We are working through the book of Nehemiah this month with an eye towards the idea of “A time to build”. Of course, we want to build the church and we want to do so to the glory of God. Nehemiah wanted to rebuild the home of the Hebrews, the city of Jerusalem. To do this, the people made four vows, or promises, that they put in writing and sealed it. Putting a seal on a document is a serious matter because it meant taking a solemn oath before the Lord. Those who agreed to this covenant are listed in Nehemiah 10:1-27.
The law governing oaths and vows is found in Numbers 30:2: “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” That leads to a question. Are vows of any use today? I think they are for at least two reasons. First, they help us focus. When you make a vow, you are saying that you are going to do something specific. Second, vows allow us to express our love. That’s why couples make vows during a marriage ceremony. Love is more than just a feeling, it’s a commitment or promise to be married until death do us part. Third, God is a covenant-keeping God, even when we don’t keep our end of the deal. You may have made some promises to God in the past that you haven’t kept. You may have broken some vows. If you have, you’re not alone. Jeremiah 31:32 says that God’s people broke the covenant on a regular basis.
So let’s consider making a few vows to build (or re-build) First Baptist Church of Palos Verdes. Remember, however, we don’t succeed as Christians because we make promises to God, but because we believe the promises of God and act upon them. Having said that, many of us never come to the point of getting serious with God simply because we never get specific with Him. We hear sermons and sense the Spirit’s tug at our heart, but until we decide to be completely committed to Him, we won’t be. Perhaps the idea of re-building the church has challenged or convicted you before the Lord. Listen to Him and decide to put into practice what you know you need to do. Here are a few things we can vow to do for God’s church:
- Vow #1: Submission to God’s Word – As a result of hearing God’s Word, the Israelites made four decisions. The “bound themselves with an oath to follow the law” (Nehemiah 10:29) The people were saying that they are so seriously submitted to God and His Word that they are willing for God’s displeasure to fall on them if they do not carefully obey what He says. I wonder if we have that same submission and dangerous devotion today? Does God have all of you?
- Vow #2: Separation from the World – After submitting themselves to God and His Word, the believers make a second vow to separate themselves from worldliness. When you think about it, separation is simply total devotion to God, no matter what the cost. The Israelites separated from the peoples around them and to God and His Word.
- Vow #3: Sabbath for God’s People – After pledging themselves to submit to the Word of God and to live separated lives, the believers renew the covenant with a third vow: the Sabbath for God’s people. This was a day to be dedicated to the Lord. Do we make that commitment? Does anything else take precedence on your Sunday?
- Vow #4: Support For God’s Work -That leads to their fourth pledge: support for God’s work in verses 10:32-39. The phrase “house of our God” is used nine times in this section and refers to the restored temple. Verse 39 sums up their commitment: “We will not neglect the house of our God.”
To God be the glory!
As 2015 comes to an end and we launch into 2016, it’s useful for us to take time to both reflect on what God has done and allow him to prepare us for what’s to come. A new year marks a fresh opportunity to center our lives around the goodness of God. I pray that as you begin looking toward what is to come you will make space to gain God’s perspective, ground your hopes and pursuits on his grace and celebrate all that God has done and is doing. May your time with God this coming year be filled with the loving presence of your heavenly Father.
And as we face new or continuing challenges, keep in mind that the same heavenly Father that gave you grace can strengthen you through those challenges. Paul tells us, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Do you know that your God longs to strengthen you? This verse illustrates a powerful spiritual principle that our heavenly Father longs for you to know today. You were never meant to go through this life alone, living in your own strength. The God who formed the mountains, filled the seas, breathed life into dust and sustains every living creature longs to strengthen you for whatever lies ahead.
Ephesians 3:20-21 says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” God can do “far more abundantly” than you could ever dream in your life, “according to the power at work within [you].” The Holy Spirit, the power of God for all the earth dwells within you. Just as he empowered the Apostles for the advance of the gospel through trial and tribulation he will empower you. Just as he spoke to the Apostles, telling them where they should go and what they should do, he longs to lead you.
You can do all that God has called you to. Whether it is freedom from depression, victory over sin, engaging in difficult confession, working biblically rather than worldly, seeking unity and fellowship with those that bother you or simply seeking God with all your heart, the Holy Spirit will strengthen you today if you are willing to receive.
To be strengthened by God begins by declaring our inability. God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we try and live in our own strength, we become unable to receive the grace of God. God’s grace is never forced on us, but rather, readily available to all those who acknowledge their need of it. God cannot empower you to experience unity with a fellow believer if you try and engage in relationship apart from the inner work of the Holy Spirit. He cannot empower you to experience victory from sin if you don’t take time to receive his love and follow his leadership moment by moment.
