Friday, January 19, 2018

EmmDev 2018-01-19 [Insights from Isaiah] Redeemed

Redeemed

But now this is what the Lord says - He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; The flames will not set you ablaze For I am the Lord your God - the Holy One of Israel I will give Egypt for your ransom; Cush and Seba in your stead."      (Isaiah43:1-3)
Isaiah chapters 40-55 apply to the Exiles in Babylon. They had lost everything. Their land, their temple, and their identity. In the first chapter of Daniel we see that the Babylonians even gave them idol-honouring names instead of their Hebrew God-honouring names. They were surrounded by hardship and the future was bleak...

How would God speak to them?

  1. He affirmed their identity. Their circumstances did not define their identity. Nor did the names the Babylonians gave them. Their identity was wrapped up in the One who made them, claimed them, and called them. They had dignity and purpose because God claimed them as His own. Because He was passionate about them!
  2. He assured them of protection in hardship. He does not promise that there will not be waters, rivers, flames, or fire. He promises that we will not be destroyed. We don't know what purposes the hardships will serve and we don't always understand what we must learn in our struggles, but one truth is as clear as the lighthouse signal on a stormy night: - He is in ultimate control and with His help our problems will not overcome us.
  3. We are redeemed. He opens the passage with this thought and reinforces it at the end. To be redeemed is to be bought back from slavery. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians and set the Israelites free, they also conquered Cush, Seba, and Egypt. The picture is that God, working in the history of the nations bought Israel back through these conquered nations.

Taken further, this thought leads us to another redemption, where God gave much more than a nation in our stead. He gave His only Son. We are worth very much to Him and even though He allows us to go through hardships, our identity is wrapped up in the designer label that says "Made with loving care by God who created the Universe." And although troubles may surround us, He wants to redeem us - to buy us back from our brokenness. He is so committed to us that He sent Jesus to take the brunt of our pain so that it is He and not us who are broken and He turned His face from His Son so that we could be bought back from sin and never be alone!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

EmmDev 2018-01-18 [Insights from Isaiah] Restoration

Restoration

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.      (Isaiah40:1-2)

Isaiah 40 is a much beloved chapter.
Thematically
it marks the transition where the prophecy moves from rebuke for rebellion and idolatry to a pronouncement of hope and restoration. Historically it describes Israel's exile in Babylon (and why it happened) and moves to the promise of a return. Spiritually it describes the human predicament and exile in brokenness and offers us a God-given restoration!

This magnificent chapter provides hope, it describes God and invites us to a place of intimacy with God.

And so the chapter begins with assurance of Comfort.
Historically it addresses the consequence of their rebellion.
Israel had ceased to rely on God and this led to a moral and spiritual breakdown that allowed a another nation to defeat them.
But God has seen their brokenness. (They have received "double" for their sins - in Hebrew idiom this simply means "enough".)

God's love and consequences for sin are difficult concepts to hold in tension until we factor in the dynamic of free will. Free will allows for wrong choices and wrong choices have consequences (that's what makes them wrong choices!) And God, who gives free will, also allows the consequences of wrong choices.

But God sees our pain - He wants to comfort and heal us.
And so begins the journey of restoration - anticipated by Isaiah, inaugurated by Jesus and fulfilled at Calvary and the Empty Tomb.

Listen to the tenderness of a God who offers comfort to people who in no way deserve it... They had earned justice (the full consequence (double) for all her sins) but now they have mercy and comfort.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

EmmDev 2018-01-17 [Insights from Isaiah] When we feel inadequate...


When we feel inadequate...

Welcome to eDevotions for 2018!
I pray your year will be one of growth and love. May you know the presence of love of Christ in all you do!
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We're going to start our year with some insights from the book of Isaiah. Rather than a sequential journey through the songs, prophecies and accounts that make up this book that spans a time-frame of about 220 years, we're going to jump around and pick up some of the beautiful promises and challenges in it. I'll provide the historical context where it's needed...

Our first reading comes from the second major section of the book.

