Friday, June 28, 2019

Friday - It's YOUR turn to speak!

I'd like to do something different today.
I hope this study has been a blessing for you; I know I have learned a great deal from it!

I'd like to hear from any of you that would like to answer -- take a moment to consider two questions, and then leave a comment:

First, how can a believer keep a new beginning with God from "fizzling out?" How can we sustain it for the long haul?

Second, is there one concept that has meant a lot to you in this study? What inspired or moved you?

I know that we have many people who study here.  Sometimes the swift pace of life leaves no time for entering a comment or feedback. I hope you will have a moment to comment today.

Consider those questions and let me hear from you! If there's not time for both, choose one!

Blessings to all who pause here!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A new beginning - building (conclusion)

New beginnings are wonderful in life!
They are wonderful in our spiritual lives, too.
Our last lesson from Ezra 3 focuses one last time on building God's house; remember that we, the believers, are His house now....

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:“He is good;    his love toward Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple,wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:10-13)

New beginnings with God require us to make time for worship. This can be personal worship, or it can be corporate (congregational) worship with other believers. Our worship needs to focus on God and His goodness and love. It can be accompanied by skillful musicians, but if we are focused on them, or on the singers, we are crossing the line into entertainment, not worship. You can see in verse eleven that they were praising God for His goodness and His lovingkindness to Israel.
These worshipers had a different viewpoint than many of us today. They had just come through years of captivity in Babylon, and many of them lost loved ones, possessions and homes when the city of Jerusalem fell. If they'd been focused on themselves, they could have complained about the treatment they'd received. But by faith, they now realized that the Lord had afflicted them out of His goodness:
Before I was afflicted I went astray,    but now I keep your word. You are good and do good;    teach me your statutes.It is good for me that I was afflicted,    that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me    than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:67-68, 71-72)
So, now they sang of His goodness and covenant love toward them.  Perhaps we are afflicted today, or we are dealing with great adversity. God has not changed His mind; we are still His children and He loves us and has plans for our lives. Perhaps, as Charles Stanley reminds us, we should stop and ask ourselves "what is God trying to teach me" in the midst of this trial? Here is a quote from Stanley:

          "Often times God demonstrates His faithfulness in adversity
            by providing for us what we need to survive. He does not
            change our painful circumstances. He sustains us through them."

When we realize this, we can worship Him and praise Him for His goodness and lovingkindness, just as the children of Israel did in this passage.
Notice, too, that the people expressed their emotions in their praise. They shouted for joy! Some of us are a little too restrained in our worship! We avoid the appearance of repeating the same tune or words over and over; we don't want to be seen as "chanting" or as those who repeat until a state of euphoria is reached. We want to "keep things real." But to tell you the truth, when we focus on the God of heaven, and how faithful and true and loving He is, it will affect our emotions! It's OK! I believe that He smiles when we truly smile and laugh, or when our emotions cause us to get misty-eyed. We can express ourselves to Him in worship and know that He sees and understands.

Finally, new beginnings often require cooperation. Sometimes there needs to be understanding between youngsters and oldsters; sometimes between rookies and veteran Christians. Building the house of God takes cooperation..... the younger people that returned to Jerusalem were thrilled as they saw the foundation of the temple laid. Wow! How exciting! The old timers had seen the temple that Solomon built. This foundation amidst the city rubble must have seemed pitiful compared to their memories. So they wept while the young men shouted.
Now, this could have ended badly! The old timers could have discouraged the younger ones from this new beginning. Oh boy, would that have been sad! They had to start somewhere, right?
And what if the young guys ignored the wisdom and experience of the old timers, and repeated the mistakes and failures of the past? That would have been sad, too! It was going to take cooperation to get the job done: the older folks needed the enthusiasm and joy of the younger folks, and the young ones needed the wisdom and maturity of the old timers.

We see this today, too. There are churches full of old folks clinging to their favorite old hymns and to one translation of the Bible. They can't understand why the younger folks have drifted away. Other churches are made up of mostly young people who have cast off the traditional ways and formed exciting, growing churches with almost no resemblance to the churches of the past. But they are in dangerous territory -- they need to be careful that they don't cast off centuries of Christian heritage and make mistakes that they could avoid if they learned from the older generation.

Long story short: we need all ages in the church of God. God's house is the believers of this world, and we all need to learn from one another!  New beginnings with God are ALWAYS possible, and if we focus on His cross, obey His Word, and work to build His house, we will find that God's door is open. He is inviting all of us to a new beginning with Him.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A new beginning - building (continued)

We're continuing this week in the third chapter of Ezra; we are focused on the building of God's house. In our New Testament relationship with Christ, this house is in the body or group of believers that we call the church. For Ezra and the Jews who returned to the devastated city by approval of Cyrus, it was a physical building.

