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Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God



It was 3 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep.  A lonely darkness was settling in over my soul as I tossed and turned in the bed.  Uneasy feelings and vague fears drifted in and out of my mind.  Finally I got up and paced the floor, shivering in the cold night air. The worlds’ sufferings, wrongs and prejudices all seemed to be coming alive and haunting me.  And my troubles seemed to be so close I could feel them in my bones. I went back to bed and tried to sleep.  Life’s’ disappointments seem worse in the middle of the night. 


I was tired when I woke the next morning – Sunday morning - and got ready for church.  Still a bit depressed I slowly settled into the church pew with my husband and we waited for the service to begin.  And then it happened!  The Scripture reading for the day was Psalm 46 and it seemed that God was speaking directly to me through the words of this Psalm.  Speaking to my disappointments and my disillusionments. Taking away my fears and my loneliness.  Pouring living water out into my parched soul.  Let’s look at Psalm 46.


Psalm 46


1) God is our refuge and strength. 

    A very present help in trouble.

2) Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed.

    And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea:

3) Though its waters roar and be troubled.

    Though the mountains shake with its swelling.


4) There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God.

    The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

5) God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved:

    God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.

6) The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved:

    He uttered His voice, the earth melted.


7) The Lord of hosts is with us:

    The God of Jacob is our fortress.


8) Come; behold the works of the Lord,

    Who has made desolations in the earth.

9) He makes wars cease to the end of the earth:

    He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two:

    He burns the chariot in the fire.


10) Be still and know that I am God. 

      I will be exalted among the nations. 

      I will be exalted in the earth:


11) The Lord of hosts is with us.

      The God of Jacob is our fortress. 



In the dead of night my problems seemed so big.  But God is bigger than all my problems and yours too.  The God we worship has been a reliable stronghold in the past.  He has got us covered in the present.  God is present no matter what the outward circumstances look like. Even if the earth is removed and the mountains are carried into the middle of the sea –even if creation itself seems to become uncreated –ruined –undone-God can put it back together. (Psalm 46:1-2)


Even though I can’t figure out how to untangle the wrongs in my world, I have a God who can do it.  We will be victorious in the end. “Though the waters roar and are troubled and though the mountains shake there is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God.”  (Verse 4)  In contrast to the raging environment that threatens death, there is a peaceful river of supply from God that produces life.


“God is present and we shall not be moved.”  (Verse 5)  (from our limited perspective we may feel like we have been moved -or lost out – but from the perspective of eternity, God says that we will not be moved) “God will help us just at the break of dawn.” (Verse 5)  His help brings on the dawn of deliverance, dispelling the night of danger.


 “The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved:  He uttered His voice, the earth melted.”  (Verse 6)  I interpret this verse to say that truth and goodness will win out.  The Psalm says: “The kingdoms will be moved” – so human pride and greed and deception and hatred will not stand.  Evil will be overcome with good.  God will judge the peoples of the world and all that is false and wrong will “melt” away – or be destroyed.  We can only have spiritual health and life when the cancer and disease of evil is gone.  “He uttered His voice, the earth melted.”  God will judge the earth and evil will be removed or will “melt” away.  


“The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  (Verse 7)  We are reminded that the God who blessed and protected Jacob so long ago is with us today.  He was a fortress of protection for Jacob and He will be a fortress of protection for us too.


“Come behold the works of the Lord, Who has made desolations in the earth.  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth:  He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two:  He burns the chariot in the fire.”  (Verses 8-9) I believe these verses speak of the day when God will restore universal peace.  God will stop all wars – all misunderstandings – hatreds- backbiting.  No more isolation or alienation.  No more gossiping or bullying or put downs.  Everyone will love each other.  What a day!


Our next verse reads: “Be still and know that I am God:  I will be exalted among the nations.  I will be exalted in the earth.”  (Verse 10)  In our prayers we talk to God.  But we are encouraged here to wait quietly (be still) and listen for God.  All the nations will recognize God’s mighty acts.  God’s saving act for us in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ will be brought to completion at His return. 


And our Psalm closes reminding us again that God is with us.  “The Lord Almighty is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  Martin Luther wrote his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” after reading this little psalm.    


A fortress is a walled barrier or building with armament – a bulwark to protect soldiers from hostile enemies.  And in this world we have many hostile enemies that would threaten to undo us.  So be on guard!  And next time fears and doubts play with your mind and depression is stealing your joy: and when your dreams have been shattered and you don’t know where to go; then turn to God, your Father -your Protector- your Savior – your mighty Fortress.  “The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  (Psalm 46:11)     








Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is There A Problem With Being Holy?

