Walking Through the Valleys. II: To the Other Side

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

In a previous post, we saw that all believers wander into the valley of the shadow of death from time to time. This is an experience common to all who follow Jesus. Sometimes, we end up in the valley of the shadow of death even though we have faithfully followed our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. This article will continue where we left off.

The second thing to remember in the valley of the shadow of death is that God really is with you. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Even though deep darkness envelops the valley, God is still there, and He sees everything. Unlike humans, many animals see very clearly in the dark. The One who gave night vision to cats, owls, and deer can see in physical, emotional, and spiritual darkness. God sees everything in the valley, and He is able to take care of you even when you cannot see any proof that He exists.

When my ex-wife and I brought our newborn son home from the hospital, he needed to adjust to some new experiences. He had spent nearly one month since his birth in a neonatal intensive care unit, continually surrounded by bright lights and sound. Sleeping in a dark, quiet room was a sudden, completely new experience for him. The first few times we would lay him down and turn out the lights, he would begin to cry. I would just have to say, “It’s OK, Mommy and Daddy are right here.” This seemed to quiet him down. He may not have understood the words, but he knew he was not alone. He did not need to fear.

Be still; take time to pray while you are in the valley, and listen for God’s reassuring voice. The valley may still be dark, but if you hear God’s voice speaking to your spirit through His Word and Spirit, you can rest assured that you are protected.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you (Psalms 139:11–12).

Finally, remember that comfort and freedom from the valley come as Jesus guides and protects you. A shepherd carries a rod and a staff. He might have to beat off wolves who are craving a sheepburger, or he might need to gently pull a wandering sheep away from danger. As long as the shepherd remains alert, the sheep are safe.

Psalm 121:3 says, “He who keeps you will not slumber.” Even in the valley of darkness, God watches every sheep in His flock. He never dozes off. He does not forget about the sheep who is wandering away, nor does He ignore or overlook the hungry wolf.

Just like the shepherd with his rod and staff, Jesus has his own tools for leading His sheep through the valley. One is the Word of God. This book will direct you along the path of life. Read it daily. Meditate upon its instructions and promises continually. Accept it by faith as God’s personal message to you. Read it to know what God wants you to do and how to journey safely through the mountains and valleys of life. The Bible is the primary means by which God speaks to us.

Jesus also uses the power of prayer. We need to continually use this spiritual weapon to ward off the wolves of hell who are out to destroy us. Pray positively. Think of the best result you can possibly expect from a situation, and ask God to make it happen and direct you to that goal. If you pray for courage to spend the rest of your life in the valley, you will probably remain there. If you pray to arrive safely at the banquet on the other side of the valley (Psalm 23:5), where you are the guest of honor, God will get you there. If you pray big prayers, you will receive greater blessings than the person who prays small prayers.

Finally, Jesus gives all Christians His Holy Spirit as a Comforter and Guide to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. Rely on His direction as you stroll through the valley of sorrow. Seek His strength when you feel weak. All Christians have the Holy Spirit within them and can seek the comfort of His presence and guidance at all times.

A valley is merely a low point between two high places. You can climb the mountain out of the valley to the glorious summit where the light of the Son dispels all darkness.

If you are in the valley, continue to follow God. Praise Him that He wants you to abide on the mountaintop, not in the valley. He has not forsaken you. He is with Christians always. When you run into the valley by yourself, He chases close behind. When the path of righteousness leads you into a valley, rejoice. Jesus Christ is still leading you, and He knows the way you must walk. He has a wonderful blessing, greater than anything you can ask or think of, awaiting you on the other side.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Walking Through the Valleys. I: Entering the Valley

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

lleyn_sheep

By User:Jackhynes [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I read the book of Psalms, something more than the colorful language and vivid imagery grabs my attention. I can relate to the emotions expressed in these poems and songs of praise. Take the familiar “Shepherd Song” in Psalm 23. It is not merely a song about some guy and his sheep. It is about each of us. Like that sheep, probably everybody has wandered into “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Have you ever reached a point in your life where all you could see was darkness? Have you ever found yourself in a place where the light of God’s love, or anything else that makes life worth living, was hidden from your sight? Maybe you felt like that lost sheep, surrounded by thick darkness with ravenous wolves hiding behind every tree. You thought you had reached the end of the line.

You may not wander into the same valleys as I have. We all wander into different valleys: Unemployment, financial distress, legal trouble, divorce, sickness, addiction, or any other crisis can ensnare you. But when you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you do not care how it looks to an observer standing on a hill. You only care about how bleak your situation looks to you.

