Monday, December 30, 2019

Almost time for the new year!

Just a quick note to all who study here; I hope that you have all enjoyed a restful and contented Christmas time. We have been SO blessed by our Father. Surely we need to spend time counting our blessings and thanking Him for each and every one!
Recently, in my own studies, I was reading in Romans:
For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Romans 12:3, AKJV)
 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.  (Romans 12:3, NIV)
My Dakes study Bible pointed me toward the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ:
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)
What do these verses have in common? I wanted to dig in . . .
The measure of faith God has "dealt" or "distributed to" us. Hmmmm.
Paul is exhorting us to not think more highly of ourselves than we should, but he is also pointing us to the faith that God has given us. Yes, God gives us faith. It is something we need; it's something we have; we have it because He gives it to us.

You see, a gift is not earned by our good words, or by our good deeds. It is not given to us because the giver expects something in return. (Under any of those conditions, it wouldn't be a gift!) The Bible emphasizes that faith is a gift -- because God deserves all the glory for our salvation. If we could do anything to deserve (or earn) that gift, then we could boast about it, right? (See Ephesians 2:9)  But we don't have a "leg to stand on" as my grandma used to say . . . God wants us to understand that we've done nothing to earn faith - it's only because of what Christ did on the cross that God gives any of us faith.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God... (Ephesians 2:4-5,8)
Truly, the boy's father in Mark was correct when he cried out, "I believe, help thou my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24, KJV)  The spark of faith had been kindled, and he prayed for the Lord to give him stronger faith.
But what about the "measure" of faith? What is this all about?
Those who heard Christ say these words noted in Luke would have had an instant mental picture of what He meant . . .
Christ was saying that our heavenly Father is a "good" miller. Not a "bad" one. If we look at the culture of the time, it was the men, not the women, who went to buy flour. (Not bad, they got their husbands to do the grocery shopping, eh?)
The man would sit on a low stool, with his measure (container, sack, etc) in his lap. A "bad" miller would simply fill the measure with the ground grain up to the brim. The purchaser, as he walked home, would find that as he walked the flour had shaken down and compacted. There might only be a two-thirds measure in his container or sack by the time he reached home. (Wonder what his wife said then?)
Now, by contrast, a "good" miller would fill the measure to the brim, but would then shake, and press, and fill some more. The flour would be so tightly packed when he was finished that it would flow over the edges of the measure, and fall into the purchaser's lap.

That, said our Savior, is the sort of measure that we believers may confidently expect to receive from our heavenly Father. Whether it is more faith that we are asking for, or more wisdom, or a special blessing from His hand . . . He will give to us.
Pressed down.
Spilling over into our laps.
Just something to think about as we begin a new year with our Savior and Friend.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Merry Christmas to all!

I'll keep it short today; I'm usually pretty verbose, so I expect what I just heard was a sigh of relief from my readers. (Grin)

This time of year, many people gather the family and watch favorite movies. Some watch solo. But we all have our favorite ones for the Christmas season.
One adores "A Christmas Story."
Someone else likes "Home Alone."
Many people, myself included, think it's just not Christmas without watching "It's a Wonderful Life," with kleenex box in hand.

My all time favorite is one that you may not have seen. Maybe haven't heard of.
It's old.
Like me.
It's called "The Bishop's Wife," and it stars David Niven as an Episcopal church leader, and Loretta Young as his sweet and helpful soulmate. Cary Grant is the angel who comes into their lives as a result of a wishful prayer uttered by Niven's character.
The bishop and his wife have lost some of the joy and the meaning of Christmas. The bishop, especially, has fallen prey to the material, and to a bit of ambition, as well. The days that follow the arrival of his "assistant," the angel, reveal a lot about the characters, our world, and our daily lives. Many years after the release of the film, our world still has the same issues, and it's the same solution that would help us all.

At the end of the movie, Niven's character reads a sermon that his "assistant" has prepared. It's always been super-meaningful to me, and I share it here in the hopes that it will be thought-provoking to all who pause here.