The Road to Jerico
Is There a Problem With Being Holy?
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about “Christian” values.  Most of this translates into” believers” not doing – or not allowing others to do things - that are thought to be abhorrent to God.  Somehow this translates into being “christian.”  This definition of Christianity turns our faith into a system of belief based upon rules that have to do with proscribed behavior.  Believing in such a system can give one a sense of holiness, but is this really what God wants of us?
Assuredly, God tells us “be Holy, because I am holy” I Peter 1:16 (see also Leviticus 19:2), but what does this mean?  The Christian pollster George Barna has indicated that the general public, and most Christians, are very confused as to what it means to be holy (Barna Group, 2006). About 25% of people in the U.S. think that they are holy.  To be holy, means to be set apart for God’s purpose.  For a follower of Christ, it means allowing God’s Spirit to guide us and to convict us of our sins. 
The problem for “religiously oriented” people, including many "christians," is that the pursuit of holiness can become an end in itself. There is always a strong temptation to ignore grace and earn our salvation by works righteousness.  In fact, this becomes a central issue in the dealing that Jesus’ had with the pharisaical Jews.  Consider His parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  This parable illustrates what can go wrong when religious people make holiness the primary goal of their faith.  Many of us are familiar with this passage. “An expert in the law” (i.e., a “scribe”), attempting to test Jesus, asks what he has to do to obtain eternal life. Note that he assumes that he has to do something. 
Being a Jewish religious leader, he was involved in a system of works that – he thought – made him holy and righteous, if he could but obey all the sundry laws.  Jesus turns his question around and gets the scribe to quote the Hebrew scripture that is applicable. The scribe correctly observers that we are to love God with our whole heart and soul and to love our neighbor as we would love our self.  Jesus then says, “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.
Rather than letting it go at that, the scribe tests The Lord further, by asking “who is my neighbor?” To a Hebrew of that time, neighbor meant ‘someone you have an association with.” Jesus responds with the parable. A man (we don’t know who he is) travels from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This was on a sixteen mile, winding, road that dropped three thousand feet to Jericho.  It was also known to be infested by robbers. Sure enough, the traveler is accosted by robbers who stole his clothes and belongings and severely beat him, leaving him for dead by the side of the road.  As he lies there naked and in a semi-comatose state, three other travelers separately come by.  Upon seeing the victim, these travelers must have been very nervous, since they realized the men who committed this crime might well be lurking nearby.
The first to encounter the victim are two religious folks, a priest and a Levite.  Upon seeing the victim the priest warily walks past him on the other side of the road.  The Levite goes by and does the same thing. Jesus does not tell us why they did this. However, by the nature of their status, we know that these two men were involved in temple worship activities. If they were to touch a dead body, or to come in contact with blood, they would immediately become ritually unclean.  This would force them to suspend their religious duties and undergo a prolonged period of purification.  In other words, it would temporarily take away their holiness. In the Jewish religious system, this was no small matter. Given the hassle involved, it is not surprising that they ignored the potential problem.
The next fellow to appear in this first century version of “caught on camera,” is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were half-breed Jews (they had intermarried with non-Jews during the Babylonian captivity), who did not worship the Yahweh of the Hebrews.  They were despised by the Jews: the feeling was mutual. Jesus then tells us that the Samaritan has compassion on the victim, binds up the victim’s wounds, clothes him and sets him upon his donkey.  He then takes him to an inn keeper, pays for his expense and promises to pay any additional charges upon his return.  Certainly, the despised Samaritan has gone the extra mile. This must have astounded Jesus’s audience. He turned a hated person into a hero and radically expanded the notion of who our neighbor is.
Jesus then asks the scribe who started this magnificent teaching incident, “which of the three was a neighbor to the victim?”  He replied “the one who had mercy on him.”  Notice that this guy can’t even bring himself to say “the Samaritan,” because his dislike is still so intense.  Jesus then told him – and is telling us –“go and do likewise.”
This is one of those episodes that allows one to differentiate between who is a “christian,” and who is a Follower of Jesus.  The Lord wants us to turn from being a “religious” believer to a compassionate follower of His. He wants us to put the rules into perspective; If we fall back to rules alone, we will lose compassion – we will lose our sense of agape love.  We are to keep God’s commandments because we love Him, not because we are trying to work our way to salvation by being holy. Remember that Jesus says, “If you love Me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Coupled to our loving obedience to God, we also extend compassion to those we come into contact with.  May we all go and do so.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dressed for Battle

Dressed for Battle



Scripture says that we are in a battle – a spiritual battle.  Even though we know that we live in a very troubled world, we still don’t like to believe that there are evil powers lurking around every corner.  And we wonder if it isn’t a bit  paranoid to worry about such things!


