Archive for March 2016

Psalm 23: Provision in Threatening Times

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:4-6, NASB)

Psalm 23:4-6 draws a beautiful picture of God shepherding His people even through the most difficult times, in the valley of deepest shadows, with enemies all around. When the need is the greatest, God is not just a shepherd, providing for basic necessities. He is also a banquet host. We are His guests at His feast and thus are under His protection.

Psalm 78 draws a similar picture as it retells the story of the Exodus. Verse 52 says that for forty years God shepherded His people through the wilderness.

He led forth His own people like sheep
And guided them in the wilderness like a flock. (Psalm 78:52, NASB)

But in that harsh and ungiving place, God was more than a shepherd. With His people engulfed in need, with no other source of supply, God hosted them at a rich banquet.

“Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?”
Behold, He struck the rock so that waters gushed out…
He rained down manna upon them to eat
And gave them food from heaven.
Man did eat the bread of angels;
He sent them food in abundance…
He rained meat upon them…
So they ate and were well filled. (Psalm 78:19-20, 24-25, 27, 29a, NASB) 

Psalm 23:5 then goes beyond the provision of abundant food. At such banquets, the host would often anoint the head of his guests with oil, as an indication of prosperity and rejoicing. In Luke 7:46, Jesus refers to this kind of anointing as standard practice.

Here at the end of Psalm 23, the whole picture is one of God’s favor, prosperity, abundance, and joy, even while deepest darkness is all around.

Life will have its valleys…its darkness…its death…its enemies…its difficulties. But God’s care for His sheep does not change. Light or darkness, pleasure or pain, His goodness and His unfailing love will follow us every day of our lives, and the end will be an eternity with Him.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Psalm of Trust
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Turned Toward God

Recently this old hymn has been on my mind:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.
            (“Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery, 1818)

I’ve found this description of prayer true to my own experience. Prayer is turning toward God.

My morning walks are my prayer time. For twenty-plus years I have used the Lord’s Prayer as the outline for my prayers, but even so, my daily prayers are quite varied. Some days He leads me more toward petition. Some days, praise. Sometimes I sing as much as I speak. Some days my praying involves lots of thinking and reflecting. Some days He even leads me to write as I talk to Him.

But consistently, the attitude that nurtures my heart is the attitude of the Lord’s Prayer:

Father, Your glory,
Your kingdom,
Your will.
Your bread for today,
Your forgiveness,
Your keeping.

Prayer is the single-mindedness of a heart turned toward God, desiring God, talking to God, listening to God, seeking Him alone.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Reign in Me
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When We Worship

Almighty, Sovereign God,
when I worship You from my heart, I recognize
You for who You are, and
myself for who I am.
You are all goodness and the only source of all goodness.
You alone are life,
truth,
rightness,
holiness,
beauty,
wisdom, and
love.
Without You, I am empty,
nothing,
weakness and need.

When I worship You,
I embrace the truth.
I admit reality and
align myself with it.
I align myself with You, in all
humility,
trust, and
gratitude.

When I worship, I admit that
You are the Creator, and
I am your creature,
born of Your deep love,
made in Your image.
You are Father of all, and
I am Your little child.
You are the holy yet human Son,
God made flesh, and
I joyfully wonder at the mystery.
You became entirely like me, so that I might become
entirely like You!
You are the Holy Spirit,
the life of God,
the love of God, and
the power of God,
ever among us and within us.
You are filling us even now, enabling us to
live like Christ and
love like Christ.

Praise to You, eternal Father,
Christ the Son, and
Holy Spirit!
Praise to You for all You are!

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Worship Father, Son, and Spirit
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Jesus’ Last Words

from the book, ONE WITH OUR FATHER 

John 19:28-30

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34, NIV)

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV)

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
(John 19:26-27, NIV)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, NIV)

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28, NIV)

“It is finished.” (John 19:30, NIV)

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46, NIV)

Imagine that you are Jesus on the day of your death. Look around. Who do you see?

  • the religious leaders, proud, self-righteous, angry, blind to their own murderous jealousy
  • Judas, a close friend whose heart had wandered and who turned you in for a few pieces of silver
  • the disciples, who lived with you for three years then fearfully deserted you in your time of trouble
  • Pilate, who knew the truth but was too weak to act on it
  • Herod, who held your life in his hands but was only concerned with his own entertainment
  • sadistic soldiers, to whom you were cruel sport
  • a thief dying next to you, taunting You in an effort to save himself
  • the crowd of people looking up at you, a mixture of gloaters, mindless mob, and curiosity seekers

In short, you’re surrounded by humanity. To them, you’re a criminal, a blasphemer, a financial opportunity, a pawn, a scapegoat, a fool, a buffoon. Your pain is their afternoon’s amusement. You’ve given yourself for these people, and they’re crushing you with their indifference, injustice, torture, humiliation, and the most agonizing death they can devise.

Every fiber of your being is screaming in pain and begging for relief. You are in your final moments. What is on your mind?

Most people being crucified would have filled their last hours with angry curses and bitterness. Read Jesus’ final words. Listen as He speaks them. What is on His heart during these moments?

