Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Say What?

How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years. Luke 1:18

Have you ever been just plain confounded, or shocked at the way God chooses to answer your prayers? Make no mistake about it, God hears and answers our prayers. My question is, how do we respond to His answers?

In the first chapter of Luke's Gospel he gives us something that none of the other gospel writers do, an introduction to John the Baptist's parents, Zacharias (Zachariah) and Elizabeth. He does this in the context of telling of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth of the forerunner of Christ. We are told that Zacharias and Elizabeth are a godly and righteous couple who, despite their close walk with the Lord, have not been blessed with children. The feeling that we get from the chapter is that this lack of children had been a matter of fervent prayer for these two for who knows how long. In the end, however, Zacharias is performing his priestly duties in the temple one day when the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces that they will be blessed with a child who's name will be John and he will be the forerunner to the Messiah. This is fantastic news but Zacharias responds in the same manner that we do so often...with doubt.

After hearing a direct word from the Lord, via His messenger (point of trivia, the Greek word from which we derive "angel" means "messenger") Gabriel, Zacharias effectively looks at him and goes, "Say what?! Don't you know how old we are. We can't have kids." Gabriel, being one who stands in the very presence of God, does not take this response lightly and informs Zacharias that because of his doubt he will be unable to speak from that time until John is named.

How many times have we responded similarly when God has said the impossible, or unlikely, is going to happen in our lives? How many times have we doubted God would come through for us when He has given us a promise?

The Bible is full of examples of people doubting and admonitions not to do so. Universally, God's Word frowns on doubt. Peter is rebuked by Jesus when his faith begins to waiver while he is walking on the water. The disciples are corrected when they doubt that Jesus was risen from the dead. James has some strong words about doubt in his letter. He goes so far as to say that if we ask for something from God in doubt we should expect nothing!

There is another road, however. As the story continues in Luke 1 we find Zacharias bringing the news of their impending pregnancy home to Elizabeth. Listen to how she responds;

This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.

In essence Elizabeth has received this news and looked heavenward and said, "Thank you Lord. Thank you." She responded in humble gratitude. We know from verse 6 that Zacharias and Elizabeth were righteous in the sight of God so it would have been very easy for her to think that God "owed her one." How many of us look at God and remind Him of all the hours of volunteering we've done, how much we've given in the offering plate, and how many times we've read the Bible through in a year, then demand that He bless us because "we've earned it." Friends, I have to tell you that no matter how much you or I have "done for God," He doesn't owe us anything. Every good thing He gives to us is out of His overflowing grace and love, and our response to the gifts He gives should be nothing less than total, humble gratitude. 

When God chooses to bless us after hearing our prayers and petitions we have two options. One, we can respond with doubt like Zacharias did going, "Say what?" Two, we can respond like Elizabeth did and humble ourselves before the Lord and thank Him for His blessings and provision. I pray that when the time comes we will be ready to answer like Elizabeth.



Monday, November 21, 2011

Basketweaving and Change

Photo courtesy of Czarephani
I was contemplating the idea of change today when the Lord gave me a beautiful metaphor that I think is worth sharing. You see change is one of those things that, even though it is inevitable, we often resist it. Sometimes it is good to resist change because it is for the worse but the opposite is also true and if change is for the better and brings us closer to the will of God we need to do it whether we like it or not. Change though, however necessary, can break people and organizations if not done with care. This is where the metaphor comes into play.

My grandmother on my mother's side of the family, Mimi to be exact, used to weave baskets. She made big baskets, small baskets, round baskets and square baskets. There were all kinds and made out of all shapes and sizes of wood slats. One day I was with Mimi and Pop-pop down at the lake house and she was going to teach me how to make a basket. Well, the first thing that we had to do was take all the slats of wood and soak them for a couple of hours in water. The reason being, if we tried to weave with dry wooden pieces they would snap and break before we could weave them into a basket. However, after they had soaked up enough water they became very pliable and easy to make into whatever shape the form was.