For I am the LORD, your God,
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob,
O little Israel,
for I myself will help you," declares the LORD,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.      (Isaiah41:13-14)

After the twelve tribes of Israel split into two Kingdoms (ten in the North around Samaria and two in the South around Jerusalem) the Northern Kingdom was defeated by the Assyrians in 721BC. The Southern Kingdom and Jerusalem were miraculously spared from the Assyrians, but continued to sin in spite of repeated warnings from Isaiah.

Then, as Isaiah predicted, the Babylonians invaded the Southern Kingdom and eventually besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in 587BC dragging her people off into exile by "the rivers of Babylon." Isaiah predicted that the exile would last 70 years...

After 70 years the Persians invaded Babylon and freed the exiles. The exiles returned to Jerusalem, but their confidence was shattered and their hope was unsure.

After all they had been through, landing up in exile because of their disobedience and stubborn rebellion, the Israelites must have felt insignificant, incompetent, disqualified and disconnected.

Isaiah captures their "zeitgeist" (the "spirit of the age") when he calls them both Jacob and Israel. Jacob was the sneak, cheat, fixer and ankle-tapper. After wrestling with God he became Israel, the father of a nation. We too can often start out being Jacob and struggle to believe that we can become Israel.

God offers this promise to those who come out of the exile of fear and failure:
"I am Your God.
I hold your right hand.
Don't fear, no don't be afraid - I will help you!
I am the Holy one of Israel - your Redeemer"

When you feel like a worm - either because of your own failure or the brokenness that surrounds you - know this:
Your God, the Holy One,
the Redeemer (who rescues kidnapped and captured people)
Holds your right hand and says "*Do not be afraid!*"

May we go through the rest of this year knowing this great truth!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

EmmDev 2017-12-05 [Five Thoughts for Advent 2017] Mary: Thoughtful Wonder

Mary: Thoughtful Wonder

19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart...

(And then 12 years later when they find the boy Jesus in the temple surrounded by priests)
51 ... But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.
      (Luke2:19-51)

Although some traditions consider Mary to be a saint or immaculate - there is simply no Biblical truth for this idea - she was a fallible person just like you and me. But there is a lot we can learn from her faithfulness and devotion.

Mary sets an amazing example. She responds to God's gracious favour and the announcement of her miraculous pregnancy with significant faith and humility. "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said." (Luk.1:38)

Later, when John the Baptist has done a happy dance in Elizabeth's womb, Mary bursts forth with what we now call "the Magnificat" - a hymn which reflects a significant understanding of who God is, what the Messiah came to do, and her part in all of it.

Mary is Mom to the Son of God and is present at the cross where, as Simeon prophesied, a sword would pierce her own soul. She then became an important part of the life of the early church and her son, James would emerge as the head of the church.

But what was Mary's secret? I believe it is the attitude of thoughtful wonder. Luke affirms this twice over in our readings. Mary observed the birth, the shepherds, the magi and pondered and treasured them. She reflected on the 12 year old Jesus surrounded by flabbergasted teachers of the law and treasured these thoughts.

We can know the Christmas story.
But have we pondered and treasured it?

Maybe we should resolve to enter into this Advent season with an attitude of thoughtful wonder. So what if the the shops are decorating and playing carols already - can we not use this as an opportunity to reflect on the wonder of a Baby's birth that is still impacting the world and prompting acts of kindness and beauty?? Dust off the carols and the nativity scenes, re-read the gospel accounts of Jesus birth, marvel at John's poetic prologue about the "Word made Flesh," immerse yourself in the wonderful celebration of the greatest gift ever given to humankind. See the Christmas story through the eyes of a child. Treasure these thoughts and ponder them.
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This is the end of the EmmDev eDevotions for 2017. Thank you for reading and for the many messages of encouragement I have received from many of you. I have loved our journey together.

