August 31, 2014

His joy — my joy

This last day of August seems to have arrived too soon (August is my favorite month). I didn’t get outside enough, didn’t ride my bike enough, didn’t travel enough. Nevertheless, my heart is filled with joy; not my joy, but the joy of Jesus.

Oswald Chambers asks, “What was the joy that Jesus had?” His answer is that we insult truth when we use the word happiness in connection with Jesus Christ. Jesus does not merely make us happy; He fills us with joy.

Chambers says His joy was absolute self-surrender, the self-sacrifice of Himself to His Father. He was filled with joy by doing what the Father sent Him to do. He said, “I delight to do Thy will.”

Have I allowed Jesus Christ to introduce this kind of joy to me?

That question makes joy a matter of choosing obedience, choosing to give up my I-wants and yield to His will. Even in the simple things, that kind of obedience may not look like it will produce joy, at least not up front, but it does.

He teaches me this is so in the smallest of things. For instance, I dislike talking on the phone, but He nudged me to call two people this week. I resisted for a couple days, then obeyed and was surprised by two long and delightful conversations. His joy.

I’m uncomfortable talking with people I barely know, but He nudged me to follow my hubby’s lead and invite some neighbors over for tea and pie. I mildly didn’t want to, but agreed and was blessed by more delightful conversation. His joy.

Jesus prayed that our joy might go on fulfilling itself until it was the same joy as His. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

He also said, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24)

This joy floods in when I move toward God in obedience without concern about external happenings, physical circumstances and discomforts, or even my emotional state. As Chambers says, “the first thing that will hinder this joy is the captious irritation of thinking out circumstances.”

He is right. Jesus said the cares of this world will choke God’s word. Before we know what we are doing, we so easily get caught up in whatever is in our face, rather than remembering the wonderful promises of God, including the promise of His joy. It is there for the taking; it goes hand in hand with totally trusting Him and simply doing what He says.

Chambers adds this bonus: “Be rightly related to God, find your joy there, and out of you will flow rivers of living water. Be a center for Jesus Christ to pour living water through. Stop being self-conscious, stop being a sanctified prig, and live the life hid with Christ. The life that is rightly related to God is as natural as breathing wherever it goes.”

Then he reminds me that the lives that bless others the most are those who are unconscious of what they are doing. I know this is true because I’ve dear friends who are like that to me. Their godly and delightful lack of self-focus makes me want to be just like that to others, focusing on Jesus, doing what He says, blessing others because of Him, and being full of His joy.

August 30, 2014

Christ is building His Church

In this last day of a devotional series on the church, the devotional author wants the church of today to take another look at the early church and see how we need to be restored to that former condition. He is not talking about ‘doing church’ but about how we ought to be spiritually. That early church was filled with zeal, reaching out to everyone and not distracted by this temporary life. It was unified, growing, and making a difference in the world.

It distresses me too that today’s church is fragmented, looked down on, and having little impact, or at least so it seems. Some are not like that. I’m surprised at my defense for I am normally a glass half empty person, but the devotional writer’s low view has pushed me into a more positive stance.  

Besides, I continue to remember that the sovereign Lord is building it. Jesus promised that He would build His church and that “. . . the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) To be overly critical is to say that Christ does not know what He is doing. We tend to think that way with all sorts of seeming disasters, yet He promises to use “all things for good” (Romans 8:28). I don’t want to have my vision short and my faith is too small. While the church may not look good in many places, it is still His church.

What about being like that early church? God does tell His people to follow Him with our whole hearts. As for the old ways, there is value in them. He says, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16) He also says, “Fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14–15)

My gods were not the wood and stone idols referred to in Joshua. However, I can easily fall back into worshiping my own ideas, friends, material things, and whatever else that takes me away from giving Jesus Christ my total allegiance. I know that God says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30) This means any sort of idolatry puts me against God, doing things that are a liability in His plans.

Currently, various forms of idolatry are probably the biggest sin issues in this part of the world. People want what they want. Whole churches want what they want. Jesus said, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and ________________.” (Luke 16:13) The original version fills in the blank with ‘money’ but it could be anything, such as: success or popularity.