I believe that change in our lives and churches is much the same as weaving a basket. If we swoop in and try to make all kinds of changes we run the risk of breaking something. However, if we soak ourselves and our congregations in the Living Water and the Word long enough, when change comes God will be able to mold us into the shape He has planned. You see, no matter how much I played with one of those slats it wouldn't become any more flexible or less likely to break. The key was the water and the time it spent soaking it up and becoming ready to be manipulated by the weaver's hands. It is the water and the Word that make the difference when it comes to seeing change in our lives and congregations. We can push and pull all we want but in the end if we try to do something without the work of God we're going to end up breaking something or someone. There is no doubt that there will come days when we have jerk and shove and press to get the slat around the form but as long as it has been thoroughly saturated with the water it will not break.

Just some thoughts.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Ezekiel, Tyre and the U.S

It always amazes me how much the prophets of the Old Testament have to say to us in American today. Honestly this should be no surprise because we know that the Word of God is "living and active" and even though it was written thousands of years ago it is just a applicable today as it ever was. This morning part of my Bible reading was Ezekiel 27 and 28 which is a lament over Tyre and a prophecy about the overthrow of the king of Tyre. The words of God through Ezekiel are haunting, especially when you look at them in light of where we are in the United States in 2011.

Chapter 27 is a lengthy description of how prosperous and great the city of Tyre was in its heyday. It was a powerful merchant city that had influence and connections all across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Their merchant ships carried all kinds of riches and good across the trade routes and it seemed as if none could touch them. However, we see in verse 27 and following that none of that will stand when God comes against them. It will all be cast into the sea. Chapter 28 is where it gets really scary and even though it is addressed to the king of Tyre the words of the chapter, I believe, speak to us as a nation. Listen to some of the things that God has to say;

Because your heart is lifted up and  you have said, "I am a god, I sit in the seat of gods in the heart of the seas"; Yet you are a man and not God. 28:2

By your wisdom and understanding you have acquired riches for yourself and have acquired gold and silver for your treasuries. By your great wisdom, by your trade you have increased your riches and your heart is lifted up because of your riches. 28:4-5

You will still say, "I am a god," in the presence of your slayer, though you are a man and not God. 28:9

By the abundance of your trade you were filled internally with violence, and you sinned; therefore I have cast you as profane from the mountain of God and I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. 28:16

Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of splendor. I cast you to the ground; I put you before kings. that they may see you. 28:17

God is painting a picture of a people that He has blessed beyond belief and in the midst of their blessing have turned from the One who gave it. Tyre had become drunk on their own wisdom and riches and God would judge them for it.

There is no doubt in my mind that God has blessed the United States from the beginning. Despite what modern thought tries to say, the people who originally came here from Europe came with the right motives. They wanted to find a place where they could  worship God in freedom and He honored that. Although our forefathers started to slip very early on with the way some treated the indigenous tribes and enslaving people from across the globe, there was still a sense in which the people wanted to honor God with a free nation based on His principles. Unfortunately, history has shown over and over again that with prosperity comes sin and a falling away from God. Now, please do not misunderstand me on this point. God is not against prosperity. In fact, I believe many times He sends it to His people as a blessing. However, we can see from the history of Israel, Tyre and the United States, that when people are blessed with abundance they often start to wander spiritually (Again, this is not always the case).

What happened in Tyre is that the people began to see their prosperity and riches as a product of their own effort rather than the provision and blessing of the Lord. Do I really need to connect the dots between that and the United States today? As a culture we look around at how powerful we are and how rich we are and so we think we have no use for God. Why? Well, according to the anti-religious community its because God is a "crutch" for the weak. Dear me! To bring God down to the level of something we lean on in a broken state only to be tossed away when He is no longer needed, rather than the hand that upholds us in all of our circumstances is a terrible tragedy. God is not a crutch for the weak, He is the strength for the weak making them strong as Paul so eloquently points out. Not only that but, God is God whether we think we need Him or not and when we, in our pride, dismiss Him there will be judgment to follow.