Psalm 23 reminds us that we may wander into the valley even while we are obeying God. This sheep could say, with all honesty, that the Lord was his shepherd. He was following his shepherd, but he still found himself in a valley. You do not need to sin or lack faith in God to face a crisis. Even so, when you find yourself in the valley, immediately review your footsteps to see if you brought this dilemma upon yourself. Did your own sins bring you into the valley? Did you get lost because you wandered away from the shepherd? Or, did the shepherd lead you to a place you would not choose to go on your own?

Sheep do not have a reputation for being very intelligent animals. They are much better at following the herd than at making decisions on their own. If they wander away from the shepherd and other sheep, they are vulnerable. Christians are the same: We need to stay with the herd (the body of Christ) and be led by the shepherd (Jesus) to avoid getting lost in the valley. However, when we lose our way, our Good Shepherd will seek us. He is not willing to lose any of His sheep:

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12–14).

However, the sheep in Psalms 23 did not wander astray. In fact, the Psalmist describes the Good Shepherd meeting all of his needs: guiding him to green, grassy pastures where he can graze or lie down, or leading him to quietly flowing streams of cold water for a refreshing drink. He says that God is leading him in paths of righteousness. God may be leading you into paths of righteousness, and you may be following Him, but you may still find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death. Why is that?

Sometimes, the path God has chosen for you winds through rough terrain. David, who wrote this psalm, was acquainted with hard times. Even though he was a man after God’s own heart, a devout believer and servant of the Lord, and loyal to his king and country, he had spent years as a fugitive. King Saul had paranoid-schizophrenic delusions that David wanted to destroy him, so he devoted much of his time trying to capture and kill David. David spent years on the run, even though he had done no wrong. Because of his abiding faith in and obedience to God, and his perseverance during this time when he could have cried that “God’s not fair,” he became one of Israel’s greatest kings and the forefather of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I do not believe he could have accomplished this if he was not sympathetic, from first-hand experience, with those who suffer from injustice.

Do not grow discouraged in the valley. God leads all of His children through different valleys as He leads them to their desired haven. The journey through the valley is part of His plan for your life. In a following post, we will see how Jesus leads us through the valley.

(See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html and http://scribol.com/environment/animals-environment/8-amazing-ways-sheep-are-smarter-than-you-thought/ for some recent interesting science about sheep intelligence. They are not actually stupid animals, but are much better at following a leader or a group than at leading. They have excellent ability to recognize and remember people and other sheep, something Jesus may have considered in John 10:4–5.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

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The Annunciation: Saying “Yes” to God

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

pierre_paul_rubens_-_l27annonciation

“The Annunciation,” by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many churches will observe the Feast of the Annunciation on April 9, 2018. This is usually observed on March 25 (nine months before Christmas) but, since that date fell during Holy Week this year, it was moved to the first available day after Holy Week and Easter Week. On this date, we commemorate the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she has been appointed to be the mother of the Son of God.

Some churches, in reaction against Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on Mary, choose to downplay her. This is unfortunate. She and Joseph had been entrusted with a mission like no other: to bear and raise the Son of God. God the Father entrusted His Son to their care. To those who think Mary was nobody special, let me ask when God entrusted anything that important to their care!

Christians are so familiar with the story of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary that it seems so simple and sweet. An angel appears to Mary. He tells her that she will be with child, and the baby will be the Son of God. Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.” The angel responds that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, so that she will be pregnant with this holy Child.

The story sounds so sweet and spiritual. But, let us imagine this from Mary’s perspective. First, we do not know what she is doing at the time, but it seems like she is alone. Nowadays, teenage single girls might get uncomfortable if some strange man pops up out of nowhere and starts talking to them, but that was even more unacceptable in her society. While Gabriel was speaking to her, she probably thought, “Who is this creep? How did he get in here? How can I get rid of him? I should probably call Dad, but he might hurt me if I scream.” At some point, Mary must realized he was an angel. Still, his announcement made no sense. How can she become the mother of God’s Son while she is a virgin? The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God…. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:35, 37).

It sounds like this clinched it for Mary, but I am sure it was not that easy. She had already raised her question about how this was possible for a virgin. Even after being persuaded that God could do what seems impossible in her life, other questions must have run through her mind. “What will Joseph think? We have never been intimate. He will know it’s not his baby. He will most likely assume that I have cheated on him and slept with another man. Everybody else will think I slept with somebody. They’ll blame Joseph if I do not say it was somebody else and tell them who that is. Nobody’s going to believe me that God is the father! If I say that, they’ll stone me for adultery AND blasphemy!”

Somehow, Mary found the faith and courage to say yes: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The Bible does not tell us how she found the courage to say yes to God. It does not tell us how she and Joseph were able to handle the whispers and gossip, even though it seems such suspicions persisted about Jesus’ birth continued throughout His lifetime. In John 8:41, some members of His audience said, “We were not born of sexual immorality,” possibly taking an accusatory pot-shot at Him.

