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Saturday, 23 February 2019

Haggai 1 Honouring God

The name Haggai means “my feast.” It’s likely the prophet Haggai was either born or conceived during one of Israel’s 7 different feast times. God tells his people 7 times a year to stop and feast as part of their relationship with him. How big is feasting in our faith, how might that help us grow closer to God and each other? Jesus also spent a lot of time around the table, teaching, building friendships and enjoying the blessings his Father has given us. Our faith is so much more than just doctrine and theology, it’s also about a heart relationship with our Father, with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and with each other. Haggai is about having a healthy spiritual vibrant relationship with God. This is why celebrating the sacraments like the Lord’s Supper is important in strengthening and nourishing our faith and relationship with Jesus using the everyday events like eating. Our faith relationship with Jesus is about life, living a full life of family, work, love, community in a way that shows our connection to Jesus.
We all want a full meaningful life, but too often we try to do it in our own strength, focusing on our own goals and desires, putting Jesus’ way and desires off to the side. We usually don’t even do this deliberately, it just kind of happens because we tend to love ourselves so much more than anything else, including Jesus. This is a big part of why Jesus came to earth from heaven, to help us remember that life without our heavenly Father leads to a life measured by how much we can do, how well we can follow or break the rules and get away it, or by how much we can collect for ourselves. This is fine for a while, it can feel satisfying for a while, but sooner or later life this way begins to feel shallow and empty.
Jesus came to earth to invite us back into a relationship with the Father again, to focus on a heart relationship with the Holy Spirit because that’s when we’re transformed, when our focus in life, our priorities in life gets changed from us to Jesus. Jesus takes the hurts, the brokenness, the selfishness, the dirt and stained parts of our souls and hearts that come because we live our way instead of the Jesus way and he takes them to the cross where our sin is washed away and the weight of our selfishness is lifted so that we can experience life as God intends for us.
Haggai is chosen by God to call the people of Israel back into a meaningful vibrant spiritual life with God. The Jews came back to their land after spending 70 years in exile in Babylon and now they’ve rebuilt Jerusalem, revived their orchards and fields, built new homes and have settled down. When Israel first came home, they had begun working on the house of God, but the peoples around them knew that with the temple rebuilt, this would make it more difficult to get rid of the Jews again, so they opposed the Jews and intimidated them until they stopped working on the temple and focused instead on their own houses, businesses and the rest of the city. Over time, the Jews put off working on God’s house so long that it lost all importance to them.
Haggai goes to Zerubbabel and Joshua, the civil and religious leaders of Israel. Haggai knows that people tend to do what their leaders do, not necessarily what their leaders tell them to do. If Haggai can convince them to place a priority on God and his temple, on shaping their lives around the Lord’s desires instead of their own, then the people will follow. This is a message to leaders in the church everywhere, if you want change in the church you first must be changed by Jesus in that same way. Haggai comes straight out and asks Zerubbabel and Joshua, “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Haggai echoes King David’s heart hundreds of years earlier when he’s looking at his grand palace, at everything he has and sees that there’s no building for the Lord. The people are coming to a tent where the Lord’s ark is being kept. David’s heart begins to pound with a deep desire to build something magnificent to show the world how wonderful God is.
Haggai twice says, Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.” It reminds me of what my mother would say as a warning that we were getting really close to digging ourselves into more trouble than we were already in. She would say, “Be careful about what you say next.” She wanted us to think first and this was her way of reminding us of who we were, kids, and who she was, our mother and that we needed to be respectful to her. Haggai goes on, “You’ve planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but aren’t warm. You earn wages, only to put them into a purse with holes in it.” Haggai tells Zerubbabel and Joshua to go up into the mountains and bring down timber to build the Lord’s house. Haggai reveals why they’re never satisfied, “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labour of your hands.”
