Friday, August 30, 2019

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Day of praise I

Let's finish up our study for the last two weeks with some good, old fashioned praise to our Lord!

Let's bless the Lord!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Prayer requests

One of my favorite "joy" verses is not one that reminds me to be cheerful. It doesn't make me think of another believer who has no clue what I'm going through, chirping encouragement to me.
It doesn't say WHEN to be joyful.
Or anything like that.
It's more of a "yeah, I've been there. Done that. Definitely can find the tee-shirt in my closet."
When anxiety was great within me,    your consolation brought me joy. (Psalm 94:19)
See what I mean?
It's a verse based on experience.
Based on life situations and obstacles.
Based on Reality with a capital "R."

We wouldn't be human if we had not experienced anxiety. It's part of life. It's a state of uneasiness. Tension. Apprehension. Sometimes to the extreme.
Anxiety is based on fear.
Fear of the unknown or fear of what we know.
It can also be based on health matters - both physical and mental.
And there are times when anxiety can absolutely overwhelm us. We can swear that we feel our knees knocking. It's probably just the beating of our hearts, but no matter - we are anxious.
Strengthen the feeble hands,    steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution    he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)
He will come with vengeance if needed.
He will come to save us. He promised.
The psalmist said He will console us. . . . console? Comfort. Support. Bring relief.
I like Matthew Henry's commentary on the passage:
The psalmist had many troubled thoughts concerning the case he was in, concerning the course he should take, and what was likely to be the end of it. The indulgence of such contrivances and fears, adds to care and distrust, and renders our views more gloomy and confused. Good men sometimes have perplexed and distressed thoughts concerning God. But let them look to the great and precious promises of the gospel. The world's comforts give little delight to the soul, when hurried with melancholy thoughts; but God's comforts bring that peace and pleasure which the smiles of the world cannot give, and which the frowns of the world cannot take away. God is his people's Refuge, to whom they may flee, in whom they are safe, and may be secure. 
That feeling when we know, really truly know that He will be with us, comfort us, and support us.
Yes, His consolation has brought me joy!
Thank you Lord!

If you have a prayer request this week, please leave a comment so that we can pray along with you.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Joy and rejoicing - your turn to speak

I really appreciate the comments that y'all left the last time we had an "open forum" so to speak. I'd like to hear your thoughts again as we conclude our study of Ezra 6.

Give these questions some thoughtful consideration, and then if you have time, comment with your thoughts. If you don't have time, perhaps take a moment to make a quick note in a journal or jot a note on a card. I believe these are things that will be beneficial to consider . . .

First, what does biblical joy look like? Does it always mean that we are bubbling over? If you have a verse or a Bible note to support your thoughts, let us know.

Second, what would you say to an unbeliever who responds to your witnessing with these words: "I want to have fun in life now. I'll commit and follow God later."

Got your thinking caps on? (grin)

Let me know your thoughts!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Be joyful - praise Him!

The last few verses of the sixth chapter of Ezra are so positive! Look at verse sixteen:
Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (v 16)
Their offerings at the dedication may not have been as lavish as the dedication of Solomon's time, but it was a sincere offering of what they had. (I Kings 8 says that at Solomon's temple dedication, thousands of cattle and sheep were sacrificed; so many that the altar could not hold all of the offerings!) They offered a separate sacrifice for each of the twelve tribes of Israel; the sin offerings were acknowledging their failures and the covenant of God to forgive them. The note regarding the priests and the Levites being appointed (v 18) shows their dedication to worshiping God in the way that was written, the way that would please Him.

Then they observed the Passover, a celebration of God's mercy and salvation. It commemorates how He delivered them from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (which immediately followed) symbolized the holy relationship of a redeemed nation with their God. Now, in the New Testament times and today, those two feasts are combined into the Lord's Supper -- our way of remembering the sacrifice of Christ for us.
For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:7b-8)
In order for our praise to be genuine, it needs to be accompanied by sincere and heartfelt joy. Undignified? Maybe. Spontaneous? Should be.
I talk to people today that are concerned and perhaps even apprehensive about heaven. Why? So many pastors and believers make it sound as if the only activity in heaven will be to sing and shout praises to God. Especially for those who in this life have not been able to "carry a tune in a bucket," this sounds a bit strange. Nothing else? (Frankly, I think that since God is the best Father ever, and He knows human beings, that there will be plenty to do. That feeling of worth and accomplishing things is a vital part of our make-up, and I believe that God will assign us some things to do. Just my opinion.)
Even the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis, when he was beginning to believe in God, could not understand all of the demands in Psalms that we praise God. He didn't see the point. He is quoted as saying that it seemed to him to picture God as craving "for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments."  He goes on in one of his books to show why he was wrong:
 .....But the most obvious fact about praise - whether of God or anything - strangely escaped me....I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.....The world rings with praise - lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game.... My whole more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment; it is its ....consummation.
From Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis
To bring this home to each of us, when we have something excellent and wonderful happen in our lives, what do we do? When we are filled with joy about a positive health test, a financial obstacle being removed, a new relative being born, or any other thing that rocks our world with happiness . . . what do we do?
Why, of course!
We bubble over with that joy -- and we tell someone! Maybe several someones! We humans can experience joy and praise when we're alone, but isn't it so much better when we share the experience with others?
It's the same with worship. The people who celebrated the temple dedication, the Passover, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread truly enjoyed the praise of God in a corporate setting. Yes, let's praise Him in our devotions; let's also praise Him with others.