In spite of risk, uncertainty, potential shame and danger, Mary had the courage to say “Yes” to God and devote her life to His will. The last quote we read from her in the Bible is at the wedding at Cana, where she enlists Jesus’ help when the wine runs out. She tells the servants to “Do whatever He tells you.”

We might be tempted to treat Mary’s words as if they related only to her situation. However, in speaking to the angel, she speaks FOR all true disciples of Jesus: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Let this be our prayer: That we can be faithful to God, obeying Him and doing His will regardless the circumstances and risk, trusting Him to work all things out. In speaking to the servants at the wedding, she speaks TO all true disciples: “Do whatever He tells you.” As she has surrendered herself to the will of God, we can now entrust ourselves to His will. When God speaks, we listen, obey, and trust Him. Then, we can be called blessed, even as all generations now call her blessed (Luke 1:48).

Today and every day, let us join Mary and say “Yes” to Jesus, willing to do whatever He tells us.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Storing Up God’s Word—Psalm 119:9–11

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.

(Psalm 119:9–11, ESV)

The_Holy_Bible

I first encountered Psalm 119:9 early in my relationship with Christ, while in college. At first, I found Psalm 119 incredibly boring: It contains 176 verses, almost all of them include some mention of God’s Word, and after a while they seem to be repeating themselves a lot. The fact that this is the longest chapter in the Bible made it difficult to read in one sitting; I usually felt like I had just read for 15 minutes and gained nothing from it. However, a few of my friends had favorite verses in that psalm. One of my friends had even adopted Psalm 119:9 as his life verse. It was a motto or slogan that guided his heart and life.

Years later, my earlier dislike for Psalm 119 has dissipated. I rarely try to read it in one sitting. Usually, I limit myself to one to three of the eight-verse stanzas. This allows particular verses to take greater prominence. A passage like Psalm 119:9–16 is pretty easy to digest. I can usually find at least one nugget of wisdom in each stanza.

Although it refers to “young men,” this passage is not reserved for a certain age group. All can benefit from this wisdom. Young men, young women, old men, and old women all need to keep our ways pure, and the answer is true for all of us.

So, why did the psalmist specifically refer to “young men” here? Probably a major reason is the fact that young people are setting the trajectory for their lives. Lessons learned and habits developed early in life will guide one’s future path. Young people face new temptations as they enter puberty. They make major life decisions as adolescents. They may choose a career and remain with it for 50 years. Sometimes, they begin to pursue a career and modify their decisions as they grow; someone may begin college wanting to become a lawyer, only to find that they are more interested in, and have more of the skills for, a career as a psychologist. Others make poor or ill-advised choices early in life, and spend decades trying to recover from bad decisions.

Many think of youth as a time when we face especially unique challenges. However, many of the temptations and trials we face continue throughout life. I remember a college psychology professor pointing this out. During a lecture, he asked us to list some of the ways teens and young adults surrender to peer pressure. Then, he got us thinking about the ways peer pressure would affect us in an adult working environment. He helped us realize that even as working adults, we would face the temptation to fit in, to go along with the crowd. While teenagers risk being “uncool” if they do not drink or smoke with their friends, a working adult can risk missing out on job promotion and raises, or may even lose their job, if they do not go along with the crowd at the office.

We do not outgrow temptation or difficulties. They merely take new forms throughout our lives. That is why it is important to develop a habit of guarding ourselves with God’s Word early in life.

Wherever you are in life, develop a habit now of storing up God’s Word in your heart so that you may not sin against Him. If you are not reading the Bible regularly now, start reading. Set a time every day and devote it to reading. If you never read the Bible outside church, maybe you should start by reading a chapter per day. If you are reading a chapter per day, consider increasing it to two chapters.

Over the years, I found consistency was a challenge. About 10 years ago, I started trying to pray the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) at least once per day. The BCP provides four Daily Offices: one in the morning, one at noon, another in the evening, and a final “compline” prayer before bedtime. I usually consistently pray three times per day, and would like to get into the habit of including compline as well. It did not come easily, but over time the Daily Offices became a more consistent part of my life. Having a regular goal and plan, and setting time for prayer and Bible study, has enabled me to be more consistent and seek more growth in this area. For those who are interested in trying the Daily Office, you can visit The Mission of St. Clare’s website.  Every day, it will guide you through a Daily Office of prayer, using recommended Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer.