Basically, the Lord is saying, You don’t pay attention to me and yet you want me to do everything for you; you disrespect me, ignore me and still expect me to give you everything you desire without caring about what I desire.” Kind of sounds like a parent who’s frustrated with their kids who want what the parents can give them, but without the parents. In some ways, the Lord must feel like a jilted lover, yet the Lord stays committed to his people, “I am with you,” is the great promise he gives them. This is a promise given over and over again in the Bible to people like Joshua in Deuteronomy 31:8 “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Jesus’ last words to his followers were, Matthew 28:19–20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We’re given this promise over and over again so that we can live without fear. God wants the people to focus on him instead of the peoples around them. Today, we can live focused on Jesus, knowing that he is always with you, having given us the Holy Spirit to guide us, reminding us of all that Jesus taught, and filling us with peace and confidence as we walk through life. Jesus tells us in John 10:10, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The thief is anything that creates fear, anything that draws our attention from Jesus, anything that leads us away from Jesus. Jesus came so that you can experience a full abundant life. Ed Stetzer writes, “abundant life is about what we receive as a gift from the Lord and to live knowing we are stewards of the blessings of God. We know we have an abundant life—when we have shared our life with others. When we have enough of the blessings of God such as mercy, peace, love, grace, wisdom, etc to share with others, and then actually do it; that’s when we truly have abundant life.”
God and Jesus, whether it’s in Haggai’s time, New Testament times, or today wants you to experience a life filled with blessings that pour out from you into the lives around you and the communities you live in. This happens when you shape your life on Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you and transform your heart, soul and mind to look more like Jesus each day, honouring him in every way with a servant life, focusing on building his house rather than your own.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Exodus 3:1-10 Meeting God in Unexpected Places

Where are the unexpected places or times where you’ve encountered or met God? When has Jesus revealed himself to you or the Holy Spirit made a point of guiding you in an unexpected way? Jesus has a way of shaking things up at times by meeting us in places or at times when we least expect it. I wonder if that’s because we get caught up in regular life and its routine and we don’t expect to see Jesus so we don’t; we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to engage us so we don’t recognize its presence.
The first time I truly sensed the Holy Spirit’s presence was after sitting with a group of broken men at the Thunder Bay Christian Community Center. We had spent the evening talking about family and life, about what it means to be a man, a father or husband. Some of the men stank because they hadn’t bathed in weeks, at least one of the men was high or drunk, most were scruffy wearing mismatched gloves and clothing and yet they were looking for something more, looking for hope and willing to try Jesus, willing to trust us enough to share their stories, hurts and struggles because we showed we cared. Sitting alone in the room afterwards, I felt something different, I felt the presence of something more, felt in my heart and soul a call to dedicate myself to helping people to meet Jesus.
A second time was after my family committed with me to follow Jesus into full-time ministry by going back to school. We moved to the Hamilton area so I could attend Redeemer University. It was early January and over Christmas my younger brother Glenn had died and gone home to the Lord and we couldn’t afford to go back to Thunder Bay. I was sitting in the cafeteria at a corner table where I usually sat when a fellow student, a young man came up to me to ask me to help tutor him in English Literature. We got to talking and he mentioned he had lost a family member over Christmas and couldn’t make it home. Two other students noticed that we seemed rather down and they stopped by and both of them had recently experienced the deaths of loved ones as well. Over the next hour or so we told stories of our loved ones, we cried, we laughed and we prayed for each other. One of the young women said before we all went our different ways that she felt Jesus’ presence in a powerful way and could feel his peace seep into her heart. We all had just experienced the same thing and had never thought that we would encounter Jesus that day in the cafeteria.
Moses meets God on the far side of the wilderness as he’s taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. Being a shepherd is filled with lots of alone time, lots of thinking time, and Moses has much to think about as a former prince of Egypt now turned renegade shepherd travelling through the wilderness caring for and guiding sheep rather than people. Moses leads his sheep into the shadow of a mountain called Horeb, later known as the mountain of God, the place where God is going to meet with all the Israelites to begin the task of shaping them into his people.
Moses is drawn to a bush that is burning away but not burning up. In the dry desert, fire and both blessing and curse, an uncontrolled fire is a great danger and here is an unexpected fire untended but not burning up anything. This is likely a wild acacia or thorn bush, dry and brittle with the potential now of creating a wildfire. Moses approaches the bush with a mix of curiosity, wonder, and fear. Fire is often connected with the divine and supernatural. The Holy Spirit comes in the form of a burning flame on Pentecost and God guides Israel through the wilderness as a column of fire later on. The Lord makes a covenant with Abram, appearing as a smoking firepot and blazing torch passing through the sacrificed bodies of various animals when he promises Abram’s descendants will take possession of the Promised Land. Now God appears to Moses in the fire to begin the process of fulfilling this ancient promise to Abram. This is why God introduces himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
As God calls for Moses to come near, he also commands Moses, “Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the places where you are standing is holy ground.” Moses hides his face in fear because he’s afraid to look at God. In the middle and far east, it was often considered rude and disrespectful to look at the king without permission, the punishment often being a beating and sometimes even death. Respect of the divine is still important today in a day and age where we too often treat God with a lack of respect and honour, treating God as if he’s supposed to serve us and pay attention to us whenever we want. Moses is told to take off his sandals because the place is holy ground and sandals are worn to keep the filth off the person’s feet, meaning they get covered with dirt and sheep do-do, among other things. By taking his sandals off, Moses is personally touching the holy ground, connecting his more closely with God in a respectful and honouring manner.