The last source of joy that I'd like to cover in this study is the joy of obedience to Him. We read in Ezra that they rebuilt the temple "according to the command of God" (in 6:14). In the eighteenth verse, it says they organized their worship time "as it is written in the book of Moses." And in the twentieth verse, it says the priests and Levites purified themselves. In fact, all of the people who celebrated were committed to a holy and pure life, separate from unbelievers:
So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel. (Ezra 6:21)
To have true joy in God, there must be holiness in our lives. We must separate ourselves from the impurity of the nations around us, so to speak. This is not to say that we cannot "meet and greet" with unbelievers. After all, getting to know unbelievers will allow us to witness to them!
I believe the true gist of the thought is this: It's hypocritical (and the Lord hates hypocrisy) if we live "like the nations" all week, and then put on a pious mask to worship Him on Sunday.
And contrary to popular opinions of the day, purity of life and obedience to our Father do NOT rob us of joy! Sin only gives brief pleasure -- and then lasting scars and pain. Obedience may be difficult momentarily, but it yields long-lasting joy!

Do joy and obedience not seem to us to fit together? Joy sounds liberating. Obedience sounds restrictive. Joy makes us think of a light-hearted person; obedience makes us think of a person burdened down with rules and regulations.
Am I right?
But that's our human side.
Our human understanding. Obedience has rewards:
 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,  (I John 5:3)
Peace. Righteousness. Commands that are not burdensome. Pursuing these will bring us closer to Him. Will bring us joy.
C. S. Lewis makes what would seem to many to be a radical suggestion - that the thought that it's bad to desire our own good (and enjoy it!) is a vital part of the Christian faith. In case you haven't noticed, I really enjoy his writings. (Grin) What silly creatures we are.....fooling around with drugs, alcohol, sex, and wealth, when truly infinite joy is being offered to us.
Yes, Mr. Lewis, you are right . . . God Himself is our cache of infinite joy. We should pursue joy in Him with each breath we take. Then we will have what Paul talked about:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
So, the question to us today is this: are we making the pursuit of joy in our Lord one of our top priorities? God's aim is to give us great joy in Him, in His providential care, and in His providing for our needs. When we have true joy in Him, we will glorify Him and praise Him to all the folks we come in contact with.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Be joyful - be productive

Another source of joy in the Lord is one that we've touched on before: God wants us to experience the joy of productivity in our service for Him.
Let's refresh our memories of chapter 6:
The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.16 Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:15-16)
Ezra goes on to note that the celebrations continued:
For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. (v 22)
So, the temple was finally finished (I'm putting on my best "I'm-the-narrator" voice here for you) about twenty years after the foundation was laid -- it was about four years after the new, new beginning, when Haggai and Zechariah had begun their ministries. The scholars disagree on the dimensions given in verse three of the chapter -- the dimensions here in Ezra seem to exceed those of Solomon's temple. His was noted as 20 cubits wide, 60 cubits long, and 30 cubits high. (I always wonder about cubits, don't you? I ran the numbers and got this: Solomon's temple was approximately 30 feet wide, 88 feet long, and 44 feet high.  And for y'all who utilize the metric system, Solomon's temple was approximately 9 meters by 27 meters, and 13.5 in height.) It just helps me to visualize the temple. (Grin)

Now, let's turn back around and get out of the weeds here. The reason for the scholars' puzzled looks and head-scratching is that if this temple was larger, it's kinda hard to figure out the disappointment expressed by the old-timers in chapter three. As we stated a couple of weeks ago, it could have been tears because the foundation was being laid and they were remembering the glory of the old temple. The foundation laid was in the midst of a ruined city; they might have been at the point of tears because they wondered if things could ever be like they were before......
Anyway, since the length isn't given in chapter six, some have theorized that the original text has been corrupted.  I kinda discount that theory -- to me it makes more sense that these dimensions were the maximum that Cyrus said he would support and approve. The actual building could have been smaller, and that would account for the older Jews' disappointed faces. Whatever the correct explanation is, we know that the temple was completed -- and that the people rejoiced at its dedication.

