The Lovely Dwelling Place of God

“How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!” Psalm 84:1

Home décor and aesthetics are big business today – and with good reason.  Who doesn’t want a well-appointed home worthy of a magazine cover.  If your family is like mine, that look wouldn’t last more than a day past the photo shoot. What really makes a home beautiful? It’s not the paint or the furnishings or the landscape – it’s the ones who dwell there. It’s the people who call it home.

The Old Testament pointed to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, as the dwelling place of God. The Tabernacle was made with the finest wood, the richest tapestries and was adorned with gold and silver elements. When Solomon built the Temple, the walls were covered with gold and only the finest stones were used throughout. It was necessary and fitting for the dwelling place of the Lord God to be the very best.  After the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jewish people rebuilt it and the older generation grieved the smaller, less opulent structure. In time Herod remodeled and expanded the Temple to appease the Jews but, as Jesus predicted,[1] it was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

There are many awe-inspiring structures of worship throughout the world. Have you seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris? Maybe you’ve seen pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They are all awe-inspiring structures of worship. But the most beautiful of all God’s dwelling places is YOU. The Scriptures says that if you are in Christ Jesus “The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Romans 8:11). You are the place where God chose to reside through His Spirit. You are the place God calls home. Whether you are tall or short, light or dark-skinned or any other color in between, no matter your weight or the color of your hair (even if you have none!), despite any scars or imperfections you may see, you are the lovely dwelling place of God in the world today. It’s not your physical appearance nor your clothes and accessories but it is the One who lives within that makes you the beauty you are.

Beloved, if you struggle with your physical image, may I suggest you look deeper than the surface? Look past the garments and flesh and see yourself as the exquisite abode of the Lord of heaven and earth. See the beauty within and let others see it too. My but you’re looking lovely today!

Holy Father, anything good in me is because your Spirit dwells within and makes me into someone beautiful, inside and out. Thank you for moving in – please make Yourself at home in me. Amen

[1] See Matthew 24:2.

I’m a Church-Girl

church

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25).

Because I work in a retail environment, I am required to work some Sunday shifts. I’ve worked four of the last six Sundays and one of my two Sundays off I had to drive my husband to the airport. I’ve not been in church for the past four weeks. I feel it. I feel my spirit shriveling up a little more each day for the lack of Christian fellowship, corporate worship and receiving the Word. I feel the pull of sin getting stronger. I feel the weight of the world getting heavier. I feel alone.
The writer of Hebrews understood the necessity of Christian companionship when he wrote our key verse. It sits in the middle of a passage that calls for perseverance. The Hebrew Christians were under extreme persecution from both the Roman government and the Jewish religious community for their faith. This entire book is a call to remain firm in the faith and one of the most dependable ways to do so is to stand together in one accord. The author says that Christian fellowship has several purposes: to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” to encourage one another,” and to hold each other accountable, (vs. 24, 25, implied in v. 26). Many martyrs of the faith have been imprisoned, publically tortured and put to death. But they went through those abuses united in heart and faith, and they drew strength from one another. In 1555 two faithful Bishops, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer we burned side-by-side at the stake for their testimony of Christ. As they embraced before the place of burning, Ridley told Latimer, “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either make the fire less painful, or strengthen us so that we can endure it.”
Friend, we may not be facing a fiery death for our faith (yet), but we still need one another to endure the struggles and challenges of our lives. I need you. I need your encouragement. I need your prayers.  I need your witness.  I need you to remind me to remain faithful. You need me for the same reasons. Church is not just something we do as long as the kids don’t have a soccer match or the beach isn’t calling our name on Sunday. Church – Christian fellowship – is something we need for the sake of our spiritual lives. I hope to see you in church this coming Lord’s Day.

Don’t Be a Fool

oil_lamp“The foolish virgins said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” Matthew 25:8

Please Read: Matthew 25:1-13

This passage always puzzled me. Jesus often spoke of the importance of generosity on the part of believers, so why would He offer a parable about selfish women who won’t share their oil? It seemed a contradiction to me. But as I’ve learned to study the Bible, and especially Jesus’ parables, I’m learning to look for the deeper meanings and truths behind His words.