As I mentioned at the outset, none of Tyre's riches or power would save them from the judgment of the Lord. Likewise, all of our power and might will be nothing more than a glistening facade covering a rotten and broken core when God judges America. I can assure of this one thing as much as I can assure you that the sky is blue, God's judgment will come to our land if we continue to "lift up our hearts" and consider ourselves as gods. 1 Thessalonians 5:24 tells us that God is faithful and He will surely do what He has called us to. Yes, He is faithful to equip us and carry us through the things He has called us to but, He is faithful in all things and just as He judged the cities, nations and peoples of old, He will surely judge us today. May we turn our eyes to Him and repent and return to our Lord.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Songs of Revival: All To Us

This weeks song of revival comes to us from one of today's foremost worship leaders, Chris Tomlin. The lyrics speak truth about who Christ is and the nature of revival in God's people. Pay close attention to the chorus;

Let the glory of  Your name be the passion of the Church,
Let the righteousness of God be a holy flame that burns,
Let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives.

Indeed, we are waiting on Jesus because He IS "all to us." May this be a song of a revived Church of Christ.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Idols first, then business.

Photo courtesy of GeoDum
Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? Ezekiel 14:3

Let's be honest with each other for a moment. We all have idols in our hearts, do we not? If we look very carefully at out lives I think each of us will find that at times there is something (or somethings) that gets in between us and God, something that takes our primary focus off of Him. Maybe I'm the only one that struggles with this, but I believe that even the most spiritually mature among us deal with the issue of idolatry at one time or another. I am certainly not saying this is the constant state of affairs but occasionally it pops up. There is a reason that the first two commandments address this problem and it is because God's people, almost from the very beginning, have been guilty of idolatry.

By the time the prophet Ezekiel emerges onto the scene Israel is still confounded by idolatry and God aims to square them away. In Ezekiel 14:1-11 God has some very powerful and harrowing words for those among the people who are wrapped up in idol worship. First, as we see in the verse above, God asks the prophet if the people are going to consult Him, or are they going to continue to seek help from false, powerless idols? Then He goes on to tell Ezekiel how He is going to address the people. He says in verse 4;

I the Lord will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols.

In effect, God is saying, "Sure, I'll talk to the people but I'm going to address their idols first. Then we'll get to the other business." This same principle applies to us today. If there is any form of idolatry in our lives and hearts God is going to take care of that first and foremost. His number one priority is that we should have a right and intimate relationship with Him and that can't happen when stuff is in the way.

Idolatry is a prison that we put ourselves in then we ask God to come and talk to us during visiting hours. God is faithful so He comes to see us but there is a glass barrier between us and we have to talk through a telephone. The conversation might look something like this.

"Hey God. Good to see you. I was wondering if you could give me some advice about a situation I'm dealing with in here," we say.
"I'd love to, but I'd rather there not be this barrier between us. I really want to talk to you and fellowship with you and we can't do that with this glass in the way," God assures us.
"Yeah, I know but that isn't really the issue. I need your help with something else. Can we talk about that instead," We continue.
"No, you don't understand, the barrier is the most important issue. Come on out of the prison and we talk about anything you want." God says.
"But I'm pretty comfortable with this setup. I'm really starting to like it in here." We plea.
"Your comfort is not my priority. Your relationship with me is, and we can't have a deep relationship with you locked up behind this wall." He continues.

Have you ever had a conversation with God that looked like that? Obviously we don't see it in that way but that is the way it is. Let me ask you this. Has God ever exposed an idol or sin in your life either through reading His Word or in your prayer time? If He has you know that until you deal with that idol He will always keep coming back to it. Granted, its not always as neat as the fictional conversation above. God will sometimes give us guidance and speak to us regarding other things in the midst of our idolatry but He will always come back to it. Why? Because our God is personal and He wants nothing more than to have an intimate relationship with us. He knows that when our relationship with Him is where is needs to be other things will fall into place behind it. I refer to it all the time, but Matthew 6:33 tells us so much about God's will,

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

If we have idols in our lives and hearts God will not let it slide by. He will address them with the utmost urgency because He cares about us. Not only that but, let this blow your mind for a second, He wants you to get to know Him the way He knows you! The solution to the problem of idolatry, as it is with so many other things, is given to us in verse 6,

Thus says the Lord God, "Repent and turn away from your idols and turn you faces away from all your abominations."