In today's world, we can and should rejoice at the completion of a building project, a ministry being established, the completion of a week of backyard Bible studies, etc.  There's even greater joy, however, when we experience the Lord using us in the building of His kingdom.
Are we witnessing?
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10)
Are we working to bring the lost in to hear the gospel?
 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (Luke 15:32)
Are we investing our financial blessings?
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.  (II Corinthians 9:7-8)
Are we investing our time and experience?
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58)
Working hard for the Lord will mean that we bear fruit in our lives, and that we'll experience joy:
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples....I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:8, 11)
A recipe for service? For the joy that comes from working in God's kingdom? I can't think of a better recipe than that given by Paul to the Philippians:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:(Philippians 2:1-5)
We can not only be joyful because of God's providence in our lives, and not only because of His providing our needs, but also because we are working for Him.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Be joyful - God provides!

Chapter six of Ezra also teaches us that we should find joy in the fact that God provides for us. Yesterday, we studied more of the providential care He sends; we saw that He can move circumstances and even the hearts of rulers to carry out His purposes.
Today, let's look at the material provisions that He sends.

Why do you suppose that Tattenai and his minions diligently carried out the king's decree? Was it because they thought it was the best idea ever? They thought it was awesome for these former slaves to return and re-establish the temple and the surrounding city? Because of the goodness of their hearts? Well, they just may have been pretty mellow, "you're my brother" kind of people, but the main reason that I see for their cooperation was in the king's decree -- they didn't like to think about the alternative:
Furthermore, I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it. And for this crime their house is to be made a pile of rubble. (Ezra 6:11)
Pretty effective motivation, eh?
I think so!
Darius set the punishment high. And God also used Darius to provide the materials for the temple. He moved the king to provide the animals and other items for the sacrifices, too.
You see, King Darius was trying, as we say today, to "cover all the bases." He wanted to appease and please YAHWEH by providing materially for the temple. He was in the habit of asking all the people in the lands that he conquered to pray to their gods on behalf of him and his sons.  So he asked that of the Jewish people, as well. (v 10)
God used the king's superstitions to provide for His people!
I don't guess that the Lord routinely uses pagan governments as the main source of material support for His church. But He can. However, He provides, whether through tax breaks from the government (for charitable, non-profit organizations) or through generous giving of believers and unbelievers alike, it is God Who provides for His church.
It's our responsibility to wait upon Him through faith and prayer. And when we see God's provision, we should show our joy.
Paul sets an example for us in II Corinthians. In his letter, he is bubbling with enthusiasm - the Macedonians have made a generous gift for their brothers and sisters in Christ, the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Paul points out that when we give generously, we not only meet the needs of others, but we cause overflowing thanksgiving to God, and the result is that God is glorified:
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (II Corinthians 9:12-13)
We can rejoice daily in how the work of the church is provided for, and we can also rejoice in how He provides for our personal needs. There are approximately 170 verses in the Bible that tell of the ways that God provides for us. (Hmmm, maybe there's a study there for us!)
Philippians 4 puts it very succinctly:
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (v 19)
Prosperity-seekers may be always looking for more money or fancier possessions to arrive, but we should take a closer look at what He desires to provide for us.....

Do we think we are good parents or siblings? Providing well for the needs of those we love? God is the Best. Parent. Ever. He never gives us what He knows would harm us, and His purpose is to help us develop Christlikeness. We should not perceive Him as a heavenly source of material possessions because acquiring things is just not the fundamental goal of this life!

God differentiates between our needs and our wants because as He tells us, where our treasure is, our heart is also (Matthew 6:21). This world is, after all, not our home; our focus should be on eternal life, even as we are living this mortal one.

