August 29, 2016

Jeremiah 10:21 The shepherds are senseless
and do not inquire of the Lord;
so they do not prosper
and all their flock is scattered.

Statistical analysis shows that an amazing number of “church leaders” have no real devotional life. That certainly fits them into this verse! Churches are approached as businesses, for which an MBA would be more appropriate than an MDIV, or even a DMIN. (Master of Business Administration, Master of Divinity, and Doctor of Ministry, for those who aren’t up on academic alphabet soup.) Such churches might seem to prosper for a time, but they do not fit the Biblical descriptions of the Body of Christ. For a church to prosper as a church, there must be humility and a focus on Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. (Colossians 1:18 and more) Every believer should be seeking the Lord and making fellowship with Him their first priority, but church leaders even more so. The irony is that we can get so busy serving Him (or so we think) that we lose sight of Him completely. Church programs and events, organizations and even liturgy, are not bad in themselves, but if they take our focus off of the One whom we say we serve, we are foolish indeed. The devil has no fear of programs and structures, but he is terrified of people who are intimately connected to the Lord in obedient fellowship. (James 4:7)

This is a very pointed verse for me, because this church is certainly not what the world would call successful. The “flock” is literally scattered around the world, not just across Japan but in several other countries, and current attendance is so low that I found out just the other day that our non-Christian neighbors are worried about whether we’ll be able to continue! Frankly, offerings this month have been the lowest they’ve been in many years. On the other hand, there has recently been an outpouring of affection in the community, particularly toward my wife, and in three weeks we will be ordaining and installing a brother as my assistant pastor, and he is fully committed to a “tent making” ministry. We have the potential for building a care house for seniors, which would open all sorts of doors for evangelism as well as be financially self-supporting. All of that makes it absolutely imperative that I seek the Lord, not relying on my own understanding, just as our Verse for the Year states. (Proverbs 3:5-6) I am not worried about success in the world’s eyes, but I desperately want to be faithfully obedient to my Lord.

Father, thank You for this reminder. It grieves me that not all of the scattering from this church has been from job transfers and the like. I desire to feed Your sheep, but I can’t do much about the ones who don’t want to eat. I ask for more love, for You and for Your children, so that the sins on all sides may be covered over (1 Peter 4:8) and people be set free to follow You in truth, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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August 28, 2016

Jeremiah 10:5 “Like a scarecrow in a melon patch,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.”

Reading this immediately brings to mind the many Japanese festivals in which portable shrines are carried through the streets by masses of men in loin cloths. (My hometown of Fukuoka has one such that is the largest tourist draw in the country, called Dontaku.) That in turn brings to mind the Catholic festivals in many countries in which statues of saints are carried through the streets. The Lord through Jeremiah is pointing out the foolishness of such things, but that brings out the basic nature of the vast majority on religion of all sorts: it is human activity to make people feel good in some way. Religious activities can be fun and they can help people forget their day-to-day troubles, but when they are man-centered they are essentially worthless. It is only when our focus is on our Creator that religion starts to make sense. We aren’t to forget the people around us; Jesus said the 2nd greatest commandment was very like the 1st. (Matthew 22:37-40) However, if we don’t have our vertical relationship to God right, we won’t get our horizontal relationships to people right either. Some people discount formal worship, pointing to such passages as, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) However, if our motivation even in philanthropy ignores God, the end result is worthless. We should love and do good for our neighbor because we love God. Too many people treat church attendance as just another obligation or social function. To quote Jesus, “They have their reward.” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) Those who worship the invisible, living God need to do so in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

Living in Japan most of my life I have seen all sorts of worship, but some of the false worship I have seen has been in churches (and not just in Japan). Too many people forget why they come, or never really knew in the first place. Warm human fellowship is important and is a powerful draw to bring in those who don’t yet know Christ, but if our church experience stops there, we might as well go to a social club of some sort. Today I am not the one speaking the message, which is a reminder of how things are for the church members. I need to be just as focused on God today as I am when I am seeking to speak out what He is saying to His people. From late next month I will have four weeks in a row of attending other churches, which will be further training in true worship, since it will be in largely unfamiliar situations. I need to worship in spirit and in truth indeed, not just privately but in corporate settings as well, so that God may receive all the glory.