It’s also a symbol of how we are personally defiled with the filth of our sin and need to be washed clean in order to be in the presence of God. We’re unable to wash ourselves clean from the filth of our sins, we need to be washed clean by someone untouched by sin, this is Jesus who came from heaven to earth to meet us and take our punishment on himself and through his blood wash our souls clean so we can be in the presence of God without fear. We’re given a new mission just as Moses was given a new mission. Moses is called to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, we are called to lead people out of their slavery to sin, to their work, to their pleasure, to their toys, to their addictions, to whatever they’ve given themselves to. We do this by introducing them to Jesus, sharing our faith and our lives with them so they can see how Jesus has set us from the things that enslaved our hearts and souls. We can help them meet Jesus.
God doesn’t hide who he is. He may meet you in unexpected places or times, but you will not have to guess about whether or not you’ve actually encountered God through the Holy Spirit. When Jesus makes his presence felt, when the Holy Spirit engages you, you will recognize who it is. I’ve heard people caution those who have encountered the Holy Spirit and are wrestling with the sense of a different life direction because of their encounter to make sure it’s the Holy Spirit and not a spirit from Satan to lead you away from God and his direction. It’s good to check your own desires and wants to see if Satan might be using these to lead you away from Jesus. But this is why when God meets Moses, he reminds him of the relationship he had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this is why God renews his promises to Moses’ ancestors, confirming who he is.
If you are wondering whether or not you’ve really encountered the Holy Spirit, look to the Scriptures to make sure that where you’re being guided is consistent with what God and Jesus have taught and done. Is where you are being led taking you closer to Jesus or leading you away from him? Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit would guide us and remind us of everything Jesus had taught. This is why we’ve been given both Scripture and the Holy Spirit, so that they both confirm each other. When Jesus meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection from the dead, he reminds them of everything the Scriptures said about him and then he broke bread with them and they finally recognized him; scripture, a personal relationship and the gifts Jesus gives us in the simple things of life like breaking bread all help us know him when he comes to meet us.
God reveals who he is through our history and stories. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he is the God of our fathers, our mothers, because he is a God of relationship and commitment who listens to the cries of his people. He’s a God who acts and calls his people to join him in acting with him to carry out his plan to restore and renew all creation. God meets us in unexpected places and times to invite us and equip us to go and meet others to lead them to meet Jesus in places and at times they never expected.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Genesis 21:8-22; Numbers 6:24-26 Giving Blessings

This story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar has its beginning in Genesis 12 with the first blessing God gives Abram, “I will make you into 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 peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This blessing creates a great nation, promises protection for Abraham, and a pledge that all the nations will be blessed through Abraham. This is not a stream of blessings God is pouring out here, this is a raging torrent of blessings pouring out from heaven to earth that will impact creation and all people for the rest of history.
But the story takes a tragic turn. Abraham and Sarah have tried to force God’s blessings on their terms and in their time. They turned to the customs of their culture and time to make God’s blessing of a son happen more quickly, they use an Egyptian slave girl by the name of Hagar to bear Abraham a son, a son that will belong to Abraham and Sarah. That part of their plan works, but here it comes back to haunt them. It creates anger, turmoil and brokenness. At one-point Hagar, while still pregnant, runs away and God meets her and gives her a blessing that her descendants will also be too numerous to count, an echo of the blessing given to Abraham. But there’s a catch, she has to return to Sarah and submit to her.
Now everything comes to a crisis as Sarah’s baby Isaac turns 3 years old and weaned, able to eat solid food. Ishmael is now about 17 years old and sees that he has completely lost his place in Abraham’s family and he mocks Isaac. Sarah’s mother protection instincts kick in big time and she goes to Abraham to demand that he throw Hagar and her son out, that he gets rid of them so that Ishmael can never be a threat to Isaac’s place in the family. Blessings have been twisted into curses due a lack of faith and trust in God way of working out his blessing. The slave girl and her son are now thrown away. Hagar was used and is now being disposed of when she’s no longer useful. Using people always leads to hurt and brokenness instead of leading to blessing.