My part in all of this is to stay true to the Lord with a focus on the gospel. I need to listen to the Word of the Lord and do what He says. I need to be sacrificial, caring for others more than I care for myself. This is not about whether we meet in building or home, do baptism with a cup or a tub, have altar calls or commitment cards. Doing church is about responding to the gospel in humble gratitude, letting Jesus be all that we need, and obeying Him with our whole hearts – because we know that He is keeping every promise He ever made, including the promise to build His church.

August 29, 2014

Praying for Revival

The previous generation sometimes talks about “the good old days” as if everything was perfect back then and totally unacceptable now. I’ve never done that. Perhaps it is my tendency to remember the negative of life, but I remember those “good old days” had their share of misery and trials.

The writer of these devotionals on the church looks at the early church and compares today’s church in an unfavorable light. In trying to be more objective, I notice church problems too, yet no matter the era, the church is filled with people who are battling sin, and that means people with problems. Besides, the Bible says Jesus is building His church; I hesitate to be critical of what He is doing.

Yet the writer does have a point. Many of today’s congregations seem to be asleep, oblivious, stuck in their ways, disunited, weak, declining, and a host of other negative descriptions. We are supposed to be united as members of God’s family, standing strongly on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself being our cornerstone. In Him, the whole church is supposed to be joined together and becoming a holy place in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)

I’m blessed to be in a local church that is alive and well, but not all of them are like that. In fact, in North America at the least, nonbelievers have lost respect for the church, or at least for what they call “organized religion.” They say, “God is dead” and the same thing about His church.

Individual spiritual lives are like that too. We begin our journey with God filled with vibrancy and excited hope. As we draw closer to Christ, we begin to be more aware of our sin, sin we never noticed before. Then the battle with it begins. For many, we become discouraged with ourselves, even with God and with other Christians. With this happening to individual members, little wonder it also happens to congregations.

Also, the Bible says we are saved by grace through faith, and that we are also to walk by faith, trusting Christ for everything. However, the human default is trusting in ourselves. If I do that, not only do I make an idol out of me, I become proud when I succeed and discouraged when I fail. My eyes are off Christ and on my performance. I compare myself with others to measure how I’m doing, am threatened by those “more spiritual.” This adds to that downward spiral. Without diligence in spiritual disciplines and the power of the Holy Spirit, I will hit a low spot and am apt to take other Christians with me.

All this is the reason for the exhortations in the New Testament. God uses strong language to tell His people what they must do, such as, “Prepare your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:13–16)

Yet Christians fail. We could say “The devil made me do it.” We could speak about our weakness and gullibility. We could even excuse ourselves with “Life is too hard” or “I am just so busy making a living.” Excuses don’t cut it, so what is the remedy?

David knew. He was a good king, a “man after God’s own heart,” but he fell into sin. He didn’t make excuses, but confessed his sin (read the whole psalm). Then he asked God to fix it, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:10–15)

Notice that David knew the result of God’s cleansing power. He would be restored to joy, teaching sinners about God and praising Him —activities of a healthy spiritual person and a healthy spiritual church.

Churches who have stumbled into a slump need to confess as David did. We need to say to God, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:4–6)

The Lord is faithful. He says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Renewal or revival is an intensified version of the normal work done by the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people. Through the years, the church’s effectiveness has gone up and down, down through unconfessed sin, but up through personal and corporate revival. It is always the right time for another one.

August 28, 2014

How to become part of God’s church

To those who live in our country, immigrants are strangers and aliens from the outside. In the same way, to the Jews who rightly understood themselves to be the people of God, the Gentiles were aliens and foreign to God’s family, but Jesus Christ changed that by uniting both into one . . . 

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)

This union is not universality. That is, not every Jew and not every Gentile became part of the family of God. It happens only to those who receive Christ, who “believe in his name” for it is to these “He gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12) That is, being part of the church is not about nationality or any other thing. It is about a mighty work of God who brings sinners to Himself “by grace through faith.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In the early church, a man called Simon thought he could get in another way. He saw that the Holy Spirit “was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands” so offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

He wanted to buy his way into the family of God, but Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” Simon asked for prayer, but nothing further is said about him. (Acts 8:18–24)

Money will not do it. However, being part of the church does require a confession of faith. Jesus and His disciples were traveling and as they walked, He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” This is a crucial question. Very few understand the importance of knowing His identity.