However you choose to seek God’s wisdom through the Bible, be proactive. Do not wait for hard times to come; start learning God’s Word now. Build a habit of prayer and Bible reading now. Learn to meditate on God’s Word. Allow it to become a central part of your psyche. When trials and temptations come, you will be ready to face them with the Word of God.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment
 
 

Children of God and Siblings of Jesus

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

(John 20:17–18)

the_resurrection_day

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. By Heinrich Hofmann, published on bible card (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart27.htm) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday morning, a new day had dawned. The old order of God’s relationship with mankind ended as Jesus breathed His last on Friday evening. Sunday brought a new beginning. Mary Magdalene would be the first Christian to hear the good news about our new relationship with God. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers obtain the right to be called children of God (John 1:12–13).

“Go to my brothers,” Jesus said. Mary seems to have immediately understood what Jesus meant here. She did not seek James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, who were apparently His biological brothers (Mark 6:3). She realized that Jesus meant the disciples.

A few days earlier, He said, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). At one time, they were servants or disciples; they had become His friends. Now, they were family. They were His brothers.

“I am ascending to my Father and your Father.” For three years, the disciples have heard Jesus refer to God as “My Father” and “the Father.” Now, He sends Mary to emphasize to them that God is their Father. Every disciple of Jesus could now call God “my Father” with the same certainty Jesus expressed when He used those words. It is now deeper than “Our Father who art in heaven.” He is now “my Father”–in an immediate and personal, not generic or abstract, sense. (I imagine that Mary Magdalene ran off thinking, “That means God is my Father too, and I’m Jesus’ sister!)

Jesus had mentioned this family relationship before. From the cross, He told John, “Behold, your mother;” to Mary, He referred to John as “your son” (John 19:26–27). With His final dying wish, He instructed John to care for her as his own mother; He accepted John as His brother, not merely a friend.

Many Christians do not grasp the full significance of our relationship with Jesus. We think that Jesus died merely to purchase fire insurance for us. We may assume that He is thinking, “Okay, I’m keeping you out of hell. I hope you’re happy. It really ticks me off when you keep doing the sort of stuff that should put you there. Better get yourself in line or else!”

No, Jesus is not our insurance agent, looking for a loophole in the policy that will nullify our coverage. He is our big brother, ready to stand by us. He died and rose so that we may be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Who is usually the heir in a will? The family of the deceased, particularly his or her children. A “fellow heir” receives a share of the inheritance. Jesus has inherited a kingdom from His Father. We are his fellow heirs; we have inherited a share of that kingdom!

This Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let us gain a greater vision of our identity as members of Jesus’ family. Many of us are tempted to accept the labels that Satan and society place upon us. We may view ourselves as failures, sinners, or “worms.” We may think of ourselves as mere animals with an exaggerated self-image. We claim these negative titles, but as children of God we are so much more.

Satan loves it when we label ourselves according to our greatest weaknesses or past mistakes. Yes, you have sinned. There is probably some sin or shortcoming you still struggle with. It may at times bring incredible guilt and grief. However, that is not your identity. You are God’s child. Jesus is your big brother. You are Jesus’ brother or sister. If you are a follower of Jesus, believe those statements, because Jesus Himself said that is who you are.

If you are not a disciple of Jesus, let this be the day that you are born anew and adopted into the family of God as one of His beloved children. The good news about the Christian’s identity belongs only to those who have received His free gift of forgiveness and everlasting life. Those who are not Jesus’ disciples cannot claim to be children of God, even though He created them and loves them. They cannot claim the other privileges of the Christian life. However, they should not despair. Jesus’ arms remain open, inviting all to come to Him. You may pray a prayer like this one to begin your new life as a child of God:

Lord Jesus Christ, I need You. I admit that I am a sinner and I need Your forgiveness. There is nothing I can do to save myself. Please come into my life and heart, forgive me of all my sins, and make me the person You want me to be. Thank You for dying on the cross for me and inviting me to be a child of Your Heavenly Father. Amen.

Let us go forth to live as children of God eager to see Him glorified in our lives. Let us rejoice in the new life we receive through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Thank God It’s (Good) Friday

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24–26).

Many who work a Monday–Friday, 40-hour workweek know the feeling. If we greet our co-workers with “Happy Monday,” it must be sarcasm. At 9:15 AM on Monday morning, many workers feel like the weekend was too short. However, by the end of the week, “Happy Friday” is almost a holiday greeting. We have borne the pain and suffering of the week and look forward to the weekend. We work for five days, but we act as if our real life takes place during the weekend.

Music and pop culture celebrate the weekend as if it is the center of our existence. The late 1970s gave us the disco-craze movies “Saturday Night Fever” and “Thank God It’s Friday.” A popular 1980s song declared that “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” We act as if the weekend is a grand festival and Friday is its major kickoff event.

