Materialism; September 22, 2017

Job 1:21 “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I shall depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”

There are a number of theological problems with the basic premise of Job, but it still has a lot of good to teach us. As a literal narrative, at this point Job was probably still in shock, but his response is still very admirable. This one statement is in many ways the foundation of the whole book. As human beings we like to get, but we don’t like to give up. I wonder how many people in the recent spate of natural disasters, both hurricanes and earthquakes, have responded like this? In all probability, very few indeed. We like to think of God as a “sugar daddy,” equating physical things with affection, when He knows that our spiritual condition is far more important than our physical comfort. We are on this earth to give us the opportunity to be discrete beings with free will, and then to use that free will to come into alignment with our Creator so that we may live eternally in union with Him. All the material stuff is completely incidental to that. Because we currently inhabit physical bodies, that viewpoint is very hard for us to grasp, and the book of Job is an attempt to teach it to us. Rather than grasping truth about God, we tend to grasp for things, and we suffer for it. As Paul said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8) The world (and the devil through the world) does all it can to teach us the opposite, i. e. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” However, such a person is still dead, and without a right relationship with their Creator they have no hope.

Thankfully I was raised by parents who weren’t bitten by the materialism bug, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been affected by it. Even so, right now I think my priorities are pretty straight. That doesn’t mean I don’t get irritated and/or excited by material things, however! Even so, I think my priorities help me see the large sum of money we need for our current project as just a number, perhaps more so than some of the other people who are involved. I am not to look down on them for being fixated on the material, but rather encourage them and speak faith to them. After all, the God who spoke the universe into being isn’t troubled by money or the lack of it, regardless of the sum. That said, my faith must not be contingent on what God does or doesn’t provide, or when or how He provides. God is to be trusted and praised, period.

Father, thank You for pointing this out. I’ve actually been interested in my own reaction to the sums of money being discussed, because they are so much larger than what I usually deal with, and You have helped me see why. Thank You for the perspective You’ve given me. Help me share that perspective, that faith, with all the people in this church, so that together we may rejoice to be obedient to You in all that You have for us, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Participation; September 21, 2017

Nehemiah 12:43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

The people’s joy came from God having enabled them to complete the work in the face of fierce opposition. They were all fully invested in the project, having made sacrifices on several levels. Had God miraculously restored the wall they would still have been happy, but not nearly as deeply or as personally. Participation is a major factor in joy of all sorts. Some people just drift through life, never really actively participating in anything. To be honest, their lives hardly seem worth living. One factor in that is a fear of failure. However, without the risk of failure there’s not much joy in success. These days “bipolar disorder” is seen as a major psychological/mental problem, but I wonder about that. A rather high percentage of very creative people struggle with that sort of thing, because they feel life very intensely. Handel is a prime example. He composed the entire Messiah oratorio in about two weeks, sleeping hardly at all, and then crashed, emotionally and physically, and had to be helped up by his friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nehemiah crashed somewhat after completing the wall. Medical treatment for bipolar disorder today involves drugs that suppress emotion at both ends. I’ve done a good bit of ministry in mental hospitals, and such patients are among the most pathetic to me, merely existing rather than really living. I realize I am being simplistic here, but the fact remains that participation in life and investment in it are essential to real joy. If there is no real risk, there is no real reward. You could even say that life is joyful because it’s dangerous, though that also is an over-simplification. Fear of failure is one of the biggest barriers to real satisfaction and joy.

This is extremely applicable to us right now. We are embarked on a huge, risky project, but if the church members aren’t invested and participating, they won’t have much joy regardless of how successful it might be. Encouraging participation has always been a weak spot in my ministry, and I’m acutely aware of it right now. I need to take the time and make the effort to get everyone on the same page so that we’re doing this together, rather than just a few of us doing it all. That’s a vital part of leadership, and I really need to grow in that area. I want everyone to rejoice in what God is doing, and that won’t really happen unless they are participating. With my track record in this area being so spotty, it’s clear I need to be humble about it, before God and before people. I need to seek and receive Godly advice, because it’s clear that God’s smart and I’m not.