To be strengthened by the mighty hand of God is to stop living in your own strength and instead wholly rely on his. God longs to “do far more abundantly than all [you] ask or think” if you will lean into him for his love, power and guidance. He has plans far above anything you could ever dream of, and the path to those plans begins with following him moment by moment today. He will faithfully guide you into all the abundant life he has for you, but you must be willing to follow him and live by his strength.
In the context of Philippians 4:13, Paul describes an important spiritual principle. Scripture says, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Trust God in whatever season he’s leading you through. Whether you find yourself with plenty or little, difficulties or ease, you can find your contentment in the gift of abundant relationship with your heavenly Father. All that is good comes from his hands alone.
This coming year, we must seek and save the lost just as Jesus did. We need to actively think of ways that we, as individuals, can extend the hand of fellowship that will bring people to our church. Let’s start with those we know, perhaps even Christians we know, to get the ball rolling. By the end of the year we need to be reaching out to those who don’t know the love of Christ and will come to accept him. We may think that we don’t have what it takes to evangelize our world. Truth is, we don’t. But He does. Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Do you realize that most of our mental images about Christmas come from medieval art and Christmas cards? Often showing three wise men coming to the Christ child just minutes after His birth. If you read the biblical account carefully, it could have been up to two years after Jesus was born before the Magi showed up. We don’t know how many wise men actually came. The biblical account does not give a number. We know it was more than one because the Bible talks about men – plural. The story in Matthew doesn’t tell us and the number three is not even mentioned in the text.
If we’re confused about the magi, then we may misinterpret the shepherds as well. The picture of shepherds in the field evokes a positive, pastoral image for us. It reminds us of Jesus’ association with the line of David. We have sentimentalized them so on our Christmas cards and art that they look like gentle folk waiting to go to a homecoming celebration. Why the shepherds? I want the angels to go to the Temple to tell the religious leaders what God was doing! They should have gone to the governor and let him know that something awesome was happening in Bethlehem! They should have gone to Herod and told him that God was doing a great thing in Bethlehem, and that the King of kings had been born! Instead of telling somebody important, the angles told a rag-tag bunch of shepherds. That’s not what we would have done. But, that is the way God wanted it. Perhaps there are three reasons;
I. He came because of them
Here we discover the heart of God and the meaning of the birth of this child. In this picture, we are reminded that Jesus came for people like the shepherds, not the religious elite, the politically savvy, or the rulers of the people. They are a metaphor for the kind of people Jesus came to save. People who were doing what they did every day and every night. People going through the routines of life. Isn’t that what the birth of Jesus is all about? It’s about God meeting us, not on high holy days, but on ordinary days, in ordinary places, in an extraordinary way. The birth of this child is about God coming to us in our everyday lives and saying to us, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news.” I think that’s why God sent the angels to the shepherds – to let us know that this child was for all people, even the most ordinary.
II. The shepherds in shock
Imagine the first reaction of the shepherds; they were scared to death! They understood the appearance of angels as an omen, as though God were bringing His wrath upon them. Yet the angels said, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy. Today a Savior is born!” With that, the heavens opened with glorious music. The heavenly chorus praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!”. In the midst of an ordinary night, ordinary shepherds encountered an extraordinary God who met them when and where they least expected to be met.
III. Sometimes seeing is believing
After heavenly chorus offers praise, the shepherds had to see for themselves, so they ran off to Bethlehem to experience what the angels had told them. After seeing them, they reported the message about this child, and “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:16-18). When God offers grace, the appropriate response is exuberant joy. Eventually, the whole world would celebrate the coming of this child, but for now, only the shepherds knew what had happened in Bethlehem. The result was the response that should arise from all God’s people: The shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God” (v. 20).
Reading Luke’s account, are we filled with wonder? Are we expecting something miraculous? Do we expect the amazement to continue? We want the mystery of the moment to continue because we long for something amazing in our lives. Our routines are so predictable and harried, our schedules so frantic and programmed. Our days are so packed with stuff, I wonder if we allow ourselves time to live. Yet, as we hear angels singing and shepherds hurrying and Mary pondering, we feel we may just find a little time for wonder.
No U.S. holiday is as distinctive as Thanksgiving. In our busy, deadline-fixated age, expressing gratitude to our heavenly Father is too easily squeezed out of our lives, but it is important. First, I think human beings are “hardwired” to do this. Even atheists seem to have unsettling moments when they feel an irresistible urge to thank someone “up there.” One of the problems with atheism occurs when pain is avoided or pleasure gained—having no one to give thanks to leaves you with an itch you cannot scratch. But there is more than a primeval urge to justify thanking God. On almost every page of the Bible, we see this as a theme. The Old Testament reverberates with the sound of people praising God; Israel’s history is full of thanksgiving to God for showing them mercy and delivering them from disaster.