This parable is about so much more than sharing. It speaks of the church and of the return of Christ. It is part of a bigger series, called the Olivet Discourse that begins in Matthew 24 and continues through the end of chapter 25 where Jesus is teaching about His return. The disciples had asked “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus had a great deal to say about “false prophets” and the falling away of people who claimed to be His followers. He also spoke about the coming time of tribulation, which will weed out the false and reveal the true followers. (I firmly believe we are seeing the early stages of this “weeding out” process even now.) But the heart of all He said in Matthew 24 and 25 is simple: “Jesus is coming, and we must be ready.”

The skeptic demands to know when, but Jesus said “The Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (24:44), and that is an important point in the passage we are discussing. But to understand this parable better, we need a little “back story.” A wedding story to be precise.

A Jewish wedding in the time of Jesus was different from weddings today. No plans were set on the calendar, no invitations sent out, little to no advanced notice was given, even for the bride, the wedding party and guests. For that matter, even the groom had to wait until his father told him to go fetch his bride.  (This is another wonderful study that we’ll look at soon.)  The groom got the nod from his father and messengers went mere hours before him to tell the bride and the expected guests that the wedding was on – now! Being prepared was essential for everyone involved.

In this parable, the word had been spread that the bridegroom was on his way to claim his bride, but for an unknown reason, he was delayed. As the ten virgins waited, they continued to burn their lamps, and in the process, burned their oil. Jesus said five of those virgins were wise enough to bring extra oil, but five did not. But Jesus is not speaking specifically about oil – He is speaking about faith – that is faith in Him as Savior. And He is confronting those who are part of the crowd, but have not received the grace that God offers. They are the foolish virgins who first try to “borrow” from the wise virgins and then run to the market to attempt to buy what only Jesus offers. They are the ones who are left standing outside the door, denied entry because Jesus does not recognize His Spirit in them. They are foolish – but they have only fooled themselves.

We are talking here about salvation through Jesus Christ, for only those who have received Christ have the Spirit of Christ, and only those with the Spirit of Christ are received into eternal life. Paul expressed it very plainly in Romans 8:9: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” John makes it even clearer: “This is how we know He (Christ) lives in us; we know it by the Spirit He gave us” (I John 3:24).

Our churches are filled with wise and foolish people, some who have taken hold of the life that Jesus Christ offers and some who have not. Those who have are ready for the return of the Bridegroom have “lamps” that are full of the never-ending life of Christ, and when He returns, Jesus will welcome them to the wedding banquet. According to Matthew 25:46 “The righteous [will go] to eternal life.” Those who have not, no matter how much they plead on that day, have a different and terrifying destination – “They will go away to eternal punishment.”

My pastor/mentor says “The message of the virgins is that there are people who know about his Lordship, yet do nothing to obey the words of their Lord. They know ABOUT him, but have not considered him worthy of their obedience. Their condition is the height of foolishness. Their intentional ignorance (or perhaps ignorance born of apathy) has condemned them. So the bridegroom rightly answers with that terrifying reply – “I don’t know you”. This answer is consistent with Jesus words in Matthew 7:21-22 “Not all who say to me Lord, Lord shall enter…but only they who do the will of my Father…”[1]

We must, in this life, prepare for the next life. We must receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith; we must accept the grace that is offered through the cross. Only then will we be prepared for Jesus’ return. Those who refuse Christ, and even those who are part of the “church crowd” but have never received Christ, are not prepared. When Jesus returns there is no more opportunity to make that decision. It will be too late.

Will you stop for a moment and ask yourself “Does the Spirit of Christ live in me?” “Is my mind set on the things the Spirit desires?” (Romans 8:5). “Is my mind controlled by the life and peace of the Spirit?” (Romans 8:6). “Do I put to death the misdeeds of the body and live by the Spirit?” (Romans 8:13). “Does the Spirit testify to my spirit that I am a child of God?” (Romans 8:16). If you cannot answer “yes” to these questions – questions that come straight out of the Word of God – please don’t wait until it is too late to prepare for the Day that is coming. Please receive Jesus Christ today and be right with God while there is time. I speak to you in Paul’s words: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” 2 Corinthians 5:20.

If you want to pray to receive Jesus, use this prayer as your own or as an example for your own words: “Dear Jesus, I know that I am not prepared for Your return. But right now, by faith, I receive your gift of salvation and eternal life. I receive You, Jesus as my Savior. Fill me and teach me to live according to Your Spirit. Thank you for dying to save me and give me life.  Amen.

