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Monday, May 31, 2010

Jonah and the Whale - Jonah 1:1-4:11

Jonah and the Whale—Jonah 1:1-4:11

The ancient Assyrians had been the enemies of the Israelites for as long as anyone could remember. All his life Jonah had heard horror stories of how his fellow countrymen were being captured by the dreaded Assyrians during their many brutal raids. Husbands, wives and little children were being carried away by the Assyrians to become their slaves, never to be seen again by their grieving loved ones. Raping and pillaging as they attacked, the powerful Assyrians left fear and destruction wherever they went. Jonah as a committed patriot and a devout Jew, had learned to hate these pagan Assyrians with all of his heart. The year was around 760 B.C. and religious Jews everywhere were praying that God would destroy their enemy, the Assyrians. And Jonah was praying for Assyria’s destruction too.

It was into this mix that God came to Jonah and instructed him to go to the Assyrians with a message, - a special message from God. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, a city in Assyria, and tell the people of Nineveh that God wanted them to repent of their violent ways and turn from their sins. Jonah was to warn the Ninevites that God would destroy their city in forty days because of their wickedness.

Jonah didn’t want to obey God or do what God had asked him to do. He didn’t want to be Gods’ prophet and missionary to the heathen Assyrians. He wanted God to destroy the people of Nineveh. Jonah decided to run away from the presence of God. He got on a ship headed for Tarshish – the opposite direction from Nineveh! Surely God’s presence couldn’t follow him all the way to Tarshish. Jonah paid his fare and climbed down into the lowest part of the boat out of sight. Now God couldn’t find him, he reasoned, and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

The sailors shoved off from shore and the ship sailed out into the Mediterranean Sea.

The ship cruised along in the night for several hours over the moonlit waters. But it wasn’t long before problems began to occur. A gale force wind came up and soon the sailors were struggling to keep the little ship from going under. Jonah kept sleeping as the winds grew worse and the boat swayed dangerously from side to side. The frantic sailors started throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load. But still that wasn’t enough as the storm raged on. The desperate captain and sailors prayed to their gods and cast lots to see what was causing all the trouble. And when the lot fell on Jonah they climbed down into the lowest deck and woke him up.

“Throw me into the sea and the storm will be calmed” Jonah insisted. “I was running away from God,” he told them. “I know that this great storm is because of me,” Jonah 1:12. The men rowed harder through the storm to get back to the shore but to no avail. And finally when it became certain that the ship would sink and they would all die, they reluctantly had to throw Jonah into the stormy waters.

Jonah was sure he would die right then and there, but God wasn’t through with him yet. Scripture says that God prepared a great fish whose purpose it was to swallow up Jonah And for three days and nights Jonah lived in the belly of the fish. Not a pretty place to be. Jonah describes it like this: “The waters surrounded me, even to my soul: The deep closed around me: Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains: The earth with its bars closed behind me forever: Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.” Jonah 2:5-6.

Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the big fish. You and I would have prayed too if we were to find ourselves stuck inside a fish! There are no atheists in fox holes. I think Jonah was finally learning that he couldn’t run away from God! Jonah promises God that he will obey. Then God speaks to the fish and Jonah is vomited out onto dry land.

This time Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh. He still doesn’t want to go, but God has gotten his attention with the fish incident. Jonah knows that God is merciful and kind. What if the people of Nineveh are sorry for their sins? Then it would be just like God to forgive them and let them live. That’s why Jonah doesn’t want to warn the people of Nineveh. He wants them all to die. Jonah sulks around the city calling out Gods’ message: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4b. He hopes the people don’t hear him. When he has finished warning Nineveh, Jonah goes to a spot east of the city. He decides to campout there for the forty days so he can watch the destruction of Nineveh. God causes a vine to sprout up near Jonah and give him shade from the sun. Jonah loved this vine. Now he will be able to watch from his comfortable seat as all the people of Nineveh are being killed. He can’t wait!

