Daddies and daughters…

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Nehemiah 3:11 (Among those rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem) Malchijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. 12 Next to him Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters. 

When the Jews were finally allowed to go back home to Israel after being captive in Babylon for 70 years, a group of them began rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. In this third chapter of Nehemiah we read a lengthy breakdown of who built which sections of the wall, and city gates, and so on. In every case but one there is mention of the “son” of so-and-so who worked on the project. And then we have v.12:

Next to him Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters.

This is the only instance in a long list of persons that includes any females. Good on ya Shallum! The fact that Shallum was a person of some note (ruler of half the district of Jerusalem) only adds to the significance. It may be that because Shallum was a ruler of sorts people may not have said anything to his face about this, but I’m guessing there may have been some snickers behind his back.

Whatever.

There is something special about a bond between a daddy and his daughters. I’m grateful to God for both of mine. And I’d like to think, if I were in the same position,  I would do what Shallum did. I would invite my two daughters to participate, sharing in the experience with me and my son Nick. That said, I’m not sure how enthusiastic they would be because they could, you know, break a nail or something. 🙂 My daughters are girlie girls for sure, but I would’t have it any other way.

Lord thank you for daddies and daughters. Amen.

Group > Individual

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Romans 2:But by your hard and impenitent heart you (unbelievers) are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

There is an interesting shift happening here. I noticed it in v.6:

“For he will repay according to each one’s deeds…”

In the Old Testament faithfulness was generally understood to be a corporate endeavor. The Israelites as a whole were judged to be right with God or not. But in the New Testament the nature of God’s relationship to people has changed. God is no longer principally acting on behalf of one specific people group (Israel) but now invites all people into the family of God through Jesus Christ. Corporate faithfulness shifts to individual faithfulness. This can lead to problems if we’re not careful.

When I was in the army we had to learn the value of the group, not the individual. I can remember the first time the entire platoon was punished because one person in the platoon had screwed up though everyone else had done their jobs. Not a good day for the guy who messed up or for the rest of us. But after this happened a few times we finally got the message. We didn’t just need to look out for ourselves but needed to make sure everyone else was squared away too. Why? Because in the heat of battle, if one person misses his assignment, everyone’s life is at stake. We had to look out for one another to survive.

In the church we too need to look out for one another. We need one another. No one can follow Jesus and grow as a disciple without the support and accountability of the group. Left to ourselves we will fall away. In relationship with other believers we can be pulled back when we go off the rails. And I happen to go off the rails quite regularly.

Lord Jesus thank you for the gift of the body of believers. Without each other we would surely be lost. Give us grace to lock arms and follow after you. Amen.

When the righteous cry…

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Psalm 34:17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. 

The psalmist writes in this verse regarding “the righteous” who cry for help. Righteous people are those who are in right relationship with God the Father. And, as you know, the Old Testament covenant was the covenant of the law. So those who abided by the law of Moses could expect the Lord to “rescue them from all their troubles”.

This is interesting because all of the greats pillars of the faith (Abraham, Moses, David, and so on) had plenty of troubles. The promise wasn’t that the righteous would be without troubles, but that they would be rescued from them.

This is still true today. We will endure troubles. Lots of them. And though our troubles may ultimately end in death, we are still rescued from them via eternal life in Jesus Christ. I have to remember that today as I consider my own troubles and those of people I know and love. Dear Lord, rescue us as we cry to you. Amen.

 

It’s not about the rules people…

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Romans 1:16 For I (the apostle Paul) am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Romans is one of the books of the bible that is more of a teaching piece than a narrative story. In these verses Paul is explaining the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ (righteousness by faith). He will later contrast this with the old covenant (righteousness by adherence to the law). The verse that got my particular attention this morning is the following:

“For in (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”

What does that mean, “through faith for faith”? In discussion with a colleague we agreed the key to understanding this verse lies in translation of the Greek words “ek” (through) and “eis” (for). It’s the English translation of “ek” in the NRSV version of the bible that I believe creates some confusion.

My Greek resources tell me that “ek” denotes origin, a place of beginning. Hence another translation of v.17 would include “from faith” rather than “through faith”. Both can be understood as denoting origin, but I think “from faith” does a better job of this. This gives us the following:

“…the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith”

In other words “faith” is the key to obtaining righteousness in the first place, not adherence to the law. And it is that faith that sustains us throughout our lives as followers of Jesus.

There were people in Paul’s day who tried to convince new Christians that, though they received the gospel by faith, they still had to observe the law of Moses as other Jews did (whether these new Christians were of Jewish ethnicity or not). They argued Christians should observe things like dietary restrictions, circumcision of all males, and so on. Paul fought against this his entire life. Eventually the influence of the Jewish Christians who observed the law of Moses waned, particularly as the primary engine for growth of Christianity was among the Gentile population, not Jews.

But why is this passage, and this verse in particular, important to you and me? I believe there remains in modern Christianity a tendency to want to “earn” or “deserve” righteousness; to revert back to the spirit of the covenant of the law. We want to place conditions on the love of God in Jesus Christ, often at the expense of others. We make lists of things both acceptable and prohibited by God, most often in such a way that we are found within the bounds of righteousness. I see progressive Christians condemning conservative Christians in this way and vice versa. It makes for a very poor witness to a world skeptical of Christianity in the first place.

The point of righteousness by faith is that we ALL stand condemned by the law, by dos and don’ts. Our only hope, on the first day of our faith journey and every day thereafter, is in the righteousness that comes by faith alone. Lord, teach us to receive this message into our very core. Amen.