Father, I didn’t expect this Word this morning. Thank You. Help me worship You indeed, wherever and with whomever I am. Help this church worship You even in my absence, so that they won’t have their expectation of worship tied to me. May we all grow in worshiping You in spirit and in truth, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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August 27, 2016

Isaiah 64:4 Since ancient times no-one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

The thing is, God acts on behalf of those who are faithful to Him. Answered prayer is not a fantasy! Other religions have their mythologies, but no other religion even has the tradition of a Creator who cares enough to act, just as this verse says. Atheists try to poo poo the whole idea of prayer, but there have been several actual scientific studies that show it makes a difference. Actually, what scares a lot of people is the awareness that if there is a God who answers us, we have to answer to Him, and that can be terrifying. Japanese Buddhism has the tradition of “Enma Sama,” the Judge of the Dead. That actually comes from Chinese mythology and has no basis in original Buddhism, but there are Japanese temples that have paintings that look like something from Bosch or Dante, except all the figures are oriental. (A Japanese pastor I know, who was actually raised in a Buddhist temple, said it always bothered him that those being judged and tormented were depicted as Japanese, but Enma was in Chinese garb!) People have an innate awareness that “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) They try to get around that with ideas like reincarnation, but the basic awareness is still there. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches us that yes, we are accountable to God, but God has made a way for us to be acquitted on the basis of His Son’s righteousness rather than our own. That goes a step beyond even this verse. There is certainly no other God like that, in any religion at all! Those who choose to trust Him, to repent of their rebellion and throw themselves on His grace and mercy, discover that He is no fantasy at all, but is as real – or even more real – as they are.

The idea of such a personal God is totally foreign to the average Japanese. I get disbelief when I tell people that I have had times of fellowship with God in worship when I was more aware of His reality than I was of my own. That is one of many barriers to the Gospel in Japan. People with a Judaeo-Christian heritage, even if they have no personal faith, still have the intellectual framework of a personal God, but that is missing in Japan. I am not to let that deter me, but rather be faithful to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God, to be entered by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I am to tell people that God indeed acts on behalf of those who wait expectantly on Him, just as this verse says, whether they believe it at first or not. My life is to be a demonstration and verification of the truth I proclaim, so that those who see me may be drawn to Him who gives me life.

Father, thank You for the privilege of being Your agent. I pray for those to whom I minister, and actually for all who see and know me. May the veil be lifted from their eyes (2 Corinthians 4:3-4) so that they may not perish, but repent and believe for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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August 26, 2016

Isaiah 63:16 But you are our Father,
though Abraham does not know us
or Israel acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our Father,
our Redeemer from of old is your name.

This is a very interesting verse, because it transcends all racial justification for salvation. Isaiah himself was certainly Jewish, but this verse could easily come from a Gentile. It is saying that God is Redeemer, in much the same way John said He is Love. (1 John 4:8) Redemption is certainly one of the great themes of the Bible, but we don’t really think about it very much, even though we sing hymns like Redeemed! How I Love to Proclaim It. I think that’s because we don’t like to admit, in our own hearts, that we need to be redeemed. Redemption involves something that has been lost – taken, stolen, sold – and then buying it back, with money or something else of value. Even coupons fit into that category, because the company distributes them and they become worthless until someone brings them in and receives either money (a discount) or goods for the company to get the coupon back. Human beings are of great intrinsic value, but when we wander from God we become slaves to sin. If we come back to Him in repentance, He redeems us with the blood of His Son. One of the biggest reasons people don’t get saved is that they don’t want to admit they need it … that as they are, they are serving the devil and are headed to the same fate that awaits him.