As the Best Parent, God is focused on every part of our being -- spirit, soul, and body, too. The ways that He provides for us are beyond anything we can ask or imagine:
  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
His guidance and shepherding care will do more for us that we can ever achieve on our own. He encourages us to seek Him in an intimate, obedient relationship through conversation (prayer) and submission. Our dependence on Him is affirmed each time that we pray:
Give us today our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)
And He told us not to worry about food or clothing; He knows our needs!
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (Matthew 6:25)
Long before Christ walked on this earth, Jeremiah pointed to the covenant relationship that God desires:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LordI will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
And the way to have that relationship (and His provision) is by seeking first His kingdom and righteousness:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
The Psalmist notes the part we play in God's provision, too:
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;    the Lord bestows favor and honor;no good thing does he withhold    from those whose walk is blameless. (Psalm 84:11)
(Other translations say it, "those who walk uprightly." Either way, this is a good reminder of the role we play in God's providing for us.
As we have seen, many of these verses relate to the daily, physical needs of life. There are others that refer to the needs of our soul and spirit. I hope you will take a few moments and look these up and read them aloud for encouragement:
1. He provides us with comfort (II Corinthians 1:4)
2. He provides peace (John 14:27)
3. He provides power and self discipline (II Timothy 1:7)
4. He provides love (I John 4:9-11)
We even have the assurance that His love and direction in our lives began before conception! What a gift to know that He's been involved and loved us from the very start!
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased... (Galatians 1:15)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
Even God's creation, which is dependent upon Him, proves to us that He provides.
He made the moon to mark the seasons,    and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night,    and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey    and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away;    they return and lie down in their dens.
 Then people go out to their work,    to their labor until evening. How many are your works, Lord!    In wisdom you made them all;    the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:19-24)
The sun that comes up every morning, the rain that falls, the breezes that refresh us . . . all of these are things that our loving God provides for us.

Rejoice in His providing for us!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Be joyful in God's providence for us

It's a word with a world of meanings.
It's not just about the fact that God controls and plans things, but also that He provides for our needs.

Many people are familiar with the beloved verse in Romans:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NIV)
Don't get me wrong; I'm not espousing a prosperity gospel here . . . there are actually two conditions in that verse - loving God and having responded to the Spirit's call -- and it doesn't say that when He works for good it's going to be Easy Street, either.
That's all another story....
For today, let's concentrate on "all things." It means "all things," OK? (Grin) Bad things, and good things, lovely warm and fuzzy things, and hurtful things, too.
God is never out of control. Satan can do "his darnedest," as my grandma used to say, but even the evil that seems to be tearing the world apart is working toward a final purpose.
We can't see it yet.
But we know that God allows things for a reason and that His plans are good.
It must be frustrating for Satan. (Grin)
No matter what he does, he finds that his schemes and plans are stopped, and something good (must make him shudder) happens in the end.

We can see many examples of His providence in chapter six of Ezra . . . remember Tattenai? He sent his letter to Darius, expecting the king to respond with order to "stop the work at once!" God's providence is seen in the fact that they found the decree from eighteen years before amongst all the other laws, regulations and decrees from Cyrus' reign. And the scholars tell us that they didn't find it in Babylon - they located it in the fortress of Ecbatana, which was Cyrus' summer residence!

God's providence is also seen because Darius did not say, "shut it down! I don't care what the guy before me said..." Instead, he told Tattenai to leave them alone AND to fund the project:
Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you other officials of that province, stay away from there.Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site.Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God:Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop.Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and olive oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail, (Ezra 6:7-9)
And here's another remarkable part - he also provided motivation to make sure these things happened:
Furthermore, I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it. And for this crime their house is to be made a pile of rubble. 12 May God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem.
I Darius have decreed it. Let it be carried out with diligence. (v 11-12)
God's providential care is noted again when Ezra wrote that the Lord "had turned the heart of the king"  . . . in verse 22. He wanted to remind the people that it was God's hand that moved in the situation.
Solomon said much the same thing in Proverbs:
In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water    that he channels toward all who please him. (Proverbs 21:1)
And in Daniel we read:
All the peoples of the earth    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases    with the powers of heaven    and the peoples of the earth.No one can hold back his hand    or say to him: “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
Let's apply this to our lives today . . .
Do we see (really see) and rejoice in God's providential care for us in every small thing? Not just the major things that happen to us?
Jesus told us that even a sparrow that falls to the ground is known by the Father. He told us that God knows the number of hairs on our heads (and as I age, I'm sure He is kept busy by that changing number). No sacrilege intended, just sayin'. 
Because of that, we should not fear.
We should trust Him.
 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:31)
Let's end our study today with a favorite and familiar Psalm. This will surely remind us to rejoice in God's providence for us:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—    where does my help come from?
 My help comes from the Lord,    the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—    he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel    will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—    the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day,    nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm    he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going    both now and forevermore.  (Psalm 121)
Thank you, Lord!