Friday, December 1, 2017

EmmDev 2017-12-01 [Five Thoughts for Advent 2017] Shepherds: Transformed

Shepherds: Transformed

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
...15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.      (Luke2:8-18)
Scholars are divided about the shepherds: Some identify them as being on the criminal and deviant fringe of society - dishonest, unscrupulous, thieving, cruel, irreverent and undesirable. Other scholars suggest that they were the shepherds in charge of the temple passover lambs and that, as such, they were a special group of shepherds with a holy task.

I prefer the first option.
If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, then it is fitting that the Good News of His birth would be extended to those who were far from God. If these were the elite passover-lambs-shepherds then the implication is that the Good News is only for those that are good enough. As nice as the theological connection with Passover Lambs and Jesus-the-Lamb-of-God is, I think the angel's use of "Good News" (the Greek word is where we get "gospel" from) is a clue to the nature of this encounter.

Look at their journey:

  • The angels appear and the shepherds are terrified. The Greek literally says: They feared (with) a mega fear. This is not holy reverence - this is genuine terror. Was it the holy splendour of the angels or their guilty consciences? Maybe a bit of both...
  • The shepherds, after seeing the host of angels, are obedient. One can only imagine that the incredible joy of the angels made the shepherds brave enough and hungry enough to "go" and "see."
  • They see Jesus and it changes their lives! I just imagine these rough tough men holding the new-born Jesus in their arms, maybe caressing a smooth cheek with a rough knuckle with tears coursing down their cheeks - "God has come to us - He has really come!"
  • They start telling others. We should not forget that Bethlehem was full because of the census. One has to imagine that there were some soldiers and representatives of Rome officiating over the census. The disturbance the shepherds cause in the night would cause some ripples - but this does not stop them.
  • Others take them seriously. The shepherds are not dismissed as mischievous, crazy or intoxicated - people are amazed at the message of the shepherds and it is in no small part because it is obvious that something special has happened to these men.

The story of the shepherds is the story of every Christian witness:
We did not expect or deserve the Good News of Jesus' coming, but we heard the news and "went" and "saw" and it changed our lives. Now it's up to us to reflect that glory to the world. In a time where "Seasons Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" are the way in which the world wants us to think about Advent and Christ's birth, it is up to us to "go" and "see". And we should "see" long and hard enough that it once again fills us with joy and peace and wonder that we just can't keep to ourselves!



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Thursday, November 30, 2017

EmmDev 2017-11-30 [Five Thoughts for Advent 2017] Magi: Obedient Adventurers

Magi: Obedient Adventurers

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
...10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.      (Matthew2:1-12)
Ironically, the "East" that these star-following wise-men probably came from was the area of Babylon and Persia (which was (in)famous for its astrologers and where horoscoping comes from). It was to the Babylonians that the prophet Isaiah wrote:
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing. (Isa.40:26)

These Magi were attentive to the signs that were visible in nature and instead of exploiting nature's signposts for their own ends, they were simply obedient to what they heard and saw.

Imagine packing up and heading off on a long and dangerous journey just to follow a star! (If you haven't read TS Elliot's "Journey of the Magi" you should read it after this...) The Magi were not only obedient to God's prompting, but they were courageous enough to head off on an adventurous journey and gutsy enough to defy Herod's wishes.

What would the modern day Magi look like today? And how could we be like them?
Firstly I think one needs to be sensitive to the "signs of the times" - not astrology per se - but rather a being sensitive to what God might be doing in our world that many others aren't seeing. The writer of Chronicles talks about the men of men of Issachar, "who understood the times and knew what Israel should do..." (1Chron12:32)

Secondly we need to be sensitive and obedient to the promptings and responsive to the signs and needs that God is drawing to our attention. We need to be willing to go and willing to be prompted. The Magi followed the star's guidance, but also listened to the dream they had about Herod. But their greatest sensitivity is shown in the gifts they bring: Gold symbolising Jesus' kingship, Myrrh which anticipated Jesus sacrificial death and Frankincense which pointed to His role as our priest.

Thirdly, we need a courageous adventurousness that would take us into the unknown and uncharted, just because we believe that we will find what God is doing there and that we would do it with a sense of worshipful extravagance!