Forgiveness for those killing Him and for the repentant thief. Pain never overwhelmed the love in His heart.

Care for those He loved. Mary must have longed for a word from her son, and Jesus didn’t disappoint her. Even as He died, He provided for her and bestowed a great honor on John.

Abandonment. Jesus’ deepest sorrow was feeling cut off from His Father. But how did He express it? He prayed, using words from Psalm 22. Read the psalm. It’s a moving expression of desperate complaint and ultimate trust. Even when separated from His Father, Jesus turned to Him and trusted Him.

His thirst. Having cared for others, He cried out in His own need, again fulfilling Psalm 22 (v. 15). The drink apparently gave Him strength for His final words.

Triumph. To the very end, Jesus’ thoughts were of His Father and His mission. His final words were a cry of victory. “It is completed! Father, I lay My life in Your hands!”

Father, when I die, when I am losing everything I am and everything I hold, will I be looking to You, reaching for the completion of Your work, loving those around me, trusting my life into Your hands? Lord, may it be so.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Last Words
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The Golden Kingdom

Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with difficult questions. So she came to Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels carrying spices and very much gold and precious stones. 

When she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. Solomonanswered all her questions; nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her. When the queen of Sheba perceived all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his servants, the attendance of his waiters and their attire, his cupbearers, and his stairway by which he went up to the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.  

Then she said to the king, “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. Nevertheless I did not believe the reports, until I came and my eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. You exceed in wisdom and prosperity the report which I heard. How blessed are your men, how blessed are these your servants who stand before you continually and hear your wisdom. Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:1-9, NASB)

The early chapters of 1 Kings describe the reign of King Solomon. God blessed him with wisdom, wealth, and luxury beyond description. Even other kings and queens, accustomed to all the best, found Solomon’s kingdom beyond imagining.

But the whole story is not so glorious. This wisest of kings married many foreign women, and they led him into idolatry. Political and military troubles increased in his later years. Under Solomon’s son, ten of the tribes of Israel broke away and formed their own country, leaving Solomon’s heir with only two tribes to govern. The Golden Kingdom was gone as quickly as it had come. The wisest and richest of kings left a bitter legacy.

But Solomon’s kingdom, however imperfect and short-lived, foreshadowed Christ and pointed us to Him. The greatest of earthly wealth and wisdom proved to be only a foretaste of the boundless gifts God gives to His people in His Anointed One, Jesus Christ. In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3, NASB). In Him “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42, NASB).

Father, may what little I do, no matter how flawed and temporary in itself, point people to Jesus Christ.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Complete in Jesus Christ
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If God Is for Us

If God is for us,
who can be against us?
He who did not spare His own Son,
but gave him up for us all—
how will he not also, along with him,
graciously give us all things?
(Romans 8:31-32, NIV)

Are you plagued by nagging fears?
Drag them out into the brilliant light of God’s presence.
Do you find anything that He cannot handle?
Is there anything you cannot now, this moment,
entrust to Him completely?
Is there anything beyond His sovereign power,
His infinite wisdom and
His unfailing love?

He conceived you,
tenderly nurtured you, and
willingly died for you.
His watchful care engulfs you every moment.
Why do you hesitate to trust Him?
Why are you ever afraid?

Listen and sing:
Hymn: If God Is on Our Side
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Psalm 23: In Deepest Darkness

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4, NASB)

Life is not all green pastures and quiet streams. “The valley of the shadow of death” (v.4) could also be translated, “the valley of gloom” or “the valley of deep darkness”. The same word is used in other places in the Old Testament. Job spoke of dying when he said, 

“I go to the place of no return,
to the land of gloom and deep shadow,
to the land of deepest night,
of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.”
(Job 10:21-22, NIV)

Psalm 107 talks of those who had rebelled against God sitting “in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains” (v.10, NIV). But God delivered them when they turned to Him.

Isaiah was prophesying about the coming Messiah when he wrote:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2, NIV)

As we read these usages of the word and reflect back on Psalm 23:4, we see that the psalmist might be talking about literal death, but not necessarily. Our lives can also be shrouded by deep mental and emotional darkness. The point is this: when we can see and feel nothing but darkness and gloom, we don’t need to be afraid. When he says, “I will fear no evil,” he doesn’t just mean moral evil, but anything negative or harmful. Even when my life is immersed in deepest darkness, I don’t need to be afraid, for my Shepherd is with me. I can know that He is still there, providing for every need.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (v.4b, NASB)

A Palestinian shepherd normally carried two implements: a club (or rod) to fend off wild beasts, and a crook (or staff) to guide and control the sheep. We can be confident in our Shepherd’s protection and care no matter what comes.

Gethsemane

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:42, 44, NIV)

Gethsemane removes any notion that Jesus’ suffering and death were somehow easier for Him. Falling on His face before the Father, coming to Him repeatedly with the same prayer, grasping for support from His friends, literally sweating blood – the scene reminds us that He felt all the anguish any of us would feel.