Tonight, I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the Child born in a manger. It’s His birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

I'm wishing for all who study here a warm, peaceful, contented Christmas. I pray God's blessings for us all, and I hope to see you back here next week!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Walls, gates, and Christmas, conclusion

As we close this week of study, we are inching ever closer to the magical days that we call Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We may not celebrate on exactly the right day, but that's not the point! The point is to set aside time and meditate, ponder, and celebrate the coming of Christ to our world. He put aside His might and power and became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
At Bethlehem, that babe in the manger was adored by shepherds. In Egypt, He was revered by the wise men. He grew, He learned, and He matured -- then He taught, and ministered, and bore the weight of all our sins as He was unjustly crucified.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (I Peter 2:24-25)
But He conquered death! He rose again and was seen by many.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (I Corinthians 15:3-8)
And He has promised that He is going to come again. The next gate on our tour of the old walls is the East gate -- and that makes us think of the second coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The scriptures confirm it will happen "in the east" and that He has promised to return:
Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. (Ezekiel 43:1)
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:3)
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
When He returns, this time it will be to judge - the final gate on our tour of the walls and gates of Nehemiah's Jerusalem is the Muster, or Inspection gate. The meaning of the word carries with it the idea of troops who would line up for review. And God is going to call all souls for judgment one day:
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. (Romans 14:10)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (II Corinthians 5:10)
As we stand there, however, our sins will be covered by His precious blood:
He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Hebrews 9:12, 14)
As we study these gates, we can see the whole meaning of Christmas. The whole hope of our Christian life. The gospel is presented to us here just as clearly as in other passages:
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:4) 
Surely these are reasons to joyfully celebrate the birth of our Savior!
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Walls, gates, and Christmas, part IV

The next gate in our tour of the city walls is the "Water" gate. This is the seventh gate in our list, and seven is the Bible number for perfection and completeness. Scholars point us to the fact that the Water gate is symbolic of the Word of God -- perfect and complete:
 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. (Ezekiel 36:25)
...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  (Ephesians 25b-27)
This gate actually needed no repairs! Again, this points to the perfect and unchanging Word of our God . . .
How can a young person stay on the path of purity?    By living according to your word. (Psalm 119:9)
Your word, Lord, is eternal;    it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89)
It's the Word of God that cleans and purifies us as we study it and commit it to memory each day.

The next gate makes us change gears a bit!
The Horse gate -- this was the gate, they say, that was close to the king's stables, and where the men of war would ride in and out of the city.
The Horse gate introduces the idea of warfare in the lives of believers. Yes, I'm serious!
Horses were never all that abundant in Jerusalem. More often than not, you'd find oxen, donkeys, and even the occasional camel of a wily trader. Horses? Not so much.
In our Bibles, horses are sometimes used as symbolic of war.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. (Revelation 19:11)
As believers, whether we are paying attention to this fact or not, we are all engaged in spiritual warfare!
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (II Corinthians 10:3-4)
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. (I Peter 2:11)
The Horse gate reminds us that we are at war, and that we must be prepared. The men who rode their horses out of the gate to defend the city needed to be prepared. They wore specific clothing and armor. They made sure their horses were well fed. They were careful to rest their horses and feed them well, and to take care of their own bodies, too, so that they were ready for war.
How can we, as believers in this scary world today, be ready for spiritual warfare? I know this passage is familiar to all of us:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.  (Ephesians 6:13-18)
We are living in a war zone! But here's the good news -- we have a captain who is all powerful, and we can depend on His might and power.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)
If we will dress ourselves in truth, righteousness, faith, peace, salvation, and God's Word, we will be prepared. If we learn to take every thought captive; if we apply the truth we read in God's Word to every argument, we will be victorious!
 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (I John 5:4-5)
Amen, and amen!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Walls and gates and Christmas, part III