Now, we come to Good Friday, and we wonder why we call it good. Most Fridays can be highlighted by happy hour. Those who do not drink still find it to be a good opportunity to go out for dinner or see the newest movie. However, the Friday before Easter emphasizes Jesus’ death. The shadow of death hovers over Good Friday.

Good Friday reminds us that the world’s idea of good conflicts with God’s idea of good. The world views Friday as the victory of leisure and pleasure over labor and drudgery. Good Friday reminds us that the true victory is Christ’s victory over hell and Satan, of life’s victory over death, and the victory of God’s mercy and forgiveness over sin and condemnation.

As we observe Good Friday today, I invite you to join in some of the prayers that the Book of Common Prayer links to Friday:

On Friday mornings:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Friday evenings:

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.

For Good Friday:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Photo taken by Michael E. Lynch, at Graymoor Retreat Center, Garrison, NY, March 2016

A prayer of the Holy Cross, especially suitable for Fridays:

Almighty God, whose beloved Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption: Give us courage to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I admit none of these prayers ooze the enthusiasm of a celebratory dance-party song. However, in each prayer, the shadow of the cross points us to the light of the Resurrection—both Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday and the believer’s resurrection to eternal life when his life on earth is over. Good Friday is good because it points to Christ’s victory: A victory which all believers in Christ Jesus may share:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1–3).

Happy Good Friday, one and all! May it be a reminder of the celebration we anticipate as we prepare for our ultimate rest in heaven.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Joseph in God’s Leadership Training Program

His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:18–21, ESV).

joseph_sold_by_his_brothers

Joseph’s story did not start well, as he was sold into slavery by his brothers. Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, via Wikimedia Commons.

The last fourteen chapters of Genesis focus mainly on the life of Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob (also known as Israel). Genesis, the first book of the Bible, begins by describing the origins of the human race, before focusing in on the birth of the nation of Israel. It also chronicles the faith journeys of several key patriarchs, particularly Abraham and Jacob. With Joseph, it describes his development as a man of God and as a leader.

Genesis depicts Joseph as the first Israelite to emerge as a world leader. As a youth, he dreamed that his brothers and parents would one day bow before him (Genesis 37:5–11). By the time that actually happened, he was a changed man, equipped by God to lead. He started with dreams and ambition. He developed through God’s leadership training program, and found himself in a place where he could serve others for God’s glory. This should be the pattern for all Christians who seek to become leaders, whether in the church or in secular institutions.

At the beginning of his story, Joseph did not look like he was destined for greatness. Since he was the eleventh of twelve sons, it would be assumed in his culture that he would rank near the bottom of the family’s social order. His status in the family took a downward spiral as sibling rivalry gave way to complete hatred. Joseph brought a “bad report” about four of his brothers to his father after they had pastured their flock together. Did he have to bring the bad report, or was he trying to score points with Dad to get special treatment? If Joseph was trying to win his father’s favor, he succeeded. Jacob gave him a robe of many colors (Genesis 37:3), which showed Joseph’s status as “dad’s favorite.” (A note to the fathers and grandfathers out there: It is one thing to treat your children differently because they are unique individuals; it is not OK to play favorites.) Before long, all of the brothers conspired to sell Joseph to slave traders (who eventually sold him to an officer of Egypt’s Pharaoh), telling their father that he had been killed by a wild animal.

Joseph was not off to a good start on the path to power and prestige. Playing off of favoritism to build yourself up by tearing others down tends to backfire. It may bring short-term benefits, but it usually backfires in the long term.

Now, let us fast-forward many years. Joseph began to show some genuine potential while in Egypt, but he cycled between opportunities and setbacks. His master promoted him to be head of all his household slaves. Then, he was falsely accused of sexual assault and imprisoned. He earned the respect of the jailer, who put him in charge of the other prisoners. He interpreted dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants, thereby showing that he had divinely inspired wisdom. Finally, after years of hardship and disappointment, Pharaoh needed someone to interpret dreams for him. Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered the gifted dream-interpreter and recommended him to Pharaoh. Joseph not only interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams (a warning that a severe famine would come upon the land), but proposed a way to prepare for it so that the people would survive. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to administer his economic programs.

Joseph had endured a turbulent journey: from favorite son and despised bratty tattle-tale brother; to slave; to prisoner; to the top of an empire’s government. The man who was exalted by Pharaoh was not like the boy who had been rejected by his shepherd brothers. Pharaoh may have ordered people to bow before Joseph, but Joseph was more concerned about serving those God had placed under his care.

