June 30, 2015

I am not a helpless victim!

Esther 8:1–10:3, 3 John 5–15, Psalm 118:17–29

The Old Testament points to Christ and often illustrates facets of the Christian life. Today’s reading blesses me as it again reminds me of how God works. The story is near the climax when Esther goes to King Ahasuerus concerning Haman’s plan to destroy her people.

It makes me think of a different plan, the one Satan has to destroy God’s people even yet. This raises a question: why does God allow his activity? The Bible does not spell out the reasons, yet God does allow it. Instead of changing the way things are, like that ancient king, God simply adds a new plan.

In that culture, the king could not change anything sealed with his ring. Haman used the ring to make and seal the edict to kill the Jews, but the king decided to make a new edict. He told Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) that he could, “Write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked . . . . And he (Mordecai) wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king’s signet ring. Then he sent the letters by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud, saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods, on one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.” (Esther 8:8, 10–12) The first edict could not be changed, but this one allowed the Jews to defend themselves.

Even now, the plan of Satan is allowed. He can attack God’s people, yet God has given us the order and the ability to fight back. Satan can be resisted. In Christ, I do not have to be a victim. I am not helpless; he cannot destroy me or anyone who belongs to Jesus Christ.

As for that ancient victory, the Jews celebrated with great joy. They still celebrate it every year: “These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.” (Esther 9:28)

For me, this celebration is not annual, not even monthly or weekly. It is every day, even moment by moment! God allows the enemy’s attacks, but I can defend myself. I can follow the Lord and obey the instructions He gives, such as, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” (3 John 11)

I rejoice that the Lord still calls the shots and makes the rules. “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:28–29)

June 29, 2015

No Coincidences

Esther 3:1–7:10, 3 John 1:1–4, Psalm 117:1–118:16

Gibbs, a main character on television’s NCIS, has ‘rules’ for life. One of them is that he does not believe in coincidences. The Word of God totally agrees. The book of Esther illustrates this well.

First the queen decides to disobey the king, making it possible for Esther, a young Jewish woman, to become queen. Then her uncle Mordecai discovers a plot against the king and exposes it. His deed was recorded in the king’s book of chronicles. The king puts a man named Haman in a position of authority, but Mordecai would not honor him, so Haman plotted to kill all the Jews. Mordecai pleaded with Esther to intervene.

His message to her was, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13–14)

At first, she was unwilling. Approaching the king without being summoned could mean death. However, she replied to her uncle, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

She approached the king and he welcomed her. She prepared a banquet for him and Haman. He asked her request and she invited him to another banquet. Why two meals? Why not tell him what was going on at the first banquet? It soon comes out . . .  

Full of himself, Haman built a gallows to hang Mordecai, but that night the king could not sleep so started reading the chronicles. He “happened” upon Mordecai’s good deed. He wanted to honor him, so the next day asked Haman how to honor a man that pleased him. Of course Haman thought it would be him. He was humiliated when he had to honor Mordecai, then greatly dismayed when Esther told the king of his treachery at the second banquet. The king hanged him on the gallows he had built to kill Mordecai.

Coincidences? It makes no sense for a queen to risk her life, for a young Jewish girl to be in the harem of a king and become his queen, to be accepted when she approached him without being called (against the law in that place). Why two banquets, other than to give the king opportunity to find out Mordecai had rescued him?

This is a story that affirms faith in a sovereign God who is in charge over the details of life. His plans will come to pass. Esther and Mordecai discovered this. I also am assured that whatever happens, God is involved.

Even so, God’s people are told to cooperate with what God is doing. As Mordecai said to Esther, God can find someone else if I refuse, yet what a joy to be in the right place at the right time and willingly involved in His plans.

This is why the Apostle John wrote to Gaius, whom he loved, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1–4) John knew the delight of cooperating with God.

So also did the psalmist: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes . . . . The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” (Psalm 118:6-9, 14)

Trusting the Lord with the perplexities of life not only produces great joy, it also affirms that with Him, there are no coincidences!