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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EmmDev 2017-11-29 [Five Thoughts for Advent 2017] Joseph: Unsung Courage

Joseph: Unsung Courage

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."      (Matthew2:19-23)
The next response to Christmas that I would like to explore is that of Joseph - the step-father of Jesus.

The Scriptures don't tell us much about Joseph and it seems that by the time Jesus began His public ministry, Joseph had already died.

Let's look at what we are told about Joseph:

  • Matthew describes him as a righteous man, who, when he heard that Mary was pregnant, decided to divorce her quietly rather than create a public scandal that could have led to her being stoned.
  • When God speaks to him in a dream he responds immediately and lovingly takes care of Mary and stands by her in the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
  • He and Mary fulfil all the purification rituals in the temple, offering the sacrifices of the poorest of the poor.
  • God warns Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod was planning to kill all the infants in Bethlehem and he undertakes this hazardous journey.
  • God's angel tells Joseph it is safe to return to Israel.
  • Joseph obeys his instincts about Archelaus the son of Herod and, in so doing, fulfils the prophecy of Jesus being a Nazarene.

There are four lessons Joseph teaches us:

  1. Joseph is an unsung hero. In a culture that was strongly patriarchal, Joseph was the last to hear the real truth about Mary's pregnancy. He puts his "manly pride" firmly in his back pocket and his resolve to divorce her quietly speaks of righteousness, maturity and his true and generous love for Mary. He plays a back-seat role and does so solidly and reliably. Our world needs many Josephs.
  2. All of Joseph's promptings came in the form of angelic dreams. It takes a lot of courage to act on a dream. It would be so easy to disregard a dream as the after-effects of last night's pizza but Joseph is courageous enough to obey.
  3. Joseph is a thoughtful and reflective man. This is revealed in his resolve to divorce Mary quietly and his consideration of the danger represented by Archelaus. This thoughtfulness is used by God.
  4. Jesus was known as a carpenter. This means that He learned this significant craft and trade from His step-father Joseph. It speaks volumes of Joseph's character that he had both the humility and confidence to raise and train the One he knew to be the Son of God.

At the start of Advent, Joseph is the character we must hold close to our hearts. Like Joseph we must know that it is not about us. We should love generously and be open and sensitive to the prompting of the Spirit. We should use our God-given common sense to live simply and cautiously - avoiding danger and temptation - trusting that God can use our decisions. Let's remember that being parents, grand-parents, guides, teachers and mentors can be one of the greatest legacies we can ever leave.



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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

EmmDev 2017-11-28 [Five Thoughts for Advent 2017] Elizabeth: Attentive Delight


Two years ago, I put together five devotionals for Advent. I'm going to revisit them this year...

Elizabeth: Attentive Delight

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" 46 And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour..."      (Luke1:39-46)

Elizabeth was the barren and aged wife of the priest Zechariah. She was six months pregnant as the result of a promise given to her husband by an angel. Mary was a young peasant girl engaged to Joseph the carpenter. She was a relative of Elizabeth and the angel told her that she was supernaturally pregnant with the long-awaited Messiah.

Mary is famous for her faithful response which is especially illustrated by her song of praise which we call the "Magnificat". Most of the time we assume that Mary's response: "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said" was immediately followed by the Magnificat. But it isn't.

Something else happens first...

Put yourself in Mary's shoes: She's pregnant, the only explanation she has is a vision of an angel. Joseph, her fiance', will probably reject her - he could even have her stoned. Society will ostracise her. She must have been pretty terrified and she must have felt quite alone. Her parents don't seem to be in the picture and so she heads off to see her relative, Elizabeth...

There were good reasons NOT to go to Elizabeth:

  • She was a much older woman and her husband was a priest
  • She was legitimately pregnant whereas, by human terms, Mary wasn't
  • She was the wife of a priest and should disapprove of Mary's state

But Elizabeth must have been a special person because Mary goes to her and stays for three months.