An amazing miracle takes place in Nineveh after Jonah gives them God’s warning. The Bible tells us that every single person in the city believes Gods’ message. As the depressed Jonah shuffles through the streets calling out, every man, woman and child listens and is personally convicted of their sin. Each one pours ashes on themselves and begs God for forgiveness! From the poorest peasant woman to the richest lord, every last person in Nineveh stops eating and drinking and calls out to God. They all put on sackcloth and ashes to show how sorry they are for their violent ways. When the king hears Jonahs’ warning he proclaims a fast throughout all of Nineveh. The king orders his people: “Let neither man nor beast, herd or flock,taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Jonah 3:7b-8.

And what do you think God did then? Of course our loving God forgave Nineveh. God changed His mind and didn’t destroy the city as He had said He would, since all the people of Nineveh had turned from their evil ways. The book of Jonah teaches us that God has mercy and compassion for all people and always forgives when people confess their sins...

And how did Jonah feel about all of this? Well, sadly Jonah was furious. He did not share Gods’ love for the heathen. Instead of Jonah being glad that God had been able to use him to help save Nineveh from destruction, he was outraged. He wanted Nineveh to get what was coming to them! The Lord wanted to share His compassion for the lost with Jonah. He urged Jonah to look beyond his anger and be concerned about human suffering. God asked Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4;4

.God tries again to get His point across with more object lessons and reasonings. He prepares a worm which ate the vine that had shaded Jonah from the hot sun, - the vine that Jonah loved so much. The vine dries up and dies. Jonah is so outraged and upset over the loss of his little vine that he wants to die and lashes out again at God. “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” Jonah 4:9b.

The book of Jonah ends with God trying once more to reason with Jonah. God observes that Jonah cares deeply about losing the vine that grew up overnight and gave him shade. But Jonah doesn’t care at all about the thousands in Nineveh who have just been saved from death.. God points out to Jonah that twenty thousand persons living in Nineveh don’t even know their left hand from their right (babies and little children?) And God continues by mentioning that many animals in Nineveh have been saved from death also. Doesn’t Jonah care that innocent children and animals have been saved from a painful death? Why does he care more for his vine (his comfort) than for suffering humanity? Aren’t his priorities mixed up?

Jonah is still angry when the story ends. There is no record that he ever changed. We have no hint that Jonah ever even tried to see things Gods’ way or listened when God pleaded with him to have compassion. He seemed to stubbornly cling to his old hatreds. He even asked God to let him die in his bitterness. God spoke directly to Jonah and performed amazing interventions right before his eyes and still Jonah refused to give up his prejudices.

If there is one lesson we can learn from Jonah, that lesson might be to not let anger take over our lives. Jonah let his anger keep him from all that God had for him. Let’s not make that same mistake. Jonah had the privilege of being one of Gods’ chosen prophets, and yet he hardened his heart. And even God couldn’t persuade him to soften that heart.

Each of us, though we belong to the Lord, like Jonah, have our own prejudices and hatreds. God is asking us, like He asked Jonah, to put away our anger and change. God longs to share His heart with us and His vision. He desires to love others through us. He is gracious and He wants us to be gracious too. God wants us to have concern for the thousands who don’t even know their right hand from their left, and for the animals too. God isn’t satisfied with just blind obedience. He wants our hearts and our souls. Let’s not hold back on God like Jonah did. Let’s give Him everything we’ve got.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Praise The Lord - Psalm 100

Praise the Lord –Psalm 100

The Hebrew title of the Book of Psalms is ‘Tehillim’ which literally means the Book of Praises. The Book of Psalms or “Praises” was actually the songbook for worship events in the temple in ancient Jerusalem, and the Psalms were especially designed for singing. Psalm 100 is a short poetic psalm that begins by urging us all to praise the Lord. “Make a joyful shout unto the Lord, all you lands!” Psalm 100:1.

The importance of praising God is stated right off and the rest of the Psalm just keeps on going with this message. “Serve the Lord with gladness: Come before His presence with singing.” Psalm 100:2. Verse two reiterates what verse one has already said, but then adds a bit more. The child of God is told to sing and be joyful while serving God.

Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: a gift that we are given when we believe. Christians have much to be joyful about and this hope and joy gives strength to our lives. Nehemiah 8:10 says: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” So let’s take this joy gift out and use it by singing praises to God. .This can be a remedy for times when one may feel weak or depressed. David built himself up in the Lord by praising Him, and we can do that too.

Psalm 22:3 says that God is present (enthroned) in the praises of His people. I have been in church groups where I could feel the warm Presence of God while the group was singing their praises. The verb ‘inhabit’ in Hebrew is ‘yawshab’ which means; -“to sit down, to remain, to settle, or marry.” In other words, God doesn’t just visit us when we praise Him, but His Presence abides with us. There’s power in praise.

Psalm 100:3 goes on with: “Know that the Lord, He is God: It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” This verse just gives us more reasons to praise God. He created us for Himself to be His children, to do His work. Our birth wasn’t an accident. We were planned and loved before the foundation of the earth.

If we were to stand before a nice house and be told that the structure just accidentally evolved over millions of years, the timbers, cement and all the details of construction just falling into place over time; we would laugh at such a story. Obviously someone has to plan and build a house! No one could believe that a house could bring itself together even over extended periods of time! Is it easier for a house to just evolve over millions of years without human builders or a live person to be born without God creating her/him? Psalm 100:3 tells us that God made us and we didn’t sprout all by ourselves. Another reason to praise God, our Maker and our Creator.

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.” Psalm 100:4 This little Psalm just doesn’t quit. It continues encouraging us to praise and thank God, and to bless His name. Perhaps thanking God doesn’t seem that important to us. But Scripture tells us that it is. I know it’s important to me. When I send gifts year after year and never ever hear a response or a thank you, I become discouraged and wonder if I should continue sending gifts. Remembering to be grateful may seem like a small thing, but little things mean a lot. And Psalms 100 reminds us to enter His gates with thanksgiving.

Psalm 100:5 ends with: “For the Lord is good: His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.” Three reasons to praise and thank God with joy and gladness. When we see troubles and problems everywhere we can remember that God is good, His mercy is everlasting and His truth will be there forever. In the end good will overcome evil. It’s written in the Book. So let’s just praise the Lord.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Lord Is My Shepherd

The Lord is My Shepherd

The twenty-third Psalm is a favorite of Christians everywhere. We all love this Psalm because of all of the comfort that it brings. This song begins by telling us that the Lord is our Shepherd.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 We need to be reminded that the Lord is our Shepherd, that He is leading us through this dark and troubled world. Especially when our lives don’t seem to make sense and we become discouraged, it’s comforting to remember that our Shepherd is still there guiding us and praying for us. We shall not want because He will take care of our needs. Jesus our good Shepherd “gave His life for the sheep.” John 10:11

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures: He leads me beside the still waters.” Psalm 23:2. Jesus, our Shepherd promises us peace and rest. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you---“John 14:27. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29 The outside world will never know the joys we receive when we are being led by our Shepherd.

“He restores my soul, He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” Psalm 23:3. Daily restoration of the anxious weary soul is a major human need. We read in 2 Corinthians 4:16 that: “---Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.” Our body is aging and wearing out but our soul is being restored! It’s comforting to know that our Shepherd leads us into good living for His name’s sake. Our walk with the Lord brings Him joy too.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me: Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4. Our Shepherd will be with us when we are dying and we will be comforted by Him at that time. We will not have to fear death.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies: You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” Psalm 23:5. Our Shepherd blesses us and favors us. He gives us His Holy Spirit and makes our lives to overflow with abundance.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.” Psalm 23:6. If we look over our shoulder we can see “goodness” and “mercy” following after us wherever we go. Yes we will have troubles and problems but God’s mercy and goodness are always with us too.

And Psalm 23 closes at the end of our earthly journey, when the Shepherd has led us all the way to our eternal home. The journey is over and we have everlasting life. –“---And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.” Psalm 23:6 It doesn’t get any better than that!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Look and Live - Numbers 21:5-9

Look and Live – Numbers 21:5-9

The Israelites had been traveling in the wilderness almost forty years. This group of two to three million Jewish people with Moses as their leader, had some advantages that we can only envy. Even though God takes care of us, we don’t usually see His care in such a visible manner as they did. For these traveling Israelites, God was leading them each step of the way from Egypt to the Promised Land with signs and wonders.