In the New Testament, Jesus offers up thanks to God the Father, most importantly at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-27), where the word used for thanksgiving is eucharist, still used in many churches for communion. Paul not only regularly gives thanks; he actually commands it of others. Thanksgiving is giving thanks and that alone. Of all the different types of prayer, this is least likely to be contaminated by our own conscious or subconscious desire to manipulate God.
Today, Thanksgiving is neglected in part because Western culture is so obsessed with the future. But to give thanks to God is to look backward, not forward, and to express gratitude for the good things that have come our way. It’s easy to say, “Thank’s God” for the health and wealth we have. But do we also give God thanks for friends, family, housing, or a hundred other things? Let’s give him thanks for little things in life, too. At least five blessings result from this:
First: thankfulness forces us to focus on what we have had rather than what we want. In our materialistic culture, we can succumb to a consumerism of the soul that reduces our prayers to shopping lists. Thankfulness looks outward, not inward. It realigns our lives so that they revolve around God instead of trying to make God revolve around us.
Second: thankfulness highlights grace. To give thanks is to admit that you are dependent, to say, “I couldn’t have done this on my own, but you helped me.” Thanksgiving removes the temptation to boast and strengthens the only basis on which we can relate to God: that of accepting our own unworthiness and God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.
Third: thankfulness encourages a positive attitude. It forces us to think about what is right with our lives rather than what is wrong. This is important in an age when many feel depressed. Thanking God is a proven way of piercing the gloomiest of clouds.
Fourth: thankfulness develops hope for the future. Looking backwards to the past with thanksgiving actually helps us to look toward the future with anticipation.
Fifth: practicing thankfulness regularly ensures that gratitude spills into all areas of life. We cannot thank God for difficult colleagues, relatives, or neighbors for long before finding that we express a positive attitude toward them. Those who regularly give thanks to God find they are ready to give to others. Gratitude and generosity go hand in hand.
Whether or not we celebrate Thanksgiving, we all need to be reminded to practice thanksgiving on a daily basis. That “attitude of gratitude” is not just a duty to be fulfilled but something that will bless us and others. It’s typical of God’s graciousness that the best gift we can give ourselves and others is to say thanks for what we have already received.
About 350 years ago a shipload of travelers landed on the northeast coast of America. The first year they established a town site. The next year they elected a town government. The third year the town government planned to build a road five miles westward into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to impeach their town government because they thought it was a waste of public funds to build a road five miles westward into a wilderness. Who needed to go there anyway?
Here were people who had the vision to see three thousand miles across an ocean and overcome great hardships to get there. But in just a few years they were not able to see even five miles out of town. They had lost their pioneering vision. With a clear vision of what we can become in Christ, no ocean of difficulty is too great. Without it, we rarely move beyond our current boundaries.
It can be tempting as a pastor to just preach with a vision for lost souls and leading God’s people in service to Him. What is more difficult is leading a church in activities that will bring people in to hear that preaching. I’ve been talking for a while about this idea that “The Back-of-the-Church-is-the-front-of-the-church. On the first Saturday of this month we rallied as the people of God to take the first steps in making this happen. Will it work? Only God knows, but we are going to move forward and do the best we can. We’ll adjust as we go and if this isn’t of God we will have to find some other vision to follow.
Friends, if we fail as the Lord’s churches to have a vision, not a vision of our own making, but God’s vision for us, we lose our pioneering spirit. We will become ineffective. So we need to have the courage to try different things even if some of those things are different or unusual. Even if we aren’t sure if they will work. Not trying new things means things will stay just as they are. Just as they are cannot work for us because God has called us to grow His church. We need:
The courage of vision to say “Lord if that is you, let me come to you walking on the water.”
- The courage of vision to say “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
- The courage of vision to say “If God be for us, who can be against us.”
I believe the Lord has a vision for our church and for each of us. I know that unless we are moving in the right direction, we cannot be content in life. Vision for ministry is a reflection of what God wants to accomplish through us to build His kingdom. So let’s pull together by working, contributing, suggesting and having the courage not to be “comfortable”. Who’s with me?