Abraham’s heart is hurting, Ishmael is his oldest son and Abraham knows that Ishmael is being punished for his failure to trust God’s way of doing things. How is this going to work out, where’s God’s blessing, his compassion in this? God comes to Abraham and says, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it’s through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” This sounds so harsh, even though there are two blessings here, the original blessing to Abraham in Genesis 12 is going to be worked out through Isaac, while the blessing first promised to Hagar the slave woman is given again and will be worked out through Ishmael. It feels harsh because God doesn’t even call Hagar by name, only referring to her as Abraham’s slave woman. Blessings don’t always come with roses and champagne, they often are worked out through hard work, deep faith, and through difficult times, especially when we try to force God’s hand and do things our way.
Hagar and Ishmael head out into the Desert of Beersheba. They run out of water, a death sentence in the desert, and Hagar places Ishmael in the shade of a bush and moves away because she can’t stand watching her son die. Ishmael means, “God hears,” and God does hear Ishmael and Hagar’s cries. God comes and reminds Hagar of the blessing, the promise he had made that Ishmael would become a great nation and then he opens Hagar’s eyes so she sees a well of water, a blessing that saves their lives. God doesn’t abandon Ishmael, he stays with the boy as he grows up in the desert, becoming an archer, an interesting detail that makes this story more real, connecting us on a heart level with this rejected boy whom God never abandons. But Ishmael’s blessing from God comes through hard work and in difficult circumstances. While this is going on, a local king, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do.” Blessings can come from unexpected people, even people who don’t accept God as their God, here’s a blessing from non-followers of God who recognize that God is blessing Abraham, even though the blessings may be hard for Abraham to see right now.
We’ve been talking about blessings, but what is a blessing? According to Barbara Taylor Bradford, blessings are good, true and beautiful words that offer divine help and favour. Hear the good, true and beautiful words in the blessing of Numbers 6, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” These are words of protection and encouragement, but these are also words of challenge. When the Lord’s face shines on us, we hear an echo to Jesus’ call to let our light shine in the world around us, when we hear the words grace we are reminded of how Jesus shows us the greatest grace, becomes the greatest blessing for the world in taking our brokenness and sin to the cross to make us right before God, to bring us soul healing and relationship healing, healing that Abraham desired with Ishmael and Hagar but wasn’t able to achieve. This healing is only possible through the coming of Jesus and his death on the cross which brings forgiveness and healing into the brokenness in our world when we embrace Jesus as our Lord and Saviour instead of depending on our own strength and wisdom.
Blessings speak healing and grace into peoples’ lives and situations and grace calls us to live lives of gratitude and reconciliation, lives that bring healing and hope, lives that honour others. Blessings give strength to the person being blessed as God’s presence is spoken into their lives, God’s strength and promises are given, hope and love are passed on through the blessing and through the relationship that is reinforced in the blessing.
When the Lord turns his face towards us, he sees us and this is a dangerous thing because when we’re seen, the Lord sees all of us, the places where we are allowing the Spirit to shape us more into the image of Jesus, and the places in our hearts and lives that we’re trying to keep from him, the places of shame and brokenness. The Lord sees brokenness and hurt, he moves to restore and heal through Jesus and the cross. God’s healing and blessings through Jesus and the Holy Spirit helps us give up the false blessings the world offers.
God loves you for who you are, but he also loves you too much to allow you to stay the same as you are today, he has greater things in mind for you, his plan is for you to become more and more like Jesus. This is a big part of why he pours blessings out on you. John in his first letter reminds us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Paul is big on this call to be like Jesus, in Ephesians 5 he writes, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” and he calls us to imitate him as he imitates Jesus.
Blessings reveal a generous God, a God who engages with his people and creation, a God who expects his blessing to change and shape his people and the world we live in. this is because blessings are active, not passive, they’re roaring rivers pouring into our lives from the Lord, not ponds. Blessings are not meant to keep for ourselves and deepening our own ponds, but they’re like the roaring river meant to flow out from us into the world around us, blessing others with Jesus’ presence and love and forgiveness.
Blessings protect and challenge us, calling us to trust in God and Jesus and to obedience to Jesus’ ways as we work to imitate him in every area of our lives. As you embrace the Lord’s blessings you will find hope and healing, restoration and peace, a peace that flows out from you into the lives and people around you.