Gods’ Presence in the form of a pillar of cloud moved ahead of them each day to guide them and His Presence each night became a pillar of fire in the middle of their camp to keep them safe. The Lord opened up a path in the Red Sea for them and stopped their enemies from harming them. And the Lord kept their clothes from wearing out and personally fed them manna the whole forty years they were on the journey. God gave them water from hidden springs when they were thirsty and He gave them Moses and Aaron to teach them with accompanying signs and miracles.

Scripture describes Gods’ tender parenting on this journey in Hosea 11:1-3 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. ---I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms, but they did not know that I was the One healing them.”

Since God hovered over them in such a visible way; hand feeding them and taking care of their every need, the trip through the wilderness should not have taken more than a year to make. But even though these traveling Israelites were given deliverances and miracles they still doubted and rebelled against God. When they crossed the desert and arrived at their destination they refused to go in and take the land God had promised them. And so it was that because they refused to believe God and go into their land, they were left to wander in the wilderness for forty year. Their disobedience kept them in the desert, and their unbelief stopped them from getting the land God had promised them.

Nearly forty years had passed by now and the Israelites were nearing their Promised Land once more. And it didn’t seem like they had learned their lessons. Once again they were grumbling and speaking lies against God and against Moses. Numbers 21:.5. Scripture tells us that because of their grumbling, God stopped protecting them from the poisonous snakes that were there in the wilderness. Many Israelites were bitten by these snakes and died.

So the people came crying to Moses and begged him to pray to God to save them from the snakes. “We have sinned, for we have spoken against God and against you” vs. 7 they cried. Moses prayed and God as always answered. Then God said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it he shall live.” Vs 8.

And so Moses did as God instructed and made a bronze serpent and put it up high on a pole in the middle of the camp. And Scripture records that every person who suffered from a poisonous snake bite only had to look up at the bronze serpent on the pole. Just one look at the snake and they were healed and saved from death!

These stories of the children of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness leave so many rich lessons for us. The doting Father God who led this group and took care of their needs in the wilderness promises to lead us too and take care of our needs. The Israelites back then could see God in their midst as a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. And today we can know that God is with us by the witness of the Holy Spirit that He gives to each one of us when we believe. Our disobedience can keep us in the wilderness just like theirs did. And our unbelief can stop us from receiving the blessings God wants for our lives, just as theirs did. God has a promised land waiting for us, but we have to go in and take it.

God allowed the Israelites to be bitten by the snakes because they had murmured against Him. Does that mean that God only wants us to say nice up-beat things and never complain? I don’t think so. Jesus railed against the church leaders of His day, the scribes and the Pharisees. In love we are supposed to speak up against something that isn’t right. But the children of Israel were not murmuring against something wrong. They were lying and rebelling against God. Let’s make sure we have the facts, before we spread negative rumors or use scare tactics.

In our story, just one look at the bronze snake held up on the pole by Moses acted as an anti venom. The person didn’t have to take medicine, or be especially privileged by God. Whoever looked at the bronze snake would live. John 3:14-15 says,” And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So there it is. The bronze serpent lifted up back then to save the Israelites from death is a picture of our Savior, who must be lifted up to save us all from eternal death. The serpent was held up for the benefit of everyone in the camp and Jesus’ sacrifice is also there for everyone. Salvation is never limited, -whosoever will may come. One look at the bronze serpent was the only way a person dying from the poisonous snake bite could be healed and live. And looking to Jesus is the only way we who are dying in sin can be forgiven and live eternally. - John 14:6 God has made it so simple for all of us. Let’s hold up Jesus for everyone to see; and let’s look to Him and live.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Biblical Faith -- What It Is and What It Isn't