 Our ancestors didn’t worry about such things as germs!  Just a couple hundred years ago people saw no need to wash their hands or cover their sneezes or sterilize anything.  But then Louis Pasteur looked through his microscope and saw a whole world that nobody had ever seen before. A world of germs moving around under his microscope, so tiny that no one could see them with the naked eye!  Pasteur was shocked and startled! When the news got out that he had discovered a world of microscopic germs that could cause sickness, and that they were everywhere, folks didn’t want to believe it.


 But this discovery eventually led the medical profession to announce that germs are very real and they are indeed all around us!  And germs can bring disease and even kill us!  And of course that changed everything.  In the hospitals doctors began washing their dirty bloody gowns between operations and sterilizing their surgical instruments.  And the population was encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water. And the death rate from infectious diseases began dropping so much that people began to actually believe that germs were real.  And this knowledge changed their behavior.   


 Perhaps it’s the same in the spiritual realm.  Even though we can’t see “evil powers” as we go through our daily life, the Bible tells us that evil powers are very real. And our protection and our victory over evil is our position in Christ because He has us covered. But we also have a part. The Bible says our job is to believe the truth and try to live a good life.  – try to obey God’s commands. 


You may ask, “If my protection is found in Christ, then why do I have to get involved?”  Scripture tells us that we are in a spiritual battle and that God has provided everything we need to be victorious over the evil forces, but we have to believe what He has said and use what He has given us.  Each Christian has been given a set of armor and a sword but we need to put the armor on and use the sword.  Let’s read about what we have been given - our armor.  


“Stand firm, having put on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace: in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  (Ephesians 6:14-17)


First of all we are to put on and wear the belt of “truth”.  Jesus said, “I am…the truth” (John 14:6) And because Christ is in you, the truth is in you. The belt of truth is our first line of defense against Satan’s main weapon- that of deceiving and lying.  Jesus prayed this prayer for us:  “Sanctify them in the truth: Thy Word is truth.”  (John 17:17)  The Word of God (the Bible) is truth and we should not wander away from it or open ourselves up in any way to false doctrines. Also we should always speak the truth.  Lying even when we think it is for a good cause is wrong.


The second piece of armor we need to fight the battles in life is the “breastplate of righteousness.”  This righteousness isn’t your righteousness or mine otherwise we would all be in trouble!  The righteousness is Christ’s righteousness.  (1 Corinthians1:30; Philippians 3:8-9)  When we believe in Jesus as Savior we put on Christ’s righteousness. And since we are covered by Christ’s righteousness, we are justified before God.  (Romans 5:1)  So when we worry that we aren’t good enough to go to heaven we need to remember that it isn’t our goodness that saved us but Christ’s.  “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?  God is the one who justifies.”  (Romans 8:33) And even though we stand on our righteous position in Jesus, we need to try to obey His commandments.


And then we are to put on the “shoes of peace”.  Scripture says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)  Jesus prayed that believers might be united and He calls us to forgive those we don’t agree with or those who have harmed us. Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation.  We are to bring people together and encourage fellowship.  A joyful but often difficult ministry!


The “Shield of faith” is the forth piece of armor that we have been given.  The object of our faith is God and His Word.  Scripture says that God gives each of us a measure of faith. But we can build up the faith we have by worshiping God and reading the Word. “For then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  (Romans 10:17) 


Scripture says: “take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles from the evil one.” (Ephesians 6:16)  These “flaming missiles from the evil one” are nothing more than lies or temptations or fears that bombard our minds.


 When Jesus was tempted by the devil He answered the temptations by quoting Scripture (the Word of God).  And we can do the same.  If we are attacked by fear we can meet the fear with God’s Word.  “Fear thou not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am thy God, I will strengthen you yes I will help you, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.”  (Isaiah 42:10)  And if we are attacked with the temptation to lie (bear false witness) we can pray and ask for God’s help and again counter with Scripture.  “Thou shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16) God also includes our prayers as part of His strategy to help us win the spiritual battle. 