I don’t remember how clear a concept I had of my own sin when I committed myself to Jesus Christ at age 7 (though I do remember going to my father and talking to him about my desire to be baptized and become a Christian). I do remember how very aware I was of my own sin when the Lord tapped me on the shoulder in 1972 and showed me a mirror, and I saw the blackness of my pride. I knew then that it didn’t matter how stellar my parents were; I myself had to be humbly obedient before God, or I was in total denial of my Lord and Savior. I am very, very thankful to know God as my Redeemer! Since then I have sought to share the good news of the Kingdom of God, and everything that includes, with as many as possible, but I haven’t met many receptive hearts. Human beings as a race seem to be largely deaf and blind! However, since God got through to me, I know He can get through to others, and I must never give up. I want as many as possible to sing, Redeemed! How I Love to Proclaim It, and really mean it!

Father thank You for the privilege of proclaiming Your Gospel. Help me never give up, but let Your Spirit use me to bring people to repentance and faith, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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August 25, 2016

Isaiah 56:7 “These I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

The passage from verse 3 through verse 8 is enormously important, but it was overlooked by most of the Jews of the 1st Century. One person who didn’t overlook it, though, was Jesus. In one of the most dramatic moments of His public ministry He drove the merchants out of the temple and quoted the last part of this verse. (Luke 19:46) What many people today overlook is the specific part of the temple involved in that incident. The temple had three major precincts: the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, and the Court of the Gentiles. Only priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and that with special precautions, and only Jews could enter the Holy Place, but the Court of the Gentiles was available to anyone who wanted to draw close to God. The Jews reasoned that if the outer court wasn’t labeled as “holy,” it was OK to do anything at all there. Jesus took strong exception and reclaimed it for the nations, as it says here. In our smallness of heart we tend to group into cliques, inflating ourselves by putting other people down. We don’t understand that God is big enough to love and value each of us individually; it is never a “zero sum game.” We have great trouble understanding that someone else being blessed doesn’t preclude our being blessed, and that makes us feel competitive with one another toward God. How foolish and sad! Because God is infinite, His love and grace are infinite. If anything, sharing that love and grace increases our own appreciation and enjoyment of them. Christians who are not evangelistic, much less missions-minded, cut themselves off from far more of God than they can imagine.

When I have followed my missionary parents to be a missionary myself, this isn’t an area where I could be called indefinite. However, I have had very spotty success in transmitting this attitude to others. Far too many seem to be totally satisfied with their personal assurance of salvation, not understanding that they are violating the Second Commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” When we obey that fully, we desire our neighbor’s salvation as much as we desire our own, and we understand that our “neighbor” can be anyone on the face of this planet. Everyone is called to focus on specific things, and each person’s focus is going to be different, but if our focus is on ourselves to the exclusion of others, we have lost sight of God in the process. I have demonstrated that I can’t force this understanding into people’s hearts and minds, so I’ve got to keep speaking the truth in love, letting the Holy Spirit use my words to bring light to the dark places in people’s hearts. That includes evangelism on my part, and it includes waking believers up to the privilege and responsibility of evangelism on their part.

Father, this is particularly difficult in Japan, as You well know. The culture values intellectual and emotional privacy to an extreme, and talking about faith and religion is considered impolite by many. However, nothing is too difficult for You, (Jeremiah 32:27) and You desire the salvation of the Japanese people. Help me be fully available for however You want to use me to that end, for a massive harvest in Your kingdom, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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August 24, 2016

Isaiah 45:22 “Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other.”

One of the distinctives of Isaiah is how clearly he expresses God’s love and concern for all mankind, and not just the Jews. Unlike Jonah, who rebelled at the idea of God being merciful to vicious Gentiles, Isaiah seemed to have no problem with God’s grace. He was very clear about God’s righteousness, as comes out so clearly in Chapter 1, but at the same time he countered legalism again and again. I say that as though it were just Isaiah who said these things, but God clearly spoke through him, and here he is quoting God directly. The thing is, he was a willing participant in the message. If we fail to appreciate both God’s holiness and His grace, we will garble what He wants to say through us, and the Gospel will not be transmitted accurately. It’s not unusual for God to say more through someone than that person realizes, such as when Caiaphas said, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) However, it is far better when the speaker appropriates the message they are transmitting, and Isaiah seems to have done that.

