2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB) 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.
What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.
But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?
Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!
Last time, we looked at the story from Daniel Chapter 2 (see text here:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=ESV ) Daniel, his friends, and the entire court of magicians, sorcerers, wise men, and counselors of Babylon are under threat of death if they cannot tell the mighty Nebudchadnezzar the meaning of his dreams– dreams he refuses to disclose to them! The power and wrath of the king of Babylon is imposing. The threat is real and very dire.
But today, I want to look at the larger picture, just as Daniel was able to do so long ago.
Nebuchadnezzar looms large across all his empire– he is the supreme ruler, a despot, and a madman. But he is not God. Even as he strikes fear in the hearts of his counselors, he causes Daniel and his friends to seek help from a higher power. Already, the other learned men, sorcerers and astrologers have come to Daniel for help. Even though he is young, and a foreign captive, there is something about his character that has earned the respect of others in authority. Daniel could easily have become arrogant and proud. Or he could have folded under the pressure, knowing that he had no answers to give the king.
Instead, he did two key things– first, he asked for help from his friends. He asked for their support in prayer. Never discount the power of prayer– especially the prayers of others on your behalf. So often, we worry and wallow in our problems, waiting for God to work, praying in isolation and silent anguish. God wants us to seek His face; He wants to hear our prayers. But He also wants us to seek help and prayer support from those who are close to us. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked for support from His three closest friends. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+14%3A32-42&version=ESV) He went off alone to pray and pour out His deepest anguish, but He took His closest friends to “keep watch”. Daniel would face Nebuchadnezzar one-on-one, but he would not be “alone.” Not only would he know that God was with him, he would know that his caring friends were “keeping watch,” and providing faithful support. We should do the same.
In weight training, there is a practice called “spotting”, in which another person stands ready to help a weight lifter as s/he attempts to lift a heavier weight than normal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotting_(weight_training)) Daniel is preparing to shoulder a big weight. He expects to face Nebuchadnezzar, and, while he doesn’t know (yet) the content of the king’s dreams, he knows that they are disturbing and mysterious. Whatever he says to the king, however tactfully he says it, his life (and the lives of many others) may be at stake. Spotters “keep watch”, and offer to step in and help if the weight is too great to bear. In this instance, Daniel’s friends were there, ready to help. They were not required to step up and face Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. But their time will come soon enough! As Christians, we need to be prepared to be a Daniel– but we also need to be prepared to be a “spotter” for our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to “keep watch,” ready to step in with prayer, action, and faithful support.
Secondly, Daniel waited with hope and expectation. The Bible does not tell us what Daniel prayed before God sent His answer, but it does record Daniel’s response to God’s vision. And his prayer is not one of selfish relief– “Thank you, God for giving me what I need to save me from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar…”–instead, Daniel rejoices in God Almighty; the one who causes kings to rise and fall, the one who gives wisdom and who knows the future. It is this God Daniel has trusted, and this God Daniel will honor when he goes in to meet with Nebuchadnezzar.
Today, may we follow the good example of Daniel. Let’s share our concerns with others, and gladly offer to pray for each other, pray with each other, and “keep watch” for each other. And let us expect great things from our great and faithful God– even if we are living –and praying–under pressure!
In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )
First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.
Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.
We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.
The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.
No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.
The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.
Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.
Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.
The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?
Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:
1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV) 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. 10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.
I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.
We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.
Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.
Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.
That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.
Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.
October is Pastor Appreciation Month. I have mixed feelings about such designations. I’m glad to appreciate my pastors, past and present; to honor their service, their wisdom, their heart for God and their flocks, and their selfless devotion to both. And I believe that pastors are some of the most under-appreciated, over-worked, overlooked people in our world today. One way we can show appreciation is to pray for our pastors, their families, and our churches. And not just during a single month of the year. But for the remainder of this month, let’s make a point of praying faithfully for pastors. Here are a few reasons why, beyond just showing appreciation:
Remember their basic daily needs (health, family, finances, emotions, wisdom, etc.) as well as spiritual needs
Remember they are sinners saved by grace, just like the rest of us– pray for grace and wisdom to show encouragement and acceptance
Ask them how you can pray for them! It is surprising how many in the congregation are willing to share their needs but NEVER ask how they can lift up their pastors.
Ask God to show you ways to appreciate, encourage, and (genuinely) help your pastor(s).
Be grateful–Thank God for your pastor–Thank Him for your pastor’s strengths, and for the ways your pastor has shown growth and humility. Thank God for your pastor’s family and for those who come alongside to help him/her in ministry. Thank God if you live in an area where pastors can preach freely, openly, and honestly from God’s Word.
Be honest–(see above) Being grateful for our pastor doesn’t mean that s/he is flawless, or that we don’t care about differences of opinion, or even questionable practices. Giving grace doesn’t mean ignoring sin; but it also means looking honestly and prayerfully at a situation. Often the “fault” we see lies in ourselves; we don’t like the sermons because they hit too close to home, or because are expecting great oratory and have no patience for simple homilies. But occasionally, the fault is something that requires talking with or even confronting the pastor. Pray for wisdom and humility, grace and strength.