His brothers would bow before him several times, but that was not Joseph’s big concern. In Genesis 50, after Joseph had brought the family to Egypt so he could provide food for them, his father died. His brothers though he might seek revenge, now that he had power and nobody could not stop him. However, Joseph had learned God’s design for leadership. He did not need them to bow before him. His title did not matter. He did not see himself as the Egyptian ruler who could seek revenge: He was God’s servant, called to serve others.

Joseph’s focus was on God’s purposes: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph no longer thought about how he could gain power and how others would honor him. Instead, he wanted to know God’s will. What was God doing? How can God bring good out of this situation? What could he do to manifest God’s will? These are the questions every leader should ask when facing difficult circumstances.

Instead of seeking his brothers’ respect, Joseph was committed to providing for his brothers and their families. True leaders look for ways to build others up and make sure their needs are met.

Most importantly, Joseph forgave his brothers. Great leaders are not so obsessed with their feelings or what others have done to them that they forget their mission. God had entrusted Joseph with an important job, which would ensure that his family would fulfill the covenant God had made with Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3). Christ calls His disciples to forgive others, and leaders—especially Christian leaders—must exercise patience and not allow insults or offenses to derail them from God’s plan:

Good sense makes one slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11).

Joseph had grown beyond the pride and impulsiveness of youth to become the prototypical servant leader. He could remain focused on his mission, seek to provide for those below him, and forgive others so that negativity would not derail his mission. This is God’s call for all who seek to be leaders or make a positive impact on their world.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Judging Others or Examining Ourselves

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1–5, ESV).

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

5194572I wrote at some length about Matthew 7 about two years ago. This week, I have given it some more thought. During a season when many churches encourage a time of self-examination, this passage deserves a little more thought. Since I have written extensively on this passage previously, I offer the following as an addendum to that previous meditation.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer with several of his students, ca. 1932. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Jesus forbids judging others, and the other New Testament writings agree with this commandment (see, for example, Romans 14:1–12), He never commands us to approve of evil. Sin is sin. The Bible clearly defines certain attitudes and activities as sinful. “Judge not” does not mean we should accept sinful behavior.

However, there is an unusual irony when we quote Jesus’ command to others: If we tell someone else to “judge not,” are we not in fact judging them by accusing them of the sin of judgmentalism? Or, if they tell us to “judge not,” are they judging us? It seems hypocritical and ironic, but perhaps that is the point.

“Judge not” is not something Jesus tells us to say to others. It is something He tells us to say to ourselves when we interact with other people. Are they going to sin? Yes. Might it get on our nerves? Perhaps. Will they commit sins we would never commit? Possibly. Does that mean we are in a position to judge them? No. Our pride deceives us into thinking that others’ sins, the ones we would never commit (or so we think), are worse than ours. How often does the glutton look down upon the smoker or alcoholic? How often does the heterosexual who views pornography or has sex outside of marriage look down on the homosexual? We think their sin is worse, but God does not share our sliding scale:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law (James 2:10–11).

When I look at the sins of others, it is easy to minimize my own sins and shortcomings. I can easily ignore my own failings, or make excuses or justify my own sins, if I can accuse the other person of committing abominations. However, as I examine my own conscience and measure my own life against the teachings of Jesus, I am able to confess, repent, and seek a more holy life. My goal should never be to be a better Christian than the next person: It should be to have a closer relationship with Jesus than I do now, and to reflect His glory more today than I did yesterday.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Of Trees and Tumbleweeds: Rooted in and Nourished by God’s Word

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers (Psalms 1:1–3).

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5–8).

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24–27).

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A tumbleweed, approximately one meter tall. It has no roots and simply blows wherever the wind takes it.  Photo by Renji Shino [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In many western movies, a tumbleweed can be seen blowing across the desert. The tumbleweed is a strange plant. It grows like a normal plant for a while, but eventually breaks away from its roots and blows away, tumbling wherever the wind may lead. Most of the plant dies quickly, but the giant batch of dead branches carries seeds, which may eventually land in soil to produce a new plant. At their best, they are an ugly annoyance to humans. At their worst, they can create a public safety risk; being made mostly of dry dead wood, they can easily catch fire and spread disaster wherever the wind blows them.

A plant that remains grounded with its roots can produce its life-imparting fruit while providing beauty and security. It is no accident that Psalms 1 and Jeremiah 17 compares blessed godly people with trees planted by the water. Securely rooted and grounded in a life-giving source, they impart life and fruit to others. Separated from that secure foundation, they are like a shrub of the desert or a tumbleweed.

A “spiritual tumbleweed” believes that he can find stability and success by trusting in the false and fleeting wisdom of the world rather than the eternal wisdom of God. He walks in the counsel of the wicked. He stands in the way of sinners. He sits in the seat of scoffers. He trusts in human wisdom and strength. He turns away from God. Such a person will be tossed by every wind of doctrine and deceit, unstable in all his ways (James 1:6–7; Ephesians 4:14).