Led by Ezra and Zerubbabel, these people had just returned to the land, which meant giving up their homes and their source of income in Babylon. We've noted before that they traveled for months and when they arrived at their destination, there were no crops waiting to be harvested. In fact, there were no fields under cultivation. No farms to go and apply for work. No jobs. No economy.
I have to think that few of them were wealthy after their families had endured fifty or so years in captivity. But when they saw that the house of God was a pile of rubble, they began to give of what they had.....
Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and olive oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, as authorized by Cyrus king of Persia. (Ezra 3:7)
Did you notice? They gave money, food, drink, and oil for the labor and the materials needed to build the house of God.
It's unfortunate, but many people's perception of churches is that they always have their hand out for money. It's true, though, that building and maintaining a church takes money. And a pastor-shepherd needs money to live on while he ministers to the believers. I guess that the cheerfulness of our giving may be one of the best indicators that Jesus is Lord in our hearts and lives. Not so much the amount given, because some of us don't have much to give. But even the servant who had "little" in Luke 16 had the opportunity to do more with the money than he did.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? 13 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 money.” (Luke 16:10-13)
I believe if we were to summarize that passage we could say that Jesus told us to be faithful with money, and God will entrust true riches to us.

Building the house of God, both in Ezra and in our world today, requires unity, too. Look at these two verses:
When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. (Ezra 3:1, NIV)
Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers stood united with Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah and the sons of Henadad with their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God. (Ezra 3:9, NASB)
"Gathered as one."
"Stood united."
Unity was essential in rebuilding the Temple because of the enemies surrounding them. From what we read here, it looks like the leaders delegated the work so that it didn't fall on just a few.  They knew that any significant work for God would be the work of many members working together in harmony.

When the devil wants to stop Christian work in its tracks, he often disrupts the unity of the people performing the work. When that happens, several dangers pop up. First, the leaders of the effort can be tempted to compromise for the sake of preserving unity....this can lead to disaster in the long run because it undermines the Word of God. Leaders can also react in a fleshly way, instead of a spiritual way, by lashing out in anger....this can lead to a poor witness and tarnished spiritual leaders.

The "rank and file" or the followers can vent their frustrations about the leaders. They may feel important (or personal) issues have not been addressed. They can form factions and divisions based on friendships or emotional issues....this leads to gossip, false rumors, and people who do not submit to the godly leadership the leaders are trying to provide.

At the end of the day, Satan is having a happy dance party because of the disunity and the people who are being wounded and led offtrack. We must be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. We are working, after all, toward spiritual maturity, and that is tied in very closely with unity and with faith, according to Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves,and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:3-6, 14-16)
It's a daily effort to subjugate self and work for the whole.
An effort that requires prayer and determination, along with the guidance of the Spirit.
But building the house of God is worth the effort.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Verses that inspire

Do you like honey?

Do you prefer just the liquid, golden sweetness that is sold in the supermarket and can be drizzled on your toast, or better yet, on a freshly-baked-still-warm biscuit? Do you like the comb, full of that golden goodness?

Pardon me, I need to wipe the drool off my keyboard. (Grin)

Yes, I'm a honey aficionado.

I'm even a bit of a connoisseur since I grew up in the southland and we prize our "sourwood" honey far more than the "clover" variety that is usually found at the markets. The tangy flavor is a hit with us.

Folks in Bible times valued honey; there are many verses that put it on equal footing with another important commodity of the time: oil. I guess part of that was because they realized it took a lot of work for those little bees to make it. Maybe, too, they loved the fact that it was such a great argument for a Great Designer of this world.....
The comb that contains the honey is a masterpiece of design: the hexagonal shape allows for the most effective use of resources - it uses the least amount of material to create a lattice of cells, and it's strength is far more than any other configuration, as well.
How the bees make it is a wonder, too. They use their antenna and legs to manipulate the wax, and their body temperature is a factor for regulating the wax at an ideal temperature. Later, their wings create just enough air movement to keep it cooled.
Sorry, evolutionists, that did not just HAPPEN!!

So, honey is valued; it takes a lot of work to make it; and its sweetness makes us happy at mealtime.

See where I'm going with this?

Our Bible, the Word of God, is a valued resource to us. Or it should be. It took a lot of work to make it. People spent their lives translating it and passing it along. Other people gave their lives as martyrs.... John Rogers and William Tynsdale come to mind....they wanted to translate the Bible into everyday English and were put to death by those who wanted to retain the status quo of a Latin Bible, understood and spoken by only a select few.