When Mary arrives, just the sound of her voice causes baby-John-inside-Elizabeth to dance and this causes Elizabeth to recognise what God is doing in Mary.

It is this affirmation and this delight that causes Mary to "magnificate"!

What can we learn from Elizabeth?

  1. Are we "safe spaces" for others? Do they feel that they can come to us when they're in trouble?
  2. Are we hospitable people, ready to open our lives to others?
  3. When we see God at work are we ready to exclaim and affirm?

Elizabeth's "empathetic enthusiasm" moved Mary from fear, uncertainty and doubt to Magnificat.

May we do the same.



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Friday, November 17, 2017

EmmDev 2017-11-17 [Lessons from 1 Samuel] Bringing it all together

Bringing it all together

The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."      (1Samuel16:7)
We've reached the end of 1Samuel...
I tried to think about how to conclude this powerful book.

We learned so much from the characters and objects in the book:

  • Faith-full Hannah who longed and prayed and trusted.
  • Elkanah her husband who was attentive and humble and willing to play second fiddle.
  • Eli the priest, with his "hits and misses": Hearing what God was saying to Hannah and to Samuel, but missing it with his boys and his appetite.
  • The ark of the covenant teaches us a lot because of the extremes of how people treated it. On the one hand the "fundamentalists" treated it like a remote control for God and on the other hand the "liberals" treated it like a tourist attraction. Both lost sight of the ark's role as a reminder of God's powerful presence.
  • Samuel, the courageous priest and prophet who held the nation and king accountable and ended well.
  • Saul - the tragic king who started so well, but let his insecurity turn him into a shadow of what he could have been.
  • Jonathan, a man of great faith and trust who stays loyal to his father and his friend David.
  • David - the man after God's heart - who stays close to God, acts wisely, cares for people, and refuses to take shortcuts.

As I read back through the book and the devotions, one truth stands out above all others...

Our hearts, which, in Hebrew culture, are the "control centre" of life, are very very very very important. What is in our hearts will impact our lives and the lives of those around us. It may even impact a nation. May we draw near to God in our hearts and in our lives. May we "guard our hearts" for they are the "well-spring" of life.
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This brings us to the end of our series on 1 Samuel. I hope you have found it meaningful. You can download a pdf of this series from http://emmanuel.org.za/emmdev-archive/devotions-on-1-samuel/

There will be no devs next week as I take a short break from writing.



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Thursday, November 16, 2017

EmmDev 2017-11-16 [Lessons from 1 Samuel] Seeing the best in people.

Seeing the best in people.

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.      (1Samuel31:11-13)
The Philistines found the bodies of Saul and his sons and desecrated them. Looking back on Saul's long list of failures, we might be tempted to say "he got what he deserved."

But the men of Jabesh Gilead thought differently. Jabesh Gilead was a frontier town east of the Jordan. Years earlier, when Saul was a brand new king, the town was being besieged by the Ammonites and when they offered to surrender because of the overwhelming odds, the Ammonites made gouging out the right eye of every citizen the condition of peaceful surrender. The elders of Jabesh Gilead sent out a cry for help.

The cry for help reached the ears of a young king Saul as he was ploughing his fields: "When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger. 7 He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, "This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel." (1Sam11:6-7) The Israelites responded immediately and rescued Jabesh Gilead.

This was Saul at his best.
And the people of Jabesh Gilead never forgot it.

In spite of all of Saul's failures they take a huge risk to do the honourable thing. They chose to remember Saul at his best and not Saul at his worst.

David does the same thing when the report of Saul's death reaches him. He cries out in a long lament for Saul and Jonathan. Part of his song of mourning has this verse:
"Saul and Jonathan--
in life they were loved and gracious,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions." (2Sam1:23)

Let's face it, if anyone had an excuse to trash-talk Saul in death, it would have been David. We could imagine him putting on a stage-whisper and saying: "Well, one doesn't want to speak ill of the dead, but Saul...." But this is not David's way and it is not the way of the men of Jabesh Gilead.

May you and I also become good at seeing the best in all people.



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