The fifth piece of armor is the “helmet of salvation.”  Sometimes we may be tempted to doubt our salvation. We may think that we have to do a lot of “things” to receive salvation. But Scripture says that all we need to do is believe that Jesus is our Savior and try to follow Him.  Jesus has won our victory and we are to stand firm in Him.  God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.”  (Col.1:13)


And the last piece of armor is the “sword of the Spirit.”  The Bible says that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.  It is the only weapon we are given to actively fight with.  The other pieces of armor are for our spiritual protection.  Scripture says: “The Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit …” (Hebrews 4:12) We can use the sword of the Spirit (the Bible) along with the shield of faith to fight this spiritual battle that we find ourselves in.


We each have a purpose and a mission to accomplish here on earth.  But if we love God, Satan, the enemy of our soul, is there to oppose us – to undermine all our hopes and dreams and to tear apart all of the good that we would do. We are in a battle –the battle between good and evil – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world! But God promises to be with us and He has given us everything we need for the fight.  We have already been promised the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. So let’s put on the armor and dress for battle.  Stand firm and fight the good fight.



Some ideas have been taken from Neil T. Anderson’s book “The Bondage Breaker”  pages 95-102 












Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Ebenezer Stone No Other Gods Before Me

The Ebenezer Stone
No Other Gods Before Me
It’s a short little Bible story, but one that we may have overlooked.  An Old Testament story (1 Samuel 7) about one of the many battles fought so long ago between the Israelites and the Philistines.  And a strange story because when the battle ends, Samuel sets up a stone and names the stone “Ebenezer.”  Could this story from antiquity have anything to say to us today?
The date was around 1,000 B.C. and the nation of Israel had no king and no human ruler.  Every other nation in the area had a king to rule and lead them.  And every other nation back then worshipped idols.  It was the thing to do!  All of Israel’s neighbors sacrificed animals and sometimes humans to their gods.  And carving idols (gods) out of stone and building elaborate temples and altars to the idols was a money making business in the ancient world.  
 But the nation of Israel was different.  Different from every other nation in the world!  God was the ruler of Israel and He ruled the Jewish people by speaking to them and leading them through their prophets and judges.  Through visions or dreams God would raise up a prophet or judge to give His message to Israel. The Spirit of God would come onto this willing person and he (or she) would speak God’s words to the people of Israel.  The Jews were used to receiving Gods’ guidance through their prophets and judges.
 Moses was one of the prophets that God used to lead the Jewish people. God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses to give to the nation of Israel.  The first commandment of the Ten Commandments commanded Israel (and us) to worship God only.  (Exodus 20:3)  And the lucrative business of carving idols and worshiping other gods was strictly forbidden by God in the Second Commandment.  A Jewish person was commanded never to bow before an idol.  (Exodus 20:4-6)  God promised the Jewish people that He would protect them from their enemies and heal their diseases if they would worship and obey Him.  And Him only!  
Earlier God had instructed the Jewish people to build the Ark of the Covenant and He told them just how to build it.  After the Ark of the Covenant was built, Gods’ holy presence came and rested over the Mercy Seat on the Ark.  And the Jewish priests could only come into the presence of God when they brought a sacrifice for the people’s sins.  The sacrifice was a perfect lamb without any blemishes or diseases.  If a priest would come before the Ark of the Covenant (where God’s presence was) without the blood of the lamb he would die. The Jewish nation learned that their God was holy and they couldn’t enter His presence on their own.   
None of Israel’s neighbors worshipped like they did – the Jews worshipped an invisible God who spoke to them through a prophet.  The Jews followed their God by faith. Their neighbor’s gods were often gigantic stone idols covered in gold or silver and placed in a grotto or an impressive temple up on a hill.  And some of their idols were small so they could keep them at home. Exciting ceremonies and sacrifices took place in front of their idol gods.  Weren’t the Jewish people missing out on all the fan fare?  Why did they have to be so different from all of their neighbors?  Why couldn’t they see their God and even carry him around like their neighbors did their gods? Since they had been forbidden to worship idols, would you like to guess what so many of the Jewish people wanted to do? 
You guessed it.  In 1,000 B.C. many of the Jewish people worshipped idols along with worshipping their God.  Just worshipping one invisible God was too simple!  Couldn’t they add some extra work of their own?  Follow the crowd?  Two of the popular Canaanite gods were Baal and Ashtoreth.  These were attractive nature gods; Baal being a fertility god, and Ashtoreth being the goddess of love and war.  Such pressure to join the crowd and purchase small replicas of these cool gods that one could carry around!  So many Israelites were rushing in to buy these small statues of Baal and Ashtoreth for themselves.  How could they go wrong?   