Our Bible makes us happy, too. I guess we could say it has special powers. (Grin) It can make our mind happy and can also sweeten up our spirits and our hearts. God's Word can bring us love, comfort, and help when we need it.
How sweet are your words to my taste,    sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)
Remember your word to your servant,    in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction,    that your promise gives me life. (Psalm 119:49-50)
These are not words from "a" god, but from our God. If we accept these words by faith they become personal. They are from our Father and our Redeemer - we belong to Him and He cares for us.

Let's determine afresh every day to get into the Word. It's sweeter than honey -- and it's His way of speaking to us each day!

Monday, June 24, 2019

A new beginning - building

We're continuing our focus on the third chapter of Ezra this week. New beginnings are exciting, and no doubt there was a lot of excitement and rejoicing as the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem around the new altar.

Let's look again at verse 6:
On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid. (v 6)
When we read verse six, we realize that while their new beginning of rebuilding the altar was good, something important was still missing! They'd not yet laid the foundation for the temple. Here in chapter three of Ezra, there are three references to the "temple" and five where it is called "the Lord's house."
That was significant because the temple or house of the Lord was the place where He dwelled among His people and allowed His glory to be shown. The temple was vitally important in the life of the individuals and the life of the people as a whole, too.
His people went there to offer sacrifices - for forgiveness of sins and for thanksgiving for His goodness and blessings.  It was a place of celebration, where all of Israel gathered three times a year for the important feasts of Passover (our March or April), Pentecost (our May or June), and Tabernacles (our September or October). The people could not properly worship YAHWEH until they rebuilt His house.
Living in God's new covenant, we as God's church are His temple or house. He dwells in us and walks among us:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (I Corinthians 3:16)
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:“I will live with them    and walk among them,and I will be their God,    and they will be my people.” (II Corinthians 6:16)
(That is a quote from several places in the Word....Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.)
 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
The building that a congregation meets in is not God's house; it's only the place where God's house gathers for worship.... we can meet in private homes, in a park, or in a barn; or we can meet in a cathedral. It's not the PLACE that is sacred; it's the people! When even two or three of God's children gather in the name of Jesus, He is there in their midst.
"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Even though a new beginning with God starts out intensely private, we shouldn't try to go it alone. Let me explain.....
We must go to the Lord in private and confess our sins to Him. We must accept the gift of Christ's shed blood and then personally get into His Word. We need to begin to obey it daily in our lives, both on the level of our thought patterns and our outward behavior. If we don't start with the personal relationship, we can go to church every time the doors are open, but we will be putting on a good front to others while our private life is in shambles.....hmmmm, I think that's called hypocrisy!

So, once we have begun anew in private, we very much need to be "built together" with others who also have a commitment to know Him. If we don't have that, the world and the devil can overwhelm us. Let's look back at Ezra to see how we can build God's house . . .

The first thing we see is that they built together because it requires courage to stand against this hostile world -- and it's great if we can stand together.
Look at verse 3:
Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. (v 3)
Another translation says, "they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands." This tiny remnant of the Hebrew nation was surrounded by hostile people groups. Not just people who were curious about what they were doing. Not just people who wondered about their return. People who were openly and loudly hostile -- they didn't want the Jewish people there, and they were pretty vehement about it. They made threats and they meant to follow through on them!
There may have been some in the group that returned that clamored to build a strong and well-armed militia, and that is indeed important. But the folks who we read about in Ezra knew that help from men is in vain, if God is not in His rightful place.
If they put God first, by rebuilding the altar and making sacrifices, He would protect them from the enemies who were fussing about their return. If we will seek first His kingdom and righteousness, He will take care of our basic needs.

Here's the important thing: courage doesn't mean a lack of fear. Courage means having the "gumption" as grandma used to say, to stand firm in threatening circumstances. How do we do that? We trust in the Lord.
A courageous believer will admit that they could lose their friends, their job, or perhaps even their life, and that it's scary to think about that. But they will also tell you that they won't compromise their commitment to Christ to keep any of those things. All of those things are going away after a while. Then we will stand before God -- so we fear (reverence) God more than we fear (scared) anything else in this world!
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Luke 4:5-7)
We may have to have that kind of courage alone. But it's easier to take a stand with other believers who are building the church of God; building with courage, encouragement, and prayer.

Friday, June 21, 2019

New beginnings - next step, obey His Word

What was the next step for Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the Jewish people who had returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding towns?
They continued with their new beginning by focusing on the Word of God.
They sincerely desired to obey that Word.