We're continuing to examine the gates and walls being repaired in the city of Jerusalem. I've been inspired by Nehemiah so far, and this week we are focusing on details of the gates that some scholars have pointed out for us.
As my grandma used to say, "there's often more there than meets the eye" and I believe that is the case in chapter three!
The next gate that we come to is the "Dung" gate that we've talked about before. This was the gate through which the waste and refuse of the city were taken; all of this was taken out to the area where it would be burned.
I believe the commentaries are correct when they draw parallels to the cleansing of our souls:
Wash and make yourselves clean.    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong. “Come now, let us settle the matter,”    says the Lord.“Though your sins are like scarlet,    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,    they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:16,18)
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)
Did you notice that there is a sequence here? We come to the Valley gate and we humble ourselves before our Savior. Then we ask for His cleansing at the Refuse gate.
Next, we receive the daily filling of the Spirit at the Fountain gate!
The Fountain gate brings to mind the ministry of the Holy Spirit:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. (John 7:37-39a)
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
Just as the members of the New Testament church were filled with the Spirit in Acts 2, and then filled "afresh" in Acts 4, so we, too, can receive fresh blessings from the Spirit each day. The Spirit has been compared to a fountain of sparkling, fresh water . . . and for believers, that is a reality, as we seek His face and His guidance each day!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Walls and gates and Christmas, part II

We might think that the walls and gates being rebuilt by the people of Jerusalem are far from the meaning and celebration of Christmas.
But they're not!
In the third chapter of Nehemiah, we've (figuratively speaking) walked through the Sheep gate, which calls to mind our salvation, accepting the sacrifice of the Lamb of God for our sins.
Next we walked through the Fish gate, because we see that Jesus has called us to be "fishers of men," and to tell others about this great gift of mercy and love from God.

The next gate on our tour . . . The "Old" gate speaks of the old paths and the old truths of the Word of God and the family of faith. 
 This is what the Lord says:“Stand at the crossroads and look;    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,    and you will find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16a)

In our world today, people are always latching onto the next "new thing." Years ago, Facebook was a new and intriguing platform on the internet. Twitter captured the minds and time of many. YouTube and Pinterest became the time-consumers of the day, and who knows what will be next? 
It's the same thing in philosophies and world-views . . . people "discover" new and different things that fire their imaginations and fuel their passions. It's the same today as when Paul was in the city of Athens:
 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) (Acts 17:21)
The "old" ways are passe. Boring. Quaint. Why bother?
Because those "old" ways are the basic truths of salvation, eternal life, and guidance for our everyday living. The old ways are the factual answers for our human minds' questions . . . who am I? Why am I here? People refuse to pay attention to the very real answers. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and God's purposes are still the same!
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (I Peter 2:9-10)
Great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord Almighty, 19 great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds. Your eyes are open to the ways of all mankind; you reward each person according to their conduct and as their deeds deserve. (Jeremiah 32:18b-19)
Even believers fall into the trap sometimes of allowing things and people in this world to take the top priority in our lives -- the priority that belongs to Jesus, our Savior.

Yet my people have forgotten me;    they burn incense to worthless idols,
which made them stumble in their ways,    in the ancient paths.
They made them walk in byways,    on roads not built up. (Jeremiah 18:15)
The next gate as we work our way around the city is the Valley gate. This gate reminds us of the humility of our Lord becoming Emmanuel. In Philippians, we read of how He made Himself a servant to all. He descended from the glories of heaven to the valley of human form -- and even death.
Who, being in very nature God,    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,    he humbled himself    by becoming obedient to death  even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
His example encourages us to show humility in our own lives. We may not enjoy the valley sometimes, but often God will take us there in order to teach us and to bring blessing to our lives.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.(Ephesians 4:2)
At Christmas time, as we contemplate the birth of Christ in human form, we are struck with the awesome gift He gave us all. This should promote a feeling of humility in us, so that we can receive His blessings as we serve Him and others. 
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you (Romans 12:3)
More gates tomorrow!