June 28, 2015

God’s sovereignty in computer problems

Esther 1:1–2:23, 2 John 7–13, Psalm 116:1–19

For the past week, my desktop computer has resisted a software update to the point that I’ve had to reinstall the operating system, not once but twice. This morning someone told me he solved that problem by buying a different computer. Before he gave that advice, I started reading the book of Esther.

The story begins with King Ahasuerus having a months-long party. He was a pagan king who ruled much territory as well as the Jews who were under his control. Toward the end of this big party, he hosted a huge banquet and “asked his servants to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (Esther 1:11–12)

Why did Queen Vashti refuse? She must have known that disobedience to the king could mean disaster for her. She could lose her position, even her head. Yet I know the rest of the story; God used this to bring Esther into the place He wanted for her so she could save His people from destruction.

After the banquet, the King eventually got over his anger and remembered Vashti, what she had done and what had been decreed against her. His young men urged him, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king . . . and let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” He thought this was a good idea, so he did it. (Esther 2:1-4)

Esther was one of the young women selected. After a long time in the harem, she was introduced to the king. The Bible says that he “loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:17)

The sequence of events in this entire story point to the sovereignty of God. He knew how an enemy of His people would work out a plan to kill all the Jews. He put Esther in a position to influence the king and save them from annihilation. Then I thought about my computer.

Yes, I might solve the problem by using my wallet (or a big hammer), but is there a plan of God in this, something I do not know about or cannot foresee? Is God trying to slow me down so I don’t do something too soon? Is He trying to teach me contentment? Or deeper patience? Or to trust Him when my plans are not successful? Whatever it is, as soon as these ideas entered my head, my frustrated heart became still. God had a plan that neither Vashti or Esther knew about, but they did what they did and out of it, God did what only He can do. I’m content knowing that He knows more than I do, and that He is in charge of all things.

Another idea for today flows out of the message at church. The pastor spoke of how Christians live with one foot in this world and the other foot in the next. That is, we stand in a world that requires responsibilities and all sorts of things, most of which will not make it into eternity. The other foot stands in the Kingdom of God, the realm of worship, faith, and living as Christ in all of our situations. Those who have a foot in each world must be aware of which foot to stand on.

For instance, when something happens to thwart my efforts, the foot in this world would grumble, complain, and try to fix it as quickly as possible. The foot in the next world would seek the will of God, trust that He has a plan, and rest in confidence that He will give direction. Regarding my computer, I had to decide which foot to stand on, just as Esther had to decide the will of God about going into a harem where she could be accepted by the king or rejected and discarded.

The will of God does not always make sense. Those who live in this world will shake their head at us, and sometimes their fist. Nevertheless, we are supposed to follow the teaching of God in all matters, and stand on the foot firmly planted in His world, not be lured into standing on the other foot.

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” (2 John 9–11)

For most of last week, I was standing on the wrong foot. Who would guess that the story of Esther would cause me to shift my weight? Now I am amazed at the grace of God and the peace in my heart. My ailing computer is still sick, but standing on the right foot means that this is no longer a grievous issue. Instead, I’m looking forward and wondering how God will fit this mini-trial into His grand plan.

“Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” (Psalm 116:5–7)

June 27, 2015

Worship promotes obedience and more . . . !

Nehemiah 12:1–13:31, 2 John 1–6, Psalm 115:1–115:18

The last part of Nehemiah’s story tells of completing the wall around their city: “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres . . . . And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away . . . . And they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon. For long ago in the days of David and Asaph there were directors of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.” (Nehemiah 12:27, 43, 45–46)

They were excited and enthusiastic. Out of that came a renewed dedication to God: “On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.” (Nehemiah 13:1–3)

Obedience growing from great emotion in worship didn’t last. Nehemiah had to go back to the king for awhile, and when he returned, the people were involved in several gross sins. He was angry and raged at them for what they were doing. This part of Israel’s story reminds me that an emotional high is not enough to sustain my spiritual walk. If I am moved by a great sermon or a special conference, my enthusiasm carries me for a little while, but it fizzles. When the emotion cools, the desire to achieve goes with it. If I depended on emotions, I could never maintain my walk with God in a consistent way.