This may be the simplest explanation to all of our problems, repent and turn from __________ and turn towards God.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Characteristics of a Godly Watchman Part 3: Holy Anger.

Photo courtesy of Catalin82
So the Spirit lifted me up and took me away; and I went embittered in the rage of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord was strong on me. Ezekiel 3:14.

When we look at the pantheon of Christian virtues holy anger is probably one that most people miss, or have a hard time placing alongside things like meekness, love, generosity, patience and peace. I freely admit that the Bible is full of admonitions to not be angry. Ephesians 4:26 tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger. Colossians 3:8 tells us to put it aside, and James 1:19 explains that we should be slow to anger. However, I firmly believe that anger coming from the right place, in the right time, for the right purpose is a powerful characteristic of a godly watchman. Look again at Ephesians 4:26 it says,

Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.

Equally as clear as the instruction to deal with anger before the sun goes down is the statement, "Be angry." This tells me two things. First, if we are sinfully angry then we need to address that issue promptly because if we allow it to go unchecked it will result in bitterness and all kinds of other harmful things. The other thing it tells me is that if we are filled with righteous indignation over something we need to act on it immediately. Let's return to Ezekiel 3 for a moment. In this passage God commissions the prophet and tells him to go say "Thus says the Lord God" to the nation of Israel. Immediately after the commission Ezekiel is swept up in the Spirit and taken away (see verse above). The next two statements are vitally important to our understanding of the concept of holy anger.

First, Ezekiel tells us that he "went embittered in the rage of his spirit." This is the holy anger that we are talking about. Something about what was happening, or what God had shown him was, in the words of Yosemite Sam, burnin' his biscuits. It may be that Ezekiel was given a glimpse of the spiritual state of the nation from God's point of view. The text doesn't give us exactly what angered the prophet, all we know is that he was upset and the only thing he could do was go to the people and proclaim God's message.

Secondly, Ezekiel tells us that while he was embittered in the rage of his spirit "the hand of the Lord was strong on me." "Wait a minute Christian, you're going to tell me that God was going to use and bless Ezekiel even though he was angry. I thought Christians were supposed to be meek, mild, doormats for the world to wipe their feet on. You know, turn the other cheek and all." Yes, that's what I'm saying. The Bible is clear that we, as Christians, are supposed to be peaceful, loving, generous, tolerant (in the true sense not the perverted sense the world give the word) and a host of other things. However, there comes a time when enough is enough. We see this even in Christ Himself who was outraged at the way people were using the Temple for personal gain rather than worship and prayer. In the story of Jesus overturning the money changers tables you have the perfect example of holy anger. Injustice was being done and He was going to nip it in the bud.

As godly watchmen there must come a time when enough is enough. We have to look around at the world around us and say, "This isn't right. This is not according to God's will or plan. Something must be done." Are we outraged, by the fact that millions of unborn children are murdered every year? If so, will we say something about it? Does it torment out souls when we see people using God's Church for personal gain? Is our spirit embittered that Christianity has been turned into a business venture rather than a relationship with the God of the universe? What of the starving, abused, oppressed and captive of the world? Will we stand up and call God's people out of complacency and sin back to Him? Will we stand up and proclaim "Thus, says the Lord God"? God can use our righteous anger to motivate us to do something about the problem just as He did with Ezekiel.

Now let me give some important words of caution. As I mentioned the Bible is clear that anger, misused, is highly sinful. If our anger results in hatred of people Jesus tells us we have committed murder in our hearts. Some people have used holy anger to justify things like bombing abortion clinics and friends, this is absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong. There is no Biblical justification for murder and the punishment is always severe. Furthermore, our holy anger should not lead us to undue prejudice against other people. Some who claim the name of Christ have brought shame on His name by treating homosexuals with hatred. This is so far from the Biblical mandate as to be laughable. Look at Jesus' treatment of sinners He came into contact with. He always addressed the issue of sin but never berated them and He always showed them the way of escape from their sin.