As I have said recently, Isaiah is perhaps my favorite character in the Old Testament, and the one I would most like to emulate. I have had the privilege many times of speaking out what God has been saying, though seldom in a “Thus sayeth the Lord” format. It is always interesting, and a joy, really, to discover after the fact that I have spoken God’s Truth into someone’s heart and life, when I wasn’t so aware of it at the time. One time sticks in my memory, when the pastor who was conducting the funeral of a dear family friend told me that years before I had said something to him that had changed the whole course of his ministry, when I honestly didn’t remember ever meeting him before! I desire to be fully available for God to use me however He pleases, whether it is speaking or otherwise, so I need to hear and appropriate His words myself. I certainly never want to hear Him say to me, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23)

Father, I delight to speak Your words, but it is painful when they are not received. I know I have a lot of company in that experience! Help me love You and love others with Your love, so that Your heart may be communicated accurately through me, breaking down the lies with which the devil traps people, setting them free to repent and believe for their salvation, so that Your house may be full indeed, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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August 23, 2016

Isaiah 38:16-17 Lord, by such things men live;
and my spirit finds life in them too.
You restored me to health
and let me live.
Surely it was for my benefit
that I suffered such anguish.

The first thing that jumped out at me about this chapter was that Hezekiah, as faithful as he was, had little if any concept of resurrection and eternal life. Isaiah had received revelation of it, but either he didn’t understand it was for all believers or else he simply didn’t communicate it to others very well. The second thing that jumped out at me was in this specific passage, and that was the difficulties in translating from one language to another. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word can mean “spirit” or “breath,” and that can make for all sorts of misunderstandings. “His spirit left him” and “His breath left him” both seem to point to death, but “He lost his breath” shouldn’t, at least in English. (Japanese makes the same distinctions between spirit and breath, by the way.) Here, the NIV speaks of “my spirit finds life,” but the Japanese speaks of “the life of my breath.” I often prefer this Japanese translation, but not here! Also, immediately following that, the Japanese has a request for health and life, while the NIV states that God has already granted them. Again, I like the NIV. However, the two translations come together for the first two lines of verse 17, and that’s the real point of this passage. God does not allow us to go through suffering that cannot be for our benefit, if we will accept it as such. Romans 8:28 is parroted by many, but with very little understanding of how true it is. The NIV says “for my benefit,” and the Japanese says, “for my inner peace.” (That makes it clear the original uses shalom, which seems to have much the same meaning in Hebrew as aloha does in Hawaiian.) However you translate it, those who have gone through suffering in faith often have a level of peace that can’t be achieved any other way. It is a total release of everything into God’s hands, trusting Him to do the right thing with it all, whatever that is. That is valuable indeed!

I don’t think I’ve experienced that level of suffering yet! That said, I do continue to grow in releasing things to God rather than trying to carry them myself, whether they are physical or emotional. I am personally in rather remarkably good health for my age. We had a bit of a scare the past few days with chest pain, but a visit to a cardiologist confirmed that it was muscular (from too much work with a chain saw) rather than heart-related. However, there are all sorts of emotional stresses on me, and some of them can be quite trying. As I learn to release everything to God I will receive and experience more of the peace that I know He has for me, so that I may in turn be an open channel of that peace to those around me. Yesterday had a series of things that, added up, really drained me, even though each individually would have been no big deal. I need to grow in immediately releasing things to God, rather than allowing them to linger, so that I may have the emotional stability I need to bless those around me.

Father, thank You for all that You allow me to experience, to grow and train me in the likeness of Your Son. (Romans 8:29) May I be Your agent in every area of my life, speaking Your words and doing Your will in Your way, so that people may know that You are holy and that You love them, so that they may repent and believe, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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