 

Remember you are dust…

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Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you notice the passage above is all one sentence? Haha! That’s Greek for you. If Paul had been in a high school English class he’d have failed! It’s one of the blessings and challenges of reading the book of Romans. It’s incredibly dense. There is so much meaning contained in relatively few words, it can take a long time to unpack it all. This morning the phrase that caught my attention is in v.5:

“to bring about the obedience of faith”

What does that mean, “obedience of faith”? I’m thinking the Greek might better be translated “obedience that springs from faith”. It seems there are times when faith (the hope of things unseen) is a necessary foundation for obedience to the Lord, to the promises of the gospel. Hebrews 11:6 says “Without faith it is impossible to please God”.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which is the start of the season of Lent.  Lent continues from now through Easter Sunday in late April. It’s traditionally a time of introspection, repentance, humility. Tonight the congregation I lead will gather for worship and receive the mark of the cross in ashes on the forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I recently lost my stepdad after he struggled through a long illness. In many ways he greeted death as a friend. Life had become filled with pain, suffering, loss of life as he knew it. Frankly, it was hard to watch a man I remember as a giant of my youth slowly atrophy into a shadow of his former self. And then, one early Saturday morning a few weeks ago, he was gone.

When you lose someone you love it can be hard to be hopeful in that moment. The grief and loss are too great to see anything but pain and despair. Not just for the one who died, but for those of us who yet live. In this case I grieve for my mother whose life revolved around this man for almost 40 years. Talk about leaving a void.

And so tonight when I gather with the saints in suburban Dallas and feel a finger which will mark the sign of the cross on my forehead, when I hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I’ll be thinking of my stepdad. And perhaps instead of falling into the abyss of grief, I will embrace the hope of salvation in Christ Jesus. For my stepdad. For me. For you. Amen.

 

 

In the hands of the Lord…

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Acts 28:23 After (the Jewish leaders in Rome) had set a day to meet with (the apostle Paul), they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. 24 Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.

There was no one in the ancient world better equipped to share the gospel with fellow Jews than the apostle Paul, who had once been a pharisee named Saul. The passage says he took an entire day, from morning until evening, breaking it down for his listeners. He had been doing this sort of thing for decades so I expect Paul was brilliant at this. And yet, some were convinced and some weren’t.

Fact: God is the one who prepares people to receive the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, not the speaker. 

I was in Amarillo this past weekend doing some teaching on the topic of sharing faith with others. One of the main reasons we tend to shy away from this kind of evangelical engagement is our lack of confidence in what to say. We feel inadequate, out of our depth, fearful we might say something wrong or be asked a question for which we have no answer. In other words, we get nervous because we believe the outcome depends upon us. It does not.

In fact, I’m convinced that sharing one’s faith is less about what one has to say and more about listening to persons who are struggling. Go back and read the gospel account of Jesus’ ministry. Notice how many of the people Jesus talks to are people in a bind of some sort. This is not an accident. Struggling people tend to be receptive to new ideas, new ways of living. And given how rare it is to be truly heard, particularly in the modern age of the smart phone, listening well to another person is a very powerful tool.

Instead of offering a prepared set of remarks about Jesus, what if we asked probing questions to truly understand where a person is coming from? And what if we followed up our listening with an invitation to prayer. It might sound something like:

“Tell me what’s going on.”

“Say more about that.”

“How can I help?”

“Can I pray for you?”

And when we pray for another person the Holy Spirit is fully engaged and speaking to the heart of the other. It is the Lord who does the work, not you and me. We are simply a vessel through which the Lord can speak to people.

Lord Jesus, give us grace to share our faith with others, trusting you to determine who receives what is offered and who does not. Amen.

Difficult choices…

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Ezra 4:1 When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.” 4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, 5 and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.

You’ll recall that the Israelites, who had been unfaithful to God (Yahweh) for generations, were defeated in battle and occupied by the Assyrian army – with survivors being sent to Babylon to live as servants. Seventy years later King Cyrus of Persia gave the people permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, including the temple. That’s what had been going on at the time of our passage. Rebuilding was well underway when a problem emerged.

When the Israelites were sent off to Babylon their cities didn’t sit empty. Other peoples (non-Jews) occupied their cities including Jerusalem. In v.2 these Gentiles asked to participate in the rebuilding of the temple, saying they too worshipped Yahweh. The Jews said no. That was out of the question. The question is… why? Why not give others permission to build with them? Many hands makes light work, right? If they indeed worshipped Yahweh what was the problem?

We’re not told explicitly, but we can make an educated guess. While it may have been true the Gentile peoples living in Jerusalem worshipped Yahweh, it’s very likely they also worshipped other gods at the same time, which was a common practice in that time period. There is a name for that sort of thing. It’s called “syncretism” and it’s one of the practices that got the Israelites in trouble in the first place. Yahweh doesn’t ask to be one God among many, but the One true God. The Gentiles were offended when they were refused and stirred up trouble, but in the end refusing their offer was the right call.

That said, I can understand the temptation to receive the offer of help despite the potential pitfalls. One could easily have understood the offer as a gift rather than a trap. In fact I suspect there were Jews who argued to include the Gentiles in the workforce, though they were apparently overruled. Sometimes acting according to conviction makes a task more difficult, not less. This morning I’m wondering where I might be taking shortcuts that provide short-term relief while creating problems in the long-term.

Lord Jesus, give us wisdom to live according to your will and purposes rather than short-term expedience. Amen.