[1] Personal comments by Rev. M. D. Shockley, Pastor, St. Paul’s UMC, Jacksonville, Florida.

Unity (Part 9 in The Apostles’ Creed Series)

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me.” John 17:23

 THE APOSTLES’ CREED

I believe in God the Father Almighty Maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord;

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Crucified, dead and buried;

He descended into hell. The third day He rose from the dead;

He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; The Holy catholic Church;

The communion of saints;

 In this post we look into the Apostle’s Creed and consider the “communion of saints.”  We must first establish what we mean by “communion.”  Many have considered this to be the act of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, as it is indeed one of the Holy Sacraments of the church.  Jesus Christ established this Sacrament during the Last Supper, just prior to His death.  He commanded the taking of wine (or juice as modern churches do) to remind us of His blood that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.  The breaking of the bread is also a reminder of the cruel breaking of our Savior’s body as He bled and died for you and me.  The observance of this Remembrance is a sacred privilege, and one that we should follow with solemnness and gratitude.

But in the context of the Apostle’s Creed, the “communion of saints” is speaking about the fellowship we share as the Body of Christ, and the unity that Jesus prayed we might have.  John 17 is the recording of Jesus’ prayer just prior to His arrest and the countdown to His death, in this passage Jesus prays for Himself as He faces the cross and for His disciples who will both endure much persecution and carry the Gospel of Christ to the world. And He also prays for “those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20-26).  Friend, that is you and me.  Jesus’ prayer is for a very specific thing: Unity.   He prays “that all of them may be one” (v. 21), and that our oneness will be a reflection of the oneness that he enjoys with the Father.  Why is this oneness, or unity so important?  Look at His words in verse 23: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me.”  Couple that with His words in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you much love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Emphasis added)

Jesus is expressing what should be the character of the church: mutual love and unity – for only these will reveal to the world that Jesus is our Lord.

A lot is being said these days about “unity.”  We are told we must be in harmony with one another, all in agreement over the issues we face.  We lock arms and sing songs of unity, hold rallies and offer compromises – all in the name of “unity.” And unity is a wonderful concept, but as long as there is both chocolate and vanilla ice cream, we will always have differences of opinion. 

Jesus’ desire was that we would be in harmony and agreement with one another. He said the world will believe in Him because His followers are united. So then, should we be in unity in humanitarian relief?  These good works are going on all around the world, in the poorest places, but they are not always done in the name of Jesus. Are we to be united around social causes?  Not as long as we so strongly disagree on the issues of the day.  The deep schisms between people who call themselves Christians does more harm to the name of Christ that it does any good.

 The original Greek word for unity means to be one, single, alike, the same. I don’t see a lot of this kind of unity in the Christian community.  We are so fractured and fragmented over our issues, interpretations, worship styles and what is right or wrong.

The question comes then, what is to be the unifying focus of those who call themselves “children of God.” 

The answer is found in the words of the Old Testament prophet, “I will give them singleness of heart…so that they will always fear me.” (Jeremiah 32:39) The one unifying focus for all Christians is awe and reverence – fear – of the Lord.

When God’s people walked in reverence, they were united under His banner.  (Exodus 17:15) No enemy could defeat them.  No challenge threatened them.  And all the nations around them knew “the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:11)  That is what we are to be about; making the most of God, so the world will know and believe.

And that is why Satan, the enemy of God and of God’s people, keeps the focus on the issues that divide us.  When we are in disagreement about those minor issues, we take the focus off the greatness of God, and all the world sees is our squabbling.   Let’s drop our petty weapons of preference and join our hands in nothing less than honoring God before the world.  All the other things will disappear in the brilliance of His glory.

Holy Father, we want to tell the world that You are God, that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and that there is hope for everlasting life – but Father, we cannot even agree on the color of the carpet in our sanctuaries.  Lord, please take the blinders off our eyes and let us see that the only thing that truly matters is You.  Then, and only then, will the world know and believe.  Amen

In the Wineskin of Suffering

“Those who suffer He delivers in their suffering.”  Job 36:15

 Why must we endure suffering?

