to rest, or maybe even lay down and go to sleep instead of walking along side of God?  And what happens when we do this?  Does anything good ever come from our insisting on doing it our way?
At the point we insist on our own way, we get out of step with God –we actually quit walking with God, and we lose benefits of walking with God.  When we are walking with God in close relationship with God, His closeness comforts us and gives us assurance and hope.  When we are walking with God, He opens the right doors and we don’t have the anxiety and worries and fears about making the right or wrong choices in life.  But when we intentionally quit walking with God, when we say "no" to God, or when we refuse to go through the doors He opens, or we insist on going through doors He didn’t open –in other words, when we demand our own way, we left are on our own.  We’re not on left our own because God got angry at us and abandoned us, we’re on our own because we quit walking with God and started walking in some direction other than the direction God is going.
The bottom line is this.  We were designed to have fellowship with our Creator.  Since sin interfered with that, God made a way for our sin to be forgiven.  But, if we then refuse to actually walk with God and have fellowship with God, we are missing the point entirely.

So, if you are saved, but are somehow missing the intimate fellowship, the personal relationship –if you have believed in Jesus and trusted Him for salvation, but are not truly walking with Him, how do you get your life back on track?  How do you reconnect with God?  How do you figure out where He is and what direction He is going so that you can walk with Him?   
Listen carefully now, because I’m going to tell you.  Are you listening?  Do you want to know where God is, so you can start truly walking with Him again?  You will find God waiting for you at the point where you last told Him "no."