Nehemiah was upset at their disobedience for several reasons. Mostly he was angry because the people were not honoring God, yet he knew that disobedience also dishonors others. The NT reading brings out the relationship between obedience to God and love for each other . . .

“I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.” (2 John 4–6)

Love often has an emotional component, yet emotions will not sustain obedience to God. This is important. The Word of God makes it clear that genuine love for others is equal obeying God’s commands. Without obedience, we cannot love as we should. For instance, the Bible says that love is not rude, meaning love is not about how I feel, but how I behave. I’ve also noticed that when I obey (such as by being polite instead of rude) my feelings become more positive.

Today’s reading from psalms takes me back to the topic of idols that God has been speaking to me about. This time He describes the folly of trusting those idols made of gold, silver, etc . . .

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:4–8)

This is easy to see regarding statues and carved figures, but what if I idolized a wonderful person? Isn’t it a good idea to become like another person worthy of emulating? Maybe, and maybe I could pick up some of the traits that I admire in that other person, but I’d also be in danger of becoming like them in their flaws (and everyone has flaws). Would I want that?

This puts a limit on idol worship of even good people. The Bible says that God’s goal for me is to transform me into the image of His Son. Worshiping Jesus and keeping my eyes and thoughts on Him are part of that process . . . and He is flawless! No matter how good someone else might be, they cannot measure up to Him.

God’s command of “no idols” is as practical as it is God-honoring. Putting Jesus on the pedestal of my heart is God’s way of changing my heart and enabling me to love others as He commands.

June 26, 2015

No Idols

Nehemiah 10:28–11:36, 1 John 5:17–21, Psalm 113:1–114:8

The biggest difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that in the Old, the people are commanded by the Law-giver on the throne, whereas the people of the New are transformed by the Law-keeper who lives in their hearts. Even though all of God’s people fail at times, what a difference to know that Jesus is right with me and has forgiven all sin, past present and future. He lives within my heart.

Today’s OT reading reminded me also of another difference between life in the OT and in the NT. This OT passage speaks of an oath made to obey God.

“The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.” (Nehemiah 10:28–29)

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’ve often made oaths and renewed commitments to “try harder.” That might work for a little while and in a limited way, but the sinful flesh is not able to keep those commitments. I cannot walk in the Spirit without the Spirit of God, and without turning away from self-effort. No matter how hard I try, my salvation is from Jesus, not from me. Success in the Christian life is about abiding in Him and relying on Him, as much as it is about trust and obey. This is a teeter-totter place, but experience shows the balance between the extremes of self-effort and thinking God will do it all so I don’t need to do anything. Walking with Jesus involves keeping from those extremes.

This is difficult to describe to someone who does not know Christ. However, the truth is in His Word. He says that as long as I am born of God, He will keep me in His care and continue His work of transformation. Instead of making oaths and “trying harder” He changes my heart so that obedience seems a natural thing, even easy.

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:18–21)

Yet this process of transformation and being protected from the evil one does not eliminate the need to keep myself from idols. It has been said that the human heart is an idol-making factory. Idols can be things outside of me, like money, other people, possessions, or qualities like education, popularity, and even spiritual gifts. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, Aaron made a golden calf and the people worshiped this image as the god who delivered them out of Egypt. Even worshiping what God has done for me instead of God Himself can be idolatry.

The OT saints fell into idolatry many times. Their captivity in Babylon had a negating effect, yet even NT believers are warned against it. Our hearts are so prone to wander and to rely on ourselves and anything else but the Lord.

As I walk with Jesus, keeping my eyes on Him is vital. I don’t want to view anything with greater respect, or worship anyone or anything else. A good goal is to reach a place where the only time I even consider myself or notice me is when I’ve sinned and need to take that to Him in confession and repentance. Otherwise, like the psalmist I just want to consider God and praise Him . . .

“The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” (Psalm 113:4–8)

Our God is an awesome God – the only One worthy of all praise!