We read in 1 Samuel that around the year 1,000 B.C.  Samuel, a Godly man, had become God’s judge to the nation of Israel and he traveled from town to town judging the people and giving them God’s message. And Scripture says that at this same time the priest’s sons were corrupt and were making a nice profit off of the animal sacrifices that the Jewish people were offering to God.   
During this time frame the Jewish people were under constant attack from their neighbors the Philistines, who were raiding their land and driving them out of their villages.  When the Philistines showed up for yet another battle someone suggested carrying the Ark of the Covenant out into battle for protection.  No need to follow the commandments God had given them as to how to handle the Ark of the Covenant.  They could do it their own way. Several of their priests for profit grabbed the Ark of the Covenant and rushed out into the raging battle with it.  (1 Samuel 4:1-9)  It was nice to carry God around for an emergency like this one!
“When the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.” (1 Sam.4:5)  Even the Philistine soldiers were worried.  But the battle raged on and thirty thousand Jewish soldiers were killed.  The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and killed the corrupt priests.  Things had not gone the way the Israelites had expected!  Where was God when they needed Him?
The Philistines were overjoyed with their victory. They carried the Ark of the Covenant back to their land and put it in one of their temples next to their god Dagon.  But the next day Dagon fell over and broke into many pieces.  And then soon after that the Philistines began developing tumors all over their bodies with thousands dying.  It seems that keeping the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t working out so well for the Philistines!
The Philistines sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel but the Israelites still hadn’t learned their lesson. Thinking of the Ark of the Covenant as a magic talisman instead of it being a place where God’s presence was, the Israelites again didn’t follow God’s commands concerning how the Ark was to be handled and they played around with the Ark of the Covenant.  And again many Jewish people died and again the sound of wailing and mourning could be heard throughout the land. 
Finally Samuel, the man of God, called the Jewish people together and begged them to remember that God was holy and put away all of their idols and return to the Lord with all of their hearts.  And this time all of Israel agreed.  Samuel asked them to gather together at a place called “Mizpah” (which means “watch”).  The whole Jewish nation traveled to Mizpah and cried and fasted together.  They all threw away their idols and they “drew and poured out water before the Lord” – an ancient sign showing sorrow for their sins.  (1Sam.4:6)  And Samuel made a sacrifice and asked God to forgive the Jewish people for worshipping idols while all of the Israelites cried and fasted. 
When the Philistines heard that all of Israel was fasting and praying at Mizpah they decided that this would be a good time for a surprise attack! As all of the Jewish people were praying to God the Philistines came near.  Samuel prayed for God’s help and this time God came in like a storm. “But the Lord thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel.”  (1 Sam.4:10b) The Jewish soldiers pursued the Philistines and drove them back beyond their borders.  And Scripture says that of the cities the Philistines had taken from Israel were all given back that day.  There were no more battles for many decades and Israel finally enjoyed peace.
And Samuel took a stone and set it up near Mizpah and named the stone “Ebenezer”.  The name “Ebenezer” means “God is our help”.  The “Ebenezer” stone or memorial would help the nation of Israel to remember that God was with them and that God would protect them if they followed Him, and Him only. 
But why hadn’t God protected the Israelites in their other battles with the Philistines?  And why had God allowed the Ark of the Covenant to be stolen? Could it be because the Israelites did not obey God’s commands concerning the handling of the Ark.  They blasphemed the holiness of God. The holy presence of God over the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant could not be approached without the priest reverently bringing a sacrifice as a covering.  (our covering and sacrifice is Jesus – the perfect Lamb.  We can only come to God through Jesus- the Lamb that was slain for us)
 God is not an accessory to our battles and His presence is not a piece of magic to be carried around and used for good luck!  God is holy and we are to come before Him with reverence. He commands us to love Him with all our hearts, to trust Him only, and to live by faith.  “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3)  He wants our whole hearts and He will not put up with our spiritual unfaithfulness.  We are to be led by the Spirit and trust in our invisible God (like Israel).  And we, like Israel, are not to run after the idols that the world follows. 
As long as the Jewish people were worshipping their idols along with worshipping God, they kept losing their battles with the Philistines.  They kept losing more livestock and losing more ground.   God will not share His glory.  He wanted to be first in the lives of the Jewish people three thousand years ago.  And He wants to be first in our lives today.  It’s that simple.