Be wise. Satan likes nothing better than to get us thinking about, discussing, and even bringing to God every little fault about our pastor (and our neighbor, our spouse, our in-laws, and even ourselves!) Satan also thrives on half-truths, rumors, misinformation and assumption. Pray that God will keep your pastor safe from ugly rumors, lies, and false accusations; pray also that God will keep your pastor accountable and your congregation open to following Biblical principles for confrontation, punishment, repentance, and restoration for all.
Faithful, God-fearing, loving, wise pastors are priceless gifts from our Heavenly Father. Let’s be sure to pray for them, pray WITH them, and speak words of encouragement and gratitude.
And it wouldn’t hurt if you sent them a card or gift, or offered to take them out for coffee or dinner– just a thought…
I got to spend the day with my granddaughter earlier this week. She’s three, and has all the energy of a firecracker, and the curiosity of a kitten. She is learning to discern what things and which people are trustworthy (or not). Having worked with children from infants to teens over the years, I have seen this progression in others– sometimes with good results, and sometimes ending in disaster.
We hear about “childlike” faith–Jesus spoke of it; even praised it. Yet we see examples of people whose simple faith puts them in danger from predators, bullies, scam artists, and other perils. Is this really what Christ wants from us? No! Jesus didn’t commend foolishness; he told dozens of parables warning of foolishness and simple-mindedness. The Apostle Paul also talks of “babies” in the faith needing to grow wiser and stronger. There is a difference between having the faith of a child, and having the brain of a child. Jesus doesn’t want us to be ignorant, gullible, or bratty, but He loved the willingness of children to ask questions, seek out answers, and listen with open minds and hearts.
Most people become cynical over the years– some far earlier than others. They trust no one and nothing but themselves, thinking they know best, or frightened to find out what they don’t know. In many ways, they are as vulnerable (or even more so) as those who trust everyone.
My granddaughter is still at the stage where she trusts her parents and grandparents to watch out for her, give her good advice, and answer all her many questions. As she learns new skills, she often “consults” with us; asking our approval, wanting our input–as she meets new people, she will also take many of her cues from us. Should she be polite, informal, respectful, quiet, reserved, loud, assertive? She is still learning, but she still trusts us more than, say, her brothers or peers. There will come a time when she will develop the habit of either following the examples we have set for manners, traditions, habits, and such, or looking to other models.
Watching her, I was reminded of two very important questions I need to ask myself?
What does she see and hear from me? Am I trustworthy in the way I talk to (and about!) others? About her? Am I giving her solid advice and good examples that will help her develop good habits and relationships? Am I “present”– not being distracted or half-hearted in responding to her needs? Am I teaching her wisdom about the dangers she must face in this world? Or do I pretend they don’t exist or won’t touch her?
Who am I trusting? The obvious “right” answer is Jesus Christ, but is that the reality? Do I lean on my own understanding, or consult with “experts” without asking for God’s wisdom or seeking His approval? Am I seeking to learn from Him how to navigate the dangers of this world, or pretending they won’t touch me?
Having childlike faith is not the same as having a childish faith; it’s not the same as being foolish or ignoring facts. Smart children ask questions– lots of them! But they listen to the answers. Foolish children (and foolish adults) claim to know all the answers, and refuse to listen to advice.
Two women, so alike in some ways–
Both attractive and energetic,
Both young and vivacious.
One has prepared a table; the other has prepared her bed,
One talks of virtue and honor; the other whispers secrets.
One requires commitment; the other promises no strings.
To enter either door is to be changed.
A man entered the door of the wise woman.
He was simple, uncomplicated, straightforward;
A man of few words, but noble heart.
He ate at her table, put his boots outside the door–
Carried her over the threshold.
Time passed, children came.
They added on to the house.
Put in a garden; got a dog.
Others took note.
There were gatherings–
Holidays, barbecues, reunions.
The house was a home.
He never looked back.
Years later, the man died.
His neighbors and family all spoke
Of his honesty, integrity, and wisdom.
His wife mourned, and was comforted.
He was the father of three,
The grandfather of seventeen.
Another man entered the door of the foolish woman.
He was simple, uncomplicated, straightforward;
A man of few words, but a yearning heart.
He ate her food and drank her wine; slept in her bed–
Wallowed in her perfumed sheets.
He laughed at her coarse jokes,
Reveled in her cat-fights with the other girls,
And the stares of other men.
He bought her jewelry. She bought him a car.
They lived the dream: parties and vacations;
Dancing ’til dawn and no responsibilities.
They forgot to pay the bills; they wrecked the car.
Others took note and shook their heads.
She moved in with someone else.
He moved into a hotel.
There were other women
And other hotels.
There were neighbors, friends–
Cars, jobs, maybe even children
Along the way.
But he was never the same.
Years later, the man died.
His neighbors and friends
Spoke of the loss
In passing or over a beer.
The woman didn’t hear of his passing.
When someone brought up his name,
She said, “Such a simple, stupid man.
I wonder what ever happened to him.”