Father, thank You for this reminder. I confess that it’s a little depressing, because I’ve done so poorly at this sort of thing in the past. Thank You for being greater than my weaknesses and failures. Help me indeed bring many people along with me as You are leading us in this, so that the joy may be multiplied and You receive all the glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Repentance; September 20, 2017

Nehemiah 9:33 “In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong.”

The Jews under Nehemiah and Ezra finally expressed some very valuable humility. We are so prone to accuse God of being unfair, refusing to acknowledge our foolish sinfulness. That’s the very opposite of repentance, and it takes many people to hell. God never intended hell for mankind, but when we in our stubborn resistance insist on following the devil, God lets us do so, all the way to hell, even though it breaks His heart. How much better to acknowledge our sins and turn to Him for forgiveness! Jesus spoke repeatedly about how He came to save sinners (Luke 19:10) and how heaven rejoices at man’s repentance. (Luke 15:7) Pride is at the root of so much sin and destruction. The first requirement for salvation is to acknowledge that you need to be saved. Once we get to that place, believing that God has provided the salvation we need is just a short step. That’s why God allows things of all sorts into the world, including natural disasters, to show us how much we need Him. Discipline is an essential expression of love.

Pride has gotten me into more trouble than anything else in my life. Time and time again I have relied on my own intellect instead of seeking God’s will and being obedient to Him, and I have suffered for it. However, that suffering was God’s mercy toward me, because if I had not endured the consequences of my choices, I would not have turned from those choices in repentance. I haven’t killed anyone physically, but in just about every other way I have done what the Jews are here confessing, though on a smaller scale. I certainly had no more excuse than they did, because I was raised in a home steeped in the Bible, and my parents set a clear and consistent example for me. I often remember what Jesus said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) I have been given so much, and I have squandered so much of it. People look at me now and think I’m a “super Christian,” but they don’t understand the depth of God’s grace toward me. I was told just yesterday that that is a major impediment to my pastoral ministry, because people think they could never be like me. They don’t know! I am not to parade my past sins, but I need God’s help in communicating the reality that the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross.

Father, the devil puts so many things in the way of people repenting and believing, but He’s certainly not stronger than You are. I pray that Your Spirit would get through to people, not just the ones we feel are close but many more we don’t even know about, so that many indeed would repent and believe, for a mighty harvest in Your kingdom, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Perspective; September 19, 2017

Nehemiah 9:20 “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst.”

This whole section is about the blessings of the Exodus. They finally had enough historical perspective to appreciate it properly! Often we fail to understand what’s going on, but years later we can look back and see God’s hand in various ways. I said, “often,” but it would be more accurate to say, “almost always.” We are strictly temporal in our outlook, seeing only the moment we are in and that not very well. That’s why God has to give us His Spirit, as it says in this verse. The NIV says, “to instruct them,” but the Japanese says, “to give them enlightenment.” Often we can be told stuff and it simply doesn’t penetrate, so God has to speak it directly to our spirit. That’s “enlightenment.” In this same verse it says that their physical needs, for food and water, were met, and in the next verse it says their clothing didn’t wear out. That brings to mind Jesus famous teaching in Matthew 6:25-34, where He talks about seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness and leaving everything else in His hands. Our biggest problem in doing that is precisely our lack of perspective, because we have great difficulty grasping what is really important. We are consumed with the perceived needs of the moment, not realizing that all we really need has already been provided, and so becoming anxious and doubting. As has been said, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Looking back, at the Biblical and historical record and even at our own lives, we should be able to see that Jesus’ words are true, and so rejoice to do what He says.