Now, how did they know what to do next?
How did they know about the altar and how to set it up? How to prepare the sacrifices for the altar? Let's check out a verse in Ezra 3:
Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. (v 2)
Here's another clue:
Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. (v 4-5)
"In accordance with what is written..." Another translation reads, "according to the ordinance." They took the scriptures that they had access to very seriously. They didn't make things up, or just put something together haphazardly, according to their own preferences. They didn't assign a committee to take a poll or survey, and find out what the people wanted to do.
They went back to the Word of God and they obeyed it.
They knew the words of Moses, delivering God's message:
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy 4:1)
I don't have a crystal ball to look back there, but I kinda wonder if the old ways of worship may have seemed too "old fashioned" to some of the people? Maybe the younger folks thought it was a bit out of step? Why not explore a more contemporary way of meeting with God? Bring in some new ideas and liven things up?
As my grandma used to say, "young whippersnappers" think they know best, and they certainly chafe sometimes at having to follow the instructions and traditions of the older folks. They can ask "why" more times than a three year old!
They could have resisted. They could have pushed for their own way.
But they didn't.
They focused on the blessing that God had brought them safely back to their homeland.
They focused on seeking His forgiveness.
And then they focused on obeying what they heard read from His Word.

Now, there's nothing wrong with contemporary music and forms of worship - that's not why I mentioned it. As long as it does not violate scripture. Just because it's "old" or traditional, doesn't mean that it's bad, and we can say the same thing of new and innovative ways of worship, too. Music? Some of the old hymns contain awe-inspiring theology, and the younger folks should learn them, enjoy them, and pass them along. Some of the older hymns can easily be forgotten. Some of the new songs we hear today are solid and edifying; we can learn them, enjoy them, and pass them along. Some are theologically shallow and can be forgotten.
Whether it's music or anything else, we need to evaluate by this standard: does it line up with Scripture, and does it glorify God as He's revealed in His Word? Lastly, does it promote holiness in His people?

We can do well to use Ezra, Zerubbabel, and Jeshua as our examples . . . when it comes to how we live as His people, we should go to God's Word and obey what it tells us. God's moral commandments don't adapt to the changing moral standards of our times. He hasn't softened His views on premarital sex, on homosexuality, or on sin versus holiness -- in spite of what our modern society and some churches may say. His Word plainly declares:
Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. (II Corinthians 7:1)
The point of this post today is that they all joined in worship at the altar. They all obeyed the Word. They prepared and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, and they offered sacrifices in the way that pleased God. Their hearts were joined in unity and the desire to obey Him.
If we want a new beginning with God today, it's available! We can begin at the cross, and then walk in obedience to His Word.
He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28)
Blessed is the one    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take    or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,    which yields its fruit in seasonand whose leaf does not wither—    whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
We are offered a new beginning each day by our Savior. Anyone going to take Him up on His offer?
Count me in!!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

New beginnings - we start at the cross

New beginnings are possible with God - He offers a second chance to everyone who needs it.
Where to begin?
A new beginning with Him must start at the cross. Let's look back at the third chapter of Ezra:
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. (Ezra 3:1-2)
The first thing that the leaders of the Jews who were returning did, was to rebuild the altar. They saw the pile of rubble where the Temple once stood and they got right to work. The people themselves had dispersed to their ancestral lands and towns, to settle in. There was much work to be done; rude shelters needed to be erected to shield the people from the elements, and then the real houses could be rebuilt. Fields needed to begin to be reclaimed, and vineyards refurbished so that foods and oils necessary for life could be cultivated.
On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid. (v 6)
Zerubbabel and Jeshua, though, set about building the altar. So when the people gathered on the first day of the seventh month, they came into the devastated city and saw a restored altar rising out of the rubble! The sight of that altar must have filled them with hope, even though the temple had not been started yet. The opportunity was there to sacrifice to God, to implore Him to forgive their sins and to bless their efforts in the Promised Land.

Zerubbabel and Jeshua knew that they must begin with the altar. Our fundamental need if we want to draw near to God is to experience forgiveness of our sins. God designated the altar as the place for sacrifice. He detailed the construction of it, the materials used, the height and the width, and more. He laid out guidelines for the sacrifices to be made there, whether offerings for sin or for praise. He promised that He would be there, and that He would meet the sons of Israel there:
 “For the generations to come this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the tent of meeting, before the Lord. There I will meet you and speak to you; 43 there also I will meet with the Israelites, and the place will be consecrated by my glory.
44 “So I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. 45 Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God."  (Exodus 29:42-45)
The animals sacrificed were to be perfect, without blemish -- they pointed forward in time to God's perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins, His Son, Jesus Christ.

If someone reading here has never begun with God, then you must begin at the cross, where Jesus shed His blood to redeem all of us - we are all sinners. The Bible says that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)
Our good works can never earn forgiveness. Either we put our trust in the perfect Lamb that God provided, or we must pay for our sins with eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. It's that simple:
Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
Faith in the blood of Christ is the only way to begin with our Father God. That new beginning will have a glorious finish:
And everyone who calls    on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:21)
If we are believers that have strayed from the Lord, the cross is still the place for a new beginning.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)
To stay true to Him, we must start daily at the foot of the cross.
Next steps?
Stay tuned!