Finally, and I believe this is the key to finding holy anger rather than sinful anger, we need to look at the source of our indignation. Are we upset because someone has wronged us, or are we mad because someone has wronged God and other people? Ezekiel was frustrated because the nation had turned from God and fallen into sin, not because they hurt him. The test for our holy anger is this; does it stem from a disregard for the two greatest commandment? Are people not loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and are they not loving their neighbors as themselves? Just as Jesus says, all the Law and the prophets hang on these two principles. Everything that is displeasing to God falls into one of these two categories.

Friends, I want to encourage you to find holy anger. Search God's Word to see what displeases Him. Search your heart to see where  you have fallen short and search the world for the things that hurt the Lord. Then find the courage to take a stand and proclaim to the people, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." This is the duty of a godly watchman. Will you be one?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Songs of Revival: Song of Hope (Heaven Come Down).

Music is an important part of our spiritual life. It is by far the most commonly used tool in worship. With that in mind I would like to start compiling some great selections that I think carry the message of revival or contain revival truth. These may be classic hymns or, like this one, contemporary songs that are drifting to us over the airwaves of Christian radio.

Today's song is by the Robbie Seay Band. The thing that struck me the most when I heard it was the cry asking the "God of Heaven" to "come down." That is indeed what we are seeking in revival. I also like the element of hope and the connection that the band makes between hope and God coming down. Many of us have come to believe that God visiting us in revival is the ONLY real hope for our nation.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Characteristics of a Godly Watchman Pt. 2: Listening.

Photo courtesy of Mattox
             If you look in Ezekiel chapter 3, which is where we will spend the bulk of the time from here on out, you will find the commission that God gives the prophet beginning in verse 10.  In this verse God tells Ezekiel;

Son of man, take into your heart all My words which I will speak to you and listen closely.

In this short phrase I believe we find the second crucial characteristic of a godly watchman: listening. If we understand our duty to be warning God’s people and acting as “voices crying out in the wilderness” then it only makes sense that we must take time to listen for the message that God is trying to get across. For me, as a preacher, this is sometimes difficult because I love to talk. However, if I am faithfully going to communicate the message God has for His people then I must discipline myself to be still before God and hear His voice.
            One of my hobbies is amateur radio and with that I am able to talk to people all over the world from my home in North Carolina. As part of being a radio amateur I have done some basic level emergency communications training. One of the things we learn in “emcomm” is that you have to be very careful, even to the point of copying down a message letter for letter, so that we ensure that the correct message gets through. The same principle applies to being watchmen for God’s people. Aside from being able to boldly communicate God’s truth we must take time to listen to what He has to say.
            God is clear on this point at the beginning of the verse when He commands Ezekiel to listen to all of His words. It is not enough for us to get the first few lines and then run with them. We must listen and proclaim all of God’s truth. I admit that this can be an uncomfortable proposition because it means we are responsible for the “whole council of God.” We do not have the luxury of picking the good parts or the parts we like. We must share it all, even the unsavory parts about sin and God’s wrath. Anything less and we run the risk of being found guilty of taking away from God’s Word.
            This leads cleanly into verse 11 where God gives Ezekiel the bottom-line of his commission;

Go to the exiles, to the sons of your people, and speak to them and tell them, whether they listen or not, “Thus says the Lord God.”

As we are vigilant and after we have listened very carefully to what God has to say then we must go and proclaim it. The fact that we are responsible to tell people “Thus says the Lord” relieves us of a heavy burden while at the same time giving us another one. The burden that it lifts is that we are not telling people our opinion or our thoughts on the matter. We are telling them what God has said, and if we do that then the weight of their response does not rest on our shoulders. Ezekiel 3:18-21 make this point very poignantly.
            As this releases us from that burden it does add the burden of making sure that what we are saying is actually a word from the Lord. The solution to this problem lies in two places. First, that means we must be voracious devourers of God’s Word. If we intend to communicate a message from God then studying the Bible is not an option, it is a requirement. Secondly, and equally as important, is the directive given in verse 10, listen closely. If we have been called as watchmen over God’s people then He will give us the message if we will simply quiet ourselves before Him and listen.