The disciples answered, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets,” but Jesus pressed them further with, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter replied, “You are the Christ.”

In Mark 8:27–30, Jesus strictly charged them not to tell anyone, but Matthew adds more. Jesus also said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:13–20)

This understanding of Jesus’ identity was a revelation from God, but also the very foundation upon which the church is built. We don’t get in by money or anything else we might offer, but by the work of God who reveals the identity of Jesus as He chooses and gives eternal life to His people, putting them into His Body, the church.

Being in the Body of Christ is also about intimacy with Jesus and reliance on Him for life. At one point in His ministry, Jesus declared that living forever meant feasting on His flesh and drinking His blood. Those who heard Him were offended. His disciples grumbled. But Jesus explained that, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” He knew who did and didn’t believe, but He also knew that “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

This was a dividing point. Many of His disciples turned back. They knew their own motives and knew God had not drawn them. They were not interested in this kind of intimacy with Jesus, and Like Simon, their hearts were not right.

At this point, Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60–70) The disciples knew who Jesus is, as do all who are saved and part of His Body.

Salvation has many facets. It is about being justified by faith, reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, regenerated to a new creation, adopted into God’s family, and having the identity of Jesus Christ revealed. It is also about a change of heart and repentance, and about becoming a part of His church. It is being no longer a stranger or an alien, but becoming a fellow citizen with the saints and members of the household of God. Together, we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, and it is in Him that we are joined together and are growing into a holy temple in the Lord. None of this is possible without the work of God through the grace that is found in Christ Jesus, the Son of God and our Savior.

August 27, 2014

Jesus cleans His dwelling place

When we moved to California for the second time, finding a house to rent became a challenge. We had a price in mind, needed a location close to my hubby’s workplace, and I wanted something reasonably clean. We finally found one that fit the first two, but it needed a lot of elbow grease. After we took possession, I spent many hours scrubbing to bring it to my standard of clean.

God’s goal for His people is that together we are united under Christ and growing into a holy temple. (Ephesians 2:19–21) We are called a temple because the Lord Himself dwells in us, and by His very presence, our lives are changed. Like that house, when He first moves into a human heart He finds lots of work to do. We are defiled by sin, and realize it because His very presence shows how far short we fall from His standard of clean. But we cannot do the cleaning. That is His job.

However, in the process of making His church holy, He does ask our cooperation. The Bible says things like this, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:1–3)

From those verses, I know that God wants me to think differently so I can determine God’s perfect will. Part of that correct thinking includes dropping my pride because it interferes with faith and godly discernment. It is like dirt, but pride is only one area to be scrubbed.

My life used to be just like that of others who have no faith. I didn’t see myself as a sinful person, but once the Light of the world entered my life, He revealed the dirt in the corners and all over the place. He began to scrub, telling me, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

Instead, He told me, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17–24)

In other words, “I’ve shown you the dirt — now the goal is to get rid of it!”

But while Christ deals with my sin, I tend to block His cleansing efforts. Just writing that line seems so foolish, but sin is like that. I can want to be holy and clean, but that old way of life does not depart easily. All Christians fight with it, moan over it, lament our inadequacy to ‘clean up’ and struggle to walk by faith. We are declared justified by grace (not anything we do) and told to walk in that truth. Jesus does both the saving and the clean-up, yet we must “hold true to what we have attained” and remember that He has changed who we are and where we live. He says our “citizenship is in heaven” and from heaven “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:15–20)

He also says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4)

All this is tremendous motivation, yet I continually find myself in a war. My spiritual enemy does not want me to cooperate with Jesus. Rather, Satan prefers that I listen to his lies and follow them. This is why I read the word of God daily, and why I join with other Christians often. Each of us fights this battle and when one goes ‘down for the count’ or adds more dirt to their lives, the rest are there to remind and encourage each other about the saving and cleansing power of Jesus — and His desire that we do not stay like we once were, or like those who do not know Him, but become holy just as He is holy. He wants the dwelling place to match the new Owner and Tenant!