Biblical Faith -- What It Is and What It Isn’t

Hebrews 11:1 tells us that: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So Scripture defines faith as “substance” and “evidence.” The footnotes in my Bible state that the Greek word translated “substance” literally means “a standing under” and this word was used to describe a “title deed”. The idea here is that of standing under the claim to the property to support its validity. So faith is the title deed to the things hoped for. In Scripture, faith is described as believing God’s promises. Biblical faith is not faith in your own faith or faith in another persons’ word. Scripture tells us that a person who has faith is a person who believes that Jesus paid the price for their eternal victory. Faith is trusting God’s promises even when everything seems to be going wrong. Habakkuk 3:17-18

There are many “faith” healers in our country today who preach that the poor or the sick should exhibit “faith” by sending in their money offerings. Then the healer will pray and God will bless the one who sent the money with health and wealth.

Over a period of several years, one woman with cancer sent many thousands of dollars to a local faith healer who claimed to be “God’s Anointed”. This pastor promised her that God would heal her and make her rich if she exhibited her “faith” by sending him her many “faith” offerings. Her cancer and her money problems were evidence that God had not blessed her because of her lack of “faith”, the preacher said. If she would just exhibit her “faith” by giving to his ministry then God would bless her with a healing and money to pay her bills. Her willingness to send the preacher her money was called her “seed faith”. And this “seed” would grow into a “harvest” of healing and personal wealth the pastor insisted.

This sick woman lived just above the poverty line but she continued struggling and doing without in order to send this preacher every dollar she could spare. And she felt guilty when her cancer didn’t go into remission as the preacher had promised that it would. This dying woman tortured herself with the thoughts that she hadn’t had enough “faith” or given large enough offerings for God to take away her cancer. It was only after this woman’s death that her grieving family read her diary, and discovered how much money she had sent and how she had suffered from believing the preaching of this so called man of God. This well known “Christian” leader is still out there misleading thousands of other people today. And he is still out there using the name of Jesus while whipping up his followers to send their offerings. And he is still promising God’s blessings of health and wealth to those who show their “faith” by sending their money.

This prosperity and health gospel is being broadcast by several “Christian” television stations and taught by “pastors” all over the United States. “Faith” is being reduced to a formula for getting God to give us things. These “faith” teachings bear little resemblance to the Biblical “faith” described in the Bible. Real Biblical faith believes God no matter what happens..

Generally these “faith” preachers are wealthy and claim that because of their faith, God has blessed them with their private jets, mansions and expensive cars. They promise their followers that God will bless them as well with health, nice automobiles and fine clothes if they will exhibit their “faith” by making their cash pledges.

Hebrews chapter eleven has been called the “faith” chapter in the Bible. This “faith” chapter records a list of special men and women who won great victories for God because of their strong faith. But then this chapter goes on to describe many more people who also had a strong faith but died, “not having received the promises,” vv.13-16. Scripture goes on to describe these champions of faith as “having seen the promises afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” vs16.

After describing many faith filled children of God who moved mountains and raised the dead with their faith, Hebrews 11 goes on to describe the many others who had faith but lived miserable lives and had to wait until they went to heaven to see God’s promises fulfilled for them.

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned and sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. tjeu wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” vs35-40.

We see here in Hebrews that having faith in God doesn’t always assure prosperity and fun times. Half of the champions of faith described in this eleventh chapter lived very painful lives. If all Christians became rich when they believed in the Lord, then non-believers would be drawn to Christ so that they could get the goodies and become wealthy too. I don’t think God wants us to be drawn to Him for the wrong reasons. Biblical faith is lived out with humility and obedience. In fact Scripture promises that each of us will have to take up our cross when we follow Jesus.

The key to the confession vs 13 of the group in Hebrews 11 whose faith pleased God is that when they were given a promise by God they became persuaded that the promise was true. They embraced God’s promises in their hearts and confessed them, leaving their testimony.-which was pleasing to God.

Whether or not we receive what we pray for here on earth does not change the behavior or the attitude of the steadfast believer. Faith’s worship and walk do not depend on answered or unanswered prayers. Our confession of His Lordship in our lives is to be consistent – a daily celebration. Let’s never follow the Lord in hopes of getting power and money. Let’s follow our Lord because He is our Lord.