Perspective is one of the biggest advantages of age, but a lot of people don’t seem to make use of it. Cathy and I have been through a lot with God, and that makes it easier for us to trust Him than it is for some people to do so. However, we aren’t to put people down for their shallow faith, but rather encourage them. We are to share our experiences of God’s faithfulness, but never in a boasting way. After all, God has been faithful in spite of us! We must remember that we no more know the future than anyone else does, but as the song says, we are to talk about the One who holds the future. From the perspective of our experience, we are to assure people that the future will be good indeed, regardless of the rough spots along the way.

Father, thank You for all You are doing here. Thank You for the brother who came by yesterday, completely unexpectedly. Thank You for the rich fellowship we could have, and that he felt so blessed as a result. Thank You for the meeting I’ll be attending today. I’m sure You have similar encounters planned in that. Help us expect You to act, in, around, and through us, so that we won’t miss any of the blessings You have for us even now, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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God’s Righteousness; September 18, 2017

Nehemiah 9:8 “You have kept your promise because you are righteous.”

Most of this chapter is a recounting of Israel’s history, and this statement to the Lord is at the foundation of it all. The Jews here are proclaiming that God is right in everything, and all fault is theirs. That’s a good attitude to have! We have a strong tendency to justify ourselves, to shift blame to someone or something else, but that is never healthy. We see that sick attitude expressed all around us. We find it sad or even disgusting in others, but we do it ourselves. We certainly aren’t going to get very far with God if we make Him out to be less than holy and righteous. God certainly never gives us worse than we deserve, and He generally gives us far better than we deserve. Often we fail to recognize that because we can’t see the end result of what He is allowing us to go through. Sometimes He disciplines us, but sometimes He’s just giving us a training course to strengthen us. My time in basic training and AIT in the US Army was certainly no picnic, but I came out of it in the best physical shape I’ve ever been in. In some ways God is like that strict drill instructor with a heart of gold, who pushes you until your muscles scream because he knows you’ll need the strength and skills later. The proper response to God is always, “Yes, Sir. You’re right.”

I’ve done my share of attempted blame-shifting, and it hasn’t done me any more good than it does anyone else. God has been incredibly gracious and forgiving toward me. The longer I live the more aware of that I become, particularly as I watch others who are younger in faith than I am, and realize that I made the same mistakes myself. The point for me, as it should be for every believer, is to walk in full humility and at the same time full assurance that God can and will do anything, even using me. Along with that, I need to remember that once something is confessed to God in repentance, it’s forgiven, period. The devil loves to get us to drag around past sins, when as far as God is concerned, they’re wiped off the books. I’m deeply grateful that God has taught me this, and I seek to lead others into the liberty that comes from this awareness. God’s righteous and I’m not, but in Christ I am the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Father, thank You for Your incredible, gracious plan of salvation. No human mind could have come up with it! Thank You for all You did here yesterday. It was truly beautiful, even though my part in it was less than stellar. Thank You for all that You are doing in and through each member of this church. May we all welcome Your Spirit and allow You to do in and through us all that You intend, for the salvation of many and for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Communicating the Gospel; September 17, 2017

Nehemiah 8:12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

It has been pointed out by a number of scholars that the function of the Levites mentioned in this story was probably translating/interpreting from Hebrew to Aramaic. (The NIV refers to that in a footnote to verse 8.) The people had been living for more than a generation in Babylon, where everyone around them spoke Aramaic, so that was their normal language. Hearing the Bible in Hebrew would be like Americans today hearing Chaucer in the original; there would be things they could understand, but much they could not. Since these people were committed enough to God to move all the way back to Jerusalem, no wonder they were glad to be able to understand His Word! I’m reminded of videos I’ve seen of people groups finally getting the New Testament, even, in their own language, rather than having to use a different language even if they understood that other language. Groups such as Wycliff do a great service! That said, Americans have no excuse. There are more English translations of the Bible than I can keep track of, yet sin and rebellion are absolutely rampant. The Gospel needs to be presented in understandable language, but ultimately, reception and obedience are up to the individual. As James so famously pointed out, hearing it but not acting on it is just deceiving yourself. (James 1:22)