However, the emphasis on the passages cited at the head of this article is not on the tumbleweed. It is on the person who is rooted and grounded. Such a person is grounded in God’s Word. That person delights in God’s Word. He or she does not read the Bible simply out of obligation, but truly enjoys it. The Bible is a blessing. It is a source of wisdom, guidance, strength, and encouragement. It is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The child of God is nourished by God’s Word, just like a tree near a stream is nourished by the life-giving water and the nutrients in the soil.

tree_planted_by_streams_of_water

A tree planted by a stream. Photo by Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nourishment becomes part of the one who receives it. We say “You are what you eat,” because the food people eat becomes part of their bodies. Healthy food produces healthy persons. A tree does not observe water and soil-based nutrients; it absorbs them. It does not look at the sunlight; it absorbs sunlight to begin photosynthesis, thereby producing more nutrients.

A person is not nourished by studying or thinking about food. We need to eat it. It is eventually absorbed into the cells of the body to become part of the person.

Likewise, we do not merely look at God’s Word to gain intellectual knowledge. We absorb it through reading, learning, studying, and meditating upon it. Eventually, it becomes part of who we are and comes out in action. Jesus said the difference between the wise and foolish builders in His parable (Matthew 7:24–27) was that the wise heard His word and obeyed it, while the foolish heard it and did not obey. The foolish builder is like the believer who hears the Word of God, plays around with it, and then decides to follow the advice of unbelievers.

Christians must choose to be guided and nourished by God’s Word, not by worldly influences. “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). If we spend too much time listening to the secular media, entertainment industry, pop psychology, and our unbelieving friends and family, we can easily cut ourselves off from the spiritual nourishment of God’s Word.

Thus, in addition to reading the Bible and praying on our own, we need fellowship with committed fellow followers of Jesus. Instead of walking in the counsel of the wicked, let us seek the counsel of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Instead of standing in the way of sinners, let us walk arm-in-arm with our brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Instead of sitting in the seat of scoffers, let us kneel in prayer along with those who join in intercession for the souls of the lost. Fellowship with other committed believers will keep us rooted by the streams of God’s living water. We need mature, divinely anointed and ordained men of God who will share their experience and wisdom to keep us grounded in God:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:11–14).

The voices we hear will determine the thoughts we think, the ideas we believe, the attitudes we express, and the lives we live. Let us seek to hear the voice of God. To confirm that we are hearing the voice of God, and not one that leads us away from Him, let us remain close to those who are also listening to hear His voice.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Word, the Light, and the Lord

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalms 119:105, ESV).

bantry_church_of_st-_brendan_the_navigator_third_north_window_i_am_the_light_of_the_world_detail_2009_09_09

Jesus Christ, the Light of the World and the Word of God incarnate.  Stained-glass window at Church of St. Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, County Cork, Ireland. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en), CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

A few English translations adapt the wording of Psalm 119:105 to say that God’s Word is a “lantern” instead of a lamp. The Living Bible gets even more contemporary, saying “Your words are a flashlight to light the path ahead of me and keep me from stumbling.”

Whether it is a light, a lamp, a lantern, or a flashlight, this anthem to the glory of God’s Word reminds us that the Bible is intended to shed light on our paths and show us how to walk through life. If we cannot see where we are going, we are likely to get lost, trip over things, or crash into obstacles. As we walk by faith and not by sight (an absolute essential in the spiritual life), a light for our path becomes even more necessary.

 

Growing up on Long Island, I was always surrounded by light. Even at night, street lights or the light from neighboring houses would provide a way to see where I was going. An occasional journey out of the New York metropolitan area would provide a reminder of how dark the world can be without electric lights. Riding a bus to Syracuse during my college days, we would pass through some areas where I could see nothing outside the window. Eventually, there would be a faint glow in the distance ahead of us: That glow was the city of Syracuse. Light becomes more obvious when one is surrounded by darkness.

I remember one time when I lived in Missouri, making a pizza delivery on a dark country road outside the city limits. If I turned off the car’s engine, I might have a hard time finding it when returning from the front door of the house! I can only imagine what life was like for our ancestors before the invention of light bulbs and artificial light sources.

The Bible often closely associates God with light. It is an essential part of His nature. Jesus said that He is the “light of the world.” According to Genesis 1:3–5, the very first thing that God created was light. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt under Moses, He would send a pillar of fire to lead the way at night.

John (who also told us that “God is love”) tells us first and foremost that God is light:

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:5–7).