The question of suffering has plagued mankind since the days of Adam and Eve, and the answers we have crafted vary far and wide, often raising even more questions.  Why do some suffer and others seem to live a life of ease?  What possible good can come from suffering? Why would a loving God let His creation suffer? How can we avoid suffering?  Should we avoid suffering?

I have had seasons of suffering, and so have you.  At times I thought I would not survive those sufferings, the depth of pain and struggle was more than I could bear.  I have prayed for people I love in their times of suffering.  I have looked around at the ease of others, and questioned God’s fairness is allowing me to suffer while He showed His favor to someone else.  At the same time, someone else has considered my life one of ease and comfort in comparison to their own sufferings.  We will all encounter trials and troubles – no one, no matter how wealthy, brilliant, beautiful or godly, will be exempt from suffering.  I have wrestled for some kind of understanding in the matter of suffering.  By no means do I think I have all the answers or have figured out God’s mind on the subject, but I have found tremendous insight and comfort in His Word, and I hope it will be a blessing to you.

I find that suffering is one of God’s most effective tools in shaping us.  Like a sculptor with a chisel, sometimes God must use His tool of suffering to “chip away” at those things in our lives that would mar His finished masterpiece.  His plan is to make us like His Holy and Perfect Son, Jesus Christ, and He must remove anything from us that is not Christ like.  It is a lifelong and often painful process.  We can take comfort in knowing that the Father also allowed His Beloved Son to suffer.  The writer of Hebrews identifies two reasons for the suffering of Jesus.  Hebrews 2:9 says that “he suffered death so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” In His great mercy and grace, God allowed His Son to suffer that we might be saved from eternal death, that is, eternal separation from Him.  This thought completely fills me with awe: Jesus Christ endured separation from His Father so that we would not have to.   He endured tremendous suffering for you and me.   Amazing!  Hebrews 2:10 follows by saying, “It was fitting that God should make the author of [our] salvation perfect through suffering.” If Jesus was made perfect through suffering, and God’s purpose for us is to be like Jesus, we will also endure suffering as God’s means to achieve His end.   This is why Peter wrote “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1: 6-7)” The good that comes from suffering is that our faith is being perfected and we are becoming more and more like Christ.

As I was reading recently in Jeremiah, I discovered something I had never considered before.  Jeremiah 48 is God’s message of coming destruction against the nation of Moab, one of Israel and God’s many enemies.  Jeremiah 48: 11 says “Moab has been at rest from youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another-she has not gone into exile.  So she tastes as she did and her aroma is unchanged.”  You see, in making wine, the grapes are first crushed to extract the juice which is placed in bottles or wine skins and allowed to ferment.  During fermentation, the dregs, or sediment, settle at the bottom of the container.  After forty days the wine is poured into another container to allow the dregs to be removed.  If the dregs remain, the wine becomes too sweet and thick and it is spoiled.  Moab had always been largely at peace, and their turmoil-free life had made them spoiled.  The Lord gives the same description of the city of Jerusalem when he says, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think the Lord will do nothing, either good or bad. (Zephaniah 1:12)”

Sometimes God has to “shake” us out of our complacency.  I know that this has been true for my life.  God has used times of suffering to pour me from one container to another so that He can remove the dregs, and keep me from become thick and spoiled in the syrupy sweetness of complacency. If you find that hard to believe, consider that the Gospel of Christ and the Holy Spirit are the most powerful and effective in countries where Christianity is prohibited and Christ-followers are persecuted.  The suffering they are enduring for the Name of Jesus Christ strengthens their faith in ways the Western Churches do not see, because – at least for now – we do not endure real suffering for our faith. We have become satiated and complacent, and our witness as the Body and Church of Christ has become thick and sweet on its dregs.  Is it any wonder our nation has such disregard for God – as if to say “the Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.”?

Suffering in the life of those who claim the name of Christ is not without purpose.  Suffering shakes us out of our settled complacency, and removes the influences of the world that threaten to spoil our witness.   Suffering makes us more like the One who suffered for us, perfecting us to fulfill God’s purpose and will.    Revelation 2:10 is a powerful message to all of us as we endure suffering: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…Be faithful, even unto the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Holy God, I do not want to be complacent in a world of people who think “the Lord will do nothing…”  Shake me up that I may be a witness for Jesus Christ.  Amen