This whole issue gets complicated in Japan because of the nature of the Japanese language. The famous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier said that Japanese was a language invented by the devil to hinder the spread of the Gospel! I personally have met several Japanese Christians who were fluent in English who said that the Bible was much easier for them to understand in that language than in their native one. That said, there are some Biblical concepts that seem clearer to me in Japanese than in English. However, in general the Bible in Japanese tends to be opaque. That certainly presents a challenge for evangelism! My father was a linguist, with a fluency and depth of knowledge of Japanese that brought awe, even in academic circles. His Masters degree was in Hebrew and his PhD was in Greek, and at the time of his death he was working on a fresh New Testament translation. A close Japanese family friend did the base translation from Greek. My father checked it for accuracy, and then sent it to another Japanese to be checked for smoothness and understandability, and then my father checked it again to make sure the meaning hadn’t been changed. The irony of that is that they deliberately chose a non-Christian to do the smoothness check, because they wanted to avoid “churchese,” but even after working through half the New Testament, to my knowledge he never became a Christian. Language barriers are important and need to be overcome, but spiritual barriers are even more important. Strictly speaking I don’t have a language barrier, but I certainly encounter spiritual barriers. Even ministering to Christians I often feel like I’m beating my head against a wall, because they can’t seem to grasp concepts that seem completely obvious to me. Knowing my own inability, I am thrust back on trusting God, and that’s not a bad thing. I am not to give up, but keep walking in faithful obedience, letting the Holy Spirit use me to get through to as many people as will receive what God offers so freely. It’s His Gospel and His Church, and I need to rest, relax, and rejoice to be part of what He is doing.

Father, You know what is going on and who needs what. I pray that I would be faithful as Your agent, not judging or rejecting but letting Your love flow through me, so that strongholds may be destroyed and people set free to walk in the liberty of Your Spirit, for their infinite blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Response to Opposition; September 16, 2017

Nehemiah 6:9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”
But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Nehemiah was faced with satanic opposition expressed through people, but he recognized what was going on and he turned to God. Once again he is an example for everyone who would serve God even today. It has been said that if you’re not encountering opposition, you must not be following God. Our flesh would like the easy road, but God loves us too much to leave us that way. We do need times of refreshing, but it is the hard climb and the long slog that strengthen us and teach us to depend on Him. God never allows circumstances that are too much for us if we will turn to Him in them, but if we fail to turn to Him they can be completely overwhelming. The two recent hurricanes in the US are good examples. Given their size, there has been remarkably little loss of life, even though there’s been a lot of property loss. Material things are temporary anyway, and God has used these “natural disasters” to tear down barriers between people and expose others to show us their true character. Those are things to be thankful about! Jesus expressly didn’t pray that His disciples be taken out of the world with all its conflicts, but that they be protected from the devil. (John 17:15) When we encounter difficulties of all sorts we need to pray with Nehemiah, “Lord, strengthen me.”

I almost laughed when I read this morning’s passage, because it is so perfectly analogous to our immediate situation. We do face immense difficulties, but God is more than able to handle them if we will trust Him enough to walk in yielded obedience. Right now the devil is working overtime to discourage those who are central to this plan of God. We need to turn each thing over to God and choose faith, receiving what He has provided. Our flesh would like to receive funds first, but God knows that faith and obedience are more important by far. He has provided the faith if we will accept it, but the obedience is our sacrifice of praise to Him. (Hebrews 13:15) God has told me I’m to be the “faith engine” for this project, but I can’t force anyone to trust God. All I can do is model victorious faith for them and pray for their eyes and hands to be opened to receive it for themselves. God’s plans are good, and they will come to pass.

Father, thank You for this extremely clear Word this morning. I needed it! It seems there are many discouraging voices, though not so many are directed at me. Help me stand in the gap for those who are under such fierce attack, that they may grow from what they are going through and not be destroyed. May the strongholds of the enemy be torn down instead, so that everyone involved in this project may walk in the liberty of Your Spirit, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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