John would later tell us that the glory of God will be the light of the New Jerusalem, and the Lamb of God (Jesus) will be its lamp for all eternity (Revelation 21:23). Jesus shows us the way to the Father. In fact, He IS the way to the Father (John 14:6–7). If we can see Jesus, we see God, and we see the path to follow as we walk into everlasting life.

The Word of God is the light that leads us to God and shows us the path we should walk in. Jesus is the Word. He is the light. He is God incarnate.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:9–14).

As we read the Bible, we should seek the answers to a few questions:

  • What does this tell us about Jesus? First and foremost, we should seek to know Christ through the Word of God. Jesus said to the religious legalists of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). How many professing Christians make the same mistake today?
  • What is the path that God is calling me to follow today?
  • What obstacles will I face on that path today? (Temptations, distractions, or challenges will come our way.)
  • How can I avoid these obstacles, or get around them, or walk over them?

We should not read the Bible merely to read a good story or learn theology. As we open the Bible, we should ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to us and show us the path through life. God’s Word gives direction. It gives wisdom. It gives life. It reveals Jesus, Who is the very embodiment and personification of that Word and Light.

If you would like to read more thoughts about the light of the world, you can look at this series of posts:

Reflecting the Light of the World

A Prayer Acknowledging Jesus as the Light of the World

Light of the World: Exposing the Deeds of Darkness

Walking in the Light of the World. I: Time and Wisdom

Walking in the Light of the World. II: Filled with the Holy Spirit

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Triumphal Entry, Worship, Betrayal, and Abandonment

And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:7–10, ESV)

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Scene from a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square, London, UK, on Good Friday in 2010, re-enacting the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Stephen Craven – geograph.org.uk/p/1782823

Most churches celebrate Palm Sunday by distributing palm fronds to the congregation. Some churches may process, marching around either inside or outside their building. Others will simply wave the palm branches while singing a song with “Hosanna!” (a Hebrew word meaning, “Save!”) in the title or lyrics. In doing so, we join our worship with the exuberant celebration of the crowd that greeted Jesus and His disciples as they entered Jerusalem in preparation for the Passover celebration nearly 2000 years ago. We now refer to this as “the triumphal entry,” but we can easily forget how quickly things changed in Jesus’ life within a week.

On Sunday, the crowd shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” By Friday morning, many of these people were in a mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:18–21).

Judas Iscariot was part of the group entering Jerusalem with Jesus. Perhaps his cloak was on the colt’s back, providing a saddle for Jesus. By Thursday evening, he would betray Jesus.

Peter was there too. I can imagine him leading the way, announcing that the Messiah Jesus was coming and urging the crowd to cheer for Him as He entered. On Thursday evening, he vowed he would stand by Jesus no matter what happened (John 13:37). A few hours later, he tried to fulfill that vow—relying on his natural impulsiveness and machismo rather than the virtues Jesus had taught for the last three years—by whacking someone’s ear off during Jesus’ arrest. After that, it was all downhill. Probably less than 12 hours after declaring that he would die with Jesus, he denied three times that he even knew Him. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, His so-called “best friend” left Him hanging (John 18:15–18, 25–27).

Ten of the other disciples, all of whom (like Peter) swore they would remain faithful to Him, ran into hiding as soon as He was arrested. As He stood trial and was crucified, the only disciple who stayed with Him was John. He was accompanied by a few women, including Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene.

Christians know the story so well that we can miss the point. We can learn a lot from the disciples because they are terribly human. They are a lot like us. Sometimes, they show us heroic faith that we hope to imitate. At other times, they show us just how badly we can fail. People were willing to stand by Jesus when things seemed to be going well. When times got tough, they turned on Him or abandoned Him. Sadly, none of us are immune to that temptation.

We may worship Jesus when we are in a crowd with others who are shouting and singing His praises. Do we continue to praise Him when the establishment and the culture revile and reject Him? Or, do we join in rejecting Him: If not in word or deed, do we reject Him in our hearts?

Do we sell Jesus out when financial gain is a possibility? Will we compromise our faith or ignore His commands when there is money to gain.

We can boldly profess our faith and devotion to Jesus in a church or Bible study. Do we continue to do so when surrounded by those who have not accepted Him, or do we suddenly hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:15) and pretend we are not Christians?

Holy Week ends Lent, a season which many Christians devote to self-examination. As Easter approaches, are we ready to share the resurrected Christ with those around us? Are we willing to remain faithful to Him?

Let us prepare our hearts to sing Christ’s praises in good times and bad, when others join in song and when they refuse Him. As we wave our palm branches, let us continue to lift Jesus up so that He may draw all people unto Himself (John 12:32). As we shape our palm branches into crosses, let us take up our crosses to follow Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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