This month we are going to look at Missions. Typically we expect to go right to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 about ‘going to all the world’. But the idea of missionary work did not just begin in the New Testament, it has been part of God’s plan all along. Missions is part of our purpose in God’s great plan. When our lives align with God’s plans, when God’s church is in line with the purposes of God, then we are prepared to receive the blessings of God. All the way back in Genesis Chapter 11 the stage is set for this idea of missions. Here we find the story of the Tower of Babel. We gain insight from this passage as to the origin of the over 3,000 languages that exist today. We read in Genesis 11:4 that man wants to make a name for himself at the expense of God. God responds in accordance with his righteous nature and punishes those who have sought their own glory. The Sin of the tower of Babel is followed by the punishment of scattering the people and scrambling their language. Here we see that instead of one unified people, God has separated the people into peoples, ethno-linguistic units. Following the Tower of Babel, God traces the genealogy of Abraham back, even before the tower of Babel, back to the flood. This is followed by the glorious message of salvation and in Genesis 12:1-3 which becomes the Biblical foundation of Missions.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
The “and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” is the crucial, often neglected and central aspect in understanding the purposes of God. We have a responsibility that goes hand in hand with our blessings. When Abraham obeyed God we read how God responded. Genesis 17:18 “And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice.” Today as believers in Christ we are Abraham’s offspring. We are called to obedience and faith. Obedience is part of Abraham’s call. This obedience goes right along with Abraham’s blessing. We didn’t get where we are today without obedience and faith. God has tested us over the years as he tested Abraham. God now says in vs 2, “I will make you a great nation”. God promised Abraham to have so many offspring that you could not even count them. Obviously God’s blessing to Abraham meant more than the here and now. Galatians chapter 3 tells us that God was giving the Gospel in advance to Abraham. All those who believe in Jesus and are justified by faith are the children of Abraham. So why has God blessed us? Is it simply for us to count our blessings? I hope by now you can see the answer! God has not poured out His blessing on us for us to stockpile them. God has called us out, set us apart to bestow his great Love on us. But there is much more than only that. God has blessed us for the same reason He blessed Abraham, to bless all the families of the earth. Jesus reconfirmed that God has blessed us to bless others when he gave us the Great Commission. Jesus told us to “Go and Make disciples of all Nations”.
The great commission is more accurately a call to reach all people groups rather than to reach political nations. The great commission is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the families. The great commission is to go and make disciples of all these peoples. (nations). We are the instruments through whom God has chosen to bless the families of the earth. Why did God bless us? It is for us to be a blessing to the ethnic groups of the earth. Evangelism is not enough for the road ahead. It is missions, going to bless the unreached peoples that is needed. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 4:48). God has redeemed (blessed) us so that, the blessing of Abraham may come to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:14) He has blessed us to be a great blessing by bringing Christ to the unreached peoples.
By the time most of you read this, my family and I will be heading out for a short vacation. Going on Vacation can be a very pleasurable experience…as long as you know where you are going. For example, my family and I are traveling through three states! Actually, we drive from Downey to Laughlin, NV then cross the bridge to Bullhead City, AZ. Not actually that expansive a trip. And we will soon return to Downey because that’s where we live – for now. But Peter reminds us that we are “strangers in the world.” (I Peter 1:1) We don’t actually belong here. Downey, CA isn’t really our home. We were re-born to live somewhere else. And IF we don’t remember that, we can get truly frustrated in this life. Jesus told us – “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) Peter also tells the Christians he’s writings to the same thing: “…for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6)
We need to walk and run and dance because we’ve been given something the rest of the world doesn’t have. Let’s put a spring in our step because we’ve got grace and peace and mercy and hope. The reason we can walk like that is because we don’t belong here. We are just passing through. Our citizenship is in Heaven. You and I are CHRISTIANS – we are a free people. We are part of THE most powerful Kingdom on the face of the earth. And nothing this world can threaten us with can rob us of the blessings of that freedom. We should understand we are vacationing in a foreign land. You live right now in one of the richest nations on earth and you have advantages locals in many foreign lands you might visit don’t have.
And what advantages as Christians do we have??? For one thing, we’ve got the power to start our lives all over again… to begin anew. And because our best blessings are in heaven we have one more advantage over the world. That advantage? We don’t have to fear death. We have an inheritance that “… can never perish, spoil or fade— kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
This world is not our home. We’re just a passing through. I can’t feel at home in this world anymore, because this world is NOT my home. Life is only a short time here compared to eternity in our true home: HEAVEN! That’s one of the beauties of what God has explained to us. The grave will not hold us. One day we’ll hear the voice of the angel and the trumpet call of God and we will rise from the grave to meet Jesus in the sky. We’ll be going home! That’s the promise we’ve had ever since we became Christians. That’s promise that was declared to us in our baptism. This world is NOT our home. Our present life is like a vacation in that sense. It’s a short time for us to be here while we are away from home.
And when people get home from their vacations they share their memories. They show the pictures they’ve taken to friends and relatives. They post them on their computers. It’s almost like the most important part of our vacations are the memories we hope will last a life time. When you get home to heaven… what memories will you be able to share? What lives have you touched for Jesus? What people will be able to be in heaven with you because you took them to church? Or introduced them to Jesus?