Knowing that such a horrible and fatal ordeal awaited us, we would likely be consumed with dread. Jesus was conscious of what awaited Him, and He was anxious for the day to come:

“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50, NASB)

But we never sense that He was overcome by fear or distracted by dread. Facing His death, He seemed to deal with the long-term pressure the same way He dealt with it in Gethsemane: He kept Himself completely committed to the Father, completely dependent on Him, completely trusting. His daily bread was always enough.

Lord, simply give us each day our daily bread. No matter what comes, You will always provide all we need. Thank You, Lord.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: A Garden in the Night
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A Celebration of Life

Read the book of Ecclesiastes. It paints a thoughtful and poignant picture of life that inevitably ends in death. If everyone dies, if after all, death has the final word, what is the point?

Meaningless! Meaningless!…
Utterly meaningless!
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun;
all of them are meaningless,
a chasing after the wind.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14, NIV) 

All our lofty virtues – wisdom, nobility, hope, love – are reduced to naïve self-deception. They are intended for a broader reality that simply doesn’t exist. Embrace the shallow and the temporary, for they are the only things that are real.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead changes all that. It transforms the entire context and meaning of life on this earth. God’s life conquers death. Life and love, light and joy, blessing and beauty are eternal. Goodness makes sense. Self-sacrifice is not only noble but logical. It is turning loose of something good in order to grasp something greater.

As we accept a personal relationship of trust with our almighty, loving God, He shares His life with us. His Spirit becomes one with our spirit. We share His being, and though this body dies, His life, and His life in us, goes on forever. In fact, He guarantees us a new and more wonderful body, one designed for an eternity in His immediate presence.

Easter is the pivotal point of all human existence. As we simply trust our Creator, we become eternal, glorious creatures, sharing His life forever. The tyranny of death is shattered.

He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
(Isaiah 25:7-8, NIV)

Celebrate! Celebrate Easter every day as it deserves to be celebrated: with praise, thanksgiving, joy, love, and lavish self-giving.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: A Celebration of Life
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Witnessing Even in Death

from the book, ONE WITH OUR FATHER 

John 18 – 19

Even as the Father was allowing His Son to be cruelly tortured and murdered, even as the Son was experiencing a deep sense of abandonment by the Father, each was lifting up testimonies to the other.

The Father was testifying to Jesus as His own chosen, only-begotten, dearly-loved Son, all the while events seemed to proclaim the opposite. And the Father brought these testimonies from highly-unexpected sources.

  • When the arrest party arrived to seize Jesus, He spoke up and asked, “Whom do you seek?” When they answered, “Jesus the Nazarene,” Jesus identified Himself with the words, “I am.” This would be the usual way of saying, “I am he” or “I am the one you are seeking”. But when Jesus thus spoke the divine name, “I am,” even His enemies reacted to Him in instinctive humility, backing up and prostrating themselves before Him on the ground (John 18:4-8, NASB).
  • After a brief interview, Pilate realized that Jesus was an innocent man and looked for a way to release Him. Then when the Jews specifically accused Jesus of claiming to be the Son of God, Pilate was even more afraid (John 18:38; 19:7-8). He seemed to sense that this righteous Man was who He claimed to be.
  • The sign Pilate had hung on the cross correctly identified Jesus for who He was: “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.” Pilate refused to change the sign, even when pressured by the Jewish leaders (John 19:19-22, NASB).
  • One of the criminals executed with Jesus knew who He was. He defended Jesus to the other criminal, then asked, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” Jesus recognized his genuine faith and responded, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43, NASB).
  • While the Son was on the cross, the Father Creator sent darkness over the land from noon through 3:00 p.m. The veil of the temple was torn in two (Luke 23:44-45).
  • The Roman centurion, who supervised Jesus’ execution and saw everything that happened, “became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54, NASB).

Even while engulfed by physical, mental, and spiritual agony, even as He surrendered His life to death, the Son stayed focused on His Father. He was intent on testifying to His Father’s loving control, even as events seemed to shout the triumph of evil.

Jesus’ words on the cross show that thoughts of His Father filled His heart, even as He died. Notice particularly John 19:28, 30:

Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.”

Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His Spirit. (NASB) 

In death as in life, Jesus’ first concern was to fulfill His Father’s will. Specifically, He was intent on fulfilling scriptural prophecies about His death. Why? Because the fulfillment of prophecy showed that the Father was still in full control of all that was happening, even as Satan seemed to be having his way. All was happening as the Father had announced centuries before.

Scripture testifies to divine control, even in Jesus’ dying act. Throughout the gospel account of the arrest and trial of Jesus, He remained passive, allowing Himself to be “handed over” (the meaning of the Greek word) from one party to another:

  • Judas handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities (Matthew 26:46, 48).
  • The Jews handed Him over to Pilate (Matthew 27:2).
  • Pilate handed Him over to be crucified (Matthew 27:26).

But Jesus had already told His disciples, “I lay down My life . . . No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18, NASB). True to His word, Jesus’ final act on the cross was to “hand over” His Spirit to the Father (John 19:30). He died by His own decision, not as a helpless victim, but as Lord of Life, in full control.

In death as in life, the Son glorified the Father, and the Father glorified the Son.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: His Hour Has Come
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