I’m getting a double whammy this week–two Bible study groups; one studying Daniel and the other Job. Some of you will groan just reading the first sentence. Along with the book of Revelations, these are two of the most difficult and misunderstood books in the Bible. And for good reason. The book of Daniel doesn’t just contain the favorite stories of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it also contains prophetic visions that seem to foreshadow two distinct sets of events– one set that happened in the time between Daniel’s life and the birth of Christ, and another set of events yet to come.
The book of Job is puzzling– there are no good clues as to when it took place, or exactly where, or even if it is real or a parable. There is a curious interchange between God and Satan that is unlike any other passage in scripture. Finally, it is filled with difficult dialogues from Job and his friends, as they try to make sense of his suffering as God stays silent. When God finally speaks, He doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions or his friends’ misleading statements.
What happens when I don’t understand what God is doing (or seemingly NOT doing) in my life or the lives of others? What happens when the world doesn’t make sense, and the Bible doesn’t seem to shed any light? What happens when I pray, but God seems silent?
I think the answer has a lot to do with where I am in my relationship with Christ:
I can panic, lose faith, or become angry and insolent. If I don’t know God or don’t trust him; if I doubt his goodness or wisdom or power, I may run from his word and his presence.
I can lean on my own understanding. I can substitute my own limited wisdom for God’s, and try to “explain away” all the things I don’t quite understand. I may ignore the Bible passages I don’t understand, in favor of doubling down on the ones I think I know. I can insist on my own interpretations of difficult or disturbing passages, even if someone points out inconsistencies in my logic, or context clues that disagree with my view.
I can lean on someone else’s understanding, listening to their views without question or without reading and praying through it myself. If someone else has an answer, shouldn’t that be enough? Even if I still don’t fully understand, at least I have an answer…
I can ignore the question–after all, do I really need to know about God? Isn’t it enough that He exists and He is good? If I say it loud enough and often enough, won’t that make the questions go away?
It seems that there is a better way– God never promises us easy answers or complete answers to all the questions in this life. We can be angry or grateful for that truth, but most of all we must accept it. God will answer many of our questions–maybe not in the time and manner we expect. And some of them we won’t understand this side of heaven. But the Bible is clear in calling us to pursue answers, and be honest when we don’t understand. God may not give us a simple answer, but He promises to give us wisdom– wisdom to seek, and wisdom to wait; wisdom to trust, and wisdom to keep knocking.
Ask, Seek, Knock, Wrestle, Search, Pray, Plead, Study, and Learn.
Last week, I was called upon to give testimony in court as a witness to a crime. The crime itself occurred months ago, so I was very nervous, trying to remember the sequence of events, and trying to make sure I didn’t add or leave out important details.
There is a reason the judge asks for “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It is very easy to exaggerate, to leave out details that may reflect poorly on us or on those we know, or to add commentary or opinion. Even the way a lawyer asks a question can evoke a certain memory or reaction that is more or less than the original event warrants.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t tell the entire “truth”–not because I lied or withheld evidence, but because I only witnessed a portion of the crime, and because I don’t have total and perfect recall. No one does. Three witnesses may testify and get certain details “wrong” or mix up the sequence of events, or be confused or hazy months after the event. Even seeing the same event from a different perspective can alter one’s testimony. One person hears a conversation clearly, but cannot see one speaker’s facial expressions or gestures. Another sees the event close up, but cannot see what is happening “behind the scene.” One person’s personal biases may come out in the way they give testimony, even if they are unaware of it. While I hope and believe that I told the truth as I witnessed it, my witness alone is not enough to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence–nor should it be.
The ninth Commandment (in Exodus 20) warns about giving or “bearing” false witness. We usually equate this with lying, but it is more than telling “a whopper.” Bearing false witness includes spreading rumors, “sharing” questionable posts, omitting facts, and even “faking it” until you make it– pretending to be what we are not; hypocrisy, and false appearances.
As a follower of Jesus, I am a full-time witness. This is far more important even than being a witness in a court case. I should always speak and behave as if I am “under oath.” Not just when I know all eyes may be watching; not just when I’m with other “witnesses.” Always. This doesn’t mean that I aggressively volunteer my opinion and beat people over the head with commentary everywhere I go. It doesn’t mean that I smile and say only what I think others want to hear. It means that I speak less than I listen, but when I speak, it is truth–loving, sometimes harsh, spoken with the intent to help, heal, encourage, challenge, and bring justice.
In prayer, it means that I repent of falsehood, pride, envy, anger, and bitterness. It means that I acknowledge God for who He is, and myself for who I am in Him. It means that I ask for wisdom to seek and see truth, and to see through deception and falsehood–even in my own heart and mind. And it means that I thank God for His Truth, which is perfect and victorious. I pray that the Truth will shine in, around, and through my life and my words, and in the lives of others.
Many people will point out when I get it “wrong.” They will point to other Christ-followers, other “witnesses” whose lives may look different from mine, who speak differently, act differently, vote differently, even worship differently than me. And I need to trust that the “whole” truth will come from each of us bearing honest and full witness to what we know and experience of God’s goodness, His power, and His love. I don’t have the “whole” truth– but